Moby Grape is like the story Moby Dick [by Herman Melville, published in 1851]. Moby Dick is the story of a guy named Ishmael, who I see as myself, who was a dilettante with a knapsack over his shoulder looking for some excellent adventure. He wants to go on a boat ride and that’s what happens. He meets these guys and they’ve been on plenty of boats and speared many whales and they’re deadly ; they can hit the target from anywhere. Bob is like [the harpooner] Queequeg. In Moby Dick he was a primitive, shadow of a person that had his own sense of nobility. Being a whaler forced him in the company of people that weren’t as noble, that didn’t have as much integrity. So he learned to distrust those people. He liked Ishmael because he could trust him. That was important to him, so he knew he had a friend. Bob and my relationship is a lot like that.
CM : Had you known the book ?
PL : No, but that’s the interesting thing about how the name came about. It’s like when Christ walks by the temple and they say, “There’s the guy who’s going to heal the sick and raise the dead.” And he says, “Yeah that’s me !” He took the job. In our case, when somebody said “what’s purple and floats in the sea ?” and without even delivering the punch line, the name popped in our heads and we all said “that’s it.”
CM : That is the punch line.
PL : Yeah, but the job wasn’t for a bunch of guys to be like in the Jefferson Airplane, kind of snooty and fly over everything, poop on people if they want. Moby Grape was the story of guys who were stuck on a boat together and couldn’t get off. You have to resolve the thing. The spirit of conflict was always trying to control the situation.
Ahab, the guy that was running the thing, I see as Matthew Katz. Ahab was an egomaniac who had been bitten by this whale, but his job was to render up oil for the lamps of the world, not seek revenge against a dumb brute, to quote Starbuck, the first officer. He wanted to be right. That’s what Melville was saying is always fatal, to seek vindication. Because everybody went with him in the end. They chose that same path. They all died except for Ishmael who’s left alive to tell the story. Moby Grape’s job is to rewrite Melville’s thing. What does it mean ? That’s what I came up with.
CM : When did you read Moby Dick and start to see this ?
PL : Last year. It takes a long time to figure out what you were doing. You choose this name Moby Grape ; people don’t know what the deal is so they say Moby Dick. They get this idea about you that you get overwhelmed by. You’re not consciously aware of it and the people that are putting it on you aren’t consciously aware of it. It’s been written, like the Scriptures. Or Jules Verne writes about nuclear submarines and then you get them cruising around the Pacific with Polaris missiles on them
CM : If the story carried on like the book ends, how would it end ?
PL : It would end where everybody gets overwhelmed by their own need to be vindicated. Because that’s what they did. They followed Ahab who was interested in being right. He thought the whale was a devil and it was really a dumb brute. But he can make it the devil if he’s relentless. The question is : what kind of world to you want ? Where Moby Dick is a devil ?
CM : But you guys are trying to re-write the ending, so what would the ending be ?
PL : To really do it, you’d have to make certain choices. It’s not just whether we get the name back ; it’s how we relate to each other. We’d have to get back on the track where we got off the track. And that happened a long time ago.
CM : When do you think that happened ?
PL : I think it happened pretty quick.
CM : Right after the first album.
PL : Yeah.
CM : Or in the middle of the second album, when Skippy was in New York ?
PL : No, it started happening even before that. I did it too. I was right there. Maybe even more than they, because now I’ve figured it out. I don’t know, I can’t say for them. Our job was not to make the name important, but what we were doing with each other. Everything that happened was trying to point us in that direction. Because we were young and dumb, we just couldn’t ante up before the thing came down in smoke and flames.
Our friends Buffalo Springfield would come up [to San Francisco], and we’d play with them weeks at a time. They did the song “For What It’s Worth,” and Steven [Stills] came back and said, “We realized after we were done, it was like two of your songs.” Not the lyrics, but it was two of Moby Grape’s songs. We were doing a song that I wrote called “Stop,” it was actually called “On the Other Side,” that we don’t do anymore. The lyrics were : “Stop, can’t you hear the music ringing in your ear, right before you go, telling you the way is clear, because beyond the gate there waits the raging tide from which there is no place to hide on the other side.” But the idea was that it would go, “Stop” and everybody would stop and then they would start singing again. Okay, it’s the same thing with “For What It’s Worth” : “stop, hey what’s that sound ?” This other song we did, called “Murder in My Heart for the Judge,” is the same melody. It’s in a different key than “For What It’s Worth,” but it’s the same, and he does that descending thing too. Steven just takes it and gets it, in a way that may be more advantageous as far as making people pay attention to him than the people who actually came up with the idea. That’s what they were good at.
CM : He realized after he’d written it that he’d unconsciously done that ?
PL : Yeah
CM : How did you feel about that ?
PL : I never begrudged them anything. We really liked them. Dewey [Martin] still calls me all the time. They came up to San Francisco and they studied it. They were doing more of a sing-songy kind, you know “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing,” and that was good. I really liked that, but that was like the Lovin’ Spoonful with another twist on it. They’re great musicians.
The first time I met Neil [Young] and Steven, they came up to The Ark, an old ferry boat that they had beached in Sausalito that we turned into a rock and roll place to play and so it was sort of our club. One day I was there in the afternoon and I saw these two guys walking around. I’d heard of Buffalo Springfield, but I hadn’t seen them. They came over and said, “We’re looking for Skip Spence ’cause we met him in LA and he’s a friend of ours and we came up to see him.” I said, “He’ll be here tonight, ’cause I’m in the same band and we’re going to play here.” We spent the afternoon trading songs. When I heard the songs that these guys were doing, I thought, fuck ! this is great. I heard “Mr. Soul,” which was a different thing then. It ended up being more like [Moby Grape’s] “Fall On You.”
CM : That song’s about fame.
PL : Yeah. It was kind of about that and kind of about being nuts, see Neil’s an epileptic. “Stick around while the clown that is sick does the trick of disaster.” It’s all about his having fits. You know how it ended up being a rock and roll song ? [tunes his guitar to drop D, plays the opening lines]. It was like a folk song. What it turned out to be is they came up and studied Moby Grape and heard this heavy guitar attack. Then they went back to LA and redesigned their music to accommodate that. That’s when Steven wrote “Bluebird” and that gave them the edge they needed.
CM : That would be between the first and second album ?
PL : Right.
CM : I’ve been reading reviews on the internet of shows you’ve been doing the last few months. How does it feel to get back with everybody again ?
PL : We’re going through the court trying to get the name away from Matthew Katz. Those shows are an attempt on my part, because I initiated them, to claim it. It’s more than that, it’s to see if we understand after all these years that it was never the name. It was always just playing together that mattered, and the fact that there was a chance to relinquish our grasp on the truth, that it wasn’t the box that was important, it was what was in the box, and that was us. To allow Matthew Katz to fuck with us the way he did was the biggest thing. It was like Ahab fucked with those guys in a way that was unnecessary.
CM : But you guys got the name back, did you not ?
PL : It’s still up in the air. We’ve got to go to the appellate court. We’ll probably defeat him. But even if we do it’s not the name. It’s always been the relationship we had with each other as musicians that was Moby Grape.
CM : How does that feel to play again ? After the band broke up there was some lineups with a couple or three of you guys, and these last concerts it seems like everybody’s been there.
PL : No, Don and Skip aren’t there. Skip was at one concert, but Don hasn’t been to any because he’s selling time shares in the third world. It’s been weird. I use my machinery and get all the harmony parts. I put the record on two tracks on my 8-track and then I figure out. The harmonies were real complex. The idea was to give everybody a tape with his part on it, then rehearse. To figure out how to go after it on that level like a musicologist.
CM : It must be weird to be a musicologist on your own music.
PL : You created it as you go, then you have to learn it all over again.
I listen to it a lot and I figure out what they are.
CM : Then say, “That’s Bob’s part.”
PL : Not so much Bob’s part, but it’s the part, a low mid or high mid part, and give it to the guy who can sing it easiest.
CM : Then you teach it to them ?
PL : Yeah. They’ve always had trouble with remembering. Our stuff was more complex so it was more difficult for us to recreate it. We just did it without the background parts. I got to the point where I figured that’s not what to do. We have to start trying to figure out how to work together again in a way that is more continuous, so we can go to the very beginning and pick up where we left off, if that’s what’s going to happen. People are still writing good songs. We could still do it.
Skippy’s not doing well ; he’s not able to travel. He’s been a ward of the state for 20 years. He has snippets of ideas that I take and blow out into songs, but then he and I are writing, and it’s not just him. That’s good too. I saw him when we played up in Santa Cruz. It’s cool spending the day with him. I don’t know what it is about him, but he’s like a Maharishi. He’s got this loving vibe, even with all that’s happened to him. What’s so creative about Skip is he won’t become a cynic. He is a humble person. I love him. You feel more love for him. Like Jerry, it’s hard to love Jerry. He’s okay but he hasn’t given up the ghost yet, the ego thing.
CM : The guitar gunslinger thing ?
PL : Yeah, but gunslingers aren’t even cool anymore. What’s cool now is more artists playing music. So fucking what if you can play ; I can play that many notes too, I just don’t want to all the time. Once you can paint every note with every other note, now’s the question what color are you going to use ? Let’s not use everything every time we play. Let’s make each song different. Let’s concentrate on getting different tone clusters than just getting a club act going. I think Jerry reverted to his club mentality, where he just gets up there and he’s shuckin’ and jivin’ all night. That doesn’t put you on a concert level. Concert level has to with arranging and songs and sound engineering. You get everything right and you don’t trash your body so you can’t perform. At its best you can’t do it when you’re stoned. My thing was to see if these guys could in any way be part of a program that was more comprehensive.
CM : How’s the experiment going so far ?
PL : The program that I am interested in is that idea to be able to help each other, help your buddies and not to compete with them as to who wrote the coolest tune. That’s bullshit. Somehow when you’re dealing with these guys, you’re dealing with petty stuff. Like the guys on the boat that are fighting while the airplanes are bombing them. We let that vibe overwhelm us. That’s why we’re in this situation. It’s not because of Matthew. You can’t blame it on all these other people.
CM : You had five lead vocalists and five songwriters.
PL : I know, but still, it’s important to get everyone taken care of so you’re helping them write songs if the songs they’ve written are not completely finished. And they’ve got to let you do that. Don and Jerry songs, you’d get ‘em so fast. Some of them weren’t that great, some of them were okay. They did write some great songs. “Can’t Be So Bad” is a really good song. But later on we did Truly Fine Citizen ; I thought some of that wasn’t really baked. And Bob too. Skippy was never like that. Skippy knew if he had a turkey or he didn’t, usually. I kind of did too, but later on you should know, and not say this is cool if it’s not. But if you do and somebody can help you, like when John Lennon would hear a Paul McCartney song and say, “What about this ?” When they got the thing on a Beatles record it was usually really good. There has to be a relationship with these guys that allows you to work that way. I have a thing like that with Skip, finally after all these years. There has to be something there, some idea, something you’re trying to say that somebody else will get.
CM : Have you got some new songs ?
PL : Yeah. I’m writing some songs on a 12-string that’s tuned down low to a B. It’s getting down there.
CM : Are you performing them with the new Moby Grape lineup ?
PL : No we just do the old stuff. I don’t know if we’re ready to get into that yet. Nobody cares about that. It’s funny. You can get some gigs, but with all the interest and the nostalgia, you’d think that there’d be more of willingness on the part of a record company. You just have to go on as an artist. Do it because you’ve got something to say.
CM : I met Sam Andrew [guitarist of Big Brother and the Holding Company] in August. When I saw them play—new songs, old songs—I was astonished at how good they were
PL : Right. They’ve go it all figured out. They know how to do that now. That’s growing, and as long as you’re doing that, that’s cool. I think we’re doing that too. Live performances have been better than they have been. The trouble with us is Bob. I just got him off the street about five months ago, so you’re dealing with other problems than musical problems. I think Big Brother is more cerebral than we are.
CM : I’ll be at the gig you are doing with Sam on Saturday.
PL : Good. I think Sam’s got some really good songs. I believe in him.
Sam Andrew of Big Brother and the Holding Company performed in the 1990s as a guest member of Moby Grape. On Sam’s blog, he wrote “Peter Lewis was the glue that held this band together.”
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