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Gregg Spence was an exceedingly talented songwriter and musician in the Dayton, Ohio music scene for many years. His death at the too early age of 32 was a huge blow to so many both personally and professionally; not just for the loss of such a pronounced talent, but for the irreplaceable loss of such a decent, intelligent, and often seditiously funny human being, who was a warmly treasured friend to many.
Gregg was certainly one of Big Beef’s biggest fans and supporters. He was often involved in the many various musical projects Big Beef was involved with, as well as one of the inspirations for encouraging the return of Andy & Pat’s Groovy Cosmic Love Hour back to the live television cablecasts again.
With the completion of the Mulchmen’s “Greetings From Planet Stupider” in the fall of 1998, the next Big Beef Records production at the time was going to be Gregg’s very first completely solo record release. Production had begun on it by the end of that year, and in a bit ala Paul McCartney fashion, it was to feature Gregg pretty much performing all of the instruments. Finally getting some examples of Gregg’s phenomenal songwriting and arranging talents documented and available to a wider public was a feat long overdue. Accompanying the project was going to be a second disc, “Live at Club Magnon”, featuring a live recording of Gregg performing to a small group of friends and fans in what was going to be a little ‘dinner theater’ mocked up in Dayton’s Cro-Magnon Studios. Unfortunately, Gregg’s illness and eventual passing brought these production plans to an end before they could be completed. That project never coming to fruition remains an absence I feel to this day.
Gregg was not just a compatriot of mine in the creative world, but a dear friend, whose loss was profoundly felt on so, so many levels, and whose absence continues to echo onward throughout the years.
— AV; Big Beef Records
"The Man Who Rocked"
"Local musician Gregg Spence leaves a legacy of good times, rock 'n' roll and amazing talent"
By Don Thrasher
Published in the independent Dayton newspaper Impact Weekly
On Friday, Jan. 21, Gregg Spence, one of Dayton's most talented musicians, passed away after a valiant fight with stomach cancer. In his final days at Hospice of Dayton, the 32-year-old was surround by his devoted parents Don and Marilyn, fiancee Ashley Deem, and countless friends and family members.
He was known by many as a loyal friend, multi-talented musician and ardent supporter of local music. Spence was a soft-spoken songwriter with a large heart, an anarchist's spirit, a wicked sense of humor and an astounding wealth of inner strength. Despite being diabetic, he was an active musician, contributing to some of the area's best underground bands over the last two decades.
Spence first made a name for himself on the local club scene in the late 1980s. At the time, he was playing guitar and singing in the scrappy punk trio the Underdogs along with Ian Uppstrom (bass/vocals) and Ben Schelker (drums/vocals).That band imploded before receiving the credit it was due, but the Underdogs delivered some ragged and glorious sets of earnest and catchy punk rock during its tenure.
Even then, Spence was doing solo shows, delivering
chronicles of real-life (aging, dead-end jobs, failed
love)in the guise of a singer/songwriter, while
alternately slashing at his Rickenbacker like Billy
Bragg or picking his acoustic guitar clean and clear like
T-Bone Burnett. Even in his early 20s, Spence was capable
of writing songs of amazing power and honesty, traits
that would remain in more recent songs like the beautiful
"She's Like Church."
Over the years that followed, the talented songwriter, often took a background role in groups with his friends and never again fully asserted himself as a band leader. After some time off following the demise of the Underdogs, Spence joined the Raging Mantras. The local art rock band featured current Guided By Voices drummer Jim Macpherson.
When the Mantras folded, Ed Lacy and Nick Kizirnis and Spence recruited drummer Matt Espy and formed Cage. The quartet practiced a brand of modern rock that incorporated elements of pop, punk, new wave and experimental rock. Cage released a couple of 7" singles and one LP, Magnificent Propaganda Opportunity (Simple Solution Records). Some of the LP's best cuts were Spence compositions like "Return To Cold" and "Days Like These (Java King)."
While still in Cage, Spence offered to play drums for a new project by Sharon Gavlick and Kattie Dougherty. The band was Real Lulu and Spence's practical experience was instrumental in transforming the trio into a tight, garage rock outfit. In Real Lulu, he soon proved he was as good and creative on the skins as he was as a songwriter.
When Cage broke up in January 1996, Spence and Kizirnis turned their attention to an instrumental combo called The Mulchmen. For four years, the trio - Spence (drums), Kizirnis (guitar, theremin) and Brian Hogarth (bass) - blurred the lines between surf music and instrumental rock. The Mulchmen began as a fun little side project. Nothing more than a couple of friends, veteran rockers quickly approaching 30, getting together to have fun, rip on each other and learn a bunch of surf covers. As an added laugh, they decided to try their hand at writing original instrumental tunes.
The months passed and soon the Mulchmen had a set full of mostly original material and, as it turned out, a bunch of damn good songs. The musicians were having so much fun - and so were the growing crowds that flocked to the Mulchmen's shows - that they decided to concentrate more on new material. Soon the side project was the primary musical focus of Kizirnis, Spence and Hogarth. The group's discography includes a 7" EP, a cassette-only release of covers and two full length CDs.
Through the years, Spence would periodically perform as a solo act at local coffeehouses, share club dates with local bands and open for touring performers, but it seemed secondary to having fun playing in bands with friends. In 1998, he made a conscious effort to pursue his solo career and began working harder on new songs. Spence was a mid-way through recording his long awaited solo debut when he was hospitalized last year. He leaves behind a vast catalog of songs, some recorded in the studio, others captured on tape during live shows. It's too early to tell what will become of this material.
Throughout 1999, Kizirnis and Big Beef head honcho Andy Valeri organized a series of concerts and live theatrical events in support of Spence. Because he's been such an integral piece of Dayton's musical backbone for the past 15 years, organizers had no trouble lining up local bands to support their brother-in-need. The events held from June through November featured local acts Guided By Voices, Toxic Reasons, the Mulchmen, Shrug, Johnny Smoke, Robthebank, the Altered Statesmen, Heike, swearing at motorists, Real Lulu, Nostromo, Sundrop, Big Marauder, the Mystery Addicts, Let's Crash and King Eel at venues like Gilly's, 1470 West, Canal Street Tavern and Bogart's in Cincinnati.
At Spence's request Kizirnis and Hogarth kept the the Mulchmen going while he was undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Brian Hoeflich, Spence's hand-picked understudy, filled in on drums for a series of shows the group played at Canal Street Tavern. The Mulchmen quietly donated proceeds of these shows to the Spence Fund.
The only reason Gregg Spence never achieved wide spread fame, is because he never really wanted it. Most of his idols, from the Misfits to Richard Thompson, never attained mainstream "superstar" status. I think it's telling that one of Dayton's best songwriters and singers spent the last decade pursuing projects that didn't necessarily showcase his best assets. Not to slight his drum work with the Mulchmen or Real Lulu, or his excellent production work on the Mulchmen's final LP Greetings From Planet Stupider (Big Beef), but in my mind he is foremost a songwriter of great talent.
He leaves behind a legacy as a true friend and talented musician. Unfortunately Spence's songs may not end up on any top 100 lists - but, for that matter, neither will those of his beloved Richard Thompson. However, for those of us touched by his talent and warm spirit, the music of Gregg Spence will live on in our hearts forever.
L: Gregg's one vocal number with Real Lulu, doing The Sonics' garage rock classic "The Witch"
R: Gregg (standing center) in the Canal Street Tavern band room with the great Nashville-based band Iodine,
after one of their many gigs together, with either of Gregg's bands at the time, Real Lulu (here) or Cage.
R: Gregg on the drums with The Mulchmen in Cyberteknics Studios, working on songs for the band's
debut full-length "Louder Than Dirt, Thicker Than Mud!"
Gregg (standing) with friend and Cage bandmate drummer Matt Espy