John Cipollina in QMS Part Two: Did They Fall or Were They Pushed?

In ZigZag 38 we unfurled details of the early Quicksilver Messenger Service, searching the rim of outrage and lunacy, evading the disciplines of a record deal, and leading a totally hedonistic existence in the wilds of Marin County. This month we'll explain the second, more sedate, phase of their career.

1. Donahue's Out to Lunch

"When we first started and were living in that basement on Water Street," explains John Cipollina, ace guitarist and co-founder of the group, "we used to call up Tom Donahue, who owned Autumn Records, and say "listen, you're Dino's manager and Dino says we're his band - so what can you do for us?" But Valenti was in jail and Donahue didn't even want to speak to us - so every time we called, there would be all this mumbling and then his secretary would say "he's out to lunch". Well, we called him practically every day for 3 months, but no matter what time it was, he was always "out to lunch". So, after a while, the penny dropped and we'd all walk around chanting "Donahue's out to lunch... Donahue's out to lunch"... it became a real big catchphrase around the house."

They decided they didn't need a record contract anyway; it might interfere with their policy of uninterrupted enjoyment... but when some of their friends started cutting albums, they were keen to see what happened.

"The Airplane signed with RCA and all the other bands in the area began to watch them real close, to see what would happen. The Airplane were really taking off locally; Matthew Katz was handling their affairs, they had the Matrix, they wrote and played good stuff, they packed out the Fillmore whenever they went there, and their reputation was really spreading out across the country - by word of mouth, I suppose, and through the underground press. So they really had it right there... but all of a sudden, when they started recording, they were walking around with long faces."

"Then the Dead signed, and the same thing happened... they weren't nearly as much fun. And all the groups were being urged to go out on tour, promoting their albums over as much of the country as they could cover - and nobody ever seemed to be playing around town anymore... the scene was breaking up. But we were still around, and we weren't about to sign up and leave the area, so we got all the gigs we could handle. In fact, Quicksilver holds the record for the number of gigs played at the Avalon; 75 nights I think it was. So whilst we were up there on our ranch, fooling around and having good times, we were always capable of getting ourselves together to come into the city and play our arses off."

QMS in 1968: John Cipollina/Gary Duncan/Greg Elmore and (in front) David Frieberg
QMS in 1968: John Cipollina, Gary Duncan, Greg Elmore and (in front) David Frieberg

"We shared the bill with so many different people; everyone from Howling Wolf to the Doors - but we got more money than any of them, even though we hadn't got an album out or anything. So we stayed around... never did too much travelling, except up and down the state."

Whilst their manager, Ron Polte, was assessing the various record company offers, sending them back with clauses amended in red ink and making outrageous demands, he negotiated a one-off deal with United Artists, which involved Quicksilver's appearance in a film called 'Revolution', a pot-boiler about 'the underground', and their contributing two tracks to the soundtrack album.

"I've never seen the film," says Cipollina. "I missed it when it came to town, but maybe it'll come on television someday... doubt it though - it wasn't too hot from what I hear. Anyway, the band was a 5 piece in the film, but by the time we came to cut the two songs for the album, Jim Murray had left and we were down to four. So if you can find somewhere where 'Revolution' is playing, you'll see us as we were back in that summer of '67... some summer."

Quicksilver do two tracks on the album; Buffy Sainte Marie's 'Codine' and their adaptation of the old folker 'Babe I'm gonna leave you'... both superb. Sad but true, the album (discussed at length in past issues) is now deleted but if you come across a copy, grab it fast, because it constitutes an essential fragment of the San Francisco jigsaw.

2. "What's an 8-track?"

"I remember when we actually did sign; we were really depressed afterwards... we were walking around with gloomy expressions saying 'we finally did it... never mind, it was fun while it lasted'. (It certainly was as you'll know if you read ZZ38). Mind you, we held out until we got a really good deal; Ron Polte is a genius - I'm still glad to say he's my friend and I'd never consider signing anything without asking his advice."

Not only did they get a load of money, they got unprecedented freedoms in terms of material, presentation and studio time. "Also, we made Capitol provide 8-track facilities for our use... almost unheard of in those days of 4-track studios. It was the first time Capitol had ever seen an 8-track, and us too! We'd told them 'we're not going to record unless we have an 8-track' and they'd said 'what's an 8-track?' So we said 'we don't know, but we hear they're really groovy, so we've got to have one!'."

The first album, 'Quicksilver Messenger Service', was started at the beginning of December 1967 with Nick Gravenites and Harvey Brooks producing ("they just told us what to do and we did it"), and Pete Welding was subsequently roped in to help mix the tracks down. According to Cipollina, "the album was a lot of fun... and some parts are pretty good I think". Such delicate understatement!

A little unsteady in places, certainly subdued... but still magnificent. Setting new standards for twin guitar interplay, Gary Duncan and John Cipollina trade rhythm and lead roles - Duncan's full bodied, more mellow tone contrasting with the ringing density of Cipollina's solid Gibson. Listen to 'Gold And Silver' and you'll hear it all.

The album's happy atmosphere, I feel, stems from the obvious fact that they recorded it basically for themselves and their friends (whoever wanted to listen)... no compromise, no pandering to commercial considerations - just 4 musicians playing their hearts out. What more could you ask?... but this was only an indication of their power and quality. (By the way if you're uncertain of personnel details etc - see the family tree in ZigZag 26).

Understandably, Capitol wanted a single to push and since the album contained no obvious top 40 material, pressure was brought to bear.

In September 1968, again under the supervision of Nick Gravenites, they went into Golden State Recorders to appease Capitol's whim. "If they want a single... we'll give them a single." Laughter exploded round the room.

Of course, they had no intention of lowering their standards or treating the quest for a hit with any kind of solemnity. The only things they took seriously were wine, women, song and maximising their enjoyment of life. Consequently they presented Capitol with possibly the most frivolous single of all time, 'Bears'.

"They wanted us to record a single at a time when we weren't quite ready... we were a little scattered, as I recall - but then I can't remember a time when we weren't a little crazy. Anyway, we found this thing called 'Bears'... we loved the song and really decided to have some fun recording it. If you listen, you can hear these funny noises over the vocal track; we finished the backing alright and then David Freiberg went to add the vocal... and we all stood around him making faces and behaving like idiots, trying to make him blow it. Gary Duncan was chewing crisps and then emptied the bag over his head, Nick was blowing in his ear, people were jangling key rings and sticking their fingers in his nose - but he struggled through it, and we sent it to Capital... I don't know what they must have thought when they heard it!"

Until it appeared on 'Anthology' last year, 'Bears' was almost totally unobtainable but the b-side, Dino Valenti's 'Stand By Me' isn't contained on any album and has become the rarest Quicksilver track. (I'm open to offers in excess of 2000 guineas.)

* * * * * *

Six weeks later, they recorded a series of gigs (at the Fillmores West and East) which were subsequently edited to comprise the backbone of their second album 'Happy Trails'. This was the one; it just took everybody's head off (metaphorically, of course - though in the case of Pippin, there is some cause for doubt).

Cipollina: "We were always better live. There's no point ever going into a studio unless you're going to have a good time - but all the same, we found the atmosphere just a little strange when we cut our first album, and we decided to record the follow-up live... in a familiar setting and with a familiar audience, so we could really cook and let ourselves go."

'Happy Trails' is a classic - but I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that.

Apart from the title track, which they tricked Greg Elmore into singing, the only studio cut was 'Calvary'. "The basic track was all those screaming lead guitar lines - we cut all those first, and then Freiberg, Elmore and I went down to LA where we joined three 8-track machines together so we could pull all the pieces together and finish it off with rhythm instruments and voices. That was quite a project, but it was Gary Duncan's last contribution, because he split during the course of recording it."

"The finished piece was sectioned as our interpretation of the crucifixion; it starts with the condemnation, goes through the journey to the cross and ends with the angels coming... we were really swacked out when we conceived that one, but I've never seen anyone review that track as we'd meant it."

For most people, the highlight of the album was their spectacular near half hour epic 'Who Do You Love', where they took an R&B write-off and came back with the greatest track ever to come out of San Francisco... one which captured the spirit of an era. Spliced from untouched live recordings and covering the whole of side one, it never lets up.

They'd been doing this song since their earliest days and the arrangement had evolved over some 30 months; it was Jim Murray's vocal tour de force but when he left, Gary Duncan took over and he rasps out Bo Diddley's horror comic lyric over that snatchy corkscrew rhythm before delivering a guitar solo which crystallises every essence of acid rock.

This one will go to the desert island with me... without doubt a peak of unity, command and mastery. They never got close to it again; instead of consolidating their achievements, they split.

* * * * * *

3. Outlaws Upset the Applecart

Having walked out of Folsom Prison a free man once more, Dino Valente had come round to see his old mates - but they were tooling along quite nicely without him by this time, and he went off to cut a solo album for Epic. Nevertheless, he was living in the Sausalito/Mill Valley area and saw a lot of the group - particularly Gary Duncan. According to Cipollina, "they hung out pretty good together, were very compatible and were riding the same musical tracks. Eventually, Gary and Dino decided to form their own group called the Outlaws and they spun off to New York to look for some hot shot musicians that Dino knew."

They left on January 1st 1969 but literally a week later, Gary was on the phone saying he'd come back if Dino could come too... but everyone was a little wary of that - it would be too intense."

Elmore, Freiberg and Cipollina attempted to carry on but found gigs too restrictive as a trio. "We were looking around for another member for some time and then we found that Nicky Hopkins was in town. His piano playing on 'Beggars Banquet' had just flipped us all out and I really wanted to meet the guy and see what a hot-shot English musician was like, so Freiberg's old lady (who was the subject of Hopkins' 'Girl From Mill Valley' and, incidentally, Steve Miller's 'Quicksilver Girl') introduced us. Well, he really flashed me out, and after I'd invited him up to my place and he'd seen my collection of guns and things (full details when our Copperhead article finally comes together), he ended up staying there. After that, it was a case of gradually edging him into the group."

The first contribution he made was on 'Joseph's Coat', a track being prepared for the third Quicksilver album, 'Shady Grove'.

"I asked him to listen and see if he could add a piano part," says Cipollina. "He listened to it once, making a few notes on a piece of paper and then went straight over to the piano, taped his jottings in front of him, and played it first time! It was just astonishing. So he joined the group and we felt a real resurgence... he really gassed us out. A genius."

The album, good as it was, was an anti-climax after the magnificence of its predecessor, though its quality has crept up on me over four and a half years of random playing. Cipollina reckons it took only 6 days to record, but over 4 months to mix down! The mind boggles! "We used to go into the studio and have mixing parties every night," he says. (Yes, I seem to have heard a few wild tales concerning Quicksilver's legendary "mixing parties".)

* * * * * *

The end of the year upon them, they prepared to play their traditional New Year's Eve gig for Bill Graham at Winterland... only to be confronted by Duncan and Valenti, whose twelve month foray had been a spectacular failure consisting of fruitless searches in New York and rejecting an endless stream of hopeful but unsuitable auditionees at their rehearsal studio in Sausalito. "We're old friends," they said, bowing and scraping at Cipollina's muddy boots,"... why not let us play too? Just for old time's sake?"

Cipollina was so moved that tears welled in his eyes and rolled down his cheeks, pouring like a burst rain water pipe over the kneeling figures before him.

"Piss off," he said, "... can't you see I'm busy?" He motioned towards the voluptuous teenage nymphet, naked except for her diaphanous denim panties, who was now tugging at his sleeve.

"Oh please John," begged Valenti, "... we're starving. I've learnt four more chords and I promise not to sing anymore songs about unicorns prancing through my mind."

As the chimes of midnight and the strains of 'Auld Lang Syne' faded away, they took the stage as a sextet, Elmore/Freiberg/Cipollina/Hopkins/Duncan/Valenti, and initial reaction was ecstatic. "It knocked everybody out - including us... so much so that we decided to stay together, and we began to do a lot of touring."

Stay-at-home Quicksilver actually went out to New York and the East Coast, down to Texas, back to California, to New York again, where they topped the bill at the famous Brinsley Fillmore gig, and finally to Hawaii.

4. Curtains for Quicksilver

"We loved Hawaii so much that we ended up staying and cut an album there... in fact, one and a bit albums."

"Why spend a hundred dollars an hour in San Francisco when we could rent a huge hunting lodge in the middle of a 15 mile sugar plantation, 7 miles off the main road? Hawaii became our playground and Quicksilver became adopted sons... we grew to feel part of it, and even now I feel replenished every time I go there; no politics to contend with, unlimited sunshine, the smell of tropical fruit, all those beautiful brown skinned girls, but mostly nature itself. I mean, you can put a mask on, swim in the waters and see fish that... they're so funny looking you have to laugh! I can't tell you how lovely that place is."

"We partied... for a while it was just like the old days. We all got convertible cars with telephones in them, went to the beach every day and just went crazy - but we always assembled back at the lodge each evening to eat... the food was just so amazing. The chef was so good that we took him back to San Francisco with us for 6 weeks."

"We had a full staff of maids, engineers, roadies, friends, a chef and assistant cooks, everything we needed including carpenters who converted this huge dining room into a studio; partitioned it off to form the control booth and everything... and we even brought in the biggest piano on the island - a beautiful Baldwin. There was no electricity, so we had to have generators to power the mobile recording unit but that studio must've been the finest gas-lit studio on earth. That was a great studio - nearly as much fun as Mickey Hart's place; the only studio where the engineers strap on holsters and six guns before they sit down at the console!"

They took the tapes for the resultant album, 'Just For Love', to Los Angeles where they spent a month mixing - but when it was released, hard-core Quicksilver fans were disturbed, bewildered and disappointed - partly because Dino Valenti had insinuated himself into such a dominant role. If you like his whining wandering love songs, fine, but frankly 'The Hat' would be tedium incarnate without Gary Duncan's acoustic decorations and 'Gone Again', with Dino whimpering how he "feels so groovy now" would send me to sleep were it not for Hopkins' redeeming figures. At least I love the sleeve... but to see Cipollina, certainly one of the three greatest guitarists living (and even Deke Leonard would agree with that), in such a back-seat role is a bummer, to say the least. (Maybe he wanted it that way - who really knows?)

Something had happened, and Quicksilver was about to crumble irreparably. A few tracks into the next album, the trivial squabbling developed into threats and full-blown resentment. In a fit of Alamo-style melodramatics, Valenti gathered them in the courtyard of the lodge, took a stick and drew a line in the dirt; Nicky Hopkins, manager Ron Polte and John Cipollina walked over. The tail was now wagging the dog. It was the end of an era.

Cipollina: "I did a couple of tours with them, just to keep it together, and then I split for good." Even when pressed, he refuses to say anything nasty... but he reckons that Dino is "only effective when he can get right in there - he has to be in charge; that's his personality."

On 31st October 1970, after laying down the basis for a track which came out as 'Local Colour' on the next album (despite the date mentioned on 'Anthology'), Cipollina packed his bags and flew home. "It was a fun group but I wanted to get into some other things - it was almost like being married and not being able to go out with another lady, you know? I wanted to get off the road for a while, do some thinking about the way my music was going, maybe do some producing - and then I ran into all these crazy people..."

But that's another story, as is "The Latter Days of Quicksilver", and we'll save them for another time.

(Large lumps of the above appeared in a recent Melody Maker article I did. Sorry 'bout that, but I repeated them here for a clearer picture of the whole).

Pete Frame, ZigZag 41, April/May 1974

[Thanks to Keith Hunter for doing the original scan & OCR, and giving permission for me to add the article to my site.]

The other parts of this series appeared in:

ZigZag #38, Cowboys and Indians in Marin County
ZigZag #52, John Cipollina in the 70's

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Last updated: 27-Oct-2002