As Captain Beefheart once sang, “Everything’s wrong, at the same time it’s right.” That’s sort of how I feel about John Phillips’ solo debut, known as John the Wolfking of L.A, which has recently been re-issued on CD for the first time. In the end, wrong wins out over right (as usual).
Exploring the slippery and mysterious nexus between Don McLean, Jim Croce, Arlo Guthrie, Dan Fogelberg, Harry Nilsson and Harry Chapin, on one side, the record also brings to mind Gram Parsons, Dylan and Lou Reed. Phillips, a famously dissolute character, had a vestigial air of hippie royalty from his days fronting the Mamas and the Papas. Recorded in 1970, you can see and hear the full-on 60s comedown in this record. This music makes a perfect counterpart to Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye.” You sort of wish that Joan Didion had written a whole book about this – I’m sure she would have reduced the lanky folkster to a dry pile of dusty reeds. With nice pedal steel, the record has a warm country-rock vibe that gets transposed to the wasted, sun-damaged, free-loving, poncho-wearing logic of southern California. Perhaps all I need to say is that two of the best songs are called “Topanga Canyon” and “Malibu People.” The opener “April Anne,” is peopled with Dylan-esque characters: Easy Riders, Jingle-Jangle Faggots, Midnight Cowboys and Drunken Gigolos. It has to be said, there’s something completely pervy about Phillips. And of all the types of perv – the pervy priest, the pervy teacher, the pervy redneck, the pervy biker, the pervy businessman – I don’t think there’s anything more creepy than the pervy hippie. Like the hippie dream itself, the record starts out good, full of open-hearted promise and hazy light, only to curdle into a self-deluded mess. The faux-gospel version of “The Mermaid Song” is really inexplicable [in the words of JP, “that one’s really egregious; it really takes points away; not only does it not sound good, but it makes you think that he doesn’t understand music, like a lot” – (she also points out that Phillips famously let Mick Jagger sleep with his young daughter)], though I did hear it while re-reading Moby Dick and was reminded of the awesome scene at the mariner’s church in Nantucket where the preacher delivers the sermon from a sort of crow’s nest. And “Black Girl,” Phillips’ version of “In the Pines,” is also completely unnecessary. Worst of all may be the bogus Louis Armstrong-style scatting on “Down the Beach,” which isn’t only bad, but inappropriate. But what really starts to gall is the growing suspicion that Phillips is lamely attempting to make some sort of grand pan-American travelogue, complete with the foul-smelling ersatz Cajun jamboree of “Mississippi”and the got-to-ramble cliches of “Holland Tunnel.” The stylistic appropriations are done without much regard for anything.
Now that the venom has been spilled, let me try to pull back a little. The first three tracks “April Anne,” “Topanga Canyon” and “Malibu People” are only a slight remove from Gram Parsons’ solo stuff. It’s soft-serve weed-smoking folk country. The similarity will either make you bend toward Phillips or perhaps to doubt your unquestioning appreciation of Gram Parsons.
Of course, beyond the music, there’s the issue of the record cover, which features Phillips in profile, wearing a sort of white top hat, a cravat and a bearskin coat. The freaky thing about it is that Bob Dylan made almost a replica of it on the cover of his 1976 record Desire. Was Dylan ripping off Phillips as it appears he has since done with the verse of Confederate poet Henry Timrod? Or was Phillips and his wide-ranging ways just an early iteration of what Dylan would become?
"April Anne" - John Phillips
"Topanga Canyon" - John Phillips
"Malibu People" - John Phillips
"Tropical Hotdog Night" - Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band