Puremusic interview with Jerry Miller

It's a strange twist of history that the tightest group in the Bay Area scene around the explosive era of 1966-7 became the most forgotten, because they didn't stay around that long: Moby Grape. Most agree that the promotion of the group was way over the top and ineffective (releasing five singles at once) considering the countercultural timbre of the time, and that strongest debut in the psychedelic era by far was tragically bobbled. They unfortunately didn't cut another disc that lived up to the first, and broke up a few years down the road.

Guitarist Jerry Miller did not come out of the folk tradition, unlike key members of the Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, and Quicksilver Messenger Service. He did, though, have strong Country roots and influences, like out-of-towners The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield. In fact, somebody said (I thought it was Jerry, but he didn't confirm that) that Moby Grape was "The Byrds with The Blues."

Skip Spence (often lumped in somewhat with Syd Barrett and Peter Greene because of his mental anomalies and difficulties) did come out of the folk movement. He'd drifted to the bay area after the military. He played drums on the Jefferson Airplane debut (Jefferson Airplane Takes Off) and then in the Grape he stepped out as a front man and rhythm guitarist, and the author of "Omaha" ("Listen My Friends") their biggest song ever. As Jerry points out in our interview, Skip also co-wrote the great single released on the Airplane's classic Surrealistic Pillow album, "You're My Best Friend." Spence got hospitalized for six months after taking a fire axe to Peter Lewis' door on a speed run; upon his release, he got a small advance from Columbia, bought a motorcycle and went right into a Nashville studio to cut his 1969 solo record, Oar, a commercial flop but a cult classic. It was recut as a tribute record with Robert Plant, Beck, Tom Waits and many other luminaries in 1999 called More Oar. Spence died before its release, in the same year.

All the members of Moby Grape were great songwriters and singers. Peter Lewis played second guitar (he is the son of actress Loretta Young), Bob Mosely the bass, and Don Stevenson was on drums. There have been a number of reunions over the years, with various lineups. Current attempts feature all surviving members, which makes the new Columbia/Legacy compilation, Listen My Friends!, all the more poignant. This is truly rock and roll history: a key group and a benchmark release from the San Francisco Sound that changed music and the country, nay, the world, forever.


Check out the clips on the Listen page, and enjoy this conversation with one of the great West Coast guitar players, Jerry Miller. He's still playing in his native WA state, and he's still got it.        continue to interview