Thursday, March 1, 2012
Passing of Davy Jones jolts boomers
The loss of Davy Jones hit boomers in the gut. The loss of Whitney Houston was sad but not surprising, given her lifestyle decisions. Houston was much more of a contemporary name. She had a longer prime as a singer.
Singers have a window of fame in which they had better take advantage of all their opportunities. They can become retro in short order.
The window for Jones was narrow and intense. He was part of the four-member group that was launched by television. Getting on a network TV show in those days meant fame. It was the kind of fame where you might have difficulty going out in public.
Jones and his Monkees were delicate young men who got their gig largely because of acting, stage presence and roles/personalities vs. each other. Even today, I think a lot of my generation don't fully realize the Monkees were the face of an entertainment machine that was the best of its time. But they were primarily actors.
This isn't to belittle them at all. I think it's sad they were sort of dragged along in a pretense like this. There was a controversy even at the time. The "rumor" spread that the Monkees "didn't play their own instruments."
I seem to recall a short segment on the show that even addressed this. Let's consider the old saying "the truth loves sunshine." Hindsight is easy in the year 2012.
At the time of their fame, the Monkees, with Michael Nesmith their spokesman as I recall, simply denied the rumor.
"Of course we play our own instruments," I remember the brooding Nesmith saying.
I don't doubt the Monkees had proficiency in music. To star in the show they had to look comfortable with music. But they were not the self-starters the Beatles were. I have to chuckle even asserting that. The Beatles were "the real deal" musically and paid their dues (like in Hamburg) in a well-documented way.
The Monkees were called the "pre-fab four." No one questions they were assembled for the purpose of a TV show. They were part of a music/entertainment machine that was elaborate and top-notch. The four young men were the public face.
It's interesting to ponder an alternate history. What if the Monkees had been more comfortable going along with this sort-of ruse? What if they had been more up-front about their role in the enterprise? They could have said "we love music, we play music but we get lots of help in the creation and recording of our songs."
The role of simply acting was not to be slighted. The Monkees needed all parts of the machine humming to become the phenomenon they were. The on-air personalities, image and acting skills were indispensable.
But, you might ask, wouldn't the Monkees be "outed" if they went on the road, where any talent deficiencies would be readily exposed? The four young men could have had some of that high-powered musical talent augment them onstage. Their audiences were largely obsessed teenage girls who wanted to see them onstage. The girls wanted to see Davy most of all.
Davy was a real singer. I don't doubt it was his voice in the studio for some of the group's big hits. As for all the other sounds, I'm not totally convinced the "real" Monkees generated them in the studio.
You think it's easy recording successful pop music? Just because the music seems "lowbrow" or explores base emotions and feelings, do you really think it's no sweat to "lay down the grooves" on records?
We were often told, or got the impression in high school band, that "pop" music was the candy of music with mere empty calories. I can think of no bigger fallacy. The kind of music created for the Monkees required the most disciplined and well-honed craftsmanship. It required songwriters who built their skills writing hundreds of songs until they finally gained proficiency. And even after paying those dues there's no guarantee of success.
It's ironic that pop songs that seem so simple with their melody and lyrics can require such intense craftsmanship, but they do. Music educators should have known better than to belittle the field. Ordinary human defensiveness, I would say.
Hearing of Davy Jones' sudden death causes boomers to feel affection about this group that burst to the forefront. I think a part of us feels a little disturbed too. The Monkees had the peak of their meteoric rise in 1967. It was at the peak of the tumult that consumed the U.S. at that time. The "generation gap" was a most unpleasant clash of values.
Remember when we associated Lawrence Welk with our narrow and "uptight" parents? But Welk and his old-school music did in fact have a grip on much of America. The Monkees were antithetical. The Monkees were ahead of their time, you might say. The show just seemed too uninhibited, loose and irrelevant to a lot of people. Of course, the show was all of those things, delighting a generation that wanted to shake off inhibitions.
Whatever lack of discipline the show had, actually got worse toward the end. The show seemed to deteriorate. In the delicate world of pop music entertainment, the Monkees faltered, flamed out and were headed for "retro" popularity. I think it's really a shame.
The Monkees were a gravy train that could have, and should have, continued. The Monkees seemed miffed they weren't appreciated as "true" artists. What misplaced pride and ego. They knew they were nothing like the Beatles. They knew they were the carefully chosen public face of a dynamic music and entertainment machine. There was absolutely nothing demeaning about accepting that role. They were an essential cog.
Being a public face is a big responsibility. They could have delicately navigated through that controversy about (not) being "the real deal" musically.
"We are musicians but we get lots of help," they could have said. "We are happy to perform on a television show that entertains so many people."
This is how the corporate minds of today would handle it. But those were different times. Young entertainers then weren't as carefully managed, groomed and protected from all the outside dangers that obviously come with fame. Today, Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift and others appear to have that protection, like from the abuse of drugs.
The artists were left more to themselves in the 1960s, artists like Jim Morrison whose behavior almost seemed to suggest mental illness. I would say Morrison was an extremely gifted artist who crashed and burned because of fame.
If only the Monkees would have been "kept in line," guided in their roles with no issues about self-esteem. If only they had better grasped their roles in this incredible gravy train. They became a little snotty and self-absorbed. They found that trying to assert their own talent caused them to fade from the top of the heap. They shouldn't have been surprised.
They could have had a longer "run" and then departed from the limelight more gracefully. But the '60s were turbulent and transitional times, times that had lots of sad endings, like for the families of the Viet Nam War casualties. The year 1967 was the peak of the Viet Nam tragedy. The young people of today can't possibly imagine what it was like growing up in such a time, when conscription was an awful specter hanging over young U.S. males.
The year 1967 saw countless young females fawn over Davy Jones and the Monkees. OK the males were fans too. I professed to be a fan of Peter Tork like a classmate of mine, LeRoy Vodden. Tork like Nesmith was more of a brooding artist, less of a simple heartthrob. I hope LeRoy and I can be complimented on our tastes.
A female classmate of mine with the initials N.H. was absolutely ga-ga about Davy. She's no doubt grieving now. We can all grieve about Davy who appeared to die a totally normal death due to the advancement of age.
The Monkees were performers, albeit not top-notch musicians, who are etched into our consciousness all these years later.
We reacted with a jolt hearing about Jones' death. It seemed more personal than hearing about Whitney Houston. The Monkees were "pre-fab" but we have no trouble accepting them as genuine now.
Davy Jones, RIP. You were a "daydream believer."
- Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - firstname.lastname@example.org