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The life and times of Quicksilver Messenger Service's John Cipollina

John Cipollina
(Image credit: Estate Of Keith Morris/Redferns/Getty Images)

Cippolina embodied everything embedded in the term “rock guitar god.” Tall and slender – with long, dark, side-parted hair framing a pair of model-quality cheekbones – he stood out even among the colorful cast of wildly talented characters who made up the San Francisco psychedelic music scene of the mid to late '60s.

His amp rig was like something out of Tom Wolfe’s Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Stream-Flake Streamline Baby – a hybrid tube/transistor stereo tower of tone, crowned with gleaming metal horns and flashing automotive lights. You half expected the thing to sprout massive tires and go roaring off down the highway. 

Armed with this primordial super-stack and his beloved 1961 Gibson SG, Cipollina did things that bordered on the occult. A bold, original stylist, his guitar work with Quicksilver Messenger Service played a key role in defining the San Francisco psychedelic sound, also anticipating much of what was to come in rock guitar playing. 

But outside of a small, if devoted, cult following, he is not as well or widely remembered today as, say, Jerry Garcia, Jorma Kaukonen, Carlos Santana and other guitarists who came out of San Francisco during the psychedelic era. Which is a shame, as Cipollina was every bit their equal. 

By the time of his relatively early death – in 1989, at age 45 – he’d been reduced to playing small Northern California clubs, his health seriously compromised by emphysema and often in need of a wheelchair to get around. 

Cipollina was a true son of the Bay Area, born in Berkeley on August 24, 1943, and growing up mostly in Mill Valley. He started out on piano, but like many of his generation, he switched to electric guitar once the mid-Fifties rock and roll explosion had ignited. 

His first band, the Penetrators, covered Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino and other prominent first-wave rockers. Cipollina’s adoption of the thumb pick may have grown out of emulating Presley guitarist Scotty Moore, who also employed this style of plectrum.

This would become one of the defining features of Cipollina’s technique and style, which combined a thumbpick and first-finger fingerpick. Cipollina had been relatively unfazed by the mid-Sixties folk boom that had captured the imagination of guitarists like Garcia, Kaukonen or Roger McGuinn.

He’d stuck with his rock and roll roots. So there’s something a bit more primordial in Cipollina’s deployment of his dual plectra. He used them in tandem with vigorous vibrato arm action to create haunted, howling, face-melting leads. In this, he anticipated the dexterous fingers-and-vibrato-arm technique that Jeff Beck would develop to stunning effect later in his career.

But Cipollina was doing it in ’65, long before Beck. And by combining his distinctive picking with a highly original approach to amplification, Cipollina was able to forge a style that blended tremulous lyricism with bursts of snaky, anarchistic phrasing. In an era when rock guitarists were debating whether they should stick with tubes or move on to then-brand-new transistor amplification, Cipollina simply said, “I’ll have both.”

I like the rapid punch of solid-state for the bottom, and the rodent-gnawing distortion of the tubes on top

John Cippolina

He devised an elaborate amp rig combining two solid-state Standel bass amps with two Fender tube amps: a Twin Reverb and a Dual Showman driving six Wurlitzer horns. “I like the rapid punch of solid-state for the bottom, and the rodent-gnawing distortion of the tubes on top,” he said.

His setup, which today is on exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, also incorporated a Maestro Echoplex and Standel Modulux, complete with a system of automotive lights to indicate which effect had been activated by footswitch. Even in an era noted for its imaginative experimentation with gear, Cipollina’s rig stood out just as much as he did.

In 1965, Cipollina became a founding member of Quicksilver Messenger Service, the band that would bring him to fame. They were an integral part of the hippie scene that grew up around LSD, free love and free thinking in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury neighborhood. And their history intersected with that of several other Bay Area bands.

On any given night sharing a bill with the Grateful Dead, the Quicksilver guys could hand Garcia and company their asses

Joel Selvin

At various points, the Quicksilver lineup included Skip Spence, best known for his work with Moby Grape, and bassist David Freiberg, who would go on to play with the Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship.

“On any given night sharing a bill with the Grateful Dead, the Quicksilver guys could hand Garcia and company their asses,” the Bay Area music critic Joel Selvin wrote. 

So why aren’t Cipollina and Quicksilver Messenger Service more well remembered today? Much of it is down to the typically sad rock and roll story of bad timing and worse luck. For one, Quicksilver’s lineup was notoriously unstable.

One of the group’s founders, singer/guitarist Dino Valenti, was jailed for marijuana possession before the band could even have its first rehearsal in ’65 at the Matrix, the club owned by the Airplane’s Marty Balin.

But then it was Balin who recommended guitarist Gary Duncan for the newly forming group. Balin felt a little guilty for luring Skip Spence away from his slot as Quicksilver’s guitarist so that Spence could play drums for an early incarnation of the Airplane.

We got into double leads right from the start, partly at my insistence

John Cipollina

Duncan and Cipollina would soon become a formidable two-guitar team, trading licks and interweaving lead lines during trippy, marathon improvisations over material like Bo Diddley’s classic Mona. Cipollina and Duncan’s freewheeling, modal, raga-flavored excursions took Mona far from the Afro-Cuban roots of the original Bo Diddley recording.

This kind of mind-meld interplay was a precursor to the dual-guitar style that Duane Allman and Dickie Betts would later develop in the Allman Brothers’ music, which also makes Cipollina and Duncan key forefathers of the jam band scene.

“We got into double leads right from the start, partly at my insistence,” Cipollina recalled. “I’ve always liked double leads, and just because no one was doing double leads at the time, it didn’t stop us.”

But, again, if Cipollina and Quicksilver were so good, why aren’t they more well remembered today? Their tardiness in signing with a major record label is something else that worked against them. Not that the labels weren’t interested. They were. It was the band who weren’t interested in a record deal, which would prove detrimental to their career.

The San Francisco scene at the time was notoriously insular and flush with anti-commercial, anti-capitalist hippie idealism. The bands and scenemakers wanted to keep their thing “pure.” There was a considerable mistrust of outsiders – particularly those from L.A., which was regarded as the capital of glitzy, crass, commercial “plasticity.”

This feeling ran so high that many of the San Francisco bands initially refused to participate in the historic Monterey Pop festival in 1967 because it was being organized by Los Angeles record producer Lou Adler.

Many of them eventually relented, of course, including Quicksilver, whose set was a festival highlight. But Quicksilver steadfastly resisted signing a record contract, despite the fact that their friends the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane had done so – the Airplane striking a deal with RCA in 1966 and the Dead signing with Warners in ’67.

We had no use for record labels and we were unsigned. We would make double the money of the guys who had a record contract

John Cipollina

As a result, those bands had albums on the market just as media interest in the San Francisco’s hippie scene and ’67’s Summer of Love was peaking. Quicksilver basically shot themselves in the foot by refusing to deal with “the man.” They thought they could go it alone, basing a career solely on live work.

“We didn’t want to sign,” Cipollina insisted. “We had no use for [the record labels], and we were unsigned. And we were making more money. We would make double the money of the guys who had a record contract.”

So by the time Quicksilver finally signed with Capitol Records, releasing their self-titled debut album in ’68, other bands had already established themselves as the kingpins of acid rock. And just as the Capitol deal went down, Quicksilver lost their lead singer, Jim Murray. Some accounts say he was scared off by the discipline required to make a studio recording.

The debut disc, Quicksilver Messenger Service, is nonetheless a solid album. Embellished by Cipollina’s tastefully tremulous lead guitar work, the disc’s apocalyptic lead track Pride of Man garnered significant airplay on FM underground rock radio stations. But it never achieved anything like the crossover success of songs such as the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” or “Somebody to Love.”

“I don’t think the group ever reached its potential,” Cipollina said. “We were pretty lame in the studio, but we were a kick-ass live group.” So it was fortuitous that Quicksilver’s second album, 1969’s Happy Trails, was mostly recorded live at the Fillmore. 

It captured Cipollina and Duncan’s trademark dual lead work on the band’s tour de force live interpretation of Mona, as well as another Bo Diddley song, Who Do You Love. Cipollina’s stinging, frenzied, acid rock leads ignite his own instrumental composition How You Love; also taking pride of place on Gary Duncan’s opus, Maiden of Cancer Moon

Like its predecessor, Happy Trails caught the ear of the counterculture. Jerry Garcia even hailed it as “the most psychedelic album ever recorded.” But it was hardly a mainstream commercial success. And then Gary Duncan left the band.

In a surprising move, Cipollina drafted British session piano ace Nicky Hopkins (the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Who, Kinks) to replace Duncan. It was the end of Quicksilver’s days as a two-guitar juggernaut, but the start of an interesting new chapter for Quicksilver and Cipollina.

I don’t think the group ever reached its potential. We were pretty lame in the studio, but we were a kick-ass live group

John Cipollina

“Quicksilver was the first band I’d played in without a piano,” the guitarist noted. “I always missed the keyboard, so when Gary left, instead of trying to replace a guitarist, I looked for a piano player. Nicky was the best. It seemed natural to me. Besides, we became good friends right from the start.”

Hopkins’ superb piano work is predominant on Quicksilver’s next release, Shady Grove, from 1969. His presence pushed the group toward bluesy abandon, on the one hand, and quasi-classical elegance on the other — both directions bringing Quicksilver further afield from their more psychedelicized earlier work. Still there’s plenty of fascinating interplay between Hopkins and Cipollina — two outstanding musicians at the top of their respective games.

But Cipollina started to become disenchanted with Quicksilver once Dino Valenti signed on as the group’s lead singer in 1969. As we’ve seen, Valenti helped launch Quicksilver back in ’65, but was prevented by a pot bust from performing with the group.

When he finally got around to assuming frontman duties, he brought a strong and coherent songwriting voice to the band. He wrote what is perhaps Quicksilver’s best-known song, 1970’s Fresh Air, which became a pothead anthem thanks to the song’s “Oooh, have another hit” chorus refrain.

Valenti’s focus on songcraft, however, left less room for wide-open guitar experimentation; and Cipollina had left Quicksilver by 1971. “I wanted to try some new stuff,” he said, “and a lot of the new [Quicksilver] material didn’t give me much to do. Besides, I wanted to branch out. Quicksilver Messenger Service’s format seemed old.”

His next project was Copperhead, a solid early Seventies hard rock band that might have had a shot at major success had bad luck not derailed them. Record biz maven Clive Davis signed Copperhead to CBS in ’73 but was fired from the label shortly thereafter. So Copperhead’s only recording, a self-titled debut album, languished in the absence of label support. Cipollina went so far as to say that anti-Davis forces at the label openly sabotaged the release. By 1974, Copperhead was finished.

For the next 15 years, Cipollina drifted through numerous bands, many including old cronies of his from the San Francisco scene. But he’d never again achieve the level of success he’d attained with Quicksilver. He was still slogging it out in Bay Area clubs when ill health caught up with him. A combination of emphysema and alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency claimed his life on May 29, 1989.

Like many gifted '60s rockers who didn’t get enshrined in the “classic rock” pantheon, Cipollina and Quicksilver might sound a little alien to listeners raised on the homogenous AOR rock radio format of the Seventies and beyond. But Cipollina’s pioneering work is nonetheless one of the foundation stones on which the classic rock edifice was erected.

Alan di Perna

In a career that spans five decades, Alan di Perna has written for pretty much every magazine in the world with the word “guitar” in its title, as well as other prestigious outlets such as Rolling Stone, Billboard, Creem, Player, Classic Rock, Musician, Future Music, Keyboard, grammy.com and reverb.com. He is author of Guitar Masters: Intimate Portraits, Green Day: The Ultimate Unauthorized History and co-author of Play It Loud: An Epic History of the Sound Style and Revolution of the Electric Guitar. The latter became the inspiration for the Metropolitan Museum of Art/Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exhibition “Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock and Roll.” As a professional guitarist/keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist, Alan has worked with recording artists Brianna Lea Pruett, Fawn Wood, Brenda McMorrow, Sat Kartar and Shox Lumania.