Somewhere, buried in a drawer or packing trunk, along with NASA pictures of the Apollo program, I have a postcard from the Monkees.
From their fan club, actually.
The postcard isn’t in color, and it’s not black-and-white. It has this reddish tint, sepia almost.
They are singing and playing, even though in those days, as rumor had it, their instruments were played by others. (Wonder who dubbed Davy’s tambourine? Glen Campbell? Neil Young?)
As revelations go, this postcard does not rank up there with, say, Weiner-gate. Yet I admit some trepidation, realizing that such a public confession precludes my hoping for another date with anyone born after the Johnson administration.
Still, the back story is important for purposes of reviewing the Monkees in Morristown on June 9.
Everyone in there had a Monkees story. Here is mine.
First, it’s essential to realize that reality has very little to do with any of this. Entertainment is about fantasy and illusion and escapism.
The Monkees began as the “prefab four,” a made-for-TV knockoff of the Fab Four, a real-life band.
“Whatever happened to those guys?” Micky Dolenz wisecracked about the Beatles, before launching into Randy Scouse Git, a song he wrote after partying with England’s “other Royal Family.”
From 1966 to 1968, the Monkees beamed into America’s living rooms every week as a musical sitcom. They were on lunchboxes. They were on the radio. One of their albums supposedly charted longer than any Beatles record in the ’60s.
(Every group from that era boasts of outselling the Beatles for 20 minutes…which raises the question: When, exactly, did the Liverpudlians sell all those gazillions of records?)
In our family, the Beatles always will be number one. They were so different that even a kindergartner got hooked– bad news for neighbors forced to endure the little twerp banging on a backyard trash can wailing I Want to Hold Your Hand.
That 45 single (a distant ancestor of the MP3, kids), with its potent flip side, I Saw Her Standing There, joined Peter & the Wolf, The Singing Nun, Mary Poppins and Petula Clark’s Downtown on what must rank among the strangest playlists of all time.
These records blared endlessly from a crude stereo with a cast-iron business end that practically showered sparks from the vinyl. Many thousands of dollars of audio gear later, I can honestly say nothing ever sounded as good.
The challenging thing about the Beatles was their remoteness. Scarcity was part of their marketing campaign. Concerts ran 20 minutes. In the days before e-blasts and social media, a little kid was lucky to find out about a TV appearance. If you missed the broadcast, that was it. No YouTube replays. There was a cheesy Saturday morning cartoon series. Otherwise, access amounted to scanning the magazine racks, spinning the bedside AM dial as long as you could stay awake, and cajoling your grandmother to take you to each year’s Beatles movie. (R.I.P., Grandma. We’ll always have ‘Help!’)
The Monkees were more accessible. Every week, you knew exactly where to find them. They served goofy fun and catchy songs written by pros like Neil Diamond, Carole King, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, and later, by the Monkees themselves:
(Theme from) The Monkees…Last Train to Clarksville…Pleasant Valley Sunday…I’m a Believer…(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone…Daydream Believer…Mary, Mary…She…For Pete’s Sake…The Girl that I Knew Somewhere… Papa Gene’s Blues…I Wanna Be Free…
These songs, and many more, formed much of the soundtrack of my youth. They drove me and my siblings into a cave-like duplex basement in Winchester, Mass., for “concerts” with plastic guitars, bongos and wheezy organs. Thank God there were no Flip Cams.
At the Mayo on Thursday, the audience heard reasonable facsimiles of all those Monkees tunes with the help of a seven-piece backing band that assisted Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork and Davy Jones with the high notes.
Here is where we get to the illusion part. And it’s almost as odd as Head, the Monkees’ trippy film with Jack Nicholson that virtually nobody (including me) has ever seen in its entirety.
Strictly speaking, the trio on stage was not the Monkees.
The original group was a quartet. Michael Nesmith has been AWOL for a long time.
(Playing banjo, Peter Tork sang Michael’s What Am I Doing Hanging Round? Curiously, Peter sounded more like his former band mate–and at times, like Ringo Starr–than like the Peter Tork of yesteryear. One exception was on Your Auntie Grizelda, which still channels my inner second-grader.)
All that TV camaraderie flashing onscreen throughout the concert? Hollywood, baby.
Critics can debate the Monkees’ artistic legacy. When it comes to dysfunctional musical families, the Monkees rank with the legendary acts of rock and roll.
Mathematicians may know how many combinations are possible with four people; the Monkees seem to have gone exponential. On their 45th anniversary tour, they appear to have made peace after many years of sniping at each other in between gigs at stadiums and high school gyms.
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My first reality check came in the early ’80s, as a cub reporter for a small newspaper in Paterson.
I was excited–and nervous–about scoring an interview with Peter Tork. For better or worse, people used to say I looked like Peter. I figured my story about the fan club postcard would amuse him.
It did not.
To put things in perspective, the Monkees’ heyday already was a long way in the rear-view mirror at that point. The Go-Go’s, who brought their nostalgia act to the Mayo earlier this month, were just starting their careers.
Peter, who was launching a new band, called his agent and snarled: What the hell am I doing here with some kid from Paterson, N.J.?
Fast forward to somewhere near the turn of the new millennium. Three of the Monkees were playing Vegas. House of Blues, if memory serves.
What that show lacked were the impressive visuals that were the highlight–and the most unsettling part–of the Morristown concert.
Watching clips of four Monkees cavorting on screen for two hours, complete with ’60s commercials for Kool-Aid, was like cannon-balling into the Fountain of Youth. Or rather, like dashing through the lawn sprinkler back in Winchester.
It got weird only if you paused to remind yourself that all their television bonhomie was scripted…and a diversion from the fact that the real Monkees on stage were creeping up on 70.
Imagine your grandparents having to compete with their larval forms, preserved in celluloid amber.
Technology has made such spectacles possible. It’s hard to picture Charlie Chaplin, in his golden years, dancing with a larger-than-life projection of his Tramp, as Davy Jones did with his ’60s mop-topped self.
Can you even call a 65-year-old man “Davy”?
Like I said, it’s not about them. It’s about us.