Friday, September 25, 2009

"Broke, Busted, Disgusted" or "Wolfking in creep's clothing"

NewsRadio is one of my favorite TV programs of all time, a smart, fast-paced comedy boasting the finest ensemble cast of its era. While he was never my favorite cast member, Andy Dick was a vital piece of the NewsRadio dynamic. His portrayal of reporter Matthew Brock as a childlike weirdo prone to pratfalls, freak-outs and hero-worship was off-kilter and endearing.

In the years following NewsRadio, however, Dick became primarily known as an out-of-control druggie prone to truly inappropriate outbursts in public settings. With every new drug bust or model-groping, a little bit of the shine came off of the Matthew character. By the time Jon Lovitz, of all people, gave Dick a sound thrashing for disrespecting the late, great Phil Hartman, it was difficult for me to separate the comedy from the comedian. I still love Dick’s work on NewsRadio, but when I watch it today, I can’t help but wonder how stoned Dick is in any given scene, or just how close Joe Rogan was to punching him out with the cameras rolling. Losing a TV friend like that just makes me sad, and I kind of hate Andy Dick for spoiling Matthew.

It’s not news to anyone with an awareness of the ‘60s California pop scene that John Phillips was an unconscionable bastard. It wasn’t until this week, though, that the world learned the full degree of the man’s bastardity. In rock star terms, Papa John’s descent into worthless junkiedom could be viewed as an occupational hazard. His cavalier abuse of a liver transplant he clearly didn’t deserve ratcheted up his detestability a few notches, but still didn’t place him in the upper echelons of celebrity bastards. This whole daughter-fucking thing, though – that’s pretty much one of the last remaining unforgivable sins.

Obviously, the biggest crime here is the one perpetrated by John against his daughter. If Mackenzie's allegations are true, and I rather believe they are, he took a sacred role of trust and guidance and used it to score a convenient drug buddy and sex partner. Transgressions don’t come much viler than that. But Phillips also committed a crime against his own artwork, and that of his numerous talented collaborators. As noted by my favorite pop culture commentator Sean O’Neal, from now on any time “Monday Monday” or “California Dreaming” gets queued up on a jukebox, someone’s going to make a snide remark about Phillips’ private perversions. Certain venues will probably stop playing anything Phillips-affiliated altogether, for a while at least. The sins of the father have sullied an amazing body of work, and that’s a tragedy in its own right. (As for Mackenzie Phillips’ claim that Mick Jagger had been lusting after her since she was ten – well, you’ve heard “Stray Cat Blues,” right?)

A few years back, I discovered Phillips’ first solo record, John the Wolfking of LA, in my local library’s CD section. I’d never heard of it before, but having a general if not passionate appreciation of The Mamas and The Papas, I figured it was worth a listen. As it turns out, it’s something of a minor masterpiece, and maybe my favorite artifact of the California country rock era. Phillips’s songwriting was never stronger than on this collection of sometimes sad, sometimes sleazy, always deeply personal pop songs. The music is fantastic, moving effortlessly from the reflective strums of “April Anne” and “Holland Tunnel” to the piano hall stomp of “Mississippi” and “Let it Bleed, Genevieve.” I quickly came to regard Wolfking as that ultimate object of hipster desire – a should-be classic album that hardly anybody else knew about.

Now I’m left to wonder just how tainted Phillips’ masterwork will be. I’m certainly not naive enough to think that all, or even most, or even many, of my artistic heroes are good people. I’m currently reading a biography of Lou Reed – my musical idol numero uno – that pulls no punches about Lou’s assholery toward just about everyone he’s ever had dealings with. That type of thing doesn’t upset me. I can fully appreciate the artwork of people who would probably bug the hell out of me at a cocktail party. Sometimes it’s fairly clear-cut – what film buff hasn’t watched a Roman Polanski movie and felt a twinge of guilt at enjoying the work of a fugitive child-rapist? Other times it’s more personal. Andy Dick’s sins clearly don’t rival those of John Phillips or Roman Polanski, but they’re almost as distressing to me because I hold NewsRadio so dear to my heart.

I’ve been listening to John the Wolfking of LA off and on since Mackenzie Phillips’ revelation. I’m somewhat relieved that the experience isn’t quite as tainted as I’d feared. It’s still a damn fine album in every regard, but I can’t help seeing it in a different light. The songwriting is personal to the point of autobiographical, so knowing that his incestuous affair was developing around the same time the album was being recorded makes Phillips’ references to secret lovers and infidelities feel pretty icky. Especially troubling are a pair of outtakes: “The Frenchman,” in which the singer warns a young girl against starting an affair with an older lover, and “Lonely Children,” just for its title.

I suppose only time will tell just how big an impact my new image of John Phillips will have on my love of Wolfking. I suspect that it will never again attain its full luster for me. Just as it’s impossible to watch Twilight Zone: The Movie without thinking about Vic Morrow and his young charges being decapitated, it will be tough to appreciate the bouncy rhythm of “Mississippi” without flashing on Phillips mounting his own drugged-up daughter. Still, I’d like to hope that after enough time has passed, I’ll be able to appreciate a tune like “Topanga Canyon” for what it is: a pleasant little ditty about a self-loathing junkie driving to the country to score some smack. Now that’s the John Phillips I’d like to remember.

1 comment:

  1. The existence of Columbus Day as a national holiday proves that time makes it easier to gloss over uncomfortable details (like genocide).

    In the meantime, though, yeah - it's going to be hard to seperate the douche from the art.