8.12-HE (Moby Grape)

Moby Grape


said he found himself
and gave away the things he called his own.
awoke and told his friend
things he'd seen and heard but could not comprehend,

        And so taken back by what he had just said
        He cried, "Oh Lord, am I alive or dead?"

was shattered when he saw
how everything's exactly as it seems.
then able to admit
saw his thoughts drift into unimportant schemes.

        So he found himself a pawn to cop the score
        Of all those games we play and then ignore.


wandered off alone
to search for someone else to passively agree.
then felt no further need
to hold it peacefully within was proof indeed.

        [Repeat 2nd B section]


The second album by Moby Grape was a double set, the first being a studio album called Wow, the second being an album of improvised material titled Grape Jam. It was the first time this sort of arrangement had been made, but it became a popular format, of which Cream’s Wheels of Fire, released in July 1968, is probably the most well-known psychedelic example. (Cream’s second disc of recordings in that set were taken from live concerts.) Another first in the Wow / Grape Jam album was the solicitation of fans for a poem by which the group could compose music, used for the experimental song The Lake (on Grape Jam). This was a format taken up almost simultaneously (and more successfully) by the Buffalo Springfield for the song In the Hour of Not Quite Rain (released July 1968 for their album Last Time Around), reviewed later in this collection of Trance Love Airwaves. I, however, tend to associate In the Hour of Not Quite Rain even more closely with the lush orchestration of He.

After Wow / Grape Jam, Skip Spence left the group, suffering a mental breakdown (like Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd about the same time), and Moby Grape moved out of psychedelic music and into country rock. Trance Love Airwaves, however, will follow Skip Spence to his final album released in May 1969, titled Oar.

He features both a lovely acoustic guitar riff and also swelling orchestration, which is passed back and forth, with the guitar riff beginning and ending the song. It was composed by group member Peter Lewis, according to Wikipedia a son of Hollywood and Loretta Young, and bears a good deal of confidence in its Hollywood arrangement of strings, though whether Lewis or producer David Rubinson deserves the credit for this is unclear. The orchestral break is repeated exactly in the coda.

The lyrics to He are confounding. Matthew Greenwald of allmusic was contented to write of the song that “it speaks of a man's journey through life and people, acid-magnified. It could mean a lot of things at once, really, and it's truly beautiful in its obscurity”. Though visionary, I don’t see any evidence of being “acid-magnified” in the lyrics. Rather it seems to reflect a kind of jumbled messianic impulse related to the religious imagery beginning to flood pop music since its December 1967 introduction through Bob Dylan’s album John Wesley Harding. “He” appears to be Christ-like figure, impressive both for this vision and for his commitment to “give away the things he called his own”. The vision (like those aided by LSD) obscures the difference between the living and the dead. But there are differences too from the standard messages of psychedelic tripping. First off, “everything’s exactly as it seems” is in direct opposition to the general LSD experience of “nothing is exactly as it seems”. (The Beatles’ “nothing is real” from Strawberry Fields springs to mind.) Then there’s the downplaying of the life of the mind, which is given such praise in such songs as Beatles' Inner Light. In the final verse, “he” looks for disciples to “passively agree”, rather than to enlighten. Failing that, “he” peacefully accepts a truth within himself that he can’t seem to communicate to others. The repeated second B verse seems to hold a jumble of what the visionary truth might be. “He” seems to have discovered that in being around others he is only a “pawn in their game” (Bob Dylan again), though they would be the first to deny it, and perhaps they don’t even consciously realize their manipulation of him. However, instead of “they”, the poet uses “we”, including all of us (including himself) in the charade of importance. The point seems to be that despite our mental constructs to make ourselves feel we’re doing something great, no amount of effort makes that much difference in the nature of things, which moves along without much regard for mankind. What “he” seems to hold dear to his heart is his own insignificance, his own proper name forgotten in the cosmic order.