Ah, the summer of 1967. A gangly young Australian priest named George Pell turned up at my Baltimore parish and became a family friend; none of us imagined him the Cardinal Archbishop of Sydney four decades hence, but there it is — and we’re still friends. Two weeks in Chicago introduced me to Hyde Park, the Michigan dunes, the dubious pleasures of shoveling dead alewives off the beach, outdoor Shakespeare at the University of Chicago, Jerry and Dolores Freese, a remarkable family named Daly, and a first romance. Frank Robinson got hit in the head trying to break up a double-play, couldn’t see straight for months, and the World Champion Baltimore Orioles (not so puzzling a phrase then) tanked, a year after sweeping the Dodgers, Sandy Koufax, and Don Drysdale in the Series. Father Bechtel assigned Paul Horgan’s classic Things As They Are as one of the novels my class was to read over the summer; thirty-eight years later, I’d write the introduction to a reprint edition. Gory Ohio State Highway Patrol movies were an integral part of drivers’ ed, and Jane Fonda led Robert Redford barefoot through the park.
And there was the music. A lot of my Sixties memories have to do with the music, and the summer of ‘67 was no exception. The Association’s “Windy” features prominently in my Lake Michigan beach memories. The 5th Dimension were heading “Up, Up, and Away,” while over in Motown, Aretha Franklin was demanding “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” Lulu serenaded “Sir” with love; the Beatles traipsed down Penny Lane, while Lucy was in the sky with diamonds; Billy Joe McAlister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
They didn’t have a No. 1 hit that summer, but the Mamas and the Papas were very much in business, with the autobiographical “Creeque Alley” hitting No. 5 on the U.S. charts and both “Twelve Thirty” and “My Girl” brightening summer 1967’s rock’n’roll scene. And brightening it was, because for tight harmony among beautifully matched voices, there never was anything like the Mamas and the Papas: John and Michelle Phillips, Denny Doherty, and Cass Elliot. Their songs still give me pleasure, which is more than I can say for other artifacts and memories of the Sixties.
It was all a huge mess, of course, and in ways this naive 16-year-old couldn’t have imagined (even if I thought I’d figured out some of the “Creeque Alley” references). One pop historian, quoted by Mark Steyn, summed up the Mamas’ and Papas’ mess like this: “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.” As Steyn notes, respectfully if ironically, “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.”
The craziness eventually killed a way-too-young Cass Elliot, who died of a heart attack in 1974. But Mama Cass’s heart had been broken before, when she fell in love with Papa Denny and he didn’t reciprocate. (In fact, Denny had a torrid affair with Michelle Phillips that just about wrecked the group, even if it did produce a memorable song, “I Saw Her Again.”) Cass Elliot was, of course, the fat one, the antithesis of sleek, blonde Michelle Phillips. But by all accounts, and even in her drug-addled condition, Cass really loved Denny Doherty. And as Steyn wrote in a fine obituary of Denny that appeared in The Atlantic a few months ago, “in his final years, widowed, weathered, balding, and paunchy, [Denny’d] concede that turning her down was the great mistake of his life.”
Why ponder all this, save for nostalgia’s sake? Because the self-absorption of Sixties pop culture was its most soul-withering feature — more, in fact, than the drugs, the booze, the promiscuity, and the faux radicalism: all of which, on reflection, were either by-products or expressions of that fascination with Me. In the case of Denny Doherty and Cass Elliot, self-absorption was one big reason why the self-giving that makes real love possible was, well, impossible.
California dreamin’ never made it to reality. And that’s a sadness.