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.)
“Zal and Denny workin’ for a penny, tryin’ to get a fish on the line.” (Zal Yanovsky was the Halifax Three’s, er, fourth member, which is the kind of careless overmanning that does, indeed, capture the authentic spirit of the Nova Scotian economy.)
Aside from a passing reference to Denny giving Cass “love bumps,” “Creeque Alley” was silent on the group’s sexual dynamics. John was married to Michelle, who began an affair with Denny. But hey, it’s showbiz, and they got a song out of that, too: “I Saw Her Again.” It was, however, a double betrayal: Cass had been sweet on Denny from the beginning, but he “couldn’t deal with the weight” and steered clear. “You can have any man in the world,” she told Michelle. “Why take the one man I love?” Unlike the four-man Halifax Three, in this combo three was a company, four a crowd. “It’s easy to find boyfriends,” said Cass. “I buy them a motorcycle, a leather suit, and put them in acting school.” Sometimes the price tag was lower. “There were a couple of good-looking guys that were schtupping Cass,” recalled Denny Bruce, drummer with the Mothers (no relation to the Mamas). “They were basically there for her drugs.”
California schtuppin’ on such a winter’s day. Michelle had a one-night stand with Roman Polanski, and for a while the director figured it was John Phillips who’d murdered Sharon Tate to get even. He threatened John with a meat cleaver and checked his car for blood and hair samples. John took it in stride. He was “romantically linked” (if that’s the expression) with everyone from Mia Farrow to Princess Margaret. Denny did OK in his wake: One would be only mildly surprised to hear he’d got stuck with the queen while stringing along on a double date. But there were lots of noncelebrity chicks as well. John got a song out of that, too: “Twelve-Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon).” “They’d wander the hills calling out names,” Doherty remembered. “‘We have a cake for you, Denny!’”
But eventually someone leaves your cake out in the rain, and you’ll never find that recipe again: Denny and John discovered Michelle was having an affair with Gene from the Byrds and decided that was beyond the pale. “They sent me a very rude little letter, telling me my services would no longer be needed,” she said. “I was completely isolated. I had been fired by my husband, my lover, and my best friend. And my attorney.”
Back in Halifax, Denny’s dad had never been impressed by the California dreamin’. “Get yourself a trade,” he told his son, when junior pointed out how well he was doing in the Billboard Top 40. “Something you can put in your arse pocket.” When the group fell apart in 1968, Denny discovered his arse pocket was empty. The money had gone. He was married to a gal from the chorus of his flop New York theater debut and living in a two-room dump in Hell’s Kitchen when he remembered he still owned a house in Nova Scotia. So he came home.
“There are no second acts in American lives,” said Scott Fitzgerald, but there are if you’re willing to move to Canada: Back north, Denny Doherty ended his working days as the beloved harbormaster on the children’s TV show Theodore Tugboat, which is to Thomas the Tank Engine as the Halifax Three was to the Kingston Trio. It was filmed in his old school. “People say to me, ‘Your life is so exciting Yeah, I’m back in my grade-five classroom playing with tub toys.”
There was one bit of unfinished business. As the Mamas and the Papas were falling apart, Cass proposed to Denny. He turned her down. On July 29, 1974, in London, after a two-week run at the Palladium, she died of a heart attack. She was the talent in the group, and posterity recalls her as a ham-sandwich joke. Denny thought that was wrong. In the 1990s, he wrote a revue about the Mamas and the Papas, the usual feeble opportunist jukebox retrospective, but distinguished by his tenderness for the fat girl he let get away. He took the show’s title not from one of the group’s hits but from Mama Cass’s first big smash, the old standard “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” Onstage, the emotional peak of the evening came when he sang the song to her: “Stars fading but I linger on, dear / Still craving your kiss.”
Not the woozy flower-power narcissism of John Phillips but a straightforward heartfelt sentiment by Gus Kahn, the old-time Tin Pan Alleyman who wrote “It Had to Be You” and “Makin’ Whoopee.” Denny and Cass never did make whoopee, but in his final years, widowed, weathered, balding, and paunchy, he’d concede that turning her down was the great mistake of his life.
The ’60s got old so fast. Cass, Denny, and John are all dead, and so are Zal and a bunch of the other supporting players. All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray, and the California dream fades to a distant blur.