Monday, September 12, 1966. Little did I know that a simple little half hour television show was about to impact my mind and worldview for the rest of my life.
Launched as a blatant attempt to cash in on the success of the Beatles, "The Monkees" followed the adventures of a musical quartet as they fought the bad guys, chased the girls, frolicked on the beach, and made some pretty good music in between mugging for the camera.
Hand picked from over four hundred people who answered the trade ad in Variety, the four young men selected to become the Monkees were from very different backgrounds. At the age of 20, David Jones was already a veteran of the stage and television in his native Britain. In the States, he had received a Tony nomination for his work in "Pickwick" and had the year before recorded his first solo album, which was selling modestly but consistently. Jones even had an organized fan club already. His dark good looks made him an easy in for the cast – especially since he was already under contract to Screen Gems, and they were looking for the right vehicle to launch him.
Micky Dolenz was the son of actor George Dolenz and had himself been a television child star in the 1950's, appearing as the lead character in "Circus Boy" for three years. Since that show had wrapped, Dolenz had dabbled in acting (he had a small role in "Peyton Place" in the early sixties) and been a member of several garage bands.
Peter Tork was a true folkie, having done the Greenwich Village thing during the first half of the sixties and had come out to California to try his luck in the music scene there. Peter brought to the table no acting experience, but had paid some dues as a serious musician.
Michael Nesmith knew his way around a recording studio. A prolific song writer, he had recorded several protest songs under the stage name of Michael Valentine. While none of them had gone anywhere, he had developed a reputation among his folk singer peers.
Covered on the fronts of both acting ability and music prowess, the Monkees were launched. Both the music and the show found its core audience quickly and the result was not unlike the craziness generated by the Beatles when they hit stateside just a few years before.
It wasn't long before the more serious musicians began to dismiss the Monkees as nothing but an outright fad, one that would fade away in no time. When the band members themselves let the press know they had not been allowed to do much other than sing on their first two albums, the serious music aficionados sneered all the more.
Those of us who loved the show and the group couldn't have cared less. We were having a great time. Our heroes were all over the radio dial. Tuesday mornings found us gathered in the school yard discussing last night's episode and talking about the new song we had seen during the show. Our devotion allowed the Monkees to have no less than seven tunes in the Top 40 during that first year. Coupled with the fact that their first four albums all made it to the # 1 spot, it was clear Monkee fans weren't bothered by the fact that studio musicians were supplying most of the music tracks.
Of course, all through this, the Monkees themselves were taking greater control of both their music and the show. By the time they launched their summer concert tour in 1967, they were more than able to hold their own against many of the popular groups of the day.
Being the only child still at home in my family, the Monkees filled a niche as role models during my formative years. David was the suave one with the girls and taught me how to interact with females. Micky was the fun maker who helped me hone my sense of humor. Peter was the deep thinker; his recommendations turned me on to comparative religion and the wondrous world of Robert Heinlein novels. Mike was the organizer, the leader; from him I learned how to facilitate projects and keep things on track.
The show only made it two years. When the cancellation was announced in the spring of 1968, the network received what was then a record amount of protest mail. A few more singles, a TV special, a movie that went nowhere at the time, then the devolution from quartet to trio to duet, and by 1970 the Monkees phenomenon appeared to be over and done.
The funny thing is you just can't kill them. Monkee reunions and various incarnations of the original foursome have popped up in the decades since, much to the delight of those of us who made them a big part of our growing up years.
As for me, I have been there all the time. My closet still has a stack of old Tiger Beats and Monkee Spectaculars. My vinyl LP's and 45's set side by side with CD imprints of their albums. And on those days when the pressures of career and family seem to be getting under my skin, I plug in the headphones, read a little Heinlein and the world drafts back into perspective.
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