Find: The Mamas and The Papas, Farewell to the First Golden Era
Place: Goodwill (2041 North Broadway)
I heard the name “Mama Cass” a lot in 1983. After the death of Karen Carpenter, the two women became the simultaneous subjects of a vile joke that resonated with a certain brand of reactionary who—turning Mencken’s alleged aphorism on its head—derives pleasure from figuratively kicking the afflicted while they are literally and permanently down. I heard the joke many times in subsequent years, most often uttered by gut-bellied middle-aged men seeking to deflect attention from their own flagging and flabby physiques. Ironically, pork did not, as the odious joke goes, kill Cass Elliot. Rather, a heart attack—probably brought on by a fasting regimen designed to make her more palatable to the public—killed the corpulent singer.
Few people better illustrate the precarious position of women in the male-dominated world of popular music than Cass Elliot. On the one hand, because Mama Cass clearly elevated everything she was a part of, music executives, happy to get a piece of her action, exposed us to her enormous talent. Despite John Phillips’ serviceable songwriting, the Mamas and The Papas might have been mediocre also-rans in the crowded field of late-1960s folk-pop had not Mama Cass lent her indescribable, sweet, clear voice to hits including “California Dreamin’” and “Monday, Monday.” My personal favorite is “I Call Your Name,” a Beatles cover that, despite a corny arrangement, blows away the original because of Mama Cass.
“I Saw Her Again” is more typical Mamas and Papas’ fare, as other band members take front stage while Cass soars in and out and around, her voice a beautiful lamniscate decorating an otherwise dull equation, giving the song much-needed heft and soul. On the other hand, Elliot’s handlers and bandmates (and even Elliot herself, to some extent) sent fans a very strong message about her—she can sing, but by herself she’s not enough; she is not the type of young woman you should be particularly interested in. In Wizard of Oz-style chicanery, fans were instructed, via the presence of the conventionally attractive Michelle Phillips and the de-sexualizing cognomen “Mama,” to focus their sights and their other non-aural senses elsewhere; “Pay no attention to the woman behind the moo moo. She is not a fully-realized performer.” Of course, her irrepressible personality and undeniable fashion sense worked against this narrative, but it was influential nonetheless.
Thankfully, enough time has passed so that listening to Mama Cass no longer hurts. Thinking of her struggles with weight, her tragic passing, her leveling recourse to Vegas stages after the Mamas and The Papas fell apart, and her later-in-life attempts to get people to stop calling her “Mama,” used to cast a bit of a pall over my listening experience. But time has palliated those wounds. All that’s left is the music. And the music, thanks to Mama Cass, is good. This greatest hits collection contains nine blockbuster singles including the number-one “Monday, Monday,” and Top-10 “California Dreamin’,” as well as other Mamas and Papas hits including “Look Through My Window,” and “Creeque Alley.” The collection preceded and presaged the breakup of Cass Elliot’s band. The music, and she, is beautiful.