Of Madness and Moby Grape

an essay review by N.G. Meriwether

Moby Grape In Concert
Presented by Straight Theater Productions at The Maritime Hall, San Francisco
Sunday, June 30, 1996, 10:25 p.m. - 12:00

With Billy Darnell, Peter Lewis, Jerry Miller, Bob Mosley, Tiran Porter, and James Preston

[Vintage Fillmore Moby Grape Postcard] Watching the current presidential campaign has made me more convinced than ever of the centrality of the Sixties to America today. So many issues defining that era persist in our national political debates, and culturally, the ripples from the Sixties continue unabated. Every new generation still defines itself against that decade's milestone in youth movements. And rock music is still a critical factor in popular and mass culture; it still defines and shapes discussion of popular music; and it drives a large part of the entertainment industry.

In San Francisco, the cultural ripples are clearly visible, perhaps especially so because of its history. As the rest of the country swings ever more rightward, the city's tolerance and left-wing orientation make it a refuge - indeed, a convivial home - for many besieged artists and forms of art, as it has for the past one and a half centuries of its U.S. existence. Having such a San Francisco perspective can make for alarming juxtapositions for residents: Gay Pride parades right after Clinton announces his opposition to gay marriage; the openly-operating Cannabis Buyers' Club in the heart of the City, open to anyone who shows a doctor's prescription for marijuana - who can then march right up and buy a joint, an ounce, or a tincture if you can't smoke - in the midst of a country with over half-a-million people in jail for non-violent pot offenses, some with mandatory sentences many times the average stay for murder.

A kind of madness, you might be tempted to say. Ironic, when that's exactly what the elders of those rebellious young people said in the Sixties, when faced with clothes, manners and mores that differed utterly and were, in fact, a repudiation of their standards of behavior. Madness had always been a theme among the previous generation's bohemian rebels, the Beats - see Allen Ginsburg's epic poems Kaddish and Howl, for example - and in the Sixties it continued. The relationship between society and the individual, between conformity, freedom and madness was at the heart of Ken Kesey's award-winning novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962), which was immediately hailed as a classic. Along with On the Road, it became mandatory reading for the literate rebels in the Sixties who sought some sense of alliance in their journey.

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles....

That was Kerouac, writing in On the Road, which isn't really about madness, but it is about conformity and the need to rebel in order to live and think and create. Ultimately, On the Road is a perfect manifesto of the age-old bohemian tradition, elegantly recast in post-war American terms. And though most young people who dreamed of escaping to San Francisco a decade later did so under the influence of sensationalistic media reports or Scott McKenzie's pop anthem, "Flowers In Your Hair," On the Road can claim responsibility for a number of them, including many of the artists who went on to form the cultural underpinning of the Haight-Ashbury, the music.

He said he found himself,
And gave away the things he called his own.
He awoke and told his friend
Things he'd seen and heard but could not comprehend
... He was shattered when he saw how everything's exactly as it seems
He, then able to admit, saw his thoughts drift into unimportant schemes
... He wandered off alone.

That was Moby Grape, a band that had more experience than perhaps any other with madness, rebellion, conformity, and the price exacted for them. One of the major bands in San Francisco in the late Sixties, their first gig in many years happened Sunday night in San Francisco. It was an interesting and powerful ripple.

"An amazing show tonight," was the first line I wrote in my journal when I got home after the show. The reunified Moby Grape, playing under their own name without the approval of their first manager, finally vanquished in court only this past November, after thirty years of legal battles ... finally told he can't hold the name hostage any longer.

And they sound great. Still. Mosley looks somewhat shell-shocked, perhaps not a hundred percent there. But what is there is remarkable, especially considering. 'Especially considering' could be the title for a live album or a bootleg of tonight's show. The other phrase that might serve popped into mind when Peter Lewis leaned over the stage politely to listen to some shouted, drunken song request, and said "I know, I'd like to play those, too, but we've only been doing this for three weeks. And it's been thirty years. We've got a long time to make up for."

Which is what they did tonight. A one hour set - plus another forty minutes' worth of encores - that had everything they had been known for in the Sixties: a dense, lush guitar sound with good vocal harmonies, a tight blues-rock outfit that could jam into psychedelia with the best of the San Francisco bands. Launched in 1966 to incredible fanfare, they couldn't help but fail to live up to their initial hype, which their extravagant and obstreperous behavior might have torpedoed, regardless. From getting caught with underaged girls to brandishing fire-axes against fellow band members and their producer, Moby Grape made its share of newspaper copy in its first couple of incandescent years. They settled down somewhat after the departure and institutionalization of Skip Spence, after their first two, very strong albums, their eponymous debut and Wow / Grape Jam, which were the two featured albums in the repertoire tonight, though the final tune came from the little-known Moby Grape '69, long out of print and scarce on the collector's market.

In retrospect, one would have to say of their Sixties incarnation that they were exuberant, thoughtless, irresponsible, and frequently unprofessional, but - they were enormously talented, they did some very good work, and their excesses weren't particularly damaging; certainly nowhere near as damaging as what befell them, independently and in response. And their poor behavior, for all its destructiveness, is probably more fairly called errant rather than noxious, especially by the standard later set by bands like Led Zeppelin.

And they made great music.


Copyright © 1996
Forward to Veronica Veronicon
Back to "no one can resist her impulse to drown"
and "the loosed hounds coursed inward to the zero"

Path of Least Resistance
Cover of Episode 8