[A tense moment as the Chipolata Kid prepares to take on the entire audience. Speedy Gonzales is on the left. Pic: Barry Levine]
JOHN CIPOLLINA, he's the real thing. Smallish, wiry, hair tied back, nicotine stains up to his elbow and the confident loquaciousness of a man who knows he's eccentric.
Cipollina, now with Man, is something of a legend in this country -- partly because his previous outfit-but-one Quicksilver Messenger Service, much to the chagrin of countless hippies, consistently failed to turn up for a British tour, but mostly because of his guitar partnership with Gary Duncan. At one time these two embodied the spirit and sound of San Francisco batter than anyone else; their trademarks are indelibly printed on the first three albums (after which Duncan left). And best by far of these is "Happy Trails" a live tour de force that has been a happy hunting ground for scores of would-be killer axeman, most of whom never graduated beyond the bedroom mirror stage.
Back in '64, Cipollina came out of law school with his bits of paper and took up the office of real estate agent, a post he was abundantly unsuited for: "Had all the training but I'm not a businessman. My father told me, 'Son, be a painter or a musician, but for Chrissakes keep away from business'. I'm too spaced to do anything like that."
Spaced... well, isn't that de rigeur for you Californians?
"No man, we were really crazy. Unusually mad. Only the Charlatans came close to us for carryin' rifles and stuff. They were mean and nasty and dirty but I had a gun see, guns -- lots of them. Look."
Cipollina pulls out some snapshots of him and Quicksilver in his armoury oiling the sub-machine guns and cocking the repeaters. There's latent carnage in those celluloids.
The band were keen on practicing too (small bore, pheasants, just to keep in trim). When they lived at Point Reyes Station on eighty-eight acres of choice grazing they had plenty of opportunities to take potshots at their landlord who, for some obscure reason, took umbrage at Cipollina's full-grown wolf running wild on the reservation and worrying his horses.
"Eventually this farmer wised up that we were a bunch of long-haired freaks. Or so he thought. We reckoned we was pretty mean. Used to sit on the fence posin' with our hats pulled down low, fingers in belts, looking kind of Gary Cooperish. Usually we were too stoned to stand up straight, jest livin' out our cowboy fantasies."
"Because of my wolf the farmer got belligerent and the feud became serious, turned into a gunfight. Thing was, we was better armed than him and went through the whole bit of pushing the barrels through the windows. I went after him while the others covered me. 'Cept for a couple of pats of cow dung he had no place to hide."
As a sort of finale, Quicksilver destroyed the man's corn barn and were persona non grata in Point Reyes thereafter. Cipollina's wolf landed up the wrong side of a bullet.
WELL ANYWAY, Q.M.S. parted company four years ago, for no other reason than that they felt like a change, and John Cipollina fronted the biggest non-starting band of all time, the short-lived, fabulously-subsidised Copperhead, whose demise was directly bound up in the drugola scandal that swept through the industry at the time. A certain company found itself presidentless after it was found that large quantities of pharmaceutical cocaine were being offered to groups as enticement.
Bribery financed by the Wages of Sin that involved a lot of extremely sordid criminals.
When a minion squealed Dirty Rat experts from the FBI moved in and uncovered a large vice racket.
Cipollina nods sagely: "It's standard business practice. If you're after a client you ply him with liquor or give him a Cadillac. With musicians... give 'em the best dope."
Copperhead's signing with the President in question meant that when he retired prematurely to a fall-out shelter in North Dakota the other employees who mattered avoided Copperhead like a bad dose. Considering that the company had already baled out the band to the tune of $150,000 -- and were contracted to pay a quarter million up front and a record $1,350,000 over five years -- that was an inexplicable move.
"Thing was, we had a good following. We'd played the Winterland more than any other band and when the record came out it sold twenty thousand on the first day. As they refused to re-press we were forced to break-up."
Cipollina is now doing very well playing sessions, which is where he reckons the big money is.
Then, of course, there's the involvement with Man.
"They asked me if I'd do some studio work, then an album, and it rolled into a tour. So here I am. Course, they might not like me at the end."
So far he's played once live with Man, at the Winterland where he succeeded in busting two amps and a string, disasters not supposed to plague guitar heroes: "They were so cordial and all, though, so I came over, said, 'Boys, I don't usually do things like this'."
Mighty Fine Gestures all round, hombres, but J.C. won't be joining Man permanently: "Guess I'm a Westerner. I was born and bred in Berkeley, California. That's mah home."
Outside the hotel police sirens wailing at regular intervals cause Cipollina to gaze transfixed out of the window, drinking in the noise and violence. The guitarist-equals-gunfighter syndrome may not be a golden rule but it certainly applies in this case. An American dream to recreate Oatersville, to conflagrate and trail-blaze.
If Cipollina had to give up music here's what he'd do: "Something kinky, like go to Hawaii or Tahiti and hang out with bronzed maidens. I got into rock 'n' roll because of imagery. It's the nearest job to gunslingin' I know."
Yeah, and this cowboy had "Born To Lose" etched on his car and engraved on his jacket.
For kicks he blew up Cadillacs or drove them over cliffs into the Pacific, an elaborate form of speed chicken that Sal Mineo laid copyright to in 1955.
"I'm an artist. Artists are allowed to be silly, to do things to excess, distastefully. I can't think of anything else I'd like to do more, unless I became an assassin and got a license to kill.
"Now that sounds like fun."
New Musical Express, June 7, 1975