9 June 2018
There’s a great book to be written about Moby Grape, rock’s unluckiest band. Unfortunately, this is isn’t quite it. That said, if you’re a fan, it’s a mandatory purchase, but it can’t easily be recommended to the casual reader. The book is painstakingly researched and Cam Cobb is obviously a knowledgeable fan and writes well enough, but there are at least four different styles of narrative straining against each other here. Cobb has entangled basic history, impressionistic musical analysis, new journalism-style recreations of events and conversations, and his own personal experiences as a fan and chasing up and interviewing ex-band members. Despite its obvious heartfelt sincerity, the book never really focuses - you could say it’s the literary equivalent to its own subject’s frustrating and inconsistent second album “Wow”.
Moby Grape’s story is, after the Grateful Dead’s, the most riveting (and tragic) of all the bands based in the San Francisco bay area during the musical revolution of 1966/7. They were ridiculously talented – all five band members could sing well and wrote great songs. But, with the best straight-ahead energetic pop/rock album to emerge from SF under their belt, huge Columbia Records hype behind them (five singles released simultaneously and a $100,000 promo campaign – adjusted for inflation, that’d be half a million dollars today), and two albums scoring a total of 55 weeks on the US charts, the band then imploded spectacularly. Whilst peers and Monterey Festival SF compatriots the Dead, the Airplane, Country Joe, Quicksilver and Janis Joplin all went from strength to strength, within two years Moby Grape had crashed and burned. Their 3rd and 4th albums failed to make the top 100, they lost the rights to use the name “Moby Grape” (a fake band toured under the name in 1968), and two members left (both eventually diagnosed as schizophrenic: Skip Spence committed to hospital after coming after his fellow band members under the influence of LSD with an axe, and Bob Mosley joining the Marines, desperate for a steady income). And that’s not to mention arrests, cancelled tour dates, withdrawn album sleeves and some shockingly bad management decisions. And still they released four albums (five if you include the bonus “Grape Jam” record and six if you allow Skip Spence’s solo “Oar”) in 28 months - an incredible triumph of spirit over adversity.
But Cobb consigns the story of the action-packed years to the second half of his book, by which point more faint-hearted readers may have given up. The book begins with 70 pages on the band’s short-lived reunion in 1971 and then leapfrogs back over their glory years to recount the various band members’ 1964-66 pre-Grape history, related through snippets of interviews, chiefly with Don Stevenson and Jerry Miller. Throughout, Cobb seems to wish he was scripting a TV documentary, rather than writing a history. A flashback/flash-forward structure is fine in film and in moderation as a literary device, but Cobb confusingly maintains the approach for far too long. The first album finally appears 150 pages in.
With such a great story to tell, none of that would matter much, but Cobb then peppers the text with lists of the acts the band appeared with in nearly every one of their concerts. He also pads things out with descriptions of the bars and cafes in which he interviewed the members of the band, at one point telling the reader what brand of beer he ordered. And apparently he likes an espresso but Don Stevenson drinks cappuccino. None of this makes for compelling reading.
But then, suddenly, the book does come alive with the story of the launch of the band’s first album. And keeps up a jet-propelled pace thereafter. It’s during his recounting of the band’s career in 1967-1969, finally described reasonably chronologically, that Cobb’s odd mix of attention to historical detail and his impressionistic responses to Moby Grape’s music pays off, a mix of narrative styles in tune with the fast-moving times he describes. Cobb is keen to explode the many myths about the band, which he does assiduously. He’s also sympathetic to all the players, and resists making any judgment of the various characters in the drama of the band’s career, allowing readers to make up their own minds as to who the heroes and villains might be. And his habit of lifting extensive quotes verbatim from his interviews with Miller and Stevenson, now they have something fascinating to talk about, works too.
There’s a wonderful 200 page book struggling to escape from the 300 pages here – nothing a good editor couldn’t have sorted. And it’s a shame because, if only the momentum of the second half of the book had also been apparent in the first half, this would be a 5-star history. As it is, if this book had been a CD the first thing you’d do is reprogram the order of the chapters and skip a few.
But ultimately, it’s great to have a book on Moby Grape at all, after years of unjustified neglect – so 4 stars.
Technical note: the book is well up to Jawbone’s high production values, on good quality paper with 16 pages of b/w and colour photos.