"Books of Moses"
'More Oar: A Tribute to the Skip Spence Album', 1999
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“Book of Moses” is the first song we’ve hit to come off a tribute album.
As those of you who knew my writing before this newsletter are probably aware, my last book was a 33 1/3 all about tribute albums. So I looked up what I wrote in there about the tribute album “Book of Moses” hails from, More Oar: A Tribute to the Skip Spence Album. It only got one mention, in this section:
But while the majors chased bigger and bigger names, sometimes with little regard to whether the collections made any sense artistically, fans continued to release labors of love like I’m Your Fan. Many followed in the Hal Willner model, exposing cult-favorite artists to a wider audience. Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye: A Tribute to Roky Erickson was one of the first in this mold, coming in 1990. Everyone from ZZ Top to The Jesus and Mary Chain helped bring a psych-rock pioneer to broader acclaim while raising money for his ongoing medical issues (he’d long suffered from paranoid schizophrenia).
In fact, fundraising for medical bills soon became a standard impetus for these made-from-love tribute albums, particularly those dedicated to songwriters who were not household names. Bill Bentley, the producer of the Roky Erickson fundraising tribute, tried to repeat the feat a decade later with 1999’s More Oar: A Tribute to the Skip Spence Album. Unfortunately, the former Moby Grape songwriter died several weeks before the album’s release. When Alejandro Escovedo could no longer pay his hepatitis C medical bills in 2003, a who’s-who of Americana musicians from Lucinda Williams to Steve Earle covered his songs on a tribute album literally titled Por Vida—“for life.” On the indie-rock side, that 2009 tribute album [Juliana] Hatfield barely remembered [Ciao My Shining Star, referenced in my interview with her elsewhere] raised money for Mark Mulcahy after his wife’s sudden death. More recently, an all-star lineup of indie-rock Replacements fans from Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy to The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn contributed to 2013’s double-album Songs for Slim to help Replacements guitarist Slim Dunlap after a stroke. In an industry where few have health insurance, tribute albums can be lifelines.
Tom, though, comes up a lot in the book — too many times to quote every one. The man has appeared on a lot of tribute albums! In particular, he appeared often on the compilations from aforementioned tribute album pioneer Hal Willner, who I interviewed for the book a few months before his passing. Two Orphans tracks, “What Keeps Mankind Alive?” and “Heigh Ho,” originally came from Willner-helmed tributes (saluting Kurt Weill and Disney movies, respectively).
“Book of Moses” also appeared on Orphans, but it was 15 years old at that point. The 1999 non-Willner tribute album More Oar didn’t succeed in its specific goal of helping Spence himself, but it undoubtedly succeeded in the more general goal of exposing Spence’s cult-favorite solo album Oar to a wider — and younger — audience.
Tom and Robert Plant were the old men in the room, surrounded by contemporary ‘90s stars. Beck and Mudhoney appeared on the album, as did an trio of alt-rock frontmen: Greg Dulli of Afghan Whigs, Mark Lanegan of Screaming Trees, Jay Farrar of Son Volt. As with most tribute albums, it’s hit and miss (and as with most CD-era tribute albums, you won’t find it on streaming services). But if you already know the Waits track from Orphans, it’s worth checking out the rest. Most of it’s on YouTube.
Here’s the Spence original to compare Tom’s cover with: