Friday, December 10, 2010

Joel Selvin

San Francisco never produced a more original rock and roll character than Quicksilver Messenger Service guitarist John Cipollina. Even someone as ostensibly far-out as Jerry Garcia had to step back in awe and wonder at the colossus that was Cipollina, with his flowing locks, bat-shaped guitar and mad scientist ear trumpets atop his insane stack of amplifiers.

Quicksilver Messenger Service has always been the great under-rated band of the Fillmore/Avalon era of San Francisco rock. On any given night sharing a bill with the Grateful Dead, the Quicksilver guys could hand Garcia and company their asses. Certainly Quicksilver boasted more vocal power than the Dead and was able to light up some of the band’s finest pieces with gleaming, folk-styled three-part harmonies. Quicksilver guitarist Gary Duncan had chiseled good looks and could rip off roaring, galloping solos.

But it was Cipollina who loomed over the band onstage, standing in front of his goofy gear, elegantly poised, delicate, wan, pale in the spotlight, a spectral presence. His solos were practiced, carefully constructed. He was not an improviser like Garcia, Jorma Kaukonen of the Airplane or even Duncan in his own band. But his searing tone and precision parts drilled into your brain like a surgeon.

He stood like a tall tree in those early days of the San Francisco scene, but his magnificence never really traveled. He was not a robust fellow, hardy and hale, but he earned his place among the other San Francisco musicians not just because of his scorching, jazz-inflected guitar playing, but his high sense of style and hippie chic. He was sickly and shy, yet still oozed charisma. He was one of the first great stars of the Fillmore dances, although few outside the Bay Area ever knew.

Cipollina is the subject of an extravagant new video set, “Recoil – John Ciollina in Music & in Memory,” three DVDs, sincere, heartfelt, sprawling, unfocused, expansive, almost endless, and still unable to encompass the breadth of the majesty that was John Cipollina.

My own last sight of him is frozen into my brain. He was backstage at the Chi Chi Theater, a post-punk sleazebag Broadway nightclub, where he was appearing before a couple dozen indifferent patrons in one of the many bands to which he belonged in his final years. Was this Raven? Was Greg Douglass also in the band? Memory is weak on some details, but I keenly recall sharing a joint with Cipollina, who was dying at the time from emphysema, and watching him strap on his guitar, light up a Lucky Strike and reach for his walker to head to the stage, cigarette hanging from his lip, guitar slung over his shoulder. It was an act of pure defiance, spitting in the face of nothing less than death itself, a rock and roll gunfighter walking out for one more shoot-out, heedless of his pending doom.

Nobody understood the parallels between the San Francisco rock musicians and cowboys better than Cipollina. He looked like a character out of some faded daguerreotype, jet black hair falling into gentle curls around his shoulder, framing a thin, aristocratic face. He often wore broad-brimmed cowboy hats. The whole Quicksilver band affected a kind of Wild West look. Guitarist Duncan wore hunting knives on his belt and went barefoot. The Dead and Quicksilver used to play cowboys and Indians with one another, although the stoned hippies running the Quicksilver “Indian raid” on a Dead show at the Fillmore ended up landing everybody in jail.

He grew up in Mill Valley. He belonged to many local rock and roll groups and was growing his hair and living in his car on Mt. Tam when he attended the first Family Dog dance/concert, “A Tribute to Dr. Strange,” featuring a new band named Jefferson Airplane in September 1965. He stood for a moment on the stage and peered into the crowd, amazed to see so many freaks – that was the word – people who, like himself, had let themselves go good and strange in recent months.





Photo: Barry Oliver

There might have been as many as a thousand of them. Many of them were clearly under the influence of LSD. Within weeks, Cipollina had joined forces with some like-minded musicians he met at one of the jam sessions Chet Helms was throwing in the basement ballroom at the 1090 Page Street rooming house.

The original five-man lineup of Quicksilver Messenger Service immediately joined the first-tier of ballroom attractions on the new San Francisco rock scene, alongside the Airplane and the Dead. The band lived in an old dairy farm in Olema and Cipollina kept a wolf for a pet. Their manager was a former dubious character from Chicago named Ron Polte, converted to the cause under the influence of LSD. The band turned songs like Bo Diddley’s “Mona” into lengthy, epic instrumental excursions. Quicksilver used to feature a transformed version of the Del Shannon oldie, “Runaway,” powered by a riveting Cipollina riff. “We’d like to dedicate this to all our friends in the Haight-Ashbury,” vocalist Jimmy Murray said.

Murray quit when the band started to rehearse. The remaining quartet, signed to Capitol Records for more money than Polte ever stole before, recorded an album with producer Nick Gravenites, an old Polte Chicago crony, at the Capitol Tower in Hollywood that was never released. The band did manage to capture highpoints of the stage repertoire on subsequent sessions released as the debut album. By the time the second album was underway, guitarist Duncan was planning to leave and the fabric of the band was unraveling. It was a brief shining hour for Quicksilver and never satisfactorily reflected by the band’s recordings.

Quicksilver continued for a number of years. The band even experienced a flush of success after being joined by vocalist Dino Valente (joined? Some would say hijacked). Nobody ever mistook these later editions for the classic Quicksilver, a band little seen outside the Bay Area.

Cipollina’s last night with the band was a fateful concert in October 1970 at Winterland on a bill with the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead that was broadcast live not only on public television, but in an experimental quadraphonic broadcast simultaneously over two separate FM radio stations (a fact that has ever since plagued Dead tape traders who can only acquire tapes with half the sound). It was also the final night for Jefferson Airplane founder Marty Balin. It was also the night Janis Joplin died of a drug overdose in a Hollywood motel. The news broke on the television broadcast backstage between acts.

Clive Davis of CBS Records signed Copperhead, Cipollina’s next band, with much fanfare and great hope. The album’s big song – “Roller Derby Star” – was recorded by two other local bands (William Truckaway, the Ducks) and, although nobody wound up getting anywhere with the song, there was a moment where it seemed like someone might. That was as close to the charts as Cipollina ever came again. He played with songwriter Terry Dolan in an endless procession of Terry and the Pirates gigs. He participated in the bloodless Quicksilver reunion job. He toured Europe with Gravenites (they called the act Thunder and Lightning). When Country Joe and the Fish guitarist Barry Melton started up the Wednesday night poker circle for old San Francisco rockers he called the Dinosaurs, Cipollina came right onboard. Possibly the finest moment of his post-Quicksilver career, a long, dismal slide into the oblivion of the Chi Chi Theater, was the live album he recorded with the Welsh progressive rock group, Man, during an English tour where he served as special guest in 1974. He died at age 45 in 1989.

It doesn’t matter how many shitty gigs he played or how many crummy bands he joined, John Cipollina never lost his dignity. He stayed true to the code. He was a cowboy all the way. The video performances on the third disc of “Recoil” do not capture him in all his glory. His memory is best left on the faces of the interview subjects who try to describe the man they knew to filmmaker Jesse Block, whose previously released rockumentary, “Electric Guitarslinger,” is the first disc of this set. The second disc contains even more interviews.

(The interview with me comes with a warning on the package: “note to Deadheads: You need a sense of humor for this one.”)

His wacky amplifier setup, foot pedal switches and customized guitar stand in a case outside the entrance to the exhibition hall of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. How did such a little-known psychedelic guitarist earn such a prominent spot in this Valhalla of rock? The reason Cipollina’s jerry-rigged equipment stack is the first thing visitors to the hall see is because his gear arrived so late, exhibit designers barely had time to unpack it before the opening day, let alone find a place for it inside the exhibit hall. They just set it up where they unpacked it. That’s sort of like getting to close the show because you turned up too late to play earlier.

That exact sort of rock and roll reasoning – if that isn’t a self-cancelling phrase – John Cipollina would have understood.

2010 Joel Selvin | Website : Maurice Tani Design