Cal­i­for­nia Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before The Mamas & The Papas

Péné­lope Bagieu; Nanette McGuin­ness, trans.

  • Review
By – January 24, 2018

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.

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