On the need to be dead, the onset of fame, fifty years, and a hole in the ground

24 08 2015

(I’ll just say at the outset that this is not leading where you think it’s going to lead. Bear with me on that.)

When does fame start?

I’m not asking for myself; I’m asking on behalf of … well, I’ll get to that. But why might I be asking such a question?

The rules to get a crater named after you on Mercury, according to the International Astronomical Union – and I’m paraphrasing here, but I believe this to be an accurate representation of their guidelines – is that (1) you need to have been dead for at least three years, (2) you need to have been an artist, author, musician, dancer or other creative type, and (3) you need to have been famous for at least fifty years. Now point (1) is easily met, eventually, if rather depressing to contemplate on a personal level, and point (2) is not necessarily a great hurdle nowadays, with the proliferation of self-publishing and what-have-you. But (3), famous for fifty years: that’s a somewhat taller order altogether. That’s an actual requirement.

It’s my contention, if you’ll indulge me, that a pre-eminent candidate for commemoration via Mercurian craterhood is none other than electric guitarist John Cipollina, who joined his first (and probably best-known) band about fifty years ago in San Francisco, in the very first flowering of what was to be the psychedelic rock scene that took root in California, and elsewhere, as the Sixties progressed. We’ll get to the identity of that band in a little while – they were certainly in existence in 1965, they may have been formed as early as 1964. The biographies that I’ve investigated tend to be unreliable as to exact dates … but then, it was the Sixties.

Cipollina has the unique distinction, so far as I know, that although he’s never been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, his amp stack has. His sound, too, was unique, almost instantly recognisable. His one experience at leading a band, Copperhead, did not fare well; their manager fell under suspicion of involvement with drugs, the label pulled all support for their album, and they received minimal airplay. Copperhead’s first, eponymous album, released in 1973, went nowhere much, but it’s a classic: the album’s closing track, ‘They’re Making A Monster’ (Youtube link provided for your convenience), gives an excellent illustration of Cipollina’s guitar skills, once the slightly sludgy opening gets out of the way. There’s a second album too, apparently, that’s been sitting in the Columbia vaults for the past forty-odd years, unreleased: as I said, the label pulled all support.

While there are many other instances I could offer of Cipollina’s exquisite musicianship, from his time with Terry and the Pirates, or the Dinosaurs, or with a dozen other bay-area bands, I’ll offer just one example, recorded live in 1986, three years before his death. Here he plays guitar on a Sixties standard, performing ‘Hey Joe’ alongside Billy Roberts. (One of Cipollina’s erstwhile bandmates – Dino Valenti aka Chet Powers – had claimed, in the sixties, to have written ‘Hey Joe’. Tim Rose, another sixties singer-songwriter, also claimed to have written it, and later plagiarised it under a different title. Billy Roberts was the song’s true composer.)

As you may be able to detect from the above, Cipollina is quite possibly my favourite guitarist. He was arguably not as technically proficient as certain others of the same era – Hendrix, the early Jeff Beck, Peter Green – but his sound was utterly unmistakeable, wonderfully distinctive, and to my ears at least, a thing of beauty. His involvement could create a magical soundscape as well as, at times, redeem a song which didn’t actually merit redemption.

But … what does all this have to do with Mercury?

On one level, not much. But Cipollina has been dead a quarter century. And since he joined his first band fifty years ago, in 1965 (which peaked with their first two albums, both recorded in 1968), he arguably meets the ‘fifty years of fame’ criterion – if not right this minute, then at the next time that the IAU calls for nominations for Mercury crater names. And that first band, owing in large part to the confluence of bithdates of its founding members, two of whom (including Cipollina) had August 24th as a birthday, was named Quicksilver Messenger Service. Please don’t make me spell out the Mercury references in that name …

So. A crater for John Cipollina on Mercury. I rest my case.

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