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GARY DUNCAN
Still Delivering the Message

Gary Duncan was another deer caught in the headlights and he owes it to a myopic media strapped to headlines rather than story. In 2007, writers, papers and magazines flocked to his door, supposedly to interview Gary Duncan, musician. Duncan soon found that what they really wanted were a few lines to support already written headlines about the so-called Summer of Love.

What I did 40 years ago, that's what I've been doing as far as interviews all year,” he said. “Going back and reliving all of those things is something I'm not really into. The music was good and the whole thing was great, but now it's 40 years later and my music is totally different. I've been trying to get the word out about what I am doing now. I have around twelve CDs out now, all newer. I had a recording studio for about 20 years and recorded everything I played. Then, when 9/11 happened, there suddenly weren't any more gigs. I didn't work for five years and lost the studio, but I kept the 500+ hours of music I'd recorded. If the music has been bad, it would have been easy. I could have just thrown it all away. But after listening to it, I realized it was good, so I ended up tying up with a guy named Karl Anderson, who owns Global Recording Artists. That's the label my music is released on now.

I had stuff on cassette, on DAT tapes, two-track mixes, on 2-inch tape. We went through all of it and are slowly getting them out. I have maybe six CDs that we haven't released yet. They sell, but not a lot. I don't make a lot of money off of those.”

Why Global Recording, you ask? Why not a major label?

Quicksilver's Peace By Piece came out on Capitol in 1986. It was getting really good promotion, was starting to move, then the president of the label got fired and everybody he'd signed got dropped. They dumped the record. They just stopped promoting it and didn't make any more copies. I called them and asked if they had the masters because I wanted to put it out and they said no, we don't have them. We don't even have a copy. Well, I did. I had a copy of the original mix, so I put it out myself.

I put out Shape Shifter on my own label, as well, and now it is on GRA Records. Most people don't even know it's out there because it never got any promotion.”

Shape Shifter, originally a two CD set, took on a life all its own. Keying on theme and variations, Duncan recorded and re-recorded many of the tracks, some remarkably different than those on the original discs. The original set is now available on single discs as Volumes 1 & 2.

The third volume of Shape Shifter consists of three 'new' tracks--- Light Up the Night, Cover Girl, and Time to Shine--- and alternate versions of songs from Volumes 1 & 2.

Unlike the original set, on Volume 3 Duncan handles the vast majority of the instruments himself. “Volume 3 of Shape Shifter was actually the original demos Gary produced for the album,” explained Karl Anderson of Global Recording Artists. “Gary played almost everything on those tracks. The idea was to record the demos and give them to the band so they could learn the parts for the sessions. In the process, some songs were dumped and a lot of the tracks ended up significantly different than the final versions. While going over the material, we decided those 'demo' tracks were worthy of inclusion in the expanded set of discs we were going to put out.”

Volume 4 is another animal altogether. Some tracks are different versions of those from Vol. 1 & 2 sans voice, some were left over from earlier sessions, and some recorded fresh. Duncan kept it instrumental because he liked the way it sounded. This ain't your Granddaddy's Quicksilver, my friend--- more like Gary Duncan Unleashed.

Again, Karl Anderson: “Volume 4 was an instrumental version of songs from the original Shape Shifter. Originally, we were going to call it Waltzing the Warthog, but decided to add it to the Shape Shifter set because we didn't want to confuse fans as they purchased the different albums. You get very different versions on this album and get a chance to hear Gary really play some guitar.”

Duncan has unleashed himself on a number of albums over the years, some criminally overlooked. One wonders whether the Quicksilver fans from the sixties even know they exist and why the ones who do, like the writers who call for interviews, seem to prefer reliving the past to hearing the new. No matter, really. Gary Duncan has gained a loyal following of new fans, enamored almost as much as Duncan himself with his chosen style. Still, it gets frustrating at times, but Duncan has not let it daunt him.

I grew up playing R&B and jazz. These days, when I can play what I want to, I play jazz--- in my own way. That's what Quicksilver was really doing, anyway. We improvised every night we played. The whole idea was to get stoned, get on stage, start the song and see where it went.”

Duncan has carried that attitude toward music from the beginning. He wrote the quintessential Quicksilver tune Gold and Silver while still in his mid-teens and really never looked back. Like the music, the band evolved as well, musicians joining and leaving as life and the life of the music moved forward.

By 2000, things were looking up. Duncan once again began to garner press attention, gigs were plentiful. Then, in 2001, the Twin Towers fell.

I was doing a tour of Germany,” he said, “38 shows starting 9/10 of 2001. On 9/11, it was gone. I didn't work for five years. There were no shows. People were afraid to fly. Promoters were afraid to book shows because they were afraid nobody would come. I finally got back on the road with Starship in 2006, opening for them. I've been working since.”

THE REALLY, REALLY EARLY DAYS

Duncan, born Eugene Duncan Jr., was adopted after birth by a family named Grubb. They changed his name to Gary Grubb, the name he used throughout high school. Well, two years of high school. He left high school his sophomore year.

My adopted family were Cherokee. In those days, if you were Native American, you had to be careful of the Mormon Church. Back then, the Mormons would take Indian babies, cut their hair and turn them into servants. In fact, they made a lot of money doing that until the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1972 put an end to it.

Native Americans have this concept of extended family. In other words, your mother may leave you with her sister for six months while she takes care of business. It was very common for kids of a family to live with an aunt for six months or a year. Well, as soon as this would happen, the Mormon Church would come in and say this woman has abandoned her family. They would come in and cut their hair, not allow them to speak their native language anymore and, basically, sell them. It was a bit like slave trade. It was amazing they got away with it as long as they did.

Anyway, one day I was going through my mother's drawers trying to steal money and I found my adoption papers. I went, wow, my name is Eugene Duncan Jr. and my mother's name is Jeraline Smith. My father, Eugene Duncan, was half Cherokee and half Scot and my mother was full blood Skidi Pawnee. I'm like three-quarters Native American and one-quarter Scot. I tell people I look like a Scot, but I'm Indian from the neck down. (laughs)

The Skidi Pawnee were the northern Pawnee. They were called the Wolf People. They lived around Nebraska and were a small tribe. I looked up Pawnee on the Internet and found that at the turn of the 20th century, there were like 60 Pawnee left. Now, I think the tribe is up to maybe 900 or 1,000.

They were Plains Indians and were constantly at war with the Sioux. They had hair down the middle of the head with the sides shaved, much like the Mohicans. They were the only Native American tribe to never go to war with the United States and were the best trackers of all the tribes. They hunted buffalo by sneaking into the herds and slitting their throats.

We all know about the Cherokee, who were from the South and were forced to move to Oklahoma..”

Duncan paused for a moment before continuing.

My parents gave me up at birth. My father was a cook in the Navy and was nicknamed Snag. (laughs) I have no reason why, but I still use that nickname. I saw a picture of him once. An old friend of mine who was in the Navy was on a boat with him. He said, 'you know, there was a guy on the boat named Duncan. The cook. They called him Snag. Let me look through my books here.' He said, 'I got a picture of everybody I ever sailed with.' He showed me this picture and said, 'see that guy with the little bit darker skin there? That's him.' And he looked like me.

You know, I always wondered why I had certain traits and just didn't quite fit in. When I found out I was Indian, I thought okay, that makes sense.”

SAN FRANCISCO--- DELIVERING THE MESSAGE

Before 1967, San Francisco was kind of a closed scene,” Duncan said. “I lived there in the late fifties when there were Beatniks and Hippie was a derogatory term. A hippie was a young nobody. The Beatniks of that time were into amphetamines, booze and heroin. When the hippies came along with LSD, everything changed. I watched that whole thing.

I was living in North Beach with Greg Elmore in the basement of a house owned by a lady named Chris Brooks. She had seen John Cippolina play somewhere and invited him over. His car broke down, so he stayed for a week. We started talking about putting a band together, but we didn't have a bass player. Cippolina said we have a bass player, but he's in jail. He actually plays violin, but we can teach him to play bass. That was how Quicksilver Messenger Service started.

Originally, we had Jimmy Murray also, another friend of John's. When he joined, I thought there was no reason for us to have three guitars, so we traded in my Stratocaster and Super Reverb for some amplifiers and I just sang. I still played guitar, but not onstage.

We hired a manager named Ron Polte, who came to my house one day when I was playing guitar and he said, damn, how come you're not playing guitar. You sound great. You play the blues. I said yeah, that's what I always play. So he bought me a guitar and shortly after that, Murray left the group--- right after Monterey Pop. From that point, we were a four-piece.

That old four-piece, we were the band. We had a groove. We had a good drummer and played solid grooves. The Jefferson Airplane was never a groove band. Big Brother and the Holding Company was, but they had Janis and without Janis, can you imagine what they would have sounded like? I remember them before Janis and it was like, damn...

Basically, that whole scene was a bunch of folk musicians trying to play in electric bands. Now, I grew up playing in bands. I was never a folk musician. And there is a way of playing in a band where you have to know how it works. So what we had in San Francisco was a bunch of folk musicians playing electric guitars who didn't know how to be in a band. It was sloppy and loose. I'm not being critical of it because it did have a sound, but Quicksilver was practically the only group in town that was actually a band. We had a pocket, you know, and people liked to listen to us play because they could dance to it.

I was 20 and had a wife and kid. We lived out in Olema by Point Reyes on a farm. We lived in a barn and life was good. There was no pressure and it was very easy. You could just go play. There were a lot of houses you could hang out in with artists and painters and poets and other musicians. You could walk down the street smoking a joint and nobody even knew what it was. The whole scene was pretty much an underground thing.

“There were only a few bands around at first and we started getting gigs, thanks to the Avalon and the Fillmore, which were both great places to play because they were always filled. They were packed with people dancing this weird kind of dance. Black people had names for their dances, White people didn't. (laughs) Anyway, that was what we did. We would drive into the city and play one or the other venue every weekend. That's how we survived. It wasn't lot of money, but it was enough to pay the rent and eat brown rice and vegetables.

Then, because of the Monterey Pop Festival and the Summer of Love and all of the nationwide publicity, suddenly there were all of these kids running away from home to go to San Francisco. The Promised Land, where you didn't have to work and there was plenty of drugs and free love and all that, which wasn't the case at all. What I saw were victims more than anything else.

Recently, I did an interview with someone who took me over to Haight Ashbury to take photographs and walk around and it's still the same. Kids sleeping on the sidewalks, drunk, stoned, obnoxious. That was pretty much what Haight Ashbury became back then. I don't know what people thought it was like, you know? They call it the Summer of Love. I didn't really feel a lot of that love. I saw a lot of kids being victims and a lot of people victimizing kids.

But, hey, I was a musician, not a street person. I played shows and made money. It was my job. I stayed away from the hippie culture as much as possible. When I was younger, I hung out a lot with the Beatniks, with whom I got along with fairly well, but not the hippies.

When they had the Human Be-In, David Freiberg and I were living somewhere in the city with our families and he said, we have to go play this gig in the Park today. We drove down there and the closer we got, the more people we saw until we had to just park the car and walk. When we got there, there were all these people--- thousands and thousands of them--- and all of these news people. David looked around at the whole thing and said to me, it's over. When these guys get involved, it's the end. And it was. There was no more underground scene in San Francisco. From that point on, it was all out in the open.”

HOW TO RECORD ON $5 A DAY...

Shortly after Murray left the band,” Duncan continued, “we made our first record, which was difficult. We signed with Capitol and they didn't really know what to do with us because we played really loud. We didn't have a producer, as such. We had an 'executive' producer, to make sure we didn't go into the studio and waste a whole lot of money. The engineers didn't quite know how to handle our volume, so they boxed us all off in little sections and we played like we always played.

That first album took me years and years to be able to listen to. It didn't really sound the way we did live. Now that I can listen to it, I do hear some good moments on it.

After that, we did Happy Trails. Most of that was recorded live and does sound basically like we sounded.

(When) everybody got record contracts, made records and started going out on the road, we didn't see one another anymore. Before that, the Grateful Dead and the Airplane and Big Brother and Quicksilver were always playing together at either the Fillmore or the Avalon. Those were the only two places in town to play, so we would play one weekend at one and the next at the other. Between sets, we would go over and hang out and jam. We saw one another a lot. That ended when we all started going on the road.”

BILL GRAHAM

Bill Graham was a great businessman. He treated me with respect. I was very, very sad when he died. At the Fillmore, when you played for him, you got paid, you went on on time. Everything was run like a ship. Very tight. He was good at what he did--- the best--- as opposed to Chet Helms at the Avalon, who was very loose. Total opposites, you know.

I just liked playing, but when you played for Graham and you were scheduled to go on at nine o'clock, you went on at nine o'clock. If you were scheduled to stop at ten-thirty, you stopped at ten-thirty. You got paid and there wasn't any bullshit.

I know Graham put a lot of people off because he was very contentious at times, but I never had a problem with him. At one point very early on, he got in my face about something and I just told him, you don't want to do that because if you do, I'm going to have to kick your ass. (laughs) So we had an understanding.

I think he got a bad rap, but I can see why. He was very vociferous and a strong individual. He was a dominant male and dominant males have a hard time in the world. Believe me, I know.” (laughs)

GARY DUNCAN--- THE MAN

History is all about perception. Some people believe that Ronald Reagan had a human element, though I fail to see it. Some think that Dick Cheney is something other than the Devil Incarnate (they would be wrong). Talking with Gary Duncan, I get the sense that all that matters outside of family and friends is his music. He's not really selfish and not a bad guy, but he is far from perfect, especially in his own eyes.

There are people who think I'm the devil,” he said, “because I hung around the Hell's Angels and rode motorcycles and did everything you were not supposed to do if you were a musician. My best friends are members of Oakland's Hells Angels. All of my buddies are old now, but they're still in the club. Those were the people I hung out with. I didn't particularly like musicians because for the most part they're flaky and I couldn't depend on them. I knew with the Hells Angels, if I stepped in some shit, they'd be there with me. They might kick my ass later, (laughs) and say what the hell did you do that for, but they'd be there. It's almost like being soldiers. Being an orphan and being adopted and never really having bonded with a family, I was always looking for brothers, and that's where I found them.”

About his reluctance to speak with the press, he said simply, “I never talked with the press much. John Cippolina did--- a lot. He liked to talk to the press, but I didn't because I didn't have anything to say. I've had maybe 20 interviews this year about the Summer of Love and I told them all basically the same thing--- which is that for me, it was a gig. It was a job. I wasn't involved in the counterculture. I wasn't for or against the War. I wasn't protesting anything. I was just playing my guitar and trying to get better at it.”

When he left Quicksilver in 1969, it left fans shaking their heads. It seemed like with out Duncan, there was no Quicksilver, but they played on. Duncan, looking into a black hole, regrouped.

I was in New York and suddenly realized that if I kept doing drugs, I was going to die. I mean, I had been shooting amphetamines into my arms for ten years. After doing it for that long, when you stop, you kind of turn into a zombie. I told our manager that I couldn't do it anymore. The band wasn't rehearsing or learning new material. We were playing the same show every night. I didn't want to do that, so I took a year off. The next show I did with the band was New Year's Eve, one year later. I spent all of 1969 riding motorcycles and trying to get my brains back together. Believe me, after doing crank as long as I'd been doing it, you don't want to do it anymore. After that year, except for smoking a reefer now and then, I didn't do drugs.”

THROUGH THE EYES OF A FAN--- AN AFTERTHOUGHT

I saw Quicksilver Messenger Service play only once, at the University of Oregon in 1968, I believe. One of my favorite albums at the time was the band's first album, the same one which took Gary Duncan years to tolerate. The concert took place in Erb Memorial Unions cavernous hall (the same EMU which housed the cafeteria food fight in Animal House), the stage stacked high with speakers and equipment like I'd not seen before. When Quicksilver opened, they were dwarfed by the massive wall of equipment and lost in the constant shuffle of hippies and “earth mamas” anxious to get to the side of the stage where Stanley Owsley was supposedly handing out cups of coke laced with acid. Even with constant distractions and equipment problems (Cippolina's guitar was shredding the amp speakers with ear-piercing shrieks and, I swear, every one of the guitar chords had phlegm in their throats--- and, no, I did not partake of the coke), Quicksilver acquitted themselves nicely. The Dead, not so. Whether it was the drugs or just a bad night, by the end of the show, the band announced they would return the next Sunday to play a free show to make up for an under par performance. They did.

Those days, as good as they were for a young man immersed in the music of the times, were just that--- those days. We all grew up and moved on. I don't think Gary Duncan did. He had already grown up by the time Quicksilver formed, having spent time in Viet Nam before any one of us knew where or what it was. He had to learn business the hard way, on his own, and he rode with the Hells Angels not because he was a hardass but because they had formed a bond.

These days, he has one constant in his life outside of family--- music--- and a musical instrument, mainly guitar, is always close at hand. He plays jazz, funk, soul, space, blues and hard rock with equally deft hand. His originals still have that crisp edge and when he plays jazz classics like Round Midnight and Maiden Voyage, he keeps it fresh while showing respect for the original. It may not be Quicksilver Messenger Service, but it is still Quicksilver.

Did I mention that Gary Duncan is putting out a book? Tentatively titled Speed Dreams, he says his friends call it some kind of metaphysical fiction. Click on the link in the previous paragraph to scope out his site and keep checking back. The book should be available soon.

Frank O. Gutch Jr.

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