Sunday, March 4, 2012

“No need to get excited, man. It's because I'm short, I know….”: Deceased Artiste Davy Jones

The outpouring of emotion that accompanies the death of a teen idol is always fascinating to watch, as is the death of any media personality whom a good part of the populace considered a “friend.” In the case of Davy Jones’ death at 66 this week I was as surprised as most folks — because Peter Tork recently overcame the biggest health problems of any of the Monkees, and because watching the group grow old has been a sort of a bizarre spectator sport for those like myself who fucking LOVE their music and the TV show, and of course first encountered it as a child (in my case in the earlier stages of the reruns when they went from primetime to Saturday mornings and into daytime rotation).

Davy’s death has occasioned a few articles that have made the argument for the Monkees’ music. As for the TV show, it is already enshrined as a wonderful piece of pop culture that combined the frantic energy of the “Richard Lester style” — see my discussion of its derivation with Ken Russell — and seriously deranged psychedelia.

The truest argument for the Monkees’ music is always made by just consulting the songwriting credits, as the group was assigned, and later chose from, songs written by the very best of the last generation of “Brill Building” songwriters (Diamond, King, Sedaka and Carol Bayer Sager — pictured), and a bunch of West Coast folk who also wanted to record their own music but had “songs for sale” in the meantime (Boyce and Hart, Paul Williams, Nilsson, even Warren Zevon).

Back to Monkee-music in a second, but first Davy. He was not my favorite in the group — that jockeyed back and forth between Micky and Mike — but he was certainly (along with Micky) the “show-biz pro” since he had worked for a few years before the Monkees as a child and teen actor. He also was a jockey for time; he was 5’3”, making him one of the tiniest “heartthrobs” in pop history.

And, yes, his biggest claim to fame during that period — besides being a regular on the opening years of Coronation Street — was being on the same Ed Sullivan episode that provided Americans with their first look at the Beatles. Davy was on the show as part of the cast of Oliver!, performing as the Artful Dodger, and seeing two years into his own future with all those screaming girls….

Davy got some nicely written obits that cited his status as the hands-down teen-girl-fave in the group. Each of the write-ups recounted the history of the Monkees, with appropriate quotes from the band members or the show's creators Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider — who died just a few months ago, having been a very important producer in the golden “maverick” era of early Seventies Hollywood.

Of course, the obits reflected that wonderful contemporary tendency of publications not to fact-check (or proofread) their text. The USA Today official write-up of Davy’s death referred to Peter Tosh as being the fourth member of the group (with a hyperlink to stories about the reggae star) and cited Davy as being the singer of the mega-hits “Last Train to Clarksville” and “I’m a Believer.” These seriously dumb-ass errors were corrected in a few hours — no doubt when readers posted corrections and wrote e-mails.

Even though Davy was never my fave on the show or in the group’s recordings, I followed his career throughout the years. I remember seeing the nicely amusing pre-Monkees episode of Ben Casey that featured Davy as the young abusive boyfriend (husband?) of Yvonne Craig (yes, Davy was messing up Batgirl). I might’ve taped it on VHS (someday I’ll sift through the collection); in the meantime the show can be watched (but sadly not heard) in one fan’s recording of it on YT.

As could be expected, there are literally thousands of Monkees and Jones-related vids on YT, but I believe any good short list would include the items embedded below. The most intriguing Monkee interview, which surfaced for the first time on the recent BBS Criterion box, is this chat they did on local TV to promote the movie Head:

Davy appeared solo, singing a jazz-tinged version of "Together," a great Harry Nilsson tune (more on Harry below), on The Music Scene in 1969, hosted by David “Booga Booga” Steinberg (no one calls him that now that he’s a respected TV director):

Like many other stars of the era, Davy appeared on Love American Style, the show that had a theme song that was more memorable and entertaining than any of its comedy. Thankfully this poster included the theme (check out the actress in the roster after Davy):

The vast majority of Davy’s obits mentioned his guest appearance on The Brady Bunch, which probably was his best-remembered TV guest shot. But how many people knew (or, yes, cared) that the song “Girl” actually came from the movie Star Spangled Girl (1971). I saw the pic late one night on TV because it was based on a Neil Simon play (one of the least-remembered of his “golden period” — probably because it’s one of his only attempts to write about the youth culture of the late Sixties, not one of his strong suits). Charles Fox (composer of the Love American Style theme) wrote “Girl” with his partner Norman Gimbel, and the film was directed by Jerry Paris.

I was a massive Monkee fan as a kid and have kept loving the show and their music in the years since, and I thought I was the only fan of a post-Monkee project that involved Davy and Micky, the band “Dolenz, Jones, Boyce & Hart” (oh, what Crosby, Stills, and pals wrought in terms of unwieldy band names). It turns out that that short-lived ensemble is well-remembered by Monkees fans on the Web. Interestingly Davy sang almost no lead vocals on the one LP the group produced — the most interesting song showcasing him was this goofy version of the old Coasters’ hit “Along Came Jones.”

Here he is dipping back into the past for the Monkees song “I Wanna Be Free” for an appearance DJBH made on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert:

The Monkees had been the first high-profile act to perform a Harry Nilsson song (see below), and Micky Dolenz became a good friend of Harry’s as the years went on. Here Micky and Davy are seen in 1977 on the British children’s talk/variety show Our Week on London Weekend Television to hype their upcoming appearance in a stage presentation of Nilsson’s The Point. (Davy sings “Me and My Arrow” here):

The Monkees (Dolenz, Jones, and Tork) reunited in 1986, in conjunction with MTV’s rerunning the original series. They continued to reunite and break up over the next 25 years, with a lot of the blame being laid by Dolenz and Tork at the feet of Davy (interestingly, they had little to no animosity against Mike, who ditched them in mid-tour during the one full-quartet reunion). It got to the point recently where Davy was doing solo gigs as the “voice of the Monkees,” which was a pretty ballsy bit of billing, given that Micky sang the lion’s share of the group’s hit songs.

Here is one of the few TV interviews done with the four reunited Monkees on the aborted late Nineties four-guy tour. They’re on Clive James Talks Back (where his next guests are Patsy Kensit and NYC cult access star Margarita Pracatan!):

Davy still did do acting gigs in his later years. Here he is camping it up as an annoying Englishman on the sitcom Boy Meets World, for which Micky directed various episodes:

One of the most-seen latter-day clips of Davy was his cameo on an episode of Spongebob Squarepants. One of the major guest star appearances on that cult kid cartoon was a certain David Bowie — who, as is known to most folks who love him and/or the Monkees, was born David Jones, but had to change his name because of Davy’s presence in show-biz at the time he was first making music.

Now, on to a quick survey of the twelve best Davy vocals for the Monkees. I tried in each case to find the original “Monkees run amok” music-vid visuals for these songs as seen on the series. Begging that, I tried to find interesting vocal versions. Here is a catchy tune with a lovely title, “This Just Doesn’t Seem to be My Day” from the first Monkees LP:

Micky and Davy mess around on the one of the few tunes the Monkees did that qualified as a purebred novelty tune, “Gonna Buy Me a Dog”:

One of the strengths of Davy as the “cute Monkee” was that he could sing songs with nasty or sleazy lyrics and make them sound endearing. Thus, we arrive at the first of three of his best Monkee songs, each containing a very sleazy lyric that he delivers with a light touch. "She Hangs Out" is a cheerful note to a friend informing the person that his/her sister is, as they used to put it, "easy." Sleaziness as pop cuteness!

The biggest Monkees hit with a Davy vocal was without a doubt “Daydream Believer.” Here is an extremely rare audio-version (you gotta love old audio tapes!) of the song, performed on The Tonight Show on a night in 1969 when Carson was hosting.

Johnny had a policy against rock bands on the show when he was hosting as a result of a “loud” performance by the Byrds in the mid-Sixties. There were a few exceptions to this policy — I remember seeing Bowie’s appearance in a James Dean red windbreaker performing “Ashes to Ashes” with Johnny as host — but for the most part it was no rock when Johnny was hosting:

The other big Davy hit as a Monkee was “Valleri.” Here is the non-single version, heard only on the show in the Sixties. The fuzzy, “Satisfaction”-sounding guitar was played by Louie Shelton of the band the Candy Store Prophets; they were the creation of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, the Monkees’ songwriting pals:

A song that was brought up a lot online when Davy died was the theme to the brilliantly weird movie Head, “The Porpoise Song” by Carole King and Gerry Goffin. It’s a wonderful piece of psychedelia (King/Goffin’s previous piece of Monkee mindfuck music was “Take a Giant Step”) that features Davy plaintively singing “goodbye… goodbye…”:

Back to the trio of songs with sleazy lyrics that Davy’s chipper vocals made into family-friend pop tunes. Even as a kid, I understood that “Star Collector” was an odd ode to groupies with wild lyrics for a bubblegum tune — “She only aims to please the young celebrities…”:

A little-known but very catchy tune from the Monkees’ “Instant Replay” LP, one of the two that had only three Monkees — the band broke up for good after the one LP that featured only Micky and Davy. (Reportedly one person at the record company joked that the next album would be by “the Monkee.”) In any case, “You and I” is a good pop-rock song that has very honest lyrics about the disposable nature of pop stars:

I want to close out with two pairs of tunes that Davy sang that were without question the hookiest of any the Monkees ever recorded. Micky might’ve done the vocals for the super-hit “I’m a Believer,” but Davy sang the other two incredibly catchy Neil Diamond tunes that the group did. The one that was a pretty decent-sized hit was “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You.” And yes, for those who remember, that is super-wholesome Bobby Sherman being a creepy pop star in this clip:

The other Diamond-penned tune is one of my two personal fave Davy tunes, “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow).” The word catchy barely describes it:

Finally, there are the two Nilsson tunes that Davy sang as a Monkee. He later did items like “Gotta Get Up” by Harry, but the real breakthrough for Nilsson was the Monkees’ cover of “Cuddly Toy.” An incredibly bouncy and upbeat song, it has an insidious vocal that makes it the third and most significantly happy/sleazy Davy tune.

Only Nilsson as transformed by the Monkees could get these lyrics onto TV in 1967 — “You’re not the only cuddly toy that was ever enjoyed by any boy/You’re not the only choo-choo train that was left out in the rain the day after Santa came/You’re not the kind of girl to tell your mother the kind of company you keep/I never told you that I loved no other — you must’ve dreamed it in your sleep…” These are nasty, punky lyrics delivered as pure bubblegum:

And the height of Davy’s talent as a showman, his delightfully upbeat and happy-sounding version of Nilsson’s incredibly sad, semi-autobiographical account of his dad’s leaving him as a kid, “Daddy’s Song,” from the movie Head. Dancing with Davy is choreographer-singer (“Hey Mickey”) Toni Basil, and wigging out on the editing board is director Bob Rafelson.

The comment at the end by Zappa puts the song down, but hey, this is what pop-music “smugglers” (to steal Scorsese’s phrase about filmmakers) did for years — tackling extremely serious subjects in a jaunty, hook-driven way. RIP to the heartthrob Monkee:

Many of the images used in this post came from a fan’s wildly comprehensive Tumblr photo blog.

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