Friday, January 22, 2021

Bob Mosley of Moby Grape

 A concert in the UCSD Gym with the Electric Flag and Moby Grape, two better bands to come out of the San Francisco era. They had broken up for several years but now were regrouped for what seemed at the outset to be a historical event but turned out to be a has-beens weekend. The Flag was incredibly lame, going through the motions of trying to resurrect the old fire. The highlight of the effort was guitarist Mike Bloomfield’s stomping off stage in disgust while drummer Buddy Miles did an impromptu vocal cast in the Otis Redding mold on why he needs his baby. But where the Flag at least managed some fake emoting, Moby Grape looked like they were being held up by guide wires. The playing was dead, the expressions uncommitted, and the air smelled of formaldehyde. Bassist Bob Mosley once hailed as the best white blues singer for the shot-from-cannons bellow he had in the Sixties, sang in a slightly inflected drone. He looked as if he were trying to hide behind his beard and microphone.

Spending New Year’s Eve in National City’s Harold’s Club wasn’t my idea of a good time. Packed elbow to the torso with servicemen who danced with cigarettes jutting from their lips and the West Pac widows who sat on barstools with moist Bud bottles in their hands and staring off into the club’s smokey red-tinted atmosphere, I spent the entire evening safe in my seat rubbing knees with those I came with. I felt like a vegetarian in a steakhouse. After a while, I started paying attention to the band Gopher Broke, a group that rattled off dispassionate versions of current chart-toppers. The bassist looked familiar, and after some squinting, I remember who it was, Bob Mosley. His demeanor wasn’t much more animated than when I saw him at UCSD, but he seemed comfortable at least, cracking a smile now and then and taking healthy swigs from a drink between numbers.

Bob Mosley, a native San Diegan now resettled in his hometown after ten years on the road, loads a corn cob pipe, flicks a butane lighter and puffs hard on the pipe’s stem to generate smoke. He rubs his chin slowly, fingers running through a neatly trimmed surfer blond beard, and answers a question in a measured, matter-of-fact tone. 

“The Grape reunion last year was really weird, just plain freaky. To me, it was a matter of getting the money and get out, and pray to God that you don’t go crazy before you get paid. I got out of that scene. Now I’m real cautious about the offers I get. I just don’t like to get freaked out.” 

The reunions were unfortunate because they produced only a poor facsimile of one of the best rock bands from the Sixties. Like that of the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield, Grape’s sound had been a melting pot of American musical genres. But unlike the Byrds, who were merely eclectic at best, or the Springfield, who sometimes go further than their abilities, Moby Grape had guts, a certain graininess that lent the band a deeper emotional base. Their first two albums (now out of print) remain two near-perfect gems, covering hard rock, country, soul, blues, and folk ballads with the requisite grit in their vocals and instrumentation that goes beyond affectations. The band’s primary fault, in fact, was that they were too stylistically varied to be salable to a public larger than a small group of cultists. Columbia Records gave the Grape a hard promotional push, with a massive ad campaign and five releases on singles from the first album simultaneously, sort of in the vein that one of the tunes would click. Even so, Grape remained relatively unknown, and the band’s spirit reached ebb tide. The five releases following Wow were void of the earthy magic that had made the first two such constant joys.

Moseley loaded his pipe. “It was over after the first album, really,” he says laconically. “By the time Wow had come out, the band had moved to Santa Cruz to get away from all the trendy scene makers that were just crowding San Francisco so much that it got to be too much. San Francisco was something. You could walk down streets, smile at people, not feel uptight, you know everyone. It was like being at home. But all the attention focused on it by the media caused everyone and this brother to come up and hang out. It was like having a horde of people just move into your home. You wouldn’t dig it, would you? It just blew me away. The move to Santa Cruz on the band’s part was an attempt to get away from the meth and smack that were going down heavy in San Francisco, but by that time, my feeling had gone from the band.” His pipe burns out, and after an attempt to relight it, he places it on the coffee table in front of him.

How had Moby Grape formed? 

Mosley laughs. “Kind of a long story. Early on, I was working with a three-piece band that included Joe Scott Hall and Johnny Barbetta (drummer for the Turtles and now for the Jefferson Starship) and a girl singer. A guy on the organ was asked to join the band. I didn’t like organ at the time; I liked the trio sound, with a driving lead guitar, a solid bass, and a drummer who knows all the chops. The organ just filled up the band’s sound too much for my taste, so I quit. The last couple of nights I played with them, two guys from Seattle came down while working at the San Francisco International and asked me to join their band. They were a jazz/rhythm and blues group, and they needed a bass player who could sing. Those two boys were futures Grapes Jerry Miller (lead guitar) and Don Stevenson.

“When the job was up, I went to Los Angeles in mind to find a folk-type musician, someone who can do all that fancy picking stuff. I got a hold of Peter Lewis, who I found out later was Loretta Young’s son. I thought, ‘oh boy, now’s my chance to get in the Hollywood scene … “ Mosley laughs. “Anyway, he, a dude named Matthew Cates (later Grapes’ manager, along with Quicksilver and It’s A Beautiful Day), a drummer named Skip Spence who was just fired from the Jefferson Airplane, and I all went up to San Francisco, where we met Miller and Stevenson. We formed Moby Grape there, and through various means available to us, we found clubs and places to play and built up a big local following.”

Do you ever long for the old days when you were back up there?

“Not really. The only time I get anything like deja vu is when I play the old Grape records. I listen to those songs, and think about the early days, the times on the road, the people I’ve met, the situations I’ve had to sing all those songs under. Things like that. I have this hunger to get back on the road.”

What caused the group to split up?

“Well, Skip Spence left the band. He was the main focal point of the group. He was exceptionally talented in the songs he wrote and how he played his guitar; he was real flashy to watch. The Grape went on the road for two years without him. The whole feeling the band originally had was dead, and eventually, everyone went their own way.”

In the wake of Grape’s demise, Mosley returned to San Diego, worked in high schools as a janitor, and later joined the Marines. 

“I was a janitor in every high school in the city. I worked as an alternate, working for a service. I’d get a call saying where I was to go, and I’d hop on the bus and go to work.”

What made you decide to go into the Marines?

“I wanted to straighten myself out. I had gotten into a heavy scene with the music thing. I got tired of trying to be hip and shooting the bull and such. I thought the Marines could help me be more the person I wanted to be. They’re strict, and they gave me a set of conditions I could live with. I figure that you can do anything you want within limits. Once you feel your way around those limits, you can get along just fine. Anyway, they did do a lot for my brother. They helped him to cope with things, anyway, in a straight-ahead manner, without getting hung up in a lot of childish games.” He picks up the pipe again and scrapes the spent tobacco from it, stuffs more into the mouth, and lights it, this time puffing harder, making his cheeks look like the face of a stuffed chipmunk. 

“Right now,” he goes on, “I’m just playing bars, six nights a week, usually at Harbor Club at the Crossroads in Spring Valley. It’s an easy gig, and the money is pretty good, about $250 a week. It pays the rent and buys the food. I’m just glad to work as a musician because I know that many of them aren’t working. Doing this bar thing is the first time I’ve been off the road for a year, and it’s made me lazy. I’ve gained ten pounds, and between being married working steady, I don’t get the exercise I should. Life for me is sorta the happy homeowner thing. Sometimes it gets hard for me to even write songs.” 

What sort of things do you write? 

“Here, I’ll play you some.” He gets up, leaves the room, and returns with two cassette tapes. He pops one into his machine, plays certain parts tentatively while grimacing at the sound of his own voice, and then advances the tape for snippets he thinks are better examples of his work.

“Some of this stuff is done real trashy,” he says finally and lets the tape roll through three songs. The first is a ballad with tight, interworking harmonies with Jerry Miller’s guitar work weaving jazzy, quicksilver lines throughout. 

The other two are rockers with country blues tinges. Mosley’s singing on them is expressive and laid-back in a positive sense, not so mellow that it becomes a work to discern the easy peaceful feeling.

But enjoy as I might, Mosely fidgets in his chair, shakes his head contemptuously, and snaps a button on the cassette, butting the music. “These were recorded over a year ago up in L.A. with some great musicians, but his performances rub me the wrong way. Like the singing. On one song, I wanted a soulful sound, but I came out crooning, sounding dead. I got tons of tapes in my room that I won’t play for anyone, friend or foe. The songs are good, but I have to get them worked out the way I want.”

What does the future hold? 

“Well, I had the possibility of getting a recording contract with Warner Brothers through the Doobie Brothers. Their contract was up with them, and they were trying to negotiate a package deal where I could get an album done. I know those guys from Santa Cruz, and Pat Simmons, who was really impressed when he met Skip Spence, was doing his best to give some of the old Grape a break. Anyway, Warner Brothers said no, which leaves us all free to pursue other possibilities. I’ve got more time to write songs and put something together. 

“What I really want more than anything else is a hit record, to have a gold record I can hang on my wall. My old San Diego band, the Misfits, recorded an album, and we had a hit song, ‘This Little Piggy' (Hog For You Baby). When that thing reached that high, I was in seventh heaven. A hit record is the first thing I’ve wanted since I first played professionally. I’d like to get that old feeling back, the energy and enthusiasm of making music. I look for the old feeling whenever I play, and sometimes I find it. I don’t know how many people are shooting for a hit. It must be everybody who plays professionally. I just hope I can come up with a combination that clicks.” 

He places his pipe back on the table. His eyes glaze at the carpet. A motorcycle roars full steam up the street. The sound of grinding metal seems to interrupt Mosley’s train of thought. He shakes his head and seems to sense that the conversation has run its course; he politely says that he has to pick up his wife.

(Originally published in The San Diego Reader.)

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