What’s Big and Purple and Lives in the Ocean?

What’s Big and Purple and Lives in the Ocean? The Moby Grape Story
By Cam Cobb
[Jawbone Press]

As the summer of ’67 approached, it was a time of possibilities, as Crawdaddy would attest in February 1967: “The most exciting, and most sought after (by the record companies) new group of the West Coast, is San Francisco’s Moby Grape.”

This is a chronicle of the feeding frenzy that followed.

Little did anyone realize that by signing a managerial contracted in a beached-ferryboat-turned-rock-club, fate had been set in motion, as an acrimonious relationship with former Jefferson Airplane manager Matthew Katz would cause the band, despite such promise, to eventually lose possession of their own name, and would lead them down a path of continuous litigation.

Writer Cam Cobb’s book serves as a diary of dates and daring near misses, as a piecemeal group of far-flung musicians are grouped around the former Airplane drummer Skip Spence in an attempt to pile-drive a supergroup into the public consciousness as the embodiment of the San Francisco scene.

By 1971, the Bay Area would be dramatically changed. The ballroom scene was all but finished, as was the community among both the fans and the bands. This book is the story of the first (and one of the few) bands that was granted a reprieve, a second chance – two years before The Byrds would try much the same.

All I knew about Moby Grape before reading this book: (1) they released a solid first album (with drummer Don Stevenson holding a washboard with his extended middle finger in the original group cover photo, resulting in a highly sought-after collectible), (2) their two-disc second album was mediocre, and (3) the story recounted in the pages of Joel Selvin’s Summer of Love book about a rabid-eyed Spence carrying a fire axe into Columbia Studios after hacking down Stevenson’s door at a nearby hotel! This legendary incident is expanded upon and chronologically placed in proper perspective here.

But then, according to his preface, all Cam Cobb knew about Moby Grape before the extensive interviews for What’s Big and Purple was what he’d read in the Rolling Stone Album Guide! Not exactly one of my favorite sources, by a long shot! It’s the reason I’m on poor footing with Ira Robbins (the Trouser Press guy), who wrote a review of a Billy Joel record and gave it five stars! He called me complaining after I’d said in print that “Billy Joel never made a five-star record in his life!” Ira said, “I can’t go over to Billy’s house for dinner and tell him his record sucks,” to which I replied, “Then you’re already compromised and should recuse yourself!” Cam was influenced to listen to Moby Grape because their first record got five stars. Well, at least they deserved it!

But Cobb was born in ’72, after the ’60s circus had moved on, so like many he’s shadowing their legendary career. The first half of his book is about pulling the band back together for a reunion to record 20 Granite Creek, their fifth album, well after the flower power had faded. Fanatically speaking, Cobb upturns every pebble on the gravel driveway leading to the communal abode where the five original members came to record.

Once he sticks with the Haight coverage, from the blossoming ballroom benders and the early back-and-forth trips from Sausalito to Hollywood and New York as the Grape coalesces, Cobb is a divine guide along the where-to and what-for path, trying his best to keep from substantiating the myth. But I’m pulling ahead of his narrative, which takes until Chapter 14 to tackle the band’s formation. Pontifically verbose, describing the analytical sidelines of critical inner-workings between the give-and-take during the writing and recording of songs that make up 20 Granite Creek, Cobb seems to be shedding light on the musicianship instead of the rock star side of the band.

But his understudy regard for a record that is vaguely acknowledged as anything other than a failed comeback makes for a tough read. With a preponderance for the post-hippie heyday of honky cat hedonic hoopla over a record released in September 1971 to little fanfare, disappointing sales and mixed reviews, marking the second act for a band plagued by multiple mistakes and mismanagement, this explains why it’s included at the start of his book. Nobody would bother reading it if it was the wrap-up!

Centered on what came to be identified as “their sound” of cross-talk guitars, by the time Moby Grape were disintegrating, that two-fold lure which initially caught their attention was waning also. The lure of hippie Frisco days was numbered, and the band’s record deal required them to be out of town anyway. And a deep-rooted appreciation for The Byrds that had brought them together was antithetical to who Moby Grape were as a band.

Besides The Beatles, The Byrds were the high water mark for success, especially for West Coast bands. Which is why Moby Grape chose to sign with Columbia Records, who committed to an unprecedented promotional campaign, including saturating radio with five 45 r.p.m. singles and throwing a massive release party at the Avalon Ballroom.

On page 175 of What’s Big and Purple, Cobb relates details from the actual strategy marketing session held at the Sunset Blvd. offices of Columbia before the release date for Moby Grape’s debut album on June 6, 1967. Accordingly, in this address as to how the band was perceived by the label, a Columbia spokesperson is quoted in the book as saying, “On our label, we’ve seen Bob Dylan and The Byrds take folk music and electrify it, and also on Columbia Records, The Beach Boys have taken doo-wop and a cappella and choral music and blended it with a kind of rock ‘n’ roll, a softer kind of rock ‘n’ roll…”

Signed to Capitol Records for the duration of the 1960s, The Beach Boys got a custom label, Brother Records, distributed through Warner/Reprise before open personality clashes between Mike Love and Dennis Wilson drove the drummer to sign a deal with short-lived CBS Records imprint Caribou in the late ’70s, after which the band followed suit. So unless the Columbia spokesman was referring to an alternate Earth, The Beach Boys never released anything on Columbia Records.

But that’s not the only mistake in this book.

Music critic Richard Meltzer is misidentified on page 73: “In his lengthy review, Robert Meltzer – who would go on to co-write songs for Blue Oyster Cult – is bursting with compliments.” Then later on he’s referred to as “Melzer”!

Then on page 202, Larry Coryell is spelled Larry Coreal. That could be a spellcheck typo.

Cam Cobb’s mistake is getting distracted with track-by-track analysis of that fifth record, just as Moby Grape got distracted by the possibility of San Francisco’s position in the ‘60s. They weren’t part of any imminent ideal; they were a rock ‘n’ roll band.

Rock ‘n’ roll is a traveling circus, not tied to any specific locale, whether Seattle or London. San Francisco was its sideshow for three or four years, attracting schemers like Matthew Katz who cost Moby Grape their future – first with bad deals and later by putting financial demands on the already strapped Monterey Pop Festival. The band grew a reputation as troublemakers, and then a legend as a troubled band.

What it comes down to is the two most influential bands of that era – Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape – both featured the contributions of Skip Spence.

Or as Paul Williams described the latter in Crawdaddy: “a band with 12 distinct personalities, and Skip Spence accounts for five of them”!