In which the young generation is…still saying something
I had reason to get the Monkees on the brain a couple months ago, so I wrote a post. I’ve had more reason since—reading Mike Nesmith’s autobiography Infinite Tuesday, catching references to them in The Queen’s Gambit—so here I am writing another post. Most of all because I binged their hit TV series (1966-8) start to finish over the holidays and it left me with some THOUGHTS.
To begin at the end, which is to say the beginning: A reputable source reminded me of having seen their experimental suicide-mission film Head ten years ago to the day. I recall the night vividly, the family gathered around the TV. I recall little of the film itself aside from Davy Jones cavorting about to a Harry Nilsson music-hall number. As for the rest of it, I recall feeling that I, for one, was too young for this stuff. Who’s to say how my younger sister felt.
Believe it or not, that was my visual entrée to the Prefab Four. (Yikes.) My context for them had been exclusively aural—the first song I remember hearing was “She,” for reasons later elucidated—and would return to being such throughout high school. I’d even heard the soundtrack to Head by the time I met them onscreen. They sounded like summertime, like my family’s summers in those years, shuttling from graduation party to church choir rehearsal to supermarket, circling the dusty city with its parking lots baking in the sun. Never mind that it was the opposite coast. Their songs, better than anyone’s, evoked the atmosphere: joy for no reason, energy in the midst of nothing. Being born a ‘someday man,’ and porpoises laughing, and where Mary was going to, and stepping stones. The warmth lingers in the sound, despite the distance of time and a new city in the throes of a rare protracted snowfall.
My dad was devoted to the series as a child. Its absence from his own children’s education seems odd in hindsight, but no matter; things slip through the cracks. The music’s effect on me foretold that I would eventually learn for myself just what it was that Head had permitted its participants to escape.
‘Eventually’ arrived during finals week of my sophomore spring, when I discovered a handful of episodes on YouTube. I had spent the semester in a morose mood and was grateful for the pick-me-up. Now—under far removed circumstances, investing quarantine hours in my watchlist—I’ve cherished the chance to revisit the show, this time in full, and examine it through the increasingly nuanced lens they give you the more life you live. (Thanks, lens guys.)
And what a ride. Here is a sampling of my contemporaneous reactions.
- Boy, NBC has come a long way. I fell in love with 30 Rock for its smart writing and pop-historical references and surreptitious teaching moments about cultural touchstones I might otherwise never have heard of. Not the kind of humor you get on The Monkees—but dang if a little slapstick doesn’t take your mind off the bleakness outside.
- Speaking of, I judge the humor of this series to be roughly three-quarters one-liners and physical comedy to one-quarter actual thought-out jokes. Meaning that when those jokes do crop up, they’re real zingers. And physical comedy is difficult, so I can appreciate good execution.
- Pleasantly surprised at the realistic depiction of the band’s struggle with money. However, they don’t appear to be the ‘nobodys’ they’d need to be to justify that struggle, as they go out and are usually recognized by somebody. Just how well-known are they in the MCU (Monkees Cinematic Universe)? But this could be accounted for by the fact that trouble does seem to follow wherever they go. Not a big deal in the end.
- Besides, they could save up if they just moved off the beach. Sounds like a job for the Property Brothers!
- Fun fact: while in L.A. in 2018, I wandered onto Beachwood Drive and it occurred to me that “hey, the Monkees lived here!” So I went looking for the address—in vain, because the street is very long and also the house was a soundstage.
- Even considering the broadly objectionable/offensive mid-‘60s treatment of women and POC, arguably the best line of the whole series belongs to a Black man in the Mexico episode. “If you guys can be Mexican bandits, I can be a Mexican parking lot attendant.” Gold.
- Mike’s concern for his hat is an adorable bit. Making sure it’s still on his head, trimming the poof (like it grows??). You, my friend, can leave your hat on. *wink*
- How many men of Davy’s stature would be viable romantic leads nowadays? This show was open-minded in its way. Though I do love to see Peter get the girl. God rest their chick-magnet souls.
- Come to think of it, you can always rely on a Peter-centric episode to be a strong one.
- Did these guys low-key invent the art of looking into camera? Plenty of shows break the fourth wall, but this one might have had only three to begin with.
- I can’t understand how Mike doesn’t bop to anything. His bandmates groove along during their gigs, and he just stands there. They’re such danceable songs! On the other hand…
- The teenagers ‘dancing’ in these gig scenes…do they…know what dancing is? Have they ever seen dancing? Shouldn’t they have grown up on Fred and Ginger, or Gene Kelly?
- Micky is outrageously talented. His stand-up routine as ‘Locksley Mendoza’ in the talent-show episode had me rolling. (James Cagney should be flattered.) And the vocal range on that boy. Nobody could end “Mary, Mary” the way he does.
- Episode in which the gang help Davy’s latest girlfriend pass her history test: First off, great premise. This reenactment of the Hamilton-Burr conflict featuring Mike as Burr supplies even MORE evidence against Hamilton. That said, they commit multiple violations of the code duello, chiefly that they aren’t standing ten paces apart and there’s no doctor present. #DuelResponsibly
- Delighted to see them perform “Randy Scouse Git”—maybe my first favorite song of theirs. The percussion, particularly the timpani, is outstanding. And though it may be disguised by a wacky whole, “why don’t you cut your hair” is a scathing remark on the inanities they and their friends “the four kings of EMI” endured in the press. This is the essence of Micky as wise fool: keenness and cleverness masquerading as lunacy. (His McCartney-esque scatting is the cherry on top.)
- A couple seasons more and there’d have been an episode called “The Other David Jones” featuring Bowie as guest star(man). But I get why it didn’t last that long. (But a group rendition of “Space Oddity” to round out the half-hour…imagine the ratings!)
- I feel like the Monkeemobile could be fleshed out. Does it do anything special, e.g. transform, like its namesake the Batmobile?
- Love “For Pete’s Sake.” Quite pleased that it was instated as the closing theme. I think Peter was the secret weapon of the bunch: as songwriter, instrumentalist, even actor.
- A word about ‘secret weapons.’ It seems to me the concept has been mangled. Mr. Schue on Glee uses the term to describe Unique, of the rival glee club Vocal Adrenaline; but I see nothing behind-the-scenes about the character leaping pinball machines while belting “Pinball Wizard” (one of the strongest numbers in the whole series, by the way). Misnomer, Mr. Schue! Secret weapons are secret!!!
- God, did I just misdirect to Glee? Even this show is more logical than Glee. And quite possibly more sensitive, taken in historical context. Where was I?
- “Hey Micky, wanna read my palm?” “No, I’ll wait until it gets turned into a movie.” (The brilliance of this delivery is that they’re distracted, on the way to do something else. As if the group dynamic is subconscious. Good stuff when it’s good.)
- Okay, the dancing-school episode is among the ones I saw way back when. If memory serves, Mike became my favorite in the scene where he kisses the secretary. The entire exchange lasts twenty seconds tops, and WOW is it hot. I just about fell over. A romantic subplot is rare for him, as he was married IRL (why do I always go for the married ones), but when he gets that dazed look on his face and murmurs, “Who needs music?” Jeez. I’m gonna take a walk.
- Didn’t realize how tired those same few songs were getting until I reached season two and got a new set of the same few songs. The producers underestimated their viewers’ short-term memory.
- When Micky and Peter go into the saloon in the Texas episode and the prostitute approaches them and Micky stage-whispers, “Not now, it’s a family show.” Ha!
- The fellas do not get enough credit for their harmonies. When they show up, they show up.
- Surprising that an early Randy Newman composition never found its way into their hands, especially when his pal Nilsson was writing for them. Ships passing in the night.
- And as for Nilsson, “Cuddly Toy” is a mean song. The market was glutted with those, but you wouldn’t expect one out of the mouths of these guys. #StopSlutShaming
- SNL was still, what, a decade away? This was the comedy frontier. The future was wide open.
- “What Am I Doing Hangin’ Round” is one of a bizarre and troubling genre of songs—see also Sinatra’s “South of the Border,” and I guess Elton John’s “Grow Some Funk of Your Own”—about men from former colonialist superpowers going to Mexico, seducing women across a language barrier, and then abandoning them. I’d ask how we ever condoned this except that we’ve condoned worse things. Mike on lead vocal is a plus, but I’m relieved he didn’t write it.
- And yet I like the song. Which goes double for the songs Mike did write. They wrap an often cryptic choice of diction in these sonic packages that translate really effectively; they seem very much to come from an approachable human experience. I mentioned his autobiography to a friend the other day and may have gone bright red when I said his name. Am I getting sidetracked again?
- The ballet episode is good! The principal dancer continually refers to Peter’s beautiful face until he becomes simply ‘the Face’ to everyone. As Micky puts it, “Shut up, Face!”
- I’m not accustomed to self-contained episodic shows; I engaged in ‘serious’ TV viewing after the age of season/character arcs was well underway. Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider must have looked at each other and said, “Don’t do that.”
- “He’s not short. Davy, stand up and show ‘em how tall you are.” “I am standing up.” Never gets old.
- “Sometime in the Morning” is a lovely song. Not sure why I didn’t know it sooner. All hail Queen Carole.
- I think I could have a little fun incorporating the Classic Scare into my everyday behavior.
- Anyone else reminded of “Hey, Hey, We’re the Monks” from Galavant? Now there was a show cancelled in its prime. Sigh.
- Davy is my favorite jockey, and Micky is my favorite gangster. Look out, National Velvet and Pacino, respectively.
- “BUZZ OFF, CHARLIE!!!!!” : me, whenever I am interrupted for any reason
- These four excel at ‘yes, and.’ They each use their talents to bring out the best in one another. Giving improv a good name.
- I wonder if, to outside observers of Earth, the villains in our lives are as plain as the villains in this show and we’re too stupid to recognize them.
- So my attraction to Mike evidently transcends gender presentation: he makes a great princess. What is this, Into the Woods? Or, in all likelihood, closer to Twelfth Night?
- On the selfsame subject, both Micky and Peter make unsettlingly convincing women.
- In the circus episode, Micky keeps explaining that he’s humming an old TV theme and no one gets the reference—do I know that feel…
- Re: casual misogyny, the salt in the wound is that we’re frequently set up to expect more of the girls we see. The biker gang invites a promising ‘battle of the sexes’-type situation, until their boyfriends turn up to win them back and it devolves into an outdated masculinity contest. Or the girl band who tie with them in the talent show, only to be relegated to their backup dancers during the final number. Would a duet really be too much to ask?!
- Circus episode again: Peter suggests they “snick” in, and the others go, “it’s not snick, man, it’s sneak, what’s wrong with you?” Cracked me up. Pronunciation disputes will never not be funny.
- It is amazing to me that the producers selected a quartet of guys out of all the guys in the world and HALF of them have the SAME BIRTHDAY. Albeit three years apart. (Hence Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones—because Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Nesmith doesn’t have the same ring to it.)
- All right, if I hear “Last Train to Clarksville” one more time I’m getting on a train and disappearing.
- “OH look at that garage door!” #DigUglyThings
- If and when I live with friends, I’m absolutely getting a gavel and calling house meetings. Just to spice things up.
- Where do I invest in the New Tork Stock Exchange?? Shut up and take my money!
- Was rock-paper-scissors not a thing in the ‘60s? Did everyone really go around saying “one, two, three, shoot”? Talk about the dark ages.
- In the episode where the four of them are supposed to be fighting over Julie Newmar, I don’t buy that any of them are in love. I think they go all in on painting murals and riding motorcycles and scaling telephone poles for lack of anything better to do. They’re like, *shrug* might as well.
- Moral of most of these stories: do not attempt to help someone unless they explicitly ask for your help!!
- I first heard “The Door Into Summer” in college. I liked it straightaway and have never cooled on it. It’s so harmonically satisfying…I can’t explain.
- Ah yes, the grand entrance of the Moog synthesizer. The brothers Wilson broke out the theremin and it was all downhill from there.
- Mike has several unexpectedly moving moments. The episode where he runs for mayor and goes on TV to resign because he realizes his campaign has been compromised. The episode where he asks their accidental tenant Millie (a charming Rose Marie) to make him a success. The end of the excellent episode “The Devil and Peter Tork” where he gives a speech to the Devil himself about the power of love and how Peter has always had it in him to play the harp. So sincere and vulnerable—man, I did not sign up to have my heartstrings tugged this way! You’re killing me, Nez.
- I sang “Riu Chiu” when I was sixteen, and boy am I glad it’s got its due from Hollywood. A very underrated Christmas carol. They nail it.
- Among other indicators of a shoestring budget—ahem recycled performance montages—they run at least a minute short half the time?? But it’s for the best; the interview segments are gems. “I’m the ugliest!” “Okay, I lose!”
- And it’s so cute how shy Micky is in the interviews. I would have anticipated him to be outgoing. I suppose it was a gradual drawing out.
- This episode where they’re being chased half-heartedly across Paris by some girls who have only kind of heard of them? STILL makes more sense than Emily in Paris.
- Honestly, I relate most to Davy at the end of the day, what with his show-biz background and—would you look at that, I’m about his height, which is not short for girls like it is for guys. Love you, man. You deserved better than Oliver. But I won’t get into that here.
- Respect for Jack Williams, on- and off-screen MVP. “I may be the properties manager to you, but to 20 million teenagers [points into camera] I’m the customs man.” There’s someone who knows his worth.
- “Hey—uh, ma’am, I—I can’t see with the hat—hey LADY WITH THE HAT!” Takes one to know one, Mike, takes one to know one…
- Surely I’m not the first to have noticed the peculiar time signature of “Love is Only Sleeping.” 7/8 on the verse, to be exact. Kudos to Cynthia Weill and Barry Mann for sneaking—snicking?—it in. (Meanwhile I could well be the last to work out the implication of the title…)
- Can’t stop thinking about the interview Peter did a decade after the fact, where he looked like a rugged mountain man and elaborated on how capitalism breeds aggression and the path to lasting peace is via socialism. If we were going to put a former actor in the White House, it should have been this guy. I wouldn’t have minded being marooned somewhere with him.
- Bob and Bert may have been inspired by A Hard Day’s Night, but by the time they got the show off the ground it was emitting Help! vibes—and by the end listing toward Magical Mystery Tour…
- You know what they say: behind every great act is a great mentor, even if he’s a dummy. (Who you callin’ a dummy?!)
- So…has the Texas prairie chicken been saved? What’s our status on that?
- Now, whenever I suspect I’ve misplaced something, I turn to an imaginary camera and exclaim, “IT’S GONE!”
Image: from S1 E17, “The Case of the Missing Monkee” (that being Peter, of course). A quality shot of them all—Davy looks like a matinee idol.