If there's anything guaranteed to elevate a rock musician to the status of cult hero, it's pure madness....
If there’s anything guaranteed to elevate a rock musician to the status of cult hero, it’s pure madness. Morally dubious it may be to see insanity as the apotheosis of free-spirit debauchery – an enviable state, even – but rock’s appetite for gawping at psychological road crashes is unequalled.
Take the fascination of Alexander ‘Skip’ Spence, the American equivalent of [a]Syd Barrett[/a] to simplify a tragic life. Like Barrett and Pink Floyd, Spence began in pioneering psychedelic bands (as drummer in Jefferson Airplane and guitarist in Moby Grape), passing through a short solo career before spending much of the next 30 years in a social and mental wilderness.
His lasting cult status, however – and the source material for this tribute album – rests primarily with ‘Oar’, his solitary solo album. In 1968 Spence, 22, allegedly under the influence of a black-magic fixated girlfriend, left his hotel in his pyjamas and went looking for Moby Grape bandmate Don Stevenson. Carrying an axe. He was arrested, then sent to a secure mental hospital for six months, diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic.
Upon release, Spence bought a motorcycle and rode to Nashville, where he recorded a batch of songs in a week. The result was the recently reissued ‘Oar’: a raw cry of backwoods dislocation from the messy end of the ’60s, it prefigured the lo-fi country of Will Oldham and kin by two decades.
And inspired an unusually good tribute album. Here, 17 artists rebuild ‘Oar’ track by track – wisely, few try to recreate the scarred minimalism of Spence‘s originals. Rather, there’s a sense that the quality of the songs is being celebrated rather than the myth of the man. So Greg Dulli recasts ‘Dixie Peach Promenade (Yin For Yang)’ as woozy southern soul, while Beck (whose ‘One Foot In The Grave’ is heavily redolent of ‘Oar’) treats ‘Halo Of Gold’ to an ‘Odelay‘-style makeover, all colliding fuzz guitars, spindly keyboards and clickety beats. The lugubrious trio of Mark Lanegan, Son Volt‘s Jay Farrar and Tom Waits are all more faithful, while the unlikeliest gem is Diesel Park West turning ‘All Come To Meet Her’ into a shimmering hymnal after The Byrds.
Finally, uncredited, there’s Spence himself intoning ‘Land Of The Sun’ over white noise and tablas – his last song, commissioned for an[I] X-Files [/I]album and rejected, hilariously, for being too [I]out there[/I]. Legend has it Spence was played ‘More Oar’ just before he died, of lung cancer, in April. As a monument to his genius, way beyond the frisson of madness, maybe it provided a little solace. After everything.