In the summer of 1968 I clipped a small photograph of a birthday party scene from Teenset Magazine, one of several illustrations in a profile on the Quicksilver Messenger Service. The image was of the band and their wives standing around a picnic table holding up their three babies. The lone bachelor of QMS is sitting on the picnic table bench with a big smile. Everyone is smiling for the camera, beaming actually. Proud parents exhibiting their brand new offspring. All these years later, I still possess the photo. Its the worse for wear and has been transferred from several different scrapbooks. Now, Shelley Duncan, the young woman in the center of that photograph, has written her memoir reflecting upon her decade spent with the Quicksilver Messenger Service.
Suddenly our "good girl" Shelley has become a "bad girl", at least by using the moral measuring tape of 1965. Her girlfriends are covering for her when she is staying at Duncan's apartment. Illicit sex is the topic of the day. She's smoking cigarettes, and skipping school becomes a habitual thing. So much so that Merced high school doesn't even know she exists. She has slipped through the cracks into the eager arms of rock & roll. She loves it. Any and all of this behavior could've had her branded a lowly outsider if discovered. If there was an award presented for being the "most sincere "bad girl" in California of 1965", Shelley Eidson would have won.
She loves her rock & roller one hundred percent and is totally loyal to him, though his feelings are ambiguous. The excitement and adrenalin rush of the scene has her hooked. Here is a bit of the flavor of that local scene:
"Jerry Lamb (drummer Greg Elmore's girlfriend) and I started going to the gigs with the band. We loved it. Here we were, two young women from a dinky do-nothing town, suddenly cast among guitar playing, longhaired, Beatle-booted, cussing, smoking musicians. It was exciting, heady stuff. It made me feel important to be able to come into the dance hall carrying Gary's guitar for him. At this point in time I loved going backstage, knowing the other girls in the audience saw me. I imagined they were jealous, wishing they knew the band as Jerry and I did."
In the wink of an eye the scene evaporates, as Shelley's family decides to move to Los Angeles. She fights, kicking and screaming, until she is allowed to stay in Merced. But the Brogues soon disintegrate, unable to deal with both minor and major issues. Duncan and Elmore, seeking more lucrative gigs, pick up and move to San Francisco. Shelley, only sixteen years old, must leave this alternative world she loves so passionately. All these events force her south to Los Angeles, back into the clutches of her family.
What's the girl to do? Our heroine meets Rochelle Dolly, who also habitually skips her high school classes. Imagine two teenage girls sitting around, smoking cigarettes and listening to rock & roll on the hi-fi. Dolly's mom is gone all day and they have the run of the place, two bad girls looking for something to do. So they conspire to hit the road and travel to San Francisco. They fabricate cover stories for their families, and on a Friday night head north via bus. It delivers them as far as Modesto. Lack of funds forces them to hitchhike the rest of the way.
Early Saturday morning, in October 1965, they arrive in San Francisco and search for Duncan's basement apartment. Shelley falls in love with the energy of the city. After tiny Merced and chilly Los Angeles this new city feels like paradise. Finally after much trekking, they succeed in finding the North Beach basement apartment. Reunited with Duncan, sensual bliss temporarily holds reality at bay. However when the sun rises the next day, reality intrudes its ugly head. The girls are penniless and need to get back to Los Angeles. Duncan can't help. So the girls telephone their parents, with mixed results. Dolly's mom wires her the needed bus fare. Shelley's mom is furious at yet another deceit, and she is exhausted by her daughter's escapades. "You just forget about your family!" she exclaims and hangs up on Shelley. Without skipping a beat, Shelley celebrates. This girl was ready.
So, ready-steady-go! A weekend lark fast forwards into a real life adventure. On November 6, Shelley Eidson and Gary Duncan are married in Reno, Nevada. Even before our heroine had arrived in North Beach other personalities were being attracted to this basement apartment. While at the "Tribute to Dr. Strange" concert at the Longshoremen's Hall on October 16, Duncan and Elmore had been introduced to guitarists John Cipollina and Jimmy Murray, and within days, were rehearsing together. Shortly thereafter, Cipollina's folk musician friend David Freiberg was added on bass. Thus Quicksilver Messenger Service came into being.
December 1965 is a pivotal month. The band loses its basement apartment but moves into a rickety houseboat in Sausalito, and is starting to perform around the city. This is the pattern maintained for several years. Constantly rehearsing and gigging in the city and all around California, and repeatedly on the move searching for better living conditions for the ever expanding Quicksilver family. David Freiberg marries Girl (Julie) Dryden, Greg Elmore weds Jerry Lamb. Not long after that, the females are all pregnant. Needless to say, conflicts arise even before the tiny babies make their arrivals.
I don't doubt for a second that Gary Duncan loved Shelley when they were married. But the marriage element didnt alter his sexual promiscuity, although from time to time he would moderate his habits. This was the "Swinging Sixties," and he was in a band, with young females tempting him with luscious forbidden fruit almost every night of the week. What was a handsome, charismatic, and slightly egotistical young man to do? Gradually the seeds of doubt were planted and a nervous Shelley the result.
Summer 1967: Shelley takes baby Heather for a weekend visit with her family in Los Angeles. During this absence, Gary has a weekend fling with a woman named Joanie who works the refreshment counter at the Fillmore Auditorium. The affair takes place in Gary and Shelley's own bed. Quite innocently, Shelley meets Joanie the next weekend and introduces herself as Gary Duncan's wife. Shocked to discover that Gary is married and has a child, Joanie confides in Shelley about the fling. This shock leads to great disillusionment and dismay. The women become lifelong friends.
The developing relationships among the women is the heart and essence of this intimate memoir. The building of these friendships became their structure, their emotional network, their suit of armor. This was especially true as Quicksilver grew in popularity. Young women descended upon the band like bees to honey. At times, the QMS wives had to confront these backstage females and protect their turf.
The issue here is that for the musicians, the music was first and foremost. They were husbands and fathers, but those factors were secondary to the music. The second issue was that all behavior within the social institution of the band was left uncriticized. Each band member knew that eventually he would act out in some rude or rash or bizarre manner. He would need cover. By not making critical judgments of the others, he also protected himself in the process. Thus there was an umbrella protection for all uncouth or unethical behavior.
This would've worked had Quicksilver been a solid organization before the women arrived. But the opposite was true. Shelley, Jerry and Julie were a part of the organization before the band even had a name, before the roadies, before the managers and the record companies. They helped with loading up the equipment, they soothed the men upon their return after the performances. In essence they were "fire sisters", who would do anything to support and protect their men and Quicksilver. They would have been superhuman to save it.
Gary Duncan and Dino Valente become the great destroyers of the Quicksilver Messenger Service family. Claiming QMS had grown musically stale, Duncan left the band the first day of the year in 1969. I don't believe Duncan's problems were with the music. More likely, he grew tired of a democratic institution. Duncan wanted total control.
With Duncan gone, Quicksilver recruited Nick Gravenites and pianist Nicky Hopkins and made their most sophisticated album "Shady Grove." The album was an almost seamless synthesis of jazz, country, folk, classical and rock and roll. It was pure multi-layered edgy bliss, and one of the great underrated rock and roll albums. The music on "Shady Groves" proves the QMS without Duncan was performing beautifully. Meanwhile, Duncan and Valente accomplished nothing musically.
Near the end of 1969, Quicksilver reunited with Duncan who insisted that Valente should also be in the band. Against better judgment, this was agreed to. Like the old cliche about nice guys finishing last, QMS was too nice and too polite to say "No" to Duncan's demands. They essentially put weapons in the hands of their own assassins. Reuniting and its entanglements would also destroy all the marriages.
Dino Valente was a toxic personality, vain and arrogant, graced with an inability to detect his own personal short comings. Brutal in his dealings with others, he left behind him a path of human wreckage. Duncan, perhaps in search of a father figure, became a Valente clone. The same haircuts, the same clothing style, and he would mimic Valente's singing style. This is what Shelley thought about this change:
"I hated the way my husband's voice changed. He's always had a funky, down-to-earth, rock and roll growl. But now his singing, Under Valente's overbearing influence, had a copycat tone. I missed Gary's sexy renditions of "Back Door Man," and "Who Do You Love." I'd try to talk to Gary about this issue but he didn't want to hear it. The forest for the trees, you know."
The next step in QMS's evolution would signify the exits of Nicky Hopkins and John Cipollina, who would depart October 1970, and a bit later David Freiberg. This same shake up would also involve the eventual dissolution of QMS marriages as well. On the suggestion of Valente, Quicksilver recorded their next album in Hawaii. The situation meant being there for three months. During this time period the wives were exiled in San Francisco. They were not welcome, and the bachelor lifestyle on the island built a wall between the married couples. The resultant album "Just For Love" was weirdly dedicated to the groupies in Hawaii, by name. Obviously the married men had lost their grip on reality, and common sense was tossed out the window.
At this point Shelley, Jerry and Julie saw the light. More like a thunderbolt, a lightning strike. The women loved their men, but they had their children and loved them more. They wanted to protect and raise them in a healthy, happy environment. Shelley's memoir is as much about alternative families and empowerment of women as it is about rock and roll. Left on their own, their childrens needs as well as their own became a priority. After years of being subservient to male needs, the fog cleared and they could indeed discern the forest from the trees. All the changes happening between the men and women in the microcosm of the Quicksilver were mirrors of our new emerging liberated world. Being a part of the vanguard, they felt the pleasures deeper and likewise the pain, but they all emerged stronger with character and integrity intact.
This is a marvelous memoir because we've never had a rock and roll memoir like it before. Shelley Duncan is not part of the industry, and she rarely uses typical rock and roll jargon. This is one person's homey, intimate view of what it felt like to be a major part of a very famous rock and roll band, during a very legendary time period. Her book is refreshing in that it is so down to earth and straight forward. There is none of the typical myth-making that swallowed the Grateful Dead. In truth, the Quicksilver Messenger Services fast, streamlined energy was always the perfect antidote to the Grateful Dead. A good example of this is Shelleys description of attending one of the now legendary "Acid Tests" and leaving early because she was bored. We need more personal memoirs like this!