The voice. The presence. The soul. Nothing about “Mama” Cass Elliot, one of the most dynamic performers to emerge from the halcyon days of the groovy sixties, is unforgettable. Though it is her work with The Mamas and the Papas that is often most remembered, Elliott herself lived an incredible, though all-too-brief life. Her legacy as the doyenne of folk brought together voices that continue to reverberate in our hearts and our memories. And yet, for all the success she found in her life — through her music, her television career, and her curation of the greatest talent to ever be found in popular music in the second half of the twentieth century — lurking in the shadows was an ever-present darkness, a desperation for love and affection that was all too human.
No one’s getting fat, ‘cept Mama Cass…
The early part of Ellen Cohen’s life story, before the mega-stardom that the persona of Mama Cass would engender, is told movingly in a recently released graphic biography, California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before The Mamas & the Papas, written and drawn by French cartoonist and writer Pénélope Bagieu. Bagieu’s work here is impactful in its simplicity and grace. Employing a style that eschews complications and aims for the immediacy of pencil on paper, she constructs a biography that, interestingly, isn’t told from the point of view of Elliot. Rather ingeniously, the story of Mama Cass is told by the people around her, commenting on the stages of her life as she goes from a little girl enthralled by her father’s tales of epic heroines, to an awkward Jewish teenager in Baltimore, to singing in the folk clubs down in the Village, before ultimately joining a ragtag group of rejected singers who would soon leave an indelible mark on American pop culture.
Elliot, never one to follow the beat of any other drummer, is depicted as resolute about her dreams of being a star. But for all her bluster and her (not unplaced) ego, she is also shown to have been reserved, shy, and unsuccessful at love. Her unrequited love for many people, especially her bandmate Denny Doherty, expose her vulnerable side, the side that couldn’t be fulfilled with music. Unflinchingly, Bagieu explores Elliot’s experimentation with drugs as being as much of a quest to quell the demons of solitude, rejection, and failure, as an effort to escape the mundanity of female domesticity.
Cass can’t make it, she says we’ll have to fake it
Readers will walk away from this book with the tunes of the Mama and the Papas swirling inside their craniums — they are irresistible earworms, after all. And even though the tale is told in black and white, it ends as the swirls of psychedelia loom and the flowers are just beginning to grow. With this book, Bagieu deftly crafts an impeccable operetta of folk music and unbridled dreams.