In 1970, John Phillips, chief songwriter of the recently disbanded The Mamas & the Papas released his first solo album, John, Wolfking of L.A.. The Mamas & the Papas had been a pop juggernaut and, with tracks like “California Dreaming” and other hits, had perpetrated the California-as-Eden idea that was reflected by other acts of the day. But the Mamas were anything but idyllic, torn apart by interband jealously and the tumultuous romantic relationship between John and Michelle Phillips. The stakes where high when Wolfking was released, but despite some high-chart action for “Mississippi,” the album flopped.
Sonically, the album treads the “Cosmic Americana” sound Gram Parsons was always going on about, fitting in nicely with the urban-cowboy, soft-rock sounds of The Byrds, American Beauty-era Dead, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (together and separately), and Parsons’ own Flying Burrito Brothers. Barroom pianos tinkle drunkenly, the drums maintain a soft clatter and warm pedal steel swells and moans; Phillips spared no expense in securing the best session players availabe, utilizing members of Elvis Presley’s band (Presley himself expressed interest in recording “Mississippi” but the Colonel killed the idea ). Having spent time in a premier vocal-pop group, he was understandably nervous about his own vocals and chose the, in retrospect, rather shoegaze-y approach of burying them in the mix, letting the subtle, fantastic playing of his band overshadow his modest voice.
Which is a shame, really, because in addition to his vocals being more than decent, Phillips' lyrics are far more subversive than anyone could have expected. The album starts off with “April Anne,” rife with references to Los Angeles avatars. A “gypsy woman” implores Anne to let the "Easy Rider share her bed," but Anne chooses the “drunken gigolo instead." Meanwhile, we hear of the “jingle jacket faggot friend” who’s mysteriously "dead" (a barb directed at The Byrds' Gene Clark, who dated Michelle when she and John were split up, "dead" essentially meaning "dumped" most likely).
“Topanga Canyon” recasts Lou Reed’s “Waiting For My Man” junkie tale in beach-bum attire, with Phillips driving out to the canyon to score a fix. He makes a stop at the farmers market to justify his purchase, noting the “buying and selling for profit.” But where Reed sings with fractured ambivalence, matter of fact and unashamed, Phillips pleads in the chorus, “Oh Mary I’m in deep water/ And it’s way over my head/ Everyone thought I was smarter/ Than to be mislead.” While Reed sounds detached and distracted, John sounds desperate. He seeks redemption, and the chorus of angelic backup singers echo the sentiment.
“Malibu People” showcases Phillips’ subtle dark comedy. In scenes dotted with fine beach houses and sun-bleached characters, he paints a vivid picture, a 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.” It’s hard to say why it’s so funny, but it is. It's also poignant. The waves seem to be the only constant here. The clumsy 'some one took my stuff' blues of “Drum,” a tune that details junkies stealing John’s drums from the back of his car, is made utterly tragic by his heartbroken delivery.
Side two is less geographically thematic, but none less expressive. The blood and guts of “Let It Bleed Genevieve” (a nod to his dangerous pals The Rolling Stones, whose Mick Jagger and Keith Richards he would later go on to record fraught solo album Pay, Pack, and Follow with) details a fictional (?) tale of Phillips’ new girlfriend, actress Geneviève Waïte, having a miscarriage in his basement, while her replacement waits up on the sidewalk, “waiting to be skinned.” John and the boys tear it up out on the town in a fit of casual misogyny. The neighbors ask him to keep it down, but understand that “boys will be boys.” Meanwhile, “Mississippi” is an ecstatic swamp jam, all Dixieland and winks at the girls crossing their legs and looking at the narrator funny.
The album closes with the haunting “Holland Tunnel,” and it’s fitting that Phillips chose to finish the album with a song about driving. Perhaps it’s a clarion call. It seemed a fitting time to check the gas and oil and to get out while the getting was good. Throughout the album, Phillips lets his countrified beach-bum sound hide his dark subject matter. But peering through the veneer of the album's smooth sound reveals a hurt, defensive, and addicted artist. The album ends with Phillips looking to “find his soul on the other side.”
Perhaps the reason John Wolfking of L.A. remains a 'lost' album -- albeit one with a growing cult -- is because it’s too painful to view the idyllic ’60s dream crashing down. We really want to imagine California as a place where peace and love bloomed, if only for a time. We want to let our freak-folk singers move in to Topanga Canyon and record wild songs that sound the way we want the ’60s to have sounded, the way Devendra Banhart did with Smokey Rolls Down the Mountain. But in a recent interview, Devendra revealed that a female friend of his was violently attacked in his Topanga home studio by a man believing that he was Jesus.
Parallels to Phillips' experiences with the Manson clan notwithstanding (at one point Roman Polanski even, according to Phillips' book, though Phillips had something to do with the killings), it’s hard to say if Banhart is blowing smoke up our asses, playing into that Mansonesque image of his. But it’s also not hard to imagine this tale being true. Dreams can only last so long. It’s a matter of time before human nature rears its ugly head in the midst of peace and harmony. 1970 was a generational “morning after,” and as pop culture collectively woke up and got out of bed, John Wolfking of L.A. vividly, beautifully, and honestly dealt with the comedown and subsequent head-scratching.