This album is generally referred to as “The Wolfking Of L.A.” but that is simply because of a short poem on the album sleeve, written by Geneviève Waïte. “There are thirty million Johns in the world today / But you’re the only one I choose and I’d like to stay/ Play me a song; sing me a tune and I’ll be very quiet/ I won’t leave the room, there are thirty million Johns/ In the world today but there is only one / John, the wolfking of L.A.” In truth, it is an eponymous album.
John Phillips was married four times. He married Susan Adams in 1957 and they had two children, one of whom, Mackenzie, starred in American Graffiti when she was 13 years old. He married Holly Michelle Gilliam in 1962, at which point she became known as Michelle Phillips. They had a daughter, Chynna, who became a member of the trio Wilson Phillips (the other two members being the daughters of Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys). Geneviève Waïte became his third wife in 1972 and they had two children, one of whom, Bijou Phillips, has had a successful film career, appearing in “Almost Famous”, Cameron Crowe’s film based on his early life as a Rolling Stone writer. John Phillips married his fourth wife, artist Farnaz Arassteh, in 1995.
John Phillips’ musical career started in the early 1960’s when he formed The Journeymen with Scott McKenzie and Dick Weissman. Scott McKenzie would have a career-defining hit with “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair), written by John Phillips. After The Journeymen split up, John Phillips formed The New Journeymen with his new wife, Michelle Phillips and Marshall Brickman (who would go on to write four screenplays with Woody Allen (“Sleeper”, “Annie Hall”, “Manhattan” and “Manhattan Murder Mystery”)). When Marshall Brickman left the band, Denny Doherty was invited to replace him and he brought his friend, Cass Elliot into the band, when they called themselves The Magic Cyrcle and later, The Mamas & Papas.
During the lifetime of The Mams & Papas, Michelle Phillips and Denny Doherty had an affair and Cass Elliot was infatuated with Denny Doherty. In 1966, Michelle Phillips was fired from the band but after Jill Gibson temporarily replaced her, she was reinstated. The following year, John Phillips planned and organised The Monterey International Pop Festival, with performances from Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Janis Joplin, Ravi Shankar and Otis Redding.
In 1967, The Mamas & the Papas planned to give concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in London and the Olympia in Paris but when the group arrived at Southampton, Cass Elliot was arrested for stealing two blankets and a hotel key worth 10 guineas when in England the previous February. The case was dismissed the next day because the police were less interested in the blankets, or the bill, than in Cass Elliot’s companion Harris Pickens “Pic” Dawson III, who was suspected of international drug trafficking. Later, at a party hosted by the band to celebrate Cass Elliot’s acquittal, John Phillips interrupted Elliot as she was telling Mick Jagger about her arrest and trial and said, “Mick, she’s got it all wrong, that’s not how it was at all.” Cass Elliot stormed out of the room and the Royal Albert Hall and Olympia dates were cancelled. Although the band reformed briefly to complete “The Papas And The Mamas” in 1968, the group had split by the end of the year and within a few years, John and Michelle Phillips were divorced. (Michelle Phillips was subsequently married to Dennis Hopper for eight days).
“John Phillips” is a consistently entertaining album. While Denny Doherty was the better male singer in The Mamas And Papas, John Phillips’ voice is calm, relaxed, languid and easy on the ear. He sounds like a gentle easy-going guy, happy to simply be with other people, smoke a bit of weed and love life. In other words, in complete contrast to the sort of person he really was.
Apart from his four marriages, John Phillips’ life was afflicted by drug abuse and he became a heroin addict in the 1970’s. In 1980, he was arrested for drug trafficking and in order to reduce his sentence, he launched an anti-drug campaign around the country. In 1992, his alcohol consumption resulted in him needing a liver transplant and a few weeks later he was photographed drinking in a bar.
Mackenzie Phillips was John Phillips’ daughter from his first marriage. She was also a heavy drug user resulting in her being fired from the TV show, “One Day at a Time”. She wrote that she and her father, John Phillips, would do drugs together — sometimes with her father injecting her with heroin himself. In 1980, both father and daughter would go to rehab together for their addictions. After his death, Mackenzie Phillips claimed her father forced himself on her when she was 19 — the night before she was supposed to marry her first husband. In her 2009 autobiography, she wrote that both she and her father were on drugs at the time. “My father was not a man with boundaries. He was full of love, and he was sick with drugs. I woke up that night from a blackout to find myself having sex with my own father.” Mackenzie Phillips maintained that her father’s abuse continued for ten years. Genevieve Waite, John Phillips’ third wife, dismissed Mackenzie’s claims by saying “John was a good man. He was incapable, no matter how drunk or drugged he was, to have sexual relations with his own child” However, Mackenzie Phillips’ half-sister Chynna Phillips has supported her. Tamerlane Phillips, the son of John Phillips and Genevieve Waite, possibly put it best by saying “My family is and always will be a decrepit bowl of dog urine compared to Nityananda.” (Bhagawan Nityananda was an Indian guru).
Dennis Wilson, drummer with The Beach Boys, had a brief friendship with Charles Manson. Their friendship eventually led to Dennis Wilson inviting Charles Manson and his followers to stay in his house. John Phillips recalled that although Dennis Wilson “used to call me all the time, you know, and say come on over, it’s incredible“, he never met Charles Manson. “I was invited to Sharon’s home that evening when it happened, and I got drunk and passed out. I ran to the nearest bottle immediately. I just have a natural feeling about those things.”
Lyrically, “John Phillips” is an obscure record. According to one interpretation, “Let It Bleed, Genevieve” describes a tale of his third wife, Geneviève Waïte, having a miscarriage in his basement, while her replacement waits up on the sidewalk, “waiting to be skinned.” An alternative view is that Geneviève Waïte wanted to be reborn as Mick Jagger, hence the reference to “Let It Bleed“.
In “Malibu People”, John Phillips sings about fine beach houses, sun-bleached characters and pregnant woman waiting where the waves meet the sand: “Big bellied woman lying in the sand, waiting where the waves roll in/ If she needs a spot to drop she’s not forgotten where the waves roll in.”
“Topanga Canyon” finds John Phillips driving out to a canyon to score a fix but this is not a boastful story, rather it is one of regret. “Oh Mary I’m in deep water/ And it’s way over my head/ Everyone thought I was smarter/ Than to be mislead.” He sounds desperate and in need of redemption.
Instrumentally, the album fits in with other soft-rock albums released in 1970 such as “His Band And The Street Choir” by Van Morrison, “Déjà Vu” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, “On Tour With Eric Clapton” by Delaney & Bonnie, “Self Portrait” by Bob Dylan, “Workingman’s Dead” and “American Beauty” by Grateful Dead and “Stage Fright” by The Band. The album was recorded in John Phillips’ studio which was secreted away in his Bel Air mansion. Local planning laws would not allow a recording studio to be in a house so a room was soundproofed, all wires were hidden and the only access was through a bedroom via a secret button which released a panel to open up the studio.
The musicians were some of the best in Los Angeles. Lead guitarist on the album was James Burton who had recently joined Elvis Presley’s band, having previously played on all of Rick Nelson’s records. He would go on to play on “G.P.” and “Grievous Angel” by Gram Parsons, after which he became a member of Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band.
Buddy Emmons was regarded as the world’s foremost pedal steel guitarist of his day. He recorded with Linda Ronstadt, Gram Parsons, The Everly Brothers, The Carpenters, Jackie DeShannon, Roger Miller, Ernest Tubb, John Hartford, Little Jimmy Dickens, Ray Price, Judy Collins, George Strait, John Sebastian, and Ray Charles.
Red Rhodes played steel guitar on the album and, as well as being a member of L.A.’s “Wrecking Crew”, he played extensively with Michael Nesmith, having previously played on many of The Monkees’ recordings.
Hal Blaine was a drummer who was thought to be among the most recorded studio drummers in the music industry, claiming over 35,000 sessions and 6,000 singles. His drumming is featured on 150 US top 10 hits, 40 of which went to number one.
Having utilised the wonderful harmonies of The Mamas And Papas for the previous five years, John Phillips chose more traditional female backing vocalists for his only solo album. Darlene Love had featured prominently on “A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector” and had been a member of The Blossoms along with Fanita James and Jean King. Together they form a strong, if occasionally overpowering, presence.
John Phillips was 65 when he died of heart failure on March 18, 2001 in Los Angeles. He had been in a hospital for several weeks after falling off a stool and injuring his shoulder. He was in pain that was later attributed to a stomach infection that also caused his kidneys to fail.
By 1970, the idealistic hippie movement seemed to be on the wane. The shocking events at Altamont, the Manson murders, the bombing of Cambodia and the Kent State University killings had marked a transition from a belief in a sublime and worthy future to a realisation that the more things change, the more they stay the same. “John Phillips” personified this transition perfectly. Although it sounds beautiful and sunny, lurking within the lyrics, a darker side to humanity emerges.