Fine Tuning: John Phillip’s Pussycat
Filed under: Fine Tuning | Posted by: jody
September 9th marked the release of the newly rediscovered Pussycat sessions by the late John Phillips. The sessions, which featured members of Traffic and the Stones and were produced by none other than the Glimmer Twins, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, were shelved or lost in late ’76 or early ’77. This album is one of a few that began bubbling up to the surface shortly after Phillips’ death in 2001. Lost music that involves some big names in rock sure sounds like an exciting proposition. Unfortunately, anything sounding good about this album ends there.
Before we get to the malarkey, a little history on John Phillips. For those of you unfamiliar with the man, he was most notably a member of The Mamas & The Papas. He went on to live a rock ‘n’ roll train wreck of a life in the late ’60s and ’70s. He hung out with celebrities and musicians in LA. He married models. He shot copious amounts of heroine and did mountains of coke. John Phillips, to me, seems like the kind of guy that was probably a great personality with enough talent to be interesting, but, maybe, not enough talent left through the, um… “lifestyle” to really pull off anything substantial (post Mamas & the Papas that is).
The album is a mess, but I’ve found it a guilty pleasure over the last two months to consider why. The biggest problem is that Phillips lacks any sort of direction in his narrative voice. It’s not like he’s quiet or strong or deliberate or apathetic. He’s just kind of there, sounding very thin, and the production pulls him under like a rip tide.
Good production usually helps an artist by building layers to accentuate their sound and style. Rick Ruben producing the last few Johnny Cash records comes to mind; Danger Mouse has had more than a couple good examples over the past couple of years. On Pussycat, however, I do blame the production and its lack of deliberate thought about playing to his strengths. The Glimmer Twins had some definite thoughts on this album’s sound aesthetic, but I think they forgot to include John Phillips into that equation. The layers pile up and squash poor John. Songs have little splashes of gospel back-up, electric organ, piano, bongos, slide guitar, and anything else Jagger/Richards thought they could use to prop up these weak tracks; you could say they had a fever for more cowbell.
To compound the poor production problem is that fact that Phillips really doesn’t have much to say and sounds incredibly burned out while saying it. To paraphrase the Dennis Leary joke: He used all of the drugs and we had to wait for him to die so we could smoke his ashes. Leary made that joke about Keith Richards. Let’s pause for a moment of silence to imagine the drugs Richards and Phillips must have shared. Some of the songs (“2001”, “She’s Just 14”, and “Susan, Susan”) honestly make me cringe. Consider lyrics from 2001: “It’s only 24 years/until the year 2000/and may all of the people/on this lovely plant/still be here/in the year 2001.” Phillips’s lyrics are mostly like a stoner’s thoughts: brilliant in the middle of the night, but pretty vague and awkward in the light of day. I think maybe these recording were lost because no one was sober enough to remember even making them.
It’s a shame; a few songs really do have a flash of possibility. The tolerable tracks (“Oh Virginia”, “Mr. Blue”, “Time Machine”, and “Feather Your Nest”) stand apart from the remaining crap. With coherent production, these 4 tracks could have been the backbone of a good cohesive album. I like to imagine that in a bizarro world maybe Gram Parsons could have helped produce John Phillips in his pre-seventies-burnout glory and that together, they could have come up with something actually substantial. It is not hard to see the possibility of magic. -Dave Harmon
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