John Cipollina Ė An Interview
by Mike Somavilla
When the legendary San Francisco guitarist died last summer, he was still an active musician, despite the fact that his health had been declining steadily.He had recently been hospitalized for his respiratory problems and often needed a cane or a wheelchair to get around.
But Cipollina lived to play the guitar and nothing was going to stop him from doing that except death. At the time of his passing, Cipollina had, in fact, been booked to play a gig at a San Francisco club called the Chi Chi Club. That show turned out to be a tribute to Cipollina instead, featuring members of several of the groups with which he worked as well as his brother Mario, bassist for Huey Lewis and the News. Later in the summer, a larger tribute concert was held at the Fillmore, including an appearance by the surviving original members of Quicksilver Messenger Service, the band with which Cipollina gained his initial recognition in the psychedelic 60s.
The following interview with Cipollina took place just months before his death. Cipollina shrugged off his health problems and concentrated on detailing not only his recent musical activities but his plans for the future. If he had any indication that his life was nearing the end, he ignored it. For John Cipollina the next gig was all that really mattered.
Goldmine: You took ill following a Northwest U.S. Dinosaursí tour. How are you feeling these days, and does it feel good to be back in action?
John Cipollina: Yeah, actually, itís always good to be playing. I was sick back there, but it was short-term illness, and Iím back in fighting form again.
Goldmine: What are the current projects that you are working on?
John Cipollina: Well, letís see, thatís a good question. Besides live performances and stuff, Iím working on a couple of different album projects. They havenít quite solidified yet, however I plan on doing several album projects this year, with at least on solo album out of it.
Goldmine: Are there any plans to tour Europe, either with the Dinosaurs or Terry and the Pirates?
John Cipollina: Thereís talk about that. I mean, Iím a performer. I like playing Europe and I havenít played there in years, with the exception of Greece in 1988. Iím always ready to go play. All I need is someone to fill in a date in my calendar, which is the part I donít do. I have nothing to do with booking the dates, thatís pretty much up to the promoters. The same thing with the northwest, east coast, Midwest, the south; there are tentative plans, Iím just waiting for a confirmation.
Goldmine: Whatís happening with the Live In Greece LP you made with Nick Gravenites? How was the audienceís reception for those shows?
John Cipollina: The audience reception was fantastic. It was a wonderful show and a breeze as far as the recording went. We all had a good time, we were treated quite well, both by the promoters and by the audience. As far as the plans for the album to come out, it was Nick and my understanding that the album would be out already. However, they had some problems, apparently, with their partners. They changed hands or had a falling out. There are new partners now. They flew in from Greece to my home in Mill Valley (Calif.) a couple of months ago, and made plans to get the album out again, went back to Greece and I havenít heard anything since.
Goldmine: How many bands are you with currently, and is there one that is a favorite?
John Cipollina: Thatís a touchy question! I always like playing with Nick, we go back for years, just because itís a unique situation. Nick is a great vocalist. Actually, I just like playing and the reason I play in a lot of different bands is because it affords me the opportunity of a varied repertoire. Currently, as far as how many bands Ė Iím playing right now in Fish and Chips and Fish Stu. I donít have any dates right now with Thunder and Lightning, but I imagine we will somewhere up the line. Thereís also Terry and the Pirates, and, of course, the Dinosaurs. The Dinosaurs did a show last week and weíve got a couple more coming up. And there are some other projects that are in the works at the moment that donít have any bookings. Like I said, I took off for three months, and now Iím just rescheduling dates, so Iíll probably know more in the next month. I might add two or three groups to that roster.
Goldmine: Any plans to work with Zero again, either live or in the studio?
John Cipollina: I talked with those guys last night. There was a pre-Zero group called the Ghosts, that was Keith and Donna Godchauxís band. I had done some studio mixes of some stuff we did back in, I guess, the early 80s, which is supposed to be coming out on album. That was the last thing Iíve done with the gang from Zero. Zeroís been recording a new album, and theyíve asked me to put some tracks on it, which I might do. I havenít confirmed any studio time; thatís sort of up in the air. As far as touring, I donít know, it depends on my schedule as far as Zero goes.
Goldmine: On the east coast youíre treated like a rock legend, in Europe as a god, but in the San Francisco Bay area, you are virtually overlooked. Why is this?
John Cipollina: Well, first of all, a local boy is a local boy. Plus, I do a lot of playing out here, when Iím not on the road. Like I said, I havenít been on the road for awhile. I took a hiatus for three months, and during that time, I didnít work around town, and when I came back, there was pandemonium. As far as the way Iím treated, like I said, I like to play, so, when Iím not on the road, Iíll play the clubs around town because I like it. Iím a familiar sight, I guess, on the old marquees in the local clubs.
As far as how Iím revered or looked at in other places, thatís always awed me anyway. When I go back east, of course, I am treated quite well, but I donít play that much there. Same thing with Europe. I got a call from Germany yesterday, as a matter of fact, asking if I was still playing because itís been years since Iíve been there. So, I donít really know what to say, as far as how I am treated. I feel theyíd love to have me play over there, and Iíd like to play back there. I like playing especially Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Greece was a new one for us, that was great. The people are terrific back there. Scandinavia has done real well. Thereís been some talk of going to the Far East, to Japan and other places like that. It would be a new market for me and I welcome any place like that because I like to play.
Goldmine: What was the most interesting session youíve done, and why?
John Cipollina: Thatís a loaded question; I donít really know. I guess there was one session that was really interesting that comes up to my mind that I did, I think in 1971. It was interesting, because it was unplanned. All of a sudden it just kinda happened. It was about 4 oíclock in the morning at Wally Heiderís studio, which is now Alpha Omega on Hyde Street. I went down to do a session on David Crosbyís solo album (If Only I Could Remember My Name), and on that date, he happened to be busy doing vocals. So I ended up just hanging out.
Wally Heiderís had four studios in one building, and three of them were going on that particular night, one of them was with Santana. Well, I was hanging out in the halls and Carlos came up to me and says, ďHey, man, you got a geetar (fakes Mexican accent)?Ē And I said, ďSure!Ē So, we went in and jammed, and it was a very loose sessioní, and we did three basics starting about 4:15 or 4:30 in the morning with 10 people on it.
So it was four drummers, four guitarists, a bass and an organ. The lineup was Santanaís four drummers; Michael Shrieve on traps, Chepito on timbales, Greg Enrico on congas, and then some percussion. Gregg Rolie was on organ, Mark Ryan was playing bass and the guitar players were myself, Carlos Santana and this young kid (which was the first time I met him) Neal Schon. I think he was 15 at the time. I met him in the lobby. He was calling home to his mother telling her to write him an excuse to get out of school the next day, and I thought, ďHmmm, who is this kid?Ē And the fourth guitarist was Eric Clapton, who showed up. That was just kind of a fun session, mostly because it was unplanned. It just kind of came about.
Goldmine: Youíve recently worked on a movie soundtrack for the film í68. What was your role?
John Cipollina: I was the musical director, I believe. At least, that was my title. What I did was co-direct the music, which was modern American music or period music of the 60s and the rest was Hungarian music. A guy named Shawney Braun, a violinist and a main character in the movie, took care of that part. I did source or background music in between scenes and I had one scene in the movie where I put together a band, a mythical group from the 60s, that played a concert in the park. It was made up of members of Zero, Mike Wilhelm (ex-member of the Charlatans) was the bass player and we had a bunch of other people in that.
Goldmine: You have worked on a soundtrack for a skiing video called Skiing Extreme and appeared on the NBC TV show Midnight Caller. Do you see this as a new avenue for you and do you have any plans to continue along this lines?
John Cipollina: Yeah; I enjoyed it quite a bit and I would hope to do it again. The Midnight Caller thing was interesting. Originally, I was told that they wanted to do several episodes, but, there again, I wait until they call me and then book something. And so far, they havenít. But, if they do, I would gladly do it again because it was enjoyable.
Goldmine: Do you see any differences between the audiences of the 60s and those of today?
John Cipollina: People are people. I guess there are differences. Itís time and place. The people today, of course, are a little different. I havenít changed that much, Iím still doing the same thing Iíve been doing from the late 50s on over which is, I play guitar. I play off of the audience, they feed energy to me. Itís pretty similar between the 60s and the 80s, but itís different in the fact that there are different mediums now. During the 60s gas was real cheap, the economy was a lot better. We were at war. Back then we had dance halls and today there are a lot of clubs. There was a medium venue at that time, something in between the big auditoriums and coliseums and the small clubs. During the 60s we had small clubs like the Matrix, which was very similar to the clubs we have around today, and then we also had the dance halls. Today, the dance halls are pretty much out, at least around San Francisco, even though the Fillmore has reopened. I mean, music changes and times change, but it seems like itís starting to get back to that era again.
Goldmine: What music do you currently listen to and does it have any influence on you?
John Cipollina: I listen to a lot of various music and always have. I find myself attracted to classical music because itís different and I steal a lot from it. I have no qualms about taking anything from any kind of music. Iíll go through binges where Iíll watch MTV and see what the kids of today are doing, just trying to keep in touch. Iíve really enjoyed GunsíNíRoses, INXS. I like everything, pretty much. Maybe thatís one of my faults. To me, thereís a vast similarity, especially when you listen to classical music a lot and then listen to rockíníroll, even though the mood and intensity has changed quite a bit over the years. In the 50s, it was very rebellious, and pre-San Francisco era music was pretty violent. Thatís not the case anymore. In the 60s you got into an elevator and you heard Mantovani, or Henry Mancini tunes being played. Today, you get other things.
Goldmine: The Dinosaursí album finally came out last year. You had signed with three different record labels and it took six years for that record to become available. Whatís the story with that?
John Cipollina: Thatís a good question and like I said, Iím just the guitar player. But it take awhile for it to come out. As far as it being three separate labels, we didnít really do a record contract, per se. What we did was we leased it. The Dinosaurs owned the album, we just leased it for a three-year period to three different companies and they have different markets. The first one was Relix Records, which handles the United States. Then we leased it in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland through Line Records and the third was the United Kingdom, which has Ace Records as its parent company and is on the Big Beat label. Actually, itís all the same record, itís just distributed in three different markets.
As far as when the next one will come out, thatís pretty much up in the air. If there is a reason for doing another one, if there is an interest in it from the audienceís point of view, then, weíll do another one. It took us a while to do the last one because weíre Dinosaurs: we move a lot slower than other bands. At the same time, the ski video that I did was cut out in a matter of weeks. The movie í68 took over a year to put down, and I had to deal with them at the time, being musical director. Part of my condition for working with the movie was that they did it around my schedule.
During the filming of that movie, I did three or four tours at which point I couldnít do anything and they had to work around my schedule, but still we did it as expediently as possible. You could say it was done on spec. We did the movie, it was financed privately, and when it was finished, they got distribution sometime later with Tri-Star. Itís out on home video now. That kind of work is interesting. I had gotten some previous experience doing the Twilight Zone sessions, working as a musician, and I got enough of a handle on it so that I could take over as musical director. The difference with that and other work is that you are working with time. For example, I would write a piece that the main priority would be that it is 46seconds long and it would have to fit into one section of the movie. So, you watch the film and play along with the action, like if someone reaches over, you might make a sound. There might be a lull in the movie, and then you play more and then quiet down for the vocal part, like when the dialogue would start. I do enjoy playing along with visuals.
Goldmine: In closing, is there any message you would like to give to your fans out there?
John Cipollina: Yeah, Iíd just like to say thanks, actually. Iím going on 46 and have been doing this and playing in bands since 1959. The reason I havenít done anything else is that I have been fortunate enough to have a market and have somebody interested enough in me doing that. As long as thereís an interest, and I consider that an honour, then basically, Iím gonna keep on doing it.
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