John Cipollina
[Photo: 1967 - John Cipollina, by Lisa Law]

The John Cipollina Story

As told by John Cipollina  Part One

by William Ruhlmann

At age 43, guitarist John Cipollina is the veteran of more Bay Area groups than probably even he can name. Best remembered as a member of Quicksilver Messenger Service from its formation in 1965 to his departure in 1971, Cipollina has performed with all the major names in San Francisco rock music, and most of the minor ones. Today he maintains a dual membership in Zero and Problem Child, while continuing to act as a sideman and work on film scores.

Perhaps because of his willingness always to work in groups rather than push for individual stardom, Cipollina has been more a cult hero than many of his contemporaries. Go to a club where Zero is playing and you may see a fan or two with hand-painted Cipollina T-shirts, but his name is not as well-known as his talent and background would suggest.

Nor has he beeen written about as much as he deserves, although, as the following interview shows, he is an incisive and witty observer of the fascinating times he's experienced. In the first part of his Relix interview, Cipollina describes the years leading up to his joining Quicksilver, starting, appropriately, with his discovery of the electric guitar.

* * *

I've played music all my life and I was raised in a musical family. One day I was driving down the street and I hear this tune on the radio. I was still quite young. I look over at my mother and I go, "What's that?" and she goes. "It's an electric guitar." Not a guitar, it was an electric guitar. And I really identified with it, I thought, "Woah-woah-woah! You just said the F word, without saying any words." I mean, a lot of connotations, very rebellious.

That was '58, Mickey and Sylvia, "Love Is Strange." And it was that guitar lick where he bends it. I had played keyboards for years. I was raised in a keyboard family. Nobody in my family could bend a note on keyboard. And I heard that, I thought, "God, that's really cool!"

And guitars, I had heard guitars go, eu-chungoo-goo-goo, that's what they were doing, the big band guitars. I listened to a lot of that, and plus I listened to a lot of guitars, and I never considered electric guitars. They were electrified guitars. I had listened to a lot of Wes Montgomery, I had listened to a lot of Billy Strange, Tal Farlow. But when I heard Mickey Baker play these single note lines -- now I know what it is and I can approximate that tone and the mystery isn't there as it was at one time. But the point I was trying to make was, when I first heard it, I really related to it. That was the sound of then. That was current. That was what was happening.

And then in the meantime, there were all these guys like Scotty Moore amd James Burton, Link Wray, who were the early pioneers. When I first heard Link Wray, I thought that guy was just talking filth, he was swearing with the guitar. Didn't say one word!

What happened then was that I had a mad urge to see what an electric guitar looked like. I heard one and it sounded fantastic. I saw my first electric guitar at teen dances and I thought they looked pretty neat. So then I went to Sherman and Clay, and it was all over. I wanted one real bad. And then my mother caught me in there. I had a Fender strapped on and I had the salesman completely buffaloed. Never touched a guitar in my life, but I just thought, "Wow, this is cool! I'm gonna get one of these and put it in my gun rack." Anyway, my mother said, across the store, "He can't play guitar."

And, so, anyway, it was like, "If you want to learn to play guitar..." Then I took some classical lessons, at my parents' insistence which I've always kind of been glad I did. And I got a classical guitar and I took about seven lessons. And I drove this guy nuts, because everything I wanted to do, he didn't want me to do. And then, after I had thoroughly snowed my parents, I went out and got an electric guitar and completely forsaked everything else.

And then I got back to what I wanted to do in the first place. The guitar attracted me because it was so damn portable. I came from a family of musicians, keyboardists, primarily pianos. You want to play the piano, you go to the piano. Mohammed does not call the piano to him. And here was something that I could take out, my parents had a lot of land, acres and acres of land, that hit up against a municipal water property. There was several thousand acres behind my parents' house and I could go off in complete seclusion and just thrash the hell out of this thing. And I ended up breaking all the strings, one at a time. I couldn't figure out what six strings was about. So I broke a couple of strings, and four made sense - four fingers and four strings. And then when I broke a couple more and I was down to two I tuned them in fifths and I started actually learning how to play by ear. That was about the time when I got busted, you know, "Hey, wait a second, you wanna play - use an accordion, go to jail," you know, that kind of thing? So, okay, you want to play, you learn to play right." So I went and I put in my penance and I took these damn classical lessons, learned my scales, and as soon as I got my parents buffaloed into saying that I knew what I was doing, and drove the old teacher completely bats - he was going, "Yeah, he's done, let him loose" - then I went out and got an electric guitar and just dragged it up in the hills and raised hell. But that's how I started playing guitar.

The first new electric guitar I saw was not at Sherman and Clay. It was on an aircraft carrier. The fleet was in town and my mother had taken my twin sister and I to go look at the boats, and there was this door that said, "No admittance". And there were all these sounds coming out and I walked in and there's these two sailors. Looking back on it, I don't think either one of them could have shaved. And they had brand new Les Paul Juniors with the tags still hanging off of them, and they had brand new Fender Champ amps. This was about '59. And I took a look at that cherry red, double-cutaway guitar, man. That was it.

So then I was on a quest, neo-Holy Grail. What was that red thing? I started collecting catalogues. I'd go into every record shop and music shop and I'd look through their musical instrument catalogue. And I'd beg, borrow and steal them. I started memorizing everything on the market. Then I got to Sherman and Clay and walked off with a handful of literature. It took me years to find out what it was, and now I know what I saw that initially drove me nuts. It was a '59 Les Paul Junior.

Now, there's so many others, there's so many that I want, ones that I haven't got yet.

So I got into it by getting really strung out on the instrument and the theory and the attitude in general. I never thought I'd be a musician, that was a side thing that happened through it all. I was a wild and crazy art student, living around the beatnicks, and really into my art. And I thought, what I really want to do is make a sculpture, something that combines art and music - functional art. And I started designing guitars way before I got into playing one. In fact, I kind of got into playing them just to learn how to make them cooler.

[Photo: John Cipollina (left) at the Human Be-In - 1967, by Lisa Law]

I got in my first band in 1959, and it was more of a gang than a band. First of all, I was an ideal candidate for rock 'n' roller because I was completely uncool and I had no social graces at all. Rock 'n' roll was very uncool when I was in school. What was cool was to have letters or stripes on your jacket and be president of the track team or captain of the football team. Or you could have a fancy hot rod.

I wasn't into girls so much. Girls weren't into musicians at that time. Girls liked to dance, so they'd come down to the dance, but they didn't give squat about the musicians. And then the guys with the car clubs, or the track runners or the football players would go down and pick up on the chicks. And if the girls didn't come to a dance, the band would be held responsible, and chances are somebody would try to seriously hurt you. That was one of my first attractions to a solid-body instrument, because it's a great shield as well as being a pretty formidable weapon.

I used to carry a switchblade in one pocket, and I used to carry a Hamilton fast-action handgun in the other, and that was mainly to protect me from other bands, because there was a heavy rivalry, which you don't have anymore. Nobody knows about rivalries. We were all playing the same songs, we were all playing "What'd I Say"; we were all playing all the Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley songs, Fats Domino songs. Everybody played "Blue Monday" or "Blueberry Hill". So consequently, there was a lot of rivalry. And then the new hit record would come out, and you'd go and you'd get it and you'd secrete yourself in the farthest abyss in your parents' house, preferably, if you didn't have a wine cellar or a cave, either the basement, garage or some place that was socially cool, and you would listen to that record two dozen times until you figured out the licks. And then you'd go play it. And then if you see a guy from another band come in, you don't want him to see what you're doing!

I always thought that the backstages were always deliberately set up so that musicians could protect themselves. I never had a guitar case, an amp case, that was just something to slow you down. I replaced the AC plugs on my amp probably two dozen times in my first group. When they'd start throwing bottles at the band, and somebody'd go, "Let's get the band!" it was out that backdoor, and I had cord that was permanently plugged into the amplifier, I never unplugged it, and I'd just grab this handle on it and run.

[Artwork: John Cipollina]

It changed overnight. It was no gradual thing, all of a sudden, bang! you were now cool, this is now happening. What happened was, rock 'n' roll died out and then you had folk music, that had replaced everything. There were no teen dances. '63-'64, rock 'n' roll was outlawed out here, no public dances, they proved to be just too much of a hassle. And what was cool was jazz, which never made any money, and folk music, which was hip and cool and avant-garde. And I'm still a rocker, I'm still punking around, I've still got my long shirt on and I got my dark glasses. And on hootenanny night, nobody would ever let the guy with the - "Who's that guy with the long-sleeved shirt and the dark glasses, and a black Dan-Electro? Man, we don't want him jamming with us." So I didn't do that much playing.

And then, all of a sudden, rock 'n' roll became cool again, and of course it was the Beatles, and the Byrds. But up to that point, I had just given up, I thought, okay. A good career move for me then would have been to mellow out of rock 'n' roll, get into bossa nova, that was a happening thing, get a job playing in a band, do the steak-and-lobster circuit and play "Girl From Ipanema."

I got real good at playing requests. I could play things that I had never heard before. And the drunker they'd get, the more I'd promise them I'd play them. And then they'd come up, "When you gonna play my song?" and I'd look real hurt and say, "You didn't hear it? I played it before." And I usually got another tip.

But then I started getting too rambunctious. I was the only guy in the band who was having any fun. And I had let my hair grow. I was a real estate salesman at the time, and I was dropping out of that rapidly.

And then, I just started lying around and jamming, and I hung out with a bunch of crazy flamenco guitar players in a troupe, and that was fun. But I never really thought of making any money. There was an unwritten law that after 18, the Telecaster stays in the closet. You don't do that kind of stuff.

And I was getting to be a real slob by then. My attitude was completely gone. And I didn't really care, it was obvious that I was just going to be one of the great unwashed. I had a good start on being a beatnik, I had it down. I was living in a huge ferry boat with 11 other people and we were paying a little under $3 a month rent - we were still late on the rent!

Life was real cheap, and it was real easy.

I was just playing and hanging out and people who I liked and admired and enjoyed their company started telling me I was good. "Hey, man, you're great, you ought to do this, really play. You could do it." And all my heroes who I considered to be much more advanced - and I still consider to be more advanced - than the people I was hanging out with, the older kids, they weren't good enough. so if they weren't good enough, how could I be good enough?

My parents kind of pushed me to quit kidding myself that I was going to get into the mainstream. My father told me, "You're never going to amount to squat. Your only hope is either to be an artist or a musician, there you stand a chance." But he didn't give me much encouragement for anything else.

And he was right. And he was also the first one to come and say, "I like it. Good for you." He also was the one who co-signed for Quicksilver's instruments when we first got them. And he kept doing that for years. As a matter of fact, before he died, he co-signed for instruments for Huey Lewis. None of us ever paid him back all the way.

* * *

In the next part of his Relix interview, John Cipollina will discuss the formation of Quicksilver Messenger Service and the band's rise in San Francisco to national prominence.

Relix, 1987, Vol. 14 No. 3

[Part 2: Early Quicksilver Days appeared in Relix Vol. 14 #5]
[Part 3: The Rise and Fall, and Rise, and Fall of Quicksilver Messenger Service appeared in Relix Vol. 15 #1]
[Part 4: Guitarist Without Portfolio appeared in Relix Vol. 15 #3]

[Many thanks to Steve Sorin for uploading this page to the MSN Cip & Quick group.]

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Last updated: 4-Oct-2004