Wednesday, March 7, 2012
Back when MTV still aired music videos instead of tanned trash, they devoted a good amount of air time to Monkees reruns to commemorate their 20th anniversary. Long story short - the network gifted the Pre-Fab(ricated) Four with a new audience, myself included. Seriously, I had it bad - I bought all the Rhino reissued vinyl, I collected the Tiger Beat and 16 issues devoted to them, I subscribed to Monkee Business fanzine, and I begged my mother to let me and my friend Angie go to Gainesville to see their reunion show. Fifteen years old, and granted permission to take my first overnight trip without adult supervision - just me, Angie, and her older sister...all to moon over three men twice our age. I still regard that experience as one of the best in my teen years - I still have the program, and a stack of dark photos taken a mile away of three Monkees blurs walking across a stage.
Now, we can argue about music quality and whether or not The Monkees deserve to be mentioned in the same breath with "real" musicians. As I understand it, Mike and Peter came to the Monkees with some musical ability - it wasn't really an issue of the Monkees being unable to play their own instruments, but rather were they allowed. This is one issue discussed in Eric Lefcowitz's Monkee Business, (AMZ) which is (according to a listing on Amazon.com) a revised and expanded edition of his original book The Monkees Tale. I had not read the original version of Tale, which I will presume ended the story somewhere in the 70s since ads for the book had run on MTV during the mania period and therefore would not have included that comeback history. A similar book, Monkeemania by Glen A. Baker, came out around the same time and seemed more accessible - I'd received that one for Christmas instead of the requested Tale, but unfortunately I no longer have it. I'll have to rely upon my faded memories of that book and the Peter Tork chapter of Bruce Pollock's When the Music Mattered to make any comparisons to Monkees Business in terms of accuracy.
I recall Lefcowitz from the many "Monkee Minutes" that aired on MTV in the mid-80s. They seemed to set him up as the de facto expert on the band, and we'd learn little tidbits like the story behind the UK alternate title to the song "Randy Scouse Git," and how Stephen Stills auditioned for the group, etc. I came into Monkee Business knowing much of the trivia and hoped that a revised edition of Tale-cum-Monkee Business might offer deeper insight into the band's story. When you really think about it, The Monkees and the people behind the brand (Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider, Don Kirscher, etc.) not only inspired much of what we see now on television and music ("boy bands", music videos) they pioneered practices that have influenced creative minds.
The TV series broke the "fourth wall" and allowed the band to speak to the public and expose the backdrop of their production. One scene where Micky leaves the set to talk to the show's writers probably worked as a gag on Family Guy at one point. I had hoped to read deep into the workings of the show and the creative process in the studio - one in which the group weren't necessarily encouraged to participate - but I have to admit Monkee Business left me wanting at times. The book was a quick read for me, one that gave the impression that I had read more of a detailed summary of The Monkees than a deep history.
To be fair, I'm writing this as somebody who went in knowing quite a bit about the show and group. A Monkees newbie may find Business a valuable source of information, and I will admit I learned a few things. I had not realized, for one, that many markets refused to air the show, and this contributed to lower Nielsen ratings. Also, while I'd assumed low ratings axed the series, I hadn't known that the group provided some push toward cancellation, and that the band still enjoyed some level of popularity in this time.
What struck me about the book, too, was the overall impression that most players in the story had been cast as unsympathetic. Rafelson and Schneider saw The Monkees mainly as a meal ticket and springboard toward better things (not untrue, Monkee profits in part allowed them to film Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces), while the band members themselves clashed personally and professionally. The suggestion of a long-running tendency toward self-sabotage did help me understand the dramatic career nosedive in the late 60s and again in the mid-80s - it still amazes me to think that one broken commitment to MTV spurred the network to shun the band altogether and foil any hopes of a lengthy comeback. A scene in The Simpsons has Marge discussing The Monkees with her therapist, who bellows that The Monkees weren't about music, they were about "rebellion"! Reading Business, one can see how that rebellion affected them negatively.
So, did I like the book? Well, yes and no. For me, Business served as a way to rejuvenate memories of my teen years and my free-fall into 80s Monkeemania. As a book, it didn't offer anything new to me aside from a few points of trivia and the revised, updated content, which covered the various reunions and projects in the 90s and early 21st century that I missed. Even then, all points seemed glossed over - they did this TV special, they made that album. They argued and split up again. For me, an ideal book on The Monkees would cover detailed anecdotes of show production and interaction with guest stars, and even recollections of actors who appeared as guests (Rose Marie and Monte Landis are still kicking, surely they have something to contribute). I remember in Monkeemania, for example, an incident where Mike Nesmith left Carole King in tears that was only glossed over in Lefcowitz's book. Were there more clashes between the front group and the wrecking crew working behind the scenes? What toll did Monkeemania in the 60s and 80s have on their relationships with family?
If you know absolutely nothing about the Monkees beyond the music they made and have come here by way of a search on Davy Jones's passing looking for more information, you will probably find something to enjoy in Monkees Business. The die hard fan like the ones who ran the fanzines and now operate the websites probably have more insight on the guys and would view this as a simple primer. As the band might put it, it's a stepping stone.
Kathryn Lively is a mystery author and freelance writer.