the riff unravels
Quicksilver Messenger Service - Live Fillmore East June 1968 (bootleg) 10.28.06 by Bruce McKenzie
when i was a pup i used to draw versions of my favorite rock and roll photos into a notebook and one of the coolest rock pictures ever was/is on the back of quicksilver messenger service’s first disc on capitol. john cippolina got a cigarette in the strings of his sg which you can see in 3/4 profile. long hair, dark clothes, eyes closed, big hands so he’s gotta be good, you know. and that sg man. i remember the morning after i met koji shimura, the drummer for white heaven, one of japan’s psychedelic heavyweights, in 1999. i’m visiting my folks and hear this music over coffee and i say to myself, why the fuck is my father playing my quicksilver messenger service records and which one is that? cos it’s loads better than i remember. well it wasn’t QMS, it was actually white heaven’s e.p. next to nothing that koji had given me the night before and it was guitarist michio kurihara’s crushing debt to the guitar playing of neglected godhead john cippolina that got me confused. that plus the rhythym of the opening track owed more'n a little to a quicksilver song “gold and silver”, from that first l.p. that and that plus i’d let QMS drift out of my san fran psych orbit in favor of, i don’t know, moby grape, a rediscovery of the dead who i’d mocked for years just to rattle the cage of an old friend, the l.a. psych scene, so i couldn’t have pointed out a QMS song i knew for love or money. i just recognised that guitar sound, the style of playing, the vibrato. kurihara still plays the sg. there’s his picture with one in the last ghost record. i think skip spence’s oar had just been re-released that year - 1999 - and right around that time of year too. a record of uncompromised genius and committment to a feel, a sound. i’d heard about this record, searched for it and could never find it or anybody who had it. yet here it came thirty years later like a brother your parents told you was dead. given that one song on this disc, “war in peace”, has maybe the most perfect guitar solo of the sixties and when you recall that skip was gonna be in QMS before marty balin hijacked him into jefferson airplane, it boggles the mind to imagine the magic that john c. and skip mighta produced together. before the inevitable axe attack. but see, then we might not have oar or “war in peace” and one of the most perfect guitar solos of the sixties or moby grape for that matter and so it all worked out for the best. maybe. skip was fucked up, and in fact was the dead brother. that year 1999 he died on my birthday. drag. so.
thinking about finding myself a cheap older sg with a repaired headstock crack or something (or i’d heard aria made a pretty awlright copy in the late
70’s) mighta got me listening to QMS again. the guitar mighta made me give em another try. but it’s rough man it’s rough. long instrumental tunes highlighting the guitar interplay of cippolina and gary duncan (no slouch himself) are really where you can understand, appreciate, the band most fully. but they never took the psych-infused r&b workouts that were the skeleton of the live shows into the studio. it’s no wonder their best record is generally considered to be the live happy trails, compiled teo macero-style from shows at the filmores east and west in november of 68, cos there’s some real dreck on their other long players. i wanted to find some other documents of their shows cos happy trails was sounding better and better to me. i came up with a boot from june of 68 that had me drooling onto the cover. there was a photo by jim marshall of the band on-stage with erstwhile jail-bird and original member dino valenti! a handwritten note giving the date as sometime in 68. but like a skip augmented QMS it wasn’t to be, the record featured just the guys, but hell, who cares cos this is one sweet piece of contraband. i had my doubts going into it as it kicks off with a workout on “backdoor man”, a song irretreivably ruined for all of us by the doors. but at a certain point as they hit their stride with some subtle rhythmic shifts you forget how this all began and by the time you recall, cippolina has filligreed his way into ether and the ride has begun. the instrumental “goldand silver” is next and as it progresses it’s like, holy shit, this is one of the greatest bands of their time, why are their records so crap?! “the fool” -also from record #1 - is here too, and it’s great, but these aren’t songs really as much as composed jams. they were at their best playing live, they shoulda only ever recorded live. apparently QMS gigs would get kinda tribal, with the audience stomping clapping and chanting as the band did what they did best: take known r&b standards and shape them into something other. cippolina’s snaking vibratoed leads seem neutered in the studio compared with the ferocity and presence on this boot. the
control and the excitement. in the studio you feel he’s forcing it . is that why this guy has been all but forgotten. name-checked by virtually no-one, but still unmistakable once you’ve heard him. so good. and you know what else? one of the real revelations here is david freiberg’s bass playing, fluid, melodic, shifting speeds and emphasis. never heard him like this, even on happy trails. codine (rhymes with “sign”) gets played on this thing (and i gotta say those two tracks they did for the flick “revolution”, “codine” and ”babe i’m gonna leave you” piss all over most of their records - the first three being the only listenable ones really), all san fran love-in cheese, but in it’s own way it’s irresistable. the chord changes and melody together speak so firmly of a time and place (as does gary’s comment at the end of a show “see you back here tomorrow night...if you can make it”) and the sonic explorations that surround it only reinforce its rightness. now, i maybe found myself a pretty astounding sg (on ebay over in china if it’s not a too-good-to-be-truescam) - a guitar that as any acid eating relic knows was played not just by cippolina but jerry as well in the early days of the dead, through 71 or so. and it strikes me that these guys really are two of the most innovative and identifiable stylists of their generation, certainly of their neck of the woods, and that john gets the short end of the stick if he gets the stick at all.
one of the problems is that john couldn’t write songs. jerry, he could write songs but he couldn’t write lyrics and then he found robert hunter and solved that problem. to varying degrees of succes. but nobdy in QMS could write songs either, really. not so that you’d want to...i don’t know...remember them? well they almost did, in the person of dino valenti, but he was in jail for the first years of their career and the gumball hack job they do on his tune “dino’s song” bears no resemblance to the majestic clouds of acoustic meanderings on dino’s later self-titled solo album that show us where his head was really at. and it makes sense then, after listening to dino valente [sic], that he’d be playing with these guys because they were, after all, great players. still, i love that they couldn’t write songs or even really play them without turning them into something else. it’s the perfect solution. can’t write a tune? do “smokestack lightnin” for 20 odd minutes, as through your own virtuosity it becomes more, is (re)written as it is played. the dead would do it with bobby bland's "turn on your lovelight" and a couple others in the early days, but hey, that’s not easy. just look at canned heat. r&b becomes a slippery and elusive thing in the hands of QMS. some folks just need a little push before they can create. a base camp from which to explore. an idea to hold close and run with; turn into feathers and then jump. that’s these guys.
so, quickly: this boot may be german (there's a GEMA icon on the label?) and there's typical bootleg naming issues: "gold and silver" (introduced at the concert as "acapulco gold and silver" for all you dopers, man) becomes "golden soldier". "smokestack lightnin" becomes "don't hear me cry", credited to some cat named Groner instead of our boy chester burnett. they would haver us believe that all the tunes here are either written by this Groner kid or someone named Silver. if there's a pun here i'm not getting it. sound quality almost rivals happy trails at times, only on a track or two do you feel like you're losing someone or something in the recording. could it be an informal sound board recording? quality varies and it seems like this is compiled from a couple of shows during a june residency. wish i had more.
anybody out there got a pre-69 moby grape show?
twoweekslater: the sg’s a bust.