John Phillips,
Andy Warhol Presents "Man on the Moon"
(Varese Fontana, 2009)

Just consider that title! There's a sense of whole creative universes colliding -- layers of rock music and art, the message of peace and love in space, a singing astronaut, a bomb on the moon and heavenly aliens who save mankind from itself.

It was the '70s, after all, with Bowie's space oddity Ziggy Stardust, Transylvanians like Rocky Horror off-Broadway, even dePalma's rock 'n' roll film version of Faust, Phantom of the Paradise, featuring a stitched-together rock star and his Gothic backup singers. An intergalactic peace-and-love rock musical seemed right. Even one with a bomb that threatens the universe.

John Phillips was inspired to write a star-struck musical by the 1969 moon landing. He kept writing more songs, securing funding, rewriting the script; the musical eventually became a classic case of too much and never enough. Fact and fiction flew (Elvis was approached to play the role of the astronaut; Jack Nicholson was interested; George Lucas might be involved, then stole ideas for Star Wars, Phillips claimed). One draft called for a scene to be played by actors in mid-air.

But the lyrics also ran deeper and into more personal terrain. After the end of the Mamas & the Papas, Phillips also wrote a short song cycle in the early 1970s that sounded notes of his own alienation and drug-fueled confusion. These lyrics are included here, too, as in the achingly sweet "There Is a Place."

"There is a place between two stars / Somewhere in space that's ours that's yours / we watch the worlds roll by / and never think of dying / there's a place in space that's ours ... / People everywhere are inclined to stare / I have a need for privacy, dear / feel like a sardine and / I don't feel very clean / I'd like a star of my own / There is a place in space for stars ... "

Delays and creative differences dragged the project for five years, and cost untold amounts of money. Phillips's drugged paranoia became too much to deal with. Director Michael Bennett abruptly quit, saying he couldn't work with Phillips any longer; he went on to direct A Chorus Line. The producer Michael Butler, who had a surprising hit with Hair, then followed suit. Then, in final rehearsals, Genevieve Waite, Phillips' third wife, developed laryngitis. Eventually, the musical's sheer excess and constant changes sank the production. Waite went to Andy Warhol in a last-ditch effort for funding. Directed off-Broadway by Paul Morrisey. lacerated by critics, Man on the Moon closed in less than five days.

What's left survives in the form of the original song cycle recorded by Phillips in the studio, songs by Genevieve Waite as Angel and also included in the play, and a few out-takes -- "The Elephants & the Donkeys" is ready to be anyone's protest chant. What's surprising is that the bare-bones music is charming and warm, obviously autobiographical, if a little oddball for either a rock or a Broadway audience. Here's the astronaut, Andy, describing his Marine father: this isn't the Mamas & The Papas by any stretch, as Phillips describes his own family memory.

"Well the service finally cashed my daddy out / they say his heart blew a fuse / so he spent the next twenty years living down in the basement / drinking booze. / He was singing / he had his dogs with him / he had a hell of a time ..."

This contrasts with other songs with lyrics sounding like a space-age Cole Porter, wistful and bittersweet -- "Penthouse of Your Mind," "Yesterday I Left the Earth," "A Myth Amongst the Family of Man." Whether any of these would leave a 21st-century audience whistling as they exit the theater is, well, left for another Broadway backer to discover.

The enhanced CD and liner notes collect every scrap of memorabilia associated with the musical; a full early script, interviews and reviews, black-and-white video footage from rehearsals drawn from the Warhol archives, and cast and party photos from the show's brief run. (Mick, Yoko, Andy and Warren are all there, of course).

What remains of Man on the Moon certainly seems like one of those bygone eras, as they used to say, of a golden age. Is Man on the Moon a lost classic? Not quite. But it's like hearing new stories about a great party you missed: you know you should have been there.

review by
Mark Bromberg

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