Through thick and thin, Bill Cleary and John Phillips were friends right up ’til the 2001 death of the Mamas and the Papas’ principal songwriter and troubled leader.
A member of The Smoothies, the Four Freshmen-style vocal group Phillips had before the Mamas and the Papas, Cleary left the music world after the act broke up, but later returned to help Phillips with his post-Mamas and Papas solo work after the electric-folk legends split up.
With the release of Jack Of Diamonds, an album of unreleased work Phillips did with members of the jazz greats the Crusaders, Cleary’s firsthand accounts of the fall of the Mamas and the Papas (Cass Elliot, Denny Doherty, and Michelle Phillips) and insight into Phillips’ songwriting genius provide a complicated portrait of an obsessed artist plagued by his own demons but able to conquer them long enough to create timeless music.
Cleary’s fascinating observations and insider stories, culled from a recent interview, reveal much about the man many consider one of America’s finest songwriters.
Goldmine: How long have you known John Phillips?
Bill Cleary: We’ve known each other since we were about 3 years old.
GM: Were you neighbors?
BC: Yeah, we lived in the same area, an area called Del Ray, which is Alexandria, Va. ? that’s the area in Alexandria, Va., where we grew up, which is about seven miles from Washington, D.C., right across the Potomac River. Went to grade school together, went to high school together, played well together, fought together (laughs) ? all of the above. Imagine knowing someone that long. There’s a lot of hate and love in there (laughs).
GM: And you two stayed friends through everything?
BC: Everything, everything … good and bad.
GM: Do you remember when John caught the music bug?
BC: Well, he used to have to go to private school. His mom yanked him out of high school, because he was a bad actor. He was getting into a lot of trouble ? and it could have even been grade school, but it was maybe ninth grade or something like that ? and he went to a private school called Lenten Hall or Leonard Hall. I’ve forgotten which name it was.
But he had a study hall … I mean they had a study hour, which was actually four hours, and he started reading a lot of poetry at that point, so that gave him the bug for rhyme, and he really enjoyed that.
And someone had given him a ukelele, so he started playing around with that and playing around with rhymes, and stuff, working on that kind of thing, and then he went out and bought his own guitar at that point. And we’d get together and sing in cars, and he’d give out parts, and when we could rehearse, we’d rehearse and then there’d be a group of guys … like it was [a] “standing on the corner” singing kind of thing, a lot of that.
GM: Was there something about him that made you realize he’d be famous one day?
BC: Is prisoner in there (laughs)?
He just had more energy than anyone I’ve ever known, and he never stopped. He was in perpetual motion. He was always running here, running there, doing this, doing that. Whether he was bouncing off every wall doing nothing, it didn’t make a difference. He was just always in motion.
He had to see everything, and do everything, and just be part of everything. He was always great at parties, you know, [where] he used to play guitar. He asked me one time ? and this is kind of a funny thing I thought, you know, it’s just humorous to me ? “Why is it when we go to these parties, you always go home and you always have one of the girls that you t