By Bruce Robinson
John Cipollina played in a lot of bands. Quicksilver Messenger Service remains the best known, of course, but the lean, intense guitarist from Mill Valley also led or gigged with more than two dozen other, mostly short-lived groups, from Copperhead, Terry and the Pirates and Raven to the Dinosaurs and an early edition of Zero.
"I saw them all," recalls Antonia Cipollina, John's younger sister (by nine years) and the force behind Recoil, a newly released triple-DVD set that makes a compelling case for his musical legacy.
It leads off with the 1991 documentary Electric Guitarslinger, hastily produced for screening at the Mill Valley Film Festival not long after his death from emphysema at the age of 45. Along with archival interview clips with Cipollina himself, it offers early memories from his twin sister and their mother, along with comments from a host of musical associates.
The documentary also has a fascinating section in which Cipollina's unusual technique—combining finger picks with aggressive use of the whammy bar on his favorite guitars—is explained and demonstrated.
Disc two of the package includes interviews with a long list of John's musical contemporaries, among them Jerry Garcia, Barry "the Fish" Melton, Occidental's Nick Gravenites, Merl Saunders and Jack Casady, while the final disc consists entirely of concert videos, most of them never before available. This footage captures John performing with a half-dozen different lineups, from the Dinosaurs' appearance at the 1987 "Summer of Love" 20th anniversary festival all the way back to a 1973 Winterland jam.
A remarkable rarity is the clip from a 1974 San Francisco date when Cipollina sat in with one of his earliest influences, Link Wray. "Link and John had a really special friendship," his sister says. The two were introduced to each other by bassist Hutch Hutchinson, then part of Copperhead, who surprised John by having Link show up unannounced at his house. "They immediately became friends and started playing together," Antonia adds. "You can see in the footage how excited [John] is to be able to be playing with his idol."
But finding usable film of the original Quicksilver proved more elusive. Even after a new remastering job, courtesy of Wolfgang's Vault, which owns and shared much of the performance film featured in the DVD set, the loose version of the signature Quicksilver song, "Who Do You Love," is "still pretty iffy," Antonia offers, "but it was all we could get of Quicksilver. The old stuff, just four guys without Dino [Valente], was so flashy with the strobe lights you couldn't really see enough of the band to get anything. So we had to move to the next era, when Dino was part of it, which I would have liked to avoided, but we had no choice."
As that comment suggests, the demise of Quicksilver—which continued without John after Valente joined and, some say, commandeered the band—left a bitter aftertaste. Aside from a comfortable, laughter-laced interview with founding band mate David Freiberg—and brief comments from Gary Duncan and short-time QMS member Nicky Hopkins—the history of that seminal band is deemphasized in favor of recollections of Cipollina's personality, his quirks and talents.
"He was a soft, gentle man with an amazingly wicked sense of humor, very smart. He could tell amazing stories," Antonia remembers wistfully. "A lot of people have a sense of rock and rollers as being kind of down and dirty, but John was not that type of guy at all. He wasn't a womanizer. He was kind, he listened and liked to talk." Cipollina especially liked to talk about his gear, such as the monster multi-amp set-up he invented, notable for the row of brass horns that glistened atop it.
Even while Quicksilver was going strong, John's love of playing led him into a burgeoning schedule of sessions with other musicians, in situations as varied as the folk duo Brewer and Shipley, jazzman Charles Lloyd and Welsh hard rockers Man. Ready to play almost anytime the opportunity arose, Cipollina touched an uncountable number of other musicians, serving as a unusually accessible mentor and inspiration to many.
But despite that, his sister sighs, her voice touched with pride, "There's nobody yet who could sound like John."
'Recoil' is available at www.johncipollina.com.