Interview

Part 12: Moby Grape's Peter Lewis

Part 12: Moby Grape's Peter Lewis

PETER LEWIS
Moby Grape songwriter, guitarist and founder; bonded with Young during gigs in San Francisco in 1966 – a “trade” was briefly mooted: Lewis to join Buffalo Springfield in exchange for Young joining Moby Grape.

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Neil once played me an early acetate of 'Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere'. I’d met up with this chick who knew both of us. She was a super-groupie who was like one of those chicks in Almost Famous. She used to hunt me down all the time and one day she found me in LA, so I went out to se her that night at her place in Topanga Canyon. She told me she’d been hanging around with the Buffalo Springfield, or the remnants of it, and that Neil was living just up the street. So we went up there to visit. He had an A-frame and I remember a long flight of stairs leading up to it, with an intercom. She pressed it and I heard Neil go [affects high-pitched voice] “Who’s there?” When I said it was me, he said “Oh, come on up”. But when he opened the door and saw who I was walking up the steps with, he freaked out because he had just got married to Susan. Neil was even whiter than he usually was. I was trying to play it cool, but I presumed that whoever knew her had already slept with her.

Anyway, we went in there to this room where he had this big throne and he said: “I want you to hear this.” He put on the acetate of Everybody Knows this Is Nowhere and we just sat there, smoking dope and listening to it. At the end I said: “Neil, you’re going to be a big star, man”. It was that obvious. I knew what he’d always been trying to do, but he’d had a hard time getting the rest of Buffalo Springfield to let him do it. They had a similar thing to us in Moby Grape where everybody was kind of stumbling over each other to get to the limelight or something. Stephen [Stills] and Neil had a real rivalry over who was going to play lead. Neil wanted to do that but hadn’t found a voice yet. I had dinner with Jimmy Messina the other night and he was telling me about the rivalry in Buffalo Springfield. And I don’t think Neil really wanted to get into that.

Whenever it all became too much, suddenly he was just not around. And with his first solo record, he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to be Bob Dylan. Then he made Everybody Knows… in his basement. He’s just like that, he gets an idea in his head and executes it instead of thinking about it. He knew it would work if he could just do it. Nobody else could write those kind of songs. The other part of it was the fact he’d been able to get in with these guys [Crazy Horse] who did whatever he told them to do. The other people he’d played with, like Nils Lofgren, were always giving him advice and stuff.

When Neil was in Buffalo Springfield and I was in Moby Grape, there’s this weird thing that kind of happened that I still don’t understand. We were driving back to the city [San Francisco] after practicing at [Sausalito houseboat-turned-live venue] The Ark and Neil wanted me to drop him off at Marty Balin’s house. Somehow my wife ended up picking us up. She had this thing where she’d be a real flirt and she just zoned in on Neil. So when we got to Marty’s place, Neil was a little embarrassed, but then she was real pretty and was just staring at him. Neil went back to LA and then about a week later, my wife wanted to go to LA. And since we had this weird thing going on where everybody was cheating on everybody else, I’d had enough of it and told her to just go. So she left but then came back. I always thought she went down there to go screw Neil, but then somehow he didn’t want to get involved where I’d left off. He may have fucked her, but that was it. Not long after she came back, she was pregnant. I didn’t think of it until much later, but I always wondered about my first son.

So I knew Neil on some level. There was something about him I could dig, in a way I understood him before he became a star. There was even some weird thing where he nearly joined Moby Grape and I nearly joined the Buffalo Springfield. Neil and Stephen and the Buffalo Springfield hung out with Moby Grape for a while when we had these houses on Malibu Beach. They’d be coming up there all the time. It eventually got to a point where we had to go and make our second record [1968’s Wow] in New York because we just couldn’t work. It was all this screwing around.

What made him special? He didn’t let whatever liabilities he had become overwhelming, he turned everything around. Neil could just shock you with something. It was like making a liability into an asset. I don’t know how else to describe it. Other people were scared of Neil because they sensed that about him. If anybody was going to get out of that scene alive, it was him. He never seemed to have any doubts about himself.
Neil’s an interesting guy, because he’s not easy to understand. You could drive a hundred miles in the car with him and he wouldn’t say a word. I think he sometimes suffers in that, like other famous people, there’s a sense of loneliness about not being able to get any help from his fellow stars. They can commiserate but not really help. There’s no real bottom to it, you’ve just got to make a choice whenever you want it to stop. With Neil, he’s kind of had to deal with that all his life. And maybe it made him a better candidate for stardom than somebody who didn’t understand any of that at all. It seemed like he was able to keep everything in some kind of perspective. I mean, the ‘Sixties was a confusing time. A lot of people thought that taking more drugs would make them feel better, but Neil couldn’t do that because he had epilepsy. The whole thing was about getting high with people, but it didn’t seem to hurt Neil’s music in any way. His music was psychedelic.

INTERVIEW: ROB HUGHES


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