Wednesday, February 29, 2012

February 29th, the strangest of all days, the once in only four years day......
The day that Davy Jones died.

My blog has sat, patiently waiting, since late in 2010, untouched in the incredible busyness of a life that seems to grow more complicated with each passing day, and which finds an older, grayer, somehow infinitely tireder me looking back out of the mirror. I'd been planning for several weeks to write a new entry, to blow off the dust and cobwebs of fifteen more months of life, but I never seemed to quite get around to it.

Until today. When I'd heard that Davy Jones had died. My wife, Alison, had shared the news with me as we sat eating dinner on TV trays, like some couple in 1966, me drained dry from a ridiculous day at work, she soft-spoken and almost ethereal in a mood of quiet reflection. She told me that she had cried sitting in her office when she heard the news this afternoon. And with good reason.

Alison, like me, was a shy, introverted kid who found solace in books and old movies and those wonderful, innocent TV shows of the Sixties that we watched on fuzzy UHF stations like old Channel 45 out of Baltimore, in a distant world circa 1973 when we could be citizens of our own little realms via black and white portable television sets and scratchy old 33 rpm albums. And to Alison, the daughter of deaf parents and the elder sibling to a hearing sister, there was no greater world to slip effortlessly into than that of The Monkees.

When we first began to date, one of the most compelling things she shared with me was how much The Monkees had meant to her as a little girl, and how she had felt some kind of kinship with them at a time in her life when friends and sympathetic allies were a scarce commodity. For the little girl in a strangely lonely world, the madcap antics of the crazy boys who sang and seemed to find fun in every facet of life were like an elixir.

I, too watched The Monkees on many a Saturday morning in the early 1970's, when the show was out of production barely five years but seemed somehow to still be fresh. But the seeds had been planted long before then. My mother still recounts how I sat in my high chair in 1967 while my brother played the 45 of I'm A Believer and how I jumped excitedly up and down, singing along as "I'm a Beaver". In my long musical meanderings that have followed, there's still something deeply ingrained about hearing that song at such an incredibly young age. When I hear it today, just as the electric keyboard solo starts in the middle of the song, I'm inevitably pulled back into that vanished time.

But, interestingly enough, it wasn't until many years later that I really understood the full musical impact of The Monkees. It was The Beatles who became my biggest musical influence as a kid, and I grew up listening to the old Capitol Records albums Meet The Beatles and Something New that my older brother, Wayne, had bought when they were newly released, when I was still a year away from being born. As I got older, I bought Magical Mystery Tour and The White Album, and the long-lost Love Songs compilation. And as I struggled to follow in my brother's footsteps learning to play guitar, it was the music of The Beatles I digested with an insatiable craving.

And so, the legitimacy of The Monkees as a huge, defining musical force didn't really register with me until I was in my 20's. The story was well publicized of how the group, assembled expressly for the TV sitcom that bore their name, were initially intended to capitalize on the success of The Beatles in A Hard Day's Night, and that The Monkees didn't even play their own instruments on their debut and sophomore albums. The deeper truth of the story was that Don Kirshner, secured by NBC as the musical producer for the series, ruled their early recording sessions with an iron hand, until, under the rallying cry of Monkee Michael Nesmith, the group petitioned for creative control and handsomely won it.

The first recording following their liberation was an album that is now rightly viewed as a seminal 1960's musical landmark, Headquarters. The first album on which the group played their own instruments and provided original compositions, this 1967 effort carries the unique distinction of being the album that was knocked out of the #1 Billboard chart position by none other than The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper. But The Monkees continued to hold their own unique niche in popular music, due largely in part to the fact that they maintained a powerful live presence touring the US and Canada beginning in Hawaii in December 1966, four months after The Beatles played their last concert together at Candlestick Park. Their live appearances were routinely an hour in length and incorporated rear-projection imagery. They toured throughout '67 and '68, appearing the last time as a foursome in November, 1968 in Australia, New Zealand, and Japan.

Peter Tork announced his departure from the group shortly after the conclusion of the fall, '68 tour. Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith, and Micky Dolenz soldiered on, refining their sound to incorporate more elements of country (Nesmith), Broadway rock (Jones), and R&B (Dolenz). After a 1969 summer tour backed by Sam and The Goodtimers, Nesmith departed, and the first half of 1970 saw Dolenz and Jones carrying on as a duo before calling it quits. As the 1970's music scene found the four band members struggling to find their independent identities, it was Davy Jones who remained the charming, ever popular teen idol. A few hit singles here and there, a famous appearance on The Brady Bunch, and then little was heard of Jones (or his compatriots) until MTV resurrected the series on it's 20th anniversary in 1986.

But Alison, and millions of other Monkees' fans, never stopped hoping that the prophetic last line of the theme song from their TV show would come true--"we might be coming to your town". Alison had told me, from the earliest days of our relationship, that she wanted with all her heart to meet The Monkees some day, and to let them know how much they had meant to a shy, isolated girl who always found something to smile about when she watched the crazy boys who sang and goofed and somehow made everything all right. And then, in October of 2008, her dream came (partially) true when we got to see Davy Jones live at the Ram's Head Tavern in Annapolis, right around the corner from where we were married. In that small, intimate setting, Davy put on a powerhouse show, and sang all the old songs, and twisted and danced like he was still that 21 year-old kid from ages ago.

When the show ended, Alison and I found ourselves at the end of a seemingly infinite line, mainly late 40-ish women, standing in a frustratingly narrow hallway that ran through the adjacent restaurant, waiting with as much patience as possible to get Davy's autograph. The tavern management had announced that he was not taking photos and the line was herded onward to where he sat inside a small box office, behind a barred window. We finally got there and Alison shook his hand while I slid the booklet from the CD of Headquarters toward him to autograph. His eyes were incredibly youthful and his smile was dripping with all the charm of the lad we'd grown up watching on the series, but he seemed tired and drained. Thirty seconds later we were out in the crisp air of the October evening and ambling down the darkened walks of Annapolis.

But the final, most perfect fruition of Alison's dream occurred in June of 2011. To my absolute amazement, a notice on the Rhino Records website announced the 45th anniversary tour of The Monkees. True to form, Michael Nesmith would not be joining them (he very rarely participated in reunion concerts or tours), but Davy, Peter, and Micky would be appearing with an astonishing set spanning The Monkees' entire career. The closest tour date to our home turned out to be the Hershey Theatre in Hershey, PA, and Alison, my stepson, Jordan, and I made the trek to what I knew was literally a once in a lifetime opportunity. We sat there in the sold out theatre in the sub-lighting before the show, a huge laser projection of The Monkees' guitar logo above the stage.

There sat Peter Tork's banjo on a stand, and Micky Dolenz's drum kit emblazoned with DRUM across the bass head, just as it had appeared during the Circle Sky sequence in the group's psychedelic movie Head. When they finally came onstage, the crowd went wild. Although Mike Nesmith was not in attendance, his spirit infused the musical efforts of his band mates, and an endless montage of stills and filmclips of the group from their prime spilled across a gigantic screen behind them as they ran through their catalog. Not just the hits were represented, but some of their most definitive album work, including epic tracks from Headquarters, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, & Jones, Ltd., and Head.

Their voices were incredible, and they dazzled the crowd with their versatile musicianship as well. Backed by a top-tier band, Dolenz played drums (including a powerful timpani line in Randy Scouse Git), Jones played acoustic guitar, and Tork demonstrated his prowess on electric guitar, banjo, keyboards, and French horn. Throughout, their banter was hilarious and occasionally touching. At one point, Peter Tork pointed out a girl in the audience, no older than 25, with long blond dreadlocks. "A Monkees' fan with dreadlocks," he mused, thoughtfully. "Sometimes life is so full."

And Davy Jones, as ever before, was the show stopper. He danced like a younger version of himself, and even danced with a younger version of himself. While a film clip of the Daddy's Song number was projected behind him showing Davy of 1968 dancing from the movie Head, the Davy of 2011 was dancing live out front, mirroring the moves of his youthful self with unerring accuracy. But the most incredible moment came when Jones launched into his definitive vocal performance from The Monkees--Daydream Believer.

"Our good times start and end, without dollar one to spend, but what else baby do we really need?"

Before we knew it, the concert was over. They came out for an encore, and when they left the stage the very last time, Davy, Micky, and Peter walked off arm in arm, swinging their legs side to side with each extended step, in perfect tribute to the "Monkees walk" shown in the opening montage during the credits of their TV show. Then they were gone, and somehow, so was our childhood.

But The Monkees, and Davy, aren't going anywhere. The series is still as fresh to watch in 2012 as it was when first seen on tiny screens a half century ago. And the music, which means more to me now than ever before, is timeless. I firmly believe that the two pivotal albums of the 1960's are Headquarters and The Beatles' Rubber Soul.

Nobody makes music quite like that anymore.

So much of what I hear today strikes me as either cookie cutter production where everything sounds like everything else, or incredibly dismal and ugly. It's next to impossible to find new music today that has the life and zest of The Monkees' classic tracks. The music was gentle, and young, and fun, and to hear it today is to remember a world when you could imagine that the four fellows really did share a grungy apartment together, and drift from adventure to adventure, always joking and smiling, and always singing that amazing music that spoke of a young generation that, in the group's own words, had something to say. It means the world to me that my 18-year old stepson got to see them in concert with Alison and me, on the last tour they will ever take. Music should always strike emotions in the listener, and always infuse something that plays in the heart after the last notes have faded. The music of Davy Jones and The Monkees will never cease to do that.

What else, baby do we really need?