BACK IN THE Dark Ages when I was confined to an English seaside boarding school, I often used to dream of escape. Not so much in the physical sense of the word — although that would have worked, too — but by seizing on anything that seemed to convey a spirit of social adventure.
In practice, this generally involved a small transistor radio, which at night could waft in the static-ridden but thrilling sounds associated with the 1967 “Summer of Love” and the Woodstock festival two years later. Even now, I can remember the Canadian-born disc jockey Pete Brady, happily still with us today, announce mysteriously: “And now one from the fabulous new Moby Grape platter.” Three minutes later, I was hooked.
What was it about the Grape? For one thing, the name. Back then, it struck me as pricelessly funny, with a touch of early Monty Python to it, and even today it seems nicely anarchic. Of course, the young make their own fun whatever time and place they’re in, and each generation believes theirs to be a uniquely original time.
Even so, there was a kind of exhilarating freedom to much of the music crackling over the airwaves around 1967, when “Sgt. Pepper’s” was followed in short order by Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced” and Cream’s “Disraeli Gears,” with everyone from Pink Floyd to The Monkees in between. Even in this exalted company, there was something special about Moby Grape’s debut album. Their music seemed not only to catch the ear, but to tell an emotional story. You could revel in the sheer abandon of a song like “Omaha” and feel the palpable grief of “8:05.” The record sounded by turns buoyant; poignant; subtle; and, above all, hopeful, just as great art should.
When in later years I found myself writing books about rock music grandees such as Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton and Paul McCartney, I was struck by the way those characters generally have not only talent but also luck on their side. For the adolescent Jagger, there was the moment when Keith Richards first loomed up at him out of the fog on a suburban London train platform, thus beginning a creative partnership still intact today. For his part, Clapton joined a commercially successful band when he was just 17. And for all their other merits, the Beatles had the singular good fortune to find possibly the only completely honest manager in Britain at the time.
Exactly the opposite formula applied in the case of Jerry Miller and Moby Grape. The only breaks they caught seemed to be bad ones. As described by music critic Jeff Tamarkin, “The Grape’s saga is one of squandered potential, absurdly misguided decisions, ill luck, blunders and excruciating heartbreak.” It might have been funny if it weren’t so sad.
And yet through it all, Miller somehow retained his sense of perspective, seemingly regarding each successive blow as simply one of those things bound to happen from time to time in show business. After coming to know him, I’m all the more impressed by his impeccable kindness and natural modesty, and by the way he prefers to shun the personal limelight to a degree unusual in our self-obsessed age.
Miller might not be a “rock star” in the narrowly commercial sense of the term, but he still plays music because he loves to do so, and in the end you can’t help but wonder if that isn’t success enough.