Losing California

John Phillips
John the Wolfking of L.A.
Varese Sarabande

Despite leading the massively successful Mamas and the Papas and becoming a principal architect of the influential, oft-imitated California Sound, John Phillips isn’t as widely celebrated as he probably should be for shaping the sound of 1960s pop; he belongs on any list of the legends of the period. But his cocaine-and-heroin-fueled self-destruction throughout the 1970s, which culminated in jail time for drug trafficking, probably didn’t help his reputation. And perhaps because the harmony-laden sound he’s best known for conjures images of hippie hedonism, feel-good indolence and lazy sunshine, people regard him as more musically lightweight than he proves upon more careful listening. Yes, he did write the dopey 1967 anthem “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” for Scott McKenzie, but each of the Mamas and Papas hits are deeper than you’d expected and fairly dark if you pay attention to the lyrics; they are mostly filled with disappointment, ennui, broken relationships and futile fantasies of escape — California dreaming on such a winter’s day.

The lone solo album he released is even darker, almost tragic if taken in the context of the shambles his life would soon be in. Eponymous, but generally known as John, Wolfking of L.A. (from a poem by his wife, Genevieve Waite, that’s printed on the back cover), the record is shot through with cynicism and references to junkies, letches, hangers-on and a whole host of summer-of-love casualties trying to put together the pieces. It reveals how the California dream dissolves not into a nightmare but into spiritless malaise. But as is typical with Phillips, he masks the misery with musical red herrings, in this instance with a languid, mellow country-rock sound reminiscent of the post-Gram Parsons Byrds, supplied by the finest L.A. studio musicians of the era. Many of the album’s songs are deeply personal — the opener, “April Anne” runs down some of his ex-wife Michelle Phillips more-famous lovers in coded, roman à clef form; “Let It Bleed, Genevieve” recounts his future wife’s miscarriage, — but they are of that rare form of self-revelation that invites listeners in rather than alienates them.

The cohesiveness of the songs’ sound and mood makes the album larger than the sum of its parts — its only false note is an ill-conceived Satchmo-style scat break in “Down the Beach” — but some tracks stand out. The most devastating is the deceptively easygoing “Topanga Canyon,” which relocates the Velvet Underground’s “Waiting for My Man” to Southern California and the noted hippie enclave in the mountains outside Los Angeles. In place of Lou Reed’s restlessness, Phillips is laconic; instead of gritty urban squalor, sun-soaked ennui. While the song is about junkies, for whom it’s hard to summon all that much sympathy, the chorus suggests nonetheless how drug addiction evokes larger failures, serial self-disappointments: “Oh, mama, I’m in deep water, and it’s way, way over my head. / Everyone thought I was smarter than to be mislead.” As the junkie waits for his man in fruitless anticipation, he is crushed by the sense that those who have cared about him have been waiting in the same way for him — waiting for him to achieve something definite, something he can’t say he is incapable of but something he nonetheless can’t bring ever himself to accomplish, something on the order of the everyday business of life, in all its humdrum plainness. Instead, he’s on the fringe of the continent, in a forlorn canyon abandoned to drifters and dropouts, suffocating on leisure, his responsibilities reduced to waiting around to get high. You don’t have to be a junkie to appreciate what the song’s getting at — anyone who has ever felt oppressed by the feeling of being ordinary will recognize the despair in the lyrics, the feeling that the strategies one has chosen to make life seem special have turned out to be traps.

The closing song, “Holland Tunnel,” has a suitably valedictory feel, suffusing mundane lines about road trip preparations with epic portent. The gospel-style backing vocals make it seem as though this is last voyage the addressee will ever be taking, and the solemnity somehow suits the imagery Phillips evokes of the American highway: “This is your last chance for the Howard Johnson’s”; “Pick up your ticket for the New Jersey turnpike, and drive, baby, drive.” It should be corny, or maudlin, but instead it’s strangely moving, hinting at the pathos and the loneliness of long-distance travel, the sense that you’ll still be alone in the car even if you think you’ve gotten where you were going.

Though John, Wolfking of L.A. is now heralded as a lost classic, audiences at the time were indifferent, and its failure may have set Phillips adrift. The material on Jack of Diamonds, the second in Varese’s planned series of Phillips-related reissues, are recordings made for the first of his several attempted-but-never-realized follow-ups to Wolfking, in 1972 and 1973. These are joined with a couple of songs from his soundtrack for Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud (including a reworking of “Holland Tunnel” called “The First and Last Thing You Do”), a few from his off-Broadway musical about space travel, and a few outtakes from the sessions for the Mamas and Papas’ 1971 contractual obligation album, People Like Us. Abandoning the plaintive country of the previous record, several of these songs — “Devil’s on the Loose”, “Black Broadway”, “Chinatown” — find Phillips backed with horns, trying something in the Al Kooper-esque, jazzed-up blues-rock vein that would later be epitomized by the Saturday Night Live band in the late 1970s. The setting doesn’t entirely suit him, not his frail voice nor his acerbic songwriting, which gains its sting from juxtaposition with more-soothing sounds. Phillips mostly sounds tired, as though he were unable to keep up with the backing music’s energy.

The lack of unity that you’d expect from an odds-and-ends collection like this makes for uneven listening, and many feel unpolished in a bad way — Phillips sounds as ragged as Nilsson in the Pussy Cats era. Taken individually, though, the songs can be compelling. “Cup of Tea,” a typically deceptive piece of orchestral pop with despondent lyrics, and the jaunty, Lovin’ Spoonful-like “Revolution on Vacation” are among the most complete sounding — with what sound like finished arrangements — probably because these were actually released as a (largely ignored) single in 1972. The brief ballad “Last of the Unnatural Acts,” another of the Brewster McCloud cuts, is the most moving song on the disc; it quickly sums up the human condition as insignificant against the backdrop of nature, no matter how unnatural and perverse our behavior becomes.

Others tracks are less impressive: “Stepping to the Stars/Penthouse of Your Mind,” apparently demos, sound mastered from severely warped tape and signal the entirely undesired return of Phillips’ Louis Armstrong impression. “Flawless Space,” a sax-driven instrumental, goes nowhere. The Mamas and the Papas outtake “Fantastic Four” was left off the underwhelming People Like Us for a reason, though it’s a relief to hear Denny Doherty’s voice on “Honeymoon,” an early version of that album’s “No Dough”, after a disc full of Phillips’ battling his vocal cords.

The collection’s main selling point may be its two versions of “Me and My Uncle” (one of which is retitled “Jack of Diamonds”), a song about card cheats he wrote in the early 1960s. Judy Collins covered it first, and the song then became a staple of Grateful Dead shows for decades. The “Jack of Diamonds” version features different lyrics — shifting the emphasis away from the uncle to the Jack of Diamonds, which may or may not be the card from the deck — additional verses elaborate the figure into some sort of mystical magician character. The other version, with the straightforward original lyrics, is more understated and effective. (It also lacks the sax solo that mars the other take.)

But the disc more than anything gives a sense of the piecemeal nature of Phillips’ career from that point forward, full of false starts and unrealized projects and he slipped further into obscurity. It may better to ignore everything that came after Wolfking and regard that as his last uncompromised and complete statement, his own final judgment on his career as a pop musician and on the lifestyle he found himself compelled to live.