The Journey of John Phillips

The Journey of John Phillips

By Matthew Greenwald 03/15/15

John Phillips' public struggles with drugs and alcohol were, in the end, beneficial to the early community of musicians in recovery.

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Unlike some other musician/addiction profiles, the John Phillips story is not necessarily one with a cheerful ending. However, Phillips' very public struggles with drugs and alcohol were, in the end, very beneficial to the early community of musicians in recovery, and he certainly paved the way for many to tackle their problems despite a very public profile. 

Born in 1935, John Phillips came from a long line of military careerists, and he grew up in the Washington/Virginia area of the Eastern Seaboard. His father was a military officer (and apparent recluse with poor health and a crippling drinking problem) who retired when John was very young. John attended military school and even went to the Naval Academy for a fleeting period. By the late 1950s, the attraction of a career in music was too much for Phillips; he eventually moved to New York, fronting pop-vocal ensembles such as The Abstracts and The Smoothies. 

By the dawn of the 1960s, folk music was one of the biggest movements in the country; Phillips wasted no time in founding a professional outfit called The Journeymen, which included future acolyte Scott McKenzie. During this period he was married to Suzie Adams, a descendant of John Quincy Adams. They had two children, one being Mackenzie Phillips, of which more will be heard from later. The Journeymen were fairly successful, having a contract with Capitol Records, releasing several albums, which while not bestsellers, sold respectably. The group had built a very significant reputation. They had a taste of the good life—Phillips undoubtedly liked it. 

During this period, marijuana and pharmaceuticals such as amphetamines were common in the commercial folk world. John experimented eagerly, although his focus on his career was always a constant. Sometime in 1963, on tour in San Francisco, he met a young Michelle Gilliam, a striking beauty nine years his junior. Their romance eventually led to a divorce from Suzie. John and Michelle married in 1964; she eventually joined the Journeymen.

During their travels on the folk music circuit, they met future Mamas & Papas members' Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty. The first time the four actually met together coincided with them all dropping LSD for the first time, while the drug was still legal. This gave the group a bond that congealed their camaraderie, and certainly affected their music. It was during this trip that Denny Doherty made Phillips listen to the Beatles, whose impact was immeasurable, though John had been resisting. Among some folk purists, going electric was considered sacrilege. But once John heard the Beatles…his life and art were never the same. 

While The Mamas & The Papas weren’t quite a group yet, they all decided to travel to the Virgin Islands for an extended vacation, financed by the earnings of The Journeymen. Change was clearly in the air; the early music of The Byrds and The Lovin' Spoonful (whom Phillips and the band knew very well) was all over the radio. A cultural revolution was taking place, and pop music was at the center of it all. Phillips and his bandmates wanted room at the table. They spent several months in the Virgin Islands, dropping acid and refining their sound. 

In mid-1965, the four ended up in Los Angeles, quickly signing to Lou Adler’s new label, Dunhill Records. The next few months were a blur: “California Dreamin,’” “Monday, Monday,” “I Saw Her Again,” and many others. John was at the center of it all as the groups’ songwriter and vocal arranger. In a perfect world, he probably should have been listed as co-producer. Their characteristic four-part harmonies twisted and rolled with countermelodies and vocal hooks, which were infectious and revolutionary—beguiling the heart as well as the ear. A lot was resting on Phillips' shoulders, and for a while, he delivered. As far as substance abuse, the band were relatively big drinkers at a social place and time when alcohol wasn’t necessarily customary. Marijuana, acid and pharmaceuticals of all types (opiates, tranquilizers and amphetamines) were staples in the group’s diet. There would be a price to pay down the road…

By 1967, the group was running out of steam, but not before what turned out to be Phillips’ finest hour. In June, the high-water mark of the psychedelic movement (two weeks after the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper's...) Phillips and Lou Adler organized and produced the Monterey International Pop Festival, which took place over the course of three days and announced to the world the psychedelic revolution at its finest. It featured the first major American performances of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and several others. The communal vibe was inescapably vigorous, and was all captured in the superb D.A. Pennebaker documentary, Monterey Pop. 

Following the festival and the birth of their daughter Chynna, John and Michelle, in due course, split up after a messy open marriage and an even more untidy public divorce. It was during this period that harder drugs entered the picture. John, in particular, was rubbing elbows with the Beverly Hills/Hollywood elite, such as Roman Polanski/Sharon Tate, Warren Beatty, Robert Evans and many others. He was also chummy with the Rolling Stones and Beatles. It was an intoxicating time (literally and figuratively), and a lot of people in these circles had access to heavier, more expensive drugs, namely cocaine, thus beginning John Phillips' ten-plus year odyssey. 

Following the break-up of the group, Phillips cut an under-appreciated solo album (The Wolfking Of L.A.), and worked on a few film soundtracks. He primarily spent a lot of his time as sort-of a royal figure in Hollywood…a semi-active "King of Pop" holding court in his Bel Air mansion. Various projects came and went, many uncompleted such as a musical called Man On The Moon or Space, which he put together with his new wife, actress Geneviève Waïte. During this period, his use of cocaine and other narcotics was prodigious and legendary. During the mid-1970s, he also became cross-addicted to heroin. 

His good friend Mick Jagger helped John get a solo album deal with the founder of Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegün (via The Stones' Rolling Stones Records). It featured performances by Jagger, Richards, Ron Wood and Mick Taylor. The project was bogged down due to excessive drug use by Phillips and Keith Richards (who was co-producing), and eventually Ertegün pulled the plug on the financing. It was ultimately released after John died in 2001 under the title Pay Pack & Follow. The record certainly had potential:

Following this, John’s addiction accelerated to the point where he was trafficking huge amounts of pharmaceuticals from a partner who had a pharmacy, via stolen prescription pads from doctor’s offices all over Manhattan. The end eventually came following a huge DEA sting, and Phillips was convicted in 1981 of drug trafficking. Subsequently, he and his television-star daughter Mackenzie Phillips made the rounds in the media in an anti-drug campaign. This helped reduce his prison time to only a month in jail, of which he spent three weeks (one week off for good behavior) at Allenwood Prison Camp in Allenwood, PA.

Upon his release, he re-formed The Mamas & The Papas with Mackenzie, Spanky McFarlane (of the group Spanky and Our Gang) and Denny Doherty. Throughout the rest of his life, Phillips toured with various incarnations of this group. He also co-wrote “Kokomo,” which was a huge hit for The Beach Boys in the late '80s. He also wrote a best-selling autobiography, Papa John. 

During this period, he essentially switched his addiction to alcohol. Phillips had a liver transplant in 1992, although whether he abstained from drinking was always in question. When he was photographed drinking in a bar in the mid-90s, he commented that he was “trying to break in the new liver,” which seemed to be his mindset throughout his life.

I chanced upon meeting John along with Scott McKenzie in the late '90s in Palm Springs. He was attempting to get some press on the subject of the Stones-related project, which was unreleased at that time. It was a little bizarre, with John and Scott calling the interview short due to a consultation that they were clearly looking forward to with a “pain doctor.” You get the picture. 

John Phillips died in March of 2001 from heart failure, after suffering from various ailments. Controversy followed even after he died, as his daughter Mackenzie alleged in her memoir High On Arrival that she and her father had a 10-year incestuous relationship that began after a drug binge.

In the end, John Phillips was undeniably an American original. For a brief period, 1965-8, he was unquestionably one of the leading composers and record-makers in that extraordinary, limit-smashing period. And isn’t that a fine thing? 

Matthew Greenwald is a Los Angeles-based musician and writer. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Mojo/U.K., Analog Planet, Record Collectors/Japan and other outlets, both print and web. He currently writes and records music in duo with Greg Berg called The Holy Smokes, based out of San Clemente, California. He last wrote about Marianne Faithful

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