As the old line goes, if you can remember the ’60s, you weren’t there. Denny Doherty could remember them better than most, anecdote after anecdote—sharing spliffs with Lennon and McCartney at his pad in London, shooting the breeze with Dylan when he swung by the coffeehouse in the Village with another quatrain for “Blowin’ in the Wind,” neglecting to turn up at Sharon Tate’s party one summer night in 1969 Those boomer rock guys not technically dead are mostly so zonked that, showbiz reminiscence-wise, they might as well be. But Doherty brought an old-fashioned Friars Club polish to rock-and-roll anecdotage.
If he wasn’t there, he at least gave a plausible impression that he’d been nearby for pretty much every seminal event in the decade. At dawn, the morning after the night before, John and Paul went back to the day job, off to Abbey Road to continue working on an LP about someone called Sergeant Pepper; Denny headed back to the party.
It was the Summer of Love. Free love, of course, but the sex came at quite a price. Denny bought Mary Astor’s old house in Laurel Canyon and opened his doors. Everyone who was anyone dropped in to say hello, and a lot of people who weren’t anyone at all dropped in and never dropped out. When he needed a break from the party, Denny’d have to buy the spongers and hangers-on tickets to Europe to get them to leave. But what did he care? It was one unending roundelay of sex and drugs and light vocal harmonizing with the Mamas and the Papas. As one interviewer wrote:
Before they hit the big time, the group dropped acid, smoked dope, and drank. After they hit the big time, the group dropped acid, smoked dope, and drank.
In between came a handful of singles that evoke a pop-culture moment with absolute precision: “California Dreamin,” “Monday, Monday,” “Creeque Alley,” “Dedicated to the One I Love,” er well, OK, maybe not a handful. But they’ve held up better across four decades than most of the other stuff in the hit parade back then. And to achieve that pure and translucent and cleanly harmonized a sound on that much hash, heroin, LSD, mescaline, and Black Beauties is quite an achievement.
They were a quartet: two Mamas, two Papas. On the distaff side, Michelle Phillips was the hot babe—seriously hot, in a way distressingly few rock chicks are in the cold light of day when the drugs have worn off. Cass Elliot was the fat girl: She sounded great and, like Sammy Davis Jr. in the Rat Pack, she made them look more interesting.
John Phillips was the leader man: He’d married Michelle when she was still in her teens, and he wrote the songs, including that fey anthem of the era: “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair,” which remains excellent advice. He had a knack for deploying the usual hippie self-absorption in appealingly vacuous ways: “All across the nation, there’s a strange vibration / There’s a whole generation with a new explanation.”
That left Denny, the other Papa. He sang lead, and he had one of the most gorgeous tenors of the rock-and-roll era. But you got the impression he was mostly just along for the ride. There was a plastic doll of him for sale in the ’60s, but today Mama Cass is the one valued by collectors. The Denny doll is completely lifelike: It stands there glassy-eyed, saying nothing, just like Denny late in the evening at the nonstop party at Mary Astor’s house.
Doherty also turns up in a novel, but it’s one by Richard Ford—A Multitude of Sins—during a conversation on “all the famous Canadians you’d never guess were Canadians”:
Madeleine glanced at him condescendingly. “Denny Doherty, of the Mamas and the Papas. He’s from Halifax.”
It’s an oddly unconvincing scene, even by the standards of the “Dead or Canadian?” parlor game. But Doherty was indeed from Halifax, Nova Scotia: a dockyard worker’s son who quit school in ninth grade. With a couple of pals, he formed a group and, like all the other aspiring folkies, started doing Kingston Trio numbers. They called themselves the Halifax Three.
How Denny got from there to California and the groupies and the private jet is a tale recounted in the Mamas and the Papas’ autobiographical hit, “Creeque Alley”:
“John and Mitchie were gettin’ kinda itchy just to leave the folk music behind.” (That is, John and Michelle Phillips had had their fill of doing the Kingston Trio stuff, too.)