Dark Star No. 15, June 1978, page 25:

Clover - The Ciambotti Tapes 2


First of all, before we roll again, let me apologise for the somewhat truncated first part of this inexhaustible saga. As usual (yawn) it was not totally my fault, as transcribing was halted rather abruptly by equipment failure; but all the same I feel somewhat obliged to let my fan out there know exactly what was going on. So... this time we have a length of feature more in harmony with the quality of the interview. We continue our intensive interrogation of Johnny Ciambotti, man of mystery, imagination and CB radio stories. Anyway, where the hell were we? Oh yeah - Clover's earliest influences, one whole lotta acid at gigs, swiping songs from Hank Williams and...

 Alex, John, Johnny and Mitch
Alex Call, John McFee, Johnny Ciambotti, Mitch Howie

DS: Though Clover played some country-sounding material, as did the Charlatans and the Dead, it's really the LA people who sway to country music almost straight, wheras in San Francisco it was merely an influence and never a means to an end...

JC: That's right. The country scene there in Los Angeles is many times larger than it's ever been back in San Francisco. LA is the centre of the entire recording 'biz'... is now, anyway. A lot of pickers decide to settle there; Ricky Nelson, for example. He uses real country musicians on his albums. He used to have James Burton a lot, and now Tom Brumley, his pedal steel player. His "Garden Party" is a superfine record; I once heard a Jamaican reggae band, the Soul Syndicate - they were direct from Jamaica to San Francisco - do a version of that song, and fuck, it was great. It was also the first authentic reggae I ever heard. The drummer was unblievable, bass player was great. The entire thing came across very funky - blew my mind.

DS: One band you haven't mentioned who are part and parcel of the San Francisco mythos are Moby Grape - in my opinion one of the best as far as every other album was concerned. The very first time I heard Clover, I thought your bass-playing was very similar to that of Mosley. A great musician all round, too - left Spence miles behind.

JC: That's a real compliment, because... well, let me tell you here and now as straight as I know how... I stole lots of riffs from Bob Mosley. I watched the cat like a hawk. I was drawn to his style because he was just so goddamn ballsy - percussive as hell - you could hear every fuckin' note he played. Moby Grape sounded exactly like their records on stage, sang like birds, energised like a sonovabitch. They all dressed up in suits, too - that was very weird for a band coming out of San Francisco! Their first album is still a masterpiece to me; I'm still not tired of it and I've played it thousands of times. Everything they did after that... (pauses)... I'm not sure what their scene was, but I guess they got too drug-orientated and into the big star trips - just went over the top, wanting to murder each other. The music was put together by Matthew Katz as you probably know, the former manager of Jefferson Airplane. Katz took this band called the Fantastics who included Mosley, Jerry Miller on guitar and Don Stevenson on drums; a San Francisco club band. Skip Spence came from the Airplane and the other guy, Lewis - what's his name? Peter Lewis - from no place in particular. They used to rehearse at this place called The Ark in Sausolito... an abandoned ferryboat, Mississippi-style, which had been dragged up onto the land. Katz either rented or borrowed the place or whatever and Grape used it. Before Clover, when I was with the Outfit, we used the same place for our rehearsals too, same time as Grape. So I had a great opportunity to watch Mosley. He influenced me so much - we used to talk like mad; used to bend his fuckin' ear, man! I wasn't afraid to talk in those days - nowadays I just try to maintain my cool and pick things up on the sly. (Peter Lorre-type voice) 'What kinda strings you usin', huh?' anyway, it was through Bob Mosley that I finally got a Fender Precision bass, and to this day I'd never play anything else. That guy may have looked like a fruit, but shit, could he ever play bass! The very last thing I heard was that he was playing in a new band got together by Neil Young; with Neil on lead guitar and Bob on bass, it should be a real hot number.

DS: That's the Ducks - their drummer, Johnny Graviotto was in a latter day version of the Grape following the disintegration of the reformed Reprise band. The other Duck, Jeff Blackburn, also had a spell with one of the unrecorded Moby Grapes. Kinda 'Mosley, Moby, Grape & Young'!

JC: Clover once headlined over one version of the reformed Moby Grape at a club called Uncle Sam's in Sonoma County, north of Marin, just about two-three years ago. It had Jerry Miller, Peter Lewis, Bob Mosley and some short guy on drums, making it a four-piece. We actually headlined. It was a club we always packed out - and Grape requested to play with us! (Indicates look of astonishment.)

That was an unreal feeling. All of a sudden, Clover headlining over Moby Grape! We stuck around and caught their set; Mosley with a full beard, real long hair, big Parka, bluejeans and huge work boots, playing bass while everybody else in the band was looking so terribly self-conscious. They were really a shadow of their former selves, but on occasion showed they could still do it and came through with simply in-credible shit. It showed where they were really at - Mosley was singing like a bitch; he's real famous for his bass-guitar but he's a really great singer at the same time.

DS: Did you ever get to hear his solo album? It leaves Spence's album several light years behind.

JC: Yeah, I did... some very good stuff on it.

DS: I suppose that two names will always come up when talking about either San Francisco and/or the bass... Phil Lesh and Jack Casady.

JC: They both play some really incredible lines, weird stuff which isn't normally associated with the bass. I don't even think of those guys as bass players, more like melodic guitarists - I've always thought of Lesh like that. Casady is a German fool, man - he's great, a very very good technical musician. But I can't say that I've ever taken anything from those guys... I don't listen to them with regards to stealing licks. There are tons of bands in the Bay Area; the good bass players are the cats who jam all the time... in Berkeley, guys who follow around Tower Of Power... that school of music. Like, in Berkeley there are a lot of bands who play in a style very similar to Tower Of Power - a lot of those guys were playing that way long before Tower even started, only they never made it. Those type of bands hold some of the best musicians in the world. I believe that every city in the States has a whole ship-load of incredible musicians... I'm not knocking England at all... but I'll tell ya - in terms of the number of musicians, the States really has it. It's such a huge market. Record companies can just dip in there and come up with something... even in Boise, Idaho... and pick out two or three world-class musicains.

DS: Paul Revere came from Boise, Idaho!

JC: Really? (Laughs) I guesss there had to be an exception. Gregg Rolie from Santana also spent some time in there!

DS: (Mute stare of disbelief!)... Freddy Weller was also in a very late grouping of Revere and the Raiders, after the original people all got pissed off and left... He's really big in the U.S. country charts.

JC: I didn't know that! Christ, Freddy Weller's great. We have a great exchange of valuable information going on right this moment (laughs).

DS: I dare say that you listened to the cream of he Motown guys, too, in the early days they had a unique bass sound.

JC: Most bass players I've talked to, in rock'n'roll or whatever, always listen to the black cats; jazzz, rhythm and blues, funk and such, because that is bass-playing music, just as a player, not as a songwriter or as a singer or anything else. I think bass players and drummers in general tend to get a lot of their chops off guys who are continually experimenting, like Larry Graham. Wow - that thing with his thumb! I swear to God - it's like in "Even Cowgirls Get The Blues" - which you must read if you haven't already done so; it's your kinda book - the hero of the book is this chick, Cissy, who was born with really huge thumbs, so her trip was hitch-hiking around... a world champion of her sport. Anyway, Larry Gaham is very much the same. He just plays with this huge thumb (demonstrates) 'dum-dum, dum-dum, dum-dum' - really outrageous, and lead singing the entire time. He pioneered that technique and now almost every would-be funky bass player has copped it from him. I try not to do it myself, but it's such a wonderfully natural way of playing, and sounds so good... makes a bass sound like a lead instrument, which it can easily be in the hands of the right person. My absolute fave-rave is Jaco Pastorius. I just think he's the baddest-assed dude to ever hold an axe. He makes some sound which I just can't figure out at all (smiles)... just throws me for a loop. He's only 24 or 25, but then again I'm only 22 (!!), although my eyes are 65 and my liver is about 80 (laughs)!!

DS: How about Paul McCartney? You told me earlier how much you admired him...

JC: Well, the song which really made me want to play bass was something called "GTO" (forgets the words, so hums a few bars), I forget who actually made the record, but it had the heaviest bass I ever heard at that time. The Beach Boys later copped it; 'the surfin' sound'. Then the Beatles totally blew my head off; right outta the water, the first minute I heard of their music. I saw them on the Ed Sullivan Show, which was their first big acknowledgement in the States. They were already very famous in England, of course, and they were so fucking good. I remember watching on TV with my girlfriend at the time, she was just creamin' her pants! I was a little cynical at first - my bluegrass background - and then I was sucked right into it. The image was great, the music so damn good, and their singing was impeccable. They really were the best... still are the best as far as I'm concerned. I was into a lot of English music - I really got off on the Zombies for example, but I also listened to all that was happening on the American scene. I thought the Byrds were great, but I couldn't stand the Airplane for a long time, mostly because I knew some of the guys in the band...

DS: More than one person who knew them at that particular point in time will offer the information that, Jack Casady aside, the Airplane were not the most pleasant of people...

JC: ...I'll tell you something - a couple of those guys were really questionable. But really, I thought that their first two albums ("Takes Off" and "Surrealistic Pillow") were great, truly representative of what they were like on stage. They weren't that heavily psychedelic to begin with, just folk and pop orientated. They never got into any weirdo-style jamming and stuff live like the Dead would do, although Hot Tuna play structured blues-jams a lot. Jorma Kaukonen is a real fine acoustic guitarist, as if you didn't know! Casady's bass playing on "Somebody To Love" is classic - he was so loose and free, could jam like a motherfucker. Nobody could have played it better. That song though... Grace Slick used to be in the Great Society. Their bass player quit, to become manager for the Outfit; a guy named Bard Dupont.

DS: He was playing bass before Peter Vandergelder, presumably?

JC: Yeah, way before they ever recorded. They had been together less than a year. They were pretty big in San Francisco... could always pull a crowd.

DS: Well, at least Grace could...

JC: (Laughs) Well, anyhow, Bard quit. His girl, Michelle, and he both used to be totally into English 'Mod' fashion - plastic boots and black and white striped coats... zany. He actually wasn't that hot on bass, and besides, he felt the pressure was too great so he left and managed the Outfit; a great plus for us as it turned out as he was a good buddy of Bill Graham... that's how we got to know Bill. So they replaced Bard, they went on a little while more... their big songs were "Somebody To Love" and "White Rabbit". They were the high-points of the Great Society live, that's what made them. Then the Airplane got Grace, plus those two songs, and Jack really played his ass off for "Somebody To Love". Those songs made the Airplane, too, their only hit singles were those two ex-Great Society songs. Made Grace as well... plus she was a fox. I consider Gace Slick a verrrry foxy chick.

(Enter Alex Call, searching like a soul possessed for a little black book jam-packed with all sorts of 'beaver' information. The book belongs to Marcus, a Clover associate and stand-in drummer, but Alex isn't too worried about that. Locating the book, he takes his leave of us as abruptly as he entered, pausing for a moment only to inject a 'Hi mom' and a handful of obscene noises into the microphone.)

DS: Back to Clover for awhile... By the time you had "Clover" out on Fantasy, the initial San Francisco thrust had been compounded by later bands. The Mystery Trend, the Great Society were gone, and by now late signees like Steve Miller and Quicksilver had records out.

JC: The Clover albums on Fantasy never became part of the San Francico scene; we'd never been recognised as a San Francisco band even - except for over here in England and in other places like New York. But in San Francisco, Clover were seen as a Mill Valley band. We've always had a great acceptance in San Francisco; all the writers love us and we have a good following, but we are never mentioned in the same breath as, say, the Dead, although we are mentioned in the same breath as the Sons Of Champlin, as Clover and the Sons were the original Marin County bands, in fact they were around even before us. So now we are the lone surviving band from that era. The Sons recorded long before we did, though - they did some sessions for Trident and a single did find release. The cat who ran the studio, Frank Werber, used to manage the Kingston Trio, which is where the big bucks came from. He also worked with the Mystery Trend. He now runs a restaurant in Sausalito called The Trident... you must have heard of it, it's a legendary place. The studio itself was in the basement of a building on the corner of Columbus and Kearney, a very San Francisco-type piece of architecture. We actually recorded some stuff there; must have been some session or other.

DS: Talking of sessions, have you done much session work yourself? Bass players usually take up the majority of space in the want ad. sections.

JC: Me? I've done quite a lot of ads. - we in Clover all have actually - then there is the Norton Buffalo album, which is great - it'd still be great even if I never made the sessions (laughs); the Annie Greensprings song McFee and Huey told you about earlier (see DARK STAR 6). I did an interesting spot in an educational TV show for kids - a real great show; I've watched it and learned a lot... about how bridges are built and that kinda thing. The segment I was involved in was titled 'How Fender basses are made'. Can you believe that? For a kids' TV show? Blew me right out! So... it began showing the Philippinos or whatever cutting the trees down, the wood being brought into the Fender factory, getting cut into required lengths, put on a jig and holes being cut out for the pick-ups and knobs - all that shit, the neck being put on, then finally down to being strung. Then a guy tuning it, another guy selling it in a music store, then a guy actually playing it! That's where I came in. I had real long hair - longer than yours - no moustache... it looked great for the cameras and all that back-lighting routine and stuff. I did that one session for five hours, me with this Ted Nugent hair-do, all for a minute-and-a-half spot. I was working for AFTRA, which is the American Frederation for Television and Radio Actors - I had to join that union in order to do the show, so I made five hundred bucks for five hours' work. A hundred per hour! I was just hoping like hell it would go on all day. Then, there are a few things of a more recent nature I'm asked not to talk about. The Twiggy album is okay since that was... er... recorded in... Hilversum.

DS: I've heard lots of versions concerning your dealing with Phonogram and Nick Lowe... could you tell us your side of the story?

JC: Sure. We were down in LA playing at the Palomino club, North Hollywood. We were doing a gig with Rosalie and Joe Maphis; Merl Travis was in the audience. He did a drawing of me while I was on stage - he's an amateur cartoonist - I was singing a song called "Crying Holy Unto The Lord"... it turned out to be one of Merl's favourite songs, so he did this sketch of me singing and playing bass during that song. I had a funny knitted hat on at the time and he drew it as he saw it. His wife came up after our set and said, 'Merl would like you to have this drawing, and would like to come backstage and meet y'all'. We flippped - boiling - Merl Travis! I was really honoured. So he came back and we shucked and jived for about an hour-and-a-half, drank a whole bunch of drinks, got invited up to his house to shoot pool... all kinds of amazing things. Anyway, it happens that Pete Thomas, ex-Chilli Willi and current Elvis Costello, was playing with John Stewart in LA and he brought Nicky Lowe, Jake Riviera, and a bunch of other guys over to the Palomino. We were honestly great that night - very good, anyway. We played a lot of oldies and stuff, because they had requested them - they proved to be the most vocal part of the audience. They were screaming out "Keep On Trying"... "Love Is Gone"... superloud. We were blowing our minds over this. Then we realised they were English... we had heard that Brinsley Schwarz had done a few of our songs. We got Nicky up on stage on bass... I sat out... Peter on drums, and they did "Love Is Gone" with the rest of the band. Those cats knew the arrangement so fuckin' well it was absurd. We shucked and jived and talked. Nick Lowe came back to England and told Dave Robinson and Jake that they ought to sign us. Dave Robinson called us up. We said we'd think about it as we were in a kinda management situation at the time... at least we had a guy doing business for us. He never came up with anything 'til late in the day and that was just a bunch of horse-shit; a bad scene which later ended up with McFee and Alex walking out of a meeting... very uptight vibes with all kinds of squabbling and screaming. Lawyers. The guy involved eventually split to Michigan and almost at once the Feelgoods came into town. They called us up and we caught their act at Winterland, sat backstage, shucked and jived. The next day they weren't doing anything and we were playing a private party in Palo Alto, so we dragged them along to jam with us. Then the day following we were gigging at a club called McArthur's in San Anselmo, Marin County. We again brought the Feelgoods with us and everybody had a tremendous time; lots of booze and smokes and chicks. Lee Brilleaux was a big star with the ladies. They went back to England raving about us, especially Wilko. Robbo... Dave Robinson, that is... came out. In the meantime, Nigel Grainge had flown out specifically to see us - we did a little audition for him which blew his mind. He said he'd like to bring us over in about six months' time and sign us. We all thought, 'Wow... we're going to England,' and it was Robo who later phoned to tell us he pulled the deal through. Dave really flipped us out. We came over on the twenty-third of August, 1976, and the rest you know better than I do!

DS: Your first scheduled release since the cancelled single for PAC, was "Rainin' In My Heart"/"Chicken Funk". Then "Chicken Funk", though a different take, was the 'A' side with "Show Me Your Love" the flip... whose decision was all that? How do you feel about your promotion?

JC: "Rainin' In My Heart" was gonna be the 'A' originally, but Phonogram had the notion that maybe we shouldn't put out a ballad as a first single, which I thought was valid comment. So we put out "Chicken Funk", although I think that "Rainin' In My Heart" is a stronger tune. "Chicken Funk" was a little too novelty orientated; it always went over hugely in public because of the dance routine and stuff, but just like the Tubes, you can't really record the visual aspect. It's no slag against Phonogram - I really dig them - but I don't believe they handled the first album or single's campaign very well. We thought we would be dealing direct with Nigel Grainge, but we didn't as he left to form his own label (Ensign Records)... we almost went with him but in the end we didn't, for reasons and finances and stuff. But now we're very happy with Phonogram. "Unavailable" should have sold one helluva lot more than it did, I believe - it's a good album. It's an amazingly well-recorded, well produced first album with a lot of really strong material. But it didn't find mass acceptance in this country, mainly because of the 'new wave' syndrome, I'd imagine. The early tours we were booked on were a little bit suspect, because we really weren't hard rockers and we were out there with Thin Lizzy at the zenith of their career, when they were starting to bust out... then we went with Lynyrd Skynyrd - a great buch of guys, incidentally. But when we did our own dates in smaller venues it was just fantastic. The response was simply incredible - real 'encore city'; we were playing to our own crowd at last.

We always knock 'em dead... we really do give a shit to how the audience responds to us. The Graham Parker tour was much much better for us - we got our fair share of the encores. Unfortunately, by the time we got to London (The Rainbow), it was a pretty bad trip due to Alex's throat acting up.

DS: What you say about caring for your audience and the "Chicken Funk" dance routine performed by Huey and Sean strikes me as a unique facet to your live show. It really is a show... anything other than a six-week old corpse can't fail to get off. You must be conscious of all that.

JC: Hmm, yes indeed. It's entertainment - there is a visual thing going on... we are all very conscious of the way we look on stage... we try to put a sense of humour into the act. We attempt to make it like the band and our audience are both having a party in their own living room; make everyone feel as comfortable as possible. If we're feeling nervous and fucked-up it comes across... It's up to us to get the audience off.

  Huey & Sean Chicken Funkin'
Huey & Sean "Chicken Funkin'"

DS: Rusty Young of Poco mentioned to me that he felt that English and American audiences are very different in how they respond at concerts... that by comparison audiences her like to show how cool they are and just about sit on their hands!!

JC: True. English audiences I've found are different to those in the States in that they're not as willing to listen to support bands unless they have a big hype behind them, like with Southside Johnny. But good for him is what I say, because they really pulled it off... his band are musicians and not just posers. American audiences, though, usually give the support bands a listen - that's why we get a lot of shows featuring three to four bands... they can listen to up to four hours of music, wheras it seems in this country audiences are straight in and straight out; premature ejaculation. They don't seem to respond to ballads and things like that; it's an artform and not strict banging 'em on the head with a sledgehammer; Status Quo-style. They don't understand it because it's not insanely loud and doesn't have a totally insistent beat so that they can sit there and bash their fuckin' brains out on the seats in front of them. That's what they like to do in certain circles. Then there's this punk trip where audiences show aggro to the band - the greater the aggro, the better the gig! Dave Vanian from the Damned... if he doesn't come off stage completely gobbed on all over, he hasn't had a good gig. Even Graham Parker got gobbed on in Leicester! Jesus H. Christ! He ain't new wave. But these guys in the crowd were pogoin' like mutherfuckers, gobbing all over him - a sign of affection (laughs).

DS: Another thing that you tend to do which doesn't normally occur on English stages is your inviting others on stage to jam a few bars. You've had Brian Robertson from Lizzy, damn near half of the Southside Johnny band, Asleep At The Wheel, Martin Belmont and Andrew Bodnar from the Rumour, a guy from the Manfred Mann group, you've even had Phil Lynott dancing the Chicken Funk!

JC: We were shocked when we first came over here, because back in the States we used to drag everybody on stage to play along. Anyone who turned up at a Clover gig - the Doobie Brothers, Steve Miller, Boz, Elvin Bishop, whoever. Norton Buffalo would play an entire set with us because he's so quick in mind and ear. He can pick up what Huey's doing right away and can play harmonies to it... and then he'll sing beautiful, impeccable harmonies. He's phenomenal - it's real magic when Norton and Huey have fantastic harmonica battles; then hew throws some riffs to McFee, then McFee throws some more back at him. Over here, I found Brian Robertson of Thin Lizzy to be one of the better jammers around. A great guitar player - I respect him a lot as a musician; I've heard him sing along with solos from records like Barefoot Jerry albums, he knows them note-for-goddamn-note. He's a serious musician... a young punk... looks like a rock'n'roller, plays like a rock'n'roller. He's one of the few English guys, British guys, we've jammed with who can really get into it. It's not an art-form over here, wheras in the States it happens all the time. You don't think anything of Phil Lesh up on stage with you freaking around on bass at the River City club. It's fun - a break and a relief - fun for the audience and fun for the players; not the tightest thing in the world, but it doesn't matter as it's so immediate.

DS: It occured to me some time ago, that if Clover ever got round to putting out a live album - "The Last Days Of The Nashville" or something - it'd be great for you to record it with a bunch of guests. A super-session-type thing using all these amazing people like Brian, Norton and Southside Johnny and the Asbury Dukes.

JC: That'd be fuckin' great! "Chicken Funk", "La Bamba" and "Turn On Your Lovelight" with Johnny and his horns - shit!! Goddamn - that would be great! The stuff we did with Asleep At The Wheel, too - "Stand By Me"... we also did that with Nick Lowe singing lead at Dingwall's. Old songs, and things like "The Clover Breakdown". If Phil Lynott showed up, I'd hand him my bass for a blues song. But he doesn't like to do that - he feels a little out of his element or something, because he's used to fronting a band and likes to stay within his specific image. Most good American musicians don't worry about that kinda thing...

David Prockter

With special thanks to Andrew Lauder for digging the early Clover pic out of his files.


Next issue: We wrap it up with our hero commenting on Clover's future, live on the road, "Love On The Wire" and the fascinating story of Keith Olsen and "Chain Gaing". 'Westside' Johnny reveals all in the next episode... miss it at your peril.


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