California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before the Mamas & the Papas by Penelope Bagieu
Many of my friends remember their Boomer parents introducing them to the music of the ’60s and ’70s. The sounds of your parents’ teenagehood, and in this pick for ladies’ comic book club, some women had those memories of their parents playing Cass Elliot’s voice over and over.
I didn’t grow up like that. In my parents’ cars, there were two types of music: country and western. When I started reading this graphic novel, I went to Spotify because I was sure I’d heard the Mamas & the Papas, but I couldn’t even hum their infamous “California Dreamin'” without a prompt. I knew nothing of Cass Elliot or the band’s inner drama before immersing myself into this book.
This graphic novel is written for Cass Elliot fans. I couldn’t quite tell if the intended audience is those who love her music and want to know a little more about her to get a taste. Or, if this was supposed to be what you read after you devoured a huge biography on her.
California Dreamin’, the graphic novel, features about a Wikipedia article amount of actual facts and figures about Cass, and ends when she’s 24, which is an odd choice. The story itself never gets in-depth into what Cass is really thinking and feeling. In fact, the book’s structure avoids Cass’ mind as much as possible.
Bagieu structures the novel into chapters that focus on different “characters” in Cass’ life. We get snippets from Cass’ sister, father, bandmates, friends, boyfriends, fans, etc., but only the very last chapter is from Cass’ own point-of-view. Bagieu both makes up conversations between real people and avoids going to deep, as if she’s trying too hard to keep to what really happened. The deepest insight we get is from Michelle (the other Mama) who says that Cass has a hard time making female friends. Bagieu cites Michelle’s autobiography as a source and no doubt that line comes from there.
One of the things Cass is most famous for is fighting for her right to be in a popular band and be fat. But Bagieu struggles to show the line Cass must walk and where she did cave into pressure and where she stood up. There’s an early scene where Cass (and the rest of her band) refuse to sign a record deal when an executive insists that a fat woman cannot front or be in a band. Bagieu hints at Cass trying some diets, but Cass died of heart failure at 32. You don’t get that type of heart damage without drug use and namely yo-yo diets. Which in the era Cass lived, there were incredibly dangerous drugs that women across the US took and combined with ridiculously unhealthy diets to try to lose weight. I think you can tell the story of both a woman who was proud of her body, but also struggled with self-esteem and outside pressures.
It also was incredibly weird that the book ended on Cass’ 24th birthday. The Mamas & the Papas had just gotten famous, and Cass had just found out that her bandmate Denny was not in love with her. Instead, both of the men in the band were in love with Michelle. (I’m so thankful that there was no catfighting, and Michelle always seemed to try to be Cass’ friend.)
Cass didn’t have a long life, which is why the book seems foreshortened. Bagieu tries to wrap the end to mirror the beginning too neatly. The first chapter starts off with fans praising Cass and how much they love her. The end has a heartbroken Cass being drove away on a highway in California by Denny, while she’s crying, and they listen to those fans on the radio talking about how much they love Cass.
For all the story’s problems, I did really enjoy Bagieu’s art. Her sketchy style reminds me a lot of Kate Beaton, who I adore. Bagieu does a great job at showing Cass as someone who when singing attracts everyone’s love, and showing Cass at the girl with the big personality.
As this story covers many decades and changing styles in American culture, Bagieu always keeps her characters up-to-date with their fashions. Cass’ unique dresses change all the time, and even the men’s facial hair morphs with what’s hip. And no doubt, given Bagieu’s dedication to the historical events, what they actually looked like during that time.
My favorite scenes are the humorous ones where Bagieu’s storytelling matches her snappy drawings. There’s one where teenager Cass is at her voice teacher’s house, and she’s dancing around. It has an innocence and excitement that bounce off the page.
The second is the scene right after the Mamas & the Papas compose “California Dreamin'” in Cass’ mother’s basement. They are all smoking pot, and Bagieu makes sure to draw huge dilated eyes on Cass and the rest of the gang. Cass’ mother checks on them, and then goes upstairs to wash dishes. She tells Cass’ sister, “I think your sister’s using illicit drugs.” I laughed so hard because the art and the story just flowed so well in that scene. Bagieu didn’t seem held back by telling the correct story, and instead served the story within reason.
However, these moments were few and far between. Overall, I came away still not knowing who Cass Elliot was.