PAPA JOHN’S BLUES
Through the songs of The Mamas & The Papas John Phillips
was one of the writers whose work best defines the late 1960’s.
It was an era his harmonies and lyrics illuminate. And whose
complex and often contradictory moral-codes he comments on
– in ways more perceptive than could have been suspected at
the time. But although he died in 2001, the 1960’s
was also the era that really destroyed him…
‘I USED TO LIVE IN NEW YORK CITY…’
‘…sprinkling magic dust over a grooving generation…’
(Richard Goldstein on John Phillips in ‘New York Magazine’ 1967)
John Phillips died around the same time the TV-manufactured Hear’Say group were reducing one of his most era-defining songs – “Monday Monday”, to slick video choreography. Perhaps it’s just as well he didn’t live to see it. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. John Phillips was a shining wastrel devoured by his own celebrity. A beautifully damaged freak of scuffed magnificence, consumed by the hedonism his genius gifted him with. He was responsible for creating some of the most gorgeous vocal harmonies ever bequeathed to Pop. And like Beach Boy Brian Wilson, like Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett, like Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green, its excesses first wasted, then wound up destroying him.
The Mamas & The Papas – the primary vehicle for his songs, happened during the couple of mid-decade years following the Byrds and Bob Dylan-led US retaliation to the British invasion. In a microcosm of what happened to American folkies after the Beatles. And it lasted until immediately before the full paisley avalanche of psychedelic Hippiedom swirled it all on to yet another level. When ‘turning on’ replaced the nuances of sexual allusion as the major mode of the Rock ‘n’ Roll code. But this brief space of years form a unique window in American music where groups like Lovin’ Spoonful, Simon & Garfunkel, the Turtles and the Beau Brummels were loosening up a rigidly conformist scene with their gentle Beatnik-Folk oddness, infusing a dumbly numbed US culture with a new throb of life, when ‘everything seems new and interesting and commercially successful’ (yes, all those things can go hand in hand in hand!).
And the Mamas & Papas were as visually bizarre as they were sub-culturally innovative. See them onstage at the ‘Monterey Pop Festival’, in long colourful kaftans and robes, lots of beads and flowers. Tall gangly 6’4” pen-smith John in floppy hat, droopy moustache and acoustic guitar – a man who critic Richard Goldstein calls ‘the most elusive head in Rock’, and Lilian Roxon calls ‘Every-King’. Alongside long-haired waif-beautiful Michelle – who would eventually appear nude with Rudolf Nureyev in Ken Russell’s ‘Valentino’ (1977) and remain married to Warren Beatty for one entire week. A pairing incongruously mismatched to clear-voiced regular guy Denny Doherty – swaying on-stage as though floating on notes. And full-bodied full-voiced Mama Cass Elliott, the ‘Every-Queen Earth Mother’ with a voice somewhere between melody, harmony, and instrumentation, who Donovan hymned about in his paean to the ‘Fat Angel’. You couldn’t make this stuff up. These are times worth reliving.
The hits – and there are plenty, have been so frequently repackaged across the years that there are now far more Mamas & Papas anthologies than there ever were original albums. Yet they fail to include other, just as culture-rocking examples of Phillips’ compositional flair. After all, it was he who wrote “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair)” as a celebration of the newly emerging Flower-Power social phenomenon. It became what ‘New Musical Express’ journalist Charles Shaar Murray calls ‘the single most powerful piece of propaganda for ‘Frisco – that semi-earthly paradise of satori-and-salvation through the magic of Rock and Roll’. It was all that, and more. Yet John deemed it ‘inappropriate’ for the Mamas & Papas to be seen opportunistically jumping the psychedelic bandwagon themselves. So he gifted what was to be one of his most commercial assets to Scott McKenzie, for whom the song blossomed into a global anthem transmitting its viral free-loving soft drug-induced peacenik vision across the airwaves of the world. From its Haight-Ashbury nexus to points as geographically distant, but as up for seduction, as Berlin and Birmingham, all along what was to become the Hippie trail to India, then Paris and Hull – where I was grokking it all in hypnotised amazement. And all points beyond.
The only next stage beyond that point for the Mamas & Papas was the closing album, ‘The End Of The First Golden Era’ (October 1967) – a title hinting at the eventual, inevitable, dawning of a second golden era. Which was destined never to materialise. Instead, there’s only the predictable tragedy of paranoia, addiction, drug-busts, failed group re-launches, and lethargy. Until now. When John Phillips is dead…
‘JOHN AND MITCHIE WERE GETTING KINDA ITCHY…’
‘I didn’t write it, I didn’t publish it, I didn’t produce it,
and I didn’t release it – I just like it’
(Andrew Loog Oldham takes out a half-page ad
in ‘NME’ recommending “California Dreamin’”)
Once was a time, I thought – with a few allowances for poetic licence…
Periodic re-immersions in its Blues and R&B roots helped ground 1960’s Rock at gut-level – in a space just outside the shallow Pop mainstream. In exactly the same way various strands of the Folk tradition also percolated their ethnic alternate-value anti-commercial consciousness-streams to expand its vocabulary. Not only the pre-industrial ‘Childe Ballad’ tales of Levellers, poachers, Hootenannies and Daemon Lovers, but more subversively the political hobo ‘wandering boot-heel’ minstrels of the Rambling Jack Eliot, Pete Seeger – and especially Woody Guthrie Beat-strain. Subsequent waves of bands who extract their styles from within the vectors of these sixties-modes... and then bands who model themselves on bands who’d already modelled themselves on the sixties, like repeated video copies-of-copies, lose that original sharpness and clarity of definition – and lack these validating gut-inputs. So the story begins, as the autobiographical hit single “Creeque Alley” succinctly tells it all, with John and Mitchie (John Phillips and his long-time partner Holly Michelle Gilliam) working as founder-member-parts of the New Journeymen folk trio, but ‘getting kinda itchy just to leave the Folk Music behind’. She’s a wide-eyed sixteen. He’s already twenty-five.
John Phillips’ unfolding story was still pretty-much new then. But in the space of a few years there would be a thousand raddled muso’s telling variants of it. As a still later single narrates, John and Michelle were living in New York City where ‘outside my window was a steeple, with a clock that always said twelve-thirty.’ The image, frozen time, frozen lives, is a striking one. He’s there, making up barely a living wage from photo-shoot modelling assignments for ‘True Detective’ and ‘Personal Romance’ magazines, cast as ‘a corpse sprawled on the floor or a mass murdered coming through a window.’ But the Greenwich Village Folkie community, centred around the ‘Night Owl’, is a vibrant one, where ‘in a Coffee House (John) Sebastian sat’ with ‘Zal and Denny’ (Yanovsky and Doherty) working for a penny.’ Meanwhile, Cassandra Elliott was hitchhiking to NYC.
Edgy days too, located in politically eerie years. The Cuban missile crisis. B52’s over Hanoi. An unsettling half-apocalyptic nuclear angst in the air that touches and alters everything… then there’s the Kennedy murder. Songwriter Tim Rose tells me how Cass Elliott once ‘phoned him, urging ‘turn on the TV’. Not a specific channel, just ‘turn on the TV.’ Because every channel is running the same story. The John F Kennedy shooting in Dallas. A news-wide uniformity that – as Rose points out, would not happen again until 11th September 2001. John Phillips was on a ‘Hootenany’ tour as part of the Journeymen group, on the tour-bus, when he heard of the Kennedy shooting, ‘we had days earlier left one America divided by racist insanity, by nightfall we were pulling into another America united by grief…’
In that past-time, Tim Rose was part of the Big Three with Cass (Ellen Naomi Cohen) – and Denny (Denis Gerard Stephen Doherty). She soon splits Denny away to form The Mugwumps, interacting briefly with (Jim) Roger McGuinn. Both early line-ups leave recorded evidence that emerged on vinyl – and CD, once their component parts have made it as elements of other, bigger names. Because ‘make-up break-up everything is shake-up.’ A BBC-2 ‘Rock Family Tree’ (broadcast in September 1998) attempts to unravel it all genealogy-wise with interviews and archive footage. The gauche slightly uncomfortable appearance of the participants legitimised by the strength of their songs. Phillips disbands The Journeymen, to form the New Journeymen with Denny and his now-wife. Sebastian links with Zal to form what will become the Lovin’ Spoonful, while soon ‘Michelle John and Denny (are) getting very tuneful,’ their close-harmonies owing something to 1950’s Do-Wop vocal groups, but going on to become prime-signifiers of the decade’s Folk-revival.
The final connection, while gravitating west on an American Express card to a low-rent St Thomas vacation in the Virgin Islands, is when they’re joined by Cass. They consume copious amounts of the new magic elixir – LSD, taking their acid ‘maiden flight’ together. ‘Creeque Alley’ is a bar for the resident drop-outs, and a meeting place for getting to know your chemist. Soon the money runs out. Broke, busted, disgusted. The summer inhales. And holds its breath. Michelle and Denny are into an escalating flirtation. Much to Cass’ chagrin, ‘cos she’s also fixated on him. Then Cass gets accidental concussion from a falling piece of lead piping which softens the stridency of her vocal range. Supposedly for the better. Until Michelle takes to playing craps and throws seventeen straight passes, enough to raise their return fare home.
But from freezing in wintry NY while pining for the West Coast sunshine, the scene is geographically relocating all around them. Between the years 1965 and ’70 there would be lots of weird and strange sounds filtering across from LA, a heavy line-up of Buffalo Springfield, Byrds, Beach Boys, Arthur Lee’s Love, Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, Captain Beefheart, Doors, Joni Mitchell, Flying Burrito Brothers, Mike Nesmith… Mamas & Papas. Already in LA ‘McGuinn and (Barry) Maguire couldn’t get no higher / but that’s what they were aiming at’ as first “Mr Tambourine Man”, then Maguire’s designer-protest chart hugely.
“Eve Of Destruction” – surely the most blatant of the imitators who, as Dylan later complained, ‘robs me blind’, gave rugged doom-sayer Barry Maguire, and Dunhill records a monster no.1 single. ‘We recorded it on a Thursday, and the following Monday it was all over the radio.’ So it demands an immediate tie-in album. And needing additional input, Maguire determines to re-connect his coal-heaver voice with the old Folkie network. He talks to Cass on the phone. Then sets up introductions for Phillips’ fledgling group with LA music bigwig label-boss and Dunhill-producer Lou Adler, drawing the as-yet still un-named foursome into the Barry Maguire project both as backing musicians and source-material. Together they produce what Charles Shaar Murray affectionately calls a dumb-as-hell album hitting the instant-sincerity button with relevance-to-order. And while – for John Phillips, the Maguire link-up foreshadows further collaborations such as “Once Upon A Painted Ocean” (quoting Coleridge), lifted as the 1965 follow-up single, more importantly it fore-illuminates their own succession of hits as ‘California Dreamin’ is becoming a reality...’ – in the eerie light of glory-by-association.
Maguire’s version of John Phillips’ song “California Dreamin’” – is side one track two on that 1965 ‘Precious Time’ album. It ‘came out so good that John took me out into the hall of Western Recording Studios and said ‘listen, we’d like to release this as our first single’ and I said ‘John, it’s your song’’ (as Maguire told ‘Rock ‘n Reel’ no.28). So they lift the backing track, substitute Maguire’s gravel lead vocal with Doherty’s clean tenor purity, add Bud Shanks’ flute solo, and… adopt a name from Hell’s Angels slang. The story goes that Cass was into a one-way shout-along with a TV-screened ‘Les Crane Show’ interview with Sonny Barger of the local Angels’ chapter. One of them brags ‘we call our women Mamas.’ So Cass interjects ‘well we got Mamas in our group, and we got Papas.’ John joins in – ‘yeah, we could be called the Papas & the Mamas.’ But Cass and Michelle weren’t about to accept that order of priority, so insist on a titular transposition.
Paraphrasing Byron, John ‘woke up one morning at the top of the mountain’, and found himself famous. In England, ‘Disc’ journalist Penny Valentine reviewed the single twice – first, dismissively following a superficial listen, then the following week, after further consideration, as ‘Record of the Week’. Its transatlantic Top.3 status is confirmed when “Monday Monday” – with its ‘hymn-like G-major opening harmonies’, climbs even higher, and more hits follow... suddenly, the Mamas & Papas are summer, flower-empowered with poppy seeds blowing in a warm and indecently wholesome breeze of goodtime stoned-poetry and folk…
So tell me – exactly how can such harmonic and melodic sweetness ever be deemed ‘dangerous’ or ‘subversive’ in the regular Rock ‘n’ Roll definition of those terms? Because they’re a post-Beatnik proto-Hippie Free-Loving Collective of oddities who are overwhelmingly for REAL. As Cass’ body-image asserts, theirs could never be a super-superficial marketing concoction. They are precisely what they appear to be. They are what they had been when they were busking for pennies in Bohemian Greenwich Village. What they had been down on their luck in the Virgin Islands. Their anarchic strangeness defines what is… and what is not – groovy, a direct challenge and a visibly more-fun alternative to the safe nuclear-family moral-conformity option. ‘The word ‘hippie’ was not then in common use’ points out Lillian Roxon, ‘but the concept existed. Groups in beards and boots and funny hats and strange drag were still new at the end of 1966 and not the cliché they became in 1968.’ Yet ‘the way this group looked, once the music business got over the shock of it all, was a novelty and very promotable.’
But think on this. By the time Thatcherite Right-Wing politicians begin demonising the evil legacy of 1960’s moral bankruptcy, they’d had more than two decades to come to terms with its consequences – teenage pregnancy, single-parentage, serial monogamy, and the demise of the safe nuclear family unit. While the rapid real-time meltdown from the stultifying certainties of the 1950’s happened within a brief shock of years. From a ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’ ‘Should-A-Girl-Kiss-On-A-First-Date’ conformity – through the seismic gender-quake upheaval watershed-months of oral contraception, the ‘Lady Chatterley’ trial, and the Profumo revelations of corruption in high places… into the seemingly limitless possibilities of the post-pill era that follows.
No songwriter was smarter at charting the shifting patterns of permissiveness than John Phillips. True – intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir had been grappling with the practical implications of existential honesty and open relationships for some time, but they happened in the unreal alternate demimonde of Literary Paris, while the Sixties brought its freedoms – and its ambiguous contradictions, into the mainstream. And onto the Pop charts. This new elevation of female eroticism was personified in Robert Crumb’s nubile ‘JAIL-BAIT OF THE MONTH’ Honeybunch Kaminsky. And Frank Zappa’s iconic ever-sexually-available Suzy Creamcheese. While David Crosby’s “Triad” was lasciviously extolling the virtues of troilism. And the Byrds 1968 ‘Candy’ Movie-theme “Child Of The Universe” portrays the Hippie ideal of the fecund nymphette with ‘love for everyone who needs her.’ These were the new behavioural role models. Sexual jealousy and possessiveness must now be seen as petit bourgeois cages, repressive remnants of an antiquated morality designed solely to deny the natural and healthy pleasures of the senses.
But how is it possible for us to get back into that long-lost mindset and peek into their chaotic lives? We can’t. It belongs to another age. It’s gone. Even in his autobiography – ‘Papa John’ (Dell Publishing, 1986), in his own words, John Phillips doesn’t always come across as a very aware or sympathetic character. There’s sexual bragging, and questionable treatment of the women he’s involved with – his long-suffering first wife Susie, only for him to act hurt and resentful when a free-spirited Michelle takes advantage of those same sexual freedoms. A perfect irony, or the infliction of poetic justice? resulting in hard-won lyrical poetry. In these songs he’s confiding his own suspicions about her infidelities, his doubts and desolations when she’s away from him. ‘Got I feeling that I’m wasting, time on you, Babe, got a feeling that you’ve been untrue.’ And she’s singing those lines back at him so prettily.
Sniffy Folk-purists Peter Paul & Mary mock them by name in one of the trio’s last hit singles, ‘when they’re really wailing, Michelle & Cass are sailin’, hey, they really nail me to the wall,’ while sneering ‘I dig the Mamas & The Papas… they got a good thing goin’, when the words don’t get in the way’ (“I Dig Rock ‘n’ Roll Music”). Yet ironically – while John Phillips is an essential part of that moral revolution, his lyrics already have the prescience to see the flaws in the new freedoms. His visionary and sometimes surreal narratives are based in extreme reality, his best songs perceptive enough to see that beyond instant gratification and the ‘Group-Grope’ lie frail easily-wounded human sensitivities not always strong enough to deal with situational ethics. They’re evolved enough to see the hurt beyond the hedonism.
Although never a single for the Mamas & Papas, Phillips song “Go Where You Wanna Go” was widely covered by lesser bands – including the Fifth Dimension, and Britain’s Overlanders (before it became a TV-ad for the Suzuki Vitara!), who all seem to interpret its contagious chorus-message – ‘go where you wanna go, do what you wanna do, with whoever you wanna do it with,’ at face value, as a celebration of no-strings no-obligation free love. But listen to the original version and the signal is less clear. The band’s line-up – predicting Abba’s two-girl two-boy line-up, or perhaps Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours’-period gender-mix vocals, but less commercially-focussed, more raggedly bohemian than either, allows Phillips to express sexual politics from both sides of the divide. And he uses its potential to full advantage.
Here Cass and Michelle deliver what is apparently the free love manifesto in a kind of mechanistic mantra-like repetition. For it seems they are merely regurgitating the rules of engagement that their Hippie lover, now 3000 miles away, has told them. While in the following verses they seem less convinced, but equally unwilling to show themselves as un-cool by betraying the new morality, attempting hard not to be ‘the crying kind, not to be the girl you left behind’. Until finally admitting that ‘you don’t understand, that a girl like me can love just one man.’ Just as much a Prisoner of Love as the 1950’s steadfast loyal and true stereotype sitting Bridget Jones-style by the phone-that-never-rings. A further dimension is added as more tellingly, Michelle later claims he wrote the song as a comment on her affair with a LA record producer.
Then, for “No Salt On Her Tail” the apparent situation is again reversed. Leading in from a Dylan “Like A Rolling Stone” organ intro, it’s the hung-up hero himself who watches his promiscuous lover enjoying her freedom – ‘time passes by, and I watch her fly,’ while he waits passively – ‘though it’s hard for me, I’m going to leave her free, ‘cos that would be the best philosophy,’ until she tires and ‘she’ll come to me.’ There’s ‘no cage to make her stay,’ all she needs is time, he says uncertainly, as though trying to convince himself. Until “Look Through My Window” – an unfairly neglected Top Ten hit on both sides of the Atlantic, becomes probably his most eloquent expression of the divide between adherence to the rules of truth and freedom, and the illogical frailties of human vulnerability.
He begins by reiterating the rules they both accept, ‘we both know people sometimes change, and lovers sometimes rearrange, and nothing’s quite as sure as change.’ Love changes. Change is the only certainty. But ‘I must admit, she knew her mind’ he adds ruefully, ‘she always said there’d come a time, when one would leave and one stay behind.’ It’s not even that ‘lovers are unkind,’ just that ‘when love is dead, for me, it’s through,’ and you should move on. But if these things are so self-evidently true – as they undeniably are, why is he here, now that she’s gone, feeling this immaculately desolate emptiness? Unlike the ‘don’t think twice it’s alright’ casualness of Dylan’s lost romance, which just ‘kinda wasted my precious time’ – although in fairness, there’s probably more than a hint of irony to Dylan’s feigned dissmissiveness, John Phillips captures something of the emotional screwiness and complex ambiguities of the time, carried on the heart-catching beauty of enveloping harmonies.
‘IF YOU CAN BELIEVE
YOUR EYES AND YOUR EARS…’
‘Pop admittedly, but apotheotically so…’
(‘Rolling Stone’ reviews the
Mamas & Papas, 9th December 1971)
The first album (June 1966) arrived with a bizarre cover-shot of the four group-members, fully clothed, sprawling in a bathtub. Decades later it would be quoted by ‘Vox’ as one of Rock’s worst-ever album-sleeves, asking ‘less bewildering than the question of how they managed to fit three people alongside Mama Cass in a bathtub, and how they ever got out, is… was the toilet really artistically necessary to the overall concept?’ The shot is probably also responsible for the risible YouTube TV-clip in which bikini’d Go-Go dancers erupt mid-song from bathtubs strewn around the set to shake ‘n’ shimmy inappropriately to the group’s song. There are, incidentally, no toilets visible on-screen.
It, and the albums that follow – ‘Cass John Michelle Denny’ (January 1967), and ‘Deliver’ (June 1967), feature a diminishing ratio of cover-versions. Sometimes the covers are personalised, as when Cass whispers ‘John (Lennon)’ into the fade of “I Call Your Name”, or by transforming “Twist And Shout” into an acoustic ballad. But sometimes the non-originals seem little more than fillers – the jokey “Dancing In The Street” (which the ‘Record Mirror’ reviewer claims surprisingly ‘has a completely un-Tamla sound about it,’ and which the Kinks had already covered on their second album) or Dobie Gray’s Mod-anthem “The In-Crowd”. Yet their reworking of the Shirelles plaintive 1961 hit “Dedicated To The One I Love” – itself a cover of the Five Royales 1958 original, with its close-harmony ebb and flow satin precision, tempo-changing lines weaving in gender pendulum-strokes – began as an album-track (from ‘Deliver’) until heavy-rotation radio-play persuades Dunhill to issue it as a single, which returns them to the Top.3 in April 1967.
But Phillips’ songs remain the focal point. From the tentative delicacy of “Got A Feelin’”, to the descending Monkees bassline counting into the ‘swinging surf-pop’ of “Straight Shooter”. Here, Phillips lyrically arched brow implies encrypted ambiguity, using the same conversational looped-jargon as the Beatles ‘baby’s good to me you know’ or presaging Oasis ‘do you know what I mean?’ with ‘... if you know what I mean?’, inviting the response – of course we know – don’t we? Well, maybe not. While the raucously wiggy surrealism and downright weirdness of “California Earthquake” anticipates something of the madness to come. Whether eco-protest or paranoia, the track fades in through indistinct radio-bursts into a lyric drawing on fears of underground nuclear testing triggering the San Andreas fault-line to introduce apocalyptical imagery in which ‘Atlantis will rise’ and ‘Sunset Boulevard will fall’, ending on a chillingly extended coda of eerie banshee wails.
Meanwhile – October 1966, John was re-united with Michelle after a brief split, and they move into an enormous Bel Air mansion, built into a 50ft incline with a winding path to the swimming pool below amid terraced rows of orange, lemon and avocado-pear trees. Nelson Eddy and Jeanette McDonald once dined here. And Elvis was a few doors down. Cass buys a $16,000 Aston Martin. And Denny has a hill-top Laurel Canyon hideaway… the group were also always ‘about’ to come to tour Britain, but never quite make it – until it doesn’t really matter.
‘I THINK THAT MAYBE I’M DREAMING…’
‘intertwining their excellent voices into groovy harmonies…’
(‘New Musical Express’ review 23 November 1968)
Monterey. Sunday, 18th June 1967. ‘There you go’ Grace Slick confides to me, ‘a bright beautiful event, that was the ‘MONTEREY POP’ Festival.’ Not as gross-out as Woodstock. Not as violent as Altamont. I wasn’t there. But Grace – singer/writer with headlining Jefferson Airplane, recalls ‘a three-day list of performers made up of nothing but headliners!’ Through her breathless account, through her eyes, walk this 72-hour event set in the beautiful setting of the Carmel coast. See the audience area located on that large, grassy lawn surrounded by cypress and pine trees. Unlike most summer concerts where the sun beats down mercilessly, here the big tree-branches break the light into soft beams, transforming it into a Disney version of Sherwood Forest.
In back of the trees, around the perimeter of the seating space, you stroll around thirty small booths, individually decorated with coloured silks, cottons and hand-painted banners, showing off every kind of original creation – from one-of-a-kind boots and belts to framed paintings by tyro artists. Even stalls bartering food and concert items are quaint and uninfected by corporate logos and pitchmen. There are flowers. Kaftans. Long hair. People neck LSD in a higher-than-thou sun-shiny stoned-peaceful hippy-happy-groovy oh-wow man mystic-vibe as nude girls idiot-dance while casting spooky hand-shapes to the music, ‘colours surround them, bejewelling their hair, visions astound them…’ Here, everyone combines to create a peaceful and extraordinary event, which Eric Burdon hymns on vinyl (‘the Mamas & Papas knew where it was at…’) and the Byrds call a ‘Renaissance Fair’ – even the police cruisers have orchids on their antennas…
The world is tilting on its axis. And the Mamas & Papa are at the centre of its shift. With Lou Adler, they’re instrumental in organising things, Michelle even typing and answering phones in the Festival office, as John laces Otis Redding into his corset in preparation for his ground-breaking set. And the weekend is one that wafts the first hallucinogenic hints of the Haight-Ashbury sound of the Airplane and Janis Joplin to the world, reciprocating by introducing the Who, Ravi Shankar and the Hendrix Experience to American audiences (‘nobody had ever heard anything like Jimi’ John Phillips tells Grace).
They can all be seen in ‘Monterey Pop’ (1968, Blu-ray 2009), DA Pennebaker’s hand-held spin-off docu-movie, a tactile time-capsule of a uniquely significant event. Watch. ‘It is to this number that we attribute our enormous wealth’ quips Cass before the perfect triple-threat opening voices-attack of “California Dreamin’”, floating, winging, and soaring on rising cadences. Michelle in red-and-yellow Indian pants and coat. Denny in Indian coat. John – a genial wizard, in long velvet cloak over gold-spangled suit. But for John Phillips, this was to be the last party before their ship fell off the edge of the universe.
By willingly surrendering potential hit-songs to Scott McKenzie’s unusual drawling masculine timbre, they’re already celebrating a movement that’s eclipsing them. The Mamas & Papas can be heard playing gentle but persuasive Guild twelve-string acoustic back-up on McKenzie’s global hit single, and their loose jokey dialogue is glimpsed in the instrumental break. John Phillips also donates further songs, charming singles such as the neglected “Like An Old-Time Movie” and “Holy Man”, as well as “San Francisco” to their old Folk-Singer friend from the Journeymen days. But it’s that very lightness of gentle harmonies that carry the universal popularity of their hits, which are now a distancing factor from the more ‘serious’ underground political status of the Doors, Country Joe & The Fish or the Grateful Dead.
Those harmonies that paved the petal-strewn way for the counter-culture, and got ‘heads’ plucking blooms around the world. Another part of the impasse, John suggests, is ‘you take our first album, and the Beatles first album. Ours is much more polished and refined. We just didn’t have that far to go to reach our full potential’ (to Vicki Wickham in ‘Melody Maker’ September 1970). In other words, they’d started higher, so they didn’t have so far to climb. Whatever – they were the first hippies to make it big. To strike it rich. To live in decadent luxury in Bel Air while setting a bad example to the neighbours. And later, when other hippie groups also made it big, it no longer seemed unusual. ‘Cos the Mamas & Papas had already been there, done that, and established the precedent.
Nevertheless, winter 1967 sees the group hung up in a farcical British tour complicated by Cass getting arrested for the alleged theft of two blankets from the Royal Gardens Hotel, which makes her the first visiting Pop Star to suffer trial by tabloid. It results in a cancelled Royal Albert Hall concert…
‘THE WOLFKING OF LA…’
‘If Dylan was first in line in the gang-bang of ethnicity,
then the Ms&Ps took elaborate and convoluted seconds…’
(Mick Farren, 23 July 1977)
Once was a time, I thought – with a few allowances for poetic licence…
John Edmund Andrew Phillips was born in a hurricane in ‘Parris Island, South Carolina’ on Labour Day, the 30th August 1935, exactly the same day as cult-DJ John Peel. And this is his story. ‘Raised along the banks of the Potomac River on the northern Virginia shore’, his childhood was a fractured cartoon of the supposedly conformist nuclear family. He was the third child of Edna, ‘a Cherokee squaw steeped in prairie mysticism and legends,’ and Captain Claude A Phillips, the Marine Major he thought of as his father, claiming descent from English and Irish (County Cork) immigrants to Canada. His mother later claimed he was – in fact, her fourth child, and the result of a long-standing affair she’d had with ‘Roland Meeks’, a Jewish poet ‘old bohemian’. He never quite resolved the truth.
In his autobiographical song “Andy’s Talkin’ Blues” – deleted from his score for the musical ‘Andy Warhol Presents Man On The Moon’, he tells how ‘my Daddy was a Captain and a hero to his men, and every battle that he fought he always fought to win, he fought for them in China, fought for them in France, he blew up Nicaragua, they called him Captain Chance, he was daring, fearless, hellbent for destruction, a marine.’ Later, his ‘father’ was discharged on medical grounds, lost in a ‘private inferno’ of alcoholism in their basement – ‘well, the service finally cashed my Daddy out, they said his heart blew a fuse, so he spent the next twenty years living down in the basement drinking booze, he was singing, had his dogs with him, they all had a hell of time.’ While his mother worked and had affairs, he was the child in his “Dancing Bear” who pledged ‘when I am a grown man I will taste just what I please.’ And then did so.
His dysfunctional upbringing took in a Catholic military boarding school in Manassas – run by Nuns – ‘so I was sent away for my own good, to a military school, rivals made of wood, that’s where the Nuns taught me bad from good, and I still can’t eat fish to this day, little black penguins, looks like Zorro, erm, I confess.’ His teen-gang harassed gay men for money, only for him to hide out once it developed into a real fight, and he graduated from shoplifting penknives to stealing cars. He faked a history of concussion and ‘blind spots’ in order to get discharged from a Navy Academy in Maryland, in the fall of 1956 in time to catch Elvis on ‘Ed Sullivan’. ‘Well, the years passed by and I grew into a man, learned to love my jesus and learned to understand, that I didn’t have to think too hard, that everything was planned, just as long as I played it cool, and I’m no fool, just too old to know the golden rule.’
Soon he was playing guitar, listening to the Penguins’ “Earth Angel” and driving a canary-yellow 1948 Plymouth convertible with whitewall tyres and a two-tone top. He got married to his pregnant girlfriend, only to drop-out of college to pursue his Folk muse. Inconsistent, itinerant, and unreliable, against his own better instincts, he ran off to Cuba where a hooker introduced him to ‘mari-hwana’, then to LA where he performs folk songs to ‘hipsters and aging Beats’ with Theodore Bikel at ‘Pandora’s Box’. Back home he forms the Abstracts, who become the Smoothies with harmonies based around those of the Four Aces. The Smoothies, in turn, become the Journeymen, with whom John records three albums, writes jingles for Schlitz beer, plays the ‘Gerdes Folk City’ with Lightnin’ Hopkins and a young Bob Dylan… and meets Holly Michelle at the ‘Hungry I’…
Born in a tropical storm, throughout the Mamas & Papas’ stormy ride, he lived at the eye of its hurricane. But as such… his story is inevitably also the story of his extended family. His group. His daughters. McGuinn and McGuire, John Sebastian and blonde Smoothie Phil Blondheim who renames himself ‘Scott McKenzie’. And – not to ratchet it too high, the story of this New Generation with its New Explanation. People in motion. People in motion. He’s a solo writer. Michelle’s co-credit for “California Dreamin’” extends little further than writing down the lyrics as he dictates. Yet he feeds off the fierce emotional interactions of the group dynamic. It’s significant that most of the major hits were actually written before the first album was recorded, and that internal rifts were ripping the group apart almost before it had begun. But once those group-tensions were no longer there to provoke and inspire… neither were the songs.
And by now the group itself – on the evidence of its own words, was retreating into a more introspective mode. “12:30” contrasts the group’s dark and dirty origins in New York with the good vibrations of the amoral young hippie waifs ‘sweet, soft and placid’, with their innocent vulnerability ‘walking the Strip’, coming into the canyon, dishing out blow-jobs like free candy, the “Strange Young Girls” sparking joints, ‘eyes of innocence, hiding their madness… coloured with sadness... offering their youth, on an alter of acid.’ This song is a scenic tour, ‘off on a trip’ cruising – like Charles Manson, part-voyeuristic yearning, part-predator. Aroused by them. But disturbed by that arousal. Even while he can’t stop himself from smiling, John Phillips now finds himself no longer the participant, but essentially the observer who can ‘no longer keep my blinds closed.’
The richly diseased beauty of “Safe In My Garden” takes it startlingly further. There can seldom have been a more opulent setting for total paranoiac dissolution, dishevelment and elegant despair. No doomy power-chords provide dark emphasis, instead the extreme contradiction between the squalid subject matter, and the heart-snagging beauty of the harmonies provide a more profound contrast. Outside, ‘when you go out in the street’ the world is on fire. There are ‘so many hassles with the heat’ (the Police) ‘no-one there can fill your desire.’ So you retreat inwards to dark corners where ‘people cannot hound us.’ To where you feel safe. Insular in your enclosed isolation, ‘with a bottle in each hand, too late to try to understand, we don’t care where it lands, we just blow it’. John and Michelle had moved on into ‘a small cosy red house’ on Lookout Mountain Road where he wrote “12:30”. Electra’s Paul S Rothchild – producer for Doors and Love, is a near-neighbour. The hits continue. Even if they chart lower than they used to. But essentially, as the decade closes, the ‘First Golden Era’ is over. The Mamas & Papas had always been – in John’s words, a studio group, who played little more than thirty major concerts. Perhaps the group was never really intended to stay together forever. For there must always be more to say than could be said in those sweet-sad Top 40 harmonies.
Fleetwood Mac’s platinum-selling ‘Rumours’ was notoriously fired by the twisted emotional inter-relationships happening within and around the group as they produced the album. To an identical extent the Mamas & Papas pre-chart that same course. The internal psychological dynamics of any band become magnified through celebrity. When sexual tensions – what John calls the group’s ‘centrifugal energies’, are involved that amplification gets multiplied. An advance tremor was signalled as early as July ‘66 when Michelle was promptly absent for promotion of the hit single “I Saw Her Again”, and was briefly replaced by long-haired look-alike Jill Gibson – a former date of Jan Berry of Jan & Dean. And – on the face of it, who could blame Michelle? Who – after all, wants to sing the sweet harmony-lines of a song whose beautiful verses document her husband’s most explicit declaration of marital infidelity? But there’s another interpretation.
John wrote the song about Michelle and Denny’s on-going tryst – on slow-burn since the Virgin Islands, so that a guilt-ridden Doherty would be compelled to sing it onstage every night! It was ‘another heartbreak song’ done in the ‘other man’s voice’. Michelle’s (ghosted) autobiography also spills the beans on her affair with newly ex-Byrd Gene Clark, which finally brought the situation to a head and resulted in her getting fired from the group. Either way, inevitably it was John and Michelle’s final separation, in July 1968 (a mere five months after the birth of their daughter Chynna Gilliam-Phillips), which neatly closed the ‘California Dreamers’ story. Have they broken up? ‘The facts show they have only ceased until Phillips & Co come up with new ideas’ suggests Keith Altham (‘NME’ 21st October 1967). ‘It’s like we are washing our hands of the things that have gone, and starting afresh’ clarifies John.
But if he was living at a pronounced angle to the universe – which he was, what now? There’s no ‘Logan’s Run’ statute-of-limitation on ex-Folk-Rock stars. They don’t pull the plug as you hit thirty. So, after fame – how do you spend the rest of your life? The transition from the 1960’s into the new decade is not an easy one. Flowers wilt. Acid has already done for the Rock-aristocracy what Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy does for cattle. Then there’s the shift from soft recreational drugs into harder narcotics to further complicate creativity. For many, the transition proves lethal. John Sebastian had come to the end of the Spoonful’s career. Scott McKenzie, uneasy with his ‘King of the Flower-People’ role, was living in a motel on Santa Monica Boulevard with a guitar, a cat called Seagrape, and an assortment of freaky friends, working towards his low-profile ‘Stained-Glass Morning’ (1970) album.
Barry Maguire – after his scatter-shot hit, lived the sex, drugs and syringes-hung-out-of-your-eyeballs scene to the max – ‘they told me if I smoked marijuana I’d become a drug-crazed fiend and rape children. When I smoked marijuana and that didn’t happen I thought ‘they lied to me!’’ Eventually Barry starred in ‘Hair’ on Broadway, then joined the ‘Jesus Revolution’ in 1971. Donovan’s profile terminally dipped at decade’s end – despite press rumours that John Phillips was producing a Warner Brothers album for him. Even Bob Dylan went through a slough of bad years, before coming back with ‘Blood On The Tracks’ (1975, which artfully plagiarises John Phillips ‘WolfKing Of LA’ sleeve-design). While Paul Simon proved it was possible to walk away from mass-market 1960’s celebrity and reinvent yourself into a 1970’s solo incarnation.
And for John Phillips? He was finding it hard coming to terms with the corrupting rewards that material success brings, where ‘walls of wealth surround us’, and the awareness of just how vacuous those rewards can be. ‘Sitting in our mansion, guarded by expansion, questioning our motives and our means, wondering why this isn’t like the dream’. So what do you do? Keep playing, keep repeating yourself into a caricature of whatever it was you originally represented? Or mature into writing for other markets? There’s already the Mamas & Papas late hit “Glad To Be Unhappy” – extracted from a Rodgers & Hart tribute project, indicating his respect for, and aspirations towards the craft of traditional song-writing. While another late single – “For The Love Of Ivy”, was commissioned as the theme for a soft-core racial movie-comedy, using a 1950’s-style deep-bass Doo-Wop vocal-line. Movie connections would continue.
He became a ‘silent’ partner in a movie production company, with Lou Adler. Their first feature film, ‘Brewster McCloud’ (1970), is directed by Robert Altman (who does ‘M.A.S.H.’). Adler, Phillips, and arranger Gene Page work on the score. He also contributes a song for Rex Reed to sing – on the operating table!, in Mike Sarne’s ‘Myra Breckenridge’ (1970). So – as the ‘Golden Age’ of hits becomes less the happening thing, more the happened thing, he could sit in his room and live off ASCAP royalties – ‘limousines and mansions, parties ever after, if you play the game, you pay the price, purchasing our piece of paradise.’ In fact, by then he was known more for celebrity parties in New York, LA and London… and there are more rumours than there were songs. John and Cass appeared separately – but together, on the ‘Johnny Carson Show.’ They talked about the past. Cass said the group was fine – until they started making money. John said that was fine, until they started dividing it up! A fourth album – ‘Presenting The Papas & Mamas’ (September 1968), recorded in the Phillips’ own studio, belatedly collected some current singles alongside “Dream A Little Dream Of Me” and “California Earthquake”, both of which would later be claimed for Mama Cass’ solo career. But there’s little of worth to come.
Cass Elliott – her vocal powers already prominently showcased on the group’s ‘rollicking’ hit “Words Of Love” goes on to enjoy some slight chart success (with her 1968 solo album ‘Dream A Little Dream’ featuring contributions from Steve Stills and John Sebastian), and a brief recording liaison with ex-Traffic refugee Dave Mason. But without the integrity of John Phillips’ compositions she’s just another big voice hunting hits, and her songs are now mere Pop fluff. Then she dies of a heart attack induced by choking on food in a Curzon Place Mayfair flat borrowed from Harry Nilsson, during a promotional visit to London in July 1974. Michelle’s beauty leads her to the obvious Movie semi-celebrity – debuting in Dennis Hopper’s ‘The Last Movie’ (1971). She marries him on a whim, and on a Peruvian mountain, only to separate eight days later – John wistfully hears ‘floating down the beach, her laughter out of reach, sleeping in the arms of an old friend… I hope she makes a movie in Peru’). Then there are walk-ons and TV Soaps (‘Knots Landing’, ‘The Users’, ‘The Aspen Murders’). She even becomes Jean-Luc Picard’s first love and long-lost amour ‘Jenice Manheim’ in the ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ 1990 episode “We’ll Always Have Paris”. She achieves femme fatale scandal-page status through liaisons with Jack Nicholson, as Warren Beatty’s longest-running girlfriend, and by ‘slipping across the border’ to spend euphemistic time with 63-year old Canadian Premier Pierre Trudeau. But musically? – well, she gets to sing back-up for Belinda Carlisle (on her charting 1988 Virgin CD ‘Heaven On Earth’ album).
While John re-emerges as the anti-hero of post-love with a solo ‘The Wolf-King Of L.A’ in June 1970. And it’s an album of gilded pointlessness. Images of instability. Ships sinking. Sandcastles eroded by the wash of tide. Restless purposeless movement. He drives out to park his car in the sand at “Topanga Canyon” to meet his dealer, then down to the market to watch the ‘people working in the sun’. Aimlessly drifting to San Francisco, sipping a beer on New Orleans’ Bourbon Street. Then to Tangiers where – from a second-storey window he catches a glimpse of someone’s life, ‘and it was mine. My face was dark, and I’d been crying.’ An alternate path. Another possibility. As though he envies their simpler, more purposeful lives. ‘Drive, baby drive’ through the “Holland Tunnel” to the New Jersey Turnpike, to Pittsburgh Pennsylvania to discover that ‘the pawn-shop on the corner is really true.’ But none of it holds meaning. Nothing has value, ‘hock your watch and ring, ‘cos it don’t mean a thing, when we get home I’ll buy you something new’. Back to LA, and casual lovers, casual promiscuity, ‘I suppose we were lovers, she was good… good to have around’ (“Someone’s Sleeping”).
It effectively introduces city-to-country elements – then-fashionable, for some of his better late songs, like “Let It Bleed, Genevieve”. There’s Elvis and Ricky Nelson’s guitarist (‘do it to me James’) Burton, and Spector star-vocalist Darlene Love, yet the songs reveal a man ‘in deep water… it’s way over my head’ even though ‘everyone thought I was smarter than to be mislead.’ ‘In his autobiography’ observes Bobby Gillespie, ‘Phillips dismissed the album in two lines, with something like, ‘and then I made this solo record’. I think he never talked about it… because it was too painful to revisit.’ And in many ways it reflects his now talent-in-decline lifestyle, lazy, hedonistic, indulgent, as his creativity effortlessly tiptoes away. Yet even among the session outtakes later included in the expanded-CD edition there are hidden gems, a beautiful guitar-sketch version of “Lady Genevieve” which would later be arranged for the group reunion ‘People Like Us’. But after this album he’ll never again summon either the energy or cohesion to make another.
‘He was a very interesting man’ Graham Nash confides to me, ‘an extremely bright man. An extremely funny man.’ Nash goes on to provide clues to this strange ennui when he describes being part of a Mamas & Papas recording session. ‘He was a leader, and it was John’s energy that kept that whole thing together. It was an age of unfolding energies. And in terms of everybody learning their crafts and bringing it together into a certain unit, the Mamas & Papas were becoming incredibly adept at making fabulous records. I mean, we should all be so lucky! They were a room full of incredibly creative open-minded musicians who were open to ideas from everybody. But the mutual respect that the rest of the guys and girls had for John was obvious during that time. You know – the balance between John and Denny, and between Cass and Michelle. Yet at the same time, recognising that John’s leadership was of a primary force in the band.’ But unlike the self-contained abilities of a Bob Dylan or Paul Simon, John Philips worked best as the centre of a creative environment, stimulated by the collective warmth, interaction and occasional irritation of the group dynamic. Him and Michelle. Him and Michelle, with Cass and Denny. Without that life-support structure, he drifts… ‘it’s me that I’m deceiving, believing that this couldn’t be the end.’
Towards the end of 1970 – during October, he plays his first solo engagements, a week at the ‘Troubadour’, then back to the NYC Greenwich Village coffee-house ‘The Bitter End’. It’s near ‘The Earl Hotel’ where he once wrote songs (in Room 212) before it all began. During the show he talks easily and comfortably, filling the gaps between re-tuning. But this promising start is never followed up. Instead he first reforms the Mamas & Papas in 1971 for a failed ‘People Like Us’ album (with tracks recorded separately and only spliced together later in the studio), and then an embarrassing nostalgia-circuit second reincarnation a decade later with Spanky McFarlane (formerly of Spanky & Our Gang) replacing Cass, and Laura MacKenzie Phillips – John’s step-daughter, replacing Michelle. It bequeaths one low-budget live souvenir. Laura Mackenzie also gets to feature as troubled teen ‘Carol Morrison’ in ‘American Graffiti’ (1973), and as an actress on a T.V. sitcom (ironically called) ‘One Day At A Time’ before her addiction to wicked white powder gets her fired.
Chynna remembers her childhood as ‘all about play and drugs and Hollywood-type shit. I never spent any time with my father when I was growing up because he was obviously into the drug scene and I guess it damaged me a lot. I was screwed up because I never had my Dad around and he was never sober and he was dark and scary and just addicted to heroin for a lot of years.’ As meanwhile, Chynna – with Brian Wilson’s daughters Wendy and Carnie, are scoring their own massive chart career as Wilson-Phillips, with Bangles-style hits like “Hold On” (their August 2004 album ‘California’ features both “Monday Monday” and Brian guesting piano and backing vocals on his “In My Room”).
John’s third daughter – Bijou Phillips, is the product of a passionate – and toxic, marriage to South African model Genevieve Waite, for whom he writes the “Lady Genevieve” track. She was addicted during the early months of pregnancy, but strove to stay clean later. He was stoned out of his mind during the birth. Bijou nearly died, surviving six weeks in intensive care. To John, he and Gen were ‘a drug to each other, first intoxicating, then habit-forming, finally destructive’. He goes on to create an entire album issued under ‘Gen’s name – ‘Romance Is On The Rise’ (1974), and work interminably on a musical he called ‘Space’ which endured years of negotiation, re-writes, and failed partnerships – including an alliance with Warhol producer Paul Morrissey. Re-titled ‘Man On The Moon’ it eventually opened on Broadway with a cast including Gen – straight after a suicide attempt, and Denny Doherty. It was critically slated and the ‘fiasco’ survived two-or-three nights before closing.
By this time John’s appetite for drugs has become voracious, living off ASCAP royalties of $150,000 a year, with a $1000-a-day ‘drug frenzy’. He’d carry a green Gucci bag ‘loaded with dope, syringes, paraphernalia, barbiturates…’ – but forget the variable three-digit combination, diminishing his art collection and royalties by spending £5000 a week skin-popping heroin and cocaine, later telling ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine how he was so desperate he once even tries to buy Sidney Korn & Alvin Brod’s entire ‘K&B Drugs’ chemist’s on 81st and Madison, for £200,000 cash. Pills obtained from this Madison Avenue pharmacy with valid prescriptions, plus stolen and forged prescription blanks, were then traded for coke. And Genevieve joins him in his excesses, shooting up together backstage after shows, ‘we were both unravelling.’ ‘It didn’t matter where we lived – it was a junkie pad by the time we left.’
But she has her own psychodramas too. Bebe Buell – legendary groupie and mother of Liv Tyler, tells of Genevieve telling her how to cut her wrists just enough to show a lot of blood, without actually killing yourself. At one point Mick Jagger, fearing for their safety, moves in to rescue the two Phillips children. ‘Mick had been trying for years to help’ John admits, ‘he always hated the fact that Keith Richards and I had let ourselves get so messed up on smack.’ At eighteen Bijou releases her own shot at folk-indie rock – an album called ‘I’d Rather Eat Glass’ (1999). Mackenzie Phillips adds background voice. Bijou had grown up with her father. But one track – “Little Dipper”, describes in cold autobiographical detail her visits to her mother – ‘I could watch you all night long, drinking booze till the break of dawn.’
Inevitably Bijou – New York’s feisty ‘Wild Child’, had begun as a thirteen-year old model. She is the bored pouty adolescent in white Calvin Klein underwear, in part of a campaign eerily bordering on paedophilia. Graduating to ‘E’ and coke, losing her virginity at fifteen to Lemonheaded Evan Dando, she then moves on to date Cher’s son Elijah Blue and Sean Lennon, but claimed ‘my Dad always knew what I was up to’ to William Shaw (‘Observer’ 3 March 2002), ‘all he had to do was look at the ‘New York Post’!’ Her father eventually sends her to rehab. A process he’s not entirely unfamiliar with. Coming out the other side she gets to play a groupie in Cameron Crowe’s ‘Almost Famous’ (2000) – something else he knew something about! Yet ‘my Dad was a great Dad, an awesome Dad’ she tells the ‘Observer’. ‘He had his own problems. But he took custody of me, he took me to school every day, made me breakfast, picked me up, made me dinner...’ By this time, he was emerging from the darkest darkness. While Bijou can also be heard on the soundtrack of the 1998 horror sequel ‘I Still Know What You Did Last Summer’. Later she could be seen dressed in slut-wear with a circular-saw applied to her tightly-trussed face in Eli Roth’s torturama ‘Hostel: Part 2’ (2007).
Meanwhile, for John Phillips, there were also sessions with the Rolling Stones. They’d become close friends in Mustique and New York. John was supportively close by Mick and Keith throughout the latter’s acid and coke court-case in January 1977. A loyalty Jagger was happy to reciprocate, he hadn’t produced an album for anyone other than for the Stones since Chris Farlowe’s masterpiece way back when, but he offered to produce John Phillips. Spending time in London with Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg John got into the habit of shooting smack, so that he was recording cross-addicted to coke and heroin.
The results veer from “Very Dread” – an attractive throwback to ‘Wolfking’, “Pussycat” with a 1950’s boogie edge, and others that could be Stones outtakes, a distinctive Keith riff for “Zulu Woman”, “She’s Just 14”, and “Oh Virginia” which closely resembles the Stones’ “Dead Flowers”. ‘It’s only 24 years till the year 2000’ he sings in a pretty ‘Wolfking’ way, ‘and maybe everything here will be so different by then’. Unfortunately the material they record together would remain uncompleted as the ‘sessions began to fall apart’, destabilised by addiction – and by Keith’s arrest, and trial 1978 in Toronto. The troubled recording was resumed in New York’s Mediasound Studios a year later, with Phillips savaging Mick and Keef as ‘cockney gangsters’ who ripped off Gram Parsons. Then the 24-track reels were shelved and lost, forgotten and unissued until – ironically, 2001, the year of John’s death. While John remains ‘languishing in the splendour of being lost in the wilderness’ (“Wilderness Of Love”).
‘It had come so damn easy the first time through…’ he muses, but now ‘I was on the outside and I was beginning to feel alone on the fringe. I felt creatively stagnant. I was blocked but too burned out to work my way through it.’ The first half of his 557-page autobiography – up to the photo insert, covers the Journeymen and the entire Mamas & Papas arc. The second half details his junkie years, the lost opportunities, the chances blown. The TV production with Denny and Michelle that was halted when the camera picked up a syringe sticking out of John’s pocket. ‘I was shooting in my hands, groin, arms, calves and thighs – wherever I could raise a vein. I had multiple track marks and sores on every limb and I was so strung out on coke that I had wasted away to about 150-pounds’. He was ‘on the ledge of sanity, looking straight down, barely holding on’. ‘A cat was alive and scratching at my skin from the inside, and I had to appease it.’ Even ‘sex was history.’
Yet, bizarrely – as a final chart coda, he does get to co-write “Kokomo” (with Mike Love and Scott ‘remember him?’ McKenzie) – which goes on to become the Beach-Boys last US no.1 hit. While other people are still recording John’s songs. Tanya Tucker does “San Francisco”. “California Dreamin” is done by blind Puerto Rican Blues Singer Jose Feliciano, by Bobby Womack, by the Beach-Boys & Roger McGuinn. There’s a ghastly 1978 Disco version by Colorado, and then it’s in the charts again as late as July 1990 in the safe hands of River City People, who neatly censor the subtlety of the ‘got down on my knees and I pretend to pray’ line, by substituting ‘pretend’ with ‘began’. Then there’s Hear’Say and “Monday Monday”…
And from vogue radical-chic to slammer-chic John Phillips pushed his decadence a snort too far. Following attempted arson of his own home, and surviving an autowreck driving stoned on the Montauk Highway, 31st July 1980 the DEA agents in Hawaiian shirts and guns raided his ‘beautiful Bavarian-style cottage hidden behind high hedges on Rose Hill Road in Water Mill’ in the Hamptons, to where he’d fled from the rambling house on Long Island Sound, Connecticut. Lost in a miasma of drugs, he made the news-pages as he’s busted for drug-dealing and trafficking – to support his own habit. ‘To live outside the law you must be honest’ says Dylan.
He was arraigned for distributing drugs – ‘tens of thousands of ludes and other controlled substances’ – hundreds of thousands of dollars of illicit substances including Quaaludes, Tuinals, Desoxym, and Dilaudid (a hospital heroin-substitute used for terminal cancer patients), which had made their way via K&B over three years, and circulated through the southern District of New York. Brought into Manhattan and booked at the Metropolitan Correctional Centre, John enacted the ritual ducking-&-hiding-his-face from the TV cameras, although everyone knew only too well what the 44-year old Papa looks like. Eventually – in April 1981, becoming a model ex-junkie for the courts, he was sentenced to eight years – but reduced to thirty days at Allenwood Federal Camp, and a $15,000 fine plus 250-hours public service. Only to relapse into further unsavoury declines – ‘someone please come and rescue me, from Sunset misery’ (“Sunset Boulevard”). The alcoholism, failures and grim details of ‘a quarter of a century of substance abuse’ are recounted in his ghosted 1987 autobiography.
By the mid-1990’s John Phillips was reputedly living in Long Island, writing new songs. Among the material released posthumously is a wistfully moving “If”, sung with an attractive Lee Hazlewood huskiness ‘if I died would you really miss me, and think of me now and then?’, before confirming yes, forever, ‘and forever has no end.’ He died of heart failure following medical complications, just two weeks short of Bijou’s twenty-first birthday. ‘The Sunday Times’ – dated 25th March 2001, tributes the ‘creative force behind the 1960’s folk-rock band’ who ‘wrote songs that came to epitomise the flower-power era.’ Around the same time I was speaking to Tim Rose at the ‘New Roscoe’ in Leeds. He was still writing and recording, still performing. The only member of that magic Greenwich Village circle – of which he talked with such wistful fondness, who was still around to do it (he died 24 September 2002). But then – although his credits include “Morning Dew”, he never quite achieved the stellar – and destructive, commercial highs of those bohemian contemporaries. Perhaps his continued presence in the there and now showed that to be the wiser course?
Books about John Phillips & The Mamas & Papas include:
‘PAPA JOHN: JOHN PHILLIPS’
by John Phillips with Jim Jerome (Dell Publishing Co, 1986)
THE TRUE STORY OF THE MAMAS & PAPAS’
by Michelle Phillips
plus bits of
‘LILLIAN ROXON’S ROCK ENCYCLOPEDIA’
(Grosset & Dunlap Universal Library - 1971)
also the websites
MAMAS AND PAPAS DELIVER
‘The Mamas & The Papas were the royal family of American rock – not
because their music keeps growing and progressing to plateau after
plateau of greatness (it doesn’t), but because they were the first, with the
Spoonful, of the big American groups, the first, that is, since the Beatles…’
(American critic Lillian Roxon in 1969, she dies August 1973)
‘AN HISTORIC RECORDING’ by THE MUGWUMPS (issued September 1967 as ‘SEARCHIN’ on Warner Brothers 1697, then Valiant – Oct 1970) Zal Yanovsky, Denny Doherty, Cass Elliott and her then-husband Jim Hendricks. White R&B recorded in Manhattan late summer 1964 with “Searchin’”, “You Can’t Judge A Book By The Cover”, “Do You Know What I Mean”, “I’ll Remember Tonight”, “So Fine”, “Everybody’s Been Talkin’”, “I Don’t Wanna Know” (originally a Warner Bros single), “Here It Is, Another Day” and “Do What They Don’t Say” (‘Some interesting sounds and spirited vocalising on this nine-track album, and it should make a collector’s item’ – ‘NME’)
‘THE BIG THREE’ by THE BIG THREE (Roulette RCP 1002 /Sequel NEMCD 775) Cass Elliot, Jim Hendricks & Tim Rose. Tight three-part harmonies, a little too polite for some, but no doubting their vocal prowess, “Dark As A Dungeon” is poignant and atmospheric, “Banjo Song”, “Ho-Honey”, “Wild Women”, “Come Along”, “Young Girl’s Lament”, “Winken Blinken And Nod”, “Grandfather’s Clock”, “Come Away Melinda” (later a solo stand-out for Tim Rose), “Nora’s Dove”, “Tony And Delia”, “Oh, Rider”
THE JOURNEYMEN John Phillips first-ever record was a single by The SMOOTHIES – “Softly” for Decca in June 1960. His own composition, it led the group (John, ‘Scott’, Mike Boran & Bill Cleary) to an appearance on ‘Dick Clark’s American Bandstand’, and an album that also featured subsequent singles “Lonely Boy, Pretty Girl” and “Ride Ride Ride”. They became Journeymen, featuring a line-up of Scott McKenzie, John Phillips, and Dick Weissman (‘the banjoist’s banjoist’). The debut JOURNEYMEN LP came in Fall 1961 (Capitol ST1629, CD CCM415-2 in 2003), including “500 Miles Away From Home” for which John received co-writer credits with Hedy West when it was also recorded by the Kingston Trio, and Peter Paul & Mary. He later withdrew his credits, claiming he’d only ‘arranged’ West’s song. Other tracks included “River Come Down”, “Soft Blow The Summer Winds”, “Ride Ride Ride”, “Black Mountain Deer Chase” and Leadbelly’s “Black Girl”. A second Journeymen album ‘COMING ATTRACTION: LIVE!’ (1963, Capitol ST17707, CD CCM416-2 in 2003) was recorded at the Minneapolis ‘Padded Cell’ club, in mid-1962, with “Gypsy Rover”, “I Never Will Marry”, “I Am A Poor & Ramblin Boy” and “Dark As A Dungeon”. And a third – ‘NEW DIRECTIONS IN FOLK MUSIC in Fall 1963 (Capitol ST1951, CD CCM417-2 in 2003), with “All The Pretty Little Horses”, “San Francisco Bay Blues”, “Someone To Talk My Troubles To” and “Four Strong Winds” (the CD re-issue included “Stackolee”, “Bay Of Mexico”, “Ja-Da” etc), the album was promoted by an appearance on TV’s ‘Hootenanny’ and a tour with the Halifax Three. UK release as Ember Records – Sept 1967). A compilation, ‘THE JOURNEYMEN: CAPITOL COLLECTORS (CD CDP7-98536-6 appeared in 1992. The NEW JOURNEYMEN were John and Michelle Phillips, with Marshall Brickman – later replaced by Denny Doherty
‘CREEQUE ALLEY: THE HISTORY OF…’ (MCA MCAD 2-10195 – US import May 1991) Hits, spin-offery from The Big Three, The Mugwumps, Barry McGuire, plus post-break-up solo stuff, promotional conversations, John Phillips acid-addled B-sides, ‘very complete, for completists only’ says Danny Kelly (‘Q’ August 1999)
“California Dreamin’” c/w “Somebody Groovy” (RCA 1503) 28th April 1966 – reaches no.23/ US 5th Feb Dunhill 4020 – no.4
“Monday Monday” c/w “Got A Feelin’” (RCA 1516) 12th May 1966 – reaches no.3/ US 16th March Dunhill 4026 – no.1
‘IF YOU CAN BELIEVE YOUR EYES AND EARS: THE MAMAS AND THE PAPAS’ (March 1966, RCA Victor RD 7803) With “Monday Monday”, “California Dreamin”, “Spanish Harlem”, “Do You Wanna Dance”, “Go Where You Wanna Go” (on a docu-style spoken introduction to a Sept 1970 reissue Cass recalls ‘I think we were the freshest sound I ever heard. Just making the music turned us on’), “Somebody Groovy”, “Hey Girl”, “You Baby” (P.F. Sloan song also recorded by The Turtles), “The In Crowd”, “Straight Shooter”, “Got A Feelin’”, “I Call Your Name” – enters UK chart 25 July 1966, reaches no.3/ US no.1
“I Saw Her Again” c/w “Even If I Could” (RCA 1533) 28th July 1966 – reaches no.11/ US 9th July Dunhill 4031 – no.5. ‘RECORD MIRROR’ says ‘the sounds are brilliantly controlled, with busy backing and full-blooded harmonies’
“Look Through My Window” c/w “Once Was A Time I Thought” (Dunhill 4050) US 5th Dec 1966 – no.24
‘CASS, JOHN, MICHELLE, DENNY’ aka ‘THE MAMAS & THE PAPAS’ (August 1966, RCA Victor SF/RD 7834) Ten out of twelve tracks are John Phillips songs, one sharing credits with Denny, one with Michelle, includes “Dancing Bear”, “My Heart Stood Still”, “That Kind Of Girl”, “Dancin’ In The Street”, “I Saw Her Again”, “No Salt On Her Tail”, “Trip Stumble And Fall”, “Words Of Love”, “Strange Young Girls”, “I Can’t Wait”, “Even If I Could”, “Once Was A Time I Thought” – enters UK chart 28th Jan 1967, reaches no.24/ US no.4
“Words Of Love” b/w “Dancin’ In The Street” (RCA 1564) 9th Feb 1967 – reaches no.47/US 17 Dec 1966 Dunhill 4057 – no.5 as the B-side reaches no.73
“Dedicated To The One I Love” c/w “Free Advice” (RCA 1576) 6th April 1967 – reaches no.2 /US 3rd March – no.2
‘THE MAMAS AND PAPAS DELIVER’ (February 1967, RCA Victor SF/RD7880) With “Dedicated To The One I Love”, “Creeque Alley”, “Twist and Shout”, “My Girl”, “Sing For Your Supper” (Rodgers & Hart song), “Free Advice”, “Look Through My Window”, “Boys And Girls Together”, “String Man”, “Did You Ever Want To Cry”, + two instrumentals “John’s Music Box” and “Frustration”, eight of the tracks are John Phillips originals, musicians include P.F. Sloan (gtr), Jim Horn (sax & flute), and there’s an astrologer’s analysis of group members on the sleeve – enters UK chart 24th June 1967, reaches no.4/ US no.2
“Creeque Alley” c/w “Did You Ever Want To Cry” (RCA 1613) 26th July 1967 – reaches no.9/ US 13th May 1967 Dunhill 4083 – no.5
“Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming To The Canyon)” c/w “Straight Shooter” (Dunhill 4099) US 2nd Sept 1967 – no.20
“Glad To Be Unhappy” c/w “Hey Girl” (Dunhill 4107/ RCA 1649) US 4th Dec 1967–no.26
“Dancing Bear” c/w “John’s Music Box” (Dunhill) December 1967, US no.51. Lifted from the second album, with woodwind accompaniment
‘FAREWELL TO THE FIRST GOLDEN ERA’ First of many Hits compilations US October 1967 – no.5. Followed by ‘THE MAMAS & THE PAPAS GOLDEN ERA Vol.2’ (Stateside SSL5002) – December 1968
‘PRESENTING THE PAPAS AND THE MAMAS’ (May 1968, RCA Victor SF/RD 7960) With “The Right Somebody To Love” (40-sec version of Shirley Temple song), “Safe In My Garden” (‘Cops out with the megaphones, telling people to stay inside their homes, man, can’t they see the world’s on fire…?’), “Meditation Mama (Transcendental Woman Travels)” – first John Phillips lead vocals, “For The Love Of Ivy”, “Dream A Little Dream Of Me” – which, despite being a Mamas & Papas track is issued as the first ‘Mama Cass’ solo single and hits a US no.12 in July 1968, “Mansions” (‘walls of wealth surround us, people cannot hound us’), “Gemini Childe”, “Nothing’s Too Good My Little Girl” (Ned Wynn song), “Too Late” (‘when the love and trust, have turned to dust, and that was all you had…’), “12:30”, “Rooms” (both tracks covered on 1967 LP ‘The Voice Of Scott McKenzie’, Ode Z12-44002), “Midnight Voyage” – US no.15
“Safe In My Garden” c/w “Too Late” (Dunhill) June 1968, US no.53
“Dream A Little Dream Of Me” c/w “Midnight Voyage” credited to MAMA CASS (RCA 1726) 14th August 1968 – no.11/ US no.12
“For The Love Of Ivy” c/w “Strange Young Girls” (Dunhill/ RCA 1744) September 1968, US no.81
‘HITS OF GOLD’ (Stateside S5007) Compilation, enters UK chart 26 April 1969, reaches no.7
‘JOHN, THE WOLFKING OF L.A.’ by JOHN PHILLIPS (May 1970 solo album from Dunhill/ Stateside SSL 5027, re-issue as Decal LIK 42 in October 1988, then Feb 1993 as Edsel EDCD 372) ‘The sound of a captain going down gracefully with his ship’ says ‘Record Collector’ magazine. With a cover imitated by Bob Dylan for ‘Desire’, and session-aces such as Hal Blaine (drs), Larry Knechtel (piano), Joe Osborne (bass), Buddy Emmons (steel gtr), James Burton (Dobro and lead gtr), vocalists Darlene Love, Jean King & Fanetta James (the Blossoms), it has “Mississippi” c/w “April Anne” (a US no.32 single), “Topanga Canyon” (‘perhaps the prettiest-ever song about the perils of drug addiction’ – ‘Q’), “Malibu People”, “Drum”, “Captain (The Mermaid)”, “Let It Bleed Genevieve” (‘he’s in an attic out of his mind on drugs and his girl is in the basement having a miscarriage’ – Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie in ‘Observer Music’ Oct 1983, ‘mis-conceiving life’), “Down The Beach”, “Holland Tunnel”, “Someone’s Sleeping” (‘remains one of Phillips best songs’ – John Bauldie ‘Q’), a Warlok production – reaches US no.181. Re-issued with eight bonus tracks including a beautiful “Lady Genevieve”, “The Frenchman”, and “Black Girl” which John had originally done on the first Journeymen album (2006, Varese Sarabande 30-066-752-2)
‘MAMA’S BIG ONES’ by MAMA CASS ELLIOTT (February 1971, Probe SPB1020) Twelve tracks from 1966, 1969 and 1970, two by the MAMAS & PAPAS (“Words Of Love” and “Dream A Little Dream Of Me”), one (“The Good Times Are Coming”) arranged by John Barry for the ‘MONTE WALSH’ movie, plus “It’s Getting Better” (a UK no.8 Mann-Weil penned solo hit), “Make Your Own Kind Of Music” (a key ingredient in the second series opening episode of ‘LOST’, 2006), “New World Coming”, “Move In A Little Closer Baby” (a high-profile single which followed the Harmony Grass chart version) , “One Way Ticket”, “Easy Come, Easy Go”, “Don’t Let The Good Life Pass You By”, “Ain’t Nobody Else Like You”, and “A Song That Never Comes”. ‘Melody Maker’ says ‘they’d love this at the Fiesta Club in Hull, but late-night in Strawberry Hill with Carole King waiting her turn on the turntable Mama Cass is just taking up time’ (Feb 1972)
‘WATCHA GONNA DO’ by DENNY DOHERTY (April 1971, Probe SPB 1029) First of two solo albums, including Folkie re-make of “I’ve Got A Feelin”’, good-time Country-Rock, harmonies and strings. Cover references M&P’s debut album by showing him lying in a bath-tub in the yard
‘PEOPLE LIKE US’ by THE MAMAS & PAPAS (November 1971, Dunhill DSX 5016/ Probe SPB 1048 – review in ‘Rolling Stone’ 9th December 1971) with Jim Horn (horn), Louis Shelton (gtr), Bobby Hall (drums), Tony Newton (bass). Includes “Step Out” c/w “Shooting Star” (a US no.81 single in February 1972, Dunhill 4301), plus “Pearl” – a tribute to Janis Joplin based on ‘first star I see tonight’ nursery-chant, “Pacific Coast Highway” (‘she looks like a swan, but brown as Chuck Berry’), “Lady Genevieve”, “Blueberries For Breakfast” (‘love in the afternoon, butterflies in my trousers, under the August moon’), “People Like Us”, “Snowqueen of Texas”, “No Dough”, “European Blue Boy”, “I Wanna Be A Star” and “Grasshopper”, album reaches US no.84. The ‘NME’ US correspondent reports the re-union ‘…and therefore live dates would automatically follow’ (10 April 1971). They don’t. 2012 expanded CD edition from Cherry Red/ New Sounds CRNOW37 includes both sides of John Phillips’ solo “Revolution On Vacation” c/w “Cup Of Tea” single, plus outtakes “Fantastic Four”, “Lady Genevieve” (alt), “No Dough” (alt mix) and “Andy’s Talkin’ Blues” (Demo)
“Revolution On Vacation” c/w “Cup Of Tea” by JOHN PHILLIPS with the Jazz Messengers (US Columbia 45737/ CBS) November 1972. The only parts of joint-sessions for a projected album never to be issued. The ‘A’-side has a jaunty hoedown ‘Feel Like I’m Fixin To Die’ feel, with politico lyric-tumbles and a Satchmo scat before the fade, while the flip has whining steel guitar and wistful ‘strangers on a train’ apartness, she ‘stole my bankroll of million-dollar dreams’
‘ROMANCE IS ON THE RISE’ by GENEVIEVE WAITE (July 1974, Project Three Records) John’s ‘dizzy sweet adorable ‘actress’ wife’ sings ‘in her inimitable Betty Boop, Carol Channing little-girl-lost voice’ (‘NME 20 July 1974) Richard Avedon cover-photo
‘VICTIMS OF ROMANCE’ by MICHELLE PHILLIPS (1977, A&M). Sleeve shows her in an elegant one-piece bathing-suit, fixing a gardenia in her hair. Veteran ex-Spector composer /musician /producer /arranger Jack Nizsche is on hand. John ‘Moon’ Martin writes title song, and three others including “Aching Kind”. Michelle writes two titles, including “There She Goes”, also “Baby As You Turn Away” etc
‘HITS: LIVE 1982’ by THE MAMAS AND THE PAPAS (Success 2170 CD-AAD) Ten tracks by John, Denny, Spanky McFarlane (justifying inclusion of “Sunday Will Never Be The Same”), and MacKenzie Phillips, with “Straight Shooter”, “Go Where You Wanna Go”, “Dream A Little Dream Of Me”, “I Saw Her Again”, “California Dreamin”, “Monday Monday”. For the tour John Phillips had to register with the probation service for each venue
‘THE BEST OF THE MAMAS AND THE PAPAS’ (Arcade ADEP 30) One of many hits compilation, enters UK chart 18th June 1977, reaches no.6
“Kokomo” by THE BEACH BOYS (November 1988) co-written by John Phillips, a US no.1
‘PAY BACK AND FOLLOW’ by JOHN PHILLIPS (2001, Eagle EDL 340-2) Nine cuts from sessions spun out through 1973-’79, begun in England while scoring the soundtrack for David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’, produced by Mick Jagger (his first non-Stones production since Chris Farlowe), with Ron Wood, Keith Richard, Ollie Brown, Rebop (drs) and Mick Taylor playing. Nine tracks include “Sunset Boulevard”, “Zulu Warrior” (featuring Michelle on backing vocals), “Wilderness of Love”, “Mr Blue”, “Pussy Cat”, “Oh Virginia”, “Very Dread”, “2001”, “She’s Just Fourteen”
‘PHILLIPS 66’ by JOHN PHILLIPS (2001, Eagle EAGCD 170) Billed as the ‘final studio recordings… John passed away just days after completing the sessions for this album’ it includes “Whiskey, Wine And Champagne”, “There Is A Place” from the ‘Space’ musical, “Gram’s Song” about Gram Parsons, and one of his finest-ever late-compositions, the wistful “If”. Also a ‘new’ solo “California Dreamin’”
‘PUSSYCAT’ by JOHN PHILLIPS (2009, Yellow Label/SPV 305922) Digitally-cleaned takes from the original ‘Pay Pack & Follow’ session-tapes, retrieving much of the depth lost in the previously heard muddier mixes. “Oh Virginia” – previously a virtual Stones sound-alike, retains Jagger’s ‘Dead Flowers’ counter-harmony, while for a now-gentler “She’s Just Fourteen” – Mick even gets to howl lead for a verse. About wild-child daughter Laura in her ‘rainbow hair’ and ‘high platform heels’, a Peaches Geldof-style celebrity-brat, he wonders if she’s ‘the last word in space and time’. For “Mr Blue” – about an ‘elegant Jew of New York City’ and his junkette, the vocal echo gets edited away from its murkier ‘Pay Pack & Follow’ mix, along with the stinging slide “You Gotta Move” solo in the fade of “Pussycat” itself. Here, disturbingly celebrating the tacky exploitative glamour of Las Vegas, he lasciviously laments ‘they closed my porno shop’ so I’ll ‘watch the kids undress’ at the live nude-showcase instead. The CD closes with an outtakes bouquet of unfamiliar songs, making it a valuable addition to the Papa John rehab program me.
‘There are groups and there are people
and there are groups of people,
this group is people who are real, and different
because mamas are different from papas and
mamas and papas are different from everybody…’
(press-ad for ‘Monday Monday’ ‘NME’ Friday 27 May 1966)