'We blew it for you guys ...'

The last time Peter Lewis played Detroit, it was with his group Moby Grape, opening for the Mamas & the Papas at the Roostertail in 1967. "It was crazy!" Lewis recalls. "There were a ton of people in there. It just felt kind of claustrophobic. I remember being able to look out and see Lake Michigan or something. That was cool."

On the phone from California, Lewis is talking of Moby Grape's bizarre saga of '60s psychedelic excess, while discussing his current musical activities as well.

Founded in San Francisco in 1966, Moby Grape's musical legacy has maintained an enduring influence on several generations of musicians. Led Zeppelin, Cat Power and countless others in between have been captivated by Moby Grape's songwriting, complex harmonies and psychedelic triple guitar attack. One of the Grape's principal singer-songwriters, Peter Lewis — who also has the distinction of being the son of Hollywood silver screen goddess the late Loretta Young — is returning to Detroit for three rare solo acoustic performances. Aficionados of the psych-folk realms surely won't want to miss it. The songs Lewis contributed to such LPs as Wow and Moby Grape '69 remain genuine classics, comparable to the best work of such '60s peers as Gene Clark, Gram Parsons and Neil Young, as well as his mysterious fellow Grape sidekick, the late, great Alexander "Skip" Spence.

METRO TIMES: I was just watching those YouTube clips of Moby Grape on the Mike Douglas Show [from 1967]. Have you seen those?

PETER LEWIS: Yeah. We could be really amazing. At its best, my memory of [playing with the band] was that there was nothing that was more fun.

MT: What kind of instrumentation are you using for the Detroit gigs?

LEWIS: Well, I'm a guitar player, and the other guy I'm playing with [David West] plays banjo, mandolin, and guitar. I use different kinds of guitars. They're not all tuned the same. It's like trying to get different tone clusters between me and this other guy.

MT: Are you going to do "I Am Not Willing" or "Horse Out in the Rain" [two of Lewis' greatest songs]?

LEWIS: You want me to?

MT: Yeah, that would be real cool.

LEWIS: I can figure that out. Yeah.

MT: That would be awesome.

LEWIS: Alright.

MT: I think Skip Spence was originally from Windsor, across the Detroit River ...

LEWIS: Yeah. Skip ... his ghost ... it's like, with me every day, you know? Once you met a guy like Skip, your life would change, and usually for the better. Having met Skip made it all worthwhile, no matter how many rip-offs there were or anything else.

MT: I think a lot of younger musicians discovered Moby Grape after hearing the reissue of Oar [Skip Spence's solo LP, recorded after Spence was institutionalized for taking way too much LSD, being "possessed by demons," and chasing his bandmates around with an ax].

LEWIS: Well, there was a thing about Skip that was scary. But before that, he had been "Mr. Love," full of all this positive energy. When he was in a good mood, it was like everybody was in a good mood. And when he wasn't, there was this sort of a thing that kinda sucked you in like a vortex that was scary and you didn't want to have to get too near to it.

MT: Looking back at the '60s ...

LEWIS: I know what the difference is between the '60s and the year 2008. We went the wrong way. I'm not sure exactly who's to blame for all this shit, but whatever world we were trying to create back then didn't get created. It turned into something else. I feel like we blew it for you guys because there was a chance to change things. And I still don't know why we couldn't. Maybe there were too many drugs. You know, I had to go back to school and put my brain back together [after Moby Grape's split], but a lot of people from the '60s didn't do that.

MT: Well, Moby Grape has influenced a lot of people.

LEWIS: Yeah, well, that's enough ... I mean, it's better to do that than to be in the Monkees!

Peter Lewis appears Thursday, June 5, at 7 p.m. at the Jazz Café at Music Hall, 350 Madison, Detroit; 313-887-8501; Friday, June 6, at 7 p.m. at the Chelsea Public Library (just outside Ann Arbor), 221 S. Main Street (across from The Purple Rose Theater), Chelsea; 734-475-8732; and Saturday, June 7, at 5:30 p.m. as part of the Detroit Festival for the Arts on the Bank of American Literary & Music Lounge Stage, located on Cass at Putnam between State & Science Halls and across from the Detroit Public library. All three performances are free to the public. For Festival details, go to www.detroitfestival.com.

Matthew Smith plays with various Moby Grape-influenced Detroit groups, including Outrageous Cherry, the Volebeats, and THTX. Send comments to [email protected]
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