Last Update: 30 Aug. 2000
New documentary video!
John Cipollina: Electric Guitarslinger
Narrated by John's sister Antonia, this one hour retrospective includes interviews with John, his family, Jerry Garcia, Bill Graham, Nick Gravenites, Nicky Hopkins, Dan Healy, Merl Saunders, Greg Elmore, David Freiberg, Barry "The Fish" Melton, Spencer Dryden, Paul Kantner, Peter Albin, Terry Dolan, and others.
"John, what are you going to do now that you've left Quicksilver?"
"I think I'm going to try to start my car."
(Radio broadcast from backstage at the Fillmore West, San Francisco.)
[This page was originally published in May 1999.]
John Cipollina, a founding member of Quicksilver Messenger Service, one of the seminal, psychedelic, San Francisco bands, is still my favorite rock guitarist ten years after his death. His alternately stinging and searing tone, snakey bends, and dramatic phrasing epitomized "tough" lead guitar work. In addition, he had a uniquely personal sense of horizontal harmony that made his choice of notes unlike that of any other rock guitarist. John burned.
Some musicians have signature licks or trademark tones. With Cipollina, everything he played was signature; one couldn't mistake his playing for anyone else's, or mistake anyone else's for his. Even his mixed-down background fill dripped his DNA. Early in his career -- a career that spanned approximately 30 years -- he developed a playing style and sound that were utterly his own.
. . .
San Francisco during the sixties had a lot going on to distract a teenager. Among the nicer distractions was the emerging music scene, which my older, hipper, sister led me to. It was during junior high school (middle school), that I first was exposed to the music of the local bands. Sandra took me to a benefit concert one Saturday where I first heard QMS. Other bands and performers were there, but all I remember is Quicksilver and their performance of "I Got My Mojo Workin"
. . .except that I couldn't make out the words, but I knew it was something-or-other workin'. (I was only thirteen.)
Later, I discovered I could get around the City on my own. Parental supervision being somewhat lax, I found my way frequently to the Fillmore and Avalon Ballrooms, and to many free concerts in Golden Gate Park. The first time I told my mother I was going to the Avalon, she said, "I used to go there when I was a teen!" (In the early 1940s.) So, it was okay with her.
Quicksilver's guitar work shimmered with a brilliance and clarity which made other bands seem murky in comparison. Unlike most members of the other San Francisco acid rock bands, who were often folkies converted to rock, John Cipollina and Gary Duncan were rock musicians before forming their band. Gary Duncan's playing clearly had the broadest scope of any guitarist among the S. F. bands and he had an expert facility to deliver it.
Equally expert was John Cipollina, who also had the clearest vision of how he wanted to sound. Cipollina's playing was so completely given over to that vision, and he presented it so well, that the question of scope never arose. It was just amazing and delightful to hear John do what he did. It sounded to me that John's electric guitar playing was the musical essence of electricity itself, as though he was playing the current directly and the guitar was the valve that allowed him to do that.
Cipollina and Duncan together were simply unreal; the music was always on. There was an ineffable complementarity between Cipollina's emphatic dramatism and Duncan's melodic sensuality that totally slurped the monkey's brain. Ultimately, I think, they were from different schools, say Cipollina being an abstract expressionist and Duncan an impressionist (whatever), but in combination it worked fantastically.
Quicksilver was probably the last of the original wave of S.F. acid bands to release an album. I remember an air of anticipation and frustration among my friends about the lack of a QMS recording.
When Quicksilver finally did release their first album in 1968, it was stunning. The experience of listening to it the first time is etched deeply in memory. It was in a friends' livingroom -- his parents were away for a month -- I can see the cluttered coffee table in front of me as I went unfocussed, absorbed completely in the music.
The changes the band went through were telling. When Gary Duncan left, the band seemed to hang on by only a thread, despite the addition of Nicky Hopkins. When Duncan returned, bringing with him Dino Valente, they found a new and powerful footing and created some really strong and different music. When Cipollina left in 1970, and didn't return, a vital element was lost.
Fortunately, Cipollina didn't stop performing when he left Quicksilver. Rather he played with a number of different bands and artists, though never with the kind of popular success that he had achieved with Quicksilver. I'm tempted to believe that part of the problem may have been his own brilliance: although Cipollina played with some very talented people, his music was so stand-out that he tended to unbalance an ensemble effort, and it was difficult to find again the dynamic equilibrium that had been available within the Quicksilver environment.
Additionally, I suspect that he didn't find it easy to compose; his forte was performance. And, his approach to performance, in a strictly musical sense, was extreme
--which was positive and fit in perfectly with psychedelia, but hard to tame for less expansive, more sedentary and popularly accessible, settings.
By "extreme" in the above paragraph what I mean is this: Cipollina's notion of electric guitar playing seems to have been a particularly exacting distillation of the tonal and musical properties available from the instrument which were the only properties he cared about. He either discarded or de-emphasized any others. By this means he derived essential qualities that expressed only what he found most important.
To describe that distillation in words is difficult. For me it was like this: Cipollina's guitar was a Lamborghini -- powerful, fast, sleek and sexy, exotically stylish, quirky, and wickedly bitchin'. The analogy falls down only because there is more than one Lamborghini in the world.
The development of his playing seemed to never seriously alter his personal way of hearing music but rather refined, embellished, and explored his private aesthetic. In that respect, I am reminded of the early jazz guitarist, Django Reinhardt, who similarly took residence in a unique musical landscape. And, in each case, the guitarist seems to have loved his instrument wholly for its own sake.
. . . Which is not to say that John lacked versatility -- he played in a variety of styles and in a wide variety of moods -- but it was always John's ear. One had to like what Cipollina was about in the first place; he didn't compromise, or make his antecedents and influences obvious, much less play his impression of someone else.
It is a great pity that neither John, nor Gary Duncan, nor the QMS band itself have been honored by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
. . .but, it's not unexpected.
With the tenth anniversary of John Cipollina's passing upon us, I'd invite you to root out some of his recordings and enjoy the music of a master rock guitarist. He was beautiful.
From "Cobra," off the "Just for Love" album, 1970:
file size: 0.98 MB
play time: 64 seconds
Need an MP3 player? Download WinAmp.
You can also tune in anytime to hear John perform on 'net radio station Radio Cipollina - The Electric Guitar Slinger. V. cool.
John Cipollina was born in Berkeley, California, August 24, 1943. He suffered congenital emphysema, which ultimately killed him. He died May 29, 1989 at age 45.
After Cipollina left Quicksilver in 1970, he performed in a variety of bands, often being a member of several simultaneously. (I remember once going to hear him play with Terry & the Pirates, unaware that he also played lead in the two other bands on the bill that night. We were delighted to have blundered into a "Cipollin-a-thon.")
The list of bands and artists he performed with after Quicksilver includes Copperhead, Man, Terry & the Pirates, Raven, Freelight, Novato Frank Band, Rocky Sullivan, Stu Blank, San Francisco All-Stars, Thunder & Lightning (with Nick Gravenites), Seven Deadly Sins, Dinosaurs, Nicksilver, Zero, Fish & Chip (with Barry Melton), and Problem Child. Before Quicksilver, he is said to have played as a teen (starting in 1959) with The Penetrators, The Deacons, and others.
Year Album Title Recording By Contributed 1968 Revolution - Original Motion Picture Score Quicksilver Messenger Service (2 tracks) Guitar, Vocals 1968 Quicksilver Messenger Service Quicksilver Messenger Service Guitar, Vocals 1969 Happy Trails Quicksilver Messenger Service Guitar 1969 Shady Grove Quicksilver Messenger Service Guitar, Vocals 1970 Just for Love Quicksilver Messenger Service Guitar 1970 What About Me Quicksilver Messenger Service Guitar, Percussion 1971 Papa John Creech Creech, Papa John Guitar 1972 Rolling Thunder Hart, Mickey Guitar 1973 Copperhead Copperhead Guitar 1973 Anthology Quicksilver Messenger Service Organ, Guitar, Vocals, Bass 1974 Insane Asylum McDonald, Kathi Guitar 1975 Solid Silver Quicksilver Messenger Service Guitar 1976 Maximum Darkness Man Guitar 1979 Too Close for Comfort Terry & the Pirates Guitar, Vocals 1980 Blue Star Gravenites, Nick Guitar 1980 Doubtful Handshake Terry & the Pirates Guitar 1980 Raven Raven Guitar 1981 Illegal Entry Sullivan, Rocky Guitar 1981 Wind Dancer Terry & the Pirates Guitar 1982 Rising of the Moon Terry & the Pirates Guitar 1982 Monkey Medicine Gravenites, Nick Guitar, Producer 1984 Playing in the Heart of Gold Band Ghosts Guitar 1984 Amagamalin Street Hunter, Robert Drums, Guitar 1985 Day in Paradise Fankhauser, Merrell Guitar 1986 Relix Sampler #1 Relix Sampler #1 Guitar 1988 Watchfire Sears, Pete Guitar 1989 Double Dose Heart of Gold Band Guitar, Executive Producer 1991 Sons of Mercury (1968-75) Quicksilver Messenger Service Guitar, Vocals 1996 Doctor Fankhauser Fankhauser, Merrell Guitar 1996 Rock 'N' Roll Heaven Novato, Frank Guitar, Executive Producer 1999 Unreleased - Lost Gold & Silver Quicksilver Messenger Service Guitar, Vocals
[If you know of any omissions or errors in the above list please let me know via email: email@example.com.]
Cipollina's parents were frequent attendees of his performances. Amidst youthful, long-haired, raggedy, counter-culture audiences, his parents were particularly conspicuous, even startling.
* * *
In the original liner notes of Quicksilver's "Just For Love" album, Cipollina is described as "The world's most benign carnivore."
* * *
Cipollina's composition "Cobra" was used for a time as a S.F. Bay Area television station's sign-off music in place of the national anthem or some other inspirational piece. (I'm sorry that I can't remember which station, but I think it was KQEC or one of the south-bay UHF stations.)
* * *
For a while, Cipollina did his own work on his guitars. In a Guitar Player magazine interview ages ago, he said that after having drilled unnecessarily into the body of one guitar, that it might become the world's first guitar with a built-in cigarette lighter.
* * *
On our first date, I took Martha to hear Cipollina play with Freelight at the Palms. John was going to be late, it was announced, because he had got married that day. He arrived, not terribly late, in a tux, and removed the jacket to perform. Martha was impressed. (Oct. 27, 1977)
* * *
In 1995, Cipollina's custom amplifier set-up was donated to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
The John Cipollina Home Page: More information about John Cipollina, including lists of all known audio and video recordings, who he played with, photos, memorial t-shirt, video documentary, etc.
Radio Cipollina - The Electric Guitar Slinger. Web broadcast by G. Voss on live365.com.
John Cipollina Photo Page
John Cipollina Memorial Photo Page by Michael Kirschner
Shady Grove - The Quicksilver Messenger Service Page: History and current activities, rememberances of members no longer with us, links to related sites, photos.
John Cipollina Discography by Michael J. Cross.
Interview with Steve Keyser, John's manager and friend.
A Conversation with Guitar Legend John Cipollina by David Gross . . . mostly about Link Wray.
Limited Edition Photograph by Rob Cohn/Dead Images
Rhino Records: An excellent anthology of Quicksilver's recordings was released by Rhino as a double CD -- "Sons of Mercury, 1968-75."
Quicksilver Messenger Service titles available through CDNOW.
Quicksilver Messenger Service titles available through Collector's Choice Music.
Relix has several of Cipollina's CD titles available online.
Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: It may be futile, but you can suggest John as an inductee.
And, be sure to check back here from time to time to see what's been added.
appreciation | audio clips | information | discography | miscellany | elsewhere