A documentary filmmaker is never better than his subjects. Sometimes he’s worse. When D.A. Pennebaker had great subjects he made great films. I’m not sure about the rest. Those great subjects happened to be Bob Dylan in the mid-60’s and the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.
To be fair, the only other film of Pennebaker’s I’ve seen is 1993’s The War Room, about Bill Clinton’s successful campaign for the presidency the year before. The skill was there, and the subject was, too. But Pennebaker missed it. He treated the campaign the way the campaign wanted to be treated and since it was obvious, even a year later, that the campaign was made up of craven phonies, beginning at the top, it’s an empty exercise. A great artist would have sensed the opportunity to expose all that, and done so at any cost.
So let’s not call D.A. Pennebaker a great artist.
But he was an enormously skilled craftsman and that skill won him the opportunity to capture two signature events in the decade that marked the American Experiments greatest opportunities for both success and failure. That the latter has swamped the former in the decades since was not the fault of Pennebaker or his subjects. To judge how fortunate we are to have had him at the helm of Don’t Look Back and Monterey Pop, you don’t need to look any further than Martin Scorcese’s The Last Waltz, where what might have been an electric event was turned sodden by Scorcese’s choice of distancing the audience from the performers.
Maybe you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. But you need somebody with a sense of the moment to capture the moment.
D.A. Pennebaker sensed the moment that mattered. After that, he was blown away by the wind.
Then again, so was Bob Dylan. What you can sense, in both Don’t Look Back and the incendiary performances etched on the national memory by the soon-dead Janis, Jimi, Keith and Otis across the long weekend at Monterey, is that no one was going to get out intact, even in the unlikely event they got out alive. You can still feel it whenever and whatever those films play.
Thank Donn Alan Pennebaker for that. Left in anyone else’s hands, a lot that we can see and feel and hear from the decade we’ll still have to understand if we’re ever going to get out of this alive ourselves, might be left to our imaginations. Which could never match this:
“We had so much fun in two years, there was no more fun to be had.”
John Phillips (from A Gathering of Flowers, intro to “California Dreamin'”)
The career of the Mamas & the Papas played out with a kind of classical purity. They embodied the dark and the light of “the Sixties” by living lives that were consummately hedonistic and making music that was almost completely self-referential.
“Don’t worry,” their best music said, and says, ” if you aren’t here yet, you will be.”
“It’s also entirely possible,” that same music said, and says, “that we’ll have moved on by then.”
To make it work, they needed to carry off a style of organic arrogance that made the Rolling Stones look like supplicants.
They made it work.
Naturally, being organic, it couldn’t last.
Funny thing, though.
I keep trying to get to the bottom of it.
And I can’t.
Oh sure, there were greater groups. Greater artists. And I have no idea how they seemed in their own time. I was in second grade.
I know how they seem now, from this time: Unfathomable.
And what better description of their time can you get?
Their backstory became famous. In “Creeque Alley” they even made it sound famously typical, which, except for selling millions of records, it maybe was.
But, when I say there were greater artists, I really only mean there were artists whose greatness the Great Narratives imposed by others accepted more readily.
Because whenever I want to cast myself back there–and boy do I–there’s nobody I listen to more, nobody more dangerous, more unsettling, more….thrilling. Their time was the time worth understanding, the time we never walked away from in either dream or (more’s the pity) reality.
And, in memory at least, they are the ones who held it in their hands, more one with that time than literally anyone, one of exactly two sixties’ acts–two any-era acts really–who might have had a deal with the Devil in place.
They were different than the Stones, though. Mick and Keith (well, mostly Mick) just went ahead and made a straight deal. Why not? What did it cost them?
Send Brian Jones to the funeral pyre he was already bound for and tweak John Lennon’s nose now and again and what riches might await!
Who wouldn’t take that deal?
Besides, they were Brits and there was never going to be any more England anyway. Big whoop.
But to have punched a hole in the American boat, to have had your wings melt so close to that sun, ah, now we’re talking subversion–and arrogance–of truly epic proportions.
Come hither, their deal said, and you’ll be the only act alive who can (as the liner notes for one of their many anthologies had it) bridge Rodgers & Hart and Monterey Pop.
Who wouldn’t take that deal?
Well, somebody like me maybe. But that’s different. I was in second grade.
When I was in fourth grade, a couple of years after the Mamas & the Papas broke up (their two years of so much fun there was no more to be had having run out), I took the other deal, the Christian believer deal. I took it, knowing even then, that the biggest part of the deal lay in knowing I’d never be safe from the Devil who makes the deals (he doesn’t bother with the nonbelievers once they make their deal, why would he?) and never have so much fun there’d be no more to be had.
That’s as much as I ever knew about the deal. What my background and choices did prepare me for was understanding singers and their power.
And, oh what singers they were, those four, when they were together in their time. Nobody like them. And it wasn’t like they didn’t know it. Their knowing it is evident in pretty much every photograph they ever sat for.
…and pretty much every line they ever sung.
How they got together was famous even in their own time. They didn’t have to wait for biographers, which was just as well, since there’s never been a good one.
Naomi Cohen reimagined herself as Cass Elliot, then Mama Cass. Then she hung around until the others took her in, or on, or…something.
John Phillips reimagined himself as the type of erstwhile folkie who could end up with Michelle Gilliam, who soon reimagined herself as Mrs. Phillips (“I liked folk music,” she said much, much later, “but what I really liked were folk musicians!”)
Denny Doherty, a touch uncomfortable imagining himself as settling for the title of Mister Cass Elliot, soon reimagined himself as somebody who could have an affair with Mrs. Phillips and was lucky–or was it unlucky?–enough to find her willing to share his illusion, be it ever so briefly.
That was just the personal stuff.
Out of that, the music.
John Phillips said, as often as anyone would listen, that he couldn’t write from anything but experience. So they had experiences. That whole thing about a lifetime’s worth in two years was just an excuse to make hits and money. No experiences, no hits. No hits, no money. The legend only came about because they were so good at living lives so many others wished they could live, and even better at singing about it. They reeled off a dozen radio classics in short order and four albums that stagger about a bit, but never quit yielding surprises when you stop and listen close enough. (A fifth, from a contractually obligated “reunion” gig a few years later, was desultory….there was no more fun to be had.)
Their own rise, their own Zeitgeist, their own fall, their own destruction: all right there in the music that came out of the experiences.
For about twenty-five or thirty perfect months (depending on who’s counting and who’s defining perfect), they lived more dreams than four mere lifetimes could hold.
But in order to get the loot, they had to let the world in on it, and from the release of “Go Where You Wanna Go” (instantly pulled in favor of the just-as-perfect “California Dreamin’,” which somebody had initially made the very weird mistake of imagining as a Barry McGuire record) to having the commercial failure of “Safe In My Garden” assured by their sudden absence from their own lives (no more touring, no more television appearances, no more pretending everything, or even anything, was all right) the world grabbed hold. You could say the world has never let go.
And the arc was perfect.
“Go Where You Wanna Go” can’t be plumbed. Don’t even try. Even if you make a definitive decision on You don’t understand, that a girl like me can/can’t have just one man–that is, whether you want to stick with the lyric sheet (the groupie/muse’s ultimate lament) or what the ear can’t help hearing (Women’s Lib on speed!) at least some of the time–it doesn’t really help, so there’s no need to get all balled up about it. I’ve gone there for you and my sincere advice is to go right on thinking it’s simple. It’s not. It’s not even complicated in any ordinary dictionary sense of the word. More like kaleidoscopic.There’s so much going on that if you stop believing it’s simple or go on pretending that it’s complicated but only in the usual ways, it will eat your mind out from the inside.
It will make it like the good part of the Sixties never even happened except in dreams.
You don’t want that!
Better to just go on a journey. “California Dreamin'” so to speak.
It’s a journey only they can take you on and the magic’s in the music for sure–the mostly sharp writing, the Wrecking Crew time and again measuring up to the instrumental challenge of matching and underpinning the vocals, the formal elements of the bottomless harmonies.
But mostly the magic’s in the elements there is no real vocabulary for, musical or otherwise.
It’s not in the come hither. It’s in the nah-na-na-na-nah.
..Which starts right there in “California Dreamin’.”
I mean, from this distance you can hear the fear in it–and you can hear it overridden, stomped on. Put out to pasture. it was the sound that mattered and it was the sound that did it.
We’re so close, the sound said, that the obvious–and fierce to the point of at least metaphorical bloodletting–competition going on, can be turned on its head. They were so determined to be as one that all the counterpointing in the harmonies, all the “yeah’s” that meant “no” and all the “no’s” that meant “yeah”–or “yeah?”–were as nothing. I mean, just listen to them! And, as Lou Adler would have it (naming their first album If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, easily the best-ever album title, after his first audio/visual impressions of the group) just look at them.
The imagery was perfect, almost as if it had been guided into existence by the unique, unsurpassable blend of their voices.
Or perhaps those voices demanded the acceptance of any old imagery they chose as the new definition of perfection.
The dream of the “Sixties” is, after all, right there.
Today will be what we want it to be.
You know, go where you wanna go.
Even the drugs will be cool. I mean….especially the drugs will be cool…
And, by extension, if today will be just what we want it to be, tomorrow will be even better!
In one fell swoop, the Folkies from Everywhere–Mexico, So-Cal, No-Cal, Nova Scotia, Alexandria (Virginia, but it might as well have been Egypt), the Hungry I and the Village and the Virgin Islands, fusing into one–had re-formatted the Protestant Reformation’s promise of a future Golden Age (itself the rejection of the age-old idea that the Golden Age lay in the past, a rejection that set Europe’s Ice People on a staggering five-hundred-year winning streak of which, as of 1966, “Go Where You Wanna Go” seemed like no more or less than the natural conclusion and justification–yes it meant, and means, that much–your refusal to believe in it doesn’t negate its refusal to acknowledge your silly refusals).
There was, of course, no direction to head from there except Utopia or the Long Fall.
We know–perhaps they even knew–where that fork in the road always leads.
You can have the greatest vocal group in history and just happen to include among your number one of the Rock Era’s two or three finest vocal arrangers who just happens to be an ace songwriter.
You can hook up with a great producer and have unlimited access to the best session players in the world–the only people, perhaps, who could ever hope to match your Utopian vocal and visual presence to sounds worthy of comparison (and, believe me, if you ever get around to listening to what’s going on behind the vocals, you’ll find the Wrecking Crew at the far edge of their own weighty experience–not even for Pet Sounds or Frank Sinatra did they reach further). You can be the only group of any era to have great male and female lead singers, breathtaking close and counterpoint harmonies, the ability to answer male and/or female calls with male and/or female responses, and to have the answers be vocal/lyrical affirmations and/or refusals.
You can hold all that in your hand while you take the coolest drugs, ride around in the fastest cars, sleep in the biggest, spookiest movie star mansions with the partners of your choice under the world’s most beautiful skies.
You can even promise to share it with your listening audience–to transport them into your world, three golden minutes at at time.
And you can deliver over and over again.
But that choice between the Garden you found and the Mean Old World you couldn’t quite leave behind will linger on.
For you and the world.
That deal you made with the Devil will still have a payoff–and a due date.
For you….and the world.
In their case the payoff was in a run of gold records. Hell, they even sold albums like hotcakes, in an age when not many did.
The due date was the same as America’s. And the world’s.
By the time it was done, they were done.
Then the Mean Old World moved on–or pretended to.
They gave up and disbanded, the first of the great Utopian Sixties’ groups to do so. (The Byrds never really disbanded–pieces just kept falling off until nothing was left but the name. A very different process, but those were the two paradigms. Break up…or linger on. When the Doors and the Beatles broke up, they were copping the Mamas & Papas’ style. When everybody else lingered on, the pieces just kept falling off and they ended up being worse than nothing.)
That left the question of who got it and who didn’t.
Time has given us the answers, even if nearly everyone is reluctant to admit it.
We need not speak of what Lyndon Johnson, lingering on in the White House, understood. But in the Pop World that existed in the summer of ’68, it turned out that only Elvis Presley, reporting to a series of TV sound stages and with God on his side, and the Mamas & the Papas, cooped up in John and Michelle’s mansion a few miles away, concluding their deal with the Master of this world, understood that we would never walk away from 1968.
From a Pop Political standpoint, the Beatles now sound like clever children, the Stones like mere cynics. Bob Dylan was already retreating into the rusticism his great mid-sixties albums had promised an escape from. The Byrds lay in pieces on the ground and Brian Wilson had already blown his mind.
And, as Pop Prophets went, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison were finally only self-destructive.
But at least they made great music.
Never mind the Thinkers. No need to pay even a modicum of attention to them.
Whoever you thought they were, time has already washed them away.
We’re left with who got it. Who looked around at the world of 1968 and said: We’ll never walk away from this.
Well, these people:
Naomi Cohen (32) died of heart failure in a London hotel in 1974.
John Phillips died in 2001 (65) never having emerged from the drug-induced haze produced by having so much fun in two years there was no more to be had.
Denny Doherty (66) died in Mssissauga, Ontario in 2007, worn down by years of alcoholism.
Michelle Philips will still show up to defend her group’s legacy. She probably hopes you won’t ask too many questions about the incest allegations John’s oldest daughter has made.
It all seems so very long ago.
And so very present.
Today, you might go on the internet and find an essay that describes “Safe In My Garden” as “happy” and “bucolic,” as though it represents an ode to a safe space replete with milk and cookies and teddy bears.
That represents real fear, I think. An understanding–an awareness of the terror abiding within the song’s formal beauty, right down to its meandering close-out, as though the group–and the world–have literally run out of places to wanna go and things to wanna do and whoevers to wanna do it with.
Else oblivion. An almost insanely pure ability to resist the obvious–the persistence in demanding that, contra Philip K. Dick, if you stop believing in reality, it will stop believing in you.
Reality still believes. The Mamas & the Papas are still the ones who recognized and sang about it, half-shouting, half-crooning, straight from the heart of the dying dream.
The world’s on fire, they sang.
We know, because we struck the match. they did not have to sing.
At least according to Terry Teachout, this idea has been going around. Terry’s own list is here (it’s a pretty good one). The idea is to take each year of your life and list your favorite film from that year.
For me, “favorite” is a simple concept. It’s whatever resides at the matrix of what I like the best and what has meant the most. I tend to emphasize this quality over what I think is “great” anyway (though, unsurprisingly, there is considerable overlap…we tend to elevate what we like, though I also like to believe that what we like can elevate us).
I want to drill down a bit, though (including links to those films I’ve written about at length and mentioning the close competition, when it exists), so I’m going to post these by decade…starting conveniently enough with the decade I was born in and am most fascinated by…
1961 The Guns of Navarone (J. Lee Thompson…and, for once, truth in advertising)
1962 The Miracle Worker(Arthur Penn) (over The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ride the High Country, Cape Fear,The Manchurian Candidate…I could go on. Easily the strongest film year of my lifetime.)
1963 Charade (Stanley Donen) (over The Great Escape and Hud)
1964 The T.A.M.I. Show (Steve Binder) (Actually a strong year, but….no competition)
1965 A High Wind in Jamaica (Alexander Mackendrick) (over That Darn Cat and The Truth About Spring)
1966 Gambit(Ronald Neame)(over A Man For All Seasons and El Dorado)
1967 The Graduate (Mike Nichols) (over Wait Until Dark, Hombre, Don’t Look Back and the Soviet version of War and Peace)
1968 Monterrey Pop (D.A. Pennebaker) (over Where Eagles Dare…Interesting decision if I took one of those liberties I’m prone to take and considered Elvis’ Comeback Special a film. Glad I don’t have to make it.)