At age 73, founding Moby Grape guitarist Peter Lewis will release a new album, The Road To Zion, on July 16.
Moby Grape were one of the most groundbreaking and creatively fertile rock outfits to spring from the San Francisco music scene in the late ‘60s. While the band never enjoyed the major success afforded their fellow Bay Area contemporaries like Jefferson Airplane, CCR, the Grateful Dead and Santana, their brand of trippy guitar driven transcendence earned them a place among critics and music fans as a seminal music force.
The Road to Zion stands as a fitting testament, demonstrating that quality music emboldened by a wily musical spirit is ageless.
Rock Cellar: What’s the significance of the title of your new album, The Road to Zion?
Peter Lewis: Most people think of Zion as heaven, but what is that? I guess in my experience it might be a place where something happens in your life or you do something and you say, “If I never do anything else or if I just got to where I’m at now, I came to this world and did what I wanted to do.” To me that would be a vision of what I’m talking about, a place where you think all the suffering and all of the joy has been worth it.
Rock Cellar: So the obvious follow-up question is, has it all been worth it?
Peter Lewis: Well, I guess if you can get to where you can do a record like this and where you can say something about all of that, then yes. Having a house on the side of a hill and becoming famous like Neil Young or somebody, you might think that’s what you’re trying to get … but at some point you might think that it’s not.
Moby Grape did not make it. We just had a really good band. There’s this preconception that people have of us being a bunch of defeated pilgrims. Maybe that’s the way the world looks at it, because that’s the way the world works, but it can’t be just meaningless. Because of the way things worked out, we got to a point where the band becomes the most important thing that happens to you in your life in sense, maybe not in a way that really matters, but as far as people liking you as a person.
Show business has to do with survival but sometimes that requires the willingness of being able to cut people off at the pass. Some of those people leave a trail of destruction in their path. I don’t think that’s what Moby Grape did, as far as the people in it. I was having dinner and thinking about this record, and that if I never do anything else at least I got this far and I was able to do it without having to do a bunch of stuff that makes people dislike you. That would be worthwhile, if that can be done.
Rock Cellar: You draw from over five decades of experience as a songwriter. Are you writing from a stance of just trying to please yourself or do you have the audience in mind when you’re creating these songs?
Peter Lewis: Well, everybody writes I think to first please themselves. Everybody thinks if they dig it everybody is gonna dig it.
I think a lot of it depends on whether you have enough clout to get it into somebody’s purview where they’ll get a chance to even listen to it. But a lot of what we listen to today is just being marketed in a way that limits access to the big show. It used to not be that way as much. In the ‘60s, if you had something to say people would listen to it. But what it’s turned into now is a sport. I think you have to have a certain amount of talent, but in the end a lot of it has to do with the deals that are being made and if you fit into the whole general scheme of things. In the music business it’s not just about talent anymore, it’s about who you know.
Rock Cellar: Was it less that way when Moby Grape landed onto the music scene back in the ‘60s?
Peter Lewis: Yes. In those days there was more of a concern with the art itself. If somebody had something to say in the subculture about the Vietnam War and the peace movement, for example, something that was going on in society, if you were a part of that you literally became a voice of the subculture.
Moby Grape showed up there was that to refer to with your songs and with your art. I don’t think there is a subculture now. That’s gone now. The people that are famous now seem to act like icons, like people you’d rather be than who you are so they get marketed that way.
Rock Cellar: Knowing it’s a different climate today, does that affect the kinds of songs you’re writing for your new record?
Peter Lewis: No, I can’t do that. (laughs) I’m 73, I can’t do that.
Rock and roll has always been a young person’s art. If I were to try and decide what I was gonna do with my life now I wouldn’t have chosen this road, knowing what I know now.
With The Road To Zion, what I’m trying to do is leave a record of my life and share the experiences I’ve had getting to this point.
This record defines a goal, a place of freedom, a relative freedom from the torment we all suffer from. It has something to do with freedom but not the freedom where I can do what I want without suffering the consequences for it. I don’t think that’s freedom. I think it’s more about my attitude rather than something that goes on in the world outside.
Rock Cellar: What separated Moby Grape from your fellow bands on the San Francisco music scene in the late ‘60s?
Peter Lewis: Our brilliance and our looks. (laughs) No, I’m just kidding. In a weird way weren’t separated from those other bands, we were a part of that. Bu the way Columbia Records tried to market us may have been too aggressive. Having five singles was probably too aggressive as far as marketing it. I never saw the point in it; it was more of a marketing scheme. But in hindsight I don’t know how much I protested at that point.
When you get into a situation like we were in where every record company wants you to choose the one who’s gonna do the most good for you and then let them take over … as a young kid you don’t know what these people are like, really. You spend your time imaging that when listening to people you like who are already famous and you say, “Gee, I’d like to be him or her.”
Rock Cellar: What was the smartest decision the band made and alternatively, the dumbest?
Peter Lewis: Just to play together was a good decision. To say okay, we have a group of people here where the chemistry is perfect for whatever the climate was when you’re all trying to sing and write songs and everybody was willing to help each other do that and not be the leader. That was good.
The worst decision was signing the rights to the name away.
Rock Cellar: Why were Moby Grape excluded from the Monterey Pop film?
Peter Lewis: We didn’t make that decision, our manager did. He’s been the nemesis of this band since the beginning. Our manager wanted a million dollars for us to be put in the movie. Ridiculous. He had a big fight with Lou Adler and that was it. Lou said, “Well, you’re going on first” and we were gonna go on Saturday night but we opened the show instead but that was bad. But then we fired him and the legal battle started that ended up forty years later where we got our name and publishing back in 2005. But we’re older now and how can you use that to resurrect a career? So that’s the story of the band.
But playing the Monterey Pop Festival was a joyous experience. It was the first time I took acid and there was a first time for everything kind of feel about it. Seeing Jimi Hendrix was great; it was the first time I had seen him. We were all staying at the same motel and afterwards I was wandering around and visiting people in their hotel rooms, and getting high with them and listening to them play music.
Rock Cellar: When Moby Grape was offered to play the Monterey Pop Festival, was it viewed as a big deal at the time?
Peter Lewis: There were a lot of those kind of concerts back then, concerts with The Grateful Dead where you’d be in the park and playing with them. It was an unorganized, kind of spontaneous thing. Monterey was more of focused event, focused to the point of bringing in groups that weren’t part of the San Francisco scene. I think Monterey was the first time I remember seeing people with army jackets on, people that were coming back from Vietnam and they were joining the subculture. When I realized that I thought, “Maybe this is gonna do some good?”
It wasn’t just music being played for kids who were running away from home and going to San Francisco and taking acid. It had a larger context as far as changing the status quo which in those days there was an active draft and this crazy deep Communism. I think a lot of the other acts saw that. They noticed that. It was obvious there.
Rock Cellar: You were impressed with Hendrix at Monterey.
Peter Lewis: Oh yeah. I remember thinking he was a really good guitar player. But it was kind of weird at the end of his performance where he was burning his guitar and all of that. I think the audience did too. But later on they were all hanging around this courtyard of this motel we were at. I remember wandering into Mitch Mitchell’s room and Jimi was there and just hanging out with them and smoking pot, I looked at him on the side of the bed and it seemed like a different personality completely, he wasn’t gregarious at all. He had a sage attitude, not withdrawn; he was very soft spoken.
The sounds he was making with his guitar kind of came from another place. I think he was doing that because he thought that would get him some attention, but I think Jimi was a wounded kid who’d been made fun of when he was younger and he developed this persona or maybe this thing protected him, the way he was presenting himself, and that’s the way I saw him.
Rock Cellar: You mentioned earlier that you didn’t think Moby Grape made it, but that’s not completely true. While you didn’t sell millions of records like many of your peers, the music did connect and still connects deeply with music fans around the world.
Peter Lewis: Yeah, I’m proud of our legacy. Moby Grape is like the Hell’s Angels. You aren’t getting out of it.
We always had that from when Skip (Spence) wrote “Omaha” because songs were kind of self-fulfilling and prophetic. People listen to that and think, “These guys are always gonna have to try and show up and be these guys that were playing together in the ‘60s because one of them wrote a song about it.”
That’s how I see Moby Grape. Writing songs was our way of documenting our experience with each other and being in this band and going through life. It ended up not just being a commercial endeavor but more of a sort of a life commitment that you’re making for life a group of artists, as it were. You have to care about each other because there’s a contingency going on with it.
The exuberance and optimism of when we first found each other and Skip would help you with your songs and you could suggest something for his, all of that music became bigger than the sum of its parts.