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The Mamas & The Papas: Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll or Incest, Addiction and Unreleased Albums?

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Did you know The Mamas & The Papas have an album out of new material – ‘MANY MAMAS & PAPAS’ – and it’s arguably even better than the albums they made in their mid-60s heyday?

Er, hang on, I hear you say, how can The Mamas &  The Papas have an album of new material out when 3 of them are dead – Mama Cass Elliot since 1974?

Well, of course, it’s not the original 4 members – though leader John Phillips (died 2001) is present throughout, had a hand in writing all the songs but one and produced and arranged all the material. Original Papa Denny Doherty (died 2007) is on many of the numbers – with Phillips’ protégé Scott Mackenzie (of ‘San Franciso’ fame) on others. The Mamas this time around are John’s daughter Mackenzie Phillips, more than surpassing stepmother Michelle Phillips in the role of soprano while the rotund contralto role of Cass is given a pretty reasonable pastiche by the nearly-as-rotund Spanky McFarlane (once of Mamas & Papas soundalikes Spanky & Our Gang). The music, which was actually recorded at various sessions in the 1980s by the touring Mamas & Papas and their backing bands, still treads the pathway between bright pop and more adventurous rock-oriented material that made the originals so appealing to so many different types of audience. The tilt of several numbers towards Caribbean and African music would have put The Mamas & The Papas in the vanguard of Western acts exploring ‘World Music’ had they been released at the time.

And those famous harmonies…? As full and as gorgeous as ever!

The Mamas & The Papas mattered to me
So why am I writing about them on a sociopsychological blog? Simple: The Mamas & The Papas mattered to me…but their story has something to teach us all.

The old wives’ adage has it that, while you may move onto far greater loves, you never quite forget your first love…and The Mamas & The Papas were my first love in music. The Beatles, The Beach Boys and The Monkees had all caught my pubescent attention but it was The Mamas & The Papas I first fell in love with. I remember, as a 14-year-old in 1968, falling to my knees and thanking God when BBC Radio 1 played the first single from the group’s fourth and final album – the one they almost failed to complete, such were the tensions in the group. I think I understand something  of why youngsters and not-so-youngsters-of-a-certain-age are camping out overnight and paying ludicrous prices for tickets to the Take That/Robbie Williams reunion shows!

Onstage 1966 – l-r: bassist Joe Osborne, Michelle Phillips, Cass Elliot, John Phillips and Denny Doherty. Courtesy www.casselliot.com

Onstage 1966 – l-r: bassist Joe Osborne, Michelle Phillips, Cass Elliot, John Phillips and Denny Doherty. Courtesy www.casselliot.com

Music can have an incredibly powerful effect on development – especially if the makers of that music have something to tell you about yourself and your development. And to a spotty 14-year-old torn between RED indulgence and BLUE conformity, yearning to find ‘me’…oh, and worrying about getting my first shag!…The Mamas & The Papas with their beatnik outfits, little beards (on the Papas!), soaring optimistic harmonies and songs of freedom and romance offered keys to identity and direction that proved irresistible.

Of course, I did move on to ‘greater loves’ – Jefferson Airplane, Fairport Convention, The Pentangle and the Crosby Stills & Nash family of bands all offered enticement into more adventurous musical and cultural spheres. Plus, they all had longevity! Apart from a very brief and messy reunion in 1971 – tainted by a generally lacklustre album – The Mamas & The Papas were gone by mid-1968, after just 2.5 years at the top.

As I explored my new, greater musical loves, though, I never quite forgot that first love. I would be thrilled to read the occasional titbit about the 4 members in the music/entertainment press; but, generally speaking, the 1970s were not kind to the ex-Mamas and Papas. Until her death in 1974, Cass struggled to find a public identity somewhere between the rocker she had been and the fluffy middle-of-the-road entertainer the variety TV show appearances called for. After a couple or forgettable solo albums, Denny disappeared into alcoholic obscurity – though in the 1990s he re-emerged in his native Canada as a minor theatrical and TV personality. Michelle also made a forgettable solo album, had a couple of stabs at movie stardom and then settled into a journeyman career as a ‘soap’ actress (Knots Landing and Beverley Hills 90210).

John’s much praised 1970 solo album ‘WOLFKING OF LA’ confirmed what many pundits had long said: that his was the genius in the group and that his career was the one to follow. The lyrics on ‘WOLFKING’ also made explicit for the first time what many insiders had known for years: that John’s personal life was highly excessive in terms of both sex (eg: many, many infidelities to wife Michelle) and drugs (conspicuous consumption  – eg: pot, acid, uppers, downers…).

Of course, drug references had been slipped into a number of  Mamas & Papas songs – not all of them discretely – viz: “altars of acid” in the second album’s ‘Strange Young Girls’ – while it was well known that the Phillipses’ marriage had a lot of troubles. (Michelle’s unceremonious but temporary sacking in 1966 made it impossible to hide – though it would be years later before her affairs with Doherty and Gene Clark of The Byrds were general public knowledge.) But the sheer exuberance of their harmonies and the grandma-friendly version of hippies they portrayed for the media made it possible for the most part to gloss over the worst. Post the Manson gang murders that terrorised the rich hippies in the Hollywood Hills, post the Altamont disaster that so quickly dispelled the we-can-change-the-world optimism generated by the Woodstock festival, ‘WOLFKING’ was much darker in tone. Almost a premonition of the way John Phillips’ life was going to go.

Addiction and unreleased albums
The times were the times, of course. Up the coast in San Francisco in 1966 the GREEN vMEME was liberating young RED into excesses of long, indulgent psychedelic jams, pot and acid by the truckload and free sex ‘love-ins’ – all in the name of liberating the human spirit. (What a meme!)

As hippie royalty in London, 1967

As hippie royalty in London, 1967

As news of what was going on in San Francisco began to leak out, in Los Angeles the music industry’s carefully-crafted empty-the-kids’-pockets pop-folk tunes suddenly looked ‘square’. Not for long. John Phillips wrote ‘San Francisco’ for Scott Mackenzie which went to number 1; and he and Mamas & Papas producer Lou Adler staged the Monterey Pop Festival (June 1967), with its ‘Love & Flowers’ motif and appearances by all the leading San Francisco bands. In a couple of moves, Phillips’ ORANGE had accommodated rebel San Francisco into the music business. Of course, the real hippies in San Francisco knew they’d been screwed; but it was Scott Mackenzie at number 1 and doing the interviews, not the Grateful Dead. To the uninitiated it looked for a while as if The Mamas & The Papas were leaders of the hippie movement. From then on most of the San Francisco bands, how ever much they dissented at times, generally co-operated with the music industry as it gave them undreamt-of wealth and fame in return.

From there on, however, it was an accelerating downhill ride for John Phillips. ‘WOLFKING’ was lauded but didn’t sell that well; and the commercial and artistic failure of the Mamas & Papas 1971 reunion album (the first without Adler) for the first time suggested not everything John did was genius. A second solo album was partly recorded and then abandoned and an attempt to launch an off-Broadway musical under the patronage of Andy Warhol ended in ridicule. Things then went from very bad to incredibly worse when he made a second attempt at his second solo album, with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones backing and producing. In his just-published autobiography ‘LIFE’, Richards admits to turning Phillips onto heroin. So much heroin and cocaine was consumed by Richards and Phillips that the sessions overran considerably and the label (Atlantic) buried the final mix delivered to them. With the Stones desperately trying to get Richards cleaned up enough to attend to their own business and John in no shape to promote the album or tour, Atlantic’s decision undoubtedly made sense at the time. When the results were finally released as ‘PAY, PACK & FOLLOW’ just before John’s death in 2001, it was clear just how good the Phillips/Stones mesh was. At the time, in 1978, a combination of drug addiction and Atlantic’s decision effectively ended John’s musical career…for then.

A little over 2 years later John was arrested as part of a complex drug-dealing conspiracy. His money gone on drugs and living in squalor, emaciated and with many of the veins in his body collapsed from repeated injections, the arrest almost certainly saved his life.

The high sex drive, the compulsive and sometimes impulsive behaviour, and the ruthlessness Phillips is all quite open about – to the point of boastful arrogance – in his autobiography ‘PAPA JOHN’ (1986), are indicators that his temperament was rather high in Psychoticism. This, in a climate of RED self-indulgence and sybaritic excess, almost made John’s addictive behaviour all but inevitable – without him having the understanding of his nature and thereby the means to limit its natural tendency to excess. Keith Richards writes: “I’ve never seen a guy become a junkie that quick.”

The RED vMEME will lock into a psychoticist temperament to form a centre of gravity. Once established, such a centre of gravity in thought and behaviour can be incredibly difficult to break. In John Phillips’ case, it destroyed his career and all but killed him.

Once his career as a drug dealer was forcibly ended and he had medical help, however, it seems a vMEME harmonic of PURPLE striving for safety and ORANGE manipulation enabled John to escape a serious prison sentence. He and daughter Mackenzie, also dealing with serious addiction problems and sacked from her role in the sitcom One Day at a Time went into rehab together and then turned themselves into anti-drugs counsellors. The pair worked the TV talk shows where the Sanguine dimension of John’s temperament made him seem affable, charming and oh-so nice; his ORANGE vMEME manipulated this in his apparent repentance for the stupidity which had gotten him into drug hell. How could they lock away such a nice man who had suffered so much? It worked. In total John spent less than a month behind bars.

More unreleased albums…and incest?
In 1981 John took up the Mamas & Papas’ name again with Doherty, Mackenzie and Spanky. (They were sometimes billed as ‘The New Mamas & The Papas’.) With a crack backing band, initially led by ex-David Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson, the new group scored TV appearances and interest from record labels. Briefly it seemed Lou Adler might even work with them again.

The new Mamas & Papas - l-r: Spanky McFarlane, John Phillips, Mackenzie Phillips and Denny Doherty. Photo copyright © 1982 Allan Tannenbaum

The new Mamas & Papas – l-r: Spanky McFarlane, John Phillips, Mackenzie Phillips and Denny Doherty. Photo copyright © 1982 Allan Tannenbaum

Somehow that record deal never happened. In spite of the high quality tracks the group laid down at John’s expense – the best of which now comprise ‘MANY MAMAS & PAPAS’  – which would have given the record company an  album to put out…. In spite of John and Scott Mackenzie’s ‘Kokomo’ which  The Beach Boys recorded and took to number one – the original (with both Scott and Denny singing) is on ‘MANY MAMAS & PAPAS’ – thus demonstrating John could still write a hit song…. In spite of excellent live reviews….The failure of The (new) Mamas & The Papas to score that record deal is inexplicable – unless, as some have speculated, John simply rubbed up too many people the wrong way. Certainly John’s Psychoticist nature was working against him again as he spent a large part of the 1980s battling alcoholism – necessitating a liver transplant in 1992. His arrogance is reflected in his comment, upon being caught by a journalist drinking in a bar several months after the transplant: “I was trying to break in the new liver.”

On the back of finally getting ‘PAY, PACK & FOLLOW’ out in 2001 and the interest that generated, John was able to complete a third solo album ‘PHILLIPS 66’ just days before he died. It is perhaps best described as interesting and enjoyable – but hardly essential. Over the past few years his estate and the Varese Sarabande label have put out much of the unreleased material from the 1970s. While, a lot of it is in demo form or is clearly incomplete, there’s more than enough to justify the ‘genius’ tag…if only his Psychoticism hadn’t made sex and drugs more important to him in the moment!

It seems the final coda to the tragedy of the John Phillips’ story is Mackenzie’s claim in her 2009 autobiography ‘HIGH ON ARRIVAL’ that he raped her on the eve of her first wedding in 1979 and that they had a 10-year consensual sexual relationship which ended only when she became pregnant and wasn’t sure whether the father might be her father. (He paid for the abortion.)

These revelations have divided the Phillips’ clan bitterly. Michelle and Genevieve Waite, to whom John was married during the early years of the supposed incestuous affair, have strongly refuted Mackenzie’s claims – primarily on the bases that, for all his faults, he simply wasn’t that kind of man and that Mackenzie is a drug addict so why should anyone believe her? (Mackenzie has continued to have recurrent drug-problems – and was sentenced to drug rehabilitation in 2008 for possession of cocaine.) Michelle and John’s daughter Chynna has contradicted her mother, saying that Mackenzie had told her in 1997 of the relationship.

Unfortunately Michelle and Genevieve don’t know their Psychology very well. If that RED/psychoticist lock was in place, it’s perfectly possible John did rape Mackenzie – by Mackenzie’s own account, they were both whacked out on drugs at the time so the ‘normal’ restraints on unacceptable behaviour (the inhibitors in the dorsal area of the frontal cortex) might not have been functioning as they should have been.

Mackenzie and John in the 1980s

Mackenzie and John in the 1980s

Mackenzie initially described the incestuous relationship that developed following her father raping her as ‘consensual’. Certainly in some of the photos of John and Mackenzie taken during the 1980s they do look incredibly close – though that doesn’t necessarily mean it was sexual. There was some kind of fall-out between Doherty and Phillips in the mid-1980s that led to Scott McKenzie taking Doherty’s place in The Mamas & The Papas. Denny’s daughter Jessica Woods backed Mackenzie’s claims in 2009, saying she knew about the affair from her father. Maybe that was the reason for the fall-out which has never been otherwise explained? (Doherty did return to The Mamas & The Papas to sing alongside Scott when John was ill with liver failure – though by then McKenzie and Spanky had left the group, to be replaced by 2 new Mamas.)

John and Mackenzie in the 1990s

John and Mackenzie in the 1990s

Working against Mackenzie’s claims are photos of her and John taken in the late 1990s when they look as close as ever – though Mackenzie was supposedly bitter about what her father had done to her. Also interesting is the fact that Mackenzie was heavily featured in the tribute show for her father in 2001. The house band for the evening was led by Shane Fontayne, The Mamas & The Papas’ back-up guitarist for much of the 1980s and Mackenzie’s on-again/off-again paramour for much of the 1980s and 1990s, with them entering into a short-lived marriage in 1996. If Doherty knew, it stands to reason Fontayne would have known…but with a much more personal interest in the affair – his girlfriend cheating on him with her father?!?!? Yet Fontayne made the John Phillips tribute evening work. Either the incest didn’t happen, Fontayne really didn’t know or else he’s a very forgiving man.

We’ll almost certainly never know for sure whether John and Mackenzie had an incestuous affair. Thanks to cognitive primacy, however, I find it hard not to listen to Mackenzie’s 2 sterling contributions to ‘MANY MAMAS & PAPAS’ – one about the heartbreak of disappointed love (“And I always thought that you’d take care of me”) and one about the faults of her lover while on the road (“Before the show you gotta have your glass of vodka/Something up your nose”) – and not read the relationship with John into them.

The depth of the hurt Mackenzie’s claims have inflicted upon the Phillips clan is perhaps best illustrated by Bijou Phillips, daughter of John and Genevieve: “When I was 13, Mackenzie told me that she had a consensual sexual relationship with our father. This news was confusing and scary, as I lived alone with my father since I was 3. I didn’t know what to believe, and it didn’t help that shortly thereafter Mackenzie told me it didn’t happen. Mackenzie’s history with our father is hers, but also clouded with 30 years of drug abuse.

 The life I had with my father was very different. He was Mr Mom, encouraging and loving. The man that raised me would never be capable of doing such things, and if he was, it is heartbreaking to me to think that my family would leave me alone with him. [statement to The Oprah Winfrey Show, 25/0909]

When…my sister told me about this, it ruined my life and my relationship with my father. Up till that point, I was a normal kid. I got good grades, loved my horse, was pretty innocent. I moved out to NYC at 13. Started doing drugs, did not talk to my Dad anymore… I was deeply fucked up. I’m 29 now, I’ve talked to everyone who was around during that time, I’ve asked the hard questions. I do not believe my sister. Our father is many things; this is not one of them. My dad and I made up when I was 20, a year before he died. I’m sad I lost those years with him, and I lost those years at home.” [Bijou’s Twitter page, 29/09/09]

The legacy of John Phillips and The Mamas & The Papas
John Phillips is often spoken of as being one of the greatest American pop songwriter/producer/arrangers of the 1960s, perhaps second only to The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson (who himself spent 30 years trapped in his sandbox, more than partly due to drug abuse). It’s also been said that Phillips’ talent was squandered, sacrificed to drug abuse and a debauched lifestyle.

Now we know it’s not entirely true his talent was squandered. Thanks to ‘MANY MAMAS & PAPAS’ – which, unlike the other posthumous fragments released by Varese Sarabande, is entirely complete – we have a shining memento of Phillips’ genius and The Mamas & The Papas grown up from the optimistic hippies of 1967. The ‘darkness’ which so pervaded Phillips’ 70s solo work is still present in some of the songs of ‘MANY MAMAS & PAPAS’ but it’s more contained within the massed voices of the singers. It’s also balanced by songs of optimism, romance and even humour. As interesting as Phillips’ solo work is, it’s probably a no-brainer that the best context for him was The Mamas & The Papas.

Let’s hope  ‘MANY MAMAS & PAPAS’ becomes John’s final epitaph, rather than Mackenzie’s grisly tales (whether true or not).

Early in this Blog, I justified its posting by saying: The Mamas & The Papas mattered to me…but their story has something to teach us all.

That something is that, just like we need to get better at caring for people in all contexts and walks in life, we need to get better at looking after our talented and successful artists and entertainers. By that, I don’t mean paying them more than the already-ludicrous amounts of money they get. What I mean is that we need to get better at teaching them how to handle the ’beast’ of celebrity and the resources to indulge yourself in whatever you fancy.

The history of sports and the entertainment industry since World War II is littered with stars who overindulged and fell – particularly young men high in Psychoticism. From George Best to John Terry in soccer…from  James Fox to Heath Ledger in the movies…from the Stones’ Brian Jones to Pete Doherty in music….

Would John Phillips have coped better if it his nature had been explained to him, what would happen to him if he didn’t control it and what he needed to do to control it…? Possibly not. But at least we, who benefitted so much from his music, would have had a go at helping him to help himself.

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2 Responses

  1. mama cass says

    Thank You for this article! Too bad he through his life away. He could have been more.

    Like (1)
  2. Rbcsoup says

    Thanks for your article. You raise some good points--understandable by even someone like me who got a "C" in psychology in college!

    Another thing that interests me about John---not unlike Van Gogh, Brian Wilson or Hemingway is that sometimes I think the incredible dose of creativity God gives certain individuals is almost too much for them to always handle, thus driving them to abuse of substances or madness....

    Like (2)