LONGTIME TACOMA RESIDENT Jerry Miller is one of our musical treasures. He was there at the birth of the classic Northwest Sound of the early 1960s, which spawned bands like the Kingsmen and the Wailers, and he was there again a few years later at the iconic Monterey Pop Festival, where he shared the bill with his childhood friend Jimi Hendrix.
Miller plays the guitar in a way that’s both accomplished and melodic, and no less a judge than Eric Clapton has called him the greatest virtuoso of his generation. When people like Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant or Steve Van Zandt of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band come to town, they ask for Miller by name. But for a strange twist of fate, we’d be watching him headline today in the world’s biggest arenas, instead of cheerfully performing in a few select venues around his hometown.
All rock musicians carry a strong potential for disaster. On top of their youth and volatility, often a toxic combination, they swim in the notoriously shark-infested waters of show business. Notwithstanding the example of a few carefully preserved vintage hot rods such as the Rolling Stones, the spectacular pop music flameout remains the rule, and truly sustained creative or personal fulfillment the exception.
So what happened to Miller and his colleagues in Moby Grape — a band that combined the raw guitar punch of the Who with the soaring, lit-from-within harmonies of the Beach Boys — might be seen as a cautionary tale.
BORN IN JULY 1943, Miller attended Tacoma’s newly opened Wilson High School. His father, also named Jerry, served in the U.S. Navy, and his mother, Norma, was a homemaker from Port Angeles. The boy soon showed signs of an independent streak, and by 1959, he’d saved up enough to buy himself a secondhand white Chevy with gleaming silver hubcaps. The car was young Jerry’s pride and joy until the day he walked into now-defunct Broadway Music in Tacoma and heard the great jazz instrumentalist Wes Montgomery playing over the speakers. “I want to do that,” he thought. Pretty soon he sold the car and put down a deposit on a customized Gibson L-5 guitar he named Beulah, which he still plays today.
That put Miller squarely at the forefront of the explosion of frenetic, primal energy and passion that characterized the Northwest music scene of the time. Before long, he was playing and recording with locally popular dance-rock bands like the Elegants and the Frantics. Miller practiced for hours daily, watching others and learning from more experienced guitarists. Somewhere along the way, he met a fellow teenager who then spelled his name Jimmy Hendrix. “He was good, but somehow you didn’t think of him as the man who’d reinvent the electric guitar,” Miller says with a chuckle. “The main thing you heard in those days was that he played too damn loud. Like me, I suppose.”
By his 19th birthday, Miller was working as a forklift driver in a Tacoma plywood mill while playing his guitar six nights a week in local bars.
“I got paid the princely sum of $2.07 an hour in the mill,” he remembers, “which was a lot less than I was making with Beulah.”
Soon Miller realized his future might lie in music, and in the climate of the day, that meant relocating to California. By then, he also had two young children to provide for. Along with a couple of friends, he arrived in San Francisco on the same day the first topless bars became legal there. “You can imagine the sort of joints we were playing. Our drummer was doing these ba-boom beats in time to the girls’ clothes coming off.”
There were some fun gigs, Miller says, but he was unconvinced his musical development was proceeding quite as intended. “So in the end, we went back to Tacoma,” he says. “I remember playing some places like Birdland, and the Spanish Castle in Des Moines. All long gone. Hendrix was sometimes there, too — a few years later, he wrote a song called ‘Spanish Castle Magic.’ But nothing was really happening for us. So I turned around and drove south [to California] again with a few musician friends. We had a car crash in Oregon. I cut up my head, and our drummer had internal injuries. Not a good start. But we carried on. When you’re young and ambitious, you take these things in your stride.”
WITHIN A YEAR, Miller had hooked up with singer Skip Spence; bass player Bob Mosley; another guitarist named Peter Lewis, the son of actress Loretta Young of “Call of the Wild” fame; and with the Frantics’ old drummer, Don Stevenson. They called their new group Moby Grape, after the punch line of the absurdist joke about what’s purple and floats in the sea. It made sense at the time.
The new band covered the Bay Area waterfront, playing folk, blues, country, jazz and pop, with the underlying sense that the assembled musicians might conceivably have been on terms of some familiarity with the world of hallucinatory drugs. All five members were accomplished instrumentalists, and all of them sang. It seemed that Miller had finally arrived in the right place at the right time. Surely now nothing could go wrong.
Word about Moby Grape soon spread, and within a few weeks, they found themselves sitting around in herbally scented dressing rooms before their sold-out shows, signing autograph books and other material their fans had sent in, and answering questions from the press about Vietnam or their preference in the next presidential election. The Grape’s reputation as superbly versatile musicians with an ear for a pop hook led to a bidding war, and an eventual contract with Columbia Records. The band put out its first, self-titled album in June 1967, the same month the Beatles released “Sgt. Pepper’s.”
Even in this illustrious company, Moby Grape’s freshman record stands out as a Summer of Love artifact that manages to be distinctly of its time, and yet still potent today. What most strikes the modern listener is the sheer variety of the group’s wares. Nowadays, we expect our commercially successful pop acts to tick one of the approved stylistic boxes and stick to it. The Grape, by contrast, always shunned the lure of the pigeonhole. As originally released, the band’s first album is comprised of 13 songs lasting a total of just 31 minutes. There are fast numbers, like “Hey Grandma” and “Omaha,” that come out of the gate at a gallop, and slow ones, like the plaintive “8:05,” that bear comparison to some of the all-time great busted-heart country ballads.
Suddenly the guys were on the charts, and their record company booked them a spot on the prestigious Mike Douglas TV show. “We taped it at about 6 in the morning, and the studio audience was full of elderly ladies with blue-rinse hair,” Miller recalls. “Afterward, Douglas came up and said, ‘I like you guys, but why do you have to play so goddamned loud?’ ”
Later in the summer, Moby Grape performed as one of the headline acts at the Monterey Pop Festival, which reunited Miller with his Seattle friend Jimmy (by then “Jimi”) Hendrix.
“We sat there together after the show, talking about the old days,” Miller says. ” ‘Is the Tiki Club still going?’ and, ‘Whatever happened to so-and-so?’ That kind of thing. Of course, Hendrix had moved on a bit since then. I remember these lines of women coming backstage to collect his autograph, and he wasn’t just signing their albums or photos, if you know what I mean. Here I was — me! — sitting with the biggest rock star in the world, discussing life, while kids were throwing themselves at our feet.” It was crazy, but again Miller took it in stride. “It wasn’t until years later that I went, ‘Wow. What happened there?’ ”
FOR A WHILE, everything went well. One night, Moby Grape found themselves headlining at the historic Fillmore West theater in San Francisco. Their warm-up act was a young group from England led by Jeff Beck on guitar and featuring a bouffant-haired singer named Rod Stewart. Meanwhile, another up-and-coming English band was busy telling everyone who would listen how much they loved Moby Grape in general and Miller in particular. They had a pretty unusual name themselves: Led Zeppelin. Another night, Clapton came to see the Grape perform at the Hollywood Palladium. “We asked him if he’d like to get up onstage, and he said he’d be thrilled,” Miller remembers. “He told us he just needed to go ’round the corner and get his guitar, and then he’d be right back again. That was the last we ever saw of him.”
One way or another, it all suddenly was happening for Moby Grape. By 1968, they were trading on equal terms with Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, and journalists were flying in from London to review their concerts. It seemed to Miller as if it had been only yesterday that he was driving his forklift around the mill in Tacoma for a couple of bucks an hour. “We were in the tall grass there for a while,” he says today with a wry smile.
“Moby Grape was really bigger than the sum of its parts,” the band’s drummer, Don Stevenson, says today. “Everyone was superbly proficient, maybe Jerry Miller most of all. There was something magnificent about both him and his music. If John Wayne had played the guitar, he would have sounded like Jerry did.”
UNFORTUNATELY, MOBY GRAPE’S musical prowess was matched only by their truly tragicomic litany of personal misadventures. Their problems began even before the release of their first album, when their manager presented the young musicians with a contract that gave him, not them, ownership of the group’s name. In time, this led to the band releasing records under an alias, among various other “Spinal Tap”-like indignities.
For its part, Columbia seemed to go from zero to 80, without leveling out at 40 in between, in its marketing hype. The decision to release five of the band’s songs as singles on the same day backfired spectacularly. “If they’d just put them out one at a time, we could have had five hits,” Miller says. “Instead, we got nothing.” In due course, the members of Moby Grape became aware that their manager owned the rights to their songs, as well as to their name, and 30 years of intermittent legal wrangling ensued.
Meanwhile, a combination of bad advice, bad breaks and bad behavior served to further undermine a band that we might otherwise think of today in the same terms as a more musically adept version of U2 or the Eagles.
“Skip Spence had seen Hendrix smashing up his equipment on stage, and he decided he might like to try it himself,” Miller remembers. “Unfortunately, the first place he chose to do so was at a gig we had in a church hall in Milwaukee, which wasn’t quite ready for the sight of a wild-eyed guy with long hair ramming his guitar into the amplifiers. There was an almighty explosion, and some sparks shot up the back of the stage, I recall. Things seemed to go downhill pretty quickly from there, and we left the place in a hurry.”
As the band members ran for their waiting limousine, a Milwaukee police officer chased on foot behind them. “Somehow, this poor guy got his arm stuck in the car door, and he had to jog alongside us for a while before he could get free. Very bitter about it, he was. I can still remember the look on the priest’s face as he stood there watching this whole circus speed away from his church.”
Soon there was another unfortunate scene, when Spence suffered a nervous breakdown of some sort while playing with the band in New York.
“I don’t know exactly what happened, but Skip disappeared from the hotel for a while, and when he came back, he was a completely changed character,” Miller says. In the end, the police forcibly removed Spence from his room and took him to the criminal ward of a nearby psychiatric hospital. It proved to be the start of a long and tragically irreversible decline. The prodigiously talented Spence lived much of the rest of his life in a series of mental institutions and died in 1999, aged 52.
Meanwhile, Moby Grape struggled on into the 1970s, but somehow it seemed their time had passed. “We wanted to keep it going,” says Miller. “But we kept hearing the same thing. All the big festival promoters wanted the original five, and when Skip left, the bookings just tailed off.” Moby Grape’s last studio album featuring the classic lineup was 1971’s “20 Granite Creek,” which referenced the address of the group’s communal home in Santa Cruz. It won widespread critical acclaim but sold about a tenth as many copies as the band’s debut. “We could have had it all, but we ended up with pretty well nothing,” says Miller.
“Our management sliced and diced us,” Stevenson adds. “But in a way, I don’t blame the record company for acting the way they did, putting out five singles on the same day and stuff like that. It was just overenthusiasm on their part. They wanted to market us like the new Beatles.”
WHEN IT WAS ALL OVER, Miller relaunched himself as a solo artist and an occasional bandleader, but failed to prosper commercially. One night in 1993, a whip-smart young writer and designer named Jo Johnson walked into a small club in San Mateo and was immediately struck by what she saw.
“Up on stage, there was this guy with the most beautiful guitar,” she says today. “And as soon as he started to play it, it was like a ball of light hit me in the solar plexus. I was literally knocked over. And that was my introduction to Jerry. We’ve been together ever since.”
In 1994, the couple drove back to the Northwest, and live today only a few blocks from Jerry’s childhood home in Tacoma. It’s not always customary for rock ‘n’ rollers to live idyllic domestic lives. But Miller fairly exudes contentment as he sits in the modest house he shares with his longtime partner, their two dogs and what remains of his lifetime’s memorabilia after a 2009 flood nearly destroyed his previous home in nearby Pacific. “I looked up, and suddenly streams of muddy water were pouring in under the front door,” Miller recalls. “I figured I had only a minute to get out safely, so I grabbed my guitar, my amplifier and my dogs, in that order.” He adds with a laugh, “And after that, I went back for Jo.”
Miller is still friendly with the other three surviving members of Moby Grape, with whom he reunited for a one-off performance for 40,000 fans in their spiritual home of San Francisco as recently as 2007. “We sometimes talk about getting together again, but the whole COVID business hasn’t helped,” Miller says. He’s philosophical about everything that happened to them. “We were young, and we just assumed that everything was being taken care of while we were producing the music. It’s an old story.”
In short, Miller takes it all in stride. He’s moved with glorious unconcern from starring at legendary events such as Monterey Pop to playing for a few hometown friends and admirers, and he’s done it all without the least trace of bitterness or self-pity. You could say he’s the embodiment of the true spirit of the 1960s, when our best artists gave us plenty of ideas to think about, but didn’t tell us what to think. Perhaps he’s simply too modest a figure ever to have made an effective rock star.
Either way, we’re lucky to have him with us, and you could do much worse than to treat yourself to one of his shows. Unlike some of the other much-hyped survivors of his era, he’s still as good as ever.
These days, he’s most often found playing in select Tacoma-area venues, including a regular Thursday-night spot at Rumors Inc. Bar & Grill in Spanaway, where they use a backyard amphitheater in the warm weather and move things back inside during the winter. As Miller’s current bandmate Tim Hall says: “It’s not just that Jerry is a god of rock guitar. He’s also a master of blues, jazz, folk and country, and when you listen to him, you’re really getting the whole package.”
Hall adds, “I’ve been around a while, and I don’t know of any other player who combines all the styles the way Jerry does. It’s like a master class in the whole history of popular music. He’s the chairman of the board, and we’re lucky just to be standing on stage with him.”