Gary James' Interview With Gary Duncan of
Quicksilver Messenger Service
You might say that America's answer to the British Invasion was the San Francisco Sound. You know, all the groups with the funny sounding names; Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead to name just a few.
Quicksilver Messenger Service was part of that group. For their story, we turned to original guitarist / vocalist Gary Duncan.
Q - I guess the obvious question, is there still a Quicksilver Messenger Service band that performs today?
A - Yeah.
Q - How many original members are there in it besides yourself?
A - There's me and Davie Freiberg.
Q - Where do you perform?
A - We've been playing all over the country for the last couple of years, mostly on the East Coast. I think we're playing in New York at B.B. King's in June or July (2008). We've played B.B.'s three or four times. We play the East Coast, the South, New Orleans, play some local gigs around San Francisco. We're supposed to go to England, Italy and Greece in the Fall (of 2008), maybe Germany. We probably play twenty-five to thirty shows a year.
Q - You're playing where?
A - Theatres and clubs. That's about all there's left anymore really. There's not a lot of ballrooms.
Q - How does it feel to still have people interested in a band that was formed back in the mid-sixties?
A - Yeah, it was 1965 I think when we got together. It's great considering that's been my profession since I was fifteen. I've done other things besides play music, but that's been my main profession and to still be able to do it at my age is kind of nice 'cause I'm better than I used to be.
Q - I hear that so often from musicians who were around in the sixties...they're better musicians today.
A - Unless something happens to you physically, you should get better I would think.
Q - You probably never dreamed Quicksilver would have the longevity its had, did you?
A - I didn't think I would live past twenty-five. (laughs)
Q - You must've been one wild guy.
A - Yeah.
Q - You mentioned earlier you had other jobs besides a musician. What else did you do?
A - I've been a machinist. I've been a welder. I've been a diver. I've been a sailor. I've been a smuggler.
Q - A smuggler?
A - Yeah. I probably made more money as a smuggler than anything. (laughs) But I don't do that anymore.
Q - And I won't ask what you smuggled.
A - No.
Q - The only thing about those jobs is you never got applause.
A - No, but I don't really care. That's something that never mattered too much to me. I appreciate audiences. It's nice to have people that like to hear you play, but it wasn't something I had to have in my life to help me exist. It's nice to play for audiences, but I like playing in the studio just as well. I had a recording studio for twenty years. I lost it in 2001 when they blew up the Trade Center. Everything went South.
Q - You're saying you had a recording studio in New York City?
A - No. I had it out here, but because of that situation there was no shows. I didn't play any shows for almost five years. People just didn't want to fly on airplanes. Everything got real paranoid. People didn't want to invest money in music. It was general fear. It's still there. The fear hasn't gone away, but somehow or another the music has come back. But, there was about a five year period there when I didn't work at all, not as a musician. Right before that I had a thirty-eight date tour of Europe all set up and then when 9-11 happened it all just evaporated. I had a seven piece band. I was working pretty regularly at casinos and a lot of shows and it just stopped.
Q - People like to refer to Quicksilver as Acid Rock group or a Psychedelic group. What exactly does that mean? Does that mean that people like to listen to your music when they were high on drugs?
A - In San Francisco at that period of time, practically everybody was high on something. There was a lot of LSD around. We took a lot of LSD. The audience took a lot of LSD. The music was real loose, a lot of improvisation. That's happened a lot of other times too. Because of LSD they termed it Psychedelic music or Acid Rock. I suppose it is. I don't know if it ever expanded anybody's mind. It more than likely did a few people. I was definitely in an altered state most of the time in those days.
Q - Quicksilver was offered record deals early on, but you turned them down. You or someone in the group felt you weren't ready?
A - It wasn't that we weren't ready. We just didn't aspire to do that. That wasn't our motivation. Really all we cared about was having some place to live and enough to eat so we could go play. Getting involved in the music business wasn't necessarily something any of us wanted to do, and when it did finally happen, it basically was the end of everything. That was about 1967 when everybody was signed to a label. Then the mystique of San Francisco sort of disappeared. It became commercialized.
Q - They took something totally unique...
A - Well, not only was it unique, it was totally unknown. Nobody ever knew what was going on, except the people who were there. In '67 there was the Human Be In, which surprised me. I remember when we went to do that show, it was just another free show in the park and it suddenly turned out to be 30,000 people and made the headlines and got in magazines and all of a sudden all these kids started running away from home and go to San Francisco because it was the Promised Land and most of them became victimized.
Q - It turned ugly.
A - Yeah. It got ugly after that.
Q - People on the East Coast thought the names of bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and The Zombies were rather strange. Then, we started hearing about groups with names like Country Joe And The Fish.
A - Yeah. (laughs)
Q - Big Brother And The Holding Company, Jefferson Airplane, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service.
A - Everybody tried to come up with some sort of strange name for some reason. We had a bunch of different names and finally settled on Quicksilver Messenger Service because we're all the same birth sign. We're all Virgo, which is ruled by Mercury. Me and the drummer had the same birth date. David Freiberg and John Cipollina had the same birth date. So, between the four of us, there were only two birthdays. Virgo is ruled by Mercury, which is Quicksilver. Quicksilver is the winged messenger and Virgo is the sign of the selfless servant. So, that's where the name Quicksilver Messenger Service name came from. It's astrological.
Q - I got the Quicksilver and Messenger part, but where did the Service come from?
A - Virgo is the sign of the selfless servant and we called it Service.
Q - According to Lillian Roxon's Encyclopedia, "Quicksilver is a good example of perfection gone astray. The original concept was fine, meticulous in its planning and expert at its performing. Once a hint of success found its way into the psychedelic stew however, the Rock gourmet's dream turned into beef jerky." What the heck does that mean?
A - I don't know. I've read so many different things about the band. Some people think we were great. Some people think we were horrible. Some people liked the old stuff we did and can't stand the new stuff I did. Some people like the new stuff I did and think the old stuff we did was terrible. You can't really pay much attention to what people say 'cause some people are gonna love you and some people are gonna hate you. Critics come and go.
Q - And Lillian Roxon has passed on.
A - Well, God bless her. (laughs)
Q - She's quite famous.
A - I've never heard of her.
Q - And you were right there in the era.
A - I read a review the other day by some guy on the internet that thought we were horrible. I just read it and thought, well, there's other people that thought we were great. I don't really pay much attention. All that stuff comes and goes. If a musician or any kind of artist really seriously pays any attention to his critics, he's lost. You have to do what you do and let it be done. You just do what you do because you're doing it. People are either gonna like it or they're not. It's like Pablo Picasso. Some people look at it and see genius. Some people look at it and see scribbling. You can't please all the people all the time. You can't really pay much attention to critics.
Q - Tell me what it was like to be playing The Fillmore West and the Avalon Ballroom back in 1966, 1967. Were you playing originals back then?
A - A few original instrumentals, but mostly covers of old Blues tunes. We wrote our own stuff. When we did a song it was different than the record. We definitely changed everything 'cause we were always stoned and couldn't remember arrangements most of the time. But, we had a few original tunes. And, as time passed we wrote more songs.
Q - What did being stoned do to your performance or for your performance? Or was that just a trend you were following?
A - Well, I mean since I was already stoned, it didn't matter. I was gonna be stoned whether I was gonna be playing music or not. That was the whole idea of being in San Francisco was to get stoned for me. I'd been through like being in prison, being in the military and everything before I ever got to San Francisco. So, by the time I got to San Francisco, all I wanted to do really was just get stoned. But, I happened to get into a band and we still got stoned. So, I would be been stoned whether I was playing or not. I can play if I'm not stoned. I can do anything not stoned and I can do it stoned. It depends on what I'm stoned on whether I like it or not. Nowadays I don't get stoned on anything. Once in a while I smoke a little weed and that's about it. I don't drink. I'm a Native American so I have what they call the Apache Syndrome, which is not being able to stop drinking. So, I just don't drink.
Q - Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock proclaimed "Quicksilver was never as popular nationally as their San Francisco contemporaries Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Deal." Why would that have been?
A - When I first came to San Francisco before Quicksilver started, Jefferson Airplane was already playing. You could see them and see that they were gonna be successful. I mean, they were groomed for it. The Grateful Dead was just a phenomenon. I have no idea why that happened. I never was a big fan of The Grateful Dead, but they certainly developed a cult following and became really famous world-wide. Jefferson Airplane too. We didn't pursue that. Nobody really wanted to be a celebrity. That's kind of like the way all of us are. Virgo is the sign of the hermit in the Tarot cards. We were all hermits and still are.
Q - Is that good to be in show business and be a hermit?
A - Not really. (laughs) We didn't seek to be famous. It just sort of happened to us, somewhat. We were not quite a star as The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Starship, but we did have a following and still do.
Q - Given what you've just told me, I should probably consider myself lucky that you decided to talk to me.
A - The reason I do it is, I read so much mis-information on the internet about the band and how it started, who was in it, that I give interviews just to make sure everybody has the facts right.