I still find it hard to believe that Davy Jones, the teen idol star of TV’s The Monkees died today at age 66 of a heart attack. Given that Mick Jagger is still going strong, and while Keith Richards appears to have morphed into Treebeard at some point over the last decade, he recently concluded a tour to promote his best-selling autobiography, 66 isn’t that old for today’s geriatric rock stars – particularly if Jones had stuck with the milk diet implied by the Monkees’ first sponsor, Kellogg’s Cereal.
I wouldn’t go as far as Kathy Shaidle’s claim that they were “better than The Beatles,” but certainly the latter group’s prefab imitators had their moments. In their early days, with Don Kirshner leading their sessions, they had the pick of New York’s Brill Building songwriters, such as Neil Diamond, Carole King, and Gerry Goffin. In their second season, after they fired Kirshner, the hits slowed down, but their quirky attempts at psychedelia were some of their most fascinating songs, along with Mike Nesmith’s proto-country rock experiments, which anticipated ‘70s groups like The Eagles by a good five to ten years. (Nesmith’s experiments in music video in the following decade would be dubbed by some as a direct precursor to ‘80s phenomenon MTV.)
You could make a case that 1966 was a seminal year in boomer pop culture. A young person could turn on the TV and flip through the dial to find:
- Star Trek
- Mission: Impossible
- The Green Hornet
- I Spy
- The Avengers
- The Wild, Wild West
- And of course, The Monkees
Those shows would be the backbone of syndicated rerun packages for the next quarter century, and most would also be developed into at least one motion picture, and for the first three, entire franchises that continue to this day.
The Monkees’ own picture would arrive first, their infamous 1968 movie Head, featuring a co-writing credit to Jack Nicholson, of all people. As Peter Biskind explored in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, his seminal history of the “New Hollywood” of the late ’60s and seventies, Nicholson was on the staff of RayBert, the company formed by Monkees producers Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson. Schneider and Rafelson would use their profits from the TV show they co-created to produce a number of seminal early-‘70s films such as Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces. Schneider would also later be at the center at arguably the nadir of the Academy Awards, when he read aloud at the 1975 Awards (along with co-producer Peter Davis) to a standing ovation, a congratulatory telegram from North Vietnam on Davis and Schneider’s anti-Vietnam War documentary, Hearts and Minds, just three weeks before South Vietnam’s final surrender.
If that’s a long way from “Hey, Hey, We’re the Monkees,” I doubt very much that Jones knew he signing on for a show that would be the spearhead in a cultural revolution in Hollywood, but hey, hey, that’s how it all worked out. For a group dismissed as trite bubblegum, for better or worse, that’s some legacy.