|Their critics have tried to find them guilty of being boring|
Sharp, treble hues slashed against the sky as The Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead and Big Brother & the Holding Company, among others, strove towards the pinnacle of psychedelic perfection known as "Flower Power". The year was 1967. Love was the word and San Francisco, ruled by Mercury, planet of communication and change, was The City.
Now it's 1970. Psychedelia is a withered flower dumped onto the musical dung heap. The Dead are well fed, the Holding Company was held up and the police are clipping the Airplane's costly grass. Ask any pseudo-hip dude - "San Francisco's dead, man."
They've forgotten that the very essence of San Francisco and her groups is volatile change and, it seems fitting that the intrinsic nature of the city expresses itself in a group aptly named the Quicksilver Messenger Service. As a unit, they have been sadly underrated, relegated to - "oh yes" - or - "Then there's Quicksilver. Who?" Their critics have tried and neatly found them guilty of being boring, erratic and lacking any musical purpose or direction and, then, just as neatly they have endeavored subtly to obliterate them from the mercurial public mind.
Their censor's evident lack of success was due to the group's multi-faceted talents and their ability to change and progress through five consecutive albums in the last four years. Their musical evolution, as displayed in the albums, has been lateral due to the widely diverse musical influences of both Nicky Hopkins and Dino Valenti, rather than just a direct forward progression of the jazz oriented psychedelic sound heard on the first album. The primary ingredient of this sideways progression, however, has been a cohesive intra-group communication reaching out to include totally those that hear and respond to them.
"Many times the audience changes what you're playing," John Cipollina, lead guitarist, explained, "even down to the configuration. You see, when you're playing, you all have one thing in common - everybody is aware of the beat. Whether you're back in the bathroom, or at the snack bar buying something, or right up front waving your arms and getting it on, whatever you're doing, subconsciously you're aware of the beat and when there's communication it's easier to keep the beat established. It's very rewarding when the audience gives it back to you and, sometimes when they do, they come back with a different rhythm, because they're picking up on a different instrument, and you pick it up and it changes the whole song; sometimes it improves it.
|Whether you're in the bathroom or up front, you're aware of the beat"|
"When I'm playing too, I'll think two measures ahead of what I'm playing when we're doing a song on stage, sometimes six or eight measures. And then, sometimes, I get right into it and the band gets on it and this great communication thing happens.
Communication extends to their studio work where intra-group ego problems (or in this case petty sibling rivalry) have no place, for, as Gary Duncan puts it, "We've been together for a long time. Me and Elmore were together a long time before the other guys came along - weren't we, Greg. He's like my brother, so's Dino, so are all the other cats. If one of us leaves, it's just like my brother's gone away for a while. It's like a family."
Like a family, they all make the decisions regarding the songs to be used, they all contribute equally within their own creative capacities and somehow it all evens out. They haven't completely eluded difficulties. As it happens there have been times when musical ideas grated and each member of the group has taken time to just hang out. Currently, it's Nicky who's taken a leave of absence. John joins him sporadically in between California gigs, but John's into producing some of his own things now. "I'm still going to be in contact with these boys," he says though. "We're pretty close to each other. We hang out in the same places, but I'm not fading out of the scene and neither is Nicky. He's experimenting and hanging out which is good. You see, the rest of us have hung out, but Nicky has never done that. He's been recording, he's been one of the busiest session men in the world. He was either going to a studio or planning to and there's this whole area of hanging out that he's never gotten into.
"When I first met Nicky Hopkins he never took his watch off, but he's doing just fine now. He's working a little bit and he produced a session which was really fun. He played piano and I played six string bass and slide. All I'm really trying to do is have fun. Really that's the key to my participation in the group."
Fun isn't the only key to Quicksilver, though. Their music is an expression of their lives, how they think and how they feel - a sort of high voltage amplified Hyde Park.
"If your world's in trouble and you are in a high consciousness," said Dino, "it's your responsibility to do what you can, or get yourself out of the way and stop putting yourself on. You should do what you believe only don't thrust yourself in everybody's way. If I'm going to help people, it's going to have to be from where I am, because people sell themselves out. They don't care as long as they don't hurt."
"We're doing something to benefit the whole thing that's going down," said Gary, punctuating his words with the compressed air pop of a hypodermic-like saucer remover, "including the racial contest and air pollution, by playing music that's really good and alive. It benefits in that it cools out certain situations. It makes people feel better, therefore the configuration doesn't make me feel as bad as when I was doing nothing about it. It seemed hopeless, maybe it still is, but now we're trying to do something about it, telling the truth, staying cool and just playing good, alive music that touches you."
Currently, the group is overdubbing on their fifth album which is slated for release in November and, according to John, responsibility for both the lyric and musical content is pretty well divided among them. "One person does not write a song. One person puts down whatever and everybody else gets in and finishes it. I wrote a song on this album and I wrote one on the Just For Love album. David wrote a song on this one too, and so did Gary, Greg and Dino together.
"It'll have 'What About Me' on it with the famous marijuana verse in it. It's kind of a challenge to the established society, saying 'here I am and this is my life style and what are you going to do about me and people like me? Or are we going to be outlaws forever?' A what have you done to my country thing. And then we've got one called 'Won't Kill Me.' It's a country pickin' comedy number with some Fats Waller piano on it that Nicky did. Then there's the one I've written. I call it 'Local Color' but that may change because the rest of the guys don't like the title. It's an instrumental now, but that may change too, because it's an instrumental that has words. I don't know if we'll use them or not, but right now I don't think so. 'All In Your Mind' is another one - it's a bossa nova thing - and then there are two called 'Long Haired Lady' and 'Baby, Baby' which we do on stage and that's what the album is so far. We may add one or two songs yet."
When asked about retrospective feelings in relation to past albums, John grinned, "The thing is you always learn from them. They are what we were at the time, because in the act of creation, all you're doing is catching time. You can always play something better. As far as having a fair retrospective outlook on our albums, even the first two are still too close to look back on. When I hear them they take me right back. I remember how the lights were in the studio and I can see Dino running around and I remember who the engineers were.
"On our Happy Trails album, I remember the Fillmore, doing gigs, and people high ... very high, and the different moods that the band was in at the time we did that album. Shady Grove was the first one where we experimented with a sixteen track and Nicky did a lot of experimenting with the stereo piano. We fooled around with the machines and did all kinds of overdubbing. We got carried away and really just had a party. We recorded all the basics the first eight days and it took us five hundred hours to make it at a hundred dollars an hour.
"The Just For Love album was recorded in Hawaii, which is like a second home to most of us. It was fantastic because it was our studio. It was a lodge and we brought our own machines. We brought our own engineers and we had our own friends around. It was a really family scene. On that album we were trying to get a feeling and part way through the recording, that feeling of love, the whole idea, came through. We always try to say something on each album we do. The first album we didn't. It was just a statement of get it down and here we are, ta da Quicksilver! that's us! The second, third and fourth albums all had concepts. Happy Trails was what we were playing live, with an audience. A love communication thing between two groups of people - them and us. Shady Grove, that was more, you know, hang out and get it together. Get back to nature. Then Just For Love was just that. The concept for the fifth one isn't too clear yet, but it'll happen."
|Valenti: "Do what you can or get out."|
It seemed somehow incongruous, that a song like "Cobra" would slither into a basically "Love" album. John chuckled. "It came about in Hawaii when everybody started calling me 'the snake of the islands.' I'm in the Exalted Hierarchy of the Royal Order of Pythons. It's a thing that started within the group. I don't know who started calling me the snake of the islands first. Whether it was the girls, or one of the engineers, or whoever, but snake of the islands stuck and that's where I got the idea for 'Cobra.'
"Usually the idea for a song comes to me when there's no possible way of recording it. That was what was so great about Hawaii. There we went from bedroom to kitchen to booth to studio instead of from hotel to rent a car to studio and back again. Anyway the idea will come just like when I'm getting to sleep and all of a sudden there it is. You could define it as a sudden clarity. The notes, the exact structures, everything is so clear that it frightens me. Each note will be just exactly on pitch in my head and it's frustrating when I can't record it right away. I'm always afraid that I'll forget it in my sleep, but most of the time it does come back to me later when I can record.
"There's always room for improvement on any album we do," John continued, "although I've heard a lot of good things lately. The thing you've got to remember about music is that music is about one hundred years behind art. Take a look at the art of a hundred years ago. It was all minutely categorized and that's exactly where music is today. Eventually, if we're lucky, people will stop categorizing music, and hopefully, everything else. That's the thing about human nature though. They have to put you in a category, a bag, and it doesn't give you any room for outward communication of your inward expressions or ideas."
It seems more than coincidence that the Quicksilver Messenger Service evolved into a voluble spirit of San Francisco: passionate, alert, quick to communicate the truth and seek change. As a unit, they know that a lack of communication is death and in Webster's they're defined, under Quicksilver, as - "A resuscitator to stimulate, excite or incite the center of feelings."
"... Have another hit of fresh air..."
"Fresh Air" JESSE ORIS FARROW
© Copyright Salli Stevenson
Photos: Kurt Ingham
Circus, December 1970
[Thanks to Mark Lawton for doing the original scan.]