Ponderation: John Phillips' "Pussycat" and the triumph of '70s sleaze.


Keith Richards jacked heroin so you didn't have to. Every '70s rock kid wanted to be a wasted pervert, but why?

Sleaze hit a sweet spot in 1972 with the Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main Street." Mags zoomed in on Keith, passed out on his own plane and looking fantastic. Everyone knew the Stones had taped their magnum album in a sweltering French villa on the Mediterranean, with waves of junkies rolling in and out like the tide. Contrary to previous expectations, this was a good thing.

The lyrics to "I Just Want To See His Face" held a clue to the era's sleaze appeal: "Let this music relax your mind." Much about the peace & love '60s had been a stresser, as anyone at 1969's Altamont Stones concert disaster could have testified. Idealism and social responsibility waxed burdensome; Bob Dylan had already jumped the protest ship by '65, and the Stones had executed a quick transition from 1968 street-fighting men to 1969 silver shooters who knew they couldn't always git what they wanted, except of course primo dope. (Please exclude LSD, which could get you jailed while your naked girlfriend was wrapped up in a bearskin rug; expanded consciousness wasn't worth it.)

Heroin too had obvious drawbacks, but in the same way that you could fly Jefferson Airplane without dropping acid, you could also tune in to "Exile" with no more help than a few Tequila Sunrises. Whether in rock or twang mode, the two sprawling Stones platters served up an absorptive vibe of sedated relaxation touched with indifference. It was time to survive, get happy and scrape the shit off your shoes.

For many, Los Angeles represented the ideal location for a vacation from obligation. Mixed on Sunset Boulevard, "Exile" combined the solar rays of two continents. Abundant coke and smack nestled just a snort away. Land of Phil Spector and MGM, L.A. swarmed with musicians and beautiful movie people. Hippie culture came here to die.

One of the immigrant infirm was John Phillips, the genius behind the California-dreamin' Mamas and the Papas. A Virginian turned New Yorker, Phillips helped lay the foundations of folk rock and served as organizing nexus for the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, but by the '70s he had become a living junkie embodiment of what happened to the counterculture -- it was only natural that he would hook up with the Rolling Stones. One of his Stones collaborations, "Pussycat," colors in the mid-'70s sleaze canvas like no other artwork.

But a little context. Let's say you're a young seeker, living in L.A. for the first time in early 1974. The Vietnam draft has ended a year back, so, y'know, exhale. Your Hollywood apartment is around the corner from a Pussycat Theater. Next door to "The Devil in Miss Jones" sits a chickenhawk pickup café. Male hustlers pose on every fire hydrant. A drooling vulture circles your primetime ass around the greasy Walk of Fame when you venture out, offered "whatever you want, man" by slouch-hatted lurkers in dark doorways. At 11 each night, the foot traffic on Hollywood Boulevard flips from Iowa tourists to outrageous trannies. To the west down Sunset, the booths of Rodney's English Disco are packed with pubescent groupies. You dance with Iggy and hang with the Dolls. You get drunk, get thrown out of clubs, start a band. It's everything an outsider could hope for. It's home!

You don't know it, but the songwriter you heard expressing pangs of conscience about a deceived lover in 1966's "I Saw Her Again" lives three miles away, in the hills above Laurel Canyon. During the five years you dwell off Hollywood Boulevard, Phillips is working intermittently with Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Ron Wood and Mick Taylor on a collection of songs released much later as "Pay, Pack and Follow."

Though recorded in New York and London for the Stones' label, this is the California album the Stones should have been crafting when they were dribbling out self-parodic sputum such as "Goat's Head Soup" and "It's Only Rock and Roll." It has that relaxed "Exile" groove. It has that steamy atmosphere. It feels like drugs and license.

Too bad Phillips was more concerned with Paying and Packing than Following up, because he never sang better or wrote with more precision. And "Pack" contains a lot of L.A. – the dirty, beautiful city populated by the beautifully dirty. Phillips expresses gratitude that he has enough lucre to avoid the dire fate of the addicts and hookers his limo passes on "Sunset Boulevard." In "She's Just 14," he deftly sketches his daughter Mackenzie, whom one could frequently discover unconscious on the couches of cheap Hollywood rehearsal halls ("She's always too high on arrival") under the influence of the narcotics Daddy shared with her.

And Phillips paints a casually unflattering picture of himself and his generation in "Pussycat." Riding a jazzy lounge beat driven by Keith's guitar chug, he's undaunted that his neighborhood porn bijou and the local titty-book emporium are closed – hey, it's afternoon and he's just awakened, so he might as well slide down to the strip bar, "have a little lunch and watch the kids undress." He's around 40 and the kids are his daughters' age, but he knows them all by name (at least). It's a drag that they never learned to type, he observes, because now entertaining him is all they've got. A wonderful key change and a soulful female vocal chorus lift the song again and again into realms of the third and fourth martini as a giddy Phillips sings, "If I had a million hearts to give, I'd give one to every kid who lives on the runway beyond the bar – see her dancing, but she'll never never be the star." Sad that the actual worldwise star, the narrator, owns but one heart. If that.

Somehow today, it seems 1974 has returned, even less innocent. Consider what happened, as the '70s wound down, to the young seeker – robbed, beaten, sick, disillusioned, and somehow, unlike many, surviving to receive more kicks. But what happens to the current seekers? Will they suck up the opiates and roll over, or will they get up and battle the devil?

Maybe history repeats. In 1977, in the basement of the building that housed the Hollywood Pussycat, a perverse sign of health oozed into the alley when a Scottish immigrant opened Los Angeles' first punk club. Rest in peace, Brendan.

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Listen to "Pussycat" here.