John Cipollina
[Photo: John Cipollina at The Saint in the Dinosaurs East Coast debut, by Bob Minkin]

The John Cipollina Story,
Part III: The Rise and Fall, and Rise, and Fall of Quicksilver Messenger Service

by William J. Ruhlmann

In our last episode (Vol. 14, #5), guitarist John Cipollina described the formation of Quicksilver Messenger Service in San Francisco in the mid-sixties. Here, he traces the band's development into a national concert attraction and recording success in 1967-8, and its eventual decline to the point of Cipollina's own departure from the group in 1970. He picks up the story with the Monterey Pop Festival, held in June of 1967.

John Cipollina: I remember doing the Monterey Pop Festival. It was just like one of them free gigs. "But it's gonna be groovy, everybody's gonna be there." "Yeah, well..." "Eric Burdon's gonna do it for nothing. You can do it for nothing." "Yeah, well, I don't know." "The Dead and everybody else is doing it, too." "Well, if they're not getting paid, we'll do it, too." And all of a sudden, it was a very special show.

The Monterey Pop Festival basically was a big hype set up by John Phillips and his manager, Lou Adler. It was set up as a thinly veiled scheme to get national publicity for the Mamas and Papas. But they set the whole thing, and the last show, the last act, was the Mamas and Papas. Just suicidal. I mean, it worked, they just built the three days up to it. And they blew it, because the two acts before Mamas and Papas were the Who [and the Jimi Hendrix Experience], who completely destroyed everybody.

We weren't used to that stuff. [Michael] Bloomfield had seen those guys before, and I didn't, and Michael came up and said, "Check this out, these English guys, the Who," and he dragged me up on the stage, and we sat there off in the wings and we watched Townsend destroy these Stratocasters, which is a lot of work. I'm thinking, "These fucking teabags are pretty serious."

And then afterwards, we went down in the dressing room and watched Hendrix. At that time, we didn't know who Hendrix was. I'm thinking, Jon Hendricks. I thought it was a kind of a jazz act. "God, sure is a flowery old spook for playing jazz. Oh, isn't that cute, look at, he's playing left-handed."

So anyway, after we got up on the stage and we watched Jimi Hendrix. That was his first American performance and he came on right before the Mamas and Papas, man, completely destroyed the place. This guy was just drug-ridden and he was like crazed, and he got out there, and the least of the damage he did was burn a guitar and dry-hump his amplifier. He completely shattered about two-thirds of the audience. They were sitting there like brain dead. And then the Mamas and Papas got out there and John Phillips with his little flower, going, "If you go to San Francisco"! Nothing, man. We were just sitting in the back.

But it was a real special show. Everybody was united. I remember we got in a good jam afterwards, me and Jorma and Hendrix and, I think, Jack Casady, and I think Bob Weir was there, too, and it went for four hours before they kicked us out of the place. The sun was coming up. It was, like, "Come on, hippies. Don't you have a Volkswagen bus to live in or something?" Anyway, the beat goes on. And the beat went on. But I remember, the couple of gigs after that were real dull.

Relix: In the wake of Monterey, nearly all of the San Francisco bands that hadn't already signed record contracts did so. But Quicksilver, although it was among the best-known groups, didn't sign until later in 1967. Why was that?

John Cipollina: We didn't want to sign. We had a real bad attitude about making records, 'cause we were Dino Valenti's band, right? [Author's note: As recounted in our last installment, Valenti founded the band that became Quicksilver, but went to jail on a drug charge immediately afterwards.] And we'd call Tom Donohue [Valenti's manager and head of Autumn Records] all the time and say, "Hey, we want a big house in the country," you know? "We want some fancy cars. How 'bout some threads? We're Dino's band. We want some money. Give us some front money. We're gonna make you lots of money."

And, of course, what we didn't realize is Dino Valenti was costing Tom a lot of money, and the last thing they wanted to hear about was a bunch of strangers being their band. So, like every day we got the same story, "Well, Tom is out at lunch." So, finally, we had this attitude that record companies were always out to lunch and the hell with them. And after a couple of months of rejection, we finally copped an attitude, that we didn't need them. We didn't need record companies, had no use for them, and we weren't gonna make a record. "What for? We're still the headliners."

You see, that was one of the things that made us cocky right up front. We always had a lot of people going to our shows. We would play, and the second act would usually have the hit record. And we were unsigned. And we were making more money. We would make double the money of the guys who had the record contract. We had the audience. And we started getting a real cocky attitude, like, "Well, why should we sign a record, anyway?"

I mean, we watched everybody else. We watched the Dead, who used to be a fairly funny band, and they were happy-go-lucky, groovin' kind of guys. And we'd come by and we'd seen them getting real serious and talking about having to pay back the company. And we watched Jefferson Airplane. They got a record contract and they were just hustling all the time. Somebody gives you a whole bunch of money one day, and the next day you owe all this money back. And here we were, we were making good money, we were making just as good money as they were, 'cause we were packing them in. And it drove the record companies crazy. They'd make us an offer and we'd say, "Well, that's just not good enough."

And they're saying, "Sign a record contract and we'll make you famous." We go, "We are famous." "Well, sign a record contract, we'll make you money." "Hey, we're making more money than the other guys you got signed to record contracts now." They said, "Well, sign a record contract and we can put you on the radio." "We can put ourselves on the radio." We used to do that, just to piss them off. And that drove 'em nuts, of course. "Well, sign to a record company, we'll be your best friends."

Relix: How did you eventually sign, then?

JC: They [Capitol Records] finally made an offer we couldn't refuse.

Relix: Tell me about the recording of your first album, Quicksilver Messenger Service.

JC: The album came out in [June of] '68. We got in the studio in December of '67, I think, maybe October or November, somewhere around there. And school was back in, so to speak.

The first album was the easiest because we didn't know any better. We didn't know anything. Our manager, Ron Polte, said, when it came time to do it, he knew this hotshot producer music legend from Chicago, Nick Gravenites. The album was produced with Nick Gravenites, and then later he brought in Harvey Brooks. [Author's note: the album credits also note Pete Welding as a producer.]

Our first album we did on eight-track, never did do a four-track. We did that because one of the members of the band was going to the bathroom in the studio and took in a copy of Billboard and read an article about this new machine they had, an eight-track recorder. So we insisted we had to record on an eight-track. We had never seen an eight-track and neither had any of the engineers or anybody. So we all got to learn it together.

But the first abum we were pretty much directed. We had no idea what we were doing. We didn't know what constituted making an album. The only thing I remember was certain little things, like I had lots of trouble in the old days. In those days, when you would record, they had a huge red light, a hundred-watt lightbulb sitting on a floor stand, that would light up ominously when the record button was on. Besides, they had a sign outside that said, "Recording. Do Not Open This Door." And every time that red light would go on, I would freeze up. I'd sit there and I'd play, and all of a sudden the red light'd go on. It was like, "Aaaahhhh!" It took me a couple of days to convince these guys, "You gotta just get rid of that light, man! I don't want to know what's going on!"

We recorded the first album at the Capitol Tower, Studio A, Hollywood and Vine, with a wing and a prayer, and I don't know how we did it. What constituted the songs were - first of all, Nick Gravenites [deep voice] Nick Gravenites, you know, he'd go. "I want you to record that song there and that song there." "Yes, sir," you know, we would just do it. It was before I learned how to push him around a little bit. "Hey, he's just an old teddy bear like everybody else," you know?

In fact what we did first was we rehearsed for the album. Nick took us down - there was a place called The Heliport, which was a seaplane hanger and helicopter hanger and landing dock in Sausalito and they used to have a thing where you could go and park your car and then take a shuttle over to the airport. And we rented out the main hanger there and that was what we used to rehearse. In fact, that's where we wrote "The Fool." We wrote it with lots of chemicals and lots of butcher paper. We sat there and drew pictures. "Well, I don't know, so I'll give you this section now. I'm gonna make it go like this: here's a road and here's some trees and --" "Oooh! let me do the mountains! I'm gonna play mountains," and stuff like that. Nick Gravenites came down there and he just stood at the door the whole time we rehearsed. And when our friends'd knock and come into the doors, he'd sit there and go, "Go away, go away." He kept us on the thing, and then we went into the studio, and they just told us what to do, pretty much.

We recorded the album, and I think we went off and had two weeks' worth of gigs, and we came home and listened to the record and went, "Aaaahhh!" And we threw it out and we rerecorded the album. We said, "Let us do a second record first." We kept "Pride of Man," we just remixed it. The original one had horns going, we had the Electric Flag horn section playing all the way through it, and we ended up taking the horns out except for just a couple of horns at the end. And then we rerecorded.

Relix: Did it get easier to record as time went on?

JC: No. No, the first one was the easiest. Live recording was easy. The second album (Happy Trails, March, 1969) was live, and it was a piece of cake. I think it was probably the best album we ever did, for that reason.

Relix: A lot of people felt that way because they felt the essence of the band was that improvisation sort of stuff.

JC: Yeah, I do. I know the best thing I do is live. I like playing live. I feel more at home playing live than I do doing anything else.

Relix: Did Capitol turn out to be your best friend?

JC: Yes, they did. They were the best record company I ever worked with. It was a very good relationship. First of all, one of the reasons we signed with Capitol was because they were based in California. Every other company is based in New York. [Author's note: Warner Bros. Records is the only other major label based in California.] We sigend with a guy named Alan Livingston, [who] was the president of the company at that time. I think he was 46 years old, the youngest president, and he came all the way up from producing the Bozo The Clown records, all the way up to Quicksilver. Deja-vu, you know?

We had an executive producer named John Palladino. After I was signed to CBS with Copperhead, I ended up sick and ended up in the hospital, and I needed a couple of grand and I called CBS and I couldn't get anybody, man. I got the runaround. They punched me through every floor of that place -- "Oh, here, let me switch you to this department and that department. Well, your record hasn't come out yet," and I couldn't get anybody. And I called Capitol, even though I had been off of the company for over a year. I had John Palladino's number, I would dial from my home right into his office, and we were on a first name basis. I said, "John, I need a couple of thousand dollars." And he goes, "Well, we're putting out this anthology [Anthology, May, 1973]." With no problem at all, he sent me some money right away.

But it wasn't just money, it was that the company was behind us. We did a record, and before we released it we decided to redo it and we said, "Look, the record is mediocre. We can give you a better record, you'll sell more records, we'll be happier." And they did it. And it cost them over 45 thousand dollars, which in 1968 was a lot of money. And they went for it. And they promoted the album really well. We had a real good rapport with the company. And Capitol was a good record company. But they had to be, because we cost them an arm and a leg.

Relix: Your contract with Capitol initially required two albums a year, and by the end of 1968, the personnel of the band changed. What happened?

JC: We did two albums. We did the first one, the Quicksilver Messenger Service. Then we did Happy Trails, which the band started to fall apart during. Gary Duncan quit the band as soon as we started recording it, which took a lot of the fire out of the band, because here we're recording this album, we knew that we got this guy who is leaving the band. So we figured, "Happy trails!"

After we did the Happy Trails album, we took a year off. The only thing we went out with was we did some gigs as "The Quick and Nick" when we went out with Gravenites and did a few shows. Other than that we didn't do any work at all. We just kind of lathargically sat around the house. And this is when trios were happening, but we were not a power trio, I mean, Freiberg and myself and Elmore. Elmore could cover. Elmore loves trios. But Freiberg is not a trio bass player and I'm not a trio guitar player. 'Cause, like, a trio guitar player's gotta use all six strings, which is something I've never gotten around to doing.

I wanted a piano player. Quicksilver was the first band I had ever played in without keyboards. And I decided that we wanted Nicky Hopkins, even though I had never met the guy. I didn't know anything about him, I decided that's who we needed and the band went along with it, so I got Nicky Hopkins. Nicky and I became real good friends and we ended up doing the third album, Shady Grove [January, 1970].

And after that, just as we finished the record, who comes back in town but Dino and Gary and we did a gig together, which was the New Year's gig, '69-'70, which Quicksilver was slated to play at, but by this time we were a little hesitant, because we had no singer other than David and we really had trouble writing songs. It took us a year to get the material for Shady Grove together. And of course the company wanted us to do more and more originals and we had more and more trouble doing that.

When we got Nicky, now we had a full sound, but we didn't really have the singers. So we did the New Year's show. That was at Winterland. Dino and Gary came back, and they heard our record that we had gotten together. Everybody thought that we hated each other, so we said, "Let's prove them wrong. Let's all go down there as friends." And Dino, of course, was always meant to be an original member of the band, and never was, and we thought, well, how cool to go down and do a show. We'll have Gary back in the band, and we'll have Dino there, and we'll just blow everybody out. It was a one-shot thing, we planned to do one thing with Dino and Gary. And we went down, and we played the New Year's show with us and the Dead. And we did so good that before the night was over, [Bill] Graham had hired us to play at the Fillmore East the following week. And the Dead were setting up a tour and they asked us to come as a headliner. And it just seemed like a natural. So, out of that one gig, Dino and Gary ended up being members of the band. They were back in the band.

Dino writes songs walking from the bathroom to the kitchen; he's really a prolific songwriter. So, all of a sudden, we got a songwriter. Now we got vocal power, we got songwriters, and it looked ike we really had it together. Then we were back as a six-piece. And that lasted all the way through - five months, I guess, in 1970, from the beginning of the year until May. Then we went to Hawaii and we cut some albums [Just For Love, released in August, 1970, and What About Me, released in January, 1971] and then we started having differences.

First of all, I found out that the difference between a four-piece and a six-piece band is I had less and less to do. And due to the music that we were doing, which was more folk-oriented than I was used to and very simple, there was less and less playing for me to do. So I just sat around and did less playing.

Relix: Were you playing with anybody else at that point?

JC: Yeah, that was another thing. That was, what drove everybody nuts because after I met Nicky, Nicky turned me on to doing sessions, which was not a cool thing. Being in the band was kind of like being married. And playing with somebody else was like cheating on your spouse.

I can remember coming in one day after I had done a Brewer and Shipley track [Author's note: probably a vocal for the album Shake Off the Demon, released in December, 1971]. I came into rehearsal and I got the cold stares and the cold shoulders. And finally, somebody said, "So you played with Brewer and Shipley!" Like, "How could you," you know? "How could you, the disgrace! You're sleeping on the couch tonight!" Oh, God!

Also, up to a point, I had never recorded with anybody other than Quicksilver, and Quicksilver had really - I found out later - very bizarre ways of recording. For example, all the vocals that we would do. We would do backup vocals. They were back-up vocals. We had to sing back to back. Because Quicksilver was never able to look at each other with a common mike without bursting into laughter. And we were a bunch of little Virgos. We could tear anything apart. "The Fool" was taken on take 50, and we ended up splicing it together because it was a long tune and it couldn't keep in tune all the way through it, so we had to do it in two spots. We had to get up to one spot and then stop the tape and then everybody'd tune back up and then go back to it. And it took forever before we figured that out. By the time we'd end the song, we were just so badly out of tune. And a lot of bands don't record like that, a lot of bands are into the spontaneity. And I was really getting curious.

Then, plus, I was hanging out with Nicky, and Nicky was Mr. Session Man. I think in 1964, he was the busiest session man in the world. This guy could do like eight sessions a day. And he had a little calendar that he kept every little detail in it.

Nicky kept saying, "You gotta do sessions. Sessions are fun." And I kinda got into doing sessions, and got it put to me that, "Well, do you wanna be in the band or you gonna fuck around, what's it gonna be?" And I had some thoughts at the time, I was hit on to do my first movie soundtrack last year '['68: the Movie, not yet in general release, see story this issue]. But I originally took some time off with the thought of doing some soundtrack work and doing some studio work.

I left Quicksilver [officially] October 5, 1970. Nicky and I left about May. That's when the showdown came, and we all decided that it was like, "Who's side of the fence are you on?" and "You can't do sessions." And Nicky was not about to stop doing sessions and I ended up defending his right to do sessions and I ended up walking with him. But then we had obligations, so I ended up doing two more national tours, up till October.

And every time I did my last gig - I did about half a dozen last gigs - I'd always get in the same spot. I'd do a last gig, and then it was, "Well, we got a real important gig next week, and you gotta do it." So the way I got out, being an abject coward, as I am, when I left, I've always correlated my leaving Quicksilver as to a rat jumping off a sinking ship. Let's face it, the rats are the first ones off, you know? Now, I left, not just so much because of me, but because the office and the crew was getting really unhappy, and they were all quitting, too, and - like, everybody I know is a musician, but a good equipment man is hard to find, and a good manager and booker. So, I left with the office and the crew, and had them all the way through, and then I started Copperhead.

After John Cipollina's departure from Quicksilver, the band continued with Dino Valenti, David Freiberg, Gary Duncan, and Greg Elmore, plus various other musicians, and released two albums, "Quicksilver" in 1971, and "Comin' Thru" in 1972. By the time of the latter release, Freiberg had departed Quicksilver to work with Jefferson Airplane. In 1975, Cipollina and Freiberg rejoined Quicksilver for a reunion album, but that's another story. It will be told, along with more adventures in "The John Cipollina Story, Part IV," coming soon.

(See John Cipollina, Part IV, in Vol. 15, #3 - June)

Relix, 1987, Vol. 15 No. 1

[Part 1 appeared in Relix Vol. 14 #3]
[Part 2: Early Quicksilver Days appeared in Relix Vol. 14 #5]
[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: 24-Oct-2004