Moby Grape - Interview with Peter Lewis - part 1

 


Moby Grape promo shot (from left)
- Skip Spence
- Jerry Miller
- Peter Lewis
- Don Stevenson
- and (in front) Bob Mosley

Peter Lewis of Moby Grape

interviewed at his home in California, December 10, 1996

color photo source

The 1960s : War, Drugs, and the Music Business

Peter Lewis : In the ’60s, people were really trying to figure out what was going on. That’s important, because if somebody doesn’t get a better take on it, what you remember is just the sex, drugs and rock and roll. That’s not all it was. That was our lives. The idea that somehow there was a misconception about what was really going on in the world put everybody in the position that the ’60s had to occur. In the early ‘60s and the Vietnam War, it was all leaking out whatever might have been true. You’ve got all this bullshit happening. It was all too simple : “either you’re a coward or…” So you are dealing with the idea there’s either good or bad : the voice of reason. Which in the ’60s became the spirit of conflict.

The real question is : what kind of world do you want to live in ? Is that all we have ? In the beginning of the ’60s, people were being forced to answer these questions, not that they were able to understand them or were able to isolate them. It was like groping in the dark. In the end people were blaming drugs for all the problems that happened and that’s not fair. They opened Pandora’s Box, but what was there was there. People now are starting to remember a lot of stuff they remembered when they were stoned on acid in the ’60s. I won’t say speed, ’cause those things are non productive excursions into the ego, an attempt to get an edge on a situation.

Part of the ’60s music was valid because it focused people on the process and not the product. Everybody was trying to write a great song, trying to outdo Dylan. That definitely isn’t even what Dylan was talking about. But we all do it, because we want to prove whatever we’re doing this for. “Wow, I really like that song, that was great !” “Oh, thank-you.”

Craig Morrison : But there is the expression part of it too, you want to express yourself.

PL : Yeah, you do, but some part of what drives you is just wanting to be adored. A part of me is like that.

CM : Anybody who gets up on stage has to deal with that, whether they are courting it or have to fight against it, but you stand yourself on stage and the audience is there : I like it, I don’t like it. You put yourself in the firing line.

PL : I don’t like that about myself and yet I do it. I can see that in me, to write a song that maybe would be as good a song somebody else wrote. I don’t think that is very cool, but it’s there. It’s there in rock and roll because of the selective nature of the business that chooses one person over another. It’s not so much like painting, where if you’re a good painter, they say, “Well, that guy’s good.” It’s more like, are you beautiful too, are you 21 ? What are the criteria for getting a major record deal ? It’s not just being a great songwriter. But somehow you’re always competing with the people that do get a record deal, because those are the people that you hear, and you say "maybe I could write a song as good as that." That’s the way you deal with the situation. It’s not really artistic and it’s probably not even successful but it’s there to confuse you if you want to be confused or you are confusable.

Moby Grape : Disappointment and Arrogance

CM : I remember when I heard the first Moby Grape album, right when it came out [in 1967]. I loved it immediately. It was full of great songs, like “8:05” and your “Sitting By the Window.” Those songs were as good or better than anything else out, and I was waiting for them to come on the radio. When they didn’t become hits [only “Omaha” made the charts and was only a minor hit], that soured me on music business. I thought, what kept that from going high ?

PL : What kept it from happening was Moby Grape. We were maniacs. At least in retrospect I could see we should have done it a different way. I was raised in Hollywood so I know that it’s not cool to put your cigarette out on [Columbia records president] Clive Davis’s rug. We just thought we were so good, that we could do what we wanted to.

Meeting Bob Mosley

Part of that came from having Bob in the band, who was somebody that everybody wanted to play with because he was the quintessential rock musician. He was a good-looking guy, he could sing like Otis Redding, and play better bass than anybody.

CM : He was such a powerhouse.

PL : Yeah. First time I heard him, I didn’t know how to respond to that, because he just gets in your face and does it.

I heard about him first from a guy that he had played with : Joel Scott Hill, who had a trio. It was Hill, Bob Mosley and Johnny Barbata, who finally got in the Airplane from the Turtles, a great drummer.

photo : Joel Scott Hill Trio : Bob Mosley (bass), Johnny Barbata (drums), Joel Scott Hill (guitar), at a branch of the Whiskey A Go Go in Sunnyvale, California, summer 1965
photo source

When they were in Sacramento, they jammed with [organist and vocalist] Lee Michaels, and Joel wanted Lee to join the band, but Bob didn’t want him to because it would have meant splitting the money more ways and it was hard to make enough money in those days to get by. So Bob quit.

I met Joel, because I had been playing with my band, Peter and the Wolves, at Gazzarri’s in LA. One Sunday, Lee Michaels and Johnny Barbata came in there. I had this folk rock band, and Pat and Lolly Vegas [who later formed Redbone] were the soul band. It was weird, because when Johnny and Lee came in, they had long hair, and I thought, wow, that’s strange to see a guy with long hair in the place. Bill Gazzarri was trying to attract some of the business from The Trip or The Whiskey that were all hippie things. Gazzarri’s was more of a laundry for Mob money or something ; I don’t know what it was. He made money there, but he catered to a different clientele, more like a throw-back club, but he was trying to do this other thing, so that’s why he hired me. Johnny and Lee came in, and I guess at some point Joel was sick, and I sat in and did a set with them where they were playing, at the Action Club down in Santa Monica. When Joel got back, I met him at a point when I was just beginning to write songs and I wanted to get in a band with other songwriters, or people that could do original music. Joel and I and this drummer that was in Peter and the Wolves that went with Joel Scott Hill at some point ; he was going to be in the band, and we needed a bass player. Joel said, “I know this guy Bob Mosley who’s really good but he’s crazy.” I said, “Great, man, crazy’s happening !”

So he called Bob and I went out to pick him up at the airport. I remember Bob sitting at the bar with a goatee, completely unhip for those days, with his hair combed back and cut real short, kind of a military guy, with white Bermuda shorts, a tennis shirt and sneakers, drinking beer with his bass leaning up against the bar. I could sense his vibe, a vibe of “don’t talk to me, and don’t fuck with me or I’ll kill you.” He was on the edge, intense. I had long hair and bell bottoms and no shoes or whatever, and I guess he looked at me and I looked at him and went, “wait, wait a minute !” I said, “You’re Bob Mosley” and he just grabbed his bass and followed me. I had to take him someplace, so we got into my car, driving back to Hollywood, and he hadn’t said anything to me. Halfway to Hollywood, he says, “I can sing anything up to high C and sing like a motherfucker. What can you do ?” We got to where we were going to practice, and the first thing he did was play “Big Boss Man.”

CM : The Jimmy Reed song.

PL : Yeah, but the way he did it was weird, because the way he was playing bass, he had no intention of being cool or being musical. It was just a thing to smack when he was singing. And he would sing in this huge voice. I was blown away, but I didn’t know what to do with it, ’cause I was thinking, folk rock, that’s not it. That night we went to a house in the hills where Joel had some friend that got some acid, and we were all going to take acid and see if we could write some music. I don’t know what we thought people did to get in these bands that made original music. Joel and Bob were really good. I was more a folk rock guy, a finger picker, like [Roger] McGuinn [of the Byrds] or Zal Yanovsky [of the Lovin’ Spoonful], and they were more the blues, rhythm and blues. But that’s what Moby Grape was : a marriage of those two things.

CM : Did you know about blues ?

PL : Yeah, Freddie King was my idol in high school. He’s a Texas guy. I had his album, Let’s Hide Away and Dance Away with Freddy King [1961] that I got from some guy that was a guitar player in LA. I use to hang around with Henry Vestine [later of Canned Heat], and another guy that died. They were the two guys my age that could really play. There weren’t very many people who could. “Wow, Freddie King, that guy was funky.” Henry was like that.

Anyway, we got up to this house and Joel comes over to me and says, “Don’t take any of this, just let Bob take it and this other guy and we’ll just check ‘em out.” Joel was a real manipulator. He was trying to see where he could [place] me. He was always vying for position, seeing who’s who in the zoo, right ? I didn’t really know anybody [there] but Joel. I knew my drummer but he was this guy that hung around, he wasn’t a force. He was sort of a good drummer. I didn’t know Bob, so I said alright and didn’t take the acid. And Joel didn’t. Bob did, and it was sad, because I saw what had been going on with him and Joel, how Joel was a lot more cunning than Bob. Bob was more of a primitive guy, you give him a spear and show him the lion and he’ll do his best. If it kills him, he’s dead. He’s simple like that, but if you put him in a situation where he has to think about games, he can’t handle that. Bob starting losing it : “God damn, Joel motherfucker.” Joel would say, “Hey, calm down, man, that’s cool.” And he’d look at me and wink. He was like sticking little needles in to weaken him so he can get him at the end. Bob became confused. He hadn’t really heard the Byrds or anything. He was in this bubble of his own musical thing, the way he feels. He would express himself because he’s the kind of guy that will always come out swinging if you get him in a corner and that’s simple for him, and that’s the trouble with him in the music business.

You have to see it coming a little better than that. It’s more of a way of manipulating awareness, of what people think of you. It’s not just being “yourself” which is what they think, but if you give them the wrong idea, then it’s kind of like shooting yourself in the foot. Then you’ll be able to be manipulated, which is what show business is all about. That’s really what you’re getting paid for.

To put it in perspective, so you don’t become somebody weird or sidestep, it’s more of a spiritual Kung-fu trip. You don’t have to move too far out of the way, just move a little bit if you keep looking at what’s going on. You have to do that. I knew that because my mom was able to and that’s how she survived in the motion picture business. So I had that to remember. But in Moby Grape it was almost impossible. I was in there with guys that were, in a sense, over my head as musicians, except for Skip. Don [Stevenson] wasn’t either, but Bob and Jerry [Miller]—he’s a great guitar player—were on this level. Musicians have a pecking order and they know exactly where you’re at. They know what they can use you for, if you’re cute or whatever.

Anyway, at some point in the night, the sun starting coming up and I started playing finger picking guitar. I saw Bob listening to it and he started playing his bass and he wrote the “Bitter Wind.” It was really cool. For the first time maybe he was able to get outside himself a little bit. When I heard that, I thought, wow, this is the next step, like the Byrds music with this soul thing.

The tree of Life

Is a burdensome thing

To those who live a lie.

A man without love

Is no man at all

But a cold bitter wind

Passing by.

lyrics from "Bitter Wind" on Bob Mosley’s website

Folk, Rock, Pop

It’s the marriage of those two things that have always been polarized. That hadn’t really happened before. Folk musicians would get electric guitars. The Beatles were not like that, they were more like the band I had in high school, the Cornells. You’d learn “Till There Was You” or whatever you learned to get the job at the dance. They got a job playing it in Hamburg, where it was more rock and roll, but they had already learned that other music so it really helped them. When they were writing songs, they were a lot more interesting. That’s what Moby Grape was like too. We were more schooled like that.

In the late ’50s, to get gigs, you had to be able to play standards. That’s where you learned how chords move, fitting a melody together with chords. Some of what was happening [in rock] before the Beatles was real insipid, like “Sugar Shack” [a #1 hit in 1963 for Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs] It wasn’t very interesting.

CM : What were some of the standards you learned ?

PL : “Misty” or “Blue Moon,” but you wouldn’t use them all the time. The Beatles were more like that than, let’s say, the Byrds, but Byrds knew that too. Somehow they were able to choose the right chords to be able to sell the particular melody or whatever it is, ’cause sometimes that’s all it takes. You play a 9 or a 7th [chord] or something.

CM : It comes from that other knowledge.

PL : Right. How to use it in a way that’s not contrived. The Beatles slipped into that and I think we did too, as a group. We’d get together and I’d help Jerry, or he’d help me do stuff that’s not too outside, that people will remember in some way, because they’ve heard it before, not in the same context, but the same idea.

Formation of Moby Grape

Joel drifted out of the scene because the drummer had met Matthew Katz [the future manager of Moby Grape]. Joel didn’t like him. Katz wanted us to go to San Francisco to meet Skip [Spence] and so we went with him. About two weeks after that we got Don and Jerry, and that was the band.

CM : They were from The Frantics [a Seattle band]. It came together very quickly.

PL : We knew we had it. When we jammed together we thought, “We can kick anybody’s ass now.” Then we went about doing it in a way that was not very cool. That’s what I began talking about - you were saying why wasn’t it a hit, and I think the reason was because in the beginning you think you’re so fucking cool you can do what you want and nobody can get on your case, like an immature kid that doesn’t want to make his bed. That’s what we were.

We’d all been abused to some degree. We had a lot of similar experiences growing up. It was tough for me even though my mom was a movie star [Loretta Young]. When my parents got a divorce, my dad took my brother and me. I developed a school phobia and my dad didn’t know what to do with me. He turned me over to this behavioral psychologist that put me in a mental ward until I promised to go to school. I had these weird early upheavals that had the effect of shredding my preconceptions about what life was, who I thought my dad was or my mom, that they would do that to me. If you sit and talk to Bob, he’ll tell you things that happened to him when he was a kid that are uncool. There was this thing that he got that was unfair, and he still bears it. You can’t judge him for being the way he is now, because he is irrational. He’s been diagnosed as schizophrenic. I’m not sure if I believe all that. I don’t know anybody else who has his ability, his talent. It’s a mystery to me even today, to think of how we came across each other.

see part 2

see part 3


comments or questions ? email me

I have posted interviews with members of the Doors, Electric Prunes, Iron Butterfly, Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Music Machine, Quickislver Messenger Service, and Strawbery Alarm Clock. To go to the index page, click here.

you may be interested to read Psychedelic Music in San Francisco : Style, Context, and Evolution by Craig Morrison, available as a download from lulu.com for less than $5

CRAIG MORRISON
is an ethnomusicologist, teacher, author, and musician
based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada
7 Nights Music Communications, 2006