Friday, April 9, 2010

The Annotated "Creeque Alley"

John and Michie were gettin' kind of itchy
Just to leave the folk music behind

John Phillips was in a folk trio called the Journeymen (also featuring Scott "San Francisco" Mckenzie) when he met and married Michelle Gilliam, on New Year's Eve, 1962. John was 27 and newly divorced, Michelle was 18.

Zal and Denny workin' for a penny
Tryin' to get a fish on the line.

Zal Yanovsky and Denny Doherty sang together in a folk group called the Halifax Three. They were Canadian.

In a coffee house Sebastian sat,
And after every number they'd pass the hat.

John Sebastian, the godson of Vivian "Ethel Mertz" Vance, played harmonica in a group called the Even Dozen Jug Band with such luminaries as Maria Muldaur and David Grisman.

McGuinn and McGuire just a-gettin' higher in L.A.,
You know where that's at.

Jim McGuinn played guitar and sang in Bobby Darin's backup band. Barry McGuire was the lead singer of the New Christy Minstrels. Los Angeles - L.A. for short - is the largest city in California.

And no one's gettin' fat except Mama Cass.

Ellen Naomi Cohen changed her name to Cass Elliot, dropped out of high school and moved from the D.C. area to New York City, where she landed a part in "The Music Man" on Broadway. She then moved back to Washington around 1962 and joined a folksinging trio, first called the Trimuvirate, then the Big Three. She was quite fat.

Zally said, "Denny, you know there aren't many
Who can sing a song the way that you do; let's go south."
Denny said, "Zally, golly, don't you think that I wish
I could play guitar like you."

Yanovsky and Doherty had met Cass Elliot when they were in the Halifax Three, and they eventually joined her in the suddenly misnamed Big Three.

Zal, Denny, and Sebastian sat (at the Night Owl)
And after every number they'd pass the hat.

The Night Owl Cafe was a folk club in Greenwich Village. Zal, Denny and Sebastian were never in a band together, near as I can tell, so this might just refer to them sitting in the audience there, although both the Mugwumps (see below) and the Lovin' Spoonful (also see below) performed there.

McGuinn and McGuire still a-gettin higher in L.A.,
You know where that's at.

The rest of the characters in this song were still scuffling along in the early 1960s, but McGuire's New Christy Minstrels had had three Top Thirty hits by the summer of '64.

And no one's gettin' fat except Mama Cass.

Really, she was obese.

When Cass was a sophomore, planned to go to Swarthmore
But she changed her mind one day.
Standin' on the turnpike, thumb out to hitchhike,
"Take me to New York right away."

Cass attended American University in Washington, D.C. for a short time. American doesn't rhyme with anything, though.

When Denny met Cass he gave her love bumps;

Cass was famously in love with Denny Doherty, pretty much from the first time they met. She even proposed to him at one point, but he turned her down.

Called John and Zal and that was the Mugwumps.

Elliot, Yanovsky and Doherty (but not Sebastian!) formed the Mugwumps in 1964, along with a guy named Jim Hendricks, who went on to write the Johnny Rivers hit "Summer Rain." (In that song, Rivers sings "And the jukebox kept on playing 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band,'" but that album famously spawned no singles. Were there jukeboxes that could play LPs?) Hendricks was married to Cass, but it was a marriage of convenience just to keep him from getting drafted.

McGuinn and McGuire couldn't get no higher
But that's what they were aimin' at.
And no one's gettin' fat except Mama Cass.

Like, 300 pounds.

Mugwumps, high jumps, low slumps, big bumps---
Don't you work as hard as you play.
Make up, break up, everything is shake up;
Guess it had to be that way.
Sebastian and Zal formed the Spoonful;

Backed by a drummer and bassist, Sebastian and Yanovsky released their first single as the Lovin' Spoonful, "Do You Believe in Magic," in August 1965. It made the Top Ten.

Michelle, John, and Denny gettin' very tuneful.

Michelle got tuneful with both of them; the story is that eventually, John and Denny moved in together so they could keep an eye on each other. In the 1970s, she would graduate to the likes of Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty.

McGuinn and McGuire just a-catchin' fire in L.A.,
You know where that's at.

Jim McGuinn formed a group called the JetSet, which released its first single in October 1964 and immediately changed its name to the Byrds. McGuinn changed his first name to Roger in 1967.

Barry McGuire had known various characters in this song since 1962, and he had the nascent Mamas and Papas sing backup for him on one of his albums. While they were in the studio, they also sang "California Dreamin'" for producer Lou Adler.

And everybody's gettin' fat except Mama Cass.

The Spoonful, the Byrds and Barry McGuire's solo career - "Eve of Destruction" went to Number One in September 1965 - all happened before the Mamas and Papas were able to release an album.

Broke, busted, disgusted, agents can't be trusted,
And Michie wants to go to the sea.

As the group was first formed, they all decamped for a vacation in the Virgin Islands. What exactly they were vacationing from is not clear to me.

Cass can't make it; she says we'll have to fake it---
We knew she'd come eventually.

The other three had gone to the Virgin Islands without Cass, who wanted to join the group - among other reasons, she was in love with Denny - but John resisted admitting her. He would tell people that her range wasn't strong enough, but in reality, she was just fat (see above), and bad for their image. John eventually relented, and they made up a story about Cass hitting her head on a pipe in the Virgin Islands, which miraculously gave her voice three extra high notes, thus allowing her entrance into the group.

Greasin' on American Express cards;

They were broke while they were in the Virgin Islands, but they did have American Express cards, which they maxed out. When those began to get rejected, they sent Michelle to the craps table in a slinky red dress, and she emerged with enough money to buy first-class plane tickets to New York.

Tents low rent, but keeping out the heat's hard.
Duffy's good vibrations and our imaginations
Can't go on indefinitely.

Duffy's was a club the band hung out at on Creeque Alley in the Virgin Islands.

And California dreamin' is becomin' a reality...

Phillips had written "California Dreamin'" back in 1963, and Barry McGuire recorded it with the Mamas and the Papas in 1965. The Mamas and the Papas used the same backing track to record their own version later that year, and released it as their second single (after "Go Where You Wanna Go," which stiffed) in November 1965. It would eventually go to Number Four in early 1966.


  1. obsessed with Cass' weight, are you?

  2. I'm obsessed with how many times John Phillips saw fit to mention it.

  3. Are "love bumps" anything like "lady lumps"?

  4. This post is all kinds of awesome. Thanks a lot.

  5. I have always loved, loved, LOVED this song. Thanks for the breakdown. Also kick-ass is Cass Elliot on the Ed Sullivan show introducing "Creeque Alley" and making no attempt to hide the fact that they were lip-syncing: "Cue the tape."

    (Sorry, the only version of this I could find was this weird remix)