Moby Grape’s eponymous debut isn’t quite as ridiculous as the band name makes it sound, but the first few tracks come close. The album is standard ‘60s fare: smooth, harmonically stepped voices welded to a bit of brash guitar, which the producers have draped, like wet laundry, over some poorly coded lyrics about sex, love, and hallucinogens, not necessarily in that order. Not the worst thing I’ve ever listened to, but certainly not choice. Shout out to the folks loyally recording and reposting mono tracks to their YouTube playlists; I can honestly say that the ’67 mono version of “Hey Grandma” is the worst track to get ready to since Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead.
Maybe you had to be there. Maybe you had to live through those tight, terrible decades of government betrayal, through the draft notices and the dreams that came after, viscous and red. Maybe you had to survive those first skirmishes—the opening moves in a Western war against human decency—to truly go wild for this stuff. Timing matters.
Still, you can have too much of a good thing. All five members of Moby Grape can sing, and often do so as one, voices braiding into a single flame that spews relentlessly from a five-headed hydra of a peculiarly musical persuasion. They’re a sixties boy band, is what I’m getting at. What’s worse, they’re a boy band of Jefferson Airplane castoffs. They’re the hippie equivalent of when The X Factor forced a bunch of fresh-faced teens to team up to avoid elimination, only without the eventual cash payout and legions of writhing fans.
Moby Grape is an unsuccessful One Direction. There, I said it. They missed out on so much.
What is it about a crew of clean-shaven young men that jellies the knees of girls (and boys) of so many eras, and across so many cultures?
Many people far more clever than I have tackled this question, but the short answer is that they’re safe. A boy band won’t start rumors about you. It won’t read your diary or sneer at your dreams or post photos of you on social media without your consent. A boy band, like a benevolent sponge, just keeps absorbing adoration until the fancy wears off or the money runs out. It’s like a dress-up doll for your feelings.
Sounds silly, but look—we need this. Throughout my lifetime, American men and women have grown increasingly uneasy with each other. Last week on the way to the subway I overheard a man on a cell phone say that the only way a guy can be in a relationship these days is to completely subjugate himself to a woman. “We’re nothing but financial assets to them,” he complained, face so ugly with hatred that I spun to the edge of the sidewalk, happier to pick through the previous day’s trash than risk hearing any further revelations.
On the train, I edited angry treatises in my head: I don’t want control over anyone but myself. I am not financially or physically obligated to reciprocate to anyone but myself. I am not bound to love anyone—not even myself.
Our position is untenable: Men drive cars into crowds just to get at us.
The boys in bands that we cherish can’t stay boys forever. They grow up and into their father’s wars. Armed with partisan politics and other cruel machinery, there is no escape from their battlefield. The fighting is everywhere, her body the front line every time.
Only it won’t be every time, will it? The reality is that black bodies, sick bodies, gay bodies have also been victims in turn; that as distant as Moby Grape’s clumsy, escapist rock feels, they were following an impulse that infects many, if not most. To be human is to dream of release, from death, at first, and then from anything that mimics it: humiliation, ignorance, despair.
On some near or distant tomorrow, the front line will shift again, but the feeling will remain. Alongside it, artists will continue to do what they do best: open windows and fire-doors, prop the cellar hatch with a flip flop or better yet, copy a key. The present isn’t always the most important place to be. Choose your moments.
When I need to open a window, I tune my brain to Ezra Furman in fishnets and pearls, singing like a cat in a bag at the bottom of the river. Or I might linger on Harry Styles’s wretched suits, pale sleeves livid with blossoms that threaten never to fade…but you have to come back sometime, don’t you. There’s work yet to be done.