An Interview

by Jack Ortman

John Cipollina
[Photo: John Cipollina, by ]

When the legendary San Francisco guitarist John Cipollina died last summer, he was still an active musician, despite the fact that his health had been declining steadily. He had recently been hospitalized for his respiratory problems and often needed a cane or a wheelchair to get around.

But Cipollina lived to play the guitar and nothing was going to stop him from doing that except death. At the time of his passing, Cipollina had, in fact, been booked to play a gig at a San Francisco club called the Chi Chi Club. That show turned out to be a tribute to Cipollina instead, featuring members of several of the groups with which he worked as well as his brother Mario, bassist for Huey Lewis and the News. Later in the summer, a larger tribute concert was held at the Fillmore, including an appearance by the surviving original members of Quicksilver Messenger Service, the band with which Cipollina gained his initial recognition in the psychedelic '60s.

The following interview with Cipollina took place just months before his death. Cipollina shrugged off his health problems and concentrated on detailing not only his recent musical activities but his plans for the future. If he had any indication that his life was nearing the end, he ignored it. For John Cipollina the next gig was all that really mattered.

Goldmine: You took ill following a Northwest U.S. Dinosaurs' tour. How are you feeling these days, and does it feel good to be back in action?

John Cipollina: Yeah, actually, it's always good to be playing. I was sick back there, but it was a short-term illness, and I'm back in fighting form again.

Goldmine: What are the current projects that you are working on?

John Cipollina: Well, let's see, that's a good question. Besides live performances and stuff, I'm working on a couple of different album projects. They haven't quite solidified yet, however I plan on doing several album projects this year, with at least one solo album out of it.

Goldmine: Are there any plans to tour Europe, either with the Dinosaurs or Terry and the Pirates?

John Cipollina: There's talk about that. I mean, I'm a performer. I like playing Europe and I haven't played there in years, with the exception of Greece in 1988. I'm always ready to go play. All I need is someone to fill in a date in my calendar, which is the part I don't do. I have nothing to do with booking the dates, that's pretty much up to the promoters. The same thing with the northwest, east coast, midwest, the south; there are tentative plans, I'm just waiting for a confirmation.

Goldmine: What's happening with the Live In Greece LP you made with Nick Gravenites? How was the audience's reception for those shows?

John Cipollina: The audience reception was fantastic. It was a wonderful show and a breeze as far as the recording went. We all had a good time, we were treated quite well, both by the promoters and by the audience. As far as the plans for the album to come out, it was Nick and my understanding that the album would be out already. However, they had some problems, apparently, with their partners. They changed hands or had a falling out. There are new partners now. They flew in from Greece to my home in Mill Valley (Calif.) a couple of months ago, and made plans to get the album out again, went back to Greece, and I haven't heard anything since.

Goldmine: How many bands are you with currently, and is there one that is a favorite?

John Cipollina: That's a touchy question! I always like playing with Nick, we go back for years, just because it's a unique situation. Nick is a great vocalist. Actually, I just like playing and the reason I play in a lot of different bands is because it affords me the opportunity of a varied repertoire. Currently, as far as how many bands -- I'm playing right now in Fish and Chips and Fish Stu. I don't have any dates right now with Thunder and Lightning, but I imagine we will somewhere up the line. There's also Terry and the Pirates, and, of course the Dinosaurs. The Dinosaurs did a show last week and we've got a couple more coming up. And there are some other projects that are in the works at the moment that don't have any bookings. Like I said, I took off for three months, and now I'm just rescheduling dates. So I'll probably know more in the next month. I might add two or three groups to that roster.

Goldmine: Any plans to work with Zero again; either live or in the studio?

John Cipollina: I talked with those guys last night. There was a pre-Zero group called the Ghosts, that was Keith and Donna Godchaux's band. I had done some studio mixes of some stuff we did back in, I guess, the early '80s, which is supposed to be coming out on album. That was the last thing I've done with the gang from Zero. Zero's been recording a new album, and they've asked me to put some tracks on it, which I might do. I haven't confirmed any studio time, that's sort of up in the air. As far as touring, I don't know, it depends on my schedule as far as Zero goes.

Goldmine: On the east coast you're treated like a rock legend, in Europe, but in the San Francisco Bay area you are virtually overlooked. Why is this?

John Cipollina: Well, first of all, a local boy is a local boy. Plus, I do a lot of playing out here, when I'm not on the road. Like I said, I haven't been on the road for awhile. I took a hiatus for three months, and during that time, I didn't work around town, and when I came back, there was pandemonium. As far as the way I'm treated, like I said, I like to play, so, when I'm not on the road, I'll play the clubs around town because I like it. I'm a familiar sight, I guess, on the old marquees in the local clubs.

As far as how I'm revered or looked at in other places, that's always awed me anyway. When I go back east, of course, I am treated quite well, but I don't play that much back there. Same thing with Europe. I got a call from Germany yesterday, as a matter of fact, asking if I was still playing because it's been years since I've been there. So, I don't really know what to say, as far as how I am treated, I feel they'd love to have me play over there, and I'd like to play back there. I like playing especially Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Greece was a new one for us, that was great. The people are terrific back there. Scandinavia has done real well. There's been some talk of going to the Far East, to Japan and other places like that. It would be a new market for me and I welcome any place like that because I like to play.

Goldmine: What was, the most interesting session you've done, and Why?

John Cipollina: That's a loaded question, I don't really know. I guess there was one session that was really interesting that comes to mind that I did, I think in 1971. It was interesting, mainly, because it was unplanned. All of a sudden it just kinda happened. It was about 4 o'clock in the morning at Wally Heider's studio, which is now Alpha Omega on Hyde Street. I went down to do a session on David Crosby's solo album (If Only I Could Remember My Name), and on that date, he happened to be busy doing vocals. So I ended up just hanging out.

Wally Heider's had four studios in one building and three of them were going on that particular night, one of them was with Santana. Well, I was hanging out in the halls and Carlos came up to me and says, "Hey, man, you got a geetar (fakes Mexican accent)?" And I said, "Sure!" So we went in and jammed, and it was a very loose session, and we did three basics starting about 4:15 or 4:30 in the morning with 10 people on it.

So it was four drummers, four guitarists, a bass and an organ. The lineup was Santana's four drummers: Michael Shrieve on traps, Chepito on timbales, Greg Enrico on congas, and then some percussion. Gregg Rolie was on organ, Mark Ryan was playing bass and the guitar players were myself, Carlos Santana and this young kid (which was the first time I met him) Neal Schon. I think he was 15 at the time. I met him in the lobby. He was calling home to his mother telling her to write him an excuse to get out of school the next day, and I thought, "Hmmm, who is this kid?" And the fourth guitarist was Eric Clapton, who showed up. That was just kind of a fun session, mostly because it was unplanned. It just kind of came about.

Goldmine: You've recently worked on a movie soundtrack for the film '68. What was your role?

John Cipollina: I was the musical director, I believe. At least, that was my title. What I did was co-directed the music, which was modern American music or period music of the 60's and the rest was Hungarian music. A guy named Shawney Braun, a violinist and a main character in the movie, took care of that part. I did source or background music in between scenes and I had one scene in the movie where I put together a band, a mythical group from the 60's, that played a concert in the park. It was made up of members of Zero, Mike Wilhelm (ex-member of the Charlatans) was the bass player and we had a bunch of other people in that.

Goldmine: You have worked on a soundtrack for a skiing video called Skiing Extreme and appeared on the NBC TV show Midnight Caller. Do you see this as a new venture for you and do you have any plans to continue along these lines?

John Cipollina: Yeah, I enjoyed it quite a bit and I would hope to do it again. The Midnight Caller thing was interesting. Originally, I was told that they wanted to do several episodes, but, there again, I wait until they call me and then book something. And so far, they haven't. But, if they do, I would gladly do it again because it was enjoyable.

Goldmine: Do you see any difference between the audiences of the 60's and those of today?

John Cipollina: People are people. I guess there are differences. It's time and place. The people of today, of course, are a little different. I haven't changed that much. I'm still doing the same thing I've been doing from the late 50's on over which is, I play guitar. I play off of the audience, they feed energy to me. It's pretty similar between the 60's and the 80's, but it's different in the fact that there are different mediums now. During the 60's, gas was real cheap, the economy was a lot better. We were at war. Back then we had dance halls and today there are a lot of clubs. There was a medium venue at that time, something in between the big auditoriums and coliseums and the small clubs. During the 60's we had small clubs like the Matrix, which was very similar to the clubs we have around today, and then we also had the dance halls. Today, the dance halls are pretty much out, at least around San Francisco, even though the Fillmore has reopened. I mean, music changes and times change, but it seems like it's starting to get back to that era again.

Goldmine: What music do you currently listen to and does it have any influence on you?

John Cipollina: I listen to a lot of various music and always have. I find myself attracted to classical music because it's different and I steal a lot from it. I have no qualms about taking anything from any kind of music. I'll go through binges where I'll watch MTV and see what the kids of today are doing, just trying to keep in touch. I've really enjoyed Guns 'N Roses, INXS. I like everything, pretty much. Maybe that's one of my faults. To me, there's a vast similarity, especially when you listen to classical music a lot and then listen to rock 'n' roll, even though the mood and intensity has changed quite a bit over the years. In the 50's, it was very rebellious, and pre-San Francisco era music was pretty violent. That's not the case anymore. In the 60's, you got into an elevator and you heard Mantovani, or Henry Mancini tunes being played. Today, you get other things.

Goldmine: The Dinosaurs' album finally came out last year. You had signed with three different record labels and it took six years for that record to become available. What's the story with that?

John Cipollina: That's a good question and like I said, I'm just the guitar player. But it did take awhile for it to come out. As far as it being on three separate labels, we didn't really do a record contract, per se. What we did was we leased it. The Dinosaurs owned the album, we just leased it for a three-year period to three different record companies, and they have different markets. The first one was Relix Records, which handles the United States. Then we leased it in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland through Line Records and the third was the United Kingdom, which has Ace Records as its parent company and is on the Big Beat label. Actually, it's all the same record, it's just distibuted in three different markets.

As far as when the next one will come out, that's pretty much up in the air. If there is a reason for doing another one, if there is an interest in it from the audience's point of view, then, we'll do another one. It took us a while to do the last one because we're Dinosaurs: we move a lot slower than other bands. At the same time, the ski video that I did was cut and out in a matter of weeks. The movie '68 took over a year to put down, and I had to deal with them at the time, being musical director. Part of my conditions for working with the movie was that they did it around my schedule.

During the filming of that movie, I did three or four other tours at which point I couldn't do anything and they had to work around my schedule, but still we did it as expediently as possible. You could say it was done on spec. We did the movie, it was financed privately, and when it was finished, they got distribution sometime later with TriStar. It's out on home video now. That kind of work is interesting. I had gotten some previous experience doing the Twilight Zone sessions, working as a musician, and I got enough of a handle on it so that I could take over as musical director. The difference with that and other work is that you are working with time. For example, I would write a piece that the main priority would be that it is 46 seconds long and it would have to fit into one section of the movie. So, you watch the film and play along with the action, like if someone you reaches over, you might make a sound. There might be a lull in the movie, and then you play more and then quiet down for the vocal part, like when the dialogue would start. I do enjoy playing along with the visuals.

Goldmine: In closing, is there any message you would like to give to your fans out there?

John Cipollina: Yeah, I'd just like to say thanks, actually. I'm going on 46 and have been doing this and playing in bands since 1959. The reason I haven't done anything else is that I have been fortunate enough to have a market and have somebody interested enough in me doing that. As long as there's an interest, and I consider that an honor, then basically, I'm gonna keep on doing it.

Goldmine, November 3, 1989

[In the same issue: John Cipollina: The Life and Death of San Francisco's Most Prolific Guitarist
John Cipollina Discography]

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Last updated: 18-Oct-2004