WOLFKING IN SHEEP’S CLOTHING John Phillips

Overhyped and
undercooked, the late Papa John’s legacy takes a hit, courtesy Andy Warhol.

 

BY STEVEN ROSEN

 

Giving some due to the minor impact of his 1970 solo album John the Wolfking of L.A., the only real
success the late John Phillips had after The Mamas and the Papas broke up was
his 1986 autobiography Papa John – an
early example of the rock-star confessional that horrified readers with the
time (and, ultimately, life) wasted being too zonked on drugs to function well.
Still, he did have the cachet and connections to hook up with some important
people on various projects during those lost decades, and since his death in
2001 the resultant material has been slowly trickling out.

 

First came Pay Pack
& Follow,
which he had been recording for Rolling Stones Records. Some
other archival releases followed (including a remastered/expanded reissue of Wolfking) and now comes his most interesting project – the short-lived (and
critically reviled) 1975 Off-Broadway musical he wrote that was produced by
Andy Warhol, Man on the Moon.

 

The project, alas, is most interesting for its back story.
Phillips became infatuated with creating a musical fantasy after watching the
1969 moon landing, and started working on Space. He found a producer (Hair’s Michael
Butler) and director (Michael Bennett, who would go on to create A Chorus Line), as well as a would-be
star, his wife, Genevieve Waite. But that collapsed, partly due to his drug
intake. Somehow he got Warhol involved, and the thing eventually opened as a
much-recasted and already troubled Man on
the Moon
with Waite, Phillips, Denny Doherty of The Mamas and the Papas,
and Warholite Monique Van Voorenand
then closed after just five days in the wake of terrible reviews.

 

Listening to the 38 cuts on the Andy Warhol Presents Man on the Moon (Varese Sarabande) CD, which
include a few tracks recorded live from the theater audience by Warhol,
himself, you can see why it failed. The music, here mostly performed by
Phillips in a tentative voice with folksy arrangements, is a pastiche of styles
since he lacked a coherent aesthetic for a Broadway musical. Some are faux
Weimer cabaret or Jazz Age ditties; others try to rock like Transformer-period Lou Reed (“Midnight
Deadline Blastoff”) and sound thin and brittle. Others, like “If King Can, Who
Can’t,” just seem forced or trite.

 

It’s impossible to tell from these recordings if the
theatrical production meant to be Rocky
Horror Show-
camp or have some narrative sensitivity. But there are some
good numbers that show Phillips’ deep-seated gift for melody and arresting
lyric – “Star Stepping Stranger,” “Welcome to the Moon Man,” the bluesy and
powerful “Handcuffs,” the bizarrely religious “Truth Cannot Be Treason,” the
Bowie-like “Yesterday I Left the Earth with its great chorale singing. Another
interesting aspect is the chance to hear Waite sing. Her voice had an unusual
pinched, high-pitched quality, somewhere between Billie Holiday and Betty Boop,
and Phillips gave her a beautiful song, “There Is a Place,” as a showcase.

 

A different time and with better health, maybe Phillips
could have made a rock-based Broadway musical that really worked. This wasn’t
it, but it has enough worthwhile songs to merit a listen, however brief.

 

By way of an additional time capsule, the disc includes as
bonus material video footage from the actual rehearsals, and there’s also a PDF
file that displays the original playbill, photos from the production and, most
fascinatingly, critical reviews. The New
York Times
‘ Clive Barnes was particularly savage, observing, “For
connoisseurs of the truly bad, Man on the
Moon
may be a small milestone.” It was Barnes’ withering comments on the
music itself, though, that in the context of the CD at hand, are instructive:
“The score is in a fairly nostalgic and eclectic vein; perhaps Mr. Phillips is
hoping to start up a group called The Grandmamas and the Grandpapas.” Ouch.

 

 

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