HARDER THAN IT LOOKED (Peter Tork, R.I.P.)

In the Broadway version of Jersey Boys, the Four Seasons’ most anonymous member, Nick Massi, described himself as “the Ringo of the group.” It got a big laugh in the theater, but, of course, Nick Massi was selling himself short. (Frankie Valli has said that Massi’s arranging skills were on a par with Don Costa or Burt Bacharach.** He would know.)

If there had been a Broadway show about the Monkees (and why hasn’t there been?) the line could have been handed to Peter Tork and gotten just as big a laugh….and been just as not-quite-true.

Tork answered the audition for a new TV show in 1965 at the urging of his friend, Stephen Stills, who had just flunked an audition himself. When Tork got the part–playing a guy in a fictional rock and roll band–he was surprised (well, shocked actually) to learn his considerable musical skills would not be required. In the end, he and the other Monkees did play their own instruments, with Tork the one who played the most–and the most variety (half a dozen instruments by the time they made Headquarters).

He nonetheless remained the quiet man of the group. It’s easy to think they could have got along without him, just as it has been easy for some to think the Four Seasons could have got along without Nick Massi or the Beatles could have got along without Ringo.

Maybe.

But chemistry is a tricky thing. Take even the most gifted performer out of the context where they rose to Rock and Roll fame and, almost always, something is missing. Take even the most “token” member from a great Rock and Roll group (and the Monkees were a fantastic Rock and Roll group even if many were and are too hidebound by their preconceived notions of what all that was supposed to be to admit it), and, again, something is invariably lost.

And no group, not even the Beatles, needed “all four” more than the Monkees.

Tork’s best musical moment came on Mann and Weil’s “Shades of Gray,” where he shared the lead vocal with Davy Jones.

Given where the world has gone in the years since, it is fitting, perhaps, that they should be the first to go…

**(For evidence, listen to the records the Seasons made between 1962 and September 1965, when Massi departed. Or just listen to the two-sided single “Rag Doll”.”Silence is Golden,” both of which are among the greatest arrangements of the rock & roll era–or, as I like to call it, The History of Arranging.)

SEGUE OF THE DAY (9/5/12)

The J. Geils Band/The Monkees

J. Geils Band “Centerfold” (video)

The Monkees “Daydream Believer” (video)

God knows, the computers are trying.

The oldies station around here went under late last year so this was the first time I had heard “Daydream Believer” on the radio since Davy Jones passed away.

That would have been enough to make me drive a mile past the grocery store and turn around so I could smile through the whole thing.

Coming out of “Centerfold?”

Come on.

If I didn’t have, you know, responsibilities, that combo probably could have taken me to Brazil.

I’ll worry about which one represented a country that still had something to look forward to some other day.

HOW IT WAS…HOW IT IS (DAVY JONES R.I.P.)

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Let me first report a conversation that took place ’round about the fall of 1967 (can’t say it’s verbatim, but the gist is full–I was present only as a listener, being socially and intellectually unqualified to participate):

JM: Sergeant Pepper is the greatest album ever made.

AC: The Beatles. The Beatles are cool.

JM (adamantly): The Beatles are the coolest!

AC: I like the Monkees, too.

JM (in the style of Torquemada confronting a heretic): The Monkees!…The Monkees!…The Monkees are for babies!

Along about now I should probably mention that this public bathroom was in a public elementary school and the average age of all present–two participants, one bystander–was seven.

That’s because all three of us were in the second grade.

I’m guessing JM had an older brother.

I’m guessing AC didn’t–else he would have known to keep his mouth shut about the Monkees while we were shaking our seven-year-old peckers.

I never told anybody but word inevitably spread.

I think it took him until about the seventh grade to live it down.

As for me, it was my introduction to the concept of  hipness and a very strange introduction it was. I lived in a house where the television did not work, the hymnal was Baptist, the few records ran to show tunes and the radio was seldom if ever tuned to the pop station. I only vaguely knew who the Beatles or the Monkees were and if I had ever heard their music I didn’t recognize it as such.

Therefore I had no way of knowing it was slightly irregular that just the previous year–you know all the way back in the first grade–JM had been the one called in to settle a dispute about the exact lyrics of  “I’m Henry the XIII, I Am” by the era’s reigning philosophical geniuses, Herman’s Hermits.

I think his arbitration went something like: “Yeah I know it’s pronounced En-er-y, but it’s spelled H-e-n-r-y. It’s on the record stupid!”

And it was this very incident that made him our resident pop culture genius. The one who could tell us second-graders what was hip.

The young man was clearly ahead of the curve. I mean for all I know looking back, he may have already outgrown Herman’s Hermits by the fall of ’67. The world moved fast back then and not just for second-graders.

I moved away after the eighth grade and by the time I got out of high school I had become very involved in knowing what was “hip.”

And let’s just say that, in 1978, if you had told anyone I went to school with in the second grade or the twelfth–in two parts of the same state which might as well be on different planets–that a member of the Monkees would die of a heart attack in the year 2012 without ever having had anything resembling a major pop moment past the few years when they ruled the charts, and that his death would warrant a segment on the nightly news of every major broadcast network, we would have assumed you had smoked an awful lot of the stuff DO, CS and SS sold out of their hall lockers.

Let me also add that I bought the Monkees’ Greatest Hits in 1978–not knowledge I shared with any of my classmates I can assure you (I bought Herman’s Hermits Greatest Hits and the Beatles’ red album the same year, though, of course, I only admitted to one of them)–and in the 34 years since, “Daydream Believer” never once failed to give a lift to the heart wherever it found me, never once failed to bring the happiest of smiles.

Until yesterday.

Somewhere along the way, I also shook free and learned to trust what I cared about over what others told me to think. Not by coincidence I think.

Thanks Davy. And not just for the memories.

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