The Monkees And Me

March 3, 2012

I suppose that for someone as fascinated by primates, both of the skyscraper-climbing and planet-ruling sort, as I apparently am, The Monkees should be a favorite band for, if nothing else, their name.

In what passes for my reality, The Monkees have been an act that has mostly been a part of the pop culture landscape with the foursome periodically popping up on my radar such as this week with the news of Davy Jones’ death.

I might have caught The Monkees via their television show during the late ’60s, but as The Monkees initial run ended about the time I was beginning to walk and talk, I suspect I truly became aware of the show, the band, and the music from reruns in the early ’70s.

However hazy those memories are, I do remember watching The Monkees and being quite enamored by their small-screen shenanigans. It was the manic hijinks that was the hook for me as a pre-schooler with the music being something that merely accompanied the zany antics of Davy, Mickey, Mike and Peter.

I can’t say that I favored any of the four over the others, but Davy Jones certainly stood out for both his lack of verticality and his British accent.

Jones also famously caused Marcia Brady to get all googly-moogly and this too made an impression as I watched reruns of The Brady Bunch after school.

(though perhaps not quite as much as if he had won the affection of Laurie Partridge)

Of course, The Monkees were a musical act and, even before I truly became interested in music, I knew more of their music than I likely did by any other group including the quartet that provided inspiration for The Monkees creation.

Like The Monkees themselves, the songs were part of the pop culture landscape, something that had simply always existed. I never owned much of their music, but, if I happened upon one of their hits while surfing the radio dial, I probably paused.

Here are four songs from The Monkees that still make me pause when they shuffle up on the iPod…

The Monkees – (Theme From) The Monkees
from The Best Of The Monkees (2003)

It occurs to me now that the theme song to The Monkees had to have been one of the earliest pop songs to which I knew all the words. It served as an appropriately playful greeting to each episode.

The Monkees – Last Train To Clarksville
from The Best Of The Monkees (2003)

Like The Monkees’ theme song, The jangly Last Train To Clarksville was written by the songwriting duo of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. Years later, in the early ’90s, a couple of friends would occasionally share drinks with Boyce at our favorite watering hole and I’m thinking that I met the songwriter at some point.

The Monkees – Pleasant Valley Sunday
from The Best Of The Monkees (2003)

It’s been rehashed ad infinitum how much credit The Monkees truly deserve for their musical success given that the band’s hits were written by outside writers. The breezy Pleasant Valley Sunday was penned by the legendary songwriting team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King.

The Monkees – Daydream Believer
from The Best Of The Monkees (2003)

I’d have to put Daydream Believer on any short list that I might compile of songs that make me involuntarily smile. It’s pure sunshine and about as bouncy a song as I can think of.

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“Life turns to minutes and minutes to memories…”

September 7, 2011

This morning, as I often do on mornings when I have time, I leisurely perused a number of music blogs that are favorites as I drank my coffee.

One of those blogs was Any Major Dude With Half A Heart who, on this particular morning, had posted a regular feature called In Memoriam, paying tribute to those involved in music that had recently passed away.

The last thing I expected to find in a music blog by a fellow who had grown up in Germany and is living in South Africa – if I have the plot straight – was mention of someone I personally knew.

Yet that is how I learned of the passing of George Green.

The name is unlikely to mean much to most unless they absorb liner notes with considerable recall, but music fans are likely familiar with songs which they probably (and mistakenly) attribute to having been written solely by John Mellencamp.

George had been the one who had penned the lyrics to songs like Hurts So Good, Crumblin’ Down, and Rain On The Scarecrow.

As a high school senior, a number of classmates had argued for Minutes To Memories from Mellencamp’s Scarecrow album, which had been released at the beginning of the school year, to be class song.

(we were growing up two hours from Mellencamp’s hometown)

Three years later, I’m in college and working in a record store with a woman, Kat, whose husband had written Minutes To Memories and that is how I got to know George.

As I recall, the first time that I met George was to ask if he would be willing to write a letter of recommendation for me for graduate school. Kat invited me over, introduced me to George, and promptly left the room.

I honestly don’t remember if he wrote the letter or not. We spent the afternoon listening to albums that he wanted me to hear.

(10cc’s How Dare You being one)

One thing that does become more obvious as the years pass and is that people who are a part of your life – sometimes even an intregal part – often drift out of your orbit. It’s been close to ten years since I last spoke with either Kat or George and I’ve often meant to make an attempt to reconnect with them, but…

I did have the chance on a number of occasions to spend time with George, though, and those are times that I treasure as he was a gifted writer and a good guy.

During those infrequent visits, he would often recite to me things that he had written, one being a poem that he had composed and read at his grandfather’s funeral.

It was a stunningly beautiful and poignant work.

This land, today, my tears shall taste
And take into its dark embrace
This love who in my beating heart endures
Assured by every sun that burns
The dust to which this flesh shall return
It is the ancient, dreaming dust of God

As special as that particular afternoon was, it’s one that I couldn’t truly appreciate at the time.

While I, with human-hindered eyes
Unequal to the sweeping curve of life
Stand on this single print of time

Only now, with the passage of time – and now the man – do I truly recognize that moment for the gift that it was.

Not long after, I was living in a different city, but having a conversation on the phone with Kat. As usual, I asked what George was working on.

She proceeded to tell me that he had a song on the then-forthcoming Mellencamp album.

I asked it it was anything with which I was familiar.

“Do you remember that poem…”

I admit that I was a bit skeptical. The poem was so amazing, so perfect, so brilliant and so fully realized.

I wondered if its use in a song might diminish the power of those words, words that needed nothing more than to be read in the unassuming Midwestern voice of their author.

I should have known better.

Human Wheels took love and grief – emotions that we all feel yet few of us can put into words – and put them into words.

I suppose that’s what great writers do. They take “the sweeping curve of life,” bear witness, and through their words make us feel more connected to one another.

At least that’s what George Green did.

John Mellencamp – Human Wheels
from Human Wheels


“The Biggest Man You Ever Seen”

June 21, 2011

It was June 9, 1984 – a Saturday – that I made it into Cincinnati and bought a copy of Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band’s Born In The U.S.A, which had been released five days earlier.

Though I knew a handful of songs by Springsteen from the radio, Born In The U.S.A. was his first album released with the E Street Band since I had become obsessed with music.

It was their first album where I was there.

It was the first album by the already-legendary band that I would own.

I was hardly alone as Springsteen brought a lot of new fans into the fold as Born In The U.S.A. sold millions, dominated the musical landscape, and the band embarked on a sell-out tour that seemed to last forever.

At that age, for me, it did seem like forever.

I had just finished my sophomore year of high school that Saturday when I purchased Born In The U.S.A. and I was making plans to come home for Thanksgiving from my first semester at college when the sprawling Live/1975–85 set was released at the tour’s culmination.

A year later, Tunnel Of Love arrived and though it was a success, there was no possibilty of maintaining the fervor that had surrounded Springsteen and a portion of that audience – for whom the music might have been no more than a trendy accessory – had moved on.

I was in for the long haul.

Oh, I didn’t become one of those Springsteen fans that can recite setlists at will, but each new release was anticipated and, as those releases became catalog, the music was cherished.

I wouldn’t see Springsteen live until ’96 when Paloma and I caught a show on his acoustic, solo tour for The Ghost Of Tom Joad. It was memorable, but, after years of reading of and seeing clips of Springsteen performing with the E Street Band…

Finally, in 2000, I had the chance to see the E Street Band on their reunion tour.

It was everything I’d read of, heard of, or been told of for twenty-some years and though it was the joyous three-hour celebration I’d been promised, but perhaps the most memorable moment had been the performance of the sparse, solemn If I Should Fall Behind near the end.

One by one, Bruce, Steve, Nils, and Patti stepped up to the mic, sang a portion of the song and stepped aside for a bandmate before surrendering the spotlight to Clarence, playing the sax and singing with Bruce.

It ended with the five of them crowded around that one mic together.

Of the however many hundreds of shows I’ve attended, I have never seen a band that seemed so genuinely happy to be together. There was a love and devotion between this somewhat disparate group of people that was palpable even from the cheap seats.

I left the arena that night knowing that – trademarked self-anointments be damned – I had just seen the greatest rock and roll band in the world.

(not to mention what must have been one really cool gang to be in)

I had one last chance to see them together, sharing a show with Paloma eight years later.

I’ve been surprised at how truly sad I have felt at the passing of The Big Man.

Maybe it’s because the E Street Band loomed so large during my sixteenth summer.

Maybe it’s because it seems as though this collection of scrappy underdogs has always been there and it seemed that they always would be.

Maybe it’s the stark reminder that not even The Boss is immune from the inexorable march of time.

And maybe it’s the realization that there is no more E Street Band.

Hours I’ve spent the past few days reading the recollections of fans and those tributes rightfully mention Springsteen classics like Rosalita, Thunder Road, Born To Run, and Jungleland, songs that were made transcendent by the sound of Clarence Clemons’ saxophone.

But it was none of those songs that I heard in my head upon learning of Clarence’s death.

Instead, the song that came to mind was one from Springsteen’s 1995 Greatest Hits set that had been newly recorded by the reunited E Street Band.

The song captured the bond between Bruce and his bandmates that, for me, made them a band for the ages and makes me grateful I got to witness some of it.

Buon viaggio, Big Man

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band – Blood Brothers
from Greatest Hits