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*10.26-WAR IN PEACE (Alexander "Skip" Spence)

Skip Spence

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It's a joy to know you're resting in peace.
War in peace--what a funny combination
Will come to separation
Since you believe.

Good old spice, it's nice to see you, at last you're ahead.
War in peace--what a funny combination.
We’ll come to your coronation.
This is clear.

[Break]

It's a joy to see you and your red resin head.
Risen dead will cross another generation
And the cosmic federation
Sees you clear.

[Coda]


Oar is the only album that Skip Spence released as a solo artist, after having served in the initial phase of the Jefferson Airplane and as a founding member of Moby Grape. Like Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd, Spence is said to have suffered schizophrenia after long exposure to LSD. Spence was able to record an album on his own after release from six months in a mental hospital, and before his mental state deteriorated further. He produced his own songs on the album, and indeed seems to have been the first artist to have provided all instrumentation and mixing on all tracks of an album. (Paul McCartney would famously do the same in the following year, providing all instrumentation to his first album independent of the Beatles, titled simply McCartney. Ironically, both Spence and McCartney issued these albums after being forced out of their original groups, and each collection of songs developed as a means to escape from a period of severe depression.) All that was necessary for Oar (like the Beatles’ Let It Be) was the patience of some good editors.

When the album was released it received no promotion from Columbia records and is reported to have been the poorest selling album in the recording company’s history [Andrew Lao: “Oar After 40 Years: Brilliant or Mere Ramblings?” Crawdaddy 11/24/2009]. The album was deleted from the company’s catalogue within a year of its release. However, Skip Spence did have small loyal group of fans, among them the rock critic Greil Marcus, who picked up on the metaphor of the album: Marcus believed that rowing with a single oar would only make one travel in circles. The album seeks to express individual, and deeply interior, creativity in the absence of group collaboration. Spence seems to have been so devoted to music groups that he didn’t feel there were great prospects in making music alone. Still, he had the courage, in the face of doubts about his own sanity, to try. The album ended up succeeding in its communication to the public over time, and forty years later, Beck, Robert Plant and other musicians collaborated to make a tribute album titled More Oar.

The majority of recorded psychedelic music had been experienced with friends around the record player, in eager discussion of its merits. Psychedelic music was usually an intellectual, and sometimes a contemplative experience for a small group of like-minded friends. In a matter of a couple of years, this small group had grown beyond private parties. By 1969, the imagined audiences for the Rolling Stones and The Who were listening in large arenas and festivals. In tone, Oar is on the opposite side of the psychedelic spectrum from Sly and the Family Stone’s album Stand. Whereas Sly Stone was trying to make a physical community experience for a “new generation” that was beginning to congregate en mass at musical events, Oar is best heard in the privacy of one’s own room alone. The album kicks up dust in dark corners of the mind to insinuate the precious complexity of one’s own mysterious being.

Only in quiet private contemplation does a concept such as War in Peace begin to take shape as something quite different from the concept of War and Peace, or “red resin head” find its connection with the “risen dead”. The poet seems to be saying that in life the hippie dream of peace will always contain within it a war that can only become disentangled from it in the afterlife. Thus too, the poet seems to be reflecting on the demise of his and other rock groups. After a while, these musicians only become aware of the conflict between them, but once they’ve broken up, their best efforts are unsullied by the group’s interior conflicts. I’ve brought up the Beatles in this regard, but it seems the poet is thinking specifically of the recently dissolved Cream. There is speculation [allmusic: Matthew Greenwald] that the “red resin head”, the “good old spice” is Ginger Baker, the drummer of Cream, who is reported to have befriended Spence about this time. The ironically crude rendition of Sunshine of Your Love as the coda to the piece seems to underline this interpretation.

Spence’s voice is eerie, ghostly in this song, Several listeners have remarked the Spence’s style seems to have informed that of Thom Yorke in the group Radiohead. Although the words that ride the tune are distorted by reverb at times beyond recognition, the lengthy melody line is such that I frequently think of Italian opera when I hear it. A whistling wind seems to blow into the song from a far distance of emptiness. When heard with friends the song is likely to seem creepy, especially if one is not completely focused on it. Alone, one can allow oneself the shivers that the song evokes and simultaneously be struck by its sublime terrifying beauty.

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