"The only thing wrong here, man, is that the room service sucks." John Cipollina tilts his gaunt elongated face backwards and lets out a tremendous floor-rattling laugh, bellowing guffaw.

Cipollina, arguably the greatest improvising rock guitarist now stalking the earth is the first ex-member of Quicksilver Messenger Service, that legendary San Francisco band, to have made it to these shores.

At least, discounting our own Nicky Hopkins, quicksilver's pianist for 18 months at the turn of the decade, John holds that distinction.

In keeping with his legendary status, John is a suitably larger-than-life character. "I'm an introvert, really," he likes to say, "the extrovert part of my personality is a sorta luxury." The confusion inherent there serves as a remarkably apt self portrait. Cipollina is a stay-at-home former real estate salesman whose greatest love is performing, yet who hasn't toured for two years. His California home is stacked full of "collections of things"; guitars, guns, American comics, foreign coins, telephones, bones... He's infatuated by the Occult, yet has a good head for figures and down-to-earth rock biz money deals. He can quote advances and sales figures for most every project he's been involved in.

He's practical to the point of being virtually self-sufficient, and revels in designing amplification systems, re-modelling gun butts and inlaying guitar bodies. His infatuation with switch blades and artillery aligns him to the kind of street hoodlum persona that's clearly a part of his romantic vision, but he abhors violence. He eats five massive meals a day, yet is painfully thin. He reckons he loses four to five pounds in perspiration every time he plays a gig.

Right now, of course, John is here guest starring on the nationwide Man tour, but for all his respect for Deke Leonard and company, it isn't the Welsh group that dominate his enthusiastic conversation. Rather it's THAT band, the great hope that went sour on him - Quicksilver. Five years on, Cipollina's breathless monologue is never as animated as when discussing the group that he finally quit at the tail end of '70, having announced his decision to leave fully a year previously.

Quicksilver in its earliest form had been the brainchild of Dino Valenti, a nomadic carnival acrobat turned folk singer who was wowing the embryonic West coast rock scene in '64 with his Greenwich Village derived professionalism. Rapidly becoming a cult hero (the young Cipollina was entranced by his charisma) Valenti and his manager, the late Tom Donahue, decided to launch a San Francisco rock group.

The inspiration inevitably, was the sky rocketing success of the Beatles, but Valenti, ever the visionary, was going to take it all one stage further. Why, he'd have elaborate stage costumes for the band and a bevvy of Indian chicks playing beaded tambourines. In the end, he settled for John Cipollina and Jim Murray, John's friend and a potentially fine vocalist.

"Murray couldn't play a thing at the time. We didn't see that as a problem. We figured he could be the bassist."

But it wasn't to be. Before this trio played a note together Valenti was busted, and went down for a year-and-a-half. Meanwhile, a more likely bassist arrived on the scene, a twelve string folkie called David Frieberg who'd met Dino inside and had picked up on the singer's enthusiasm for electricity. Murray wasn't cutting it as a bassist anyway, so Cipollina taught him to play rhythm.

A drummer named Casey Sonoban was introduced and the ensemble took up rehearsals at the Matrix in San Francisco, shortly to be joined by guitarist Skip Spence, who proved to be better than the hapless Murray, who was shunted into the role of harmonica player.

Spence, of course, was snatched up by Jefferson Airplane and turned into a drummer. The older band, recalls Cipollina, were desperate to oust their then-current batteur.

Happy Trails

John Cipollina is a true legendary hero. His band, the pioneering Quicksilver, achieved cult status in Britain - although they never played here. But now fans will be able to see one half of the trailblazing twin lead line-up as Cipollina is now touring with Man. He talks to Steve Lake.

"Their drummer was a cop, who hated the smell of marijuana almost as much as he hated long hair. He was making the group paranoid. Marty Balin (the Airplane's founder) just picked on Skip at random. Said he looked like he could be a drummer."

Quicksilver was similarly having problems with the rhythm section. Eventually, drummer Greg Elmore was recruited from a Draft-torn little outfit called the Brogues, and with Elmore, in a kind of package deal, came Gary Duncan ("one of the best rhythm guitarists I'd ever heard").

Cipollina had been classically trained and the combination of his well schooled approach and Duncan's more simplistic style was obviously promising. Even so the band at this stage was very much a family affair. Commercial possibilities hadn't been seriously entertained. Mostly Quicksilver played at parties, and like their contemporaries the Grateful Dead they orchestrated a couple of Ken Kesey's notorious Acid Tests - hallucinogens motivating them to attempt to finance some obscure Occult/magick oriented community located in the California hills.

It never worked out. But Quicksilver, despite their considerable lethargy as individuals, began to gather momentum as a live band, with the Avalon ballroom (now a cinema) their primary stamping ground. Unlike the rest of the SF bands Quicksilver were in no hurry to record - they'd seen the Airplane and the Dead and the Great Society fall victims to their own impatience and bided their time until late '67, when they finally signed with Capitol, by which time Murray had left the group.

The rest of Quicksilver's story is largely documented on vinyl. Valenti was to loom back into the picture after "Happy Trails" taking Gary Duncan away for a year to attempt to launch an abortive band called the Outlaws ("they changed their rhythm section every other week"), but both Duncan and Valenti became Quicksilvers once more after a knockout gig at Winterland on New Year's Eve, 1969, where Gary & Dino jammed with the group that had recorded "Shady Grove" - Cipollina, Elmore and Freiberg plus Nicky Hopkins.

Response was so positive that Quicksilver became a sextet and took off for a cross country tour with the Grateful Dead almost immediately. From then on in, Quicksilver was Valenti's band. His was the most energetic personality, his was the most prolific song output... In short he was a natural leader. But Cipollina discounts the idea of a power coup, as has been suggested elsewhere.

"I've got nothing negative to say about Dino. He's a great songwriter, and a very strong, very tough sort of guy. We picked him, after all. And even though I was loosely the leader of the band before him, I was too lax a leader. We really needed a Dino Valenti."

When Cipollina left, however, he was a jaded shadow of his former self. Infighting had developed over degrees of commitment to Quicksilver. Hopkins had whetted the

guitarist's appetite for session work, but Valenti and Duncan argued that one was either in the band or one wasn't, and that to put the "Quicksilver sound" on other people's records was a negation of what the band stood for. On this issue first Hopkins and then Cipollina split, the guitarist remaining just long enough to fulfill financial obligations.

Despite the bad vibes caused by this parting of the ways, Elmore, Valenti, Duncan and Cipollina are still close, and John says he'd happily do recording work with them at any time.

After Quicksilver, Cipollina turned his hand to producing, lending his old friend Jim Murray (returned from a long, rejuvenating spell in Hawaii) a helping hand, and out of sessions for this ill-fated album, was born the ill-fated group Copperhead, one of the great lost causes of our time. Going through varied and complex personnel shuffles (incorporating Pete Sears, Jefferson Starship's bassist, at one point) Copperhead finally settled down with Gary Philipett (guitars, vocals), Jim McPherson (keyboards, vocals), Hutch Hutchinson (bass, vocals) and Dave Weber (drums), complimenting Cipollina.

An album eventually appeared on American CBS, to be buried without trace in the idst of the Clive Davis/"Drugola" scandal that rocked that company. Copperhead were simply signed to the wrong label at the wrong time. Their album, nonetheless, is magnifcently strong - the antithesis of Quicksilver's exquisite fragility...

"Copperhead was a totally macho, high energy band. It was very the much The Boys. Dino always wanted Quicksilver to sound "pretty," and when I played him the tapes of Copperhead he was completely grossed out. He hated it, he thought it was completely tasteless."

Roaring forward to the present, the major love of Cipollina's life is currently hid work with Terry And The Pirates, following on from his work last year with Link Wray. The Pirates was begun as a very informal number, based around the songs of Terry Dolan, a singer/songwriter of Irish extraction, but while still being essentially a part-time gig has become one of the most challenging projects Cipollina has ever attempted.

Much of the challenge manifests itself in the form of Greg Douglass, the guitarist out of the little known West Coat band Mistress, who is apparently a soloist of the highest order. Cipollina claims that he has to go into training before each gig to keep up with Douglass.

Currently Greg is touring the East Coast as a fourth member of Hot Tuna, trading licks with the mighty Viking-browed Jorma Kaukonen, and there are rumours afoot that when Tuna head homeward, bassist Jack Casady will also be participating in some Pirate gigs, ensuring that the band will be one of the heaviest on the planet.

Meanwhile, Cipollina's been guesting on the upcoming David Crosby album, which apparently features most of the Grateful Dead, currently in a state of uncertain retirement.

And, lest we forget, there's Man.

Cipollina has no deep-rooted love for the band, and in fact has never heard them, outside the occasions that he's played with them (gigs and rehearsals), but says its their casual relaxed attitude to working that turns him on. That he jammed with them at the Winterland ballroom is in itself not so remarkable, given as how Cipollina has enjoyed the status of house guitarist at that celebrated venue in his capacity as guitar-hero-with-out-a-band. Basically he jams with almost everybody there.

So, how does playing with Deke Leonard compare with playing alongside Gary Duncan, Link Wray and Greg Douglass?

"Well, it's a whole other thing, really, but what's common to all those situations is a mutual respect, without that I couldn't do it. But I'm very grateful to Man for giving me a chance to come over here. I've no idea about what gets English audiences off.

"I'm looking forward to finding out."

Steve Lake

?Melody Maker, ?, 1975?

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Last updated: 1-Sep-2014