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Davy We Hardly Knew Ye: Why The Monkees Matter

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One time when I was a little girl, I decided to run away. I stormed out of the house and began marching across the football field behind our home, hell-bent on never seeing my parents again, probably for no better reason than they'd told me to clean up my room. I had no idea where I'd go or how I'd survive, but I knew one thing for sure: I was never going back home, no matter what. And I marched on.

But as I reached the end of the field, I looked down at my watch to see how long it had taken me to make the long trek, only to discover to my horror that it was almost time for The Monkees. I had completely forgotten it was Monkees night, and I had about ten minutes to turn around and run all the way back if I wasn't going to miss the opening theme song. I still remember standing there, torn between my desire for liberation and my desire for half an hour with Davy Jones. Runaway or not, I wasn't about to run away from Davy, nor miss an episode of The Monkees.

Years passed, and like most of us, I'd all but forgotten The Monkees as their star faded and twinkled into the nostalgia zone. But when I read that my favorite Monkee, Davy Jones, had died, I felt like my first love had died before I'd even had a chance to meet him. Where had he been all these years, I wondered, suddenly remembering all he'd meant to me, the way one comes across a forgotten favorite shirt or coffee cup and a torrent of memories suddenly returns.

I hadn't, however, completely forgotten about The Monkees. When I put together my Pandora station of Happy Music last year, The Monkees were my second selection, right after the soundtrack to Mary Poppins. The Monkees, were, if anything, happy music and happy times. And I'd had my eye on some of Micky Dolenz's artwork for some time. Micky, it turns out, had picked up a paintbrush in later years and started turning out canvases that look like something Joan Miró would have doodled in science class had he had a sense of mirth. Micky's self-portrait three days after his conception is brilliant, if not a little bit wobbly and primordially erotic. "I must save up for a Monkee painting," I would tell myself every now and again, "the colors are just so damned groovy and after all I lost my Monkees lunch box, what better way to replace it."

Colorful and groovy pretty much describes the Pre-Fab four, as does lunch box and make believe. But to write off The Monkees as many do because they weren't "real" musicians, or weren't "really deep," misses the mark altogether. The Monkees didn't outsell the Beatles because they were great musicians, but because they were excellent entertainers, and more importantly, because they were assessable where the Beatles were not. There was something about the very normalness of The Monkees that made them feel as if we knew them -- the boys next door, as it were -- who we got to see play like silly little boys every Monday evening. They were, seemingly, four ordinary guys pretending to be rock and roll sensations -- and somewhere along the way, that's exactly what they became. The line between fantasy and reality is meaningless once it reaches Hollywood, as Hannah Montana can tell you.

To anyone who doesn't already know, The Monkees began as a concept for a sitcom in the style of The Beatles' Hard Day's Night, four boys in a band who lived in a California beach house and got mixed up in all sorts of misadventures. Of the four actors who were cast, two were professional musicians -- Michael Nesmith, the Liquid Paper heir who showed up for the audition dressed like a schizophrenic in a wool cap with a bag of laundry slung over his shoulders, and Peter Tork, the folk guitarist who landed the role when his friend and look-alike, Stephen Stills, was turned down for having a receding hairline. Micky Dolenz, the class clown, was a child actor born of Hollywood parents, and Davy Jones was the next best thing to Peter Pan, the mischievous elf who was as silly as he was dreamy and best of all, the same size as pre-pubescent girls which made him one of us.

Perhaps the most accurate description of The Monkees -- one which explains their wildly popular appeal -- was summed up by John Lennon who purportedly once described them as the greatest comedic talent since the Marx Brothers, if Wikipedia is to be believed. And that description wasn't far off the mark. The Monkees television series was a cleverly written sitcom featuring psychedelic backdrops, upbeat pop music and first-rate comedy -- ranging from slapstick to satire, a veritable send up to the sixties that turned the counter-culture inside out through the mass merchandising of innocent rebellion.

Yet lest the very thought of mass merchandising of rebellion turn you off, think of these words of Bob Dylan, who said of The Monkees' hit "Last Train to Clarksville" -- about a serviceman going off to war and not knowing if he would return -- "I've always believed that the first rule of being subversive is not to let anybody know you're being subversive." The Pre-Fab foursome were indeed secretly subversive, just as they were innocent rebels who could both rattle and charm as they fought with their producers behind the scenes to make and play their own music while spoofing their own mythical creation through playful displays of their lunacy and lovability. Dressed in Indian bedspreads made into Sgt. Pepper-styled dinner jackets, or wearing matching double-breasted shirts that made them look like singing busboys, they were everybody's favorite garage band, stepping off stage to fumble into one preposterous escapade after another, grinning and giggling every step of the way.

Although one by one each Monkee went his own way, returning every decade or so with the occasional reunion tour or CD, they never had the lasting power of a "real" group. But that failure had far less to do with the talents of The Monkees than it did the audience that sent them soaring -- and then demanded that they remain the same or vanish. We can be so demanding of those we cherish in our drive to hold on to them forever.

Watching Davy Jones' final performance as a Monkee, I was struck by how utterly ridiculous they looked up there, aging men bouncing around the stage like middle-aged teenage idols, and yet how much pure fun they appeared to be having as they danced around singing their la-la-la songs. And that was why we loved The Monkees so much -- they had always been ridiculous, and in watching them they gave us, too, the freedom to be utterly and shamelessly ridiculous.

Yet somewhere along the line of embracing a manufactured pop group, their audience seemed to demand that they remain manufactured -- and grouped. As a group, The Monkees were pure pop, and pure comedy and entertainment. But individually, each came to the group with a unique talent, which their experience with The Monkees all the more developed and refined. Peter York is a skilled blues musician as well as comedic actor, and Michael Nesmith, despite his detached, Where's Waldo thing he had going on in the background, is a sharp businessman and writer. Micky Dolenz, when he isn't directing or painting, is a comedian on par with Red Skelton, while Davy Jones, the adorable heartthrob, was never a great musician, but he was an excellent showman and entertainer with an effervescent wit. Any effort to recreate the illusion of The Monkees was bound to fail, because it wasn't the illusion of the group that made them so effective, but the reality of their individual talents taking hold of that illusion.

Those talents never flourished in the post-sixties entertainment industry because in branding The Monkees as a rock and roll sensation, each actor was branded and frozen in time as well. How much more each had to give, and how much more we had to gain, had we relinquished the group to the sixties and welcomed each of the men to our futures.

For all the idolatry the world gave to Davy Jones, we let him go before we ever had the chance to know him. Like all idols, he was so much more than the fabricated image he -- and we -- created. But he brought us the gift of joy and eternal childhood, the chance to suspend belief and return -- if only for the time it took to watch a sitcom -- to our childhood amusements. And that's why The Monkees matter. Because while we no longer need The Monkees, we will always need the gift of utter joy they gave us.