Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Last Thoughts on Davy Jones, 1945 – 2012.

Davy Jones is dead.

That makes him the first Monkee dead, which is a bit surreal – especially since the smart money was always on Peter.

Davy was once and always “The Cute One,” the one who most drew you into the group when you were a kid, only to become the one you most reviled once you decided the Monkees were a sham.

I wasn’t allowed to watch MTV until they started rerunning The Monkees (they pioneered the music video, remember?!) and, like most kids, I was instantly hooked. Also like most kids, Davy was my favorite. Perhaps it was because he was the cutest, or the shortest, or the most innocent (Mickey was frantic in a way that was often over your head, Mike was the hipster’s cult-hero-in-waiting, and Peter was the one who never quite fit in that nobody seemed to favor), but Davy was always the most kid-like and therefore the easiest for a kid to like; when I took the opening theme song at its word and believed that the Monkees would maybe come to my town (I always pictured them coming straight to my house and ringing my doorbell – I was a very smart kid), it was Davy who I most looked forward to hanging out with.

But then, somewhere down the line, as what happens to every young Monkees fan, you run into someone who tells you that the Monkees were not a real band and did not play their own instruments. Instantly, as the Monkees fall apart in your psyche, it’s Davy who’s at the epicenter of it all. Given his cute looks and nondescript role in the band, Davy smacks of the industry suits’ intent to get a pretty teen idol in front no matter what, even if it turned out that the drummer had the better voice for most of the songs, and Davy was often left stranded in front banging away on his tambourine and maracas while singing backup. His role was the equivalent of the guitarist’s girlfriend, or worse yet, the girl the guitarist felt like he needed to string along. Even in the Archies, Veronica played the electric piano; it was Betty who was left uselessly in front, hitting the tambourine.

Davy was an outsider in an outsider’s culture. He was a Brit amongst Americans, a song-and-dance man amongst rockers. Tellingly, his first appearance on national television was on the Beatles’ legendary American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, in which Davy appeared later on in the episode as the Artful Dodger in a UK production of Oliver Twist. When the industry suits set out to create the Monkees two years later, it was Davy, with his Paul McCartney-esque cute looks and British Invasion accent, who was the clearest link between the Monkees and the Beatles.

Furthermore, given his stage background, Davy always seemed the most game to go along with whatever the industry suits wanted. When producer Don Kirshner promised Neil Diamond the A-side of the Monkees’ next single after his “I’m a Believer” was a #1 hit, it was Davy who they brought in to sing it, and released “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” as a single without the group’s consent. (The Monkees wanted the Mike-penned, Micky-sung “Girl That I Knew Somewhere” as the next single; it eventually became the single’s B-side.)

This move, coupled with Kirsher releasing the Monkees’ second album, More of the Monkees, without any input from the band (they were especially pissed about the cover shot used, which was from a photo shoot advertising JC Penny shirts), brought things in Monkeedom to a head. When Kirsher met with the group to award them big checks for their success, he was blindsided to have the group turn on him, with Mike infamously punching a hole through the wall and threatening to Kirsher that it could have been his face. When Kirshner retold the story years later, he was quick to add that the only Monkee to ever give him any thanks or appreciation in all of this was Davy.

Yes, Davy was in the most complicated spot of the Monkees, carving out an existence suspended between the independence his bandmates sought and the strings that kept them tied to the industry suits who ultimately controlled them. I give Davy credit though, for as much as he was able to understand and work with the industry suits in a way his bandmates could not, he was also able to put his all into the band’s increasingly independent projects. If you watch their ill-fated movie Head, which you definitely should if you never have – it’s easily the most underrated rock and roll film of all-time and I’m not joking – you would never know that Davy was any less inclined than the others to piss all over their prefabricated image. He kisses Annette Funicello and takes a beating from Sonny Liston with the same earnestness as the others blow up Coke machines and get shot in war trenches, or freefall as pieces of dandruff from Victor Mature’s hair. (Hey, it was the ’60s, man.)

Perhaps for his ability to walk the line between the industry suits and his bandmates, fate rewarded Davy with the biggest gift of all: He got to sing the Monkees’ biggest and most natural hit, “Daydream Believer.” When you broke the song down, there was nothing in it that should have worked – it was a “hippie” song written by professional songwriters, an AM pop song with FM lyrics, a psychedelic excursion into showtune-style whimsy with strings – but then again, great pop music was never meant for the microscope. Yes, “Cheer up, sleepy Jean” probably doesn’t mean anything to a homecoming queen other than a weak fill for a stupid rhyme, but when you turned it up on a transistor radio or car stereo, “Daydream Believer” somehow all sounded just right.

And leading the way between rock and pop, industry and artistry, and success and failure was none other than Davy Jones, who sang the song with an earnestness that was void of any irony and filled with an understanding of the beauty of pop for pop’s sake.

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