The Failure Addict

"At best Utopia can serve the negative purpose of making us more aware of our mental and ideological imprisonment … therefore the best Utopias are those that fail the most comprehensively"

—Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future

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.”

To become addicted to failure, you must first achieve some modicum of success to give it kick. Only then, when there are stakes, when there are strangers to disappoint, can you search in earnest for the one transcendent, spectacular failure to rule all failures, the one that can provide the enduring consolation all addicts seek, the repetition and the pre-emptive depredation that will seize back a sense of agency from the pointless inevitability of death. By 1970, Phillips had secured a lifetime’s worth of success and spent much of the rest of his life in its fading halo.

The music Phillips made after the Mamas and the Papas’ demise did little to affect his reputation, which was instead destroyed by two tabloid items. At age 57, after years of self-confessed and well-publicized drug addiction, Phillips received a liver transplant. Months later he was photographed boozing again, and joked with Howard Stern that he was “just trying to break in the new liver.” More disturbingly, his daughter Mackenzie Phillips alleged, in a 2009 tell-all bio and on Oprah, that she had had a decade-long incestuous relationship with him after they had started using drugs together.

Phillips’s own sordid memoir, Papa John, published in 1986 after he was convicted of drug trafficking, is appallingly unreflective. It’s more of a memory dump that ends up coming across as an elaborate dodge, a winking copout. Phillips takes palpable pleasure in narrating his sexual and chemical exploits — including his needle sharing with Mackenzie — and then tacks on an obligatory mea culpa at the end. But the memoir mostly reads like just another symptom of his peculiar malady — the overwhelming self-pity, the same lacerating melancholy and compulsion to romanticize disappointment.

Phillips consistently presents himself as powerless to do anything but register his own selfishness, as if it were an inevitable fact. He habitually flees responsibility and refuses to consider what causes his flight. Instead he seems to expect, pathologically, that he will be forgiven totally for all his transgressions. He doesn’t go in for trying to justify his behavior; all he can muster is the implicit excuse of hedonism, typified by such passages as this: “The France was as elegant as you could get. We had our own wine stewards and did our best to consume as much of the dope as possible. We swam, read, sunbathed, drank, and I stayed high the whole time.” Sometimes he adds a dash of hippie lebensphilosophie: “The dope was out on the tables, in vases and bowls, and money never seemed to change hands. That’s how I wanted it in my house. We were there to share and party. And the partying never let up.”

Throughout Papa John, it’s clear that Phillips had no particular aspiration to express the utopian ideals of the 1960s. After all, one of his signal achievements was to trivialize the countercultural youth movement by writing “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair).” In his memoir, he buys into the hype about himself retroactively — the voice of the love generation. Yet in warmly recounting the generosity of the scene, Phillips seems to forget that the money had to come from somewhere. The square record-buying public ultimately fueled his drug-consumption spree, and they didn’t really get to share in the piles of pills at the Bel Air parties. All they got is the second-hand appreciation of his lifestyle as it filtered out in gossip magazines, self-referential songs, and autobiographies.

Phillips’s publisher perhaps encouraged him for commercial reasons to offer sensationalistic details — he claims to have had a threesome with Warren Beatty and Jane Fonda; he says he turned down an invitation to party at 10050 Cielo Drive on the night the Manson family showed up and murdered everyone — but in running through his litany of dissolution, Phillips seems like a spectator to his own memories. He sounds as if he’s trying to convince himself that his trip through life was gloriously frenetic even though he seems passive in the face of overwhelming fame. Notoriety unleashed appetites that made his old ambitions into afterthoughts, rationalizations. Unexpected attention on an unfathomable scale seems to have permanently disoriented him, made all his choices seem, finally, arbitrary.

Though I knew the Mamas and the Papas’ music from oldies radio, my personal fascination with Phillips began in earnest in 2001. I had dropped out of a Ph.D. program that I had somewhat arbitrarily enrolled in, moved home from the west, and worked only when one of the half dozen temp agencies I had enrolled with could get me an assignment. Several of these at least put my English degrees to appropriate use by having me alphabetize files. After 13 years away from home, I was back in the town I grew up in. Before I left school, I’d had a falling out with a close friend, and he emailed to tell me that I was a coddled, pseudointellectual phony who would never amount to anything and who would probably live out the rest of his days in his mother’s basement, where I was now, in fact, living.

I didn’t think all that much of Phillips or the Mamas and the Papas — they seemed of a piece and interchangeable with, say, Three Dog Night — until I came across Phillips’s 1970 solo album on a Usenet newsgroup. Self-titled but generally known as “John, the Wolf King of L.A.” after a poem on the back cover by his girlfriend at the time, the record is saturated in narcissism, with lyrics confronting self-inflicted failure in the midst of decadent excess. It is shot through with cynicism and references to junkies, letches, hangers-on, and a whole host of post-1960s casualties trying to put together the pieces. It suggests that the California dream the Mamas and the Papas had so effectively evoked wound up dissolving not even into a nightmare but, perhaps worse, a banal, spiritless malaise.

As is typical with Phillips, he masked misery with musical red herrings: in this case, a languid country-rock sound supplied by the Wrecking Crew, top L.A. studio musicians of the period. On the album, Phillips doesn’t hesitate to transform the potentially embarrassing details of his personal life into frank songs — perhaps the most egregious example is “Let It Bleed, Genevieve,” which recounts his skin-popping heroin use with another woman while his girlfriend was upstairs having a miscarriage. Phillips seems to find this tell-all approach irresistible, pitilessly recounting his foibles as if putting the memories up for sale in song excuses his behavior — as if the right blend of self-pity, oversharing, and callousness could achieve true pathos.

At the time I was entranced by this sort of brazen self-revelation. To me, “John, the Wolf King of L.A.” was about a very recognizable kind of depression, in which you can conceive great ambitions for yourself and even recognize the means for fulfilling them, but then you balk at the effort it would take and withdraw instead into various fantasies and feints. I identified with this to an unwholesome degree. The song on the record that I found most devastating was “Topanga Canyon,” a deceptively easygoing track that relocates the Velvet Underground’s “Waiting for My Man” to the fabled artists’ enclave in the mountains outside Los Angeles. In place of Lou Reed’s restlessness, Phillips is laconic; instead of gritty urban squalor, there’s sun-soaked ennui. The song is about an apathetic addict, and it should be hard to summon much sympathy for him, but the chorus somehow allows drug addiction to evoke and emblemize broader failures, serial self-disappointments:

Oh, mama, I’m in deep water,
And it’s way, way over my head.
Everyone thought I was smarter
Than to be misled.

As Phillips waits for his man in fruitless anticipation, he is crushed by the sense that those who have cared about him have been waiting in the same way for him — waiting for him to achieve something definite, something he can’t say he is incapable of but something he nonetheless can’t bring himself to ever accomplish, something on the order of the everyday business of life, in all its humdrum plainness and contingency. Or perhaps something even more insignificant, like a dissertation on 18th century literature, the disorganized notes for which I had in a bunch of yellow legal pads that I could no longer bring myself to open.

You don’t have to be a junkie to appreciate what the song’s getting at. Anyone who has ever felt oppressed by the feeling of being ordinary will recognize that sort of despair, the sense that the strategies one has chosen to make life seem special have turned out to be traps. You are left waiting for something to happen. Today, for me, that means scanning around the different places online where someone might send some indication that they have noticed me, send some message that tells me I exist — one that says, Everyone thought I was smarter.

The 1970s were halcyon days for the music industry. Margins at the major labels were apparently fat enough to let them coddle rock royalty wrestling with their egos and their growing irrelevance. After the Mamas and the Papas’ breakup and that lone solo record, Phillips’s intermittent efforts to make new albums yielded nothing but a disarray of unfocused, unfinished masters. Still, he must have managed enough flashes of brilliance and charm that his friends in the business kept staking him. Listening to those recordings now — released posthumously by Varese Sarabande — you vicariously experience the thrill of Phillips’s heedless burning of entertainment-industry money and reckless destroying of brain cells in the futile search for a creative spark.

A lot of delusion must have went into those late-period recordings. At some level, everyone involved must have known that these efforts were not going to return him to artistic respectability after years of drug-addled disrepute. On an song called “Pussycat,” from aborted sessions with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Phillips pours out his heart for the dancers at his favorite strip club, with whom he clearly empathizes. Right at home in yet another habitat of broken dreams, Phillips confesses his intimate familiarity with the scene and sheepishly admits that if he had “a million hearts to give,” he would give one to all the girls who work onstage. A booming backing vocalist repeats the line — “If I had a million hearts to give” (listen here)—bringing the song to a complete halt, as if to upbraid us with the magnitude of the wish Phillips just expressed: That he deeply feels the pain of those compelled to expose and exploit themselves for a jeering or indifferent universe of spectators, and he wishes he could comfort them. He wishes he could comfort himself. But then the song lurches back into its insouciant rhythm, undermining its own poignancy. It is a microcosm of Phillips’s entire career.

I sometimes find myself humming that line when I find myself online reading something on a social-media site that seems awkwardly personal. I think of it too when I am checking the page views of a blog post I wrote or looking at how many Twitter followers I have. Do I really believe I have something to give to anyone out there who could be reading? Do I just have to put more of my heart in it? Do I secretly believe, despite my frequent complaints about social-media self-absorption, that each new Twitter follower actually proves that I did have another heart to give? I find that my attitude toward what I am doing on the computer is frequently marked by this vague mixture of shame and prurience.

Facebook can seem at times an enormous simulacrum of the Pussycat Lounge, full of voyeurism and cynical, semi-professional exhibitionism, but obviously the divide between performer and audience that structures the flow of money, power, pity, and contempt in strip clubs has been largely obliterated online. Instead, there is the ambiguous simultaneity of consuming and producing spectacle, of performing the self, of spectatorship as performance, in a medium that immediately allows you to substitute yourself for any performer with broadcast responses of your own. This stew of contradictory and self-negating impulses makes up what now often gets described simply as sharing. It’s sharing when we confess something; it’s sharing when we link to someone else’s work; it’s sharing when we simply express approval for something; it’s sharing when a social-media service automatically announces some action we took. Online we all have a million hearts to give.

Dissipated celebrities like Phillips are well aware of the vicarious potential of their own decadence. An audience’s demands for transgressive fantasy seem to impose themselves on celebrities without their knowing quite what they are facing. The celebrities end up violating all these bourgeois norms (fidelity, prudence, thriftiness, hard work, punctuality, etc.) out of compulsion more than pleasure. Their boundless notoriety makes the illusion of their absolute autonomy all the more intoxicating, while in truth they have no more control than the rest of us. They merely confront a different set of limits. They seem forced to adopt decadence or peculiarity as a kind of defense, an escape from the mania that inadvertently fuels it further. The more remote they become from ordinary life, the more intriguing they become and the force that pushes them further out into inexplicableness becomes more and more powerful. If they give in to it, they achieve a kind of pure celebrity that no longer has the pretense of a connection to any sort of achievement. Hence the disproportionate infamy of figures like Lindsay Lohan, as well as any number of reality-TV stars.

From the start Phillips fashioned a failed utopia in his music — co-opting the spirit of optimism in the 1960s youth scene while subtly undermining it with his lyrics — and he continued to live it out through an unbroken series of ethical and moral lapses. Yet his trajectory suggests how the looming entropy that haunts everything can be transformed into an ego cocoon insulating us just enough to carry on, to continue making things, to let us see inevitable failure as a glamorous and indulgent kind of success. Phillips can’t ever give himself over completely to the pretense that pleasing an audience is more important or more powerful than repeatedly trying and failing to purge his own demons. There is nothing but friction in his kind of sharing.

I wonder whether he is a harbinger of what microcelebrity may do to the rest of us. The internet’s intricate connectivity supplies us an ever-flashing promise of fame, even though it may end up fleeting or slight. Anyone’s social network can make them feel stalked, hounded. Being able to realistically aspire to this kind of fame, on any scale, does more to make failure seem seductive than it does to motivate concrete accomplishments. Being talented is insufficient when one can become notorious. Indeed, in a culture of entrepreneurial self-fashioning, mandatory sharing, and ritualized backslapping, failure may come to seem the true measure of accomplishment. You can revel in your inadequacy because you know you have transcended it. It has become part of your brand.

With sharing becoming frictionless, the stakes of self-revelation must be raised. It’s no longer enough to imagine others are interested in our everyday mundanity to posit a close connection. With so much automatically or thoughtlessly shared, we now need to share our failures to feel as though we have “really” shared something. Only when something humiliating or grossly self-indulgent is revealed can we conjure the old intimacy. Like many other flameouts of his generation, John Phillips already lived with that reality, entombed in ambient surveillance and the nebulous collective demands of remote yet omnipresent fans, and he behaved accordingly. We are catching up to him.