Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Muse, Loneliness and Monterey Pop

There is no arguing the shiny patina that AM perpetuates, a policy that focuses on how rock music has elevated our lives, and not on how much so many factions of the industry suck. We don't talk about Drakes's mediocrity or Beyonce's ridiculous celebrity, or even how overrated Adele is, we just feel bad that that's all the masses want, nothing more than Disney girls and sophomoric rap (thank God for Kendrick Lamar). Instead we focus on rock's Belle Époque or the 21st Century's version of the Laurel Canyon sound so obvious in Lord Huron or Fleet Foxes.

We do tend erroneously to gloss over factors that puncture the mythology. For Mama Cass that gloss-over was her inherent loneliness. Despite the throngs that surrounded Cass, her weight curtailed her romantic endeavors. Couple that with the supermodel beauty of Michelle Phillips and we find in Cass the plight of the "fat girl" in high school who everyone liked, but who never had the romance she so desired. When I was little, I got the H.R. Pufinstuf soundtrack for Christmas. My favorite song was Mama Cass's "Different," in which she laments being a fat witch (video). I'd sing along: "Different is hard, different is lonely/ Different is trouble for you only/ Different is heartache, different is pain/ But I'd rather be different than be the same." Cass's weight would lead to depression despite her successes and despite her friends; the Queen of Laurel Canyon was different, and lonely. That depression metastasized in both drugs and work, and would kill her all too soon, of heart failure (not choking on a sandwich as the myth would dictate) at the age of 32, in the midst of a sold out series of shows at the London Palladium (July 29, 1974). Some would point to continued drug use (the official cause of death listed as heart failure).

In a 1988 memoir, David Crosby said, "Me and Cass Elliot were closet junk takers and used to get loaded with each other a lot. We loved London because there was pharmaceutical heroin available in drugstores; Government dope, in these injectable tablets that you crushed and dissolved in order to shoot them. Me and Cass used to just mash them up and snort the powder. Cass took lots of pills, usually from the opiate family: Dilaudid, Demerol, Percodan, downers of all sorts, and we did a lot of coke together." There was indeed a dark side to the Queen of Laurel Canyon – she was no Gertrude Stein (Gertrude Stein was no Gertrude Stein). AM is guilty of perpetuating a myth, but justify it as highlighting the positives.

In 1967, after a disastrous Las Vegas show (that was ultimately cancelled after just one night due to medical issues and poor reviews), Cass would immerse herself in Monterey Pop. Monterey was the first great outdoor rock concert and the precursor to Woodstock two years later. Over the weekend of June 16, 100,000 festival goers would converge on a disused fairground 50 miles south of San Francisco (near Carmel, California). The brainchild of John Phillips and Lou Adler, Cass, at first reluctant to get involved, would play an instrumental role in the festival's success, which would feature The Who, Hendrix, Janis, Jefferson Airplane and, of course, The Mamas and the Papas. Cass's longtime boyfriend at the time, Lee Kiefer of The Hard Times Band, summed it up: "It was a couple days of absolute camaraderie. There are just no words. Motorcycle policemen running around with their bikes covered in flowers with thirty foot strings of pink and white balloons off the back of their bikes. We stayed up for the whole thing and didn't miss anything. Ravi Shankar's performance was incredible, but we liked them all. All the performances by everyone were supercharged. There were no fights, no murders, no deaths, no bludgeonings, you know what I mean? No dwarves ran away with the ring. No human sacrifice! And she went to see everybody."

In the Audience for Janis
The party, and the Salon, continued between performances, as Cass held court in a backstage tent, truly in her element. These were all friends and many of them had gained their success at least partially due to Cass. These salon sessions were the keystone to Monterey, even if The Mamas and the Papas' performance was not. Hours before the gig, Denny Doherty, the singing lead of the quartet, was nowhere to be seen. He'd had no stock or interest in Monterey Pop, resenting even the time and effort put into its organization by John and Michelle. Based on their hectic schedule, the band hadn’t rehearsed as a unit in more than three months. Cass and Michelle, clearly nervous but passing the time before their appearance just offstage for Hendrix, found themselves in awe of Jimi’s stage antics. Hendrix' sublime performance (one far better than what would follow at Woodstock), eased the girl’s minds: it wouldn’t really matter how well The Mamas and the Papas performed – no one would remember anything but Hendrix. Just 45-minutes prior their performance, Doherty finally arrived, just in time to see The Who destroy the stage and Hendrix light his guitar on fire.

The Mamas and the Papas performance was lackluster at best, the harmonies flat, the audience distracted, but it didn’t matter. It was their presence that culminated the show. John had finally relented in his insistence that the quartet dress the hippie role, the girls without make-up, the guys in jeans, but The Beatles, with Sgt. Pepper, had made hippie chic. Cass, who'd always wanted to glam it up, dressed in a silk, brightly colored caftan similar to an Indian sari. Michelle, alongside the elite hipsters of the time, like Mia Farrow, shopped at a smart little boutique in Hollywood called Profile du Monde, and wore a similar caftan in copper silk and gold lame. Doherty wore a knee length silk paisley Nehru jacket, and John a hipster's suit and tie with a fur hat like a trapper. While the performance was far from the band's best, the aura of the moment prevailed. The quartet, sans Doherty, had orchestrated what few would argue as the best of the outdoor superconcerts, including Woodstock. For Cass, it was the unrealized culmination of what she had "worked" for all these years as the Queen of Laurel Canyon.

One final vignette of note. Cass, like Gertrude Stein, welcomed all into her entourage, and whether you were Jackson Browne or Joe Schmo, you got the same focus and attention. But Cass wasn't always the "Fat Angel" and her outcast experiences in grade school left their mark. After a Mamas and the Papas show in New York, a bevy of sophisticated, one-time sorority girls from Forest Park came backstage, their wealthy husbands in tow. When one, Mimi Seligman, greeted Cass as if they were old pals, Cass responded, "You didn’t know me then, and you don’t know me now." In reality, there aren't many of the bullied who truly get to exact their revenge. Cass would tell that story the rest of her life.