Moby Grape’s Peter Lewis: A Rock ‘n’ roll Survivor on ‘The Road to Zion’ (Part Two)

Continued from Part One

Peter Lewis’ problems at the time weren’t nearly as severe as those facing Spence, who famously came at band mates Miller and Stevenson with a fire axe. Mosley suffered a breakdown of sorts as well in 1969, abruptly quitting the band and enlisting in the Marines (he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and discharged within months of joining).

Lewis – who has been asked about his band mates’ problems countless times, and who has had decades to consider the subject – has his own take on their challenges. “When you look at what happened to Skip or Bobby, part of what that is is, I think, is just the metaphysics of fame,” he suggests. “They get out there and they show people a certain character, however they’re dealing with their career, however seriously they take their music. And that can sort of get you in a feedback loop with the future. And then, [they can suffer] not knowing how to deal with that, trying to make it real.”

Lewis painted the cover art of his new album.

He says that Mosley “was always kind of emotionally disturbed, but I think Skip really thought he was the Messiah. But then, at some point, he started getting really into downers when we were in New York making the second record, and it just all caved in. He changed from Mr. Love into Mr. Hate in about a weekend.”

That kind of confusion calls out for a response, even if it’s not the right one. “How you deal with that – whether it’s with it with drugs or whatever – is very much a no-win situation,” Lewis says. “Because it’s just depending on some kind of chemical, controlling your body to make you feel this way or that.”

Speaking like a wise old survivor of the late ’60s music scene, Lewis adds his own prescription to the idea of drug use. “ Maybe use it more like a surfer,” he suggests. “Use it as a wave. Keep it at your back.”

For his part, during that turbulent period Lewis reached out to another record producer, hoping he could help rally the group and salvage the sessions. He contacted Terry Melcher, an old friend from his high school days in L.A. Lewis – the son of film star Loretta Young – attended school with the sons and daughters of other celebrities’ offspring. The son of Doris Day, Melcher was a few years older than Lewis. “He had a car, so he got all the chicks,” Lewis recalls with a chuckle. He says that for a time, Candice Bergen was Melcher’s high school girlfriend. “I was her boyfriend, too,” he says. “For a minute.”

Melcher – famed for his work with the Beach Boys, Paul Revere and the Raiders and the Byrds – was interested in producing Moby Grape, but changed his mind when news broke of Spence’s axe incident. “Well, look, the whole band would have to want to do it,” Melcher told Lewis. “And if you don’t have him anymore, that’s pretty much it.”

Lewis still holds thoughts of what might have been. “The trouble with the first album was that at Columbia, you couldn’t turn the faders up past 0 dB because the union had a rule [against] distortion,” he says. Terry Melcher had free rein at his studio “so you could go in there and turn it up as loud as you wanted,” Lewis says with admiration. “He knew how to get it right before it made the needle bounce out of the grooves of a record.”

And Melcher’s skills went beyond capturing loud sounds. “Terry was a sound guy. He knew how to get certain sounds, and also he could hear something that was out of tune. If one string player in an orchestra was off, he knew who it was.”

Lewis is more than willing to answer questions about Moby Grape, but he chooses his words carefully when the subject of the band’s early manager Matthew Katz comes up. “He’ll sue you for defamation of character if you try to tell the real story,” Lewis says. He will allow that Katz – whose actions have confounded the band at nearly every turn, from putting together a fake Moby Grape for live dates to scotching various reissues – has a mindset that differs from the peace-and-love values of the Haight Ashbury scene.

“It’s not like the rest of the ’60s,” Lewis says. “It has nothing to do with cooperating.” Lewis makes it clear that he’d rather not even think about Katz. “You don’t want to get consumed with bitterness or dedicate your life to getting even with this guy,” he says. But he can’t hold back expressing regret. “I was in this band that was my one shot, and he screwed that up. And there’s no way to ever forget about it.”

Peter Lewis is forthright about the hazards of the music business. “It’s a shark tank, and you’ve really got to know how to survive to get famous without having signed the rights to your soul away,” he says. But more than 52 years after ten of Moby Grape’s songs were released (as a- or b-sides of 45 r.p.m. singles), he’s showing himself to be a survivor. He mentions the final track on his new record, “The Gypsy.” “It talks about this place of no returning, where you have this sense that you’re free, finally, from whatever it is that plagues the soul,” Lewis says.

“And all of that is in The Road to Zion,” he says. “Zion is that circle, the end of all paths, where all roads lead into this place where you can feel like, ‘Well, at least I’ve got this.’”