QUICKSILVER: Q, Various Artists
A month ago or so, I walked into a mail record store and looked under “Q.”
I was looking for albums by Quicksilver Messenger Service. There weren’t any.
Queen, sure. Quiet Riot, sure. But not even Anthology, Quicksilver’s double “greatest hits” set, was anywhere to be found. Later, in the new releases bin, I found one copy of Peace By Piece.
And thus history is rewritten.
Recently I thought about all the great, psychedelic San Franciscan bands: Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead and Quicksilver immediately came to mind.
Recently I listened to those bands.
Recently I decided that After Bathing At Baxter’s and Anthem Of The Sun, by the Airplane and Dead, were still great albums. Both bands’ best.
And recently I listened to all the Quicksilver albums. All of them. Their songs on the Revolution soundtrack. The Dino Valente album on Epic. The first album. Happy Trails, their classic. Shady Grove. Just For Love. What About Me? Quicksilver. Comin’ Thru. Solid Silver, the Quicksilver reunion album of 1975.
I decided I liked all of them but Comin’ Thru.
Every one of those records but Shady Grove featured Quicksilver’s guitarist Gary Duncan.
Gary Duncan is the man responsible for Peace By Piece. He put the new record together in his home studio. David Freiberg, a founding member of the band, contributes backing vocals. He was in Jefferson Starship for many years. Sammy Piazza, who used to drum with Hot Tuna, now drums with Quicksilver. John Cippolina, Quicksilver’s “other” legendary guitarist, now plays with the Dinosaurs–a collection of former Big Brother and Country Joe & The Fish people–and is no longer a member of Quicksilver. Drummer Greg Elmore has stayed with Cippolina. Dino Valente–he changed it to “Valenti” when he joined on Just For Love–is also not a member; he’s trying to get his own thing together.
Anyway, Peace By Piece.
I think it’s great.
So I’m talking to Gary Duncan over the phone, and asking him what happened to Quicksilver after their reunion album of 1975. He says that their last gig–featuring Duncan, Valenti and “a bunch of sidemen”–was in 1979.
Did Quicksilver disband at that time?
âI wouldn’t say we really disbanded,” he says. “We basically just sort of stopped playing. You know, went on to do some other things. It was financially unfeasible to keep on keep beating our brains out. So I just took a break, and went and worked on the docks for a couple of years.”
On the docks. What Gary Duncan is saying is that when his legendary rock band called it a day–petered out, who knows?–he became a longshoreman.
What made you decide to stop being a longshoreman and start making music again?
“Well, what happened was, I was working on the docks during the daytime and writing music at night. When I started working, I’d sort of burned out on music. At a certain point I decided to stop for a while, to get my head straight. And I just realized that, you know, I could do this if I have to, I could drive a forklift for the rest of my life, or I could go and do what I know how to do best. So I went back and I started building a recording studio. The only way I was going to get to make a record was if I built my own studio.”
Would you say there was any one event that made you say, “I’ve gotta quit working on the dock and start makin music again?” Anything that hit you real hard?
Duncan laughs. “Yeah, I had a dream.”
âYeah, really,â he says. âThis is the truth, man. In fact the song on the album, `Wild In The City,â is the only song I ever wrote in my sleep. I just woke up and remembered it.
“I had this dream and I was sitting with somebody–I think it was Bill Graham and Carlos Santana–and I was playing this song for ’em, and Carlos was going, ‘Yeah, that’s really a nice song, man.’ And Bill was going, ‘That’s great, Duncan, you oughta start playing again!’ I woke up out of this dream and I got my guitar. And basically, I went, ‘Hey, that’s what I ought to be doing.’
“But at the same time, I was still playing at home and writing. In fact, that’s when I really started writing a lot, when I was working on the dock. My mind wasn’t bothered so much by, ‘Let’s get a set together, we gotta tour, we gotta do this.’ I was doing something totally different than music. All of a sudden, all these songs kept coming through my mind, and I’d be sitting on my lunch break, and I’d have my little tablet there, and I just started writing everything that went through my mind. And right now, I’ve got about 300 songs I haven’t even recorded yet. I don’t know what I’m gonna do with ’em.”
I don’t want to belabor the point about how great Quicksilver were; there were flaws, true, especially in the vocal department, but for sheer guitar-playing alone, the band’s first two albums are classics you should not only own, but pull out and hear right now.
Weren’t they great? Did the interaction between Duncan and Cippolina not move you?
Anyway, if you know your Quicksilver, you know that Happy Trails was followed by Shady Grove, an album without Gary Duncan and with Nicky Hopkins, who played piano and barked like a dog.
Where was Gary Duncan?
“Well, let’s put it this way,” says he, remembering back 18 full years, “at the end of 1968, I was pretty burned out. We’d been on the road for, really, the first time in our lives. I just left for a year. I didn’t want to have anything to do with music at all. And I left for a year and rode motorcycles and lived in New York and L.A. and just kind of went crazy for about a year.
âAnd then our manager, Ron Polte, called me up and said, ‘Hey, listen, we’re doing this gig at Winterland, we want to know if you’ll come and play.’ I said, ‘Oh sure, I’ll play,’ so I went and rehearsed and then we played. And then they wanted to know if I wanted to make an album, and that was with Dino–Dino and me were partners then, so we got back into the band at that point. So I was gone for just about exactly a year. 1969. That’s when they made the Nicky Hopkins album.”
From then on, of course, Quicksilver changed. Valenti came in, Hopkins soon split, and you could barely hear the guitars anymore.
“No,” says Duncan, “actually, I think what happened was, if you listen to them, there’s quite a few guitar solos. But instead of being those long, drawn-out jams, as far as I’m concerned–you know, with my guitar playing–I was trying to become a little more concise and to the point, rather than spending five minutes saying something I could say in 16 bars.
“So there are guitar solos in there, but they’re not those real long, jazz-type, stretched out things. That really doesn’t sell a lot of records.”
I mention to Duncan that I bought a great live Quicksilver LP last year; it’s German, and probably not kosher, but features two great LPs of Happy Trails-era Quicksilver.
“‘Yeah, I heard it–it’s awful. I walked into the store one day and saw it, and went, ‘Jesus Christ, what’s this?’ I bought it and took it home. God damn, I paid like 15 bucks for it or something.” He laughs. “I put it on and went, ‘Jesus, where did they get this shit? It sounds like somebody recorded it off a P.A. or something somewhere. They didn’t even bother to go into a studio and EQ it or anything. The credits on it say, ‘You’ll find that the sound quality on this album is unparalleled,’ you know? There’s a whole bunch of those records. That’s what sort of scares me about this new album–I’m afraid that people are gonna see it and say, ‘Oh, it’s another one of those,’ you know?”
I think I read in your bio somewhere that you’d be playing and people would be crying out for “Who Do You Love” and it was getting to be a drag for you.
“Yeah. How many times can you play one song? And try to grow, musically? You’ve got new ideas, and things that you want to do, and you go out and play live and nobody wants to hear it. They want to hear the same old shit that they’ve heard from the time you began, and if you play anything varying from that past at all, they go, ‘Oh, man–that ain’t Quicksilver!’ You know? Everybody wants to hear your same old tunes. It’s hard to just go out and say, ‘OK, we’re not gonna play any of our old tunes–here’s 15 new songs that you’ve never heard before.’ Some people will say, ‘Hey, all right, that’s great, let me hear ’em!’ And other people will say, ‘Let’s go home.”‘
Since I’ve been a Quicksilver fan for years, I might as well tell you: I’ve always thought Gary Duncan was a better guitarist than John Cippolina, even though John used to get all the raves. Why did he get the raves? For effects, mostly. A smoother guitarist, Duncan was much more melodically inventive, if not quite as flashy.
And he always seemed to stay in tune.
Did it used to bug Duncan that his former partner got all the praise?
“I don’t know,” he tells me, “it’s not really that it bugs me. The only thing that ever bothered me was that–see, John left the band in 1970. Sixteen years ago, you know? So we’d be on the road playing, and somebody would come up and talk about a guitar solo that I played, and say, ‘Wow, man, that’s really good, John!”‘
Duncan‘s laughing when he says this. “But I think what it is, is–I’m not one of those people that usually talks to people when they come around and say, ‘I want to interview somebody.’ John’s the one who’ll come up and say, ‘OK, here I am.’ So I’d just say, ‘OK, you talk to him, I’m busy,’ you know? And so I think that might have something to do with it.
“I don’t know. It doesn’t particularly bother me, because John–you know, I’m not trying to put him down at all, believe me. He hasn’t really progressed too far past the second album, as far as playing is concerned. I went to see him about six months ago, and he sounded just like he did then–only a little more out of tune.” More laughs. “I hate to say things like that, because if they get into the press people say, ‘Oh, he’s just a shithead,’ you know?â
It’s not like that.
So the Peace By Piece album is really interesting, and should be selling many more copies than U2’s last one, say. It never will. It also contains Duncan‘s best guitar playing since Happy Trails, all stripped down and tasteful, like he says, and all so exuberantly cha-cha you’d be a moron not to love it.
“I figure by next spring we should be able to go out on the road,” Duncan says. “When I go out, it’s gonna be a much bigger band than the original Quicksilver. It’s not gonna be four pieces. At one point there, when we were touring, we had an 11-piece band. I’m gonna have horns, background singers, percussionists, keyboards players. You know, to get the sound that I want.
“Because just going out and playing with a four-piece band, for me, is not what I wanna do. Because the music that I’m writing requires all that other stuff. I’ve always written that kind of material, and I never really could do it before. Because we were really pretty much stuck in one format, you know? If you went out with the Philharmonic behind you, people would boo you offstage, because they wanted to hear you come out and just play. Electric guitars.
“But now I’ve sort of put myself in the position with this record where I can do just about whatever I want to.”
Over the years, contemporaries like the Dead and the Starship have become so popular that they fill stadiums. Do you wish the same thing happened to Quicksilver?
“Well, sure, there’s a lot of money to be made.”
No, I don’t mean it quite like that. I just wonder what you think about it.
“Well, you know, there’s always two different ways of looking at things. While those guys have been on the road, busting their asses, going through changes and everything else, I’ve been doing something else, you know? I think my life’s been very fulfilling up to this point. There are other things besides just being a musician.
“I don’t know how to say it–it just adds a little more credence to what I have to say, you know? I mean, how can you write about life if all you do is stand up on the stage and play the guitar and go back to the dressing room and go home and drive your 4-wheel drive on the hills until you’re ready to go back on the road again? You don’t get a chance to do much of anything.”
Do you think you made any mistakes last time out?
“I don’t think I really made any mistakes–the only thing that happened to me was that I was just a lot younger than I am now. And I really didn’t take anything too seriously. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, to take things seriously, but I was just basically having a good time and playing and, you know, going on the road and getting laid.
“Yeah. That’s probably the only reason I’m not rich right now. I didn’t take care of my money, blew it on scooters and motorcycles and that. But I had a good time.”
If you would like to have a good time, listen to Peace By Piece. Listen to its lyrics. Listen to Gary Duncan sing and play guitar. Realize that his viewpoint, his station in life, his role in the ’80s and his music remain entirely unique.
Realize that it is unique to be unique.
And never be redundant.
(CREEM, Feb. 1987)