Everybody’s got their guilty pleasures, no need to apologize. The older I get the more it occurs to me what a racket the idea of “taste” is. Anyway, one of my guilty pleasures is the Mamas & the Papas. They made some great records, unfortunately I can’t post any of their music here without getting the blog pulled but you’ve heard ’em, at least the hits.* If not, your local used record store has ’em cheap, and if you hate to pay try the Chewbone link on the right.
I mean, can you imagine a hit record today with a bone head mistake left in purpose like on the second verse of “I Saw Her Again” when Denny Doherty comes in an entire four bars too early? There’s some great album tracks you probably never heard like “Mansions” and “Safe In My Garden”. Which is my was of bringing us to today’s subject: Michelle Phillips , one of the all time great 60’s sex symbols, the ultimate hippy love kitten.
She had the perfect bell shaped pout. She looked great in a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. I can’t think of a modern entertainer even remotely as sexy.
Michelle began as a sixteen year old runaway beatnik from L.A. who met John Phillips in the Bay Area, hooked up with him and ended up first in the last remnants of his folk group the Journeyman then with former Mugwumps Denny Doherty and Cass Elliot formed the Mamas and the Papas in L.A. in 1966 (after an acid fueled season of woodshedding in the Caribbean). The group only lasted eighteen months but their career was a wild ride, they were hippie royalty and rode the current for all it was worth. Their last performance was at the Monterey Pop Fest. where their caftans and mu-mu’s were already looking dated compared to Hendrix, the Who and Big Brother & the Holding Company. They knew when to quit.
Michelle was not only the visual focus (at least to my eight year old eyes), but was also the coolest member of the group, by far. When the group asked her for an idea for a cover song she suggested the Coasters’ “I’m A Hog For You Baby” (which the rest of the group never heard of, and when they heard it they thought she was nuts, maybe she should’ve teamed up with Screamin’ Lord Sutch). Eventually they settled on the 5 Royales/Shirelles number “This Is Dedicated To The One I Love”, one of Michelle’s rare lead vocals and damned if her cracking, reedy, little voice doesn’t pull it off. She’s sounds fragile enough to break your heart in between cigarettes. She may not have had Cass Elliott’s pipes but she had something that couldn’t be replaced in the group. When they fired her after the first LP (for having an affair with Byrd Gene Clark and a one night stand with Denny Doherty, she was married to John Phillips at the time) a fan revolt forced them to bring her back into the fold within weeks. When they were inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall Of Fame who was that escorting her to the stage? None other than Danny Fields, the same guy who brought us the the MC5, the Stooges, the Ramones, etc. Producer Lou Adler described Michelle as “wanting to be one of the Shangri-Las”. I guess that oughta fills anyone’s quota for cool credentials.
Even her book– California Dreamin (The True Story Of The Mamas & The Papas) (Warners, 1986) is highly readable, fun, and trashy On paper at least, she’s pretty fair minded considering what she could have said about John Phillips (i.e. the truth, the guy was demon), she even makes it a point to say the when she first met him he was a decent human being. But any history of the Mamas & the Papas is bound to have enough sex, drugs and decadence to satiate even the most jaded reader, and she doesn’t hold too much back.
Speaking of John Phillips (self proclaimed “Wolf King Of Los Angeles” and one of the first people the cops questioned after Sharon Tate was snuffed) and rock literature, his book Papa John (Dell, 1986) is a masterpiece of drug fueled debauchery and right up there with Art Pepper’s Straight Life (Schirmer Books, 1979) and Dr. John’s Under A Hoodoo Moon (St. Martins, 1994) in the must read great junkie memoirs department. Funny, how of all drugs, heroin has produced the most interesting literature, especially when it comes to musicians. But that’s way off of today’s subject.
After the break up of the Mamas and the Papas, Michelle kicked off an acting career in style with a role in Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie (1971) although she ended up mostly working in TV and b movies (her film credits can be found here). Despite a string of high profile affairs including Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Harry Dean Stanton, etc. she was never able to make the jump to full fledged movie star. Still, she’s quite good in John Millius’ Dillinger (1972) where she plays opposite Warren Oates and is naked for much of the otherwise unwatchable Ken Russell film Valentino (1977). Besides, she’s the only member of the Mamas and the Papas to survive, and with the same liver she was born with. No mean feat.