Davy Jones Of The Monkees - A Tribute By Taylor Parkes
, March 1st, 2012 04:29
Remembering the former Monkee who died this week at the age of 66
Back in 1967, with Monkeemania at its height, it might have been hard to convince a hipster that 45 years down the line, you'd struggle to find a music fan with a bad word to say about The Monkees. Is that really true, man? Wow. What kind of future is this?
Well, a future where musical snobbery has quietened down a bit, for a start – or at least grown slightly less dumb and obvious. Where people have learnt that manufactured pop beats manufactured disgust; where people know a genuinely fantastic record when they hear it. Where pretty much everyone is saddened by the news that Davy Jones is dead.
David Jones was born in Manchester on December 30th, 1945. Not long after the death of his mother in 1959 he moved to Newmarket, starting work as a stable boy with a view to becoming a professional jockey - a reasonable plan for a lover of horses who stood a little under five foot three. Jones wouldn't make it in the racing game, but the acting career he'd been pursuing on the side soon proved a little more successful. He was offered a part in 'June Evening', a television play for the BBC, the radio play 'There Is A Happy Land' and Granada TV's 'A Man And A Dog'. When he landed the role of Ena Sharples' grandson Colin in Coronation Street, his boss at the stables squared with him: your acting's going better than your riding, son, why not stick with that? Jones took his advice, although a little regret would never leave him; in later life he spent a fortune buying stables of his own.
In 1962 Jones joined the touring production of Peter Pan (alongside a young Jane Asher), before accepting the role of the Artful Dodger in the West End production of Oliver! Transferred to David Merrick's American production, he made his Broadway debut shortly before his 17th birthday. When the cast appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, they were second on the bill to a new English novelty act called The Beatles, whose reception did not go unnoticed by the ambitious teenager in the wings.
In New York Davy met Ward Sylvester of Columbia Pictures, who took over the young star's management, luring him to Hollywood on the promise of a deal with Colpix Records, a Columbia subsidiary, and its TV company Screen Gems. After a few flop singles, but with his fan club already numbering in the thousands, Jones was earmarked for The Monkees - a new Screen Gems project being developed by producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider. Already under contract, his audition for the show was a mere formality, but the screen test which survives (included on the DVD of The Monkees Series 1) suggests he could have made it anyway: for all his Broadway cheesiness, Davy was cheeky, chirpy, cocky and undeniably very pretty. If his mannered “Englishness” now looks contrived, it was supremely sellable in mid-60s America, and when the Monkees' screen tests were shown to a focus group of youngsters, Jones was the biggest hit.
His co-stars were, by all accounts, somewhat hipper than the young Englishman. “Davy is the one I had the most doubts about,” admitted Rafelson years later. “He had less contact with rock & roll than any of the others.” But Jones struck up an unlikely friendship with Michael Nesmith, even lodging for a time with the guitarist and his wife, and formed a more predictable bond with Micky Dolenz, himself a showbiz veteran at the age of 21. At this point relations within the group were very cordial indeed; while they never quite grew to loathe each other, it's safe to say things cooled off somewhat. Within a year Jones had head-butted Peter Tork in the studio, and was hospitalised by the perma-stoned flower child before the pair could be separated.
At first Jones struggled to find his natural role in this most unnatural band. Musical supervisor Don Kirshner had picked Dolenz as the main vocalist, which meant that Davy – a non-musician – had to be given something to do in the imaginary group. He tried out as the drummer, a role in which he showed surprising promise (“Davy was a good drummer,” Nesmith recalled, remarking that if The Monkees had stuck to the musical roles for which they were best suited – Tork on guitar, himself on bass, Jones on drums and Dolenz as frontman – they might have settled more quickly as a band). But sticking the group's main pin-up at the back, his tiny frame obscured by cymbals, would be a commercial disaster and since Kirshner was in any case hiring session men to play on the records, musical considerations would take second place. For a time Davy posed with the bass, and in the Monkees pilot he mimes along as rhythm guitarist, but eventually the pretence was dropped altogether. From then on he would simply wander between the musicians with a cluster of maraccas, singing back-up and looking pretty, waiting his turn to sing lead – usually on one of the cringing ballads with which Kirchner had peppered The Monkees' repertoire. It looked a bit odd, but no one seemed to mind. Within weeks of the show's premiere in September 1966, he was rivalling Paul McCartney as America's number one teen heart-throb.
Even hardcore Monkee fans would make few claims for Davy's contribution to the actual music. He was no songwriter; he played nothing; he was always lumbered with the lousy songs ('Laugh'; 'The Day We Fall In Love') and his broad, nasal vocal style was not, perhaps, the sweetest sound around. Nonetheless, it's a simple fact - The Monkees would not have become the biggest (and in their way, the most fascinating) band in America without Davy Jones. He was their only natural, uncomplicated teen idol; it was his presence which allowed Dolenz to be so crazed, Tork so dumb, Nesmith so damned ornery. On The Monkees' records, his moony balladry allowed the others to experiment without losing their audience – smuggling the mindblowing last sixty seconds of 'Alternate Title / Randy Scouse Git' into the top ten would have been impossible, if Davy hadn't gone out there first with 'A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You'. Without Jones as the romantic lead, The Monkees might have been a fine knockabout comedy troupe, but it's doubtful they'd have inspired love. And if in one sense The Monkees were all about money, in another they were all about love.
The Monkees' career curve was similar to that of most pop stars who are made by television: they got very big very fast, and were finished in little more than a year. In 1968 the TV show was cancelled, its ratings having plummeted. Already weary and cynical, the group went straight into making Head, their notorious feature film. Slammed at the time for its druggy incoherence (and in some quarters, for its naked cynicism: Rafelson and Schneider essentially used the movie as a way to “bury” The Monkees while providing themselves with a springboard into Hollywood), Head now boasts a colossal cult following. Jones is the only Monkee who even looks like his former self in the film – while Tork is now a full-blown hippie, Dolenz a frizz-haired pothead freak and Nesmith a dark-suited moody-chops, Davy bounds through the movie dressed like a three year old, romancing Annette Funicello. Yet in some ways it's he who takes the greatest joy in stomping on his TV image. He's pummelled by gridiron star Ray Nitschke and beaten senseless by Sonny Liston; he responds to the mystic babbling of a swami by losing his temper and kicking down a wall, then joins his bandmates in that final, symbolic suicide pact.
Once Peter Tork quit in early '69, following their disastrous TV special 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee, the band were – commercially - a busted flush. The remaining trio hunkered down and saw out their contract with a string of poorly-selling albums, over which they'd finally been granted near-total artistic control (largely because by now no one could be bothered to exercise control from outside). While predictably patchy, these albums contain some of The Monkees' finest moments, including Jones' one success as a composer, the largely overlooked 'You And I'. Co-written with Monkee mate and back-up singer Bill Chadwick, 'You And I' is a startling admission of pop star transience and imminent obscurity, laced with red-hot lead guitar from a jobbing Neil Young:
"In a year or maybe two, we'll be gone and someone new will take our place/ There'll be another song, another voice, another pretty face..."
Shortly afterwards The Monkees, who barely a year earlier had turned down a headline show at Shea Stadium, appeared at the Dane County Junior Fair in Madison, Wisconsin, sharing the bill with that other star of Saturday morning re-runs, Gentle Ben.
Around this time, Jones told an interviewer: “I have entertaining inside me, and that's what really counts. I'd die if I couldn't entertain. I'd be like a horse with a broken leg if I couldn't get in front of an audience. Maybe as a performer I will be abused – I may not be in demand – but that won't change my feelings.” This was indeed how Davy Jones would spend the rest of his days. Once The Monkees dissolved in 1970 (Nesmith quit for a solo career, Dolenz and Jones limped through a final two-man flop album, Changes), he was rarely in demand - and often abused – but determined to go on entertaining. Few things could have been less fashionable in the early '70s than a used Monkee, but in 1974 – sustained by repeats of the Monkees shows in syndication - he was back on the boards with Dolenz, Jones, Boyce & Hart, a thirty-something bubblegum supergroup comprising The Monkees' original songwriting team and the only two members willing to relive the past for fun and profit. Predictably, their record stiffed, and their live appearances were restricted to US amusement parks (in true “Puppet Show + Spinal Tap” style). An undaunted Davy returned to the stage, he and Dolenz co-starring in a London production of Harry Nilsson's rather peculiar The Point.
By the 1980s, Davy Jones was at something of a loose end. Nesmith was now a media mogul, Dolenz a director for Childrens ITV (responsible for Metal Mickey, Murphy's Mob and Luna), while Tork was still clearing up from the 70s, which he'd spent chin-deep in booze and drugs. I still recall Davy's early-80s appearance on the BBC's Saturday Superstore, which was then repeating the Monkees shows for a new generation of fans, like me: dressed in his pyjamas with a Nik Kershaw haircut, obliged to duet on 'Cuddly Toy' with ghastly guitar-toting host Mike Read, he cut a slightly tragic figure, even to this uncritical young fan. Finally in 1986, MTV and Nickelodeon – no doubt as a cheap time-filler – began repeating the Monkees shows in America, sparking a Monkees revival sufficiently widespread (and potentially lucrative) to justify reforming the band. Nesmith declined - he was just too busy – but the other three went out on tour and managed to record a few new songs... or rather, Tork and Dolenz managed to record a few new songs. Jones (sometimes guilty of a certain sourness, it has to be said) refused to sing on the new material, or even to remain on stage while the others were performing it.
Monkees reunions came and went for the rest of Jones' life – along with that curious animosity between the members of the group, who it seemed could be best mates one minute and seething with resentment the next. During their British tour of 1997 (which saw the return of Mike Nesmith) I found myself at their aftershow party at Wembley, living my childhood dream of hanging out with The Monkees, just a little too late. Tork was serious and somewhat frosty, still shaky from years of addiction, and seemed to wish he was somewhere else. Dolenz tried rather hard to be zany, looked thrilled when I told him my girlfriend had a crush on him, before realising (with a perceptible wave of horror) I meant the 22-year-old him, after which he was rather subdued. Nesmith refused to get out of the bus. Only Davy Jones was “himself”: his chatty charm was undoubtedly forced, but impeccably professional. Shortly afterwards a disgruntled Nesmith quit the group (finally snuffing out any goodwill that remained between he and the trouper Jones), and further Monkees reunions would again be three-man affairs, increasingly creaky but warmly received by a fanbase unconcerned with “credibility”, just thrilled to be there with their childhood heroes. It's hard to find anything complimentary to say about the actual performances, but the forgiving warmth to be found at these last Monkees shows says much about the love this group inspired in their audience. Self-consciously serious artists are (quite rightly) judged by standards they themselves have set - churning out the hits, chicken-in-a-basket style, is something of a betrayal. It's why Pete Townshend broke up The Who, why Dylan in his dotage is so keen on mangling the oldies. This never applied to The Monkees: a pop group (possibly the greatest ever), they were only ever about love, with which nostalgia is quite compatible.
With that in mind, it'd feel mean-spirited to dwell on the rumours surrounding Davy Jones in his final years. There was never the suggestion of anything terrible, but tales sprang up concerning his private life, his boozing; that strange night in 2009 when during an impromptu solo show he interrupted 'Daydream Believer' to offer the audience outside for a fight. This won't be what anyone remembers, though, when they remember Davy Jones. More likely, the permanent blinding sunshine of the TV show, encouraging children with visions of implausible freedom; the records, by turns so sweet and so astonishingly strange. The news of his death has saddened everyone who ever loved The Monkees - which, to the horror of our 1967 hipster, seems to be... well, everyone.