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Our condo: a perfectly nice place to live. My mother kept an orderly, clean house. She drove us to school every day and cooked dinner every night. She was a proper lady, the kind of woman who never wore white after Labor Day, crossed her legs at the ankle, and expected her children to be well mannered and respectful. We said please and thank you. We never let the screen door slam. We knew how to set a dinner table. My mother was sweet and warm, and she knew how to make life fun for my brother Jeffrey and me even if there wasn't much money. She'd buy a bunch of beads and we'd sit by the fire making necklaces. We'd cover the kitchen table with newspaper and have crab legs like we used to when we lived in Virginia. There was laughing, singing, dancing, and playing dress-up. At bedtime, she cuddled me, held me, called me Laurabelle, my little snowflake, my baby girl. These are the things that a mother does, and we expected them. Five days a week. But when Friday rolled around, everything changed.
Weekends, we entered another world. My dad, John Phillips, was a rock star, the leader and songwriter of the Mamas & the Papas. The Mamas & the Papas were huge in 1966. Their first album had just come out, and it was the number one album on the Billboard 200. Money poured in from hits like "Monday, Monday" and "California Dreamin'." Dad was fabulously rich and famous.
After school on Friday, a cavernous Fleetwood limo would glide down our street in Tarzana, a suburban neighborhood in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley. The limo would roll to a stop in front of our condo complex. I was six years old and my brother was seven. The neighborhood children would make thrones out of their hands and carry us to the car. As we climbed in, the kids would peer in the windows, hoping to get a glimpse of our father. He was never in the car. The engine purred, and we slid out of reality. The limo would transport us to either Dad's mansion in Bel Air or his mansion in the Malibu Colony, where our relatively stable childhood veered down a psychopharma rabbit hole.
I was conceived during a short reconciliation between my parents. As a little girl I hardly lived with my father. My dad had ditched my mother for a sixteen-year-old girl named Michelle when I was two, maybe younger. In the next few years Mom began to work at the Pentagon to support the three of us herself, my brother, and me. There wasn't a lot of money, we lived in a small apartment in Alexandria, Virginia, and my mom dated a lot. Every Sunday we had dinner, either at my grandmother Dini's or at my aunt Rosie's. Meanwhile, Dad and his new wife, Michelle Phillips, became famous with the Mamas & the Papas practically overnight and lived a recklessly extravagant life.
Dad and Michelle made their home in Los Angeles, and eventually my mother moved there too, so now my parents were living in the same city, but in different worlds. Dad and Michelle's life felt like a fairy tale. She was beautiful and so young, the quintessential California girl. Dad was almost six foot six and dressed in handmade floor-length caftans and the like. He looked...like Jesus in tie-dye. On weekends Michelle took me clothes shopping at Bambola in Beverly Hills. She bought me tiny kid gloves in all different colors, dresses with matching coats, ankle socks, and Mary Janes. This alone was enough to make a princess out of me, but the dichotomy between my parents' lives was far bigger than being spoiled with clothes by Michelle. As soon as we drove through the massive wrought-iron gate of Bel Air, the contrast was mind-boggling. We were special. We were royalty.
My father was always surrounded by a noisy, outrageous, wild party. Rock 'n' roll stars, aristocracy, and Hollywood trash streamed in and out of his homes. He lived beyond his means. There were eight Rolls-Royces in the driveway and two Ferraris. The house was full of priceless antiques, but if something broke, it never got fixed. The housekeeper hadn't been paid, or she was fucking my father. There was a cook, but nobody shopped for food. The house was complete chaos, a bizarre mix of excess and oblivion, luxury and incompetence. I swam naked at midnight in the pool or the ocean and scrounged for dinner. I chased the pet peacocks around the estate grounds and had no idea what I might hear or see on any given night.
At the house in Bel Air my brother and I shared a room with twin beds. One night we awoke to hear Dad and Michelle making some kind of ruckus. It surpassed the everyday level of ruckus, so we sat up in bed and started calling for them, "Hey! What's going on?"
Michelle came into the room. She said, "Don't worry, your father and I were just playing." She was carrying a long stick with metal stubs poking out of it. Jeffrey and I looked at each other. This was no innocent game of Monopoly. Years later I channel-surfed past a show about cowboys and recognized the weird stick Michelle had been holding that night. It was a cattle prod. They were chasing each other around with a cattle prod. That may have been an isolated bizarre incident. But life then seemed to be nothing but a long, continuous series of isolated bizarre incidents, so much weirdness every day that the weirdness became everyday.
The Mamas & the Papas played the Hollywood Bowl, a famous amphitheater smack in the middle of Hollywood. It was the Mamas & the Papas' first formal live gig. Michelle decided to commemorate the event by piercing my ears. I was seven years old, compliant a perfect dress-up doll for Michelle. She sat me on the bedroom floor and gathered a sewing needle, pink thread, ice, and a wine cork. Holding the wine cork behind my ear to protect my neck, she forced the threaded needle through my ear, and then tied little peacock feathers (from the pet peacocks) to the ends of the pink threads. Michelle had assembled her tools so thoughtfully and executed the procedure so calmly which was even more impressive when I later found out she was on acid at the time.
Barry McGuire, who sang "Eve of Destruction," was coming with us to the Bowl. He was dressed in a cream-colored suit, but he couldn't find his shoes, so he painted his feet green. If I'd been a few years older I certainly would have figured out that they were all either on acid or, like me, following the lead of those who were.
The Hollywood Bowl show is fuzzy. I was really young. I remember screaming, "Dad! Dad!" from the audience. Later, backstage, I met Jimi Hendrix. Jimi Hendrix didn't mean much to me he had not yet ignited his guitar onstage at the Monterey Pop Festival, which my father would organize. A giant purple velvet hat floats in my consciousness, attached to the name Hendrix, a vague visual footnote, my own purple haze.
My mother flipped out when she saw that my virgin earlobes had been violated. Pearl studs at eighteen was more her cup of tea. Plus, the threads weren't big enough for earrings and I had to have my ears repierced, and the holes were completely crooked and have been my whole life. For all the asymmetry of my childhood, I'm still disproportionately pissed off about that.
It was a double life: doing what was expected at my mother's, and not answering to anyone at my dad's. I always was aware of the effect my father had on my mom. Even in my seven-year-old brain, I was aware that she was envious, angry, and sad. Often sad. I worried as much as a child can, but the fun at my dad's was irresistible. There was music, guitars, parties, rock stars, and the very seductive attitude of "We're all kids here." I'd ask my dad, "Can I go play on the beach?" and he'd say, "Whatever turns you on, kid." So I'd burst out the back door, free, a crazy kid chasing the dogs on the beach until we were all worn out. Occasionally the cook would attempt to impose a modicum of order. She'd say, "Now, young lady, you clean your room. Your dad's going to be mad," and I'd say, "No, he's not." How could he when he lived so wild? Meanwhile, in Tarzana, my mom was watching me walk down the street, yelling after me to tuck in my shirt. She was trying her best to raise her kids, but we were being shown another kind of life, and it was no competition. Would you rather live at Disneyland or in a condo in Tarzana? Being at Dad's was like riding the Matterhorn all day long, and the weekends, by moment and memory, dominated the school week.
My dad's friends never treated me like a child, not exactly. I was more like an accessory, a cute little prop who might amuse or entertain. One weekend before we'd moved to Los Angeles from Virginia I must have been five or six we were with Dad in L.A. for a visit. His fellow band member Cass Eliot (the other "Mama") had a party at her house in Laurel Canyon. We walked into Cass's house and there were Paul McCartney and George Harrison.
When I saw Paul McCartney I glommed on to him like a baby groupie. He kept saying, "Go on, love, get up and dance." In a rare moment of shyness, I demurred. I was afraid people would laugh at me. He insisted. I refused. This exchange circled, a teasing game between a little kid and a world-famous musician.
Finally I broke down and started dancing. The adults began to point and laugh at the little five-year-old dancing for the rock star. I turned bright red and burst into tears, but then Paul McCartney started consoling me. I was no dummy. I liked being consoled by Paul McCartney. The more he comforted, the more tears I summoned. Finally he picked me up and carried me into a hammock that was suspended in the middle of Cass's dining room on a pulley. Someone hoisted us up, up, up. The ceilings were two stories tall and we were suspended fifteen feet in the air. I was still snuffling. Paul snuggled up with me until I finally calmed down and eventually fell asleep. The two of us napped together in that hammock, suspended high above the party. You could say I got high and slept with Paul McCartney.
There was something about my father. He was a cool, countercultural guy who attracted some of the most creative people of his time: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Gram Parsons, Warren Beatty, Jane Fonda, Jack Nicholson, Candy Bergen. Most of his friends did drugs, didn't sleep much, and made lots of money: Excellent role models all. What was it that made my father so compelling? People were so drawn to him musicians, thinkers, beautiful women. He was tall and cool and always fabulously dressed. He drove fancy cars and threw outrageous parties. He was just as much a master of play as he was a master of music. The world was his drug-rock playground, and everyone wanted a turn on the slide. As his daughter, his light was magnified for me. I always wanted to be closer, brighter, warmer. What was fun and games for his friends would develop into a too-powerful life force for me.
At the time I was still just a kid with a lot of energy. But Dad wasn't exactly organizing softball games. The adults at the beach house, and the beach house after that, and the one after that, were always stoned, laughing, and playing guitars. My whole life I've been surrounded by men with guitars. Friends, boyfriends, husbands, son. They sit around, jamming, writing, and talking. That's where the men-with-guitars theme began, in my dad's beach houses.
Gram Parsons was a good friend of my dad's. I didn't know who he was as far as I was concerned he was just a gentle, quiet man who was at Dad's house all the time and could play the piano like nobody's business. Dad had a baby-blue baby grand in his bedroom in Bel Air. I'd sit there on the piano bench listening to Gram Parsons play for hours. Chuck Barris was often there too. I recognized him as the host of The Gong Show. He'd sit on the couch in a big fur coat, not saying much, not gonging Gram Parsons, just hanging out. But as I look back it's hard to believe that Barris's claims to have worked for the CIA were true. I was only a kid, but I was pretty sure he was stoned.
Stoner hangs weren't very kid-friendly. I got bored. Sometimes I found ways to entertain myself. I would walk to the market with money my dad gave me, buy seeds, and plant a wildflower garden. Or I'd climb into my dad's beautiful old Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud. I'd drag the neighborhood beach cat into the backseat with me and pretend we were having tea. There was a big phone in that car; I have no idea how they managed to put a phone in a car in the seventies, but mine was not to question the technology which I was explicitly not to use. The backseat had mahogany tray tables. I'd pull one down, lean against it, and chat with my friends for fifty dollars a minute. That car phone was the most expensive babysitter in history.
One time when the limo dropped me off in Malibu, I walked in to find a completely empty house. This was not wholly unusual; I was expected to fend for myself. So I was chilling, wondering if anyone would show up, waiting for my father as I often did, when Donovan Leitch walked in the door. "What's going on, kid?"
In "Mellow Yellow" Donovan sings, "I'm just mad about Fourteen / She's just mad about me," a lyric that aroused suspicion of pedophilia. But I was only ten still safely under underage. He chatted with me, goofing with the kid who happened to be home, and we decided to make something to eat. We discovered brownie mix in the kitchen and we agreed that brownies would make an excellent lunch. Donovan found a bowl, I got a spoon, we added eggs, we took turns stirring, all the while happily chatting about how yummy they would be. We dug up a pan we were pretty sure would do the trick and put the brownies in the oven. They were cooking; they smelled delicious; and then, out of the blue, Donovan said, "You can't have any." This had to be a cruel joke.
"Why not?" I asked.
"These are special grown-up brownies," Donovan said. It turns out Donovan had found my dad's pot and added it to the mix. Well, that was just plain mean. When he went into the other room, I looked at the brownies. They didn't look different from any other brownies. They sure smelled like regular brownies. I was hungry. And besides, I was in my dad's house. There were no rules here. I helped myself to a brownie. And another. Next thing I knew everything was funny and Donovan and I were sliding down the banister over and over again. If you don't count my hammock suspension with Paul McCartney, that was the first time I got high. I was ten.
Two days later I was playing Barbies by the pool in Tarzana with my best friend, Julie, to all eyes looking like a kid who comfortably straddled two worlds. But the Barbies masked what was really going on. At Dad's I was a weird little savage on the periphery, tap-dancing and singing, eager for any kind of attention. I'd transform over the weekend into an out-of-control little maniac, and when I came home to Mom's, she'd spend all week retraining me in manners and etiquette. How hard it must have been for my mother, watching us go off every Friday and knowing that the kids who came home weren't going to be the same. In Tarzana I wanted to fit in too I faked failing an eye test to get glasses and fashioned a retainer out of paper clips so I could look like the other kids but between the controlled order of my mother's home and the wild freedom of my father's decadence, I already knew which I'd choose. I was my father's daughter. Copyright © 2009 by Shane's Mom Inc.