The Ducks | Creative Commons
By Joe Livernois
The forces of nature and the fate of neutrinos seemed to collide for seven short and glorious weeks in 1977 with the emergence and the sudden disappearance of The Ducks in Santa Cruz. The Ducks were a rock supergroup formed before supergroups were a thing. They emerged from the shell that was once the Jeff Blackburn Band, and it featured Blackburn; Bob Mosley, an original member of Moby Grape; and Johnny Carviotto, who had played with Arlo Guthrie and Ry Cooder, among others.
Oh. And Neil Young.
It all started the way these things never start. Young had just moved to Santa Cruz, promising to stay as long as Santa Cruz stayed cool. By then he was a rock legend, having been the heart and soul of Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young before fronting his own band, Crazy Horse. Jerry Miller, who had also played for Moby Grape, was working with various musicians in Santa Cruz and Young somehow found his way on stage with Blackburn and Miller, who he knew from the Fillmore days in San Francisco. They were mostly noodling around, jamming here and there.
According to Geoffrey Dunn’s account, carried in the Santa Cruz Good Times in 2017, a bunch of local musicians took the stage at the Back Room bar in the New Riverside Hotel for Miller’s birthday party. Among the players were Blackburn, Carviotto, Mosley and Dale Ockerman, the keyboardist for Snail, another legendary band of the era and who would go on to be a key member of the Doobie Brothers. Young came out to play the final three songs, Dunn said. And The Ducks took off from there.
But Young was under contract with Crazy Horse, and that contract specified that he could only tour with them, so The Ducks had to confine themselves within Santa Cruz city limits to avoid the appearance of a “tour.” Bad news for The Ducks, perhaps, but great news for Santa Cruz music fans.
The Ducks developed an underground following of fans who quacked and blew into duck calls they hung around their necks while waiting for shows to start. The band played every juke joint, night club and veterans hall in town, sometimes playing two sets a night, with cover charges of $3 or less. Their appearances were purposely low-key; everyone in town knew that Young would jump ship if word spread, and the local venues got junked up with hordes of out-of-town fans. Sometimes shows were free to fans who knew a secret password. Fans were never sure where they’d be next.
“It was a wild time,” Dunn wrote. “There was no advertising for any of the club concerts, as I recall; news traveled simply by word of mouth.”
Music fan Lane Wallace remembers seeing The Ducks at the New Riverside, which also had a Chinese restaurant with a club room in the back. The band had done its first formal show as The Ducks at the restaurant earlier in the month, and they returned for their fourth and fifth show. “I remember Neil Young acting like a member of the band, rather than a star,” Wallace said. “He did ‘Mr. Soul’ about the third song and it was outstanding.”
According to an account of The Ducks on the Los Angeles Music Awards website, the set list for a Ducks show was typically democratic. “All four could sing and had material, so they took turns throughout the sets in a strict manner,” according to the site. They also featured an instrumental guitar showcase called “Windward Passage,” which was originally scored as a psychedelic/surf song but grew into more of a traditional Young guitar piece.
While a local secret, legendary rock writer Cameron Crowe got wind of what was going on in Santa Cruz. He showed up at the Catalyst one Friday evening and watched The Ducks and the band’s fans. “The marquee simply read: DUCKS,” he wrote two years later in a classic Rolling Stone cover story called “Neil Young: The Last American Hero.” Inside the Catalyst, Crowe was bemused by what he called “the dull roar of zoo people quacking and blowing duck calls.”
Crowe reported that Young adopted Santa Cruz as his hometown, hung around the local joints and blended in with the scene. The Ducks was part of his assimilation, and the locals were okay with it. “For a buck, you came in and Neil Young burned up the frets, then joined you at the bar for a drink.”
The Ducks were not without some rock ‘n’ roll cliché drama, apparently. According to the legend, Craviotto enjoyed his beverages, to the point that he passed out behind the drum kit during intermission at one show. Craviotto, who was known as “Johnny C,” was a local boy, a Santa Cruz surfer who died in 2016.
And then, just like that, The Ducks were done. Someone burglarized Young’s rented house and he lost a number of instruments and other items of sentimental value. Also, word spread about Young’s new supergroup, and out-of-town “Duck Hunters” started jamming venues, demanding Young play his old perennial hits. Watching Young in an intimate setting is special, but Young gets legendarily irritated — for good reason — to hear loud-mouthed goobers yelling out “Cinnamon Girl” between every song. And it was happening all the time at later Duck shows.
Lane Wallace said he expected the band would be around a bit longer. After seeing them at New Riverside, he said he planned to see them again sometime. “But by the time I got around to it, they were done,” he said.
The journey of The Ducks was chronicled by Pat Mead, a former Santa Cruz resident who posted his memories on several fan sites. He said that the band’s performances became more elaborate and, “by late summer, the performances sometimes included an elaborate A/V presentation on screens above the stage.”
“Around Labor Day The Ducks played before a larger audience in a surprise appearance at an outdoor show at (Cabrillo) Community College and then shared a bill (no pun intended) with Moby Grape at a benefit show at the Santa Cruz Civic,” Mead wrote. The show was a benefit for something called the Santa Cruz Parents Association and tickets sold for $5. “Sadly, the benefit turned out to be their final performance with Neil Young.”
Young stopped showing up, but the band kept doing gigs for a bit, holding out hope that he might return. The surviving members brought on Ockerman and guitarist Tim Goodman (who went on to work with Southern Pacific) to fill what Ockerman called “the huge hole” formed by Young’s departure.
“(I) wasn’t as famous,” Ockerman told Voices of Monterey Bay, “so (it) petered out.”
In all, the band played 22 shows, and each of them made an impression. But Voices of Monterey Bay has selected the Aug. 5 show at the funky now-defunct club called the Crossroads Club in the Sash Mill for inclusion on Voices’ Top 25 list. By some accounts, the Crossroads Club show was longer than the others, featuring 28 songs, and it might best reflect the vibe of The Ducks.
Have something to say about this story? Send us a letter or leave a comment below.