John Cipollina
[Photo: John Cipollina, by Jay Blakesberg]

The John Cipollina Story,
Part II: Early Quicksilver Days

by William J. Ruhlmann

When we last left him, John Cipollina was 21 and had just decided to get serious about playing music. It was 1964, the year that rock 'n' roll returned to favor in the U.S., and Cipollina was soon to hook up with a group called Quicksilver Messenger Service.

Quicksilver was together not so much by design - it was definitely choice. We got together because we liked each other's company. In fact, in the original band, this guy Jim Murray, who became the rhythm guitar player and singer, never played guitar in his life. He'd played a little banjo, but he was kind of a cool dude and we could hang out together all the time. [David] Freiberg never played bass, he was a twelve-string, we needed a bass, and either he or Jim had to play bass. It was a cinch I wasn't gonna. And I had an old Danelectro six-string bass which I sawed a couple of grooves in the bridge to accept, to move the strings over and make it into a four-string.

We weren't trying to be snappy musicians. First of all, we were playing rock 'n' roll, which was very uncool. I got off on it, and plus David Freiberg was the first guy I'd met besides my twin that was born on the same day I was [August 24] and I thought that was pretty neat.

Chet Powers got in in 1964, at the beginning. Old Chester never stopped being Chet Powers because the Italians were happening back then. He changed it because of Dean Martin, who changed his name, too. Later on, Dino Valenti is also the guy who changed his name to Jesse Oris Farrow and he changed it to something else. Dino was a carnival boy, he was raised in the carnival and that's how he saw life, as a carney.

We started living together in what later would become known as a "crash pad" because we didn't have any money. I was working at the time, actually. When I met these guys I was a real estate salesman. I remember selling something one day. That was such a big ordeal, and it was such a cool thing that I was sitting in this house and I went out and celebrated by going and digging out this old black Danelectro that I had in the trunk of my car and this amp, and everybody said, "Wow, what is that? Can you play that thing?" I went "Yeah." And then everybody else wanted to play it too.

So all of a sudden, I'm sitting around having a good old time, playing, basically rock 'n' roll and there's no way we're ever gonna make money playing rock 'n' roll. What for? Who are you kidding? Shut up, go to your room.

So, I was resigned to being a failure. We never intended on playing together. We were living and stealing together, is what we were doing, 'cause we all had long hair and we were freaky looking. I remember there was this grocery store we used to live up the street from and it was run by these old Chinamen. We didn't have any money, we had no way of making any money, and we were just too crippled to go out and get a job. Every other day we'd walk in the store and just look at the guy and he'd freak out and go running in the back room and we'd steal some Hostess Twinkies and shit and go running out the door. And that's how we ate. Either that or Gary Duncan's father would come down with a truck full of potatoes, and we had this other guy, our first manager, he tried to turn us into macrobiotic freaks, which he did, because that's all we had to eat. If I ever see another cup of brown rice, I tell you, Aaaarrrgghhh!

David Freiberg was in a band with these guys, Paul Kantner and David Crosby, and the three of them used to play down in Holy City all the time. All of a sudden, David [Crosby] was the first one in '64, he got together with the band the Byrds, and all of a sudden - there was something happening. To be honest, I would have to say there was something obviously in the wind there, no pun intended to Mr. Dylan. And, of course, the Byrds made it because Bob Dylan sat in with them, right? And that was what was happening.

But as far as places to play, in the very beginning there were none. There was absolutely nothing to do other than sit around, and we just played. And we liked it, and the more we played, the better we felt about playing. In the beginning, there was the three of us, there was me, this guy Murray, and David Freiberg.

Dino was like - what a guy. He was so flamboyant. And he had a manager. He was the first guy I ever met that had a manager. Tom Donahue, Big Daddy. And his manager not only owned a club called Mother's in North Beach, but he also had Autumn Records. And Autumn Records was a small, independent label that did nothing but kick out hits. They signed a group from Fairfax, California called the Beau Brummels and had their first hit, "Laugh, Laugh." And all of a sudden, Dino, who was like the premier Bay Area folkie, wants to get a band together. And I had a big advantage 'cause there were no electric guitar players around, let alone lead players. So he put out the word, looking for a guitar player, and I got the word and I happened to know someone who knew Dino, and "Okay, you're my lead guitar player."

And we had a meeting, me and this guy Murray and Dino got together one night. And it was like, "I'm gonna form a band," and he looked at Murray and he goes, "You can be the bass player," and he goes "This is what we're gonna do." And to this day, I can remember everything what Dino said. It was just brilliant. We were gonna put this band together. First of all, we were all gonna have wireless guitars. Now, in '64, you're talking wireless guitars, you're talking some pretty heavy shit. We were gonna have leather clothes made, we were gonna have leather jackets made with hooks that we could hook these wireless instruments right into. And we were gonna have these chicks, backup rhythm sections that were gonna dress like American indians with real short little dresses on and they were gonna have tambourines and the clappers in the tambourines were gonna be silver coins. And I'm sitting there going, "This guy is gonna happen and we're gonna set the world on its ear." We were gonna be totally bad. "And tomorrow, we'll get together, and we'll do some rehearsing."

Tomorrow gets together, we've got the guitars, we've got everything set up. And Dino used to hang out down at the Tides Bookstore, that was one of his offices where he used to hold court. So we went down to the Tides to pick up Dino and there's all these girls in there going, "Boo-hoo." Dino had gotten busted, which is a story all in itself. But he had gotten busted for posssession and sales of reefer and hash, which in '64 was a real serious charge.

But Dino, like I said, was a flamboyant guy. he used to walk down the street with a hookah under his arm. The word "flaunt" was one of the premier words in this guy's lifestyle. In fact, the reason he got busted was because he flaunted the fact that one of his current goals was to take the virginity of the mayor of Sausalito's daughter. And he let everybody know it, and they knew he was gonna do it, and by God, he did it, and by God, he ended up getting popped. Even in those days they didn't like fourteen-year old girls falling under the influence of musicians.

Anyway, they took him away. We called up and said, "What's happening with Dino?" We're his band, you know? We're gonna go nationwide. And it was like, "Dino's in jail" - this was on a Thursday - "but he'll get out Tuesday." So we called Tuesday to see when he was gonna get out, and sure enough, they said "Well, he'll get out Thursday." And then it was the following Tuesday. We went through a year and a half of Tuesdays and Thursdays. And in the meantime, David Frieberg, who was in jail - got busted for the possession of two joints, did six months - had come out of jail, and we were to take care of this guy Frieberg. I'd never met Freiberg before. But Freiberg was a friend of Dino's.

Now there was the three of us. And it was at one of the first Acid Tests, I ran into Marty Balin. And we had tried to put something together. The original group was a five piece. We had a drummer called Casey Sonovan, we had myself and Skip Spence on guitar. Jim Murray was relegated to harmonica player at the time, and David Freiberg on bass. And the Airplane had just made a deal with these people and become part owners of a club called the Matrix. And that's what started that. So, they were together and they were letting us rehearse there, 'cause you couldn't play loud amplified music anywhere in those days. So we'd go down there in the afternoon and work out some material and just thrash around. Mary Balin spotted Skip, and at the time they had a drummer called Peliquin, that was his last name and I can't remember his first name. But he had one of the worst acne problems I'd ever seen, and the guy was an ex-cop, he couldn't stand the smell of marijuana. And they were just dying to get rid of this guy and Marty took a look at Skip and went, "Hey, you ever thought about being a drummer?" And so we lost our guitar player.

Marty, I think, was feeling sorry, we were at the Acid Test and Marty comes up and says, "Hey, I heard about this drummer and a lead singer [Greg Elmore and Gary Duncan] and here's the address. You ought to go check 'em out." We went down to this house at 52 Water Street in San Francisco, and my car broke down there, so I ended up staying for about three months with these guys, until we got kicked out.

Right before we left, I ran into Don Sturdy, who is now known by his real name, Howard Hesseman, and he was working with a group called the Committee, a comedian with these guys. They were doing this off-color sketch, and they needed a tape of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Now, nobody in their right mind would do anything as un-American as do a rock version of "The Star-Spangled Banner." In fact, the Charlatans had agreed to do it, then they thought about it. They said, "Forget it." We said, "No, I don't know, man." He goes, "We'll pay you for it." "How much?" "How about two ounces of pot?" "You got it, man!" So we put this thing out, and they paid. They said, "Well, hey, tell you what, you guys are good. Will you play our Christmas party?" This was in October [1965]. And we said, "Well, sure, we'll play your Christmas party. Our calendar's open." And that was probably our first gig. And they paid us $150 for five sets. And we were just ripping them off, as far as we were concerned - "They're paying us to do this shit!"

When Dino finally came out, he took a look at the band, he thought the drummer was too weird and he thought that Duncan was too young, and he passed. He said "Yeah, it's a good idea, just get rid of those two guys." And by this time we had already done a couple of gigs and we were digging what we were doing.

So Freiberg got busted again. When Freiberg got busted, we needed some money and we did so good with the Committee we decided to hit on them. They had a guy named Alan Meyerson, who was their backer. And so we hit on Meyerson, and Meyerson didn't want to have nothing to do with us 'cause we were a rock 'n' roll band. But he figured Freiberg might be worth something, so he signed Freiberg to an outrageous 40-year contract where he got 10% of everything he made and we got $1,000 out of him, with which we immediately went out and bought another amplifier on credit. We used it for the down, then we used the rest of it for lawyer fees for Freiberg.

And, of course, Meyerson started to think, maybe this wasn't such a good idea. How am I gonna get that money back? But he knew this guy Bill Graham, who was managing the Mime Troupe, so when Bill started throwing dances, old Alan went up to him and said, "I got this band. I want you to start hiring these guys because they owe me money." And so that's how Quicksilver got involved with Graham and got on the shows. I mean, how American!

We got the name when we were working the Matrix. And what they used to do was, every gig, they hired these people to paint the front of the building. Every week, the building was a different color and they would paint the names of the bands that were playing there. And they had hired us about three times and then they told us they weren't gonna hire us, we couldn't play there anymore if we didn't have a name.

And names are always the hardest things in bands. So we tried. We were the Cosmic Crystal Set. We thought, well, that's not too cool. And Jim Murray and David Freiberg came up with the name. Me and Freiberg were born on the same day, and Gary and Greg were born on the same day, we were all Virgos and Murray was a Gemini. And Virgos and Geminis are all ruled by the planet Mercury. Another name for Mercury is Quicksilver. And then, Quicksilver is the messenger of the Gods, and Virgo is the servant, so Freiberg says "Oh, Quicksilver Messenger Service." I liked it. And everybody said, "Yeah, but that's not a good name."

So they finally said, "Give us your name, or else, that's it." So we said, "Okay, our name is Vulcan." We went down and did one of the most disastrous gigs we ever did. It was horrible. We said, "Well, time to change the name!"

By this time, Chet [Helms] and Bill [Graham] had had their little falling out, because Chet and Bill used to take turns splitting the Fillmore. And as soon as Bill saw it was lucrative, he went out and got a lease on the place. And then Chet, in reprisal, went out and found the Avalon Ballroom, which was great for us, beacuse now we had three places to play. Now there's a scene developed.

Quicksilver flooded the area with posters, because the Airplane and Dead and Big Brother, they were on the road all the time. And we're in town, and all the poster artists were in town. So every week, if not every other week, we had a poster out. So there were people in Kaokuk, Iowa with Quicksilver posters on the wall. But nobody knew who Quicksilver was, we didn't have any records out. So, by '67, we started getting enough of a following where we could go out on the road, just on the name, beacuse they had seen us on posters. It was something that we didn't expect.


In part three, next issue (Vol. 15 #1), John Cipollina discusses Quicksilver's reign as one of the top San Francisco-based bands of the late sixties - and its demise in the early seventies.

Relix, 1987, Vol. 14 No. 5

[Part 1 appeared in Relix Vol. 14 #3]
[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