One of the saddest pieces of news of the year was the announcement of the death of John Cipollina. Admitted to Marin General hospital suffering from emphysema, he died shortly afterwards at the tragically young age of 45.
For many people Cipollina was the archetypal San Francisco musician; tall, lean and gaunt with that unchanging mane of long dark hair - the epitome of 'cool'. The picture always remains the same of John hunched over his cherry and red Gibson SG - with a joint stuck between the strings at the top of the neck. That was the photo on the first Quicksilver album and the image never changed.
Unlike most of his contemporaries Cipollina was not an ex-folkie when the rock bands began forming in '65, he was if anything already a rocker and had played in a few Marin County bands, like the Deacons, but none occupied a great deal of his time. In fact he was a real estate agent. If nothing else acid was to change all that.
Quicksilver were one of the very first of the 'new' Bay Area bands, formed as early as late '64, but constantly waiting for on/off member, the ubiquitous Dino Valenti, to get out of jail, it took them a full year to get going, during which time they lost drummer Skip Spence to the emergent Airplane. By mid '66 they had become the quintessential S.F. acid band, both in terms of their life-style and playing. The life-style involved partying as much as possible; the music with it's shimmering guitar based sound, virtually defined the new era. Cipollina, of course, has received the bulk of the acclaim for the sound and justly so, but one shouldn't overlook the contribution of his fellow lead guitarist Gary Duncan. It was the double lead style, bouncing phrases off each other, that made them so exciting.
The classic Quicksilver line-up cut just two albums "Quicksilver" and the immortal "Happy Trails", both successful critically and indeed both have sold well over the years. Somehow, though, the band never made it. The reasons are complex, but as much as anything have to do with why John in particular never made it on his own, later on. Basically, one always had the impression that he (and the band) were happiest playing around the Bay Area ballrooms or lying around in paradise (i.e. Marin County) with some righteous dope and beautiful women. No nationwide tours - who needs it? That attitude was what we loved about them, but it was frustrating at the time (and didn't they realise they were better off without Valente?) and later on it seemed increasingly self-indulgent.
Cipollina soldiered on with Quicksilver until the autumn of 1970, when he left to help form Copperhead. Their solitary Columbia (reissued on Edsel) album was lapped up by fans of the old Quicksilver - the band seeming to possess the fire and charisma (particularly Cipollina's guitar) that the post "Happy Trails" albums had lacked. In fact they sounded like QMS might have sounded if Dino hadn't come in and swamped the band. In retrospect it sounds a little heavy handed, lacking that air of mystery that "Happy Trails" had.
With the demise of Copperhead in '73, Cipollina played in a series of quasi-Quicksilver bands (maybe they just sounded that way because of his unmistakeable guitar sound) notably Terry & The Pirates. None meant anything in the U.S. outside the Bay Area but were big in Europe, particularly in Germany and Italy. Cipollina also played in a bewildering variety of other bands, from the reggae-based Inner Circle to the jazz of Freelight. Whether the lack of real success of any of these ventures bothered Cipollina is hard to say. Maybe he really was happy with cult-status.
In '79 Cipollina teamed up with gravel-voiced Nick Gravenites and found himself making several trips to Europe. Needless to say, irrespective of the quality of the music (which in fact wasn't bad) they were able to pack concert halls in Italy and Germany.
John's last real venture was the Dinosaurs - the band that featured other Bay Area stalwarts Barry Melton, Peter Albin & Spencer Dryden. For those that still cared, this could have been a dream line-up and when the spirit moved they could play like demons. However they never really took it that seriously - for a long time allegedly refused on principle to rehearse beginnings or ends of numbers. Their lone album (reviewed the issue before last) has it's moments but ...
The last time I (or most people over here) could have seen Cipollina was on the TV programme "Midnight Caller" (the excellent series about a San Francisco radio show host) in which the Dinosaurs (minus Melton) played in a bar room scene. It was a real surprise - there he was looking the same as ever, performing "Mona", all too brief, of course, but superb nonetheless. I'm glad I saw it, a fine last image of a man, who despite it all, never compromised and could still deliver the goods.
Mostly change is a good thing, but it was good to feel that someone like Cipollina was providing continuity in a world dedicated to change for it's own sake. I, for one, am sorry that he's gone.
Bucketfull of Brains 30, July/August 1989