JOHN CIPOLLINA IN THE 70'S

"Not harsh and crabbed as dull fools suppose, but musical as is Apollo's lute."

Friday 4th April 1975

This morning at eleven a.m., I played 'Nightingale' and then observed two minutes' silence for Brinsley Schwarz. It was five years ago, to the day, that I saw them standing at the crossroads of their career, playing the Fillmore East in New York. If this article were about them, I would now be going on to explain how they went on to become the best band of their type in the world - but we'll go into that when the time is right ... like when a Nick Lowe song is topping the charts which will certainly be this year, or I'll eat my typewriter.

Brinsley having closed their set and shambled off the stage, out of the wings came Quicksilver Messenger Service - and though they were already just past their peak, I was transfixed. In spring 1970, for a daydreaming Bucks County yokel, it was like standing on the moon. And if I shut my eyes now, I can still see John Cipollina standing out there on the right, all tall skinny hunched and craggy, smacking fat chords out of his Gibson, spitting the chorus line "poor boy" into the mike, and then whirling away on a solo which had me feeling as though I were being pelted to death with five pound notes. It's all a question of time, place and condition, I suppose ... you can read about it in rare and ancient copies of ZigZag 12 if you're interested.

Part One: The Story So Far

A sudden resurgence of interest in John Cipollina, ignited by Deke Leonard and his Man gang and fuelled by sporadic articles and snippets from the Melody Maker's San Fran man Tod Tolces, seems likely to result in the fellow actually setting foot on an English stage ... the realisation of a life-long ambition for him, and the culmination of many years of wishing and hoping by ZigZag readers. As I scratch this, three Man/Cipollina shows have been scheduled at the Roundhouse on May 24-25-26. Are you gonna be there? I've got my invite!

A propitious time, therefore, to scrape the dust off my yellowing interview notes and update the Cipollina saga which began in ZigZag 38 (Cowboys and Indians in Marin County) and carried on in ZigZag 41 (Did they fall or were they pushed?) only to remain suspended in mid-air when I got heaved out of the magazine by O. D. McGuire's thugs. Petty differences having now been resolved, we can continue unimpeded.

As you may recall, we broke off at the point when Cipollina had flown the crumbling Quicksilver coop in October 1970, leaving Dino ("the revolution must be mighty close at hand") Valente to pioneer fresh areas of painful boredom.

Quicksilver, instead of exploding in glory, slowly and eventually fizzled and popped their way down the golden road to obscurity.

I was attacked by a staggering barrage of vitriolic mail and ghastly personal abuse the last time I criticised Quicksilver but I really do feel that they blew it completely and monstrously. For their time, the early albums were magnificent; milestones in rock history, but the last three were for the most part (in my opinion) bloody horrid. The lyric of 'What About Me' could reach into your heart if you wanted to let it (though a feeling of inconsistency pervading Valente's deeds, words and image prevents me from allowing it to) but where guitars should be screaming, you can only hear the Salvation Army. The lyric of 'Long Haired Lady' on the other hand, is a tombola collage of all the worst underground/psychedelic cliches (oh, 'Lucy In The Sky', what horrific offspring you spawned!), with Dino actually having the barefaced nerve to admit that he experiences 'Unicorns prancing in my mind'.

Despite Dino's assertion that 'it would represent the group's finest work', the final effort, 'Comin' Thru', turned out to be no more than a rearrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic. The new organist, Chuck Steaks, turns out to be San Francisco's answer to Reginald Dixon, and even the sleeve, which is possibly an artist's impression of what the inside of Mr Valente's head looks like, is dreadful. Quicksilver were ready to sink - and now, three years later, it seems that they have. (I'd be interested to know what's happened to them if anybody knows.)

Due possibly to his never having been interviewed or even quoted more than a couple of times, and his arrogant stage stance in Quicksilver, a lot of people seem to be under the impression that Cipollina is an unapproachable, snarling monstrosity who wouldn't condescend to rub two words together for a journalist ... but it seems this misconception is based on the fact that hardly anybody has ever expressed any desire to interview him! I was apparently the first bloke to have the impetus and enthusiasm to track him down since he left Quicksilver. When the press officer from Columbia (who contributed to my air fare in return for my interviewing any ten of their acts) told him that his name was top on my priority list, he was loath to believe it ... he had no idea what a reputation and cult following he has in Britain.

The interview came together at the second attempt; after a misunderstood message which left the unfortunate fellow drinking endless coffees while he waited for me to arrive (I never did), I made about twenty phone calls to various managers, friends and chicks in a desperate attempt to relocate him before I had to fly home. A message eventually reached him at Lake Tahoe, a resort some 150 miles north-east of San Francisco - and in a burst of unprecedented courtesy, he motored back to meet me at Frank Werber's Trident restaurant in Sausalito.

No sooner had we sat down than the swirls of the Copperhead album came over the PA ... I guess they appreciate Mr Cipollina, who turned out to be one of the most forthcoming, interesting and cordial people I've ever met.

He'd been up to Lake Tahoe to test out a car he'd just bought - "a 1965 Volvo with the original paint job ... not a scratch on it" - and had, inevitably, been waylaid by some nubile young maiden.

After discussing the late sixties at great length (see previously mentioned issues) we got on to his post-Quicksilver activities.

Part Two: The Lost Jim Murray Album

"My first project upon leaving Quicksilver Messenger Service was to produce an album by Jim Murray, who was originally in Quicksilver with me - we were the first two members. The fact that the album never appeared could be attributed to 'record company hang-ups'; United Artists were going to do it, but for some reason decided not to at the last minute .... I can't work record companies out - the closer I've been involved with them, the more confused I've become about their mysterious ways.

"We cut at least a whole album, in my living room, as a matter of fact, with a 3M eight-track and a load of other equipment that we brought in ... it was kind of a fun thing - we didn't leave the house for over three weeks. We kept the tapes running about 20 hours a day, with two engineers taking 8-hour shifts at the board, but at the end of about a month I'd had enough - I had to get them all out of my house. It was fun, alright, and we got (as you can imagine) a lot of material recorded - with contributions from everyone who happened to pass by the house ... like Paul Butterfield played some harmonica (sitting on three cases of beer), Mike Bloomfield was on piano (he'd cut his finger and it was all bandaged up), Nick Gravenites was playing a 12-string acoustic (sitting in a rocking chair), my little brother Mario was playing bass, and I was playing steel and slide guitar. Gravenites' wife and some of the girls that were at the house did back-up vocals, and we got really loose ... it was party-time; a lot of indulging, a lot of laughs ... staying up forever, with no trouble at all.

"You see, I have this house in Corte Madera, about 6 miles up the road from Mill Valley, and that is just a 24 hour house where I can go and make all the noise I want. I found that if I took all the instruments and recording equipment out of my house in Mill Valley, and moved them out to my other place, which was looked after by a roadie, then all the musicians would go there to play and I could also have a bit of sanity, and peace if I ever wanted it."

Part Three: Copperhead Falls Together

"There was this crazy kid who had come out from Boston with Earl Weinstein (of Copperhead's management) and he was a real red hot - he kept calling me up all the time, and I eventually got to meet him at this annual guitar show that I get involved in every year in Mill Valley ... actually it was his old lady that I noticed to begin with - I was talking to her and she kept saying 'You've got to meet my old man - he's a drummer' and I was saying, 'Sure baby - he's a drummer' - and then he walked up and said 'Hi, my name's David - I'm a drummer, and I mean a good drummer'. 'Well,' I thought, 'this guy's really off the wall - I might as well chance it - see where he's at.' He was saying some real strange things, like 'I've got a garage with egg cartons on the walls' and when the time came that I needed a drummer, I called him up.

"So, round he came, and I stuck him in a corner in my living room; there's a little alcove which is a perfect drum booth, and this floor heater with a rug over it makes a perfect conga stand. So anyway, we started playing and David (his name was David Weber) became a regular visitor to the house ... whenever musicians dropped by for a jam or to party, David would come over to drum - and so later, he became a logical choice for Copperhead.

'Well, there I was, hanging out in Mill Valley, playing with Murray and recording albums that were never to come out, jamming a lot with various people, and both the drummer and I were getting tired of just jamming. Now, Pete Sears had just left Stoneground and was about to go back to England to do another Rod Stewart album ... Pete and his lady, Lucy, had been living in this sort of communal existence with all the Stoneground family, but couldn't seem to get on with all the American insanities and he quit in December 1970 (after which Mario played bass with Stoneground for a few weeks). Pete came over to see me and flipped out at my den, because I've got a fairly large gun collection ... he really flipped out on them all.

"Where was I? Oh yes; around this time (winter 70/71), I had thoughts of producing this other guy called Mark Unobsky, who's a super guitar player and has shown me all sorts of picking styles - writes great songs and sings and plays ... he was later in the original Copperhead, too.

"There was a jam at my parents' house (they have a very large living room) - a sort of rehearsal for a live radio show that a bunch of people were going to do. Mario was playing bass, Jerry Garcia pedal steel, Pete Sears was on piano, Micky Waller on drums and then Mark and I joined in. Well, Mark had never played with other people before but I plugged him in and away he went; whenever he gets excited he plays more precisely and faster and then he gets crazy - and he just began to blow everyone away ... and the only person who was able to keep up with the mad pace with him was Pete -they both ended up by laughing themselves to a standstill.

"To stay with Mark Unobsky for a moment; he subsequently became Copperhead's guru, spiritual adviser and weapons expert ... taught everybody in Copperhead to throw knives - we're all pretty good knifethrowers now, and he's also improved our shooting - we're pretty good shots, too. If there's an antique piece, or gun, that I'm interested in buying, he's the one that can usually research it and he knows all sorts of stuff about how the new Beretta compares with an old Styer. Him and another guy called Jim Jensen were really the strong influences outside the group - Jim was a crazy wizard/jeweller/sculptor and has helped us with lyrics too ... he did 'Kamikaze'.

"Anyway, Pete came round to see me (at Mark's insistence), and we played a lot more stuff together - and he flipped out over my collection of Winchesters and moved in - said 'OK if I stay here?' and I said 'Sure'. (Nicky Hopkins did the same - fell in love with the same room and ended up staying 14 months.) Pete was there about six months, I guess, and we did a lot of partying, jamming, running around ... we had a kind of gang revolving around me, Pete and David the drummer. Pete left and came back - went to play with John Baldry, and to do another Rod Stewart album, then he came back and joined Copperhead.

"David Weber knew this guitarist called Jim McPherson, who - he said was really super ... - he gave me such a hype on him that I called him up. So he came over, we checked the situation out and found we liked each other - he got along with my music, I got along with his morbid sense of humour ... anyway, it turned out that he could also play piano, but was really a bass-player. Well, my brother Mario, who was only 16 and was playing bass for us, found it kind of strange playing with all these crazy people at night and going to school during the day, so he decided to divert all his energies into his studying and Jim moved to bass, doubling on piano. Then we brought in Gary Phillippet.

"I'd known Gary for about four years prior to our playing in Copperhead - he and I were managed by the same people when I was in Quicksilver and he was in Freedom Highway - and we did a lot of gigs together. Then I didn't see him for years until one day he hitchhiked over in the rain to give me an old Remington rolling block, which I thought was really far out. Anyway, my then current manager was advising me to check out Gary as a potential group member, and all of a sudden we all came together - five guys, plus Mark ... Copperhead was ready!"

Part Four: Copperhead Falls Apart

"We started playing the weirdest gigs; we played a private party in Mexico for Alexandro Jodorowsky, the guy who did El Topo, and then we did the Crater Festival in Hawaii, and altogether we played a lot of very strange places ... we started to get into the club scene and the bizarre private party scene. Copperhead was always a bizarre band and a band of change ... it touched on a lot of musicians, and was more of a concept than anything else ... it was never a solid group in that sense, even though everyone who's ever been in it remains a lifetime member - l still keep in touch with them all.

"For instance, Pete Sears left, and Jim Hutchinson, a friend of Gary's came in to replace him - but I still see Pete a lot. He and I are thinking of starting a club for fliers; he's got his pilot's licence and I'm trying to get mine.

"We negotiated with Paramount and various other companies, but we ended up signing with Just Sunshine. Copperhead was always a rather unstable unit, however, and people had trouble understanding us ... and somehow there was a clash between our manager, who had the band's interests as his primary concern, and the record company, who somehow weren't clicking or at least, didn't seem to appreciate what we were about.

"So, we reopened negotiations with Clive Davis of Columbia and we signed with them - and, for a while, everything was going great. You see, in the first place, we wanted to play, do gigs - but the whole scene had changed ... you couldn't get gigs until you had an album out - and you couldn't get an album out until you had gigs!"

Their deal with Columbia was the culmination of months of negotiation by Copperhead's manager, Ron Polte. His side of the story is detailed in Fat Angel No. 10 (Cashing in Chips) (copies still available, folks), but briefly he was well aware of their potential, and he wheeled and dealed accordingly. After a series of 'audition' gigs at a Berkeley club called the Long Branch, Polte had whittled down the dozen or so record company offers to the point where only Columbia, Just Sunshine, A&M, RCA and Grunt remained in the running.

Pulling out of a Just Sunshine contract at the last minute, Polte went with Columbia - dealing directly with Clive Davis ... a mistake, as it turned out, through no fault of his own.

Their first (and last) album, Copperhead (KC 32250), a highly satisfactory waxing which topped the import charts for several weeks (but was never released here), practically slipped out unnoticed in May 1973. Somewhere along the line, the anticipated starshot ballyhoo had fallen through ... but strangely, nobody seemed to care too much.

"We cut the album which was a party - but there again, it wasn't enough of a party ... the trouble was that we were just looking for an excuse to go out and play 'live' - that's what we really wanted to do. But the only place we had to play in was the studio, so we recorded 15 tunes and put eight of them on the record ... but there was a perspective missing, and the pause when we switched labels kind of threw us.

"We felt we were really smart signing with Columbia, because we'd refused to deal with anybody but the president - we were really being cool, getting it together with Clive Davis, Mr Rock'n'Roll ... and then all of a sudden Clive got his walking orders. Then Jim McPherson, the piano player, disappeared, and everybody was saying "hey, why aren't you playing?" and then we decided "to hell with gigs - let's write some more music". So we wrote some more music.

"All Columbia knew was that we were Clive's boys - and they weren't sure what to do. You see, Clive got us direct from Mike Laing, who had done Woodstock and then formed Just Sunshine, and the people at Columbia couldn't believe the figures involved ... "Why did Clive spend so much on these guys? Who are they?" And we were nowhere to be seen! We were out playing some exotic party somewhere ... and we sort of got lost ... maybe they didn't think it was a good album, I don't know. They sold every copy that they printed, nevertheless ... sold them all in four days or something like that - and as far as I know, they don't intend to press and release any more ... we haven't heard any sales figures since the first week, when they told us 17,000. But you can't buy it anywhere in the San Francisco area - so, like I say, I can't understand what makes record companies tick.

"There are seven tracks still in the can, but I don't think Columbia would go for releasing them on any new album - they think of them as rejects from the first sessions."

Seemingly untroubled by dismal album sales, Copperhead partied on - playing gigs at Winterland in San Francisco, a New Year's Eve festival in Hawaii at the end of 1972, and numerous private functions - lugging massive amounts of gear around with them.

Cipollina: "I use a lot of equipment myself - always have. I'm having my system rebuilt at the moment, and it's prototyping itself into another monster. The one I use now is pretty much commercial amps, but the new one is going to be built from scratch, using Mackintosh power amps. With Copperhead I've been using 2 Standells, which are about 3ft 6ins high, 4 x 15in speakers, 2 x 150w amps, plus 3 cabinets with single 15's in them with 100 watts apiece, for the bass side of my guitar. For the top side, I use a Fender twin and a Fender dual showman wired together - so the pre-amps are wired in parallel and the power amps are on a footswitch - and it runs 8 horns (trombone bells which have been heated so they won't shatter). I run that through an echoplex, a modulux, a Leslie, an Ampeg scrambler, a fuzztone, a Countryman phaser, a Maestro fuzz tone - and I can control the whole lot with my foot. It's really quite simple once you get used to it; they've all got coloured lights, so I can tell by the light pattern exactly what's happening.

"The guitar I'm using now is a 1959 Les Paul SG, which has been extensively modified; I've put about 3000 dollars into it, I guess. It's been rebuilt and refinished. The fingerboard is the original but is heavily inlaid with mother of pearl, the peg-head is inlaid with ebony and mother of pearl, the back has been shaved and overlaid with rosewood. It has new frets and Shaller pegs with Grover deluxe buttons.

"Dan Armstrong rewired it for me, and a guy called Doc Kauffman, who designed the prototype of the Telecaster, checked the pickups, which are original. It's really been through the mill.

"I'm having another one done - just having it cosmetically fixed; it'll be all black and silver.

"That's one of my hobbies, my real loves; I used to be an artist and I love designing. I'm not that good a craftsman, but there are some good ones around and they can build and work I my designs.

Copperhead spent time looning around at Micky Hart's Rolling Thunder Studios - "The only recording studio in the world where the engineers strap on 6 guns before they sit down at the console" - but slowly and surely, the impetus of the group wound down and the band developed into what Cipollina euphemistically terms "a loose situation", though he assured me that it could spring into action at a moment's notice.

"We're even thinking of recording again ... but this time, we don't go into the studio until we feel right. We've got a lot of songs, but we're still looking for a piano player and a better relationship with Columbia."

Ron Polte's confidence must have received a considerable jolt when he saw Copperhead's chances wither and fade. His pre-deal talk of "guaranteed promotional budgets" and "twenty per-cent artist royalties" doesn't appear to have drawn particularly attractive dividends ... but then, you never know, do you? Cipollina and Earl Weinstein weren't too anxious to go into details, but when I asked if the rumours of a one million dollar deal were true, they shook their heads ... "in fact, it was one and a half million dollars".

I assume that figure was spread over five years - but even so, that is equal to 300,000 dollars a year, so who's complaining? Columbia Records maybe?

"Clive always had faith in us. If Clive was still there, we'd have gone all the way; we'd have toured and sold records, I'm sure. But the whole scheme of things has changed since he left and we've become a really elusive band; we can't figure Columbia out, and they sure as hell can't fathom us out. We became branded as "one of Clive's groups" - or else they assumed we were dope writeoffs" ... I don't know. I do know that they never ever ran an ad on the album.

"Copperhead has always had this philosophy which permeates all the members, past and present ... we are a good-time band; we have a good time and cause a good time ... pleasant troublemakers - so the Columbia situation in no way hangs us up.

"The last time I spoke to the people there, I told them that one of my biggest disappointments was not being taken out to lunch anymore! I'm not going back into the studio till I get at least two big dinners and a lunch! And some reassurance ... I mean, it is my business."

So far, it doesn't look as though CBS have sent a representative scuttling out to wine and dine Cipollina, who for this last year or so has been working off his excess energies playing with a Marin County band called Terry and the Pirates.

"The easiest way for me to play is live and loud ... to really feel the chord ringing through my body - I crave for that, so I go out and play ... but I'm also very anxious to get to England. I'm half English, yet I've never been there. All my friends have - like the Dead, who seem to delight in torturing me, telling me how good it is."

Dreams come true; all being well, he'll step out onto the Roundhouse stage in late May. Meanwhile, he continues to jam with Terry and the Pirates.

"I recorded an album with them - another abortive project; Warners paid the bill and then shelved it, but KSAN have a copy of the finished mixes and they sometimes play tracks from it."

Strangely, his best efforts remain in the can. "I played on Shake Off The Demon by Brewer & Shipley, on Charles Lloyd's Heavy Water, Micky Hart's Rolling Thunder and a few others, but I did a lot of work on a Fred Neil album for Just Sunshine (which was never released) and a bunch of stuff with Greg Rolie on organ, Mark Ryan on bass, me on slide, Neil Schon, Carlos Santana and Eric Clapton on guitars ... and we were all going at once! That was done in Wally Heider's in 1971 ... so it doesn't look as though that'll ever come out! Good fun, though."

So, while Copperhead, "a really dramatic, heavy rock'n'roll band", sit in limbo, John Cipollina has a good time. Let's see what he can pull out of his sleeve at the Roundhouse.

PETE FRAME

ZigZag #52, Volume 6 Number 2


The ZigZag 38 and 41 pieces also appeared in a different and shorter form as part of the QMS CD notes.


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Last updated: 19-Jul-2005