A while back, I put up a post, which has now become an essay in the California Dreaming book, about how the white musicians in the book had built their careers because of an infrastructure that was there because of black musicians — they were, even if not racist themselves (and most weren’t) the beneficiaries of structural racism.
There’s also a structural sexism that I have to deal with, and that is rather more difficult.
I have tried, in these essays, to accentuate as much as possible the roles of women in the story, but it’s hard to escape the fact that women were marginalised, horribly, by the system, and by the people in the system. There simply aren’t that many records by women that fit into the story.
But I’ve been thinking more and more about why that is, and about how the LA music scene was about the fetishisation of a particular male, control-freak, idea of “genius”. An idea of the creative man as special that makes everyone else the tool of the boy genius.
This toxic masculinity seems to have caused two reactions among these “geniuses”. Some of them either died or came close to death young, from trying to numb their own emotional pain with drink or drugs.
The others… well, there’s a reason why Charles Manson was part of the LA music scene.
Kim Fowley – rapist
Jack Nitzsche – broke into an ex-girlfriend’s house and sexually assaulted her
Phil Spector – murdered a woman
John Phillips – abused his daughter
Jim Gordon – murdered his mother
Roy Estrada – in prison for child molestation
Most of these were peripheral figures in the story I’m telling, but there’s a definite continuum between at one end the license that was given to a Brian Wilson (to choose one of the figures from this story who is as close to blameless as it gets), through the control-freakery of a Zappa, to the violent misogyny of the men named above. If you get used to treating other people as tools rather than people, and if you’re in a culture where women aren’t highly regarded *anyway*… well, bad things will happen.
Now the problem is that all the things I mention above happened *after* the events I’m writing about. I have tried as best I can in the essays for the book (including the ones that haven’t gone on the blog but will be in the print and ebook versions) to emphasise that however good the music that resulted, the toxic behaviour of, say, Captain Beefheart, was utterly abhorrent.
But have I stressed enough that the culture of the music scene in LA as a whole was toxic? The focus of the book is on the music — and almost every track I talk about in it is one I consider truly great — but by focusing so much on the men who made it am I guilty of emphasising their manpain over the people who that culture hurt? But on the other hand, many of the people I’ve been writing about are, as individuals, largely blameless.
It’s not my purpose in the book to judge people — the book’s about the art. But it’s also about the artists’ lives, and the way they affected the art. I’m not sure that there’s a right answer to this, but, much as with the other piece I mentioned at the start of this, I know that just ignoring the issue certainly isn’t the right answer.
I’ll probably put something very like this into the book, as part of a foreword or endnote, but if anyone has any suggestions as to how I can deal with that better, please say…
John Phillips wrote a hugely misogynistic song on the second Mamas & Papas album about how excited he was to sack his wife from the band and ruin her dreams after finding out about her affair with Gene Clark (“I Can’t Wait”). There’s a pretty decent chance Michelle Phillips is singing on it as well, which lends it an even more sinister air. She was reinstated a couple of months later (a week before the album was released and probably at the record company’s behest), but it stayed on the album.
The album is full of Phillips-penned not so subtle digs at Michelle (“That Kind of Girl”) and Denny Doherty (“Trip Stumble and Fall”) who’d previously had an affair with Michelle, though he’d been “forgiven”.
Like you say, Phillips and the Mamas & The Papas are always going to be a marginal example, but at least it’s a contemporary one.
Hmm… I’m not as familiar with that album as I should be — I cover a couple of M&Ps songs in the book, of course, but only a couple. I might include that song as an extra essay, as I basically skipped over the second album and went straight from California Dreamin’ to Creeque Alley, though I did mention the whole Jill Gibson thing in the Creeque Alley essay.
Thinking about it, I almost certainly should cover that in more detail anyway, because Jill Gibson was of course the ex-girlfriend and songwriting partner of Jan Berry (another awful human being…) and she’s not covered enough in the book…
Andrew: Please familiarize yourself with the M&Ps ‘No Salt On Her Tail’ (2nd LP) and ‘Look Through My Window’ (3rd LP). John Phillips may well have been as awful a human being, in his way, as Jan Berry was (I don’t know; I never knew them) but he was a remarkably excellent songwriter.
Oh he was. One of the annoying things about this is that most of the people involved really are or were extraordinary talents…
In case you still care about advice …
As I was reading this post, I was thinking to myself “you should just put a version of the post in the preface as a disclaimer, then with that established ignore these issues and concentrate on the music for the rest of the book”.
Then I read that that is your plan. I endorse it :-)