It is difficult to imagine a couple more exquisitely designed to torment each other than John "Papa" Phillips and his once-upon-a-two-timing wife, "Mama" Michelle. Reading their simultaneously released autobiographies, "Papa John" (his) and "California Dreamin' " (hers), is like reading the transcripts in a divorce trial.
Officially, both books deal with the rise and fall of The Mamas and the Papas, the signature vocal group of the late '60s, which gave us such classics as "California Dreamin'," "Creeque Alley" and "I Saw Her Again Last Night." Unofficially, although not off the record--far from it--the books deal with scenes from a rock 'n' roll marriage.
"Sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll" was the anthem the Phillipses lived by. As they rapidly found out, free love was very expensive. Going back over their testimony, listening as they cross-examine themselves and each other, we get glimpses of the small wrong turns, petty arguments and quite large mistakes that killed them as a marital pair. Quite literally, the books make murderous reading.
An alcohol addict, John Phillips is a man who has narrowly survived his own hand. Michelle Phillips is a writer who character-assassinates herself--and occasionally others--in passing. Reading her view of herself in the rear-view mirror is like witnessing that most casual of car accidents, so common on the California freeways, the side swipe.
John was an Annapolis dropout. Intellectually acute, socially aware, he was the prototypical artist for the '60s. Married young, he destroyed his first marriage by equaling his social conscience with his personal thoughtlessness. ("You and Mom better go ahead and start dinner without me. I'm in Havana. We're fighting for Castro.")
As it happened, John was always getting sidetracked ("We kept planning to visit Castro in the foothills and sell him some .45s, but we got side-tracked. . . ."). Sometimes it was a cause that captured his attention. More often, it was special effects ("The second week we were in Havana, I fell in love with an exotic Cuban-American hooker named Rita").
Phillips' wandering eye--and his wanderlust--soon landed him on the road. His musical talents kept him there. Appropriately, he named his breakthrough group The Journeymen. Restless, ambitious, driven, he was always on the move and always on his way somewhere--namely, the Top.
While Phillips was sharpening his musical ax, his future wife, Michelle Gilliam, was sharpening her eyeliner. "God! I would look in the mirror and be gorgeous." What Phillips would see in her was apparent to both of them. In addition to having one of the purest sopranos in pop music, Michelle Gilliam was what was once called "a looker."
If John was rootless, Michelle was something else: Like a desert plant, her roots were shallow but very widely spread. Raised in Southern California and Mexico by an artistically inclined father and a series of live-in stepmothers, she was older than her years, if not wiser.
As John Phillips tells it, "Michelle was sharp, a real live wire." As his then wife told him, "She's stunning, John." As Michelle Gilliam told his then-wife, "I'm Michelle. Michelle Gilliam. But in a couple of years, my name is going to be Michelle Phillips. You might as well give up right now."
Faced with such a formidable--and not misplaced--display of sexual egoism, the first Mrs. Phillips yielded the field--arguably the smartest move of her life. John and Michelle became "John and Mitchie."
"What he saw in me was right in front of me," Michelle tells us.
John concurs, "I had seen the quintessential California Girl. . . . She was sleek, graceful, gorgeous. . . . She did wonders for tight jeans and skimpy tops. She could look innocent, tough, pouty, girlish, aloof and fiery. And she was just 17."
John and Mitchie went from being an item to being a pair to being newlyweds. Their newlywed games were lethal. Philandering Phillips had partnered himself with a wife who could philander herself. Sexual jealousy became the counterpoint to their musical harmonies. Even as the Mamas and Papas were taking shape, their brainchildren did little to cement marital stability. Extramarital sex and extracurricular drug abuse supplied the pair with more than enough drama to supply song scenarios: "I Saw Her Again Last Night," "Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?" etc.
Those who enjoyed the Phillips' intricate harmonies and stylistic innovations may find themselves daunted by the mind-numbing banality of their marital lives. While the personal pain may well have been excruciating, there is a terrible familiarity to many of the details.