Death and even "Destruction" were reasons for celebration rather than commiseration Tuesday night at the Roxy, the scene of a musically and emotionally powerful rock 'n' roll wake for the Mamas and the Papas leader John Phillips, who died March 18 of heart failure at 65.
Close to 300 fans, friends, fellow musicians and members of his large and scattered family turned out for a hastily assembled memorial for a man whose music evoked an image of California as seductively idyllic as his own life was wildly stormy.
The event, which was open to the public at no charge, began with film footage of the Mamas and the Papas at their '60s peak and ended with an all-star performance of the folk-rock band's signature hit, "California Dreamin'." In between, a parade of many key names in the California folk-rock movement offered anecdotes and musical tributes to Phillips through many of his best-known songs and several of their own.
"It's an unbelievable night," Phillips' oldest daughter, actress-singer Mackenzie Phillips, said offstage after the show ended near midnight. "We didn't know what kind of turnout we would have."
In keeping with the spirit of John Phillips' own freewheeling life, participants acknowledged his estimable musical contributions as a songwriter and vocal arranger as well as the tumultuous lifestyle that led to a nasty breakup with his wife, the Mamas and the Papas' Michelle Phillips, and his struggles with alcohol and drugs. He had received a liver transplant in 1992.
"The reactions I heard a lot when he died were, 'Oh, no' and, 'I can't believe he lasted this long,' " singer-songwriter John Stewart said after the tribute.
"He did absolutely everything one person could do, with the possible exception of a sex-change operation," Stewart said with a laugh, adding, "I guess he just ran out of time."
Earlier, Stewart followed the opening film retrospective, which included a recently taped performance by Jose Feliciano of "California Dreamin'," with the only speech during the three-hour event that could be considered a eulogy.
Following his remarks, one performer after another took the stage in various combinations. Some backed themselves on guitar, while others used a house band put together by Mackenzie Phillips' ex-husband, singer-songwriter Shane Fontayne. Their 14-year-old son, named Shayne, sang a song of his own and helped with vocals on some of the Mamas and the Papas songs that came later.
The proceedings were conducted largely by veteran record executive and Roxy owner Lou Adler, who gave the Mamas and the Papas their first contract in 1965 and produced their records, and by original Mamas and Papas singer Denny Doherty.
Doherty's demeanor was upbeat while he was on stage, but he got dewy-eyed while looking on from the back of the room midway through the show.
Although John and Michelle never fully set aside their animosity, she smiled often while watching and snapping pictures of the performances from the side of the stage, then drew appreciative gasps from the crowd when she strode on stage twice to sing alongside Doherty.
The coterie of '60s folk rockers on hand included Barry McGuire, who updated his quintessential '60s protest-rock hit "Eve of Destruction" with an electrifying, all-star sing-along that galvanized the other musicians and the audience.
Phillips' other children also helped out vocally, including sons Jeffrey and Tamerlane and singer-actress-model Bijou. "Mama" Cass Elliot's daughter, Owen Elliot, sang several parts originally sung by her mother, who died in 1974. Singer-songwriter Chynna Phillips, onetime member of the group Wilson Phillips with Beach Boy Brian Wilson's daughters Carney and Wendy, was the only one of Phillips' children who didn't turn up on stage--because she was in New York for a Brian Wilson tribute she'd previously committed to, according to Adler.
The Beach Boys, however, were represented by Bruce Johnston, and Mike Love, who told the audience, "Nobody loved the Mamas and the Papas more than the Beach Boys." They sang "Kokomo," their 1988 hit that was written by Phillips, Doherty, Love and Terry Melcher, who jumped in gamely on the unrehearsed rendition of the song.
Spanky McFarlane--the Spanky & Our Gang singer drafted by John Phillips when he reconfigured the Mamas and the Papas with Mackenzie and '60s folkie Scott McKenzie to resume touring in the 1980s--also assisted in re-creating the Mamas and the Papas sound for one more night.
McKenzie joined in on several Mamas and Papas tunes and took the spotlight to sing his biggest hit, "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)," another John Phillips composition.
The many baby boomers who turned out reveled again in Phillips' harmonically rich vocal arrangements, which played a key role in the emergence of a California rock sound in the '60s.
Others on hand included Sean Lennon, who sang and played guitar and drums over the course of the night, and songwriter P.F. Sloan, composer of "Eve of Destruction" and "You Baby," another song the Mamas and the Papas recorded, though it was the Turtles who had a Top 20 single with the song.
"I felt like John was here," said Stewart--who had known Phillips since 1960--as he headed for the door after the show. "I think we gave him a good send-off, one that also brings some closure. I spent a lot of years with John, and what I saw here tonight was his legacy--his children and his music, and realizing how terrific and beautiful those songs were."
Added another friend, actor Ed Begley Jr., as he rose from his seat when the music had ended, "What stood out for me is what a great, great songwriter John was--Sammy Cahn-level songwriting, in my opinion--and those songs are going to last for a long, long time."