As much as Rolling Stone Magazine has come to signify how far we have come down in our expectations of popular culture –with covers in recent years featuring the likes of Brittany Spears, Ben Affleck, Lindsay Lohan amongst others, occasionally there is a glimmer of the storied rag’s past, a moment where someone working there is able to cut through all of the pulp fiction and serve up some small truth, and a sense of what got them to the place they now are
Actually, dear Rolling Stone, if you remember, it wasn’t even arguable; in a city hell-bent on a new utopian vision, with its political counterpart across the bay the scene of daily riots protesting the war in Vietnam, down the length of a boarded up Ashby Blvd in downtown Berkeley, and between both places, a whole generation gathered, all to the accompanying anthems of sound being made by the original psychedelic, improvisational jam bands, with revolution in the air. Even in the midst of all of this, as a band, and remember how important, essential and central to everything, music was at the time, Quicksilver was simply in a league of its own. As Rolling Stone once noted, "The San Francisco Band most visited by the guitar gods." Forget about The Dead, forget about The Airplane,…. The Doors from down south –whatever-! Or even Big Brother and Janis… None of them could approach let alone touch this bands brilliance, and we all knew it. We also, all knew why this was, that it had to do with one of the finest, most original, innovative, just exceptional electric guitar players to have ever picked up the instrument. That would be, the incomparable John Cipollina.
Most of you reading this probably won’t know of him - unless you are a guitar player- But you’ve heard him; when you listen to Tom Verlaine or, the new Wilco record –with the fine guitarist Nels Kline- another bay area player who clearly shows the imprint of Cipollina’s playing in his own work -as do many other players from today. His crazy configuration of an amplifier stack, half tubes, half transistor, with protruding Wurlitzer horns now sits silent forever at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum where many of today’s best players can go pay homage to a guitar hero and marvel at this Tesla-esque configuration of insanely great sonic invention. But even more amazing than the eccentric pile of electronic gadgetry, were the sounds he conjured out of the whole affair. It, was magical.
I can see him now, vividly. Pale as a flame, wraith-like, with his long straight hair, thin as a rail, suffering from lifelong congenital emphysema–taking the stage like the haunted spectre of Paganini himself, risen from the dead, come to try his hand on a Gibson custom SG turned to unheard of decibels of feedback and distortion, bathed in and illuminated by the pulsating, biomorphic forms of Jerry Abram's psychedelic light show, holding court at The Avalon Ballroom.
It was the years of 1967-69 I was 14 when it all started for me, growing up hard, raised by wolves is the metaphor, one of the countless runaways who flocked to the Haight Ashbury hoping to be part of something bigger than themselves…only to discover that sugar mountain sat on this awful piece of terrain called reality. I personally found the Haight way too hot in terms of police, etc and so moved myself down to much cooler and more bohemian haunts of North Beach/Chinatown, living in the dusty old Hotel Stella in a six dollar a week room convinced, I had found my way to heaven at the ripe old age of 15. Still, whenever Quicksilver played, whether at The Avalon Ballroom run by Chet Helms and his collective The Family Dog or, over at Bill Grahams Fillmore West, I always managed to venture forth from my Chinatown haunts and find myself there in the midst of one of the more wild scenes of the 1960’s.
Quicksilver Messenger Service San Francisco circa 1967
Cipollina, unlike many guitar players of that time did not come out of the Albert/BB King school of playing. His style, lighting fast, jagged riffs, played with finger picks as opposed to a flatpick, had more to do with Link Ray, and Bo Diddley, to which John added a sonic atmosphere, a landscape of large scale vision, employing feedback, wah wah pedals –whammy bar pyrotechnics and huge distortion. In all fairness, Quicksilver was a fine band with a terrific, completely talented if slightly more conventional second guitarist Gary Duncan, whose Michael Bloomfield/ Jerry Garcia, only chunkier, like guitar ruminations, complex, and jazz derived, were the perfect foil for the leaner, more visionary work of Cipollina’s making Quicksilver this double lead guitar configuration that was simply unlike anything else being done at that time. The band was filled out with Greg Elmore on drums and David Freiberg (who shared lead vocal duties with Duncan) on bass.
Ouicksilver Messenger Service recorded two full-length albums in their heyday as a quartet and, as one of the triumvirate of top San Francisco psychedelic bands, the Dead and the Jefferson Airplane being the other two. The first, titled Quicksilver Messenger Service is a marginally successful studio record too influenced by Michael Bloomfield and Nick Gravenitas, and, too thin and careful, yet with its moments; the opening song Pride Of Man being a Quicksilver staple, along with the fuzzed out wah wah virtuosity of the albums closing song The Fool. The second album Happy Trails was recorded live at both Fillmores –east and west, and live in the studio. With its exotic mixture of someone blew a bomb off in Bo Diddley's belltower riffing, and heady psychedelia, it, is a is a classic from that era. However, having been at most of the live Fillmore West shows when the concerts from which Happy Trails derives were recorded, sadly I can say Quicksilver was really never recorded live in a way that captured the magnitude of their improvisational genius. As was always the case, these final concerts of a great band at the height of its powers, were an experience, memorable and brilliant. Unfortunately, the technology and means for recording them just weren’t available then.
After 1969 Quicksilver broke up only to reform in a variety of far lesser groups, marred by the strange inclusion of an overbearing and in my opinion, not particularly interesting or even good folk singer Dino Valenti –whose one claim to fame aside from his long associaton in and out of this band, was writing the song Come On People Lets Get Together –made famous by the band The Youngbloods. John Cipollina went on to play with any number of other bands, none of them approaching the level Ouicksilver played at. The last time I saw him was at a small bar at the bottom of Mount Talmapais over in Marin in 1986. I was out on a road trip racing around the mountain in this little Alpha Romeo roadster I had at the time and had just sat down for a drink when in walked John and a group of friends, It was his birthday, I bought him a drink, we had a laugh or two about the old days, I told him that back then he had been like a god to me –he laughed and said something to the effect of "that’s kind of frightening." John died, finally succumbing to emphysema three years later. In his time, he was beautiful.