Gary Duncan

Millennium Mercury Man
Millennium Mercury Man

One of the more respected musical aggregations to emerge from the fabled San Francisco “psychedelic music” era in the late ’60s was Quicksilver Messenger Service, a guitar-based quartet that offered a slightly more intricate sonic excursion in its extended jams. Such stretched-out works by Quicksilver had more influences drawn from jazz sources compared to other Frisco bands of the times. Accordingly, QMS was accorded the respect of many other players, and its first two albums, a self-titled debut from 1968 and ’69’s Happy Trails, are considered classics.

The late ’60s foursome of Quicksilver consisted of John Cippolina (guitar), Greg Elmore (drums), David Freiberg (bass and vocals), and Gary Duncan (guitar and vocals). Subsequent additions included Nicky Hopkins on piano and vocalist/guitarist Dino Valenti, and by the late ’70s, membership of the band was pretty much in flux (Cippolina, Valenti, and Hopkins are now deceased).

But Duncan has soldiered on, fronting a version of Quicksilver for many years, and the membership occasionally includes Freiberg. In a talk with VG, Duncan discussed the glory days of Quicksilver and his ongoing efforts:

Vintage Guitar: Are you originally from the Bay Area?
Gary Duncan: No, I was an orphan; I was born in San Diego, and when I was adopted, I moved to Oklahoma, then to the Central Valley area of California when I was about six.

When I started playing as a kid, rock and roll really didn’t count – there was country & western and jazz. I left home in 1960, when I was 15, and I was a professional player from then on.

What kind of music did you start out with?
In 1960, you didn’t even want to tell people you played rock and roll.

I played a lot of country-western, but I always loved doing jazz. In fact, what we were doing in San Francisco with the psychedelic thing was basically jazz; we were improvising. We never played the same thing twice, on purpose. I’ve always played that way – I don’t have a set list or arrangements. If you’ve got good players, it’s wonderful; if you’ve got lousy players, you don’t want to try it (chuckles).

One of the first gigs I got in the early ’60s was playing bass in a show band; a big R&B group that played Vegas, Tahoe, and Reno. The leader had a Mosrite endorsement, so we had to play these silversparkle models, with narrow fretboards. Damn, they were hard to play! I thought the neck was too tiny, especially for a bass. Nothing against Mosrite, though, and I remember how the Ventures had played Fenders, then all of a sudden they were playing Mosrites, which I thought were probably good guitars for them.

What were some of your other earlier instruments besides the Mosrite bass?
When I first started playing, there was no “lead guitar” player or “rhythm guitar” player – there was a pedal steel player in most bands. My father made me take pedal steel lessons for about five years, and I became pretty good while I was still a little guy. But I hated taking lessons so much that when I finally quit, I totally forgot everything I knew about reading music and other formal stuff.

My first “regular” guitar was an old Stella archtop somebody pawned to my father and never picked up – its action was about four inches high, and my fingers bled… all guitar players go through that when they’re young. I saved my money and bought a Sears Silvertone I think was made by Danelectro, and a Sears amp. Then I saved enough to buy a Stratocaster, which was the first real guitar I ever had; I think it was a ’58. When I got into Quicksilver, I still had it, but they already had two guitar players, so I just sang. We traded my Strat and my Super Reverb for some other gear.

It’s been reported that the pre-psychedelic music scene in Frisco consisted almost exclusively of jazz and folk factions.
The San Francisco scene was primarily a Beat scene that had evolved. The beatniks were getting older, and they had been into jazz and folk; nothing electric at all.

In ’62 I got arrested for burning something I shouldn’t have been burning, and in California at the time, that was bad news, so I went to the joint for a while. When I got out, the Beatles had come out, which totally destroyed the careers of about 90 percent of the musicians I knew (chuckles). All of sudden, you couldn’t make a living in a big band with horns, so everybody switched to the British-style rock and roll, which I did pretty well.

When the psychedelic thing happened, it was basically folk players who’d never touched an electric instrument, trying to play in a band, but it’s not just playing your own instrument you’ve got to know how to play in a band. We had a lot of loose groups whose members might have known how to play banjos or acoustic guitars, but they didn’t understand the dynamics of electric instruments. Great acoustic players who could not play electric for ****, in my opinion.

Legend has it that the first so-called “psychedelic” band was the Charlatans, and they shared ground with Quicksilver in that the Globe Propaganda company did album covers for both.
I didn’t really consider them “psychedelic.” They had everything, visually, to be a great band – they dressed like old cowboys and turn-of-the-century characters, and they looked great onstage, but none of ’em knew how to play in a band. They had all played folk, and they were actually more like a jug band.

How did Quicksilver form?
At one point, I didn’t care if I played anymore; I’d made around $300 a week with that show band when I was a kid, and that was a lot of bucks then. I ended up in San Francisco, and was in a couple of groups which could have done okay, then that whole psychedelic thing hit, and completely changed the scene. I met John Cippolina, the other guitarist, and it sort of just gravitated from that.

In those days, there were bands starting up on every corner, and it was actually a pretty neat scene, until all of the publicity came along. In the beginning, there wasn’t any scene the public knew about; it was all underground, and nobody really had any ambitions about making records or making a lot of money. They just wanted to smoke a lot of pot, have fun, and play. There was the Avalon (Ballroom), then the Fillmore (Auditorium) came along, and all of a sudden, everyone in town was playing at least two or three nights a week, making enough money. We were like latter-day beatniks, and all of a sudden, everybody in the world was focusing on us.

We got real lucky in a lot of ways – we didn’t get as famous as some of the others, but we had our niche, and we had a recording deal. But I think that at the time, a lot of it had to do with geographic location, because I knew damn well that somewhere else in the country there were a lot of good bands that would never get heard.

Talk about some of the instruments and amps you used in the earliest incarnation of Quicksilver.
Cippolina liked those solidstate Standel amps; he’d put drivers and horns on top of ’em, and they’d get so high-pitched onstage it felt like the sound was gonna kill you. I didn’t like solidstate; I used Fender amps for the most part. At one point, I was using eight Twin Reverbs, each with a Showman bottom, all going at once.

I had a lot of Les Pauls, including a goldtop and a Black Beauty, and other Gibsons over the years. The nicest guitars I ever played – and I wish I still had both of ’em – were two L-5s, both ’45s; the same year I was born. They were both acoustic, and I took the first one to a violin repair shop in San Francisco, and asked him to cut it and put pickups in it, and he didn’t want to do it. He finally agreed, though, and put two humbuckers in it, but he also put a soundpost between the bridge and the back of the guitar to kill some of the “acousticness,” so it wouldn’t feed back so badly. If it did feed back, it wouldn’t squeal like a solidbody; it got a big, fat tone, like a horn.

That first L-5 was stolen, and I bought the second one from a collector who must have had 20 of ’em. I took it back to the same violin guy and had him do the same thing to it that he’d done to the first one. At one point, I had to pay the rent, and I wasn’t playing it, so I sold it. Later on, I got an L-5S, a solidbody that I really liked – those were really interesting guitars. They had a short neck and other cosmetic similarities to L-5s, and the way I played, they sounded like an acoustic L-5 that had been electrified.

I quit playing around ’78 for about four years; I worked on the waterfront for a while, and I sold the L-5S, too. I never was one of those guys who had to have 15 different guitars; you can only play one at a time.

There’s a photo inside the recent Lost Gold and Silver release that shows you playing a red Gibson thinline; there’s also another guitar player in that photo besides you and Cippolina, and it doesn’t appear to be Dino Valenti. But he’s playing a sunburst Gibson thinline with a Bigsby vibrato.
I tried more than one Gibson thinline back then. I seemed to go through guitars like chewing gum – when all of the flavor seemed gone, I’d get something else (chuckles). That other player is probably Jim Murray; he was in the band when I first got in Quicksilver. He was the other guitar player besides Cippolina for about six months after I came in.

What would have been your rig when you did the E-A-G-D kickoff to “Dino’s Song” on the first album?
That was the L-5, probably through a Twin Reverb or Super Reverb. The L-5 was on the first two records, almost exclusively.

Back then, a lot of players probably didn’t consider you a “true” rhythm guitarist, in spite of Cippolina’s distinctive-sounding leads. You did some lead guitar work, as well, such as your segment of “Who Do You Love” on Happy Trails; your passage is titled “When You Love.”
John would introduce me to everybody as his “rhythm guitar player” (laughs), but that was okay with me, because I wasn’t too talkative, and John was. In things like big bands, usually the saxophone players would take most of the solos, as would other horn players, and the guitar just played rhythm. Later on, the steel player would get more solos.

I haven’t listened to Happy Trails in a long time, but we’d exchange leads all the time.

We had a manager who didn’t know I could play lead until he heard me one day and happened to walk into the room where I was picking. He wanted to know why I wasn’t playing lead, and I said, “Well, John’s a better guitar player.” Honestly, Murray was not a great player, and I don’t think he played in bands after he left.

Anyway, the manager went out and bought me a Gibson Trini Lopez model – the thin one – and when Murray left the band, John and I began to trade leads, but there were never any “percentages” about who would play what and for how long. The reason that Bo Diddley tune was broken into sections was so we could get royalties for it, as well. He was credited for the basic song, but we’d work our own parts into it. “The Fool,” on the first record, was done the same way; I wouldn’t just sit around, get stoned, and play. We put pieces of things together, and sometimes it would take about a year before it sounded right, and recording it was a bitch (laughs)!

Quicksilver’s songs had more jazz influences in them than was the case for other Frisco psychedelic bands, and the jams were more intricate. “Gold and Silver” had a beat like Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things,” and was reportedly inspired by Brubeck’s “Take Five.”
I wrote that when I was 16 or 17, when those kinds of songs were popular and “Take Five” had been a huge hit. I’d always listened to a lot of jazz – and very little of anything else. I listened to horn players more than guitar players; people will ask me who my favorite guitar player is, and for the longest time I didn’t really have an answer. However, I’ll have to admit that I really got to love Freddie King. He’s my favorite out of all the blues players. He had his own style, and no matter how bad the song was, he could always handle it. But I listened mostly to horns, and I tried to play horn riffs on a guitar, which is not easy to do, and I still do that.

Kerry Livgren of Kansas has stated that “The Fool” was a big influence on his songwriting, as it was an American progressive rock piece.
I could see that. At the time it came out, I don’t think anyone else had ever done anything like it. It was a long piece of rock music that had passages that were actually cohesive. We had it worked out pretty well, and when we did it live, there were always some variations in it, of course.

Considering that we were novices in the studio at the time – we had no idea what we were doing, and we had very little help – I think it came out really good, and is representative of how we played. The second record had some live stuff, and was representative of how we sounded live.

Side Two of Happy Trails melds from a live version of “Mona” into some studio tracks like “Maiden of the Cancer Moon” and an ambitious extended piece called “Calvary.”
We had recorded live material on a tour, and had one session where we could sweeten everything a bit. It took me a long time to be able to listen to that stuff, because I didn’t like it, even though it is what we sounded like. I knew what I wanted it to sound like, which wasn’t how it turned out.

A few years ago, somebody wrote me a letter wanting to know if I wrote “Calvary” about the crucifixion of Christ. The guy described the picture in his mind when he listened to it, and it was the same thing that was in my mind when we did it. I was trying to convey a picture when I wrote it, and after I read the guy’s letter I found a copy and listened to it some 25 years or so after we’d done it. And I liked it. After all these years, all the rawness and mistakes don’t bother me now.

You weren’t on the third album, Shady Grove, reportedly because you went on a cross-country motorcycle trip with Dino Valenti. Did you take a sabbatical from the band, or did you quit?
I quit, right at the end of the tour that we got the Happy Trails recordings from, and I did that last “sweetening” session with the band. I left because there were no more rehearsals, no more trying to get better. It seemed everybody was happy to sit back, get paychecks, and act like stars, and I didn’t want to do that. I told the manager I didn’t see any future as a musician, so I left. I was gone for almost exactly a year.

When you returned, you brought Valenti with you, but it was reported that Valenti was supposed to have been the singer for Quicksilver when the band first formed, but he’d been busted.
That’s the story Cippolina told everybody. But according to Dino, that wasn’t the case at all.
When he’d been looking for a band, he’d talked to Cippolina, and everybody somehow put two and two together. He actually lived with us when he got out of prison, and while we played some music together and wrote songs, he had no interest in playing in Quicksilver; he wanted to start his own career. Well, when his own career didn’t do so well, he had more interest in playing in Quicksilver (laughs)!

Some people like the earlier albums because Valenti’s singing voice on the later albums sounds somewhat shrill and/or nasally.
I’d say that myself. We’d put so much reverb on his voice when we were recording that you couldn’t hear the rest of the band. Again, he’d been a folk singer. God bless him, but he wasn’t the easiest guy to get along with.

And the curious thing is that the most chart action a single got was “Fresh Air,” which Valenti sang.
We also got some airplay with “What About Me,” which he also wrote and sang. He was really a prolific writer. Not all of his stuff was great, but some of ’em were real gems.

Things tapered down, visibility-wise, in the late ’70s, and the band went through numerous personnel changes.
All through the times after John, Nicky, and David left, we had some really good-sounding versions of the band, and we worked a lot – like 200 shows a year. I thought our chops, as a group, were real together. But we suffered through the same dilemma a lot of touring bands do – having to play the same material every night. If you played a new song, the audience would just look at you. There are a lot of musicians who don’t mind playing their hits, but I didn’t want to play the same arrangements of the same tunes every night. I got so tired of it, I’d be asleep onstage (chuckles)! And I thought we made several good records during that period, but Capitol Records was promoting us less and less. Sometimes when we were on the road, some people didn’t know we had a new record out.

You were the sole original member when 1986’s Peace by Piece was released; it was a bit more commercial-sounding than some of the earlier efforts.
Michael Lewis was the keyboard player on that; he started playing with us around ’72 or ’73; Sammy Piazza was the drummer. I’ve played with Michael longer than anyone else; he’s still with us. Michael’s not only a great keyboard player, he’s a great studio musician.

I went to work as a longshoreman because I couldn’t take playing the same **** onstage every night. I didn’t play again until I actually wanted to. I realized that for what it would cost me to make a record, I could build a studio, so I borrowed enough money and built it myself; I did all of the carpentry. I got an engineer named Bob Olson, who’d been with Motown; he knew what he was doing. It took awhile, and while Capitol put it out, the company went through one of those turmoil things where they fire a bunch of people, and we got dropped like a hot potato. That record basically just disappeared.

Years later I tried to get the masters back, and couldn’t – they said they didn’t have ’em, so I dumped the contents onto a DAT machine, and bootlegged it myself. Since I’d spent so much time making it, I didn’t want to see it disappear.

1996’s Shape Shifter was appropriately named; there are a lot of different styles of music on it.
I reached the point around the end of ’94 where things were not looking good, financially. I decided to finish up all of the tracks I’d started and least get ’em onto a CD. I spent about six months with Michael down in L.A. and up here, and realized that since there wasn’t a record label to tell us what to do and what not to do, we could put almost all of it out if we went to two CDs …. and we still had stuff left over. Right now, I’ve still got probably four CDs worth of stuff, studio and live, mostly original material.

I write all kinds of things, and I like Shape Shifter a lot because it’s got samples of almost everything I like to write. I used to write about one song a year, then Valenti came along, and he wrote so much that I didn’t need to write, and I wrote with him a lot.

When I started writing on my own again, I’d forgotten how hard it was, so the secret for me was to write down anything that crossed my mind that was halfway interesting. At the end of the week I’d look at the note-book, and some of it was actually good. If you write all the time, you come up with some good stuff, and ultimately, you’ll have a lot of good material.

What was the extent of your involvement with the recently released archival live recordings Lost Gold and Silver?
Capitol sent us release forms for it. I looked at the prospectus for the record, including the sequence of the songs, and said “I’ve seen this someplace before.” A while back I’d gone on the internet, inquiring about bootlegs, and got barraged with CDs and tapes; 40 or 50 different bootlegs!

And one of ’em had the same sequence of songs, and they had the same times as the record. The company had gotten hold of a bootleg and put it through a board. I’d thought about going through all of the bootlegs and putting out my own album, calling it something like Re-Boot, but this one came out first.

What kind of gear are you using these days?
I never liked processors because I never thought they felt or sounded real – but I played a Roland GP-100 and liked it a lot. It had 400 sounds in it, of which I can use about 10 (chuckles). I bought a 200-watt rackmount stereo amp, and two speaker bottoms with two 12s in each bottom.

I also bought a Fender Stratocaster that had a synth pickup built into it – I don’t think they made too many of those. That pickup is white, and you can’t really see it, and the bottom knob is a volume control for the synth. You can run either the guitar, the synth, or a mixture. A lot of times I’ll roll in just a little bit of flute, violin, or vibes to go with the guitar. It keeps things interesting. I’ve enjoyed it, but again, it’s kind of like chewing gum (chuckles). What I’m really looking for now is another L-5.

Where is the band playing these days?
We don’t play in the Bay Area that much, and we’re starting to play a lot more as of late. We play the East Coast, the South… when Quicksilver was in its heyday, we rarely played the West Coast, and that still seems to be the case. We’re supposed to be going to Europe this Fall, which should be interesting because we’ve never played there. Most of our record sales are in Europe.

It sounds like you’re still seeking new types of creativity as a musician – what with the guitar synth – as well as a songwriter after all of your decades of experience.
I’m still pushing the edge. If you’re a football player, you can figure that by the time you’re 30, your career is over…if you even make it into the pros! By the time you reach that age, you’d better hope your money is well-invested, because you’re not going to be playing anymore.

Unfortunately for a musician, it’s like that too, in this country. But as a musician, you should only get better and better, unless you become so crippled you can’t move your hands. I’m not pointing any fingers, but I don’t see how some musicians can go out and play the same stuff they played 30 years ago, exactly the same way they did 30 years ago. It seems to me that the natural inclination of any musician or painter or writer should be to strive to get better at what they do. I’ve never reached a point where I’ve said, “That’s as good as I’m ever gonna get, and I’m happy with that so I’m just gonna play this over and over.” And I don’t think I ever will reach such a point.

Duncan carries the Quicksilver torch, using a white Fender Strat with a synth pickup. Photo: Mark Lee Itzkowitz,courtesy of Bohemian Management..

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Sep. ’01 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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