Michelle Phillips, Dennis Hopper, And The 1970 Leonard Cohen Tour

Michelle Phillips

Michelle Phillips

It’s one of those little-known facts that (ahem) everybody knows: Michelle Phillips, the singer, songwriter, and actress whose most recognized persona was the willowy blonde singer for the Mamas and Papas (Michelle is second from the right in the group photo shown on the right),1 did a stint as a backup singer for Leonard Cohen during the 1970 tour.

The description of this gig found in her Wikipedia entry is representative, “During 1970, Phillips sang backup vocals on a Leonard Cohen tour.” In fact, if one plugs in precisely those words “During 1970, Phillips sang backup vocals on a Leonard Cohen tour,” within quotation marks, Google reports finding that exact phrase on about 7,360 websites. Without the quotes, Google reports about 39,300 hits.

The devil is, in accord with rhetorical precedent, in the details.  The sentence, “During 1970, Phillips sang backup vocals on a Leonard Cohen tour,” and its many variants are maddeningly ambiguous and potentially misleading.  A casual reader could, for example, infer that Ms Phillips was a backup singer throughout the 1970 Leonard Cohen Tour. Efforts to discover specifics (e.g., at which concerts did she perform), however, have been unrequited – until now.

It  turns out that the time Michelle Phillips spent singing backup for Leonard Cohen in 1970 was extraordinarily limited in the number of performances, but, in compensation, the weirdness titers of those phenomena, especially once Dennis Hopper is thrown into the mix, were extraordinarily high.

This should surprise no one who has been following  recent Heck Of A Guy postings. The Michelle Phillips-Dennis Hopper story did, after all,  take place during  the 1970 Leonard Cohen Tour.

Leonard Cohen 1970

Concert Reports Naming Michelle Phillips As Backup Singer

Dan Fuehring attended and reported on Leonard Cohen’s 14 November 19702 performance at Royce Hall on the UCLA campus.3 That report includes this observation:

The band was typical of one of his bands. I do remember that Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and Papas was one of the two female singers. [emphasis mine]

And, Jack Hafferkamp, writing in Ladies & Gents, Leonard Cohen (Rolling Stone, February 4, 1971) indicates that Michelle (Phillips) Hopper performed at the Berkeley Community Theater, a concert featuring Leonard Cohen and The Army which, according to the Berkeley Community Theater website, took place 15 November 1970:

The Berkeley Community Theater was very nearly packed when Cohen came on stage 15 minutes late. The audience was young but mixed. Streeties mingled with Cal frat men and their pin-mates. … He began again with the “The Stranger Song.” His voice was surprisingly well defined and strong. After another song the Army appeared. Two more guitars, bass, keyboards, and two female voices. Elton Fowler, Susan Musmanno, and, that night, Michelle [Phillips] Hopper, made up the rest of the group. They all started into “Bird on the Wire.” [emphasis mine]

The Dennis Hopper-Leonard Cohen Connection

Michelle Phillips and Dennis Hopper 1970

At this point, a modicum of biographical exposition is necessary. After the Mamas And Papas disbanded in 1968, Michelle Phillips reoriented her career and her life. 1970 proved to be a busy year in that process. On October 31, 1970, she married Dennis Hopper, a relationship which began and ended precipitously, as this account from California Dreamgirl by Sheila Weller (Vanity Fair, December 2007) notes:

She [Michelle Phillips] started to date Jack Nicholson around the time she tested for the role of Susan in Mike Nichols’s Carnal Knowledge, which she lost to Candice Bergen. When Jack went off to star in the film, she signed on as the female lead in Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie.4 She flew to Peru to work with Hollywood’s enfant terrible, who was fresh from directing the counterculture epic Easy Rider.

In a madness-venerating time, Hopper was madder than most. According to his ex-wife Brooke Hayward’s account in Peter Biskind’s authoritative Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Hopper not only struck her but also once jumped on the hood of the car she was sitting in, shattering the windshield. Hopper told Biskind that he doesn’t recall the incident. …

Michelle fell in love with Dennis, drawn to him in part, she says, by “this Florence Nightingale instinct. (And, just for the record, girls, it doesn’t work.) I was so overloaded emotionally by this point in my life, I didn’t know what I was doing.” They married in Taos in late 1970 …

In the days after the wedding, Dennis behaved dangerously with Michelle. Whatever Hopper did was “excruciating” is all Michelle will say. She got herself and [daughter] Chynna back to L.A., where “my father dragged me into his attorney’s office and said, ‘Men like that never change. File for divorce now. It’ll be embarrassing for a few weeks, then it will be over.’ It was embarrassing for more than a few weeks. Everybody had the same question: ‘A divorce after eight days? What kind of tart are you?’ ” When she and Hopper (who married three more times) run into each other, “we are civil,” Michelle says with a freighted crispness.5

This excerpt from When The Vow Breaks by Kat Giantis (MSN Entertainment) describes the eight-day marriage:

You know your marriage isn’t off to a good start when your new bride asks, “Have you considered suicide?” So went the eight-day union of Dennis Hopper and Michelle Phillips. During the brief conjugal co-habitation, the wild-man actor allegedly kept the Mamas & Papas beauty handcuffed so she couldn’t run away (Hopper later claimed Phillips was the one with the cuffs). Years later, both were sentimental about their whiplash coupling, which was solemnized on Halloween (insert joke here). Quipped Hopper, “Seven of those days were pretty good. The eighth day was the bad one,” while Phillips remembered them as “the happiest eight days of my life.”

Michelle Phillips on Dennis Hopper

So When Does Leonard Cohen Come Into The Story?

As it turns out, Michelle Phillips’ job as a Leonard Cohen backup singer and her union with Dennis Hopper were not unrelated.  Hopper and Cohen were acquainted.  As noted above, Cohen was credited as one of the composers of the musical score for Hopper’s film, The Last Movie.  And, according to Untold New Mexico: Stories From A Hidden Past by Jason Silverman (Sunstone Press, March 1, 2006), Leonard Cohen, along with Bob Dylan, George McGovern, and Neil Young, was one of Hopper’s “visionary friends:”

According  to With a New Wife, Son and Movie Uneasy Rider Dennis Hopper Hopes to Find the Hot Spot Back on Top, a scholarly article by Steve Dougherty and Vicki Sheff  published in the November 12, 1990 edition of the celebrity sociological journal of  record, People (Vol. 34, No. 19),

Hopper next wed ex-Mama Michelle Phillips, but their union lasted only a week. (“I got her a job going on tour with Leonard Cohen. She called me from Nashville and said. ‘I’ve decided to make music my life.’ “) [emphasis mine]

 Aileen Fowler (aka Susan Musmanno) On Singing Backup With Michelle Phillips

As I previously acknowledged in Susan Musmanno, Corlynn Hanney, & Aileen Fowler – Leonard Cohen’s 2 Great Backup Singers In 1970, Aileen and Elkin Fowler have recently provided information that has been especially useful in filling in the blanks about the 1970 Leonard Cohen Tour. In this case, Aileen delineates the extent of the Leonard Cohen concerts in which Phillips sang and, as a bonus, offers up a previously unpublished identification of Dennis Hopper as a participant in one of those concerts.

In response to my queries about Michelle Philips singing backup for Leonard Cohen in 1970, Aileen Fowler sent this response:

She [Michelle Phillips] filled in for Corlynn [Hanney]6  twice, I think.  …  It was the two concerts in CA — UCLA and Berkley.  It fell to me to teach her the parts, and, at least at that particular time in her life, she could not sing.  At all.  It was sad.  I don’t know what particular cocktail of drugs she was using, but it didn’t help.  It was during the brief time of her relationship-marriage to Dennis Hopper, and he was around, also. 

As a matter of fact, I read a fan account of the UCLA concert at your website, and the fan mentioned that a disruptive audience member came forward (closely followed by security) and spent a moment or two speaking with Leonard onstage.  That was no audience member.  That was  Dennis Hopper.  He charged in, protesting something, and before security could remove him, Leonard graciously let him have his say.  Leonard’s grace and charm were astonishing, and moving.

  The account of the UCLA concert to which Aileen refers is the report by Dan Fuehring, the pertinent portion of which follows:

But the extraordinary thing was when a crazy guy started yelling random incoherent things from the audience. Everyone tried to ignore him until he jumped up on stage, still spouting gibberish.

The cops came to get him but Cohen waved them off, and then sat on the edge of the stage talking quietly to him, eventually holding hands with him.

After a bit, Cohen went back to the mike and said, “Why doesn’t everyone come up here?” and the stage filled with as many people as it would hold …

Michelle Phillips’ Brief But (Foot)Notable Career As A Leonard Cohen Backup Singer

So, what did we learn today? Well,

  1. It appears that Michelle Phillips had short-lived, nearly simultaneous flings in 1970 as a wife to Dennis Hopper and a backup singer for Leonard Cohen.
  2. Dennis Hopper reached out to his visionary friend, Leonard Cohen, whom he had hired as composer of the score for his film, The Last Movie, to find a place for Mrs Michelle Phillips Hopper as a backup singer.
  3. In yet  another demonstration of the law of cosmic metaphysics dictating that no good deed goes unpunished, Leonard Cohen was granted the opportunity to showcase his graciousness when Hopper disrupted one of those concerts when Phillips was onstage as a backup singer.

Not bad for a phenomenon that took place over the span of two concerts during the 1970 Leonard Cohen Tour.fedoradivider

More About The 1970 Leonard Cohen Tour From Susan Musmanno/Aileen Fowler & Elkin/Bubba Fowler

When I contacted Aileen (let’s go with Aileen Fowler  from this point on), ostensibly to make certain of a detail or two, she and Elkin were gracious enough to offer far more than a few dry facts.  They provided, in fact, a perspective on the 1970 Tour that is very personal, rich in insight, and intriguing.

Coming Attractions: Upcoming posts in the 1970 Leonard Cohen Tour series will address such burning questions as

  • If all these sites say Donna Washburn sang at the Isle Of Wight Concert isn’t she a 1970 backup singer, too?
  • How did the band for the 1970 Tour form?
  • What’s it like to fall in love during a Leonard Cohen Tour with a revolution going on?
  • How come everyone in the 1970 Tour dressed like gol-darned hippies? And why was Leonard Cohen so scruffy?
  1. Often overlooked is the fact that she also co-wrote some of the group’s most popular songs, including “Creeque Alley” and “California Dreamin.” []
  2. Dan was unsure of  the date. According to LeonardCohenLive, Cohen played UCLA’s  Royce Hall 14 November 1970. []
  3. The complete report of that early concert is itself well worth reading. It and Joe Way’s recounting of Leonard Cohen’s 1970 University Of Wisconsin appearance can be found at 1970 Leonard Cohen In Hootenanny Mode []
  4. According to the AMG AllMovie Guide, four individuals received credits as “Composer (Music Score)” for the Last Movie: Severn Darden, Kris Kristofferson, Chabuca Granda, and – ta da – Leonard Cohen. The same source also provides this plot summary:

    With a barrage of cinematic distancing devices at hand (flashbacks and flash-forwards, super-imposed titles, missing frames, projectionist cue-marks placed in the wrong locations in a film reel), Dennis Hopper concocts a hallucinatory acid-trip concerning an American movie company making a western in Peru. In a remote mountain village in Peru, a Hollywood film company wraps up shooting a western and returns to California. Staying behind is a young stunt man, Kansas (Dennis Hopper). In the village, he takes up with the resident whore, Maria (Stella Garcia). At this point, the film flash-forwards to Kansas being crucified by the villagers. Back in the old time frame, the Peruvians decide that they want to make their own movie. Not having the necessary film equipment, but plenty of local raw material, the villagers construct the needed cameras, microphones, and sound recorders out of bamboo, and although the equipment is faked, the villagers substitute real, bloody violence for the make-believe violence of Hollywood. During this eruption of violence in the Peruvian village, the local priest (Tomas Milian) blames Kansas for the carnage. The priest decides that movies are the root of all worldly evil and convinces the villagers to seize Kansas.  Also in the cast were Kris Kristofferson and Peter Fonda. The entire film can be found on YouTube; the first 10 minutes can be viewed at Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie – Part 1 []

  5. While it is not directly pertinent to the subject at hand, the Vanity Fair article goes on to point out that Dennis Hopper wasn’t Michelle’s only conquest:

    On the heels of her week-long marriage to Hopper, Michelle picked up with Jack Nicholson when he was casting Drive, He Said. She was now, along with Carly Simon, that rare thing on the early-70s entertainment scene: the female “catch.” Nicholson, not yet having arrived at his Cheshire-cat-smiling Über-coolness, set out to win her. Around this same time, according to Genevieve, “Mick Jagger also had a big crush on Michelle. He was crazy about her. When she’d visit us in Bel Air, he’d come over.” Genevieve pauses, squints, and waxes puzzled at a memory: “Mick and Bianca had the weirdest marriage. They were never together.” []

  6. See Corlynn Hanney Talks About Singing Backup On The 1970 Leonard Cohen Tour []

4 responses to “Michelle Phillips, Dennis Hopper, And The 1970 Leonard Cohen Tour

  1. Great. Your “1970 Tour” series is a superb investigation. Many thanks!

  2. an interesting read!

  3. Like your detail very much Good Doctor!

    Anyone visiting Taos, a great vacation stop, the Mabel Dodge Luhan house is a must see — ideally even for over night stay in one of the rooms.

    If I recall properly, we could have rented the top floor room where Dennis and Michelle tied the knot, but I feared using the ladder to get down to a bathroom in the middle of the night.:-)

  4. Your sleuthing is exceptional – thank you Allan!