As a fan of ‘60s rock and roll, I was thrilled that after viewing the terrific Laurel Canyon — A Place in Time (a two-part documentary available Sunday on Epix), I was given the opportunity to interview two Rock and Roll Hall of Famers who I’ve been listening to since my childhood.
First, I spoke with Michelle Phillips, who when she turned 18 married Papa John Phillips and they formed The Mamas and the Papas. They had a four year career, with five albums and six Top 10 hits during the ‘60s. She’s the only living member of the band, and went on to have a more successful career on TV and in movies (I love her small part in the underrated comedy Let it Ride with Richard Dreyfuss; he had a small part in her first film Dillinger).
During this Coronavirus, interviews are all done on the phone and Zoom, so here are the two I did, first with Michelle Phillips. I’m still kicking myself for not getting a Leonard Cohen or Warren Beatty story out of her.
JOSH BOARD: Happy early birthday [she was born June 4, 1944].
MICHELLE PHILLIPS: Thank you.
JOSH BOARD: Will you be able to have a decent celebration during this quarantine?
MICHELLE PHILLIPS: Ummm…yeah. I have a real big backyard, so I’ll just invite a couple of neighbors over for a drink. We have a tiki bar back there. It will be fun.
JOSH BOARD: You co-wrote California Dreaming, which is this classic song. I hear it in Vietnam movies, hell…I just heard a piano version of it in a Blue Shield commercial about 20 minutes ago.
MICHELLE PHILLIPS: Yeah, yeah, that’s right.
JOSH BOARD: Tell me about being involved in writing that.
MICHELLE PHILLIPS: John was writing it. I kind of inspired the song because I wouldn’t stop bitching about New York [Michelle was born in Long Beach]. It’s so cold, and I begged John to go back to California, but we couldn’t. The music industry was in New York. And we had been out a few days earlier, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It was the first time I had seen it. We walked inside and…
JOSH BOARD: You began to pray?
MICHELLE PHILLIPS: No, no! It’s ‘pretend to pray’ it’s not ‘began’.
JOSH BOARD: You know, I actually knew that. There was a time I wasn’t sure and I looked the lyrics up. And in Laurel Canyon, we see a clip of you guys singing it and we can see that it’s ‘pretend’.
MICHELLE PHILLIPS: A lot of people make that mistake. About eight months after we recorded it, it was a big hit. We were doing a soundcheck before a concert in some town. We starting doing California Dreaming and Cass came up to me and asked why I sang ‘pretend to pray.’ I told her that was the lyric, and she said she thought it was ‘began.’ She said ‘That’s the way I sang it on the record.’ So when people come up and say “Oh, I thought you said it was ‘began’ to pray’ I tell them ‘Well, you’re right, too’ since Cass sang it that way.’ But getting back to writing it, John woke me up in the middle of the night and started to play it for me, saying ‘Listen to this, what do you think?’ I was a little…well, not as enthusiastic as he might have wanted me to be. I was just so tired. I said ‘I’ll help you write it, but tomorrow.’ He said ‘No, get up.’ He wrote the first lyrics, and I wrote the church lines. He wrote all the music. Actually, the second verse is really the only part of it I wrote. But thank God I didn’t just go back to sleep.
JOSH BOARD: Sleeping seems to be the way to go for songwriters. Paul McCartney wrote Yesterday in his sleep, and Keith Richards came up with the riff for Satisfaction in his sleep, woke up and quickly recorded the riff, and went back to bed.
MICHELLE PHILLIPS: Well, John was always up. He was taking a lot of…amphetamines…and he always had that guitar strapped around him and was always writing.
JOSH BOARD: You’ve probably told that story about California Dreaming often, but probably don’t talk as much about another song that was as influential to me, since I grew up playing hoops. You were involved with the song Basketball Jones [it was #15 on the charts in 1973].
MICHELLE PHILLIPS: I was?
JOSH BOARD: You weren’t? Did I get my facts wrong on that one? I thought you and Carole King did background vocals, as the cheerleaders.
MICHELLE PHILLIPS: I don’t know. [after a brief pause] Oh wait…Cheech and Chong? Yeah, that’s right. Well…I got involved with that because of Lou Adler.
JOSH BOARD: Who produced the Mamas and Papas?
MICHELLE PHILLIPS: Yes. He was producing that album [which also included George Harrison and Billy Preson]. He called me one day and said ‘Want to come down and sing some backing vocals?’ I said ‘Sure’. Lou did have an ear for a hit. Ya know, he owns that horror show. You know which one I’m talking about?
JOSH BOARD: No. [after a brief pause] Do you mean Rocky Horror Picture Show?
MICHELLE PHILLIPS: Yes, that’s the one.
JOSH BOARD: Interesting. I didn’t know that. I just knew he owned those seats at Lakers games next to Jack Nicholson.
MICHELLE PHILLIPS (laughs)
JOSH BOARD: I know you’ve been asked so many questions about John Phillips over the years, so instead of asking you ones you’ve heard before or might not want to discuss, I’ll just ask you something that’s bugged me forever about him.
MICHELLE PHILLIPS: Uh oh.
JOSH BOARD: Why did he wear those goofy hats? I hated those furry hats he wore!
MICHELLE PHILLIPS: He was starting to lose his hair, and there’s a guy here in L.A. named Leon Bennett and he was a hat maker. Lou was the one who introduced him to Leon and um…it was just a fashion statement but…also that John was starting to lose his hair.
JOSH BOARD: I can feel his pain, as I’ve been in that situation for awhile. But why not a cool hat, like the top hat Leon Russell used to wear?
MICHELLE PHILLIPS: He had a chinchilla hat, and a mink hat. He had his corduroy hats. It just became his look.
JOSH BOARD: I know you were friends with Harry Dean Stanton, and he passed away a few years ago.
MICHELLE PHILLIPS: Ohhh, just so sad.
JOSH BOARD: Did you see his last movie Lucky?
MICHELLE PHILLIPS: No.
JOSH BOARD: You’d love it. He plays such a grouchy guy, and there’s a party where he’s sitting with all these Mexican immigrants, and they are singing songs and he doesn’t look happy. Then he just stands up and belts out this entire song in Spanish. It’s such a powerful scene.
MICHELLE PHILLIPS: He loved Mexican music and he spoke Spanish very well. I speak fluent Spanish, too. We were very, very good friends. We were in Dillinger together . He was just…one of the happiest people to be around, but he did look like a grouch.
JOSH BOARD: When watching Laurel Canyon, since there were so many bands and singers that became huge, all from that area [The Monkees, Eagles, Joni Mitchell, CSN, Byrds, The Doors, Buffalo Springfield, Frank Zappa, Linda Rondstadt, Jackson Browne, The Turtles, James Taylor]…I was always a big fan of the lesser known Arthur Lee and Love. Was there any musician in that area that didn’t become a big success that you knew?
MICHELLE PHILLIPS: God, no. I can’t think of anybody. It’s so weird. It seems everybody got their time in the sun. It seemed everyone would write a song and then it would become a hit record.
JOSH BOARD: When watching Laurel Canyon, I just kept thinking how incredible it was that this music made in that time is still popular today. You’ll see kids walking around with Doors T-shirts, as if they’re still a band making music today.
MICHELLE PHILLIPS: Well, as we speak, I’m wearing a Beatles T-shirt, a sweater. It’s Abbey Road, with them walking across the street.
JOSH BOARD: And I’m wearing a Doors shirt.
MICHELLE PHILLIPS: It’s like Diana Vreeland, who was the editor of Vogue for a hundred years…she said only two decades meant a thing; the ‘20s and the ‘60s. There was so much going on — women’s lib, politics, art. Everything was very specific to that era. The mini dresses, fashion, art, Andy Warhol. It was a real happening time, a creative time. I don’t know what the cosmos were thinking. Everyone just got very creative.
After talking to Phillips, I got on a Zoom interview with Chris Hillman of The Byrds, Desert Rose Band, Manassas, and the Flying Burrito Brothers. The former San Diegan returned home (well, via video), to talk music and his roots. The video of the conversation is below: