John Cipollina
[Photo: John Cipollina, by Ram Photos]

The John Cipollina Story,
Part IV: Guitarist Without Portfolio

by William J. Ruhlmann

Since his departure from Quicksilver Messenger Service in 1970, San Francisco guitarist John Cipollina has played in a dizzy number of configurations. At this moment, he is a member of Zero, the jazz-rock group that recently issued its debut album, Here Goes Nothin', on Relix Records, the Dinosaurs, Terry and the Pirates, Problem Child, Fish Stew, and probably a couple of other bands even since this interview was conducted. In the 1970s, he formed such bands as Copperhead and Raven, played in a reformed Quicksilver Messenger Service, and worked extensively as a session guitarist. In this final installment of his Relix autobiography, Cipollina begins by talking about the session work.

I was doing a lot of sessions. I even flew to L.A. I did about four years in the studio, and then I got out of it. I never really was that much of a session guy. I did some producing and I did a lot of musical directing. I like musical directing. I like going in and taking an artist and putting a band around him. My real forte's always been performing, because I'm an exhibitionist and an animal. It's the easiest thing I can do. Besides, the audience does at least half the work. In the studio, you've got some engineer to play off of, and they pay attention to you. I get more intimidated in the studio than I do playing live. I like recording live if I have to record at all.

[In addition to his session work, Cipollina put together a new band in the early 1970s called Copperhead. The group featured Jim McPherson on keyboards, Hutch Hutchinson on bass, Gary Philippet on guitar, keyboards, and vocals, and Dave Weber on drums. The group reflected Cipollina's reaction to his experiences in "psychedelic" music.]

I started looking for new directions, because I was so burned out at that time with the San Francisco bands. At first, we were all fighting for individuality, and we fought so hard that we were stereotyped. I thought, man, if I see another pair of Levi's with patches on the knees, and if I see another guitar with an STP sticker on it, I'm gonna puke. I thought, man, we need something new. And I started looking for something fresh, and that's when I came up with Copperhead.

I had an idea. It was kind of a concept thing and I was very proud of Copperhead, actually. It was kind of the way that I felt about playing. I was tired of the long space-out sax-less jams. It's always been a luxury to be in the audience and be a participant. And I got a bunch of likes and dislikes. And one of my dislikes was, I was restless. I wanted to be entertained. I was tired of dead air between songs. I was tired of meandering sets that didn't go anywhere. And I thought it was cute to be threatened by a group. I mean, like, you better pay attention or else you might end up getting made a fool of. I liked that idea.

We were an early punk band. In fact, the term "punk rock" was coined for one of the early reviews that Copperhead got, late '70, early '71. It was a San Francisco critic, in distain, who said, well it's not really hard rock, it's kind of punk rock. And I thought, that looks good, that's us. Because first of all, I tried to establish a dress code. Just because our culture is visual, anyway, and it's hard holding attention. And what's more punk than a bunch of nasty little heathens in three-piece suits? I mean, they expect us in tennis shoes and jeans. But, hey, you know, in a suit and tie? Come on, man! That's punk.

And also the concept was mutability. I wanted to be able to do more than just the standard lead guitar, rhythm guitar, drums, singer. So I deliberately looked for two singers with different vocal styles so I would have three options. I had a definite rock singer, and then I had a rock ballad singer, and third I had a combination in harmony.

Copperhead kept on for a good three years. We put out our album in '73, which was bad timing. [Copperhead was signed to Columbia Records by label head Clive Davis, and great things were predicted for the group. Their album was released in May, 1973. On May 29, 1973, Davis was dismissed by CBS for alleged expense account irregularities. He is now the head of Arista Records.] They're cleaning out [Davis's] desk and they find this contract for $1,350,000, and they went, "Who are these guys?" So they killed the act. They printed, as far as I know, 60,000 units and that was just accidentally. And then they stopped it. And that was it. In fact, we talked to some booking agents and I found out later that CBS threatened them. They said, "If you book Copperhead we'll take off every CBS act you got." They made sure we didn't work. So by '74 we just kind of drifted, there was no sense in it.

[Another of Cipollina's group associations is what he calls "my ongoing thing" with Terry and the Pirates, a Bay area band led by Terry Dolan that has made five albums, starting with Too Close for Comfort in 1979. As Cipollina notes, however, his work with Dolan dates from well before the first LP.]

I got my first time running in with Terry and my last session I did with Quicksilver back in 1970. Nicky (Hopkins) had already left Quicksilver and he was producing this guy Terry Dolan. I had just left PHR studios. We were doing the last overdubs on the What About Me album. And then I ended up going to Wally Heider's studio. I remember I got in a jam with Garcia and Jorma and a bunch of other bozos. It was just one of those things you do when you don't want to go home, you know? It was about four in the morning and I'm almost ready to go home now. I got a call from Nicky saying, "Hey, come on over, man, I'm over at Lone State Recorders. I'm doing a session. We'd really like you to put down a track or two." So I went over there and that's how I ran into Terry. And then he kept doing sessions and then somewhere along the line he decided to do some gigs. They were real easy and it was a lot of fun, so it just kind of started. And then I just played with him all the time. After Copperhead, I ended up playing a lot in Terry and the Pirates. And then of course I went and did the Man thing.

[Man was a Welsh band, formed in the late 1960's and led by Micky Jones, Terry Williams (later of Rockpile), and Deke Leonard, that was heavily influenced by the San Francisco sound.]

They came to San Francisco and they were big fans and they wanted to meet me. In fact, they had come the year before and they played a club and they asked if anybody in their audience knew where I lived.

So I went in and I met them and they immediately accused me of not being me. I didn't live up to their expectations at all. They said, "Aw, you can't be him. How tall are you?" And I said, "I'm five-nine." And they said, "Everybody knows Cipollina's at least six-two to six-four." I said, "Bullshit." They said, "We've seen pictures of Quicksilver. He's a big, tall guy." And I actually showed them my license.

I had never had anybody accuse me of not being me before. It was weird. Deke Leonard said, "Well, if you're Cipollina, here, play something like him." So we did a jam and I guess I passed. Then they asked me to come down - they were playing Winterland. I sat in with them on the encore and everything that could've gone wrong went wrong. I mean, I broke a string. I hardly ever break strings. And the PA went out, and one of the amplifiers blew, I think. And it was really cool, because the band held it together. Finally, whan the PA went off, the drummer just took it and did a solo.

So at the end of the show they came over and they started to apologize. They said, "Gee, we wanted to ask you if you'd come to England with us, but you probably won't because everything fell apart." And I thought about it. I didn't know them, but I figured that anybody that could hold it together under that kind of adversity was adult enough and professional enough, sure, I'd do it. So I went over without knowing anything about them and we ended up doing the album. [Maximum Darkness, 1975]

It was fun doing a three-way guitar thing and also I thought it was about time that I get over, because I was getting typecasted pretty heavy as being, you know, a 'psychedelic' guitar player. It was getting to the point where it was even affecting sessions. I was a trained musician. I had played in jazz groups. I had played numerous styles of music. And I could play rock 'n' roll. But nobody would hit on me for certain sessions because I was typecasted as being a psychedelic guitarist, which I never felt I was very good at, anyway. But then, what do I know? I was just a rocker. So I thought, well, if I'm gonna keep doing this for a living, I'd better get over and do what I do. They might as well find out now I'm five-nine. So I went over and I played.

And sure enough, I surprised everybody. First of all, I am more violent than most people consider. I mean, I'm not, I don't hit people. But I do have a black sense of humor. I always have and I figure they might as well know. And I think we did really well, Man and myself, we did pretty good.

And then I got a call. We were just about to go to Spain and I got a call from the States saying, "Hey, we got Quicksilver back together." Before I'd left, somebody had come over and asked me if I would ever play with Quicksilver again. I was very explicit. I said, "Yes, but only if it was the original musicians and you got everybody to agree with it." And I'm still adamant about that. I'd play in Quicksilver right now if it was the original band, if everybody wanted to do it. Otherwise, it's not worth it. I mean, we did it. There's no sense kicking a dead horse, let alone trying to ride one. And Quicksilver was a thing and we did it and there was nothing wrong with it. There's a lot of other things I'm more embarassed of than my participation in Quicksilver. So I went back and did the Quicksilver reunion [Solid Silver, 1975], and then did two tours coast to coast with the band.

Then at the end of that, I had some Terry and the Pirates stuff to do and I had some other things. I had promised some people, I had gotten involved at a party with a bunch of L.A. bigwigs and we were all under influences of whatever. We were quite egotistical, including myself. And somebody said, "Do you write songs?" "Oh, yeah, I write, sure, you bet!" "Well, do you got any new material?" "You bet! I just spit 'em out, man, like gum." And they said, "Well, God, we gotta get you in the studio, love to hear your stuff." So, three years later they finally said, "Come on, are you gonna go in or not?" And at the time I had a couple of tunes that I had written and I was ready to put down and I had to pull a band together. So I got members of the last three bands that I had worked with, who were Quicksilver, Copperhead, and Terry and the Pirates. And I put Raven together in the beginning of '76. I went in the studio and cut a bunch of my stuff and we had so much fun, we looked at each other and said, "Hey, let's do some gigs. Come on, what do you say?" And that's how Raven started, and then it just got to be crazy. We only did about four gigs.

[A Raven album was released on Line Records in West Germany in 1980. Cipollina describes the album.] That was actually two demo sessions, one we did for Brian Rohan, who was gonna go out and try and sell 'em, and the other one I did with CBS, and when I sold the [first] album [to Line] I knew I had done that other session. And then I got back and found out I couldn't find the CBS one so I was really kind of panicked. But I actually was able to find a cassette, a rough mix that one of the drummers had. He had it lying on the hood of his car for about a year, and the start of it was warped and the tape had gotten stretched from the tape deck in his car. But the last three songs on the album, that's what they came off of. The first four were mixed off of a two-track master, the last three came off of a cassette, and a very poor quality cassette, too, I might add. And I pulled that together with Dan Healy, bless his little heart.

[The release of the Raven album came about due to a tour Cipollina undertook of Europe with Nick Gravenites, who had produced and played with Cipollina in Quicksilver. This is another ongoing association. The two recorded a live album in Greece in January, 1988]

The first time I played with Nick (Gravenites) was in 1979. No, that's not true. I mean, I had played with Nick here and there. We lived together for a couple of years. We were living together in '67. And I'd played with him a bunch. In fact, I did a bunch of gigs with him when Gary Duncan left Quicksilver. That was Quick and Nick in '69. But he had his own group called Blue Gravy that he played with.

Nick got a job. He was playing in this little club down in North Beach and these two school teachers were on vacation from Sweden and they went in there and they saw him and they just flipped out, man. They just, "Wow. God, the real Nick Gravenites!" One of them said, "How come you don't play Sweden? If we get something together, would you go out and work?" And he said, "Yeah."

I heard about it. So I called him up and congratulated him on getting out of town. I told him, "Look, I know you've never been in Europe, I just want to pat you on the back and I think you should have a good time." And he goes, "Well, listen, I'm playing this club, why don't you come down and sit in?" So I went down there. And playing with Nick is easy. He'll look at you and say, "Shuffle in E," "slow blues in A," "shuffle in G," "slow blues in E."

We sat in there and we played a bunch of stuff. And apparently at the end of the night, the band, the other two guys, said, "Man, we gotta take that guy to Europe with us. First of all, he's been there, he's got a reputation." Plus, I had a passport. So Nick calls me up and he says, "Hey, you want to go over?" So we went over and we did real good. It was successful and we ended up booking other tours. In fact, while I was over there I signed a publishing deal and I sold the Raven album on Line Records. And Nick sold an album on Line and the bass player sold an album on Line, and the drummer sold an album. It was a nickel-and-dime tour and yet we all came back with big checks. And then we all went back the following year. Then we went back again. And I've since been over there five or six times. For a while we'd just go every year like clockwork.

And I mean, Scandinavia was one thing. But then we discovered Germany and we did real good over in Germany and we started playing over there a lot and that's kind of how I started playing with Nick. And then I ended up coming back home and it was like, "Let's do a couple of gigs." So we started playing out there and that's when Thunder and Lightning came together.

Nick put a band together called Animal Mind he's been playing with, which was a trio again, and then he got this thing in Greece just recently and he started thinking of going over by himself. Then the guy said, "Well, what about that skinny guitar player, Cipollina? Can you bring him over, too?" So then we decided to bring over the band too, as long as he had to bring me. And we had a good time.

I've been in a lot of bands. I'm currently in and out of six bands. I mean, tomorrow I'm playing with Zero. And then after that I'm playing in a band called Fish Stew, which is me and Melton and the bass player from Thunder and Lightning.

[In addition to playing prolifically, Cipollina has also been doing a lot of recording lately, as he elaborated.] The Dinosaurs have already booked the date, they told me. We're gonna start recording (for Relix) in a few weeks, which will be my third or fourth record project in the last couple of months. Terry and the Pirates just got one put out on Line, The Acoustic Rangers. I just put some tracks on that. Zero, of course, their album is coming out. [Here Goes Nothin' was released in March, 1988.]

I know there's some things I left out, but probably for a good reason, more than likely. I'm still thinking the same as when I was 17 years old, which'll probably be the death of me. But I'm going on 45 and I'm still acting like a 17-year-old. I'm happy. I really enjoy what I do. Otherwise I'd do something else.


Relix, 1987, Vol. 15 No. 3

[Part 1 appeared in Relix Vol. 14 #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]

[Many thanks to bigsby68 for uploading this page to the MSN Cip & Quick group.]

JC Home - Articles, etc

Last updated: 31-Oct-2004