THE ROCK AND ROLL COWBOY WHO STAYED TRUE TO THE CODE – SHY, SICKLY BUT CHARISMATIC JOHN CIPOLLINA
Friday, December 10, 2010
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.