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Moby Grape Just Can't Catch a Break

Moby Grape made its debut in 1967 with a self-titled album, featuring "Omaha" and "Hey Grandma."
Moby Grape made its debut in 1967 with a self-titled album, featuring "Omaha" and "Hey Grandma."

Mention the name Moby Grape to a roomful of rock critics, and you'll hear nothing but praise for the 1960s San Francisco rock band. But aside from fans and critics, few people today have ever heard of Moby Grape. Why? Bad advice, bad breaks and bad behavior are three short reasons. Now that a label is trying to right these wrongs by reissuing the group's first five records, old problems still stand in the way.

The name Moby Grape comes from an absurdist punch line: What's big, purple and swims in the ocean? But the band that influenced groups ranging from Led Zeppelin to The Pretenders was no joke. Neither was its 1967 debut, according to Rolling Stone senior editor David Fricke.

"It's one of the few rock 'n' roll albums of any era that you can say, 'That is a perfect debut album.' The songwriting on it is memorable — you take those songs with you wherever you go. The triple-guitar orchestration... it's not just power chords. Everyone is playing melodies and counter-melodies and rhythms. Very funky, also very country, very punk, very surf. And they were all singers."

When other San Francisco bands were stretching out with long, psychedelic jams, Moby Grape was producing catchy three-minute songs that were composed, played and sung by each member. Moby Grape's drummer, Don Stevenson, calls the songwriting process a "collective consciousness."

That "collective consciousness" was a little surprising, since these five guys had little history and a lot of differences. Guitarist Peter Lewis and bassist Bob Mosley came from Southern California surf bands. Stevenson and guitarist Jerry Miller played in organ trios around Seattle. Canadian-born Skip Spence had just left another San Francisco band, Jefferson Airplane. Yet all five members produced remarkably cohesive vocal harmonies.

On the Rise

The members of Moby Grape worked hard to achieve their tight sound, and they first caught the attention of fellow musicians like Buffalo Springfield and Janis Joplin during marathon rehearsals that ran from night until morning.

Record-company executives eventually started showing up, and Moby Grape found itself in the middle of a bidding war. It signed with Columbia, which pronounced the band San Francisco's Beatles and spared no expense on its first album. But the label's decision to release five singles at the same time alienated and confused disc jockeys. As a result, none of the songs made the Top 40.

Rolling Stone's Fricke explains: "Columbia really went to town. And yet they went to town at precisely the wrong time. That was an era when hype was suspect."

The musicians didn't handle the hype well, either. At their record release party, some members were busted for pot possession and for contributing to the delinquency of minors. Guitarist Miller says the diversity that made their musical blend so rich was also pulling them apart.

"What we had was five guys just going completely nuts just looking for the leader," Miller says. "We couldn't even lead ourselves."

Moby Grape's members grew increasingly frustrated with their manager, whom they believed had botched their chance to be included in the now-famous Monterey Pop Festival film. By the time they reached New York to work on their second album, the band was cracking up — and so was guitarist Spence.

Coming Unraveled

"Skippy bumped into some people that turned him on to some hard drugs, tell you the truth," Miller says. "And that's when things started to unravel, 'cause Skippy started to unravel."

In a drug-fueled psychotic episode, Spence attacked Stevenson's hotel-room door with an ax and ended up in the criminal ward of Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital. Sadly, Spence lived much of the rest of his life in California mental institutions. He did manage to record the under-heard Oar in Nashville, reissued by Sundazed after he died in 1999.

Bassist Mosley also had emotional troubles. He quit the band and joined the Marines, but was discharged for medical reasons. Later diagnosed with schizophrenia, Mosley wound up homeless. Lewis remembers trying to persuade him to join other band members for a Moby Grape reunion.

"We went to find Bob, and there he was, living in this cardboard box," Lewis says. "He had these friends, the squirrels and the lizards that he had. And I brought this guitar, cost me a hundred bucks, you know, and I left that with him and a tape of Moby Grape songs and a tape recorder with batteries in it and some extra batteries. So the next weekend, I came back, and there was no guitar, but the cassette case... He had tried to tear all the tape out of it and had left it, you know, down there in the bushes. And that's all that was left. Bob was gone, you know."

Legal Woes

Mosley declined to be interviewed for this story. He's distraught over the latest action allegedly taken by the band's ex-manager, Matthew Katz, who was fired in late 1967. Over the past four decades, Katz claimed he owned the Moby Grape name. The claim stems from an agreement drawn up by Katz and presented to the rest of the band by Skip Spence.

According to court documents, Katz, who also declined to be interviewed for this story, sought temporary restraining orders between the late '60s and early '90s to stop the members of Moby Grape from publicly performing under that name. The band was forced to use pseudonyms like Maby Grope and The Melvilles.

Moby Grape's long legal battle included eight lawsuits, five appeals, complaints, cross-complaints and stipulated settlements. Finally, in 2005, its members won back the rights to their name and started performing again as Moby Grape. Today, Mosley's health is improving, Omar Spence had replaced his late father, and the band was poised to reach new audiences through a five-CD set of reissues on the Sundazed record label. But just as those titles were released, Sundazed pulled the first three albums from stores last month. Allegedly, Katz has issued a cease-and-desist letter claiming he owns the album's artwork.

Considering Moby Grape's hard-luck history over the past 40 years, Lewis and Stevenson seem neither surprised nor deterred by this latest twist of fate.

"I mean, that's the sad story of what happened to us," Lewis says. "We trusted the wrong people. But who hasn't? You see. So let's not be a bunch of crybabies."

Stevenson says it's time to move on.

"You know you hold on real tight and you let go," he says, laughing.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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