Dark Star No. 14, April 1978, page 24:

Clover - The Ciambotti Tapes 1

SOME KINDA INTRO (It's so hard to find the right words when you believe in something.)

It seems incredible that it is less than two years since I first saw Clover in action - from the Roundhouse stage in September 1976. I'm not sure which facet impressed me the most - Alex Call's honey-sweet country vocals, Huey Louis' bluesy counter vocals and harmonica or just the band's tightness which verges on the unbelievable. Since then I've dragged my tired and weary carcass to every Clover gig I possibly can, and I have yet to be dissatisfied. When Huey makes his '...Welcome to the Clover show...' announcement, it really is that - a show; real entertainment which cannot fail to win round the most apathetic audience and generate an intense rapport between performer and punter.

Following their return engagement at the Roundhouse supporting Horslips, I snuck backstage to shake a few more hands and generally chit-chat. As if guided by the hand of fate, I picked up a conversation with bassist Johnny Ciambotti. I made a chance remark that I admired very much his percussive style of bass-playing, informing him (oh so casually) that he reminded me a lot of Moby Grape's Bob Mosley when he was at his peak. Ciambotti's eyes almost popped! 'Wow, that guy was my fucking hero, man... I used to get into every gig where he was playing just to watch his fingers. I learned so much from him. It's amazing you should say that, I'm flattered!' If ever ice had been broken, if ever ice had to be broken, that was the auspicious moment it happened. From then on in, Johnny proved to know so much about the history of West Coast music in San Francisco and elsewhere that an interview was absolutely essential.

  Johnny Ciambotti; Photo: Nigel Willoughby
Johnny Ciambotti
So eventually it came together; on four occasions. Once backstage at the Rainbow on the night poor Alex Call's throat was badly shot up, and the remainder back at the group's hotel in fashionable Earl's Court. Enough tape to tie a bow around the world, I'd imagine.


This is a long and rambling interview, at times talking about whatever came into our heads in the heat of the moment, in which case you may notice that the subject changes without any prior indication. Everything flows so naturally though that all that has been edited or discarded was repeated statements, inconsequential shuckin' & jivin' (apart from that with entertainment value), and things which are best not read by those with a weak and retiring diposition. A final word of warning: Don't go anywhere near this guy on 4th July or 5th November!

DS: Okay... boring trivial questions first, I'm afraid. Can you tell me something about your musical background prior to Clover?

JC: I was at UCLA, a Spanish major, when I went to a party. These guys were there... three of 'em, playing and singing - banjo and two guitars, one also playing autoharp; bluegrass, straight natural-born bluegrass.

They were doing songs that I knew from records - I'd never played any instrument at this time - and I just started singing high harmony along with them, drunk outta my mind. They were knocked out, I was too, I'd never sung with a bluegrass group before. The four of us blended so damn well the others said 'Hey, can you play bass?' I'd never played but I went out and rented a bass, string-bass, big ol' motherfucker, I learned how to do everything in G and all that shit. But it really worked out great - I got into it, more into it all the time.

DS: This was a full-time band?

JC: Oh yeah. The band was called The Valley Boys; we became real well-known around, the Los Angeles bluegrass circuit, playing lotsa gigs with The Kentucky Colonels, Clarence White's boys. This is '65/'66. We were the house band at the Ash Grove along with the Kentucky Colonels every weekend. When big bands would come into town - Flatt & Scruggs or Bill Monroe & his Bluegrass Boys - we'd be the support, opening up the show. That way we got to be pretty well-known.

DS: When did you turn on to electric music?

JC: I heard about the rock'n'roll scene that was happening in San Francisco; I went there with my ol' lady and kid. I dug it so much that I came back a couple of days later, picked up all our things in a trailer and split to San Francisco. I quit the bluegrass band - Steve Gillette was in the band, you know of him I'm sure, people like Stone Poneys and The Sunshine Company recorded some of his songs. I lived there in San Francisco, working for the Post Office, checking out what the scene was like. It was happening alright; Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver, Mystery Trend! I couldn't believe it, man. It was exactly what I wanted to do. Through the Post Office I met a guy who was starting a band, so I joined as an electric bass player, and I'd never touched an electric bass up 'til that moment. I played with these guys for a couple of years, a band called The Outfit, then I moved up to Muir Beach... the whole band did actually. There was a tavern there with Alex, Mitch Howie and McFee... just taking acid and jamming. It seemed very natural for me to play with these guys; it was a real meeting of the minds, teenage-style (laughs). We all decided that we should get ourselves together as a band... they were already a band, The Tiny Hearing Aid Company - you must know this stuff - we dissolved both the other bands, so I joined Alex, Mitch and McFee right away. We've been Clover ever since.

DS: Can you tell me something of the early days of Clover?

JC: Our first gig was July 4th, 1967, and I think we signed with Fantasy sometime around the summer of 1969. We had been going for little over a year and a half before we were signed. We were already getting to be quite well-known in our own area, but still not breaking it in the city or over in Berkeley. We were playing a lot over there but it wasn't our kinda crowd or something. We did quite well but never built up a really heavy following. Berkeley was a very politically orientated scene; Country Joe and his boys were singing all those protest songs. Clover was pretty much the same way we are right now. Clover was never political, although a few of our songs held up in that direction; but subtle... never overt. People in San Francisco wanted to get stoned and party, but in Berkeley they wanted to get stoned and throw stones! (Laughs.)

DS: Joy Of Cooking also came from Berkeley; they weren't as political as McDonald, but led by two ladies, they seemed to have their own revolution going for them...

JC: Joy Of Cooking... yeah... they were like the original wonen's libbers, Terry Garthwaite and Toni Brown. They are both in their late thirties or early forties... They'd been singing folk music, each solo, for a fairly long time doing protest kinda stuff. When they formed the Joy they were way into the women's liberation movement in a big way. They were older than most of the co-ed students at Berkeley, so they were looked up to quite a bit.

DS: I've got a gig sheet for the Family Dog events which mention Clover, in fact some of them must have been your earliest performances; what was it like... the entire Dog scene?

JC: A crazy, stoned, acid-freak freak-out!! It was dynamite. Three bands a night, sometimes four. Light shows and stuff with all kids of psychedelics being passed around free of charge or else very cheap, fifty cents or whatever for a tab of acid. Everybody got zonked out of their skulls and went generally crazy to the music of many, many different style bands. Even the non-psychedelic bands played; Bo Diddley, Junior Wells... real straight Chicago blues cats. When Charlie Musselwhite came out he'd never touched anything resembling acid in his life, just Ripple! But the acid-freaks still got off on it 'cause it was real powerful music. Like... when Steve Miller came out there, Michel Bloomfield too... it was like when the Musselwhite band blew me out. The Southside Sound System; it had a forty year old junkie on bass, Harvey Mandel on guitar - playing all this really weird shit - he had such a pasty face, it looked like he never went out into the sun!! All these cats, club musicians from Chicago - been doing it for years and years - and now they were in San Francisco, blowing the tops off people's heads with how tight they were. Miller was the same way, very fuckin' tight stuff... and Butterfield, man... I once saw Butter billed with the Grateful Dad. The Dead sounded so fuckin' sloopy compared with his sound. That was my first real indication that there were movements of music happening outside San Francisco that had a whole shipload of validity; the LA scene had also been going and was completely different from San Francisco. But I was really amazed at the tightness and precision with which these guys played, compared to the hippie SF bands... like I never thought Quicksilver could play their axes at all - I never ever did.

Jefferson Airplane were the most commercial of the bands - they played their parts, did their jams, but were real commercial. I thought the Dead were a really great band until I stopped getting completely zonked out of my nut and realised that the scene happening around them was more dynamic than the music itself. They really turned me on one helluva lot, but after a while it just started getting kinda redundant to me. Not that I didn't dig it at first... I really fuckin' dug it at first.

DS: So as soon as the blues people started gigging to the 'new audiences' in San Francisco, the music was being absorbed and reflected back as with a blues band like Big Brother; it seems to me that every outside music form, if of a worthy nature, inspired something in return.

JC: Yeah, that's very true. All of a sudden, country bands started coming in; Johnny Cash did a gig at the Carousel Ballroom which was the Fillmore West by this time, I think. I remember that set; he did it with June Carter and The Tennessee Three. There weren't many people in the hall, maybe seven hundred in a hall capable of holding three thousand. He, they rather, did about thirty songs in the set. A short set, but he managed some thirty songs... short, two, two and a half minute country ditties. People started getting hip to country music, and John McFee started playing pedal steel way before anybody else had really had time to pick up on country stuff. The Grateful Dead actually used to have a lot of country feel to their music; as you say, Bobby (Weir) used to have his little spin-off group doing "Long Black Veil", but the Dead did stuff like "Cold Rain And Snow" - that stuff was tremendous to me. That first Dead album was all their really fine material. Then the later "Workingman's Dead" album had a lot more country influences. Garcia and all those cats are really into it.

Pickers like Garcia, McFee - guys who really cared what they sounded like - all started getting influenced by country guitar pickers because there were just so many goddam phenomenal Telecaster and pedal steel players. Actually, I believe McFee started playing pedal steel before Garcia - at least he did in public, that much I know; he got this little six-string Gibson. Clover weren't well known as the Dead, so Garcia got all the thunder; and McFee got all the chops! (Laughs.)

DS: It seems everybody learns something from somebody... good music is anything that turns you on...

JC: There really was an amalgation of all kinds of different forms, musically speaking. I used to dig a lot of Mariachi music, I still do, but I don't listen to it as much now. It's Mexican music. I had a couple of albums by a real fine outfit known as Los Tresaces, which I used to play to McFee and Alex; the singing was so tight - three-part harmony - and the playing was so energetic; guitar player was phenomenal. The bassist played all these bizarro backbeats on guitarron. That influenced us too. We'd sit around and sing their harmonies. All that stuff entered our own music. With Fantasy we did a song called "Come Before The Night Is Over", and at the end it's got a real Mexican-style jam on it, complete with raunchy trumpet, screaming ladies, clinking glasses... the whole bit. Even on "Love On The Wire", the tail-out on "Travellin' Man" was very Mexican-style in origin, in both the beat and McFee's guitar. Then "Monopoly" from the very first album is one hundred per cent country.

DS: To tell the truth, that song sounds like a pastiche of Nashville country music people.

JC: I stole that song directly from Buck Owens. I just plagiarised the holy shit out of the thing; wrote my own words and changed a couple of the chords and said (imitates redneck accent) 'I wrote me a country song.' It just happened that Saul Zaentz, the President of Fantasy Records, chose that song as his personal favourite from that album because it was a kinda political/protest song in a very vague way. Actually it's about monopolising a chick's love, but your're saying 'I don't give a damn about no Sherman Anti-Trust Act or other crazy government rules' and 'Ain't no high-rankin' senator gonna try stop me 'cause I've got a monopoly on you'... that kinda bullshit. So Saul dug the shit outta the song, he's a real political animal. I also wrote another song on that album, "No Vacancy"; that was pure country too. We tried to do it as completely country as possible. But if we wrote a country song now, we'd do it as Clover.

DS: That's the major difference between "Fourty Niner" and "Unavailable", you found a style very much of your own.

JC: Right. We've got a bit more of our own identification, our own style.

David Prockter


Next issue: Johnny talks about The Byrds, Bob Mosley and Moby Grape, Paul McCartney and, believe it or not, Clover.


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