This hard luck band was one of the originals of the 1960s Bay Area ‘sound’. At their peak, they were also one of the finest bands on the planet, in concert and on vinyl. The three-guitar lineup (Skip Spence, Jerry Miller, Peter Lewis), tight foundation (Bob Mosley on bass, Don Stevenson on drums), vocal harmonies and songwriting of all five members made them a formidable unit. Crappy management, terrible record company decisions and Spence’s personal problems shook them mightily…but never broke them. The recent reissue of Moby Grape ’69 and solo albums by Lewis and Stevenson reminds us just how damn good these guys were. Jim Allen checked in on Miller and Stevenson for PKM
Half a century ago, one of the most promising bands of the ’60s San Francisco rock scene was heading toward implosion just two years after releasing one of the greatest debut albums of the era. But even after suffering through a bandmate’s psychosis, a scheming manager’s machinations, a legendary label’s cluelessness, and the fickle whims of a provincial counterculture, Moby Grape still had a lot more life left in them during the last year of their initial iteration than many bands had in their entire careers.
Moby Grape with their full lineup, live in 1967:
The party line is that after Moby Grape’s brilliant 1967 debut LP failed to make them stars, they were on a grim death march of diminishing returns until their breakup in 1969. The reality is that their third album, Moby Grape ’69, was an unrecognized forerunner of the nascent West Coast country-rock movement, not to mention a record full of the heady harmonies, rich guitar lines, and sharp songwriting that had defined the band from the start. And in concert they could still leave the stage in cinders on a good night.
Moby Grape on Steve Paul’s Scene, 1967:
Moby Grape was initially known for having a roiling, three-man guitar squad in Jerry Miller, Peter Lewis, and Skip Spence; and five singer/songwriters, including bassist Bob Mosley and drummer Don Stevenson. Spence famously flamed out in 1968 due to a devil’s brew of acid and schizophrenia that resulted in him coming after Miller and Stevenson with an axe (on separate occasions, no less). So the band began 1969 minus one of their most potent forces.
“It was a real loss to have him all scattered the way he was at the time,” says Miller. “The five of us, we were killer, but without Skip it was all changed.”
“Being without him was difficult,” continues Miller. “We had obligations and we had to continue to produce some music, that was part of our deal. It wasn’t the best situation. Skip had left the band, and the band wasn’t too much longer for this world anyway. Without Skip it wasn’t the same, but that particular  configuration really worked out to where it was rocking.”
With Spence on board, the band had achieved modest chart placement with their self-titled 1967 album and its sonically ambitious ’68 follow-up, double LP Wow/Grape Jam. The former was notoriously hobbled by Columbia’s harebrained, gimmicky stunt of releasing five singles simultaneously as well as the hippie backlash precipitated by the label overhyping the band. By the time Moby Grape cut ’69 as a quartet, they were ready for something simple, stripped down, and rootsy.
The three-guitar attack that was a signature of Moby Grape’s original formation brought three very different styles together. With Spence gone, that had to change.
“Skippy played the most wonderful rhythm,” enthuses Miller. “And of course Peter was a fantastic fingerpicker, and we’d work together and I could play lead lines and little, imaginative jazz lines or whatever I could come up with to go with it.”
And though it’s rarely acknowledged, ’69 was really one of the first country-rock albums, preceded by little besides The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
“Skip was a drummer with the [Jefferson] Airplane,” explains Stevenson, “so he had a percussive feel to the way he played guitar, but he also had a lot of open chords and interesting ways of weaving in and out as a rhythm guitar player. All three guitarists got along really well… one of the first bands to do that. But when he left, it didn’t mean that Peter and Jerry didn’t still get along really well musically. So it just changed the sound, it didn’t destroy the sound.”
Even a cursory listen to the Grape’s Spence-less output reveals a band with no worries in the guitar department. Singer/guitarist Mike Fornatale, who filled Spence’s role in a 2001 Moby Grape lineup and is also a rock writer/historian, has a unique vantage point on the band’s work. “They had tons of firepower,” agrees Fornatale about the 1969 lineup. “And Peter is a much more happening guitar player than you would suspect from listening to the records. On the records he basically puts all the colors in, but he was one heck of a lead guitarist too, which you never got to hear unless you saw them.”
THE SOUND OF ’69
The sessions for Moby Grape ’69 started off rocky, but the pace soon picked up. “We were down in Malibu,” remembers Stevenson. “We were trying to write songs and we were just not really communicating. We went on a ‘word fast,’ it was kind of interesting. After we didn’t speak for maybe a day and a half, we were able to communicate better. So we got some songwriting done. But that was good, the album ended up being pretty authentic. Not a lot of production involved.” Spence still made his mark with the inclusion of his song “Seeing,” but his bandmates picked up the rest of the slack admirably. “We came up with some pretty nice songs,” allows Stevenson.
As they’d done with the band’s previous albums, Miller and Stevenson wrote several songs on ’69 together. Their partnership predated Moby Grape, going back to their time in Washington-based mid-’60s group The Frantics, before they came down to California together. “We just kind of came from the same tribe,” says Stevenson. “We were blue-collar rhythm and blues guys who played six nights a week in bars in Seattle.”
“He was a real good harmonizer and a very good help to me,” recalls Miller, “and I knew all the chords and shit. He was a good lyricist… we worked very well together. He’d come up with an idea for a tune, I’d come up with an idea, and then we’d finish it off.”
“I could do three chords and that was about it, but I have a good ear for harmonies,” affirms Stevenson. “And I can kind of find changes, so Jerry would come up with some really cool chords and start some words and then we would kind of, I’d say, ‘Well what about this…’ Then we’d sing some harmonies. We really admired the Sons of the Pioneers and the Everly Brothers and that kind of harmony. That was kind of our working relationship. So we had a good partnership.”
From the acoustic two-step of “Ain’t That a Shame” to the barroom stomp of “Captain Nemo” and the twang-heavy heartland rocker “Trucking Man,” the album tapped more directly than ever into the Grape’s country influences. And though it’s rarely acknowledged, ’69 was really one of the first country-rock albums, preceded by little besides The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
“Well you know, everything had a little bit of country, a little bit of rock & roll,” reckons Miller. “We tried to mix it up on all the records we did. Especially hanging out with Buffalo Springfield… Commander Cody, all those people, I really got into it then. Well, in Texas too. I was down there a little while with Bobby Fuller [in the early ’60s].”
“It was not overproduced,” says Stevenson of ’69. “We just played. There was a lot of country influence in it, we had kind of a country-rock thing going back to, well I think Buck Owens probably started all that stuff… but for rock bands we were pretty early into the country rock.”
“It never gets credit,” says Mike Fornatale of ‘69‘s country-rock innovation, “I don’t think anybody ever even listened to this thing. The Flying Burrito Brothers got credit that these guys should have gotten. It was released right at the same time [as The Burritos’ celebrated debut, The Gilded Palace of Sin]. The record didn’t even show up in the department stores and supermarkets where most of us got our records back then if we were teenagers.” Nevertheless, the album somehow reached No. 20 on the charts, but as Stevenson would eventually tell Rolling Stone‘s David Fricke with champion understatement, “We were no longer anybody’s golden child.”
“It must have been incredibly discouraging,” says Fornatale. “They must have known when that album was finished how good it was. The whole world had just given up on them, which is a shame, because that’s a great record. I think all it needed was a little promo push. All it needed was to have been on the radio and people would have bought it. It was perfect for the time. Right from the fucking beginning, [opening track] ‘Ooh Mama Ooh.’ If that had been on the radio then…”
Stevenson says the chugging, rootsy rocker that kicks ’69 off was actually born out of frustration with the Grape’s grueling tour schedule. “We’d be in Texas one night and then we’d be in Indianapolis,” he remembers. “We’d fly out to Detroit and then go to California, I mean it was brutal. That really had a lot to do with taking the fun out of our gig. That’s basically what ‘Ooh Mama Ooh’ is about. It’s a nice tight little shuffle, and David Rubinson, who was our producer, used to be in a doo wop group, he put in all the doo wop sounds. But it was basically about having fun and having a taste of the big time, but they push you around and all of a sudden you’re not having as much fun as you should. Because of all the stuff with Skip and everything it became very difficult, but that song was just about getting back to rocking and having a good time.”
CITIZENS OF THE WORLD
All things considered, it may have been for the best that the band headed off on its lone European tour right when ’69 was released at the end of January. They had a better time banging around the continent than they would have had at home watching their album fade into limbo. “That was wonderful,” recalls Miller of their gigs in London, Newcastle, and Edinburgh. “And we were on the shows with the original Fleetwood Mac with Peter Green, and the Nice, touring around. And from there we took the train to Birmingham, England. And Amsterdam was really cool, they couldn’t hardly get us out of Amsterdam, that was so much fun.”
“They still remember us in Amsterdam,” Stevenson confirms. “Twenty years after we were there we were getting phone calls and doing radio shows and stuff, because we were a little bit wild and crazy and had a couple of really great concerts in Amsterdam. I think by and large we had a pretty good run over there. When we were in England, we had some pretty crazy stuff, we had a bodyguard that was outrageous — he hung a guy out a window upside down.”
But when the Grape got back to the States in mid-February, they took another hard knock. Bob Mosley became probably the only member of a major ’60s San Francisco band to quit rock & roll and join the Marines.
In retrospect, Stevenson finds the move less shocking. “Ever since I met him, he was like a tough guy,” says the drummer. “He got into a couple of tussles when we were playing together. Not with us, but I saw him knock a guy in the head with his bass when we were up in San Francisco because the guy was really going across the line. Mose always had a bit of an inclination to be a warrior. Even at that point we were kind of falling apart a little bit. I think he just got fed up with all the nonsense. So he probably just said, ‘Screw it, I’m gonna go join the Marines.'”
Like Spence, Mosley would soon be diagnosed with schizophrenia, and it would result in his discharge from service.
Despite not having enough people left for a bridge game, the remaining band members still owed Columbia another album. So in May they slipped off to Nashville to cut Truly Fine Citizen in just three days with hotshot session man Bob Moore on bass. Looking back, the guys remember the nightlife more fondly than the music. ” It was alright,” offers Miller. “You know, for something that didn’t take very long to do, it was pretty cool, there’s some good songs on there. Hanging out with all those [country] guys… that was a lot of fun.”
“That was definitely the obligation record,” admits Stevenson, “although I look at it now and I think Truly Fine Citizen has some merit. It’s not awful, but it’s not a great album. It has its moments, it has some pretty cool stuff in it. We went and saw some great musicians play, it was cool. We had a pretty good time. We were with Roger Miller and Roy Clark and those guys, great fun. We hung out with them at the studio and I think we had kind of a night out with those guys.”
By this time, the band had yet another albatross dangling from its collective neck. Their ex-manager, Matthew Katz, seemingly the sort who got his childhood kicks tearing wings from flies, decided to sue Moby Grape for the rights to their name. Consequently, the band took the defensive maneuver of crediting several of the album’s songs to Tim Dell’Ara, their road manager. “Pretty slick, aren’t we,” laughs Miller. “It didn’t matter, we weren’t gonna get rich anyway. We’ve always struggled to do whatever we do, we never got fat like a lot of bands. But we cut our own throats most of the time.”
Like its predecessor, Truly Fine Citizen was a no-nonsense affair with a strong country-rock twang, but by this point even fewer people were paying attention. “I don’t think it did much,” says Miller. “But we never got the royalties anyway, they all went to Matthew Katz.”
“It didn’t have great reviews,” remembers Stevenson, “and it didn’t sell much.” Not only did the album — released at the end of July — fail to chart, it was even harder to find in record stores than ’69. Fornatale, whose eyes would have been peeled for Grape output at the time, says, “The first place I ever saw Truly Fine Citizen was in the discount rack at Korvette’s for $1.99, in like 1973. It’s pretty amazing a major label release would not show up at all.”
AFTER THE FALL
By this point, Miller, Stevenson, and Lewis had more reasons to split than to stay together. “It just wasn’t enough Moby Grape,” says Miller. “You know, we don’t want to cheat the people. So we just let it slide.”
“It just dissolved, due to lack of interest,” says Stevenson. Before the year was out, Miller, Lewis, and himself all landed in other bands. But ironically, the world that had seemed so indifferent to Moby Grape wouldn’t let it die a natural death. Katz briefly dispatched a batch of random musicians to perform under the band’s name. And a few sneaky promoters tried to bill Miller’s next band, The Rhythm Dukes, as Moby Grape without his consent.
“I would be on their ass about that,” says Miller. “I think that did happen a couple of times and we said, ‘You can’t be doing that.’ We tried to keep it straight. We didn’t want to push Moby Grape anymore, it didn’t do us any good kicking that dead horse around,” he laughs.
The Rhythm Dukes came to include singer/keyboardist Bill Champlin, of the San Francisco band Sons of Champlin and later Chicago. It wasn’t until 2005 that their 1970 recordings received a limited online release as Flashback.
Around the same time, Stevenson started playing with both Swifty Toulouse and One Hand Clapping. He describes the latter as “kind of a good-time jug band, it was a fun band, led by [singer/guitarist] Red Erickson. Swifty Toulouse was more a kind of jazz-rock band, did a lot of instrumentals.” In true hippie fashion, post-Grape, Lewis ended up selling his home and going walkabout.
Ironically, it was during this period that Miller actually had his closest brush with fame. The Moby Grape disciples who were getting set to become The Doobie Brothers had initially been mentored somewhat by Spence, and they subsequently invited Miller to join their fledgling band. Miller remembers, “[Doobies drummer] John Hartman called me up, and he said, ‘Hey, we’re starting a new band the likes of Moby Grape.’ I said, ‘Well that’d be great but it’s so goddamned hot, I can’t come down to San Jose right now.’ Not too smart, huh? Had I done that everything would be different, wouldn’t it? But who knows? They did just fine, and I did just fine.”
“Jerry probably kicks himself in the butt for not doing that one,” muses Stevenson, “because that would have been a perfect spot for him to land. He would have been a great fit for that band. The Doobie Brothers were kind of like the offspring of Moby Grape in a lot of ways.” Miller wryly observes, “Another brilliant career move.”
For Stevenson the adjustment period was a harsh but necessary one. “I had plenty of gigs to play,” he says. “It was a little bit tough, kind of a change in lifestyle. You’d go down to the unemployment office and say ‘Do you have any openings for a rock star at the moment? Here’s my picture.’ So it was a bit of a letdown as far as the excitement and the lifestyle and all of that, but then again it was a relief to be away from all that too. I’d kind of gotten over it and I was moving on.”
Moby Grape’s gravitational pull was such that the members ended up briefly reconvening multiple times throughout the ensuing decades, starting with 1971’s 20 Granite Creek. After Spence’s death in 1999, they were sometimes joined by his eerily similar-sounding son, Omar, who performed with them as recently as 2010. They eventually won back their copyright and publishing from Katz, though Miller says the money “doesn’t amount to much after that long a time.”
“The great times were before Skippy went crazy in New York,” Miller assesses. “Then things were not as much fun.”
Stevenson digs further into the perfect storm of disasters that dragged Moby Grape down, saying, “You end up with a manager that wants to slice you up in little pieces and take all your publishing and your copyrights, and copyright your name. You have A&R guys who think that five singles at the same time is the greatest idea since sliced bread, with all good intentions, and then that ended up backfiring and people don’t know what the hell to play. And then we managed to get caught up in such a way that we lost the discipline that we had at one time.
“But the thing that you can’t take away is that for a while, we played really, really well together,” he says. “For a period of time, be it not as long lasting as I would have liked, we were a really top-notch band that you loved to come to see. Because we loved to come and play.”
Miller, still actively performing and recording with his own band, still feels that spark. “Anytime I’m playing it’s wonderful for me,” he says.
Lewis also remains in the game as a solo artist, with an album, The Road to Zion, coming out on July 15.
“It’s ongoing,” enthuses Stevenson. “There are some of Jerry’s albums right now that are really great. I just released an album called Buskin’ in the Subway that has Burton Cummings playing on it, and [John] Mellencamp’s guys, and manages to get really great reviews. And I’m big in Germany,” he laughs. “It doesn’t stop because that [band] stopped. If you could do something else, you probably would. But it just doesn’t matter, because that’s what you do. That’s what you love.”
A Toronto TV news feature on Don Stevenson busking in the city’s subway: