Credit: Skip Spence

From Tom Waits to Robert Plant: The best tribute album you have never heard of

We’re dipping into the Far Out Magazine vault to take a look back at quite possibly the best tribute album you’ve never heard of. The tribute to Jefferson Airplane’s Skip Spence, featured Robert Plant, Tom Waits, and many more heroes.

You might not be aware of the complete workings of Skip Spence’s career. He was only ever a peripheral figure in the music industry in the late 1960s before retiring from the public eye in 1971. But despite not releasing a whole host of material, he was a contemporary of the likes of Tom Waits and an influence on Beck who were both part of a tribute album for Spence which released shortly after his death in 1999.

Spence’s career started off as a guitarist in The Other Side which would lead to his big break as the notorious Marty Balin would recruit him as the drummer for counter-culture heroes, Jefferson Airplane. Not because of his drumming ability but because of his looks.

Skip played the drums for their debut record Jefferson Airplane Takes Off but he was sacked shortly after for deciding to treat himself to a break in Mexico without telling his bandmates. Drumming was not where Spence’s heart was at and he briefly considered joining Buffalo Springfield to play the instrument but rather than being a careerist, he wanted to follow his own creative vision and formed Moby Grape in 1966.

The band would go on to have some mainstream success during Spence’s initial two years in the band with their debut landing at 24 in the Billboard chart and their sophomore record Wow/Grape Jam charting at 20.

That second record would spell the end of Spence’s first tenure with the band as his heavy use of LSD began to take ahold of him and he would later spend six months in New York’s famous Bellevue hospital where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Following his spell in the hospital, he went to Nashville to record his only solo record Oar with no help from any other musicians and the result was nothing short of a masterpiece.

He continued to have minor involvement with Moby Grape records through the ’70s and ’80s even though he was unable to play live but the band supported him on a personal level once he stepped out of the public eye in 1971.

His final years were nothing short of a tragedy, with lots of the time being spent either homeless or in transient accommodations in his later years. He remained in and around San Jose and Santa Cruz. Musician Peter Lewis regularly visited Spence during these years, recalling: “The last five years I’d go up‚ he lived in a trailer up there‚ Capitola. I used to hang around with him; we’d spend the weekends together. But he just basically kind of hit the…he was helpless in a way in terms of being able to define anything or control his feelings.”

Spence’s final performance came with Moby Grape on August 9, 1996, at Palookaville in Santa Cruz when he led the group through a rendition of ‘Sailing’ and an impromptu performance of ‘J.P.P. McStep B. Blues’, which he’d written for Jefferson Airplane in 1966.

Just two days before his 53rd birthday, Spence died of lung cancer on April 16th 1999 and before his death musicians such as Tom Waits, Robert Plant and Beck who were inspired by his work all clubbed together to create More Oar: A Tribute To The Skip Spence Album. The record was played to him shortly before his death and was released in the summer of 1999.

Check out the tracklisting in full and listen to the record, below.

1.”Little Hands” – Robert Plant
2. “Cripple Creek” – Mark Lanegan
3. “Diana” – Alejandro Escovedo
4. “Margaret/Tiger-Rug” – The Dūrocs
5. “Weighted Down (The Prison Song)” – Jay Farrar & The Sir Omaha Quintet
6. “War In Peace” – Mudhoney
7. “Broken Heart” – Robyn Hitchcock
8. “All Come To Meet Her” – Diesel Park West
9. “Books Of Moses” – Tom Waits
10. “Dixie Peach Promenade (Yin For Yang)” – Greg Dulli
11. “Lawrence Of Euphoria” – The Ophelias
12. “Grey – Afro” – Flying Saucer Attack
13. “This Time He Has Come” – Alastair Galbraith
14. “It’s The Best Thing For You” – Engine 54
15. “Keep Everything Under Your Hat” – Outrageous Cherry
16. “Halo Of Gold” – Beck
17. “Doodle” Minus 5 –
18. “Land of the Sun” – Skip Spence (hidden track)

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