Thursday, March 1, 2012

Perfectly Imperfect: The Monkees: "Daydream Believer"

(This is an edited version of a piece I wrote several years ago I'm posting in the wake of the death of Davy Jones. It was a #2 in the NME.)

"We did play, we did perform, we did make music and we made music recently. It's not like we weren't anything. We weren't nothing. We were something."

Peter Tork

If anyone ever stopped me on the street (politely) and asked me what I thought of Rolling Stone, I would have to say that it is run by someone who hates The Monkees. Everything it fundamentally stands for flows out of that...

Back in the 90s I was interested in the idea of the 'canon' and I read as many lists of books as I could find, including the Harold Bloom tome The Western Canon. What I discovered surprised me. At first, going way back to the Greeks and Romans, everyone agreed, almost monolithically, maybe differing a little here or there. But once the lists got closer and closer to the 20th century, the more and more the various lists began to diverge. The 20th century (when attempted) was always indicative of the truth of all canons: they are founded on the personal taste of the compiler.

The same thing stands with music, only music seems much more hasty as of late to make itself canonical instead of waiting for time itself to sort out what will last and what won't. There is a good reason for this of course; music (even with the longer cds) is a much more compact experience - somehow much more immediate - than a novel. And a lot of music writers (I am thinking of how Hornby described how he chose what to write about while at the New Yorker) are not willing to take chances, chances that they are supposed to take on behalf of their readers, not to mention themselves. Thus the phenomenon of the 'instant classic' and the presumed genius of people, which sometimes is correct and sometimes, not. Thus also a dislike of music for music's sake, as the horrible onerous burden of writing about music dictates that you take yourself and the music very seriously, that you be provocative (kind of) and portentous (sometimes) and even when praising pop, say that it 'rises above' the usual mish-mash of pop already available. 21 is the new catch of the day; clearly superior; it merits time spent with Adele as she goes about her penchant for black clothing and medical woes, instead of actually thinking about the songs and how they might compare to other female artists in an associative way, as opposed to making up football-style leagues or tiers...oh but that is tiresome; one must sit down and listen, flatter some, make comforting noises, as if no other great albums by British women had been released in the year, after all pop's memory is so short... short that if The Monkees somehow happened now, there could be no backlash. Every artist of any worth who is somehow discovered on a reality show owes something to The Monkees. They are like the pioneers who were noble and struggled and and bickered amongst themselves and others and turned a Hollywood version of a town into a real actual place to live, a place others could inhabit in their own ways, in their own times. You only have to look at the various Idol winners to see how real talent will win out over time (Kelly Clarkson vs. Clive Davis shows just how short the leash is, even now, and how what the Monkees fought for has to be fought for again and again; once more, short memory)...

The Monkees themselves imploded & expanded - the series (apparently never a big ratings-grabber, only watched by their fans) ended in 1968, Head was released haphazardly to mixed reviews, and the band was more or less done by 1970. But in another sense, they never really went away. Just as The Beatles meant something to people - something maybe a bit too complex to put into words - so did The Monkees. There's no way their music could have lasted otherwise, with or (as it stands) without the help of the 'canonical' folks at Rolling Stone.

"Daydream Believer" was the soundtrack to happy Christmas shopping in 1967 and it again balances the cold, stinging realities of life with the more rosy, idealistic tenor of the year. Yet there is some sadness to it, a sadness that has to be seen as warm and perspective-widening. The chorus - "Cheer up sleepy Jean! Oh what can it mean to a/Daydream believer and a homecoming queen?" both acknowledges that the world isn't perfect, but little problems should remain just that - little- the quotidian problems and situations are always there, but what can they mean to those who have bigger ideas and hopes and each other to nestle in? Despite what I have read here & there, this is not a hard song to understand. Is the world perfect? No. But why should it be? The Monkees, to start, weren't a 'real' band. Well, why should they have to be one in the first place? (The deepest irony in the whole business is that even though they did gain a remarkable amount over control over their music, they still couldn't please the rockists. Real rock bands, in the meantime, paid close attention to them, the ones who could learn from them, anyway.) Kevin Rowland did a cover of this on My Beauty that digs into the song and shows how much it meant to him, and to many others. It is a warm song, heralding perfectly imperfect happiness, a determination to be joyous - this song represents 1967 every bit as much as all the others I've written about.

I wish I could write more about The Monkees, but I have yet to see Head and have yet to hear more of their music. But I will leave things for now with one more Davy Jones-lead song. Come on, pilgrim you know you love them...

No group ever had a theme song that so foreshadowed what they were going to do. They didn't just come to your town, kids, they built it. Yay Monkees! And rest in peace to Davy Jones, whose cuteness combined with a sweet toughness that girls of all ages fell for, and will always fall for.

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