John Phillips, the mastermind behind the sunshine-pop sound of the Mamas and the Papas, as well as a notorious drug abuser, must have been an extremely frustrating person to work with. Gifted but irretrievably dissolute, Phillips seems more interested in romanticizing failure and squandering talent rather than applying his ample supply of it with any consistency. Even in his chart-ruling heyday in the mid-1960s, he seemed drawn to themes of disappointment, betrayal, and regret (albeit cleverly masked by resplendent harmonies and catchy melodies), and after going solo, he made a career of living those themes out. Through the lost decades that followed the Mamas and Papas’ breakup, he continued to show just enough brilliance in his intermittent efforts to make records that couldn’t be written off entirely, no matter how many of the attempts ended up fizzling out, leaving behind a disarray of unfocused, unfinished masters.
The sessions that have now yielded Pussycat, the third in Varèse Sarabande’s series of reissues of solo Phillips material, are a quintessential example. In 1976, after the Rolling Stones negotiated a vanity label for themselves, Mick Jagger signed Phillips, coming off several largely dormant years of dabbling with film scores and theatrical efforts, to record a solo album for the new label in London. Jagger and Keith Richards would play on the record as well as produce it, and a star-studded ensemble of musicians were brought in to contribute, including Ron Wood, Mick Taylor (in his first reunion with his former Stones compatriots), Michelle Phillips, and percussionist Reebop Kwaku Baah from Traffic, among others. Phillips and Richards were a match made in junkie heaven, and they bonded so thoroughly that Richards and Anita Pallenberg moved into Phillips’ house in London during the sessions. Somewhat predictably, chaos ensued. Drug use reportedly escalated, and the sessions fell apart. Attempts were made to resurrect them later in New York, but the Stones by that time were at work in Paris on Some Girls, leaving a dispirited Phillips and engineer Harvey Jay Goldberg to try to bring the project to a close. They finished 10 songs and submitted them to Atlantic, Rolling Stones Records’ parent company. Unable to identify any hits in the miasma, the label shelved it. Phillips would later buy back the masters, which hadn’t been released in their original mixes, until now. (The 2001 release Pay Pack and Follow offers some of the same tracks in radically different mixes.)
Pussycat is a relic of those halcyon days in the 1970s when margins at the major labels were fat enough to allow them to coddle rock royalty wrestling with their egos and their growing irrelevance. Had it been released, Pussycat would have been at peace with the period’s other bloated indulgences, albums that put the tattered decadence and artistic foundering of legendary songwriters on full display: Leonard Cohen’s Death of a Ladies Man, Gene Clark’s No Other, and Nilsson’s own Pussy Cats. Almost despite themselves, each of these flamboyantly overproduced extravaganzas has a irreducible core of sadness, making the overkill layers of backing vocals and horn sections, and session pros jamming, shimmer with an evocative poignancy even when in a conventional sense, they kind of suck. Listeners get to vicariously experience the thrill of heedlessly burning through entertainment industry money, and recklessly destroying brain cells with substance abuse in the futile process of searching for a creative spark.
It’s a very specific sort of emotional vibe—luxury-line desperation—but if you’ve acquired a taste for it, it can make for sublime listening. Pussycat captures it best on such tracks as “Wilderness of Love,” which is built around this tagline that eats its own tail: “Languishing in the splendor of being lost in a wilderness of love.” Given the cast of characters on the record, it’s no surprise that it sounds like the Stones albums of the mid-‘70s, with a lot of casual grooves, somnambulist tempos, and ragged harmonies. “Oh Virginia” is a very faint echo of Exile on Main Street‘s country-inspired songs, and “She’s Only 14”, with its salacious jailbait lyrics, languid slide licks, and prominent Jagger backing vocals, seems like it could be a half-cooked Goat’s Head Soup outtake.
As is frequently the case with Phillips, he doesn’t hesitate to transform the potentially embarrassing details of his personal life into frank songs; “She’s Only 14”, inspired by his wayward daughter Mackenzie (of One Day at a Time fame), is typical. Phillips seems to find this approach irresistible, pitilessly recounting his own foibles as if putting the memories up for sale in song excuses his behavior. (Perhaps the most notorious example is “Let It Bleed, Genevieve”, from his first solo album. The song recounts his skin-popping heroin use with another woman while his girlfriend was upstairs having a miscarriage.)
But the album’s pinnacle is the title track, in which Phillips pours out his heart for the dancers at his favorite strip club, with whom he clearly empathizes. Phillips is never so compelling as when he’s singing about the habitats of broken dreams—strip clubs, junkie dens, southern California—and he has a knack for finding just the right blend of self-pity, sentimentality, and scorn to achieve true pathos. On this track, he’s complemented by an arrangement that suits the subject matter perfectly. The song ambles along, with Phillips confessing his intimate familiarity with the strip-club scene, and he sheepishly admits that if he had “a million hearts to give,” he would give one to all the girls who work onstage. And then a booming backing vocalist breaks in to repeat the line, bringing the song to a complete halt, as if to remind us of the true magnitude of the wish he just expressed: that he deeply feels the pain of those compelled to expose and exploit themselves for a jeering or indifferent universe of spectators, and he wishes he could comfort them. He wishes he could comfort himself. But then the song lurches back into its insouciant rhythm, undermining its own poignancy. In this, it is a microcosm of the album, if not Phillips’ entire career.