John Phillips: The Wolf King as Lord Byron - Rolling Stone
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John Phillips: The Wolf King as Lord Byron

Life after the Mamas and the Papas is a surreal mix of Mick Jagger, Andy Warhol, Lord Byron, and Satan himself

John PhillipsJohn Phillips

John Phillips. Circa 1970.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Papa John is back on the street, back at the Bitter End, with just his old guitar — just his guitar and half a dozen discreet musicians, an L.A. band called Trees, and Al Maysles with his homemade bazooka camera shooting it all, so the brights are on, and Michael Sarne, in skintight chamois, keeping an eye on things, and Genevieve Waite, beautiful famished Chelsea Girl, in the second row… The Maysles, you’ll remember, are the expert witnesses who made the Altamont movie; Sarne, you’ll remember, directed (gulp) Myra Breckinridge, and just in case you think that was an accident, he also directed an earlier movie, a craftily mannered trendyflick called Joanna, and that starred Miss Waite, who has the most glacial goo-goo eyes in the world. This has all the fancy campy look of a high-style celebrity event, Papa John at the Bitter End, the Wolfking slumming, so much so that you could be fooled and overlook the performance itself.

That would be a pity because, happily, Papa John is one of the aristocrats. He sings his songs with grace and ease, so classy, so carelessly charming, so poised; and his music’s such pure and perfect pop, such nice quality candy, it all goes down smooth and easy, it’s so effortless, so…transcendental-banal. It’s like a good dose of your favorite patent medicine.

Every other song, after all, is in that special privileged class, they’re everybody’s favorites because they’re hits, songs from the First Golden Era, all that’s left unscathed from the big summer three quick years ago when California Dreamin’ came true in the big ecstatic bash at Monterey that Papa John threw for the nation. And he’s a fugitive kind of singer, he implies the songs more than he sings them; just one light hushed voice where there were four, taking a straight line through the song instead of all those exuberant falsetto spinoffs and mock-chorales and thrumming harmonies — they’re sketches, just the bare bones. Even his new songs, the ones on his new album where all those virtuoso L.A. studio cats have a lot more free room to take off and play in and Darlene Love and a couple of other sisters are there on cue like foster-Mamas on the choruses; those too come off as suggestions almost in Phillips’ performance…but it’s not cheating, this is just another way of hearing them, the way he made them up. And besides, there’s something else at stake here, because this is the Wolfking don’t forget; Papa John’s not just another lowlife swinger-song-writer in highgloss satin velvet doing his act at the Bitter End, he’s a thoroughbred popstar, one of the very few mega-personalities, one of the top 2-1/2 percent.

“I think there are, like 2-1/2 percent of the people that are bright, and 2-1/2 percent are morons, and 95 percent are the same — they just nod at you and smile…”

His limousine is outside, he’s comfortably stashed away in a sprawling suite at The Plaza, and there are all these brights on, cameras rolling, Michael Sarne’s doing a little dance in the aisle to the happy bump of “Straight Shooter” and “Mississippi” — they’re making a movie, a contemporary biography of Byron and Shelley, and tonight at the Bitter End is part of it because they’re filming their own lives:

“I’m modestly playing Lord Byron, Michael Sarne’s modestly playing Shelley, and Genevieve’s playing Clare Claremont, who’s Mary Shelley’s half-sister and Byron’s mistress, and I’m not sure who’s going to play Mary Shelley, but it might be Michael’s wife. It’s our story and their story. It’s our story of researching their lives. We’re starting the movie off with semi-documentary footage of the four main characters, what they really do in their real lives. So we decided to shoot this tour as the beginning of the movie, and Genevieve’s been doing pictures with Avcdon all week for Vogue and we’ve been shooting that, and Michael’s been running around like a madman cutting footage and so forth, so we’ve been shooting that. The idea being to acquaint the audience with the actors first, who they really are, so you see my mistakes in logic, my hangups and so forth, as I interpret Byron. I intend playing it very subjectively. We have to. It’s the only way to do it. Otherwise it’s a phony situation, it’s Dirk Bogarde pretending to be Franz Liszt playing the piano.”

So they’re chasing ghosts — the blithe spirits of Byron and Shelley, in the living persons of Phillips and Sarne, a kind of reincarnation. Phillips even has plans to take the plunge in the Hellespont.

“At first UA said you can’t do it this way, it’s an ego trip, it’s going to look silly. But it won’t look silly, it’s what people really want to see, what we really do, that’s what’s interesting, how we are, what goes on…” he says, getting round to the meat of the method. “Popstars are more important than movie stars, more than ever. They set lifestyles. And I think the reason is musicians write their songs and play their instruments and they sing their songs to the public, and it’s a one-person process, music remains personal all along the line. The public relates very strongly to the music and to the story behind it and to the lifestyle — it’s all one thing… There’s an aristocracy of lifestyle. It’s a popstar’s life that counts, that’s what involves you, not his performance.”

Papa John’s performance is an act of personality, like his songs are. His songs have always been pretty frank, that’s the root appeal of them, there’s even one on his new album that seems to be about Miss Waite having a miscarriage, it’s called “Let It Bleed, Genevieve” — his songs are intimate showbiz home movies about his own erratic life, him and his friends and neighbors and his (lost) wife: the L.A. peerage, up there in the top 2-1/2 percent in the… network:

“There’s this underground network, isn’t there, that goes throughout the world, three or four hundred people who all revolve around the same axis and all know each other and trade things back and forth, with unspoken agreements. Isn’t there?”

The pop aristocracy! Moving in circles, in their own international orbit, all the pop patricians, flying first class, drawn to each other by their own and each other’s success; because success isolates you, you’re stuck with the best of everything, committed to an inbred elite peer-group, and Papa John, semi-retired millionaire popstar, up in his mansion with a gentle Spanish lady to cook his meals and his studio in the basement and his fleet in the garages, he’s a charter member of a privileged class just as surely as Byron was a Lord, the Sixth Baron Byron of Rochedale.

“With the really intelligent people, it’s almost a matter of inbreeding at this point. You estrange yourself from the world, you create your own society. That’s what Performance is about, and it’s true, you do that… I loved Performance. It was a little close to home, because I know all those people, I know Donald Cammell very well, I know Mick…Genevieve was living in the house when they were filming it, she was living with Donald for a while, and now Genevieve and I live together. It’s strange to see a part of your own lifestyle projected on the screen… Performance is about how far you can go and you don’t become jaded, isn’t it? Maybe you end up getting a shot in the head.”

The pop peerage has had a run of casualties, a lot of our finest have charbroiled their brains and shortcircuited talents. A few are dead, others are missing, it’s a dangerous lunatic time. Success leaves you stranded, in winner’s limbo. You can end up like Mick Jagger in Performance, shut up with your trophies, crippled by terminal boredom, gorged on forbidden thrills, with a narcotic need to savage yourself, ready and willing to go over the brink…

“I don’t believe in any religion, or afterlife. I think this is it. And if this is it then I would prefer to die by my own hand than die an accidental death or one of infirmity. I mean, death is when you get sick one day and you don’t get well again — can’t seem to shake it off. Byron died from a variety of things. He was actually bled to death with leeches on his temples. He was wounded in the Greek revolution, and he was also wounded by venereal disease at the same time. He was bled for three or four days, and every time he’d come back to consciousness again he’d say, ‘get these fucking leeches off me!’ Then he’d pass out and they’d just put the leeches back on his temples again. He became weaker and weaker and he died. I think Byron wanted to die. I really think Byron and Shelley committed a form of suicide…

“It’s realizing that there is that 95 percent of the people who don’t have any brains, that you’re not going to change. Shelley realized it very young. He never made any attempt to save his life in any situation. Whenever there was a life or death situation he’d just ride it out. If he was drowning and someone didn’t save him, he drowned. Byron was different, but when Shelley died, he probably taught Byron the final lesson. And then Byron went to Greece and did approximately the same thing on his terms. I don’t feel the challenge that I think they felt. I’d be very content to take my own life my own way.”

The Mamas and Papas only stuck together for two and a half years, they only performed 30 to 40 times, and they only made four records. They wouldn’t even have made the fourth if they hadn’t been in danger of being sued.

“The last album was torture to make, just torture. We couldn’t rehearse, and I think it contains some of the best songs but we couldn’t do them properly, everything’s a little flat. We didn’t really have the interest. I was really glad to see the Mamas and Papas go. I didn’t want to be the Brothers Four, working off a hit for the next ten years.

“I’ve spent millions. I hope to have millions more to spend. It’s almost a challenge, you know. You feel like you want to shit on the world…”

And now, after a couple of years shut up in the mansion, off in the shadows of pop demonology, Papa John’s back on the case. What happened was, Gordon Lightfoot broke his arm in a car crash in L.A., and Blood Sweat and Tears asked Phillips if he’d open the show at the Hollywood Bowl instead. That fell through, but by then he’d got back rehearsing with the Trees, and so he went out on the road anyway. Partly because he threw the I Ching and it said to go out and see the troops, partly for his own satisfaction, partly for the sake of the movie.

While he was in New York at the Bitter End, he did the talk shows, Cavett and Frost, and one night on Carson when David Steinberg was in the chair, both Papa John and Mama Cass were on at the same time. Everyone got on zingingly, and there was one witty two-step when Phillips told Rex Reed how good he thought he was in Myra Breckinridge, and how Warhol loved the movie and Elia Kazan called Zanuck to say it was fabulous and…right…there…on…camera, Rex faltered — what the *#£*$!!! — he’d been doublecrossed! He’d missed the hot gossip — could it be (his eyes were flashing) could it be he’d spoken too soon, fouled up his own Oscar! — and he changed his pitch right there on camera, began to say how he was rather fond of the movie himself and he’d only been kidding when slandering it on Playboy After Dark, especially when Papa John said it, when he told him he deserved the Award. Sarne filmed the whole thing.

Warhol loved Myra Breckinridge, of course, because it’s shameless glamor-trash, and that’s his kind of picture, that’s what they make at the Factory, except they don’t use Hollywood zombies, they use…well, Candy Darling and Ultra Violet and Viva and lately teenage wraiths like Jane Forth and classy drag-queens like Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn, real crypto-freaks and flaming-creatures, all the one-of-a-kind denizens of Warhol’s imagination.

The Factory’s not really writhing like it was a couple of years ago when the Velvet Underground was the houseband and Nico was moonwalking around and Viva was on the prowl, but it’s still the fashionable snakepit of the New York popculture Satyricon, and Phillips and Sarne and Miss Waite hung out there when they were in town, with Al Maysles along to shoot it all.

They did their best to make themselves at home, but the Factory is never still, the buzzer is always going at the swing-door out front and everybody is always on their way somewhere, from one end of the room to the other, all gorgeous mock-people floating about from one cluster to the next, preening and posturing and erupting into little fits of mock-hysteria, weird pioneers of a space culture where, as Warhol says in a huge sign hanging in the Museum of Modern Art like a rubber-stamp from The Prophet:


Everybody is a star! and so there was Miss Waite, with her dress wrinkling up around her cherry, sitting on a pile of film cans talking to Jackie Curtis about ho-mo-sex-uals, and see, that’s not what’s going on here, Jackie Curtis is no homosexual, she’s one of a whole new breed of pansexual apparitions — and there’s Papa John and Michael Sarne perched on a table actually… engaging… in… conversation with Warhol, and he’s just sipping his cardboard cup of milky coffee and nodding in his weary way and sighing, so frail, so tender, but Warhol doesn’t talk much, he doesn’t say sentences and paragraphs, he just nods and vaguely sighs and rarely smiles, he’s past talk. So Phillips and Sarne and Miss Waite are in deep water here, they’re stripped of their prestige here, in the middle of all this flagrant narcissism, with all these stars of their own lives everywhere, all hogging the camera. The Factory’s their territory, and they’re mostly kind people but there’s no room in their limelight, not even if Byron himself were to come hobbling in. There are no stars when everybody is a star.

And back at the Plaza, is a sprawling suite furnished and decorated in the best of taste, with gracefully curved and bent 57th Street antiques everywhere and spacious plush couches and sparkling chandeliers, the Wolfking is saying:

“I think there’s a lot of black magic going on. I believe in black magic. I’ve felt as though some people have been fiddling around with it in connection with me. Hexed me. People can do it even unconsciously, but when it’s done consciously it’s very strong. I’ve been conscious of the fact that I should live my life a certain way, and when certain temptations come up I say no thanks. I mean, Terry Melcher and Dennis Wilson and the people who were living with Manson at Dennis’ house used to call me all the time, you know, and say come on over, it’s incredible. I’d just shudder every time. I’d say no, I think I’ll pass. I just wouldn’t get into it. And I was invited to Sharon’s home that evening when it happened, and I got drunk and passed out. Ran to the nearest bottle immediately. I just have a natural… feeling about those things.

“I think it’s hard to survive. If you want to lead the kind of life that we lead, then you have to be very aware of what’s going on in the world, because it’ll kill you, right off. I think if you’re assassinated or murdered you can trace it back to a series of mistakes that you made to put yourself in that position. The victims get killed. And if you don’t want to be a victim then you have to make a conscious effort not to be. It’s not a matter of protecting yourself with your intelligence. Picking the right situations to involve yourself in, and staying out of the other ones. Like, Al here filmed Altamont. I would never have been at Altamont, either as a spectator or as a performer. I just wouldn’t. I would know not to do that. I’m surprised Mick didn’t know not to do things like that… As God has been losing his percentage, the Devil has been picking up a lot of that percentage. Things have become very demonic.”

And you remember that what drove Mick Jagger in Performance, drove him over the brink into a weird metamorphosis consummated with sex and violence way past aberrance in an other-world of cosmic sensation with the only morality a matter of how far out you’re brave enough and demented enough to go, what drove him was a curse, a demonic quest for doom. But, take a breath:

“There is another area that doesn’t encompass God or the Devil. That’s the area to go to.”

Phillips is a successful survivor. He’s too smart to burn up. And he’s back from the lull after the First Golden Era, his record is a breath of fresh air, and now he’s making this movie, wrestling the shade of Lord Byron. It was a pleasure to be an extra.

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