Like any self-respecting Maritimer, Denny Doherty's modus operandi when telling a story is simple: Never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn.
Sure, there's a fair bit of "concrete fact" served up with Halifax-born Doherty's fanciful evocation of the zany years he spent as one-quarter of the larger-than-life -- and totally dysfunctional -- Sixties folk-rock band the Mamas and the Papas. But one look at this wiry guy with the receding hair, wicked twinkle in his eye, and cranberry-coloured cowboy boots, and you know he's a natural performer, a consummate storyteller, and genetically programmed to dish out memories with a healthy dose of East Coast hyperbole.
Doherty's now 60 -- a father of three, grandfather of two, resident of Mississauga, Ont., whose land backs onto a bird sanctuary. In short, he's light-years removed from the debauched days when he was one of the infamous four who sang the magical harmonies like California Dreamin', along with Papa John Phillips, his wife Michelle, and Mama Cass Elliot, that defined the sound of Flower Power.
Doherty is brutally honest about the self-inflicted ruin of the group, which internally combusted after three short years together in the mid-1960s due to copious drugs, drink and libidinous escapades.
All the dirt, though, just added to the band's mystique. And their lives and legacy (songs like Monday, Monday, Creeque Alley and I Saw Her Again Last Night) are the subject of Doherty's stage show, called Dream a Little Dream: The Nearly True Story of the Mamas and the Papas, which kicks off tonight at Toronto's Isabel Bader Theatre.
To the world at large, the sexagenarian says, the combustible quartet seemed to have it all. But that was the let's-get-cleaned-up-in-time-for- The-Ed-Sullivan-Show version, adds Doherty, who is duded up in a short-sleeve cranberry shirt and matching jeans to go with the boots.
"It was so incredibly fucked up, more than you'd ever believe," grins the man with the dulcet voice, who gave up drinking years ago when his second wife, Jeanette, got pregnant. "Nobody ever wanted to hear anything but the good stuff. The truth is what was going on was pure crap. It was As the World Turns, The Young and the Restless, and Another World, all rolled into one.
"Michelle and I are having an affair, John finds out, and Mama Cass wants me. In the end, no one has what they want, and everyone heads for home. That's the abridged version."
Doherty's an old hand at this play, which he's performed in the Maritimes and in smaller markets in Southern Ontario in the past couple of years. In it, he sings old and new tunes he's written, cracks lots of jokes and chronicles his journey from working-class obscurity in Halifax, to the New York music scene (where he first met Mama Cass), and finally to the hazy days following the breakup of the group until Mama Cass's sudden death.
The point of the play, Doherty says, is to blow up some misconceptions about the group and pay a long-overdue tribute to the importance of Mama Cass, the inspirational force behind the foursome.
"It's not easy to tell the truth because people have too many secrets they don't tell each other," says Doherty. "We're all such two-faced, asshole-liars. That's human nature."
His long-time pal, the playwright Paul Ledoux ( Fire, The Secret Garden) wrote the play after "listening to 700 hours of Denny's outrageous stories," as he puts it. Ledoux says it took some pleading to get Doherty to agree to do the one-man musical (he's on stage with The Dream Band) about his life as a Papa.
"Denny's a natural storyteller. He'd sit around and tell us all these tales, and we'd say you should do something with them. But he never would. When John [Phillips]published his autobiography -- which Denny helped him with because John couldn't remember much -- Denny refused to read it. So we'd torture him by leaving pages open of John's book in the washroom," Ledoux adds. "We'd hear Denny go in to use the john, and then you'd hear this 'Aaargh!' "
Eventually, they wore him down. Ledoux says the show's a hit with audiences -- surprisingly, the 20-something crowd has lapped it up -- because it's funny, nostalgic and real. "It's as if you've got George Carlin on stage, but he can sing like a rock 'n' roll hall-of-famer." Under the slick tutelage of producer Lou Adler, the Mamas and the Papas churned out a succession of harmonies that helped set the sound of an era. Phillips was the creative songwriter, Doherty the voice (you hear him on Monday, Monday), Michelle hit the lilting high notes, and Mama Cass possessed the husky alto around which the whole sound revolved.
Doherty remembers how the four of them happened upon the name of the group. They were all living together in a place in the Hollywood Hills. "It was the highest point in Los Angeles," Doherty jokes, "in more ways than one."
Mama Cass had made duck à l'orange, and they were sitting around drinking, smoking and watching TV, kicking around names like The New Journeymen or The Magic Circle. Suddenly, Cass stopped channel-surfing to watch an interview on The Les Crane Show with a honcho of the Hell's Angels. Crane asked the biker about "their women."
"The guy blathers on for a while," Doherty remembers, "and then he says to Crane, we don't call 'em women, we call 'em, our Mamas." Cass Elliot bolts out of her chair (unsteadily, one may presume) and says, "Yah, that's right. I'm a Mama!" laughs Doherty. "And then Michelle," and his voice rises to mimic a little girl's, "Say, yeh, and I'm a Mama, too."
They christen themselves the Mamas and the Papas. Adler loves it, and asks them how they came up with the name. No one, quite frankly, can remember the details of the night. "We were so wrecked. Gradually, we pieced it all together. It makes a good story," Doherty says with a wink.
The two-hour musical tribute and reminiscence runs from 1940 when Doherty was born in Halifax until July, 1974, when Cass died in a hotel room in London. It still drives Doherty nuts to hear people pontificate about how the weight-challenged songstress choked to death on a ham sandwich.
"She was born Ellen Naomi Cohen," says Doherty, his good humour gone for an instant. "She was a fat little Jewish girl from Alexandria, Va. She didn't die from eating a ham sandwich. She was a Jew," he snorts. "She didn't eat ham, for Chrissakes!"
In their heyday, The Mamas and The Papas were one of the biggest bands in rock 'n' roll, with nine top-40 hits (six reached the top five) and five albums. When they were rolling in adulation and dough, Doherty bought a mansion atop Laurel Canyon for $55,000 (U.S.) It was Mary Astor's old place, and was filled with Chippendale, and priceless Ming screens. He had three English sheepdogs (including a dotty one that Mama Cass returned to him after it ate the inside of her car, which she called Harold the Bleak).
They were heady, wacky times, says Doherty, that crumbled under the strain of Doherty's affair with Michelle and copious quantities of booze and drugs. Around 1968, the group split, and Doherty sold his mansion -- priceless antiques and all -- for $2.5-million. He moved to New York, met Jeanette, and eventually signed up to perform in Phillip's screenplay of Man on the Moon for Andy Warhol's factory theatre. He remembers Warhol as a shrewd businessman.
"I remember going to Andy's factory and there'd be all these people sitting on the floor painting coke bottles in silver, that would sell for $5,000 a pop," says Doherty, shaking his head. "Then Andy'd walk over to these massive canvases of Marilyn Monroe or Clark Gable, and put a dab of paint here, a dab of paint there. Hand the palette to one of his minions. And then do another dab here. Another dab there. Then he'd leave and someone else would colour in the blank space on the canvas," Doherty adds.
"He'd touched it, so therefore it was a Warhol. He was a frickin' genius. He had a licence to print money and he knew it."
Not long after the Warhol production closed (after five performances), Doherty and Jeanette packed their bags and headed for Halifax, where Doherty had bought his parents' old house. He was the youngest of five kids and grew up in Halifax's north end in a staunch Catholic household. His dad worked in a dockyard by day, and drank the rest of the time. "I remember my older sister telling Jeanette, 'Denny isn't from a broken home,' " he says with a self-deprecating chuckle. " 'It's just kind of fractured.' "
Doherty easily slipped back into a laid-back Maritime routine. The group got back together for a stint in the early 1970s (they had to fulfill some nagging contract requirements) and various members teamed up sporadically over the next 15 to 20 years. (Doherty put out a record in 1974 called Waiting for a Song on which Cass Elliot and Michelle Phillips sang backup vocals). Doherty did some television and stage work, including hosting Denny's Show for CBC and landing the lead in Ledoux's North Mountain Breakdown as well as many roles at Halifax's Neptune Theatre.
These days, Doherty is best known as the affable harbourmaster in the hit children's show, Theodore Tugboat, broadcast on CBC-TV, PBS and in more than 90 other countries.
The past year, in some ways, was an emotional watershed for Doherty. The band's perennial Golden State anthem California Dreamin' was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. And in April, John Phillips, who had a liver transplant in 1992, died of heart failure at age 65.
"His dying took a long time," says Doherty. "I remember being in the hospital with him when he went in for his liver. The guy's on a gurney and he's whispering to me, 'This is a curative operation,' " (He does an impression of Phillips croaking out the words). "I said, 'You bastard, you're setting yourself up for your first drink aren't you?' He was incurable."
His life now, Doherty says, is fulfilling and much more balanced. He lives near the waterfront in a low-key bungalow with his two kids, 19 and 20. (Jeanette died of cancer a few years ago).
And his live show -- if it's anything like his stories -- should be wickedly funny. At the very least, it will offer a peek into a raucous world of sex, drugs and folk-rock that has all but disappeared in this era of made-to-order, terribly cute boys' and girls' bands.
Is he happy -- living in the shadow of his own success? You bet. "Like my old man would say, 'It beats the hell out of digging postholes.' "
Dream a Little Dream and the Dream Band plays in Toronto at the Isabel Bader Theatre until Aug. 4.