John: 'It Sounded Like the Mamas and the Papas'

A band gets back together

Mamas and Papas, circa 1970 Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Los Angeles – The Beach Boys, on their first day of rehearsals six weeks ago, sent them a telegram: YOUR SECRET IS SAFE WITH US. And it was. Even now, with their record contract signed, few people know – for sure–that the Mamas and the Papas are back together.

The Word doesn't travel so fast any more in Hollywood. The Mamas and the Papas – Michelle and Cass, John and Denny – had in fact been rehearsing, almost daily, with a bunch of new John Phillips high-protein harmony and counterpoint tunes, in the dining room in Cass' house, deep in the leafy bowels of Laurel Canyon. But who's to say, or tell? In May, 1971, the Strip consists of the Whisky, just shut down by a fire, and "the scene" is scattered out to Anaheim and Long Beach and Inglewood and Pasadena, where the big weekend synthetic hardened rock concerts are staged.

Still, a lot of old friends are still making music – John Sebastian, by himself; Crosby and Stills, sometimes with Nash and Young; the Byrds – that is, Roger McGuinn; and the Beach Boys – even with Brian Wilson's earaches. Producer Lou Adler, "Uncle Lou" in older, friendlier days, is near the top again, at A&M with his Ode Records and Carole King and that new circle. Even Scott MacKenzie, who coattailed himself onto the Monterey International Pop Festival stage with his San Francisco hippie song, and Barry McGuire, along with Eric Hord, guitarist on the Mamas and Papas albums, are back, also with Ode.

And so the Mamas and the Papas have re-formed, in at least one sense of the word. They broke up two and a half years ago, in a heap of depression, after only 30 concerts, maybe, and four albums, the fourth one squeezed out of them by pressure of contract law.

"We had started it," Cass said, "and in the course of doing that album, I think we all realized it wasn't happening." Added John: "We weren't supposed to do that album emotionally at that point. We needed that eight months or a year off to get back together again and work. But contractually we had to finish that album by April. So once again, the problem of the businessman calling the artist's shot. And it never works." Since their break-up, they've seen their label, Dunhill, re-package their material like record-men possessed – Farewell to the First Golden Era; Golden Era Volume 2; 16 of their Greatest Hits. Plus a second version of  If  You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, plus, most recently the atrocious The Mamas & the Papas/Monterey International Pop Festival live album. There was even an Anthology, including session talk and interviews, released nearly two years ago.

And yet they have re-signed with Dunhill Records. Contract pressures and twists.

"There's no way to tell you all these things," said John Phillips, the tall, tanned, wolfking-haired leader at the head of the rehearsal table, "without a graph. We've all signed so many contracts with Jay Lasker [president of Dunhill] that it's probably a volume that stands a foot high. And we're all in different circumstances at this point. Cass gets out in September. Michelle's out of her contract right now, and she's re-signing just for this album. Denny's under like a three-year contract with Dunhill as a single artist now – which he just signed, and Mr. Lasker is so sick of me he wants me to leave as soon as this album's over."

"But it really doesn't matter," said Cass. "Shit. After everything that's gone down, I don't really give a shit. I'm glad to do this last album for them. I wish it were their last album."

The Mamas and the Papas are not back together because it's fun meeting with Lasker and Dunhill. The Monterey album, Phillips said, is out under their protest. "We didn't sign releases for it. It's just one of Jay Lasker's things. He said 'Sue me. I'm putting it out.' " But the Mamas and the Papas counterpointed in more than just musical ways, and listening to them now, playing with each other verbally and musically, it seems apparent that it was just a matter of time.

Cass: I don't know how it happened.

Michelle: I started it.

Cass: When I was working with Dave Mason, Michelle came over after coming back from New Mexico [where she had been with Dennis Hopper as his wife for two weeks] and she said, "I have a great idea!" – frantically – "Let's go on the road!" She'd go on the road for a dollar and a half, I think. And then I was working with Dave, and I didn't do anything about it – or hear anything about it for a lot of months. And all of a sudden my manager called and said, "Come in for a meeting and talk about making an album with the Mamas and the Papas." But even when Michelle brought it up, I really had to think seriously about it – whether I personally was interested in doing it – and I was. I was into the other thing, but I felt it was right; it was coming to a point where it was right for the four of us to get together again.

Michelle: I knew then that we were gonna do it. Everyone wanted to at that point. John didn't, for other reasons that we can't mention.

John: Everyone was saying no for three years, then one day everyone said yes. We felt we'd just sort of give it a try and we got together and started singing, and that is what made it work.

Cass: Also, John had material. I knew there'd have to be a musical reason, not just an emotional reason. If it's not as great as the first Mamas and Papas album – if we don't try to be that good again – then it's wrong for us to get back together.

John: Everyone was saying, "Do the old songs again and just do an album quick and we'll make some bread on it."

Like who?

The people who put deals together.

Michelle mentioned touring. Does that idea excite you at all?

Cass: Aggh! Never! That would be the last thing to excite me.

Michelle: I'd love it.

Cass: I love to perform, but I hate the road. It's a pain in the ass.

Michelle: I just don't want to be away for a long time. I'd like to tour for ten days, and then come back–for three months.

Cass: But I'm sure we will go on the road because – Shit, this is really gonna sound dumb or jive, but I really think when you make records    . . . and people buy your records . . . they have a right . . . to . . .

John: To play 'em.

Cass, picking it up: To play 'em and to see 'em . . . 

Denny: And open 'em. You get an album cover and a record!

* * *

The Mamas & the Papas are now all actual mothers and fathers – John and Michelle had China; John and actress Genevieve Waite, with whom he lives in Malibu Colony, just had Tamerlane; Cass had daughter Owen four years ago, and Denny, who spent the last couple of years alternating between "just hanging around" in Florida or "just sitting around" his home near downtown Los Angeles, has a daughter, Jessie, by his friend, Linda. Denny is pale and bearded these days, his hair as short as ever, his voice as smooth and his temper as tranquil as ever. Michelle Gilliam, through all her changes – working in Hopper's Last Movie in Peru and marrying him in Taos; singing a bit with Leonard Cohen earlier this year; now taking care of China and seeing Jack Nicholson (she'll be with him in Cannes for the opening of his film Drive, He Said) is still best described as lovely.

Thin but not frail; angelic but not soft. She goes to Justin Smith's acting school three times a week, and she plays piano and guitar, and she'd like to do a solo album someday. But she is aware of limitations. "Basically, I'm the least musical of the group. I know I am. I have the least training, the least experience. I wasn't really a singer until I started singing with John." (In the New York folkie days, Michelle and John and Denny were the New Journeymen.)

Singing her parts, Michelle, in her red and amber checkered varsity sweater and jeans, hair tied back by a ribbon of white yarn, looks straight up at Denny, across the table, as if his face were a stained glass window, and she sings effortlessly. Singing behind John on "Lady Genevieve," she leaves her feet up on the table, "Torn from the willow/press your head/rest your head" . . . with her hands clasped, resting lightly between her legs.

"During that last album," she says, now sitting in Cass' dumpy, weedy backyard, "it was hard to come up with lyrics. We'd broken up. The closeness of our relationship is very important to the sound of our music." Now, she and John are casual good friends; it is difficult to be a friend when you've been a lover, but John and Michelle hold each other on a walk through the backyard toward a dog house, where they'll put their heads together to pose for pictures, just like old times. And they are friends.

Denny Doherty, too, was waiting patiently. "I just sat around, and in the interim I got a thing from Lasker saying I owed him this amount of money for no product. So I said 'Whatever's right,' and did an album." Whatcha Gonna Do was mostly country, with lots of vocals in the background, and more than a hint of nostalgia in the foreground:

I saw my house and I wanted to go home.
I miss you, or have you noticed how we all have grown
Our hair is getting longer and our way is getting stronger
And I know as I look back to where
I've been It's time to get together once again.
–"I Still Can't Hear the Music,"
Wingate Music Corp. 1971

"I myself was into the group," Doherty said. "I hadn't envisioned it stopping. So I just let it slide and figured it was a matter of time." Insular as he is,  he welcomes – maybe needs – the re-formation of the Mamas and the Papas. "I couldn't get as involved by myself as with other people," he said.

* * *

Michelle: I think the money is a big incentive for all of us . . . I really do.

Cass: I must say it isn't for me at this point, because now with my contract expiring with Dunhill, I can go to another record company and make a deal. And I have a lot of television lined up. And I'd worked myself out of debt, so now whatever I make belongs to me, and I've got a pretty nice career. And I know we're not gonna make lots of money from this album, because even if it sells a lot, by the nature of our contract, we don't get lots of money, so whatever I get is 1-1/4 percent of whatever, so that isn't it.

But it really – shit – I'm really a romanticist at heart. It makes me feel good. I like to be part of a group–that's why I sang with Dave Mason – to make music with other people is really a beautiful thing. I don't play an instrument, so I don't know how it feels to sit down and jam. What we do is perhaps a little more restricted than jamming, because we work out the parts and everything, but the high, I'm sure, is the same, if not better, because you know what's gonna happen, you know what the potential is – where it can take you. If the music were boring, I swear to you I wouldn't be sitting here.

John: There's not enough money around to make me sit in a room and sing every day. I'd rather lay around the beach and be broke. It's gotta be fun and good. And as soon as it's not . . .

Michelle: That's when we'll stop.

* * *

John Phillips, at the head of the table, strums his guitar and begins the singing session. The long wolfking face is constantly laughing. "I was leaving the house this morning and Genevieve started crying," he says. "I said, 'What's wrong,' and she said, 'I want to be one of the Mamas and the Papas!' Worst voice in the whole world."

The songs are all new ones. One of the first they sing is fireside, on-the-bed lovers' talk . . . "Just you and me . . . on our honeymoon," with Michelle and Cass holding voices. It is inspired love music, "wooden," as Crosby, Stills and Nash called it when they started singing it a couple of years ago, because it is natural and acoustic, but with Phillips' contrapuntal connections adding echoes, voices from on high, to the words.

"When we first started singing together again, it was funny," says John. "The first day – we were working on this song, as a matter of fact – and we hit this chord, and it was great. The room and the overtones were just flying around, and we hadn't heard it in years, and we started laughing. It sounded like the Mamas and the Papas."

John guides the others, feeding them cue words at the beginning of verses on "Lady Genevieve," then moving into "Pacific Coast Highway," a train-paced song with the backup singing bop-bada, bop bada baaa, and Phillips churning out a mixture of early Sixties hod rod music and Bobby Rydell "Kissing Time" runs on his guitar.

John: It's just that everything's been so bad for so long now… Everyone dying . . . in the two years since we broke up, it's been mayhem. [John knew people peripheral to the Sharon Tate circle; his Monterey Pop stage had been shared by, among others, Alan Wilson, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin; Hendrix is included in the footage shot so far on the film he and Michael Sarne were making on the lives of Lord Byron and Shelley.] Sometimes I wonder if we didn't drift apart just to save our lives.

Cass: That's one of the reasons we like the music so much. Because of John's feeling about happy endings and no dope songs and not because we want to preach. You can learn from something from another perspective besides a heavy one – whether it's humor or something soft that everybody can relate to – like some kind of love object. People will get the message.

John: Lennon's album really turned me off. He said "The dream is over," and I felt, "Too bad, you poor fucker." I don't think it is, you know. It's fun . . . and there's all that . . . what is it . . . hope.

* * *

Cass Elliot has gone through perhaps the most changes of all the Mamas and Papas. After the split-up, there was a further one – between her and John Phillips, when Dunhill put out "Dream a Little Dream of Me," from that final album, as her first solo single. Then she did kind of a Tiny Tim, announcing a weight-loss campaign and striking out for Las Vegas, and striking out, miserably. She put out numerous successful pop singles, "Make Your Own Kind of Music," "It's Getting Better," and "California Earthquake" among them. Besides the recordings, she launched a career as a TV variety show guest. But the albums, despite the professional musicianship, were one-dimensional, and the networks have canned almost all the music/variety shows from next season's logs, and Cass Elliot teamed up with David Mason last fall.

Now she is back – no longer a psychedelic mushroom," to be sure; no longer so free with her talk about the group's fortunes (on stage, her set introduction for "California Dreaming" was: "Here's a song that was partially responsible for our enormous wealth" – Now, she says, "We won't make those mistakes again.") But she's still very big, very harmonic, and very funny.

* * *

For a while – and it may still happen – there was talk about the Mamas and the Papas immediately making a film. Their manager, Bobby Roberts, is part of a production company, Landers and Roberts, and that company has eyes to making movies. Before their own problems, Twentieth Century Fox was mentioned as possible distributor for a film that Francois Reichenbach might direct. But by the third week of rehearsals, the Mamas and the Papas had met the French director
– and they hadn't liked him a whole lot. The project has been cancelled.

Cass: But you know, when he originally wanted to do the documentary – which was last year, before he won the award, and after he finished the Rubenstein film, he wanted to do a film about a pop group – he was in Hal Landers' office and I met him there.

Michelle: Did you tell him you were a pop group?

Cass: He wanted us, and I said I'm very boring. Pop music is just long hours, hard work, and a lot of drugs. The people in pop music aren't very interesting. They all like their privacy, you know, and he named a couple of groups. But there're been 57 documentaries on pop groups already.

Michelle: We want to do a drama. Cass: We'd like to remake Virginia Woolf.

* * *

There are thirty million Johns
in the world today
but there is only one
John, the wolfking of L.A.
Genevieve Waite, liner notes on the 'John Phillips' album

The songs are of blueberries for break-fast, love in the afternoon, butterflies in trousers under an August moon, about people like us, people who just trust one another, and about how we should "do what you do/you ought to do what you ought to do."

"As a songwriter I'm interested in happy endings. Love, romance, what feels good." By himself, when he had been bored doing a couple of tunes for Lou Adler's film, Brewster McCloud, he went out with a backup band called Trees and sang in clubs like the Bitter End in New York, the Cellar Door in Washington, and the Troubadour in Hollywood. He sang country-fried tunes and talked about goin' to Nashville; on his album he sang about Genevieve's miscarriage, as well as about Malibu and Topanga. But it's just circumstances.

"I wouldn't write the same songs, except for the Mamas and the Papas. None of us would sing in the voices we sing in, individually, without being in the Mamas and the Papas. Obviously Cass hasn't sung the way she sang with the Mamas and the Papas – she's hardly sung that way. Denny didn't on his album, didn't sing with the smoothness he did with us, you know . . . The Mamas and the Papas were something separate that we each contributed to."

At this moment, Phillips is undecided about the studio back-up for the group. For the four albums, it had been the Hal Blaine/Larry Knechtel/Joe Osborne rhythm team. But Phillips is now considering working with just acoustic guitar and maybe a piano and some strings. "One of the problems has always been that the more hands touch the music, the more fingerprints there are on it." The Mamas and the Papas plan to produce their own album. Engineer will be Larry Cox, who used to work for Bones Howe and has just finished working with Graham Nash on his album.

"Bones mixed our first two albums, then he and Lou had a big fight, and Lou fired him. That was a golden era, wasn't it?"

As for Adler: "We just sort of parted ways artistically," said Phillips. "He didn't understand me financially anymore; the records he was making weren't what I wanted." Adler is credited as producer on Phillips' album, and at one time they were talking about working together on film projects. "I wasn't too pleased with the way Brewster McCloud turned out," said John. "The mixing . . . and the instrumentation that was added didn't knock me out. I was going to do the whole thing, and I did some test tapes that Lou used – he was using his prerogative as a producer. I didn't argue; just said, 'OK, use it.' " And split.

Now, John and Genevieve are doing a film of their own – East Side Kids, and he's still waiting to resume filming the Byron/Shelley project; Sarne is busy in England directing a theater producduction of Antony and Cleopatra. "We shot three weeks of film, then Genevieve got pregnant. If everyone's got time, we'll finish it." Miss Waite and Mrs. Bianca Jagger are among the scenies in the film, along with Hendrix. "He was just around the hotel a lot while we were shooting," said Phillips.

But, first of all, the Mamas and the Papas, massed again in a time when their kind of music, once again, is at the top of the pops. But who can say whether the Mamas and the Papas will hit the top again, and how long they'll stay?

"The Establishment sort of co-opts your music," Phillips said. "Once your sound is unique, and it becomes, say, 'the' sound, Madison Avenue and the Establishment co-opt it. Commercials and all kinds of music begin to sound like it, and you become passe. People listen to you and say, 'Wow – that's nothing, you hear it every day.' So all you can do is do it better."