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THE EVERLASTING FIRST: The Monkees

Continuing a look back at my first exposure to a number of rock ‘n’ roll acts and superheroes (or other denizens of print or periodical publication), some of which were passing fancies, and some of which I went on to kinda like. They say you never forget your first time; that may be true, but it’s the subsequent visits–the second time, the fourth time, the twentieth time, the hundredth time–that define our relationships with the things we cherish. Ultimately, the first meeting is less important than what comes after that. But every love story still needs to begin with that first kiss.

This was originally posted as part of a longer piece. It’s separated here for convenience.
I was six years old when The Monkees TV series debuted in September of 1966. That was a big year for television, since it saw the debuts of the three TV series that would have the most lasting effect on my personal pop culture cosmology: The MonkeesStar Trek, and (biggest of all) Batman. I didn’t really start watching Star Trek until reruns in the ’70s, but I was a Batman fan almost from the start. Batman began in January of ’66; The Monkees started walking down the street, getting the funniest looks from everyone they’d meet, in September. As I’ve written previously, my sister Denise sold me on The Monkees by hyping it as like Batman, but with singing, and with a guitar instead of a bat for scene transitions. Sold!

My experience of The Monkees was limited in the ’60s. I don’t remember which episodes of the show I saw on first run, but I at least knew who Davy Jones was, and I probably knew Micky DolenzPeter Tork, and Mike Nesmith as well, I betcha. I wasn’t exactly a stranger to the hijinks a young rock ‘n’ roll group could encounter; I’d seen The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night when I was 4, I’d watched their Saturday morning cartoon show (and owned a toy guitar merchandised as a tie-in to that cartoon), and I’d also watched a cartoon series called The Beagles, starring a pair of anthropomorphic canine rock ‘n’ rollers. Roughly contemporaneous to the debut of The Monkees, I was watching a new Saturday morning superhero cartoon called Frankenstein Jr. And The Impossibles, which offered separate adventures of the super-robot Frankie andthe costumed superhero pop band The Impossibles. Superheroes and rock ‘n’ roll?! One would expect The Impossibles to have been the cathode-ray combo that meant the most to me. A super-power trio!

But no, it was clearly The Monkees that mattered. The Monkees were real, like The Beatles. The behind-the-curtain machinations of fabricating a made-for-TV rock group were unknown, unconsidered. The question of The Monkees’ authenticity may or not have concerned me if I’d known about it; by the time I finally heard the whining about The Monkees as a manufactured product that didn’t really play, I’d already become enough of a fan that I wouldn’t have cared if they’d been crafted by the devil himself. I also learned in short order that The Monkees transcended their plastic roots anyway, and became a flesh-and-blood group that played live concerts, made records, lived, breathed, dreamed, fought, created, and, y’know, mingled earthily with groupies ‘n’ stuff. Cheer up, sleepy Jean!

These revelations were all far in the future for me in ’66 and ’67. I saw The Monkees romping on TV and singing songs, and I just loved ’em. I saw Peter Tork and Davy Jones parody Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder as Frogman and Ruben the Tadpole, and I saw all four Monkees take to the sky as Monkeemen. So, there’s your rock ‘n’ roll superhero mashup right there. Monkeeman, AWAY!

I’m a believer. I believe I can FLY…!

The Monkees’ music was real, too. I don’t think any pop music by anyone at any time is better than what The Beatles were releasing from 1964 through 1966, but The Monkees’ records also hold up quite well (and better than, say, The Beagles’ “Sharing Wishes” or The Impossibles’ “Hey You [Hiddy Hiddy Hoo],” though I would buy either of those in a heartbeat right now). My brother Art had the first two Monkees albums, The Monkees and More Of The Monkees, and there were Monkees songs on the radio, so I had plenty of opportunity to hear Micky, Davy, Peter, and Michael sing and play, even if they weren’t really playing until the records they made after that.

As a kid, the Monkees songs that were immediate parts of my world included “(Theme From) The Monkees,” the goofy “Gonna Buy Me A Dog,” “I’m A Believer,” “Saturday’s Child,” “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow),” “Papa Gene’s Blues,” probably “Last Train To Clarksville” and “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone),” and most definitely the righteous stomper “She.” I remember being in a doctor’s waiting room, cooling heels with Art and with one of Art’s friends, who was there with his little daughter. The toddler wanted to be held, and would screech whenever she was set on the floor, prompting Art to chuckle and say, “Thy feet shall not touch the ground!” This instantly brought the lyrics of “She” into my mind–She needs someone to walk on so her feet don’t touch the ground–and that memory remains indelible, roughly five decades later.

Both Batman and The Monkees were cancelled in 1968, though neither series ever really went away. Batman returned in syndicated reruns, and The Monkees returned on a network, switching from new episodes at 7:30, 6:30 Central time Monday nights on NBC to reruns at noon Saturdays on CBS. I first learned of those Saturday afternoon reruns of The Monkees in a two-page comic book ad for the network’s new Saturday lineup, and I wondered if The Monkees were returning as cartoons. I may have been initially disappointed that it wasn’t a cartoon, but I disavow that now. Reruns of The Monkees on CBS solidified my Monkees fandom from that point forward.

I also saw The Monkees in new commercials for Kool Aid, and acquired Monkees records off specially-marked boxes of Post Honey Combs cereal. And I was puzzled by both: One Monkee, two Monkees, three Monkees…only three Monkees? Hadn’t there been four of them? I thought it was a mistake. I had no idea that Peter Tork had left the group, leaving Micky, Davy, and Michael in sole charge of any ongoing Monkeeshines. Nor did I know when Nesmith split soon thereafter, or that Dolenz and Jones released an album (Changes) as a Monkee duo in 1970. And I didn’t know that The Monkees finally ended as a group–such as it was by then–after the dismal sales of Changes. On TV, there were still four Monkees, too busy singing to put anybody down. Hey. hey.

I did hear at least one song from Changes. The CBS reruns dubbed in songs from newer Monkees records, hoping to spur sales to this slightly newer breed of the young generation. I don’t really remember any of them except “I Never Thought It Peculiar,” a clunky and determinedly uncool Davy Jones vehicle from Changes. Few will speak on behalf of that track, but in my mind, it was a hit like “Last Train To Clarksville” and “I’m  Believer,” and I’ll always have affection for it. I don’t believe in guilty pleasures–you either like a song or you don’t like a song–and I remain unbowed in my attachment to “I Never Thought It Peculiar.” In college at Brockport in 1977, the campus radio station WBSU had a copy of Changes in its LP library, and I requested it–begged for it, by God!–from indifferent or hostile student DJs who weren’t about to play anything by the goddamned Monkees. Frustrating.

As steel is forged in the crucible, so my belief in The Monkees was hardened the more people tried to convince me they were no good, plastic, lesser. Bullshit. I know what I hear, I know what I see, and I know what I like. The Monkees TV series helped to form my sense of comedy, right alongside the droll British humor–humour–of The Beatles’ movies, the broad schtick of Jerry Lewis and The Three Stooges, and the brilliance of The Marx Brothers. The Monkees’ records were terrific. If they’d all been assembled in a laboratory by Dr. Frankenstein and Don Kirshner, they’d still be great records. The fact that Michael, Peter, Micky, and Davy also took some measure of control, and became a band rather than just playing one on TV, just enhances the richness of the Monkees story. The Monkees are one of my favorite groups, and they always will be.

I’ve seen all four of The Monkees live, but never all of them at the same time. I saw The Peter Tork Project at The Tralfamadore Cafe in Buffalo in…’83, I think. I saw The Monkees’ 20th Anniversary reunion tour with Micky, Davy, and Peter at the Chautauqua Institution in Western New York in 1986, and again at The Finger Lakes Performing Arts Center in ’87. I saw Micky at a car show in ’87, but he wasn’t singing (and plainly didn’t want to be there). The New York State Fair gave me Micky and Davy in 1996, and just Davy (on a Teen Idols tour with Peter Noone and Bobby Sherman) in the late ’90s. And I saw Micky, Peter, and Michael at Center For The Arts on the University of Buffalo campus in 2012, one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen.

Very partial list above–there have been many more Monkees releases in the ol’ CC collection!

I’ve owned VHS recordings of the TV series off cable, a VHS copy of The Monkees’ dark ‘n’ brilliant 1968 feature film Head as it aired on Cinemax, a bootleg of their 1969 TV special 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee, an official Head VHS tape, an official Head DVD, the complete TV series on DVD, the complete TV series on Blu-ray (including Head and 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee), my taped-off-the-TV VHS of the 1997 reunion special Hey, Hey, It’s The Monkees, the Heart And Soul VHS, the Justus VHS, all of their albums on CD (many in expanded form), some further repackages, bootlegs, and some solo material as well. Let the official record show that I like The Monkees.

I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure that I’ve written more (here, and in Goldmine) about The Monkees over this span of decades than I’ve written about any other subject, including Batman, The Ramones, power pop, and The Flashcubes. I don’t think I’m quite done writing about them yet. I became a fan of The Monkees when I was six years old. There has never been any reason for that to change.

Wanna keep up with all things Monkees, new and old? Boppin’ (Like The Hip Folks Do) recommends Monkees Live Almanac and Zilch! A Monkees podcast. Also listen to This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio with Dana & Carl Sunday nights 9 to Midnight Eastern at www.westcottradio.org; we’ve been known to play The Monkees now and again. And again. And again.

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