I don't have a lot to say about the death of Davy Jones but couldn't let it passed unmarked, partly because it hit me a bit harder than I might have expected. As sad as it is to lose Mr. Jones, I'm sure much of what I'm mourning is my own lost youth. The first LP I ever bought was a Monkees album. I loved their television show, which holds up pretty well to my modern middle-aged eyes. It's creaky and painfully forced in parts, and OH! that awful laugh track, but you can't deny the boys' anarchic joie de vivre.
For years--decades!--liking the Monkees was uncool. A shameful secret best kept to yourself or whispered among furtive fellow travelers. They weren't a real band, just some casting-call wannabes assembled by TV producers. The "Pre-Fab Four," an artificially engineered knock-off of The Beatles. That's broadly true--and, in my mind, just put the Monkees about 30 years ahead of their time. Backstreet Boys? N'Synch? Davy was already a hit in the Broadway musical "Oliver." Monkee Mike Nesmith was a genuine folk-rock talent, writing the song "Different Drum" that Linda Ronstadt made famous. They had skills.
Critics complained that they didn't play their own instruments. Studio musicians did do most of the work on their first couple of albums, but the Monkees could play and did for later records and concerts. Even if true, so what? Half the bands in history, including the most artistically respected, relied on hired hands. Rap artists don't play instruments at all. By all accounts, the Beatles themselves liked the Monkees and considered them legit.
Plus, they pretty much invented music videos. That's a key reason for the group's rediscovery in the 1980s: MTV had a lot of broadcast hours to fill and, at the time, not a big library to draw upon. The Monkees had two years of bits like the one above all ready to go. Voila: retro-hip Monkee Renaissance.
The Monkees also had some of the best songwriters of the day composing for them: Neil Diamond, Harry Nilsson, Gerry Goffen and Carole King, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. It's interesting; the Monkees song I hear most often on the radio today is one that wasn't a hit in the Sixties, King's sarcastic suburban portrait "Pleasant Valley Sunday." Who knew?
Part of the Monkees' disrepute is wrapped up in the historical disrespect for Pop Music in general. Who's cooler, Neil Diamond or Jimi Hendrix (who briefly opened for the Monkees on tour, until everyone realized what a train wreck that was)? Yet over time people grew to realize that even Pop could be done well or poorly, that good Pop had value, and the Monkees made good Pop. To the surprise of many, even some of us who were fans, their work has stood the test of time.
The Monkees TV show only aired for two seasons. The band survived a while longer, as its members grew more creatively assertive (and, it has to be said, less commercially successful as they did so). In 1968 they starred in the movie "Head," which I've never seen. Co-produced and -written by Jack Nicholson (yeah, that one), it's reportedly a psychedelic stream-of-consciousness disaster deliberately meant to deconstruct the Monkees phenomenon--its artificiality, the hit-making apparatus, the teen heart-throb machine, all of it. Someday I've got to watch this thing. Sounds like it could be more relevant now than ever.
Meanwhile, "Head" provides the clip below of Davy singing Harry Nilsson's "Daddy's Song," just a song-and-dance man doing what he did best. He was born in 1945, making him about 22 when he shot this scene. So young. You may be able to watch it without smiling, but I couldn't.
One of the benefits of losing your youth is not worrying whether anyone thinks you're cool.