The Monkees, Redacted

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been in the news a lot lately. Many on the right think the FBI has recently become politicized–but the reality is that the agency has been involved in investigations of political matters for decades, ever since it was asked to look into loosely defined “subversives” back in the 1930s. Back in the J. Edgar Hoover days the FBI collected information on Martin Luther King, the civil rights movement, anti-war protests, and . . . the Monkees.

What a second–the Monkees? The zany, made-for-TV rock band that had a brief but memorable TV show, produced a series of number 1 albums, were a sensation among teenagers, and incidentally recorded some great rock music that still stands up? The FBI investigated those guys?

It did. According to the FBI’s “Vault” webpage–which, if you’re interested, allows you to search for FBI records on line–the agency has two records about the rock band: “a 1967 Los Angeles Field Office memorandum on anti-Vietnam war activities and a second document redacted entirely.” The 1967 field office memorandum was released to the public about ten years ago, and is very heavily redacted. (You can see the original report, in its redacted form, here.) The unredacted portion reports on a concert the Monkees gave in which photographs were broadcast on a screen behind the band that a redacted informant considered to be “left-wing intervention of a political nature”–which in reality reflected what was actually going on at the time, like racial rioting and protests against the war in Vietnam.

Now Mickey Dolenz, the last surviving member of the Monkees, is suing to try to get the FBI to release the full records about the band. The lawsuit seeks “any records the FBI created and/or possesses on the Monkees as well as its individual members.”

In the grand scheme of what is going on in the world, trying to determine what information the FBI collected about the Monkees is a small thing, but it also raises a big point about transparency and getting a fuller accounting of the FBI’s activities over the years. It’s hard to believe that the document from the Monkees’ FBI file that was released in 2011 merited the heavy redaction it received; what kinds of information could it possibly contain that would reasonably need to be kept secret, decades later? Now that another ten years have passed, there is even less cause for continuing secrecy. I’m hoping the lawsuit is successful and we get to see what the FBI considered so important and secretive. Perhaps the lawsuit, and the reaction to any documents that are released as a result of it, will cause a reassessment of the agency’s actions and, particularly, its continuing, overly aggressive redaction of documents that the public actually has a right to see.

Down To The Last Monkee

One of the tough things about getting older is seeing your childhood heroes fall by the wayside. For example, it was hard to read that Michael Nesmith, one of the Monkees, died yesterday at age 78. Michael Nesmith was the “smart Monkee” who always wore a stocking cap with the ball on top; he was the favorite of the cerebral kids. Davy Jones and Peter Tork have already gone to the great beyond, so Nesmith’s death means that Mickey Dolenz, who was my favorite Monkee, is the only surviving member of the group. That just doesn’t seem possible. After all, the Monkees’ theme song said they they were the young generation, and they had something to say. So how can they be dying of old age causes like heart failure?

The Monkees were an interesting phenomenon, and in some ways a precursor for a lot of what has happened in popular culture. They were the original “fake group”–put together to be on a Beatles-knockoff TV show and also serve as the faux front band for music produced by studio musicians. As a kid, I didn’t understand how weird and groundbreaking this was: the Monkees had a TV show that I thought was funny, they drove around in a cool car, and I liked their records. (We faithfully bought all of them.) And the first record said on the back that each of the Monkees played specific instruments and sang, and you could hear their voices on the records. That had to be true, right?

Later I realized that the Monkees were in fact different from groups like the Beatles, because the Beatles actually wrote their own songs and played their own instruments and were accomplished musicians. But the realization that the Monkees were faking it didn’t change my appreciation of the Monkees’ records. We played their songs when I was in college, and I still listen to them. In fact, in recognition of Michael Nesmith’s passing, we listened to some of the Monkees’ songs last night at a gathering with friends and enjoyed them.

The difference between the Monkees and the other fakes that followed was that the creators of the Monkees didn’t scrimp; they got real songwriters (like Neil Diamond, who wrote the classic Monkees’ hit I’m A Believer) and real musicians to play the instruments, and also experimented with some cutting edge sounds that fit right in with where popular music was going at the time. My all-time favorite Monkees tune, Tomorrow’s Gonna Be Another Day, is a good example of how bringing all of that together created something really good.

After the Monkees heyday ended, Michael Nesmith went on to have an interesting career and helped to usher in the era of MTV and music videos, but of course he was always identified with the Monkees, as his New York Times obituary linked above reflects. He seemed to be at peace with his role in the popular culture of the ’60s. Those of us who enjoyed the Monkees TV show and still love the music wish him well.

Peter Tork, R.I.P.

There are news reports today that Peter Tork, one of the members of the musical group the Monkees, has died.  Tork was 77, but for those of us of a certain generation — including me — he’ll always be remembered as he was as a young guy, when he was one of the four stars of the TV show The Monkees and part of the band that produced lots of hit singles and albums during the ’60s.

gettyimages-530242673-e1550770849823The Monkees were the first designer musical group, carefully crafted to appeal to a mainstream TV audience, a mainstream musical audience, and the teenyboppers who bought magazines like Tiger Beat.  They borrowed some of the antics that the Beatles popularized in movies like A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, and the four members of the group followed a pretty rote formula.  There was the cute one (Davy Jones), the quirky smart one (Mike Nesmith), and the zany, funny ones (Mickey Dolenz and Peter Tork).  In the TV shows, Peter Tork seemed to be the happy-go-lucky Monkee who always got into goofy predicaments and took the comedic pratfalls.

I liked Peter Tork then, and I’m not ashamed to say that I liked the Monkees and their records, too.  I still do, in fact, and I’ve got a bunch of their songs on my iPod — including Tork’s big song, Your Auntie Grizelda, complete with its odd sound effects and fuzz guitar.  Who cares if the Monkees didn’t play all of the instruments themselves?  The songs were classic examples of ’60s flower power music that still stand the test of time.

It’s sad when figures from your childhood pass on, because it just makes you feel old.  Rest in peace, Peter Tork.  You’ll live on in your music and our fond memories of an innocent TV show from days gone by.

A Head Full Of The Courtship Of Eddie’s Father Theme Song

Humans never truly know whether they are normal or weird.  Although we may have many friends and close family members, we still live largely within our own heads, perceiving the world in our own way.

The only way to know for sure whether we are unusual or pretty much like everyone else is to ask other humans pointed, and embarrassingly self-revealing, questions.  Like:  does anyone else occasionally find themselves replaying the insipid theme song to The Courtship of Eddie’s Father in their heads, for no apparent reason?

People let me tell ya ’bout my best friend . . . .

I always despised that show, with its cloyingly cute little kid and Bill Bixby as the prototype ultra-sensitive Dad and the blatant attempts to elicit “Awwww!” reactions from the audience.  I hadn’t thought of the show in years, but yesterday morning there it was, the chipper, annoying, Harry Nilsson theme song, playing through my head as I walked up the back stairs of our building.  And once it was bouncing around in there, it was impossible to get it out.

He’s my one boy, my cuddly toy, my up, my down, my pride and joy . . . .

Some cue caused the brain neurons to fire and retrieve the theme song from an awful ’60s TV show.  But what the hell was it?  And, even more disturbing, what other trivial bits of stray popular culture lie locked securely within my brain tissue, ever to be forgotten?  The names of all members of the original cast of Laugh-In?  The words to The Monkees’ Auntie Grizelda?  The precise dialogue of the disturbing dinner scene of Eraserhead?

Whether we’re talkin’ man to man or whether we’re talkin’ son to son . . . .

Gah!

Davy Jones, R.I.P.

I was saddened to read today of the death of Davy Jones, one of the Monkees.  Jones died of a heart attack at age 66.

When The Monkees TV show first began airing and their songs dominated the airwaves, Davy Jones became the heartthrob of millions of adolescent girls.  He was one of the first post-Beatles teen idols.  At that time, at least, the role of teen idol carried a certain responsibility — you had to be squeaky clean in your public persona, give mindless interviews about your pet peeves and favorite foods to magazines like Tiger Beat, and pose in the most ridiculous publicity photos imaginable.  Jones carried it off with elan, and then he handed off the baton to Bobby Sherman, who handed it off to David Cassidy, who handed it off to some other fresh-faced, inoffensive object of the platonic affections of millions of teenage American girls.

Who cares if Davy Jones wasn’t the world’s greatest singer or the world’s greatest actor?  He brought joy and excitement to the lives of many, he was part of a TV show that a lot of us liked at the time, and he managed to be part of some pretty darned good music that helped to define the ’60s.  I think Daydream Believer was one his best Monkees tunes, and it seems like a fitting point of remembrance.

Davy Jones, R.I.P.

More Of The Monkees

I’ve been working on the months-long task of rebuilding my iPod after my old iPod crashed.  I began with artists whose name starts with A and I’ll keep going until I reach ZZ Top.  I’ve just gotten to the middle of the Ms, and I’ve realized — again — how much I enjoy listening to The Monkees.

What can I say?  I’m a child of the ’60s.  I remember watching The Monkees TV show when I was a kid, thinking it was funny, and liking the music.  My sister, along with most girls, liked Davy Jones.  My favorite Monkee was Mickey Dolenz.  Some of my friends liked Peter Tork because he was funny; others liked Mike Nesmith because he always wore a stocking cap with a yarn ball on top.  I didn’t care that people said the Monkees didn’t play the instruments on their records, and I didn’t care that the TV show was silly gags combined with a shameless rip-off of The Beatles in Help! and A Hard Day’s Night.

When The Monkees went off the air I continued to buy and listen to their records. I listened to them in college in the ’70s, when Monkees tunes were among the most popular played at our Omnibus dance parties.  And I think their music still holds up today.  Unlike the hits of Bobby Sherman, or The Partridge Family, or other pre-packaged TV/music crossovers, The Monkees songs were high-quality pop, salted with a bit — and just a bit — of the psychedelic edginess that characterized lots of ’60s music.  Songs like Last Train to Clarksville, I’m A Believer, and Pleasant Valley Sunday remain great tracks.

My favorite Monkees tune is Tomorrow’s Gonna Be Another Day, from their debut album.  The YouTube clip of the TV show video of the song portrays the zany, antic Monkees in full A Hard Day’s Night rip-off mode, but the song is still a classic: