Thursday, July 27, 2017

Crackle and Spark: Moby Grape and Husker Du

                      Moby Grape – Wow / Grape Jam
 An Appreciation or “whatever happened to hairy Mary??”

Moby Grape is a group whose story is one of the great cautionary tales of bad luck in the music business. Maybe only Badfinger had a worse go of it. At least there were no suicides in Moby Grape. Yet, what often gets lost in the shuffle is how Moby Grape’s story is also one of inexplicable resilience and the power of the human spirit. For along the circuitous path of this band’s history there have occurred infrequent yet potent flashes of genius, light and exuberance when it was least expected or warranted. In the darkest of circumstances, the electric Moby Grape spirit would come roaring back as if after long, fallow periods the latent power had no option but to burst forth undeterred and unable to be denied. It defies all rational logic. There is just no way such a down and out lot should have had the audacity to be so awesome on their own terms, on their own time - always having to fight off their oppressors (seen and unseen) in the process.

One might argue that although the seeds of the group’s bittersweet fruit were sown early on, the years following their late 60s heyday have provided the better story. Lawsuits dragged on with the courts rarely siding in their favor. Yet the real identity of Moby Grape always resided with those original five fantastic musicians. Time, in the long run, has been on their side. That fabulous five proved over and over how the magic resided within them – not in some document saying who owns what words or images. The magic is apparent to all those with ears – and has been there right from the git-go, in fact………..

 Moby Grape was assembled around guitar player Skip Spence who, after drumming for the original Jefferson Airplane, had a mind to strike out on his own as a bandleader / composer / singer and songwriter. The musicians that were drafted to fill out the band were not all known to each other at the time. Jerry Miller and Don Stevenson were pulled in through Bob Mosley, but that was the extent of who knew who prior to the formation of the band. What these five musicians achieved in the first formative months of their existence as a band is astounding – a smokin’ live act with emphasis on killer original material and a debut record on a major label that also featured original songs expertly executed and presented. The self-titled first album holds the distinction of being one of the few truly perfect albums in the history of the medium – and to think this was their first record…….just staggering. Still is. If you don’t own a copy please do yourself a favor and get one pronto! You will be happy. You will jump up and down. You will play air guitar. Why aren’t you listening to this record now? 
Some groups only have it one way – either a great record or a great live act. Rarely is there a combination of the two. Moby Grape had that magical alignment of fortunes. A live CD of various performances was issued on Sundazed a bunch of years back and it contains a portion of the smokin’ set performed by the Grape at the Monterey Pop Festival. Oh boy, did these guys have “it”. Lots of “it”. More “it” than most bands. For years I read about how dynamic they were as a live unit – particularly the presence of Skip Spence onstage. Around the summer of 2001 I took a solo journey out to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. This was prior to youtube. I literally stood frozen in front of an exhibit case with various artifacts from Bay Area groups (including the fringe jacket Skip Spence wore on the front cover of Moby Grape’s perfect debut album). Why was I stuck there? A little television was positioned at the top of the case which must have been linked to a VCR playing a tape loop of performances from these bands – including a clip of Moby Grape with Skip Spence leading the band through a song on the first album which BLEW MY CIRCUITS. Seeing Skip Spence in action like that made the hair on my arms stand on end. What an electric performer! See here:
The stories of the first tour across the US are legendary. Tearing up stages night after night with Spence pulling out all the stops. They quickly became the envy of their peers. Yet, as brilliant as the first album was, the damage was inflicted by the record company’s decision to issue all the tracks as singles simultaneously – sending them all out to radio stations in one shot. Said radio stations had no idea which songs to plug and therefore no single song had a ghost of a chance to advance up the charts. Its almost as if Moby Grape was chosen as the group to experiment with – beyond shameful since they deserved better.

Sessions for the follow-up LP began in California and, by all accounts, were a disaster mainly due to partying and general unruly behavior. The decision to move the sessions to New York would prove both decisive and fateful. The record would get done, but the price paid would extend well beyond the studio costs. Once the record was finally hitting the shops, Skip Spence would be heading for an extended stay in a psychiatric hospital. The future of the band without their leader, however fragile, was unknown. Still, there was talent aplenty – especially apparent in bassist and vocalist Bob Mosley. Guitarist Peter Lewis has stated that Mosley was the one member of the group who could have been a star in his own right without the rest of the band backing him up. Great songwriter, great bassist – better vocalist (he could have been Otis Redding’s own son). In the great killer bands of my imagination, putting Bob Mosley in a fantasy group with Steve Marriott is among the more potent daydreams I’ve allowed myself to have. Even though every member of Moby Grape could sing well, Mosley had that magic voice. 
While the debut album rightly gets the attention it deserves, it dawned on me that the sophomore effort – Wow / Grape Jam – is too often unjustly criticized. Perhaps it gets lost in the history of its own creation, particularly the events that sidelined Skip Spence which propelled the group into a tailspin. Had Spence not melted down in 1968 and the group continued intact to third and fourth proper albums, Wow may have been hailed as the slightly excessive, but ultimately transitional record it was meant to be. So Wow gets unfairly compared to that perfect debut album and, really – it’s a shame. Wow is as honest to its times as the self-titled LP was to its own place and time. If the debut embodied the optimism of San Francisco’s 1967 Summer of Love, Wow is the worthy counterpart soundtrack for the parade of grotesque surrealism America endured in 1968. As such, Wow stands as an honest snapshot of what people were feeling and thinking in those days. What more can we ask of great art beyond this?

Perhaps fittingly, the leadoff track sets the scene literally with “The Place and the Time”. 
Here to sing our words and song
Finger chimes and wonder and losing nothing

Mother and father, think for yourself
This is the place and the time
Make the changes, hear the time
All those silly words don't seem to rhyme

Now I'm cold and I wonder why
My twelfth floor mansions seem to touch the sky
Tomorrow I'll be back to see if you can really be here

My, what a strange vision I have seen and what a change

What's that walkin' through my years
And breathin' on your mind?

Oh, what strange visions and changes did confront the American populace in that fateful year! Never were song lyrics so directly correlated to the times. This almost sounds like a sing-songy introduction to an elementary-school stage production – a childlike preamble heralding the weirdness to come. “Mother and Father – think for yourself – this is the Place and the Time……..”

The following track – “Murder in my Heart for the Judge” – is one of the strongest efforts on the album (with an impassioned vocal from Mosley) and, oddly enough, a potential anthem for the true Moby Grape Nation in their ongoing legal plight through the ensuing years. 
 It also underscores the growing generation gap that had rapidly befallen the country in that era. The big, fat, bald representative of justice is just another example of The Establishment looking to crucify the younger generation. Yet, there is a slight wink in the vocal delivery which provides a bit of comic relief to an otherwise tense face-off between the hippie culture and the straight culture. The plaintiff pleads “I’m sure to change my ways……” but the judge wasn’t born yesterday and sees right through the phony remorse with the promise to throw the book at the hippie for “getting smart”. The judge may be an asshole, but he’s not stupid. (Though I’d like to qualify the fact that there are truly stupid judges out there!)

Bitter Wind – the philosophical centerpiece of the LP, yet a possible window into some sort of psychological torment (expressed in the noise section, perhaps?).

Can't Be So Bad – Jerry Miller as the upbeat guy trying desperately to cheer up a clearly depressed young lady – the over-the-top pleading on Jerry's part is reminiscent of those who have struggled with family members with legitimate mental illness. Yet, at the core Miller wants all to be well – and his dedication to being a Good Samaritan is both honorable and admirable. Level-headed and empathetic – good combination of qualities. Especially in ideologically war-torn America of 1968.

Just Like Gene Autry – Spence has the best sense of humor – the outtakes of the Arthur Godfrey vocal overdub session reveal how effective Spence was in getting even the most unlikely people in on his “trip” to do things beyond what they'd normally do. Yet, that bright light of inspiration has a dark shadow revealed on side two...........

He – Peter Lewis has written that he was experiencing a minor personal meltdown of his own during the sessions for Wow and this was his only significant contribution. Oddly enough, he could have been writing the song about Spence, though I don't think that was the case. Nevertheless, a song about a fragile person..........

Motorcycle Irene – the dark side of Spence is revealed here. I will maintain that car crash sounds do not belong on pop music albums (nor do auto disaster songs – see Jan and Dean about that).

Three-Four – this is a beautiful song which gives Mosley an honest shot at being taken seriously as a country and western singer. This track could have been issued as a single and sent to country stations under his own name and might have gained a spot on the playlists. There is little evidence that this track is being performed by a Bay-Area hippie band. Plenty of rock groups were dipping their toes into the C&W territory, yet none of the other bands were capable of pulling off such an authentic and honest-sounding performance in the true spirit of the genre. There is no irony here. Only heartfelt emotion. They should have been booked on the Johnny Cash show to do this number.

Funky-Tunk – the light-hearted take on C&W – a little hillbilly he-hawing to remind us this is a rock and roll band with a sense of humor. Really, a nice bump down to reality from the seriousness of the previous track.

Rose Colored Eyes – one of the most hauntingly-beautiful songs of the golden age of rock music. Once again the versatility of Mosley's vocal abilities gets its due here. Side two is pretty much all about Bob since he owns the vocal performances like a champ.

Miller's Blues – maybe titled for Jerry (who does provide some tasty guitar work here), but the vocal duties fall to Bob again and he knocks it out of the park. Interesting to note – 1968 was the year of the blues, yet this Bay Area group gets influenced here by the New York Blues approach – more in the urbane-style with horns and so-forth. There is a weariness to the proceedings which reminds us that 1968 was a very rough year for everyone.

Naked, If I Want To – Bob gets the final word here with the other age-old musical question.............updated and insistent in the grand style of Otis Redding. This seemingly throwaway track illustrates the difference between the whimsical version on the '67 debut with the newer, less idealistic version on the '68 LP. In other words.........why can't we do these things a year later? Haven't we progressed yet? What's the holdup? And a hearty Amen to THAT, especially in the USA, 2017-style. Eeesh.

I could keep writing about the other albums - reflecting the ups and downs of this talented, but troubled bunch over the years. There are more stories to illustrate that triumph of spirit in the face of adversity - and the Melville Gang has been through the wringer of life to testify. Yet, I will save that for another time. The story for Moby Grape takes a sour turn by 1973 when the original band loses the right to perform under that name - a situation that takes decades to change. The whole story has really yet to be told properly. It is a strange tale of how individuals thrown together find common ground in the fight for the right to be themselves - held together by the bond of a curious and magical musical chemistry. 
     If the Moby Grape band pulled together as friends to fight for their name and legacy, others have had the opposite problem - legendary acrimony that may have been the source of the creative spark, but leading to no chance of any reunion activity. Over the years I have attempted to write about Husker Du as a band. The following is the best of the several attempts with some new stuff thrown in. The time may be right to finally publish my homage to the Du.........

             HUSKER DU - Remembered and not forgotten:

Predicting shifts in musical trends is not something I expect to do anytime in the near or distant future. Yet, I can say “I saw it coming” as the 1980s morphed into the 1990s. Well, I didn't know exactly when that shift was coming, but I wasn't entirely surprised when it arrived. Grunge. Nirvana. Loud rock guitar based music with long hair again. To the average music fan of the 80s, the grungiest thing to hit the mainstream was Guns N' Roses, but of course they just looked like an updated version of Aerosmith to me. I often wondered where the Nirvana fans were when great independent rock trios of the 80s were blazing the pathway – Meat Puppets, The Minutemen, The Wipers, Agitpop and, especially, Husker Du.

I know I wasn't the only one. Yet, I was the only person I knew who KNEW. None of my friends were as interested in Husker Du as I was then. Now it's like, one other person I know personally. Of course, I never got to see them live - nor in any solo outings, alas. But I can honestly say, "I was a Husker Du fan in the 80’s". And for this I have to give credit to my main music news connection of the era – Musician Magazine. There used to be little profiles on up and coming bands in a section of the magazine devoted to that stuff. Once in awhile a band would be described as “neo-psychedelic”. Like the Rain Parade. I bought their album – not bad. More like 1965-era Byrds as opposed to psychedelic. 
Another issue had a little profile about Husker Du. Now, these guys looked more like wrestlers than psychedelic rockers, but I read how they covered the Byrds “Eight Miles High” – that sounded pretty cool. But it took me awhile to finally hear that record. In the meantime, I found an unlikely Husker Du record at the local mall chain-store record shop (they were known to carry some indie stuff at the time besides the usual major label crud). For some reason they did not have any of the SST releases, but they did have “Everything Falls Apart”. I debated about this one since it wasn’t on SST and I had never heard about it. The cover listed a song titled “Sunshine Superman”. Hmmm. Really? The Donovan song? Alright – a punk version of Donovan – sold!
I was a little dismayed to find out the record was cut at 45 RPM speed when I sliced open the shrink wrap and slid the vinyl out of the sleeve. 45? Well, this was going to be a short album. I think I put the needle immediately down on “Sunshine Superman”. Hey – a little abrasive, but not bad. A “tough” version, but this was no parody. These guys genuinely liked the song. I could tell. Fine. But it was when I placed the needle into the grooves at the start of the record that I was face to face with a new reality. This was PUNK music. Loud, fast, waaaay abrasive, but there were hooks, melodies lurking there. I will never forget watching that record spin so fast on my turntable as Grant Hart’s propulsive drumming thundered out of the speakers like an out of control herd of galloping cattle. 
Now, I had played in a little punk-type band for a brief time. It was fun, but kinda one-dimensional. So, to hear a “punk” band branching out into other musical vibes beyond “hardcore” was pretty interesting to me. I have to think it must have been 1985 or 1986 when I heard this record – only a few years after its release, but by then the Huskers had moved ahead musically – and I was still trying to catch up!

I’ll tell you why I adopted Husker Du as “my band”. First off – the abrasive stuff was interesting, but not speed metal. Everyone else I knew in high school was going bonkers over Metallica. I never latched onto that band. Maybe it was the guy that sat in front of me in Spanish class who had every Metallica T-shirt known to man – the ones with the glow-in-the-dark electrocuted skeleton and the fist with the dagger popping out of a toilet come to mind – I hate to say it, but those images seemed kind of contrived to me. Kinda like “here’s some stuff that adolescents will think is really rebellious and their parents will hate it and gosh aren’t we just soooooo rebellious???”. It struck me as a little obvious and paint-by-numbers in the image department. Probably prevented me from appreciating some great music, but that’s my un-hip brain for you…….
                                        What I never got to witness live. Raw Power!

Aside from a much more mysterious image than Metallica, Husker Du – even at their most abrasive – knew how to incorporate melody and harmony into their music. They gave the listener something familiar to latch onto while being ushered into the “new” era of aggressive rock and roll music. Actually, by the time I latched onto Husker Du, it must have been 1986. I seem to recall seeing the 12” single for “Don’t Want to Know if You Are Lonely” in the same bin as “Everything Falls Apart”. I’m sure I had heard some other tracks on WVKR – the local college radio station. I distinctly remember hearing “Green Eyes” on there from the fabulous “Flip Your Wig” album.

What else made Husker Du so compelling in the 1980s? The 80s seemed to be the decade when mainstream acts were afraid to crank up their amps. Popular music sounded so………manufactured. Husker Du had just enough “edge” to their sound to be contemporary, but enough quality singing, hooks, interesting lyrics and songcraft in general to stand out from the crowd. Nobody was doing what they were doing in that era. Not knowing any of the inside info on the band – it looked in 1986 that they were going to hit big and push music in the proper direction (which they ultimately did). This noisy-as-hell band signed to Warner Brothers and certainly the Grant Hart songs on “Candy Apple Grey” had “hit single” written all over them. “Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely” is an 80’s power-pop masterpiece. Not to mention “Dead Set on Destruction” – what a great track that is! I really thought – finally! A ballsy power pop group with good songs is going to save popular music from the freeze-dried hell of the 80s!

1987 arrives – new double album. Tours. Show in Poughkeepsie cancelled. Even though I was not yet 18 I was determined to get into that show. My one missed opportunity. By 1988/9 they were done. Nobody seemed to care. Then……..THEN! All of a sudden in 1991, everyone is crapping themselves silly over this new band Nirvana – lessee – a power/punk/pop trio in the Husker Du mold – basically reaping the glory that the Huskers laid the groundwork for all through those miserable 80s? Where were all these people when Husker Du was laying it down only a few years before? I have never been a Nirvana fan. My loss I suppose. I just couldn’t…………….

There was something else about Husker Du’s approach – the music was intense, but the lyrics usually betrayed some inner turmoil and awkwardness that certainly spoke to me as an adolescent teen. There was a certain willingness on the part of Mould and Hart to reveal some vulnerability in their lyrics which was quite different from the typical vapid posturing that went on in 80s popular music for the most part. To me, it was Grant Hart's stuff that truly set the band apart - his material had an unmistakably deranged, desperate and unhinged quality to it. At once compelling and, at times, disturbing. It is possible that both the main songwriters encouraged each other to plumb the depths of their psyches to dredge out the best of what was lurking inside them. To magnificent effect for the art, if not for the business side of their relationship. In their case, one could argue what made them special is what also tore them to pieces as a band.

With the grunge revolution of the 90s, it was reported to be fashionable to name-drop Husker Du as an influence if you wanted some alternative-credibility. Since I was essentially out of the rock music loop by that point I could care less about how hip it might be, but I was never too bowled over by what I heard other bands coming up with in an attempt to carry the torch the Huskers lit back in the 80s. Context is everything. I’m sure to modern ears the music Husker Du came up with sounds like an interesting curiosity. Like some weird science experiment gone wrong. But those records were (for me) the only worthwhile direction rock music could go in. And for the band who brought the change as close to becoming reality as it could get in their day NOT to get any of the credit or payoff just pissed me off to no end. Maybe there were others like me who reacted the same way. I have this thing about "myth". To me, Husker Du was the LAST band to conjure up the MYTH FACTOR - perhaps for other people it would be Nirvana. The elusive way people "talk" about a band in excited tones. Telling stories of past glories and future conquests. That kind of mythical stuff. To watch the Huskers come so far and then wipe out right when they should have led the charge was a lot like - breaking up with the first girlfriend who meant something to you. Well, you can guess why I make that particular analogy! The Huskers breakup and my first breakup happened pretty much simultaneously. In fact, Bob Mould's "Workbook" solo album was like the soundtrack to my immediate post-breakup world - can't hear it any other way. So I have a fair amount of emotion tied in with this particular band! Lucky me!

Husker Du's music is raw emotion. The intensity of the emotion behind their songs – that’s what set them apart. These guys put out the most haunted and tortured-sounding power-speedpop songs imaginable. And a good majority of those were damn catchy! Well, not all of the songs were torture-fests. Mould’s songs kinda split between the frenetic scream-fests and the sombre dirges. Grant Hart’s stuff struck a much more sinister vibe – some songs could be singalong sweet pop confection while the more screamy songs often had a just-escaped-from-the-mental-institution sensibility going on. Mould was definitely angry, but he didn’t come off sounding half as dangerous as Hart. Yet, even with these edgy qualities, Husker Du made such unlikely inroads into mainstream culture at the time – it’s hard for the current crop of young people to realize that although there were figures from the music world capable of criticizing the “system” in an intelligent way (Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Frank Zappa were the three most media-savvy truth tellers of the era), even those people had “star quality” to the extent that they “fit in” as the Court Critics. The guys in Husker Du certainly did NOT have that vibe about them AT ALL. And seeing their appearance on the Joan Rivers show in 1987 – the mere PRESENCE of Husker Du on that TV show was like……..”Oh my god…..they’re letting the real, non-glamorous, intelligent people on TV……holyfuckinggoddamn! This must be THE REVOLUTION!!!” 
They certainly pointed the way and they were RIGHT. Yet, it couldn't be them. This is brought home especially by Bob Mould's autobiography. As problematic as his account of the breakup might be - if nothing else the reader is given a clear sense of his feelings about the band, even if the events that created those feelings aren't explained too well. I got the sense that Mould just wasn't willing to be tethered to Husker Du for his whole life in music. For better or worse he simply wanted out. Partnerships are tricky - even when the art sets audiences on fire.

As time went on, I eventually picked up Mould's second solo album - Black Sheets of Rain. For whatever reason I never quite got into that. I didn't bother with Sugar for the longest time. Some of that stuff is okay. I know it means more to Mould than that. I prefer his more recent solo albums - Beauty & Ruin and Patch The Sky are wonderful! Yet, it took me awhile to check his stuff out again. I totally missed all the electronic business. Maybe someday I'll catch up with that. Grant Hart was much less prolific and his records were harder for me to find. Yet, when I did track them down I was quite impressed! Nova Mob deserved better than what they got. How great is this video?

I really got into his 1999 release "Good News For Modern Man". Then - I don't know what was going on up to the release of The Argument. I'm happy to say I reviewed that here when it came out and I still like it. Since then I managed to snag the compilation LP and DVD set - Every Everything:
The documentary on Hart is well worth seeing for the Husker Du fan. He is the narrator and it's really his own view of himself we get to see. And that is WAY more than the average fan has had access to - and a welcome thing, indeed.
 A few months ago I had a ticket to see Grant Hart open for The Meat Puppets in New York City. I was so sick that week - I bailed. Wish I hadn't now. It probably was my last chance to see him. Reports from that show weren't very kind. I guess he isn't doing so well these days. Out of respect for him I won't post pictures here. Whatever his struggles - I salute his art and his bravery. Mere words can't convey how important that music was to me growing up and even now. It meant courage - the courage to face the depths of one's own darkest regions and somehow transform all of that into brightly illuminated energy - to push outside the confines of one's own mental / spiritual dungeon. I hope to get there someday - at least the brave among us have trailed the way ahead. For the artists in Moby Grape and Husker Du - thanks for the hope and courage. Not easy torches to pass along. May the efforts continue to crackle and spark!

I'll give the last word to Grant Hart - live in 2014. If it's worth saying, it's worth saying LOUD!

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