A Conversation With .. Moby Grape's Don Stevenson
The pioneering '60s psychedelic band's drummer now lives and plays in Toronto. He takes a fascinating trip down memory lane in this entertaining interview. Pictured: Moby Grape
By Bill King
Has there ever been a year like 1967? It seemed every recording was a keeper – I mean a ground-breaking side to side disc of sumptuous vinyl loaded with great songs, innovation and creativity.
Consider these sides: The Beach Boys Smiley Smile, The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Bee Gee’s 1st, James Brown Cold Sweat King,Disraeli Gears The Cream, Donovan Mellow Yellow, The Four Tops Reach Out, Aretha Franklin I Never Loved a Man, The Grateful Dead The Grateful Dead, Are YouExperienced? The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Hollies Evolution, The Jefferson Airplane Surrealistic Pillow, Love Forever Changes, and, amongst these certified gems, comes another that almost upsets the cart – Moby Grape!
I owned all these records and most other recordings of the year. I couldn’t get enough. The greatest obstacle was owning a decent Hi-Fi system worthy of the discs. And yes, side B was as good as side A.
I bought Moby Grape for the cover. That Jim Marshall photograph of drummer Don Stevenson “flipping the bird.” I’m in. In fact, I lit up when I found out the band was playing down the street from my Greenwich Village digs at the Fillmore East. Those nights were usually packed with three notable bands playing in succession. This late spring occasion 1968, would be one of the strangest by today’s standards: The Fugs, considered an even match for Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, jazz man Gary Burton, and Moby Grape. From my vantage, the Grape were great but from behind the stage all was not well with lead man and rhythm guitarist Skip Spence who would be placed in the Psych Ward of Bellevue not long after. Drummer/composer Don Stevenson dropped by last week and spent an hour behind the microphone of the Bill King Show at CIUT 89.5 and below is a good portion of our conversation.
Bill King: I look at you. I see me.
Don Stevenson: I can see that.
Don, I’ve got to give you credit. You didn’t put shoe polish in your hair.
I let go of the shoe dye and the perm twenty years ago.
You’re still playing, still singing and still trying to work things out with Moby Grape.
That’s right. It’s a conundrum.
As I follow the path of the band, it seems like one litigious nightmare.
Yes. We weren’t that litigious, but our manager was. He still is. He’s always suing somebody for something. Interesting enough, and God forbid it should happen to anybody, but during those fires down in Malibu, Matt’s (Matthew Katz) house burnt down, and I thought a little like it was my house that burnt down. All my publishing.
How did you all hook up?
We came down from Seattle, and that’s kind of an interesting story; how we ended up finding Bob Mosley (bassist/lead vocal) and how Mosley left and we found Peter Lewis (guitar/vocal) and Skip Spence (rhythm guitar) was in the Airplane – Matthew Katz managed the Jefferson Airplane. Matthew knew Peter and Peter got Mosley - they got together, and Mosley said he knew Jerry and Don and we got invited up to San Francisco and sang and played - had a little rehearsal, and it was great.
Matthew pulled Skippy out of the Airplane and wanted to start his own band and build it around Skip.
There was such a crossover sound with the group – some bluegrass, a bit of country, soul etc. I had seen Mosley before the Grape in a band with Joe Scott Hill in Hollywood playing a club inside this Devil’s head with smoke blowing out its nostrils. I’m watching Mosley and thinking; this guy can seriously sing and play.
I think it’s the ability to have played seven nights a week for years – which is interesting. When I was young, I played in clubs six nights a week; in the same club for three months and the place would be filled up every night. I could make enough money to pay all of my bills and lose a bit at the bar to whoever was playing Yahtzee on a Friday night while drinking. Jerry and I came out of that scene where we had spent years playing. Sometimes two different clubs a day. There was a lot of woodshedding so Jerry and I had evolved as far as musicians can go playing everything like standards, to country to Beatles – did a lot of covers. We had a B-3 Hammond organ quartet.
Peter brought in the country because his favourite was Ricky Nelson and the great fingerpickers and a wonderful fingerpicking guitar player himself. Mosley is this soul man – one of the best white blues singers I ever heard in my life. Skip was universally mystic. He managed to fit in between everyone. It’s like his insides were exploding, but he couldn’t blow up. He’d blow up in front of your face but didn’t disintegrate.
He had the fringe jacket, beautiful hair and the look of the times.
A very magical and unusual man. Very talented and extremely high energy guy.
We never saw Mosley at the club you were referring to but when we came down with a band called The Frantics – sax, B-3 organ, guitar and drums and going down to San Francisco was almost like how actors got to Hollywood and playwrights to New York. We knew something was happening in San Francisco – the Byrds were playing on Broadway and people were sleeping on the streets to get in. We got this invitation to play on Broadway where the Byrds were playing and made our way to San Francisco. Interesting enough, "8:05" – that’s how the song was written. We were crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, and Jerry looked at me and asked, “what time is it”, and I said, “I guess it’s 8:05.” He wrote a song about the women we had to leave behind – our families as we came down to find adventure. When we played on Broadway, it happened to coincide with when the first topless dancer – danced!
Carol Doda’s – I played there.
You’re kidding! My God, you are a brother of the cloth.
It all focused around that B-3 organ. We’d play an afternoon set down the street and haul that monster indoors, then play “happy hour” elsewhere then haul back for the evening set at Doda’s. That’s called being twenty years old.
You schlepped a B-3 in three clubs a day?
Two other brothers and me and one was the size of an NFL lineman. Here’s the scene. One bar had this tight bandstand close to the front door where music could be heard on the street, and there were two rooms second floor facing below with no walls with two bedrooms done up like a brothel. The girls would enter and strip - roll around a bed and make the beer-swilling yodelers below so horny they’d scream with glee. Secondly, the women were college girls - mostly beautiful and making $15 a night to gyrate and amuse.
I’ve never spoken to anybody who was actually in that same scene.
When we got down there, we thought it was going to be a scene with the Byrds on Broadway – very hip scene. When Carol Doda started taking her top off people were duplicating that all along the street. You couldn’t remove anything else off. It was against the law.
So we are playing in the club and the next thing we know we’re backing this topless dancer and they even told me – what you were talking about – “could I have a pound and a half of music please?” They told me to keep playing the drums between songs so she could keep doing all of these gyrations up there. It was awful in a wonderful way.
Even where the Byrds played, they didn’t make any money. I remember in my teens reading all of these stories about Haight Ashbury and travelling caravans of “love children” and arrive to junkies, winos and crash pads where people were shooting up. I had to get back with the topless regime where I had enough money to rent a room.
That’s when they had bus tours and would point out the bums. A heck of a deal.
So, we’re playing up on Broadway and that only lasted a few weeks and we said to ourselves, we didn’t come to California to play topless bars. We found a place down on the peninsula and Jerry and I moved in and got our wives to join us and The Frantics started playing around Redwood City – got some club gigs and are doing OK and then a got a gig at the Dragon Au Go Go in San Francisco, a Chinese restaurant – six nights a week and got paid well and got to play our music.
We heard about Joel Scott Hill and Johnny Barbata – that trio and they were playing at the San Francisco airport. Jerry and I went to check them out and they were very good. They did stuff like “1-2-3” (Len Barry) and could play their instruments. There’s this guy standing out front and I swear it’s Bob Mosley who looked like a Greek God. He was so handsome with his blond hair and at this point he looked more like one of the Righteous Brothers. He was playing bass like a thumper and sang like Otis Redding. We sat there and could not believe this dude. Joel Scott Hill, and drummer were all awesome, but Mosley killed us.
To this day, I’m almost as proud of being a sales person as I am a musician. We sat down and did some qualifying questions, ran a survey and circled around and talked to him until we could close him. We offered him more money to come play with The Frantics at the Chinese nightclub. We caught Mosley at the right time. He was awesome, but he was also a bad man. He banged a guy in the head with his bass when we were playing.
We had two guys in the band who had cards and another couple who weren’t yet certified but were trying to.
After San Francisco?
That lasted for a number of months and when the gig ran out Mosley went back home to San Diego and Jerry and I started a band called the Marshes Swamp Gas. The government used to say as a cover when there were flying saucers spotted it was “marshes swamp gas.” It didn’t go anywhere. Jerry and I would do duets and a lot of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee. Peter Lewis knew Mosely and is Loretta Young’s son and asked Mosley to come and play with him. Matthew Katz, our manager, invited Peter and Bob up to San Francisco to do auditions for this band built around Skippy. There were a lot of musicians auditioning.
Mosely tells them about playing with these guys in San Francisco, and they are pretty solid and why don’t we invite them up. We came up and did “Let the Good Times Roll” for an audition and a bunch of songs we knew, and take turns singing and it seemed like every song we played was like we’d been playing together forever. This was three guitars. Nobody had three guitars. The vocal harmonies came in, and the thing was solid, and Matthew said to Jerry, “what do you think?” We returned and began rehearsals, and that’s how Moby Grape was formed.
How did the record deal and hiring of David Rubinson as producer occur?
David was always the adult in the room. We ended up at a place called The Arc, an after-hours club and we were right; San Francisco was the place – just not Broadway. Over at the Avalon, the Carousel, the Fillmore and a lot of little clubs going on, The Dead, were playing, the Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and the places were packed. We’re in Sausalito on an old ferry boat called The Arc, parked in the harbour. It turned into an after-hours club, so when people were done at the Avalon and Fillmore, they’d have a place to go.
We were there with the Buffalo Springfield who were also in rehearsals and Janis Joplin & Big Brother and the Holding Company and Lee Michaels and nobody heard of any of us. We weren’t on the main stage. We were at the Coca Cola one; I’m just saying. Nobody had heard of us. We rehearsed for months as Janis did and Buffalo Springfield and then we began playing after hours, and it was a hotbed where people would come over and buzzing with activity. Ahmet Ertegun was there – A&M Records, Columbia. Everybody was there to scout. All three bands were heard and got signed.
When we signed, Matthew trademarked the name. The name was kind of a joke. Some one said, what kind of name could we have nobody would forget. It wasn’t as bright as the Marshes Swamp Gas. Moby Grape is not the Grateful Dead as far as names go. What’s big and purple and swims in the sea? Of course, it’s Moby Grape!
When the companies came a courting Matthew had our trust and we were thrilled. He could see talent and knew what it was all about. He went into the backroom at Columbia, sliced and diced and ended up with all of the publishing and all of the residuals that would be coming off of this thing and copywrote the name. He copywrote Lee Michaels name, and It’s a Beautiful Day. He even at one time created a band called Moby Grape and had them out playing that had none of us in it. I can honestly say for about ten minutes we were one of the best bands in the world.
Who came up with the idea to release five singles simultaneously?
Probably some A & R guy. If you can imagine from some backroom at Columbia and some guy comes in and says, “I’ve got an idea – this band is going to be the American Beatles, I’m telling you. Every song has something to say on this album so why not put out five singles.” It went out to the radio stations, and they were confused, and then they thought we were the Monkees and weren’t really playing our instruments. It was a big hype and Columbia was pushing this. Nobody could figure out which track to play so there was no emphasis on anything. It became a thing nobody ever did again.
The cover? The finger hanging down the washboard.
That’s me. It was the days of the topless dance and the days when you gave someone the finger it was shocking. They even airbrushed my finger out. I think the album sold 850 to 900,000 copies. Those housewives in the mid-west got crazy with the flashing of the bird on the album.
The screw-up at Monterey Pop Festival?
The Monterey Pop Festival was the first really great pop festival, I mean it had Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, The Who, Crosby Stills and Nash, Janis, the Mamas and the Papas – everybody was playing at the festival. At that point, our record had just come out, and we were fresh as a daisy and ready to roll and had a priority spot on Saturday night, and I believe we were booked the same night Jimi Hendrix was supposed to play - right in prime time because we were a big draw.
From what I understand, Lou Adler was running the show and Matthew got together to sign off on permission to video tape because it’s going to be a movie – a big deal. Matthew tells them they weren’t going to record my guys unless you pay him X amount of money. I don’t know what the amount was but let’s just say for stupid’s sake – you pay me a million dollars, and I’ll give you the band. They kind of expressed the same sentiment as my album cover to Matthew and say, “here’s what we are going to do Matthew – we are not only not recording or taping your guys, but we are giving them opening act on Friday afternoon when nobody’s there.”
By the way, if you Google it, you will find that set we played on that Friday afternoon and its smoking! They did film it, and some of the films have come out, and I think in the next incarnation of the festival it might be included. Yet again, it was like a huge career mistake. The film became iconic, and those featured in it gave fabulous, wonderful performances and it helped increase their visibility and awareness.
When did you sense the band was falling apart and Skip Spence and Bob Mosley had personal issues?
I couldn’t help noticing that when Skip came through my hotel door with a fire axe. That was a sign there may be some issues. Like I was saying, he was mystical and receiving messages. He’d hear audible voices and got hooked up with this woman who was a warlock or something. We were playing down in the village and they were there doing a bowl of “warlock goodies” they brought with them and an old man they didn’t know who was like a street person they called “the oracle.” I went over to see Skip and to find out was he OK and he wasn’t totally coherent. That was part of what happened. Skip ended up in “The Tombs” and at Bellevue and got locked up for awhile and came out and produced a marvelous record of his own called, Aura.
I’m thinking at the time the guy is mystical and he could probably even find me now. I was stoned too when it happened. David Rubinson said, “Don I’m going to put you and Jerry in a hotel.” I called my native American granny who I always loved – so sweet and so smart living up in the Napa area on a kind of farm and told her about the Skip trying to kill me and that he’s kind of mystical and put an axe through the door and I’m scared. She says, “Don, plead the blood of Jesus.” That scared me more than the axe, but she was right – it worked just fine.
Mosley ended up homeless living under viaducts along highways.
Bobby lived under freeways. In every family there are stories you don’t know, like I have a son who lives with us that is bi-polar and every time I talk to somebody about that or make mention of mental health, everybody has a story.
Bob would buy a pass on a Greyhound Bus and travel for a year and sleep under overpasses. He just lived this nomadic life and again, he literally hears voices. People like David Rubinson and others tried to help. They did eventually find him medication and he found a wonderful woman and settled down and was able to live somewhat of a normal life. If you ever want to hear the full story – talk with Peter Lewis. Peter was a super hero. Lewis went out and found Bob, stayed with him, talked to him and loved him. Peter did that with Skippy when he was up in a monastery. They kind of put him away.
How did you end up in Toronto?
When I said I was a salesperson, and proud of that, I meant that. I worked for a private members club over in Whistler, BC. I was director of sales. Our memberships started at $20,000 and you had to get people to take them while they were staying there. Big league sales. I retired I’m guessing six or seven years ago and went back to do some consulting for a company, and some people who had been working for me were working there.
They asked me to come out to Ontario and become somewhat of a regional manager; a walk-in tub company. I sell walk-in tubs to the elderly. Help them stay safe in the home and help them address some of the maladies they have. At this point, I’m semi-retired from that also. Also, my beautiful wife Janice’s daughter is out here, and we have grandchildren. Now, I’m filled with music all of the sudden.
I love it here. I’ve been here since 2014. When I got here, I just started singing and playing and met all of these wonderful people and great musicians. Someone said to me, “Don what was it like in the 60s’ and I said, it’s like this.: " People played because they wanted to play together, and they wanted to be together to create something bigger than themselves with somebody else. If someone heard it and like it, that was just fine. If they didn’t, that was OK too.”
Is that why you busk?
That’s exactly why I busk!