A Walking Contradiction
Man claiming to be son of rock star John Cipollina comes clean
by Rick Levin
|Kenny Roberts. Photo: Rick Levin|
|John Cipollina Photo by Alan Blaustein.|
|John and his sister Antonia.|
Popular KSOW disk jockey and Cottage Grove resident Michael Cipollina has a confession to make: He is not, in fact, Michael Cipollina. His given name is Kenneth Michael Roberts, and he finally wants to come clean and tell his long, tortuous story.
For the better part of 20 years, Roberts — born and raised in Marin County, Calif., the son of an abusive cop father and a mother he describes as “disconnected” — has been telling people he is the biological offspring of late guitarist John Cipollina, whose bands include Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Dinosaurs.
The reasons driving Roberts’ deception are as varied and complex as life itself, and the outing of his secret — compelled in part by this paper’s investigation — has left this rangy, long-haired and well-spoken man with feelings of resignation, relief and remorse, though he claims he never meant to hurt a soul. “I’m not out to fuck anybody,” Roberts says. “I really feel I wasn’t hurting anybody, but I was hurting the family, and I’m sorry about that.”
The immediate question becomes: Why? An outgoing and charismatic and talented guy himself, why would Roberts adopt the persona of Cipollina’s son and then carry on the deception for years? “It’s sort of a haunting thing,” he says, comparing his need for such deception both to an addiction and a disease. Or perhaps Roberts’ life for the past couple of decades can be considered something of a compound error run amok; like that unreturned phone call or infidelity unrevealed, each passing day makes it harder to do the right thing, until at last it seems impossible to shake the original sin.
But that’s only part of the story. In order to comprehend Roberts, one has to reach deep into the man’s past as well as the past of John Cipollina himself.
John Cipollina, named among the 100 greatest guitarists of all time by Rolling Stone magazine, died of chronic pulmonary disease in 1989. His name may not be well known among the general public, but Cipollina certainly carries great stature among musicians and critics, many of whom consider him the most innovative and talented guitarist to emerge from the San Francisco music scene of the ’60s and ’70s — a scene that gave birth to such stalwarts as The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother and the Holding Company, to name but a few.
According to Roberts, his connection with Cipollina stretches back to his childhood in Corte Madera, Calif., when he and his friends, hanging out at the train tracks, crept closer and closer to a Spanish villa up the hill. “We always used to hear music coming out of the house,” Roberts recalls. “That’s when I got turned onto the whole scene.”
The live music pouring through the stucco walls of the villa was being made in part by John Cipollina. Roberts, already obsessed with music, walked up and introduced himself. “He left a burn mark,” Roberts says.
Jump forward 10 years, to November 1982, at which point Roberts had become “a seasoned Deadhead.” At the famous Old Waldorf in San Francisco, he went to see Cipollina playing with superstar band the Dinosaurs, and after the gig he “met John again,” after which the two men “started getting closer.” When Cipollina’s roadie at the time, a friend of Roberts’ from high school, decided to get married, he suggested Kenny take over his job. This, according to Roberts, was in late ’83 or early ’84.
“From that point we were just inseparable,” he says, adding that it wasn’t uncommon for Cipollina to call his friend up in the middle of the night for, say, a ride to the grocery store. “I wish I could prove this, but he [Cipollina] always said if he had a kid, he’d want it to be me.”
Antonia Cipollina, John’s sister, might have something to say about that. She numbers herself among the friends, family and business associates stung by Roberts’ longstanding deception, no matter what his reasons might be. Antonia, a classical piano teacher and lifelong Bay Area resident, says that years back she heard from a friend in Eugene that Roberts had “decided he was going to become John’s son,” a claim that she is absolutely certain contains not one scintilla of logical or biological truth.
“I lived with my brother,” Antonia says.
“I took care of my brother. There’s no
way. John did not have children. Period.”
What hurts her most is the damage Roberts’ claim has inflicted on her family and her brother’s reputation. “John was just a laid back, wonderful player who doesn’t deserve this,” Antonia says, adding that she’s “shocked” Roberts has gotten away with it for so long. “It’s time to stop, and I think he knows it’s time to stop.”
Indeed, among the actions put in motion that have convinced Roberts finally to “stop” was a “to whom it may concern” letter sent by Antonia to local saxophonist Paul Biondi. In the notarized letter, dated April 19 of this year, she writes that “many a musician in Marin County knows the truth about Kenny’s desire to gain jobs and notariaty [sic] by using a false identity; in other words USING JOHN! ... My family is appalled by his sheer nerve and disrespect of a wonderful man and brother.” Strong words, to be sure, and ones that seemed to have cut Biondi to the quick.
One of the founding members of Musicians Emergency Medical Association (memafund.org), a local nonprofit that provides medical help for uninsured musicians, Biondi was in the process of organizing a fundraising concert in Cottage Grove when a sponsor put him in touch with Michael, “son of John Cipollina.” Through a series of conversations and coincidences — involving such people as guitarist Nick Gravenites, who played with Cipollina, and one of Cipollina’s former roadies — it began to come to light that perhaps Roberts wasn’t exactly who he claimed to be.
“The only Michael Cipollina I know of is John’s twin sister,” says Gravenites in an email to Biondi.
“So now we got all this happening, and I’m starting to panic,” Biondi says. “I’m doing business with some very respectable business people, and here I’ve told them he was the son of John Cipollina. I’m seeing red at this point. We gotta stop this guy.”
What particularly galls Biondi, beyond the fact that he was conned, is that Roberts is “casting a bad light on the name” of Cipollina, “one of our country’s finest guitar players.” Beyond that is the ethical consideration that Roberts’ “business endeavors haven’t been forthright,” a fact that he hopes doesn’t hurt the cause of MEMA.
“He is such a wanna-be,” Biondi says about Roberts. “His ego is so massive. I thought I had a bad ego. This guy should coach the ego Olympic team.”
For Biondi, there’s a lesson to be learned in Roberts’ public outing. “If you bust a guy stealing a car and he knows he’s going to lose a foot, this will send the word to other people.”
Roberts still has both his feet, but the losses he’s suffered since word has got out recently about his true identity — and beyond any question of justice — have left him devastated. He’s resigned his position at KSOW, where he hosted the public station’s popular “Sounds of San Francisco” program. For the record, he chalks his quitting up to his displeasure with the station’s artistic and business direction, and says it’s only coincident with recent revelations. Beyond that, however, is the existential crisis of having torn away a mask that has been in place for going on two decades. Roberts’ current situation is not less tragic for being self-inflicted. When asked what he plans to do now, he responds abruptly: “Move.”
And, if the abstract outlines of his history can be traced and analyzed for motive, ultimately it is only Roberts himself who can provide clues to the deep psychology of his choices. The question remains: Why pretend to be Michael Cipollina?
In part, he ascribes his long-ago decision to assume the Cipollina guise as a “sort of currency” giving him access to the sometimes forbidding inside world of musicians. Roberts says that, in introducing himself as Cipollina’s son to musicians, he would often witness a strong response of awe and respect in his audience. “When they thought that I was his son, their eyes would light up,” he says with enthusiasm. “Maybe I went under cover.”
There was also his desire, however minimal or modest, to keep Cipollina’s name alive in popular culture. In using the persona of Michael Cipollina on KSOW and in other venues, Roberts feels he was able to represent a moment in history threatened by the general amnesia of modern sound-byte culture, where today’s big news is tomorrow’s black hole of forgetting. That’s how strongly he feels about Cipollina and the entire music scene he was part of. “All I was trying to do was keep the candle lit,” he says. “I do not see the family doing anything to keep that flame lit.”
On a darker and more personal level, there are the facts of Roberts’ upbringing as well as the circumstances surrounding John Cipollina’s death. “He was more of a father than my real father,” he says of Cipollina, adding that the guitarist, unlike his actual father (who died in 1974), would open up to him emotionally. “He treated me so well. Once someone like that is in your life, it doesn’t leave you.”
Roberts, for reasons not entirely clear to him, was barred from participating in Cipollina’s wake; he does admit to being pretty messed up over his friend’s death, and there were allegations by the family that he had stolen some of Cipollina’s equipment — though charges were never pressed and Roberts rejects the idea as “ridiculous.” At any rate, this banishment deeply hurt him, especially as he is fond of the entire Cipollina family. “I didn’t have a chance to tell my side of the story to them,” he says.
“I have no family left on the planet,” Roberts adds. “I have nobody.”
He maintains he never financially profited from Cipollina’s name, but Roberts says he regrets the pain he’s inflicted, especially on the Cipollina family. “I do feel bad about some things,” he says. “I fooled some people.”
In the end, however, Roberts may feel most hurt by the opportunities he’s now lost, including the opportunity to share his love of music through his radio program. He claims that when he first decided to start posing as Cipollina’s son, he never thought it would amount to much more than a good chance to share a story or gain access to a concert or two. Recently, however, he has had offers to syndicate his radio show — offers he’s rejected because, legally, he knew he couldn’t present himself as someone he is not.
“I never thought these avenues would bloom into that,” Roberts says. “If anything, there’s my penance.”