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John Phillips, 1935–2001

Photo by Ken Regan

Often the greatest artists among us continue to give with their work well beyond the times they broke through. For John Phillips, his first Top 40 hit, “California Dreamin’,” transcended context so well that the song and the band he founded, the Mamas and the Papas, performing it decked out in over-the-top flower-power threads, became a virtual cliché that often overshadowed his brilliance, as well as his band members’ distinctive talents. Every artist’s unconscious nightmare is the idea of authoring an “anthem,” because with that comes a certain death of the nuances of one’s work in the eyes of future generations. Certainly “California Dreamin’” was a pop anthem: Listening to the song on an oldies radio station or seeing a performance in an episode of Behind the Music in 2001, it evokes an era of peace & love hippie shit. But, of course, the reason the song was an anthem is so much richer than that cliché, and when you dig deeper into the context of the time (1965), Phillips’ very personal song, mused by his beautiful young wife who longed to be back in the sun of her native California, signaled a dramatic shift creatively, economically and geographically in pop music culture.

Phillips’ move to the West Coast spearheaded the melding of two worlds — the British Invasion with Greenwich Village folk, which “saved” the floundering American record industry. They weren’t the only ones — Phillips would be the first to say, and does in song, that Jim McGuinn and the Byrds were already heading in the same direction. Sharing Phillips’ folk roots, McGuinn was also embracing the influence of the Fab Four to create the West Coast sound. Phillips was not only one of the most gifted songwriters of the era, he also had a remarkable ear for blending the right voices in harmony (check out “Got a Feelin’” or “Once Was a Time I Thought” by the Mamas and the Papas), shown clear back to his folk period (“Ride Ride Ride” by the Smoothies or anything by the Journeymen or the New Journeymen), an eye for perfecting his band’s visual image, and an instinct for musical arrangement, forever bringing new instruments into the pop tapestry. Michael Brown of the Left Banke was a 16-year-old classically trained prodigy when in 1966, upon hearing Phillips’ anthem, he recalls, “I was so inspired by the flute break in ‘California Dreamin’’ that this is where the flute solo in ‘Walk Away Renee’ came from.” Phillips was also something of a musical documentarian for SoCal youth culture of the ’60s with songs like “Twelve Thirty,” about the emerging free Canyon lifestyle, and “Strange Young Girls,” about the drug culture on the Sunset Strip.

I met John Phillips just once. He came out to my set when I was shooting Grace of My Heart. Karen Rachtman and I had been teaming musicians of the ’60s with younger composers to pen songs together. Most of the songs had already been written for the film, but I was feeling that the contribution of John Phillips was missing. Even under the cloud of his clearly fragile health, as his body struggled to deal with a liver transplant and his demon addictions kept calling him to the bar across the street, Phillips was powerfully built and wickedly charismatic, and gave the illusion of vigor and optimism. Yet unlike many with that sort of charisma, there was no sense of entitlement to his fame and legend; instead — surprise in being regarded as an artist.

Though we didn’t find a way to work together, we talked about my two very favorite songs he had penned: “Look Through My Window” with the Mamas and the Papas, and Scott McKenzie’s “Like an Old Time Movie,” the follow-up to the hit “San Francisco,” another Phillips-composed anthem. Both only briefly heard on the airwaves in 1967, they paint a picture of a spirited girl whose love has faded, written from the perspective of the one being left behind in self-torment over letting go, hanging on and finally resolving to get over it.

John, who had come to measure his success by the hits, was astounded that these two songs, which were clearly personal for him and had failed to make an impression on the charts, had been held in my bones with tender love since first hearing them on the radio three decades earlier. He told me I had good taste, and we both laughed. They were songs, he said, that everyone had forgotten — if they had ever known them — but ones that he privately felt were better than his hits.

The day he died, I had just bought a compilation of McKenzie’s songs at Aron’s Records. I already had most of his work on vinyl, but the CD had a few songs I didn’t own, including one by the Smoothies, one of Phillips’ earliest bands. I was listening to “Like an Old Time Movie” when my mom called on the phone to tell me that John had died that morning, and a few minutes later, lifelong John Phillips friend and fan Paul Surratt called. The news was not surprising to any of us, and I guess I had already been grieving unconsciously all week long. I was glad I got the chance to tell him how much I loved this beautiful, sad and clear-headed personal song that never made the Top 40 charts.


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