Got out my pencils to sketch Cass Elliot on her birthday. Below, something I wrote when I was just out of graduate school, living in Brooklyn (before it was fashionable), and heard that Cass Elliot had died. I remember feeling as if one my friends had died, utterly absurd as I didn’t really know her, but the memory of the two or three hours we’d spent together remained strong. I remembered her deep throaty laugh and how she cried for a moment and how young and stupid I was, and to this day feel a mix of excitement and sadness when I hear one of her songs.
Meeting Mama Cass
I used to say I’d become an artist so I could listen to music all day, and I did.
Unlike today, when just about everyone gets their music on demand through Spotify or iTunes or Sirius, back then music came in the form of a tangible object, the LP, elaborate jackets, often fold-outs with words and pictures, sometimes drawings, sometimes poetry. I loved record albums, reading them, placing the record on a turntable (back in fashion today with good reason), buying a diamond needle, listening to an album from beginning to end, the way it was conceived, most likely labored over by the musician—what song came first, last, totally unlike today’s scattershot pick and choose.
Pop music was a big part of our lives in college and for a long time after until the Internet changed everything. It was a communal activity. We’d sit around and listen to new albums together, analyze them, and play them over and over. We went to a lot of concerts too, which were not expensive like they are today. I saw Tim Hardin three times, a singer/songwriter practically unknown today, who died of a heroin overdose before he was forty. I still listen to his songs, particularly the first album, which is great if you like sad songs, and I do. I saw Jefferson Airplane (before they were Starship) and had a crush on Grace Slick; saw Joan Baez and of course Dylan; eagerly awaited each new Stones and the Beatles albums, which were collective events, everyone discussing the merits of Sticky Fingers, or the White Album or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, concept albums, practically unheard of today, as it is impossible to control the listener, something that has infected post-Internet culture, where everyone is an artist, a critic, choosing how they listen, creating their own playlists (not that I’m against it; I do it myself), but I dislike the idea that the artist has so little say in how their work is received.
I saw Janis Joplin perform at a small college in Worcester, Mass, in, I think 1969, and she blew my head off. Later that same year I saw her at Queens College, still amazing, but a year later—in upstate New York, with the Full Tilt Boogie Band, which had replaced Big Brother and the Holding Company—despite flashes of raw brilliance, she seemed burned out or close to it, swilling whisky throughout the performance, staggering by the end. I wanted to rescue her.
It was earlier, either 1965 or ‘66 that the The Mamas and the Papas came to Boston and played the Armory. Like a lot of other rock stars of the era, they represented freedom (Go where you wanna go…) and drugs (Cause I’m a real straight shooter) John and Michele, real life husband and wife (Michele was the group’s pretty girl), Denny, nerdy though he could sing, and the hands down standout, Cass.
I’d been a fan since high school when she was part of a little-known folk/rock band called The Big 3. I saw them at the Bitter End when I was fifteen. Cass Elliot’s voice filled the room and gave you chills. I’d brought the first The Big 3 album with me and got her to autograph it. While she was signing, I said, “You’re going to be a big star,” and she gave me a hug. Her style, her look, was totally different then, lacquered hair and lots of makeup, not the later hippie guise she later adopted, which suited her better. I followed her when she moved from The Big 3 to the Mugwumps, with John Sebastian, later of the Lovin’ Spoonful, and Denny Doherty, half of the future The Mamas and the Papas, and I wasn’t surprised when she caught fire.
That night’s concert was pretty much the Mama Cass show, big voice, big image, the easy way she danced, kind of floated, more at ease on the stage than any of the others.
I don’t know if she was stoned or tripping but two-thirds of the way through the concert Cass announced the name of her hotel and her room number. I repeated it in my head several times, and after the concert decided to see if it was true.
A mid-sized hotel in downtown Boston. No security. Maybe twenty-five guys waiting in front of the room, smoking cigarettes or weed, all of us wondering if we were in the right place or if Mama Cass was just playing us. After an hour or so later half the guys gave up and left and I was thinking about leaving too but didn’t. Another half hour passed, and I was about to give up when the door opened and there she was, Mama Cass, in big a flower-print muumuu. There were maybe ten guys left and we went crazy, whistling and clapping and Cass did a little curtsy and looked us over.
I blurted out, “I saw you at the Bitter End with The Big 3 and said you were going to be a big star—and I was right.”
She laughed and invited me in, said, the other guys moaning and jeering, no doubt unimpressed with me, a hundred-and-twenty-pounds, shoulder-length hair, John Lennon glasses, gauzy Indian shirt, cowboy boots which added a couple of inches to my five-feet-six.
I expected a lavish suite, but the room was modest, and a mess, clothes strewn, bed unmade. I was nervous, but Cass was easy going and funny, stoned but buzzing from her concert, a half-empty bottle of champagne on the bedside table. She offered it to me and I took a swig, lit a joint and we took turns passing it back and forth. Then we lay down on the bed side by side, drank more champagne and smoked weed and after a while we kissed and made out a little. She asked me questions about my life, and I told her I was in art school, which she thought was cool, and I asked her questions about her new famous life, and she talked about being on the road and how tired she was. We kissed a little more, but I didn’t know what to do and did not want to do anything wrong. At one point, she asked me if I liked her, and I said something like, “Are you kidding, you’re Mama Cass, of course I like you!” and she started to laugh then cry. I apologized (though it wasn’t until a later that I realized how stupid my comment had been), and Cass waved it away and said she was sorry for crying and we drank and smoked some more, lying there, side by side, and kissed a little more too. Then Cass started falling asleep. I’d like to think it was because she was drunk and stoned, not that I was a bad kisser. After a while, I got up and Cass half woke up and I asked if she’d sign my shirt, another stupid thing, but she said okay. The only pen we could find was a crummy hotel ballpoint, which made it hard for her to write, and halfway through her signature the gauzy shirt ripped, and we laughed again. I told her I’d had a great time and that I’d been right about her becoming a big star and she smiled and kissed my cheek and closed her eyes and looked like she was asleep again.
Outside I was excited, over-stimulated and a little disoriented from the champagne and weed. I called my roommate, John, to pick me up (I think the MTA was no longer running, but maybe I just wanted a rude and John had a motorcycle. When he arrived, I told him who I’d just been with and he didn’t believe me, even when I showed him my torn shirt with her barely legible autograph.
I originally wrote this when I was just out of graduate school, living in Brooklyn before it was fashionable, and had just heard that Cass Elliot had died. I remember feeling as if one my friends had died, utterly absurd as I didn’t know her at all, but the memory of that night, of those two or three hours together remains strong, if a little blurry around the edges. I remember her deep throaty laugh and how she cried for a moment and how young and stupid I was, and to this day I feel a mix of excitement and absolute sadness when I hear one of her songs.