The death of John Cipollina last year robbed us all of a rare and beautiful talent. It was a theft which was felt particularly deeply here at Terrascope Towers, where his guitar playing had long been held in the highest possible esteem. We racked our brains about how best to pay tribute to the man and his music, biding our time until the right moment came along since we didn't want to jump on the bandwagon of hastily-penned summaries of his life which appeared in just about every other like-minded publication shortly after his untimely demise. A brief obituary therefore appeared in Terrascope 2, and now almost a year later we are finally ready to do the job properly: an interview with John, sadly the last he was ever able to complete, undertaken on behalf of the Terrascope by long-time devotee CHIP LAMEY. It's a threehanky job this, so without further ado let's cut to the introduction credits:
By now I'm sure most, if not all, Ptolemaic Terrascope readers are familiar with the rich legacy of the late John Cipollina. This Mill Valley native came to the world's attention via Quicksilver Messenger Service, the band he helped form. His guitar duels with Gary Duncan at the Fillmore and Avalon Ballrooms made them one of the most exciting bands to emerge from the late-sixties San Francisco Sound era. After five albums with Quicksilver, John Cipollina departed in the early seventies to form the highly-touted Copperhead. Nastier than Quicksilver, big things seemed in store for John. But, that was not to be. Undaunted, John Cipollina contented himself with playing in half a dozen bands at a time, cutting records for small indies and German/Italian labels. In many ways, it's his playing with groups such as Terry & The Pirates, Raven, Nick Gravenites, Dinosaurs, Zero and the scores of groups that never released vinyl but exist through fanatical tape traders, that tell the true story of John Cipollina. The man loved to play. Maybe his post-Quicksilver bands lacked the magic of that infamous group, but his playing continued to soar to new heights with each project.
John Cipollina was a lucky man. He possessed what so many musicians strive for, a distinctive stamp that set him apart from others. Slap any of his records on the turntable and be immersed in his shimmering leads that are the combination of finger-picking, bending the strings and yanking away at the tremolo bar. Sometimes it's not even his leads that demand attention, but what he does behind another guitarist. Proof of that are the little fills he used behind Steve Kimock on Zero's rendition of Hendrix's 'Little Wing'. John's greatest artistic triumphs are when he was paired off with another guitarist, battling it out. In Quicksilver it was Gary Duncan; in Copperhead, Gary Philippet, in Terry & The Pirates it was Greg Douglass and in The Dinosaurs, Barry Melton. John got a kick from feeding off another guitarist. In the last year of his life he spent several months in the hospital, yet still managed to play over a hundred gigs that year. Even the night he passed away he was scheduled to play. Towards the end, he was having trouble walking, often being forced to sit onstage and use a wheelchair for transportation. But that didn't stop him from jamming. John Cipollina was endowed with a God-given talent, and he dug sharing it with the faithful in the San Francisco clubs and those who anxiously waited for him to venture on one of those rare excursions out of the Bay area.
[Photo of John Cipollina in 1968]
What follows is John's last interview. Thanks to long-time fan and President of the John Cipollina fan dub (he also aided John with too many other services to mention), Mike Sommavilla, I gave John some questions to answer on one of his hospital stays. He kindly took the time to reply to them. John remained optimistic about his future. There were numerous projects in the works, including a second solo album (he actually cut demos on a four-track in hospital). But, unfortunately, the emphysema which cursed him finally took his fife on Memorial Day, 1989 in Mill Valley - the town in which he had been born forty-six years before. There were a lot of notes struck in those years, but nothing hit harder than the opening riff of 'Pride Of Man', the opening cut on Quicksilver's debut album. That was the opening of a Pandora's Box, and those of us who fell under his magical spell were truly blessed. Fortunately, thanks to unreleased gems and reissues, John Cipollina's legacy still breathes.
PT: What kind of music did your first bands, Penetrators and Deacons, play?
JC: Top-forty of the day. 'Boney Maronie', 'Mona', 'Who Do You Love', 'What'd I Say'. Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino and Elvis Presley.
PT: Were you into surf music?
PT: You have one of the most distinctive guitar styles. What makes it so unique, and how did it develop?
JC: I have no idea. Most of my technique was self-taught, so I have nothing to compare it to.
PT: Who were some of your early influences?
JC: Scotty Moore. Link Wray. James Burton. Chet Atkins. Les Paul. Merle Travis. Leadbelly. Carlos Montoya. Howard Roberts.
PT: How did you meet Jim Murray and did the two of you perform live together prior to meeting Dino Valenti?
JC: I met Jim Murray in a crash pad in Marin. We had mutual friends. We never played together before starting Quicksilver.
PT: How did Dino Valenti approach you about forming a band?
JC: I was recommended to Dino, probably because I was the only guy playing an electric guitar, let alone lead, at the time.
PT: Did you rehearse much before Dino went to prison?
JC: No. We talked about rehearsing one night and planned to rehearse the following night but it never happened. The next day Dino got busted.
PT: With Dino gone, how long did it take you to begin playing as Quicksilver?
JC: No time at all. We just started playing together.
PT: Can you tell me something about your original drummer, Casey Sonoban. Who was he and what happened to him?
JC: Casey Sonoban was a drummer, world traveller and a mad artist. He was a jazz drummer in the late 1950's. He went to India in the late fifties, early sixties and picked up some Eastern influences. Sonoban is currently living in Big Sur. Good ol' Casey Sonoban!
PT: What kind of things had Skip Spence been doing before playing guitar in Quicksilver?
JC: Who knows? When I met him he was playing guitar in the Sausalito Park. We just got along, hung out together, and he played in the early Quicksilver Messenger Service.
PT: Did you ever play live with Skip Spence?
PT: Were you familiar with the Brogues before Gary Duncan and Greg Elmore joined Quicksilver?
PT: Being that Dino Valenti was managed by Tom Donahue, did this contact help in any way? I know Valenti cut some demos for Donahue's Autumn Records label. Did you do any demos for them?
[Photo of Quicksilver, 1966 L-R: Greg Elmore, Gary Duncan, John Cipollina, Jim Murray, David Freiberg.]
JC: Unfortunately, no. Dino was in jail. We called Tom and told him we were Dino's band, but he wasn't interested in supporting us, which is basically what we were asking him to do. He finally stopped answering our calls. Dino must have been a real pain to Tom.
PT: How early in Quicksilver's history did your dual leads with Gary Duncan take shape? As a fan, those instrumental breaks were truly exciting. How did it feel to play with Duncan?
JC: We got into double leads right from the start, partly at my insistence. I've always liked double leads, and just because no-one was doing double leads it didn't stop us.
PT: You were on a television show The Maze, one on PBS [Public Broadcasting Service], and in the film 'Revolution': are there any other films/videos that exist of early Quicksilver?
JC: Probably, but I don't have any of them. We did a video for Dino's Song, filmed by Capitol and shot down on the houseboats in Sausalito, but nobody had televisions in those days so we never saw them. I don't know anyone who knows about those things.
PT: What was your first recording experience like? Were you in awe of the machines and money involved? Was there much pressure from Capitol?
JC: I was in awe, and scared to death. I knew there was a button that could erase everything and I was afraid I'd find it. My first sessions with Capitol were pretty much the same. The pressure was on because the industry was straight, unlike Quicksilver Messenger Service.
PT: Your 'Happy Trails' album was cut live; did you record a lot of concerts to get this one album?
JC: We recorded two concerts in New York and two concerts in San Francisco. Most of that album was taken from one of the New York concerts.
PT: Backtracking for a moment, why did Jim Murray leave before recording your first album?
JC: Jim Murray left because he was basically lazy and the idea of going into the studio and playing the same song over and over scared the hell out of Jimmy. It was too much like hard work - he retired.
PT: When Dino got out of Jail, did he expect to be a member of Quicksilver?
JC: Yes and no. Yes, he considered it. No, he didn't like all the guys in the band, or think they were professional enough. But, he hung out with us anyway.
PT: What did Valenti think of Quicksilver's music?
JC: He had mixed feelings.
PT: It always confused me that Valenti had previously played with Freiberg, Murray and yourself, yet Gary Duncan quit Quicksilver to go to New York to work with Valenti in The Outlaws. How did this happen?
JC: It just happened like that. Duncan left Quicksilver Messenger Service and went to New York where he ran into Valenti, who was doing a solo act in the Village. They teamed up and spent a year trying to form a band before moving back to San Francisco and getting in Quicksilver.
PT: Not only was that development odd, but to make it more confusing Nicky Hopkins, an English pianist, was Duncan's replacement. How did Nicky end up joining Quicksilver?
JC: Quicksilver was the first band I'd played in without a piano. I always missed the keyboard, so when Gary left, instead of trying to replace a guitarist, I looked for a piano player. Nicky was the best. It seemed natural to me. Besides we became good friends right from the start.
PT: Looking back, what are your thoughts on the 'Shady Grove' sessions?
[Photo of Quicksilver Messenger Service]
JC: The 'Shady Grove` sessions were a lot of fun. We rehearsed the material as a three-piece for almost a year, so we knew the songs and recorded them fast. It was the first album Quicksilver Messenger Service did on sixteen track, so we spent a lot of time mixing.
PT: I realise you weren't playing with them at the time, but do you know if Duncan and Valenti did any recording in New York?
JC: Not that I know of.
PT: Duncan and Valenti joined Quicksilver onstage New Year's Eve 1969. Did you ask them to rejoin right after that show?
JC: Yes. We had a lot of fun. Bill Graham offered us a gig the following week in New York and we took it. Before the night was over we booked a Texas tour with The Dead - it just sort of happened.
PT: The 'Just For Love', and parts of 'What About Me', albums were recorded in Hawaii the summer of 1970. What was it like to record there instead of California?
JC: It was wonderful. We had a hunting lodge converted into a recording studio. They didn't even have electricity on that side of the island. It was paradise.
PT: You met up with Jim Murray while in Hawaii. What had he been doing since leaving Quicksilver Messenger Service?
JC: Just being comfortable in Hawaii. He hadn't done any playing since he left Quicksilver Messenger Service.
PT: Were you surprised when Nicky left the band?
JC: No. We talked about it. We both quit at the same time, but I stayed on to fulfil contractual obligations.
PT: It must have been tough to leave the band you put together. Were you uncomfortable with the songs Valenti was writing, or did you just want to play with some new people?
JC: It wasn't so tough. I wanted to try some new stuff, and a lot of the new material didn't give me much to do. Besides, I wanted to branch out. Quicksilver Messenger Service's format seemed old. I was heading towards Copperhead.
PT: The cover for 'What About Me' made it seem as if Nicky and you were still members. Did this bother you?
JC: No, because we were members when it was recorded.
PT: You began work on a Jim Murray solo album. What was that like?
JC: We started to put tracks down with Murray. I brought a lot of musicians over and ended up getting the members of Copperhead together. Before I knew it, I had another band going.
PT: Do the tapes of the solo Murray project still exist?
JC: Not that I know of, although I think Jimmy has some tracks with him in Hawaii.
PT: How quickly did Copperhead fall into place?
JC: I left Quicksilver in early October 1970, Copperhead had reared its ugly head by late December and the first gigs were in January 1971.
PT: Copperhead's album had a lot of energy, which was in sharp contrast to your last few albums with Quicksilver. Did it feel good to rock out again?
JC: It sure did.
PT: Did Copperhead tour to promote their album?
JC: We had our album out in mid-1973, but due to bad timing, we had no support from CBS. We signed with just Sunshine Records, who were part of Paramount. But they didn't come through for us, so when they didn't have proper distribution as agreed, we broke the contract and signed with CBS. The only person we dealt with was Clive Davis. The day before the record was released, he resigned due to a drug scandal. No-one knew whether Copperhead was for real or a drug write-off. By the time they found out, two years later, Copperhead was no more.
PT How much unreleased Copperhead material exists?
JC: Almost another album's worth. In fact, CBS talked us into taking some stronger material off our album to save for the second one, since they felt sure the first would go gold.
PT: Before the Quicksilver reunion, you did an album with the Welsh band, Man. How was it?
JC: Yeah, they were real fun guys.
PT: Did the Quicksilver reunion run smoothly, or was it awkward?
JC: It was easy. It was probably the easiest Quicksilver album I ever did.
PT: Who came up with the idea, and did you tour?
JC: Ron Umile, who was working for Dino and Gary at the time, came up with the idea. When asked if I would be involved, I said sure, as long as we used the original members. There were some gigs.
PT: I heard a rumour that a tape exists of you with John Hammond. What's the scoop on that?
JC: Hell, I don't know! There was a night at John's loft in New York City. The tape machine was running, but I never heard it. John Hammond is a great guy, though.
PT: What are your Quicksilver mates currently up to?
JC: Gary Duncan is the co-owner of a 24-track recording studio in San Francisco. Dino Valenti lives in Black Point, the extreme north end of Marin County. He survived a heavy brain operation to remove a tumour. He's lucky to be alive. He plans to unleash a new group this year. He's got everyone but a bass player. Greg Elmore drummed with me in Terry & The Pirates and Problem Child.
PT: Were you satisfied with your days in Quicksilver?
JC: I had a good time, but I don't think the group ever reached its potential. We were pretty lame in the studio, but we were a kick ass live group. Looking back, we really didn't do that many live tours. We could have evolved a lot further if we had done more tours. We basically worked our arrangements out on stage. We were a weird group.
PT: What's your home studio like?
JC: I refuse to have a studio in my home other than a simple four track and a couple of microphones for those late night creative urges, or adding to tracks made at my studio. I've had a private studio in the same place for over eleven years, equipped with 2-4-8 track machines. It's permanently set up with drums, keyboards, guitar and bass amps, and about three dozen guitars, basses and lap steels. It's set up so I can walk in, plug in and play. I can also turn off the master power and go home. It's kind of like 'Our Gang's' club-house.
PT: Finally, what sort of guitars & amps are you presently using?
JC: Amplifiers are modified 1966 Fender Twin Reverbs. I've got three of them. I just like the '66 model. My main amp is one I've used since Quicksilver. I use JBL speakers. I always have. My main guitar these days is a 1980 Carvin DC-150 stereo. I've been using it since 1980. I also have a 1985 DC-150 which I use for a spare. I also have a few Les Pauls for open 'C' tuning, a 1952 for slide and a 1979 25th Anniversary for fingering. I used a 1961 Gibson SG for fourteen years, through all of Quicksilver and Copperhead. It's currently being rebuilt, for the fourth time. Maybe I'll use it again. I use Fenders a lot in the studio. Danelectros sometimes. I've got over forty guitars. I love them more than people...
Produced, directed and arranged by: Charles P. Lamey Engineered by Phil.
Those of you wishing to keep up with John's music are encouraged to write to
Mike Sommavilla, PO Box 5593, San Francisco, CA. 94101 USA. He's doing his
bit to keep the memory of John Cipollina alive.
Ptolemaic Terrascope, Winter 1990/91, Issue No. 6
[Ptolemiac Terrascope, nowadays 'an illustrated occasional', has a web site at www.terrascope.org.
Chip Lamey has a web site at www.videocrypt.com.
Many thanks to Chip Lamey and Phil McMullen for kindly permitting me to put this interview online.]