It takes a special kind of self-absorption to believe that your failures will fascinate — a need to be loved not for your talents but despite them. John Phillips, founder of the Mamas and the Papas — the 1960s quartet that rode a string of deceptively sunny-seeming radio hits to become icons of hippie hedonism — exemplified this species of celebrity narcissism. Gifted but irretrievably dissolute, Phillips had always seemed more interested in romanticizing failure and squandering talent than applying his ample supply of it with any consistency. Even in his chart-ruling heyday, he seemed perversely, persistently drawn to themes of disappointment, betrayal, and regret (albeit cleverly masked by resplendent harmonies and catchy melodies). The Mamas and the Papas’ hits are preoccupied with ennui, broken relationships, and futile fantasies of escape: California dreaming on such a winter’s day. The first Mamas and the Papas album, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears (1966) went to the top of Billboard’s album chart and spawned several hits, including “Monday, Monday” and “California Dreamin’,” which have become durable folk standards. And already, on the group’s second album, rushed out later that year to capitalize on the band’s momentum, Phillips was exuberantly singing, “I can’t wait to let you down.”
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