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Thoughts on Papa John

I've been reading Papa John, the autobiography of Mamas and the Papas founder John Phillips. I never thought much of him growing up, and would have thought reading his memoir would be tantamount to reading one by a guy from Three Dog Night or something. Now, with the benefit of having his solo albums readily available, I realize how grossly misinformed I was. For one thing, I stopped taking well-arranged harmonies for granted and came to see what a rare thing the Mamas and Papas were. And not only are their records unexpectedly deep, but even the hits have a surprising emotional ambivalence (not to mention a Sticky Fingers-like level of drug references). And Phillips's first solo record, John, Wolf King of L.A., has become one of my favorite rock albums; on the surface it's saturated in narcissism with lyrics confronting unnecessary failure in the midst of decadent excess, but beyond that it's about a very recognizable kind of depression, of being able to recognize high expectations and even the means with oneself to meet them but balking at the effort and instead withdrawing into various fantasies and feints. I think I identify with that to an altogether unwholesome degree.

Anyway, I expected his autobiography would shed more light on that aspect of Phillips' complex character, but instead it mostly reads like just another symptom of his peculiar malady, an at times appallingly unreflective memory dump that seems a dodge, a cop out. His music clearly reflects how acutely he is aware of the limitations of hedonism, but in recounting his decisions to indulge in it with no regard for his companions or his own health, he is generally powerless to do anything but register his own selfishness as if it were an inevitable fact. He habitually flees responsibility and rather than figure out what makes causes his flight, he instead evinces a pathological expectation of total forgiveness for all his transgressions. The only excuse he can muster is a kind of cretinous hippie hedonism, typified by such passages as this: "The France was as elegant as you could get. We had our own wine stewards and did our best to consume as much of the dope as possible. We Swam, read, sunbathed, drank, and I stayed high the whole time." Sometimes there's a dash of philosophy: "The dope was out on the tables, in vases and bowls, and money never seemed to change hands. That's how I wanted it in my house. We were there to share and party. And the partying never let up." Probably an interest in making the book commercial led to to an emphasis on such scenes, and Phillips offers all sorts of sensationalistic details -- he claims to have had a threesome of some sort with Warren Beatty and Jane Fonda, and he says he turned down an invitation to go party at 10050 Cielo Drive the night the Manson family showed up and murdered everyone on the premises.

In running through the inventory of outrageous parties and famous fucked-up friends and sexual partners, it's weird how Phillips seems like a spectator to his own memories; he sounds like he's trying to convince himself of what a great righteous time it was even though he seems to have been somewhat passive in the face of everything that overwhelmed him. Unexpected success on an unfathomable scale seems to have permanently disoriented him, made all his choices seem arbitrary or choreographed by some mysterious outside force. Throughout the book, it's clear that he had no special aspiration to express the ideals of the 1960s, yet he ends up claiming them even as the zeitgeist co-opted his songwriting skills. After all, one of his signal achievements was to turn the youth movement into a jingle by writing "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)". And lost in the hype he generates for his past, Phillips seems to forget that the money had to come from somewhere. The square record-buying public's funds were ultimately fueling this drug-consumption spree, and they didn't really get to share in the piles of pills at the Bel Air party. The best we get is the vicarious appreciation of his lifestyle as it filters out in gossip magazines, self-referential songs and biographies like the one I'm reading.

This brings me to something I often wonder about, which is the degree to which people like Phillips are aware of the vicarious potential of their own decadence -- if they feel driven to it as a kind of marketing program, particularly since selling pop music is as much about lifestyles as it is hooks and choruses. His memoir offers few clues. That's probably inevitable since any sign of self-consciousness on this front would render the whole edifice inauthentic. But I suspect that the fantasy demands of a mass audience impose themselves on celebrities without their knowing quite what they are facing. They end up violating all these bourgeois norms (fidelity, prudence, thriftiness, hard work, punctuality, etc.) out of compulsion more than pleasure. (A lyric from Phillips's "Someone's Sleeping" captures this: "From a second-story window I caught a glimpse of someone's life and it was mine, and my face was dark and dirty and I cried.")

Stars' boundless notoriety makes the illusion of their absolute autonomy all the more intoxicating, while in truth they have no more control than the rest of us. They merely confront a different set of limits. They seem forced to adopt decadence or peculiarity as a kind of defense, an escape from the mania that inadvertently fuels it further. The more remote they become from ordinary life, the more intriguing they become and the force that pushes them further out into inexplicableness becomes more and more powerful. If they give in to it, they achieve a kind of pure celebrity that has no pretense of a connection to any sort of achievement. Just look at what happened to Michael Jackson and Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears, et. al. This happened to John Phillips as well, though as he faded to obscurity, he was left with the far more conventional fate of being a straight-up dope fiend.

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