Thursday, March 1, 2012

Davy Jones

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.


Guy Gilchrist said...

Brian, that was perfect. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Mark Jackson said...

I was never a Monkees fan - my musical taste went from Top 40 in the 50s to jazz in the 60s to psychedelia in the 70s, missing pop of their period - but Jones' death sent me to his Wikipedia entry, where I learned he collaborated quite a bit with Sandra Boynton. I Did Not Know That.

Sherwood Harrington said...

Excellent tribute, Brian (and I Did Not Know That either, Mark), but those of us just a little older than you are very, very fond of another Prefab Four.

Brian Fies said...

Oh, I'm plenty old for the Rutles. Big fan of Dirk's.

Sherwood Harrington said...

You would go for the cute one.

Jim O'Kane said...

I never understood why The Monkees weren't considered "cool." Like the incredibly "in" show Laugh-In, they had a hit NBC series, they had a custom Dean Jeffries car like The Munsters, and their music was top-notch.

Nesmith was always my favorite Monkee - he had hands-down musical talent, and his post-Monkee years (mom inventing White-Out, Mike inventing music video production companies) seems almost like a collection of urban legends.

To this day, I puzzle over the unusual subgenre of musical acts on sitcoms. Gilligan's Island had its episode with The Mosquitos; F Troop had its Bedbugs; The Munsters featured The Standells on one episode; and Batman hosted Chad & Jeremy (darn that evil Catwoman and her voice-stealing gizmo!). I guess the giant loop-through on this one is Mr Jones's appearance on The Brady Bunch - - which just seemed anachronistic. Davy's heyday was long past by that point, and showing up with the Brady family seemed as odd as Cindy Brady's weird desires for Desi Arnaz, Jr. WTH was THAT all about?

Brian Fies said...

Davy was Marcia's prom date in '71, which I didn't think was ridiculously long after the Monkees' peak. The show was still in widespread reruns then, I think. Regardless, I enjoyed the twist on that episode in 1995's "Brady Bunch Movie." Don't know if you saw it, but the conceit was that the Brady family was still stuck in the '70s while the rest of the world had moved on. New-Marcia invited middle-aged Davy to the prom. None of her teenage peers had any idea who he was, but all their mothers standing on the sidelines went nuts.

A lot of people are linking to Davy's recent work singing a penguin song for a Sandra Boynton book. It's pretty sweet:

sligo said...

Unlike many musicians since 1981 who had a couple of decades of MTV music videos to influence what and 'how' they played (and stood, and snarled, and vamped...), many blossoming young guitarists like myself in the sixties absorbed shows like the Monkees, and Where the Action Is, and Shindig, like parched earth sucks up rain. We were too young to go to clubs (hell, we were barely old enough to stay up past nine o'clock), spent hours by ourselves practicing, and then voila, there were people on TV being what (we thought) we wanted to be, and, because there weren't no such thing as a VCR, every photon from that big ol' tube that showed the fingering patterns of 'real' guitarists was sucked into our collective musician consciousness.

Everything a young musician listens to becomes part of their foundation, and as a sixth grader I was already listening to everything from the Ventures to Henry Mancini (the Peter Gunn riff may be the greatest riff of all time), and my second thought upon hearing of Davy's death, right after saying a brief Buddhist prayer, was that If I had a guitar in my had at that moment I could have played Last Train to Clarksville without hesitation.

Life is trippy, sad, and wonderful.

sligo said...

...that should be 'hand', not 'had'...

Anonymous said...

"The first LP I ever bought was a Monkees album."

If you had not confessed to this, it would have remained properly shrouded by the mists of history.

Brian Fies said...

That's why we shall never speak of "Tommy James and the Shondells."