"There is a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased that line." -Oscar Levant
It is rather unfortunate the train-wreck magnetism mental illness creates on the works of musicians, from the took-so-much-acid-he-lost-his-shit stories of Syd Barrett, to the uncomfortable-to-watch mental breakdown documentary footage of The Devil and Daniel Johnston, along with every other stop on the crazy train you could come up with. It seems glorifying the tales of madness surrounding those unlucky enough to suffer from their psychological conditions goes hand in hand with any of the music they recorded, even giving them an enhanced mystique. Whether all these extracurricular tidbits of musician's lives serve to put their art into context, or perhaps even to overshadow it, it is almost inevitable you'll get one with the other. It may be completely cliché of me to once again exploit the saga that unfolded leading up to the recording of Alexander ‘Skip’ Spence’s Oar, but it's almost impossible not to. If you're already familiar with his sensationalistic history, bear with me while I get the rest of you up to speed on the cult of Oar.
Skip Spence found himself in San Francisco during the mid-‘60s and quickly made his way into the upper echelon of the psychedelic music scene in that city as the drummer for Jefferson Airplane on their first album and as a founding guitarist in Moby Grape. Skip took part in the cultural spirit of all that was going on at that groovy time and place, including the copious drug-ingesting hippie ethos. While Moby Grape were recording their second album in New York in ‘68, the events that allegedly unfolded went something along the lines of the following:
Skip was hanging out with a groupie who was deep into black magic. The groupie fed Spence a heavy dose of LSD, convinced him his bandmates were possessed with demons that were out to get him, and next thing you know ol' Skip is chasing the other guys with a fireman's axe, attempting to chop them into little pieces. Fast-forward to a six-month stint of staring at the white walls in the criminal ward of Bellevue Hospital where the diagnosed schizophrenic Spence must have been sautéing in his creative juices, because after being released, he bought a motorcycle and, while wearing his hospital jammies, drove to Nashville to record his one and only solo album in a two-week exploration of his fractured soul. Is this not the fantastic shit that a movie is just waiting to be made about?
Apparently, the peace-and-love generation weren't ready for such a rough-around-the-edges record rippling with dark undercurrents. The Manson Family had yet to make headlines, and the Stones had yet to play at the summer of love hangover known as Altamont. The album tanked upon release.
Listening to Oar leaves me feeling unhinged. I'd assume only the bravest explorers of mental terrain could handle the heavy unease of these songs on their psyches. It’s like a lullaby to a nightmare, a schizophrenia soundtrack, a channeling of personal fire and brimstone with analogies to angels and demons. As patronizing as putting an outsider artists on a pedestal comes across, there is an allure to being the voyeur looking into another person’s inner turmoils.
But all pomp and circumstance aside, Oar was also one of the very first albums where every vocal, instrument, and overdub were recorded by one person only. Skip did it all. It was a rare event back in the day. In the eyes of many, such a feat is nothing short of genius. Some of the lyrics contain the corny hippy dippy sentiments of the time such as "Little Hands." Others, like "Dixie Peach Promenade," feature double entendre vulgarities of lust aimed at the fairer sex that are far grittier than anything seen on an episode of Three's Company. It ranks up there with Captain Beefheart's Lick My Decals Off, Baby as one the most misogynistic odes to sex to come out of the free-love era. "Books of Moses" overdubs the sound of a thunderstorm to the tale Charlton Heston brought to the masses, cryptically delivering it in a voice that sounds like it ate gravel and lemons for lunch.
Oar definitely isn't one you’ll play to set the mood with that special someone, nor is it going to get that party started on a Friday night. It is, however, one that brilliantly gives you a glimpse into the dark corners of humanity.