I should have listened to Noah Baumbach. Several years ago my favorite director published a list of what he was listening to at Dusted Magazine. Among Loudon Wainwright III, George Jones and Luna was John Phillips' long lost solo album, his first recording after the breakup of The Mamas and the Papas. "6. John Phillips - John, The Wolf King of LA (Dunhill) - I'm constantly looking for some hidden singer/songwriter gem from the 60's and 70's that I somehow overlooked. Usually I'm pretty disappointed. But this album is really great. It's too bad he didn't make more records." Since the album was only available on out-of-print import CD at exhorbitant prices at the time, I never picked it up.
Even when Baumbach put the album's gorgeous closer "Holland Tunnel" on the soundtrack to his last film, The Squid and the Whale, I failed to take heed and check this album out. Fortunately its recent deluxe reissue by Varese Saraband records, complete with eight bonus tracks from the original sessions and amazingly detailed liner notes, finally encouraged me to pick it up.
Wolf King, it turns out, is a classic of confessional songwriting, its easygoing proto-country-rock and full-throated background vocals from Darlene Love, Jean King and Fanita James (The Blossoms) serving as a bed for Phillips' genuinely confused and tumultuous life following the breakup of his short-lived superstar band amid early-70s California decadence. The surrounding backstory detailed in the liner notes - with appearances from Elvis, Dennis Hopper and Myra Breckinridge director Michael Sarne - frames the loose narrative in a snapshot of the cultural climate, and with interviews from most of the key players, musical and personal, it's a great read.
Phillips, looking like a cross between Animal and Dr. Teeth on the back cover, writes about himself honestly and self-effacingly, and despite his decadent environs and celebrity friends, it comes across as incredibly rich and relatable, not the woe-is-me-I'm-famous rant you might well expect. Stories surrounding his disintegrating first marriage and discovery of new love, of boredom and bewilderment, are somehow only enhanced by the backstory, made slummily glamorous rather than distant.
Nowhere is this more true than on the brilliant second track, "Topanga Canyon", wherein John, having lost his band and marriage, relates restless, aimless drives up and down Pacific Coast Highway. "Oh Mary, I'm in deep water, and it's way way over my head/everyone thought I was smarter than to be mislead".
Order the album here.