Michelle Phillips: Trip of a lifetime

As the glamorous face of The Mamas & The Papas, Michelle Phillips was an icon of the psychedelic Sixties. In a rare interview, she tells James McNair how she (just) managed to survive the summer of love

Saturday 30 October 2004 00:00 BST

It's not every 60-year-old who would feel comfortable conducting an interview in a white vest and shorts. But then we are in Los Angeles, it is 104 degrees, and former pop singer, model and it-girl Michelle Phillips is no ordinary sixty-something. As one quarter of legendary vocal harmony group The Mamas & The Papas, she sang lead on "Dedicated to the One I Love", the gorgeous opening track of the band's acclaimed 1967 album, Deliver. "The purest soprano in popdom," said Time magazine of Phillips' performance, but most listeners just swooned.

Born Holly Michelle Gilliam in Long Beach, California, Phillips is still slim, toned and blonde. She looks about 45, and hasn't forgotten how to flirt. Today, we're chatting in the lounge of her chic Cheviot Hills home. There's a well-thumbed copy of Vanity Fair on the coffee table, but it is the room's paintings, many of them Phillips-rendered copies of old masters, which draw the eye. "That one," she says, following my gaze to a good oil-on-canvas likeness of the pooch that lies panting on the sofa, "is all my own work. It's of my baby, Snoop Doggy Dog."

Outside, the manicured gardens seem unreal yet familiar, perhaps because they featured in the Dallas spin-off Knots Landing. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, my host acted in the drama, scoring a Best Villainess gong from Soap Opera Digest for her role as Anne Matheson Sumner. But we're not here to talk about that. With a four-disc anthology being released, we've met to talk about the eventful existence The Mamas & The Papas enjoyed between 1965 and 1968. And as Phillips maintains that it's royalties from songs such as "California Dreamin'", not her ongoing acting career, that keep her in chardonnay, this is only right.

Before we get to the nub of the story, some background on her former band mates: Michelle fell for the group's arranger and chief songwriter, "Papa" John Phillips, when their paths crossed in San Francisco in 1961. She was 17 and working as a model; he was a 26-year-old solo folk-singer from South Carolina. The pair married in 1962 and became one half of The Mamas & The Papas in 1965. It was John who penned "Monday, Monday" and, with a little help from Michelle, "California Dreamin'". Outside of The Mamas & The Papas, he also wrote the hippie anthem, "San Francisco".

Next came Nova Scotia's Denny Doherty, the band's second most prolific songwriter, and a man with whom Michelle would have a brief affair while she was still married to John (they would eventually divorce in 1968).

The group's most flamboyant member, though, was undoubtedly "Mama" Cass Elliot, the obese, mighty-lunged talent who named the band after encountering a motorcycle gang that called its female riders mamas and its male ones papas. Elliot's attempts to make The Mamas & The Papas a two-couple gang proved fruitless, Denny Doherty turning down her proposal of marriage and sexual advances. In 1974, long after the group had split, Cass died at singer-songwriter Harry "Without You" Nilsson's London flat. The cruel, circulating rumour was that she had choked on a ham sandwich. In fact, she suffered a massive heart attack.

"I'd spoken to her on the phone the night before," recalls Phillips. "She was crying with happiness because she'd been getting standing ovations at the musical theatre shows she'd been doing. Had Cass lived, she'd still be a star. She would have her own chat show, production company, sitcom ... there were so many strings to her bow."

The Mamas & The Papas cut their teeth amid the thriving early-1960s cellar-folk scene of New York's Greenwich Village. But it was when they joined the burgeoning hippie exodus to the West Coast in August 1965 that they truly arrived. The band got to Los Angeles at the time of the Watts race riots, where they were promptly discovered by the record producer and owner of Dunhill Records, Lou Adler. "I couldn't believe anything that good had just walked in off the street," Adler told Life magazine the following year. He immediately noted a vocal blend to match that of The Beach Boys, then riding high in the charts with "California Girls".

Initially, Adler hired John, Michelle, Cass and Denny to sing back-up vocals on a new album by the folk singer Barry McGuire but soon they were recording their own, vastly superior debut, If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears. f Its title nodded at the pioneering music within, and at an LSD-fuelled, Beatles-savvy, counter-cultural thrust.

"Under [John Phillips'] obsessive and visionary direction," wrote David Fricke of Rolling Stone in 2001, "The Mamas & The Papas charged the honeyed clarity of folk-rock harmonising with rock'n'roll lung-power and a vivid sexual electricity." This was a band that could slip effortlessly between TV specials saluting Rodgers and Hart, and live appearances alongside Jimi Hendrix and The Who.

What with the young Michelle Phillips being a slim, archetypal Californian bombshell, and Cass being a fat girl from Maryland who also happened to be the superior singer, it's easy to imagine that the two women's working relationship might have been fraught with jealousy. Not so. "We were extremely close", says Phillips. "You have to remember that Cass emancipated me. She thought John had way too much control over me, and to this day, I've yet to meet another woman as strong, funny and fiercely independent as Cass was. She was very generous vocally, too. John would give us these impossibly high parts to sing because he loved the sound of girls in the clouds. Cass would tell me, 'Just go for it, Mich! You know I'm gonna make it - come and join me!'"

Phillips points out that while Elliot was "hugely, unapologetically fat", this had no adverse effect on her sexual confidence. "Denny couldn't get past her weight, it's true, but when Cass became a star - man, she had guys all over her!" A much more public example of Elliot's big-is-beautiful philosophy involved her posing nude for the US magazine Cheetah. "That was her way of sticking two fingers up and saying, 'I'm the greatest,'" Phillips laughs. "Cass thought she was the greatest, and she was."

Meanwhile, with regard to the band's tangled, close-knit relationships - it's not for nothing that The Mamas & The Papas have been described as the proto-Fleetwood Mac - Phillips' account of their trip to the Virgin Islands in 1966 is especially revealing. She tells me that they lived communally in a tent on the beach; that Cass had brought along a huge vial of liquid acid which they'd raid each morning before snorkelling at a nearby coral reef. "The four of us would drop acid every full moon, too," says Phillips. "Then we'd take a catamaran out and float in that warm Caribbean water. It was very sensual, I can tell you - so much so, in fact, that Denny and I starting playing footsie.

"When Denny put me up against a wall and gave me this big, wet, luscious kiss," Phillips continues, "I went to John later that day and said that perhaps we should move away. He asked me why, and I confessed that I could feel myself becoming attracted to Denny." John Phillips' dismissive reply, she recalls, was that she shouldn't worry too much about that, because Doherty had no interest in her. "It was dismissed out of hand," she says. "John didn't even want to go there. He was too busy thinking about the next vocal arrangement."

A short while later, when John Phillips learned that Michelle and Denny's affair wasn't a figment of her imagination, he told her, "You can do a lot of things to me Mich, but you don't fuck my tenor." The upshot was Michelle's sacking and brief replacement by Jill Gibson, then girlfriend of Lou Adler.

"I remember visiting John at The Argyle on Sunset Boulevard and pleading with him not to go and do those shows in New York, Phoenix and Denver with Jill," says Phillips. "He just casually threw his socks in the Samsonite and said, 'I'm sorry - it's too late.' I questioned whether he had the authority to sack me, and he said, 'I gave you everything and I can take it all away again - you wait and see.'"

When fans started calling for Mich at concerts, however, John Phillips welcomed her back both romantically and musically. Denny's John Phillips-enforced penance for his affair with Michelle was to channel the whole experience into a song, and before long, he'd come up with "I Saw Her Again". Phillips, meanwhile, tackled Michelle's affair in "Go Where You Wanna Go", its title smacking of the sexual liberation of the times.

"I think we did about as much as was humanly possible in the two and a half years we were together," says Phillips. "I always saw it as a bubble that had to burst, and when it did, we ran out of things to write about because we'd always written autobiographically. We didn't split up over a fight; it was more that we'd all had enough of it. Cass in particular had always loved Broadway musicals, which was why she ended up doing musical theatre."

Phillips still looks great. It would be ungracious to ask what part, if any, her current plastic surgeon boyfriend of five years, Steven Zax, has played in the suspension of time's ravages. After splitting with John Phillips, she was romantically linked with Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson and Roman Polanski, among others. Perhaps romance, not surgery, is the answer, then. But that would be dismissing the adverse effects of her disastrous, eight-day marriage to actor Dennis Hopper in 1970.

Phillips now enjoys acting, leaving the singing to her and John's daughter Chynna, one-third of the vocal-harmony group Wilson Phillips (she also has a son, Austin, by the actor Grainger Hines, and an adopted son, Aron). But it's when she recalls hearing "California Dreamin'" on the radio for the first time as she and her first love piloted their 1959 Buick toward Laurel Canyon, that the wistful twinkle returns to her eyes.

How did she feel, then, when John Phillips died of heart failure in 2001? "Sad," she says. "John hadn't spoken to me in several years. His wife was insanely jealous of our past and he had taken my name off of his Mamas & The Papas website. Even though she didn't want me to, I got to say goodbye to him at the hospital. Lou Adler and Denny talked to her; said, 'Look, you can't take this away from them.'

"It was strange to see this man who had shaped my life looking so feeble, so close to death. It tore me apart. He was Chynna's father. For everything that we had been through, from nasty divorce to nastier things afterwards ... all of that was gone when I stood there looking at him. Suddenly his eyes flew open and he said [in an affectionate whisper], 'Mich! Oh, Mich!' I told him how grateful I was for everything that we had gone through together, and for the woman that he had made me. He grabbed my head, pulled me to him, gave me a kiss and said, 'Mich, I want you to come and see me again.' But he was dead by the next day ..."

I switch off my recording machine and the mood lightens. Phillips shows me her Dunhill Records gold discs; some mid-1960s Mamas & The Papas dolls still in their original packaging; the cello which John gave her for Christmas in 1968. She says that she donated the fabulous outfits she wore back in the 1960s to the Rock'n'Roll Hall Of Fame some years back, but speaks fondly of an Indian sari in green, black and gold which a woman called Toni at Profile Du Monde made for her after an introduction courtesy of Mia Farrow.

Sitting on her front porch awaiting my cab, I ask Phillips if she has any famous neighbours. Smiling, her cigarette poised between her fingers for lighting, she answers: "There's only one star on this street, baby!"

'The Mamas & The Papas Complete Anthology' is out on MCA/Universal

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