Cerebus – the full three hundred issue story – is, if not the greatest art-work of the twentieth century, at least a strong contender for that role.
That may sound like hyperbole, but it’s not intended to be. And it’s not a statement made through ignorance. Place it up against any of the obvious contenders – Ulysses, The Rite Of Spring, Citizen Kane, King Kong, Revolver, Rhapsody In Blue, The Wasteland, Pet Sounds – any work of high or low culture, any revolutionary piece that overturned ways of thinking or any culmination of centuries’ worth of art – and I guarantee that it will match them for technical skill, for formal innovation, for emotional depth, for the number of ideas in there, and also for entertainment value. There are pieces of art I prefer to Cerebus, but I honestly can’t think of any that I can say are better.
But while Cerebus is a great work, it’s also a great body of work. From 1977 to 2004 – a period longer than, for example, the whole run of the original series of Doctor Who, a period that spanned punk at one end and the invasion of Iraq at the other – Dave Sim (and, from 1984 on, Gerhard, who drew the backgrounds), wrote, drew, lettered and published an average of five pages a day of a single story.
I can’t think of another example in history where that’s been the case, where an artist has made a single work the whole of their professional life. A few examples come close – Charles Schulz, for example, drew Peanuts for forty-nine years – but Peanuts isn’t a continuing narrative. You can read any of the strips in any order and be at no disadvantage. On the other hand, if you were to pick up (to pick an issue at random) Cerebus #273, you’d see an aardvark who thinks he’s a superpowered rabbi trying and failing to detach his foreskin, jumping and breaking his leg, then 16 pages of white lettering on a black background with no other pictures. We won’t even get into the essay at the back…
There’s something magnificent in this, the sheer chutzpah of deciding aged twenty-one what you’re going to be doing aged forty-eight and sticking to the plan, of sitting down every day for twenty-seven years and drawing one more page in the same story. As someone who merely said he was going to do a blog post about Cerebus every week – and is two weeks behind on the second one – that’s a level of discipline I find hard to comprehend.
But it means that all Sim’s ideas, all his obsessions, everything in his life entered the same story. As someone, I forget who, put it, Sim’s achievement is roughly equivalent to Alan Moore – if Moore had drawn, as well as written, Watchmen,From Hell, Promethea, Swamp Thing, Lost Girls, Marvelman, A Disease Of Language and A Small Killing – and if every one of those stories had been part of one larger story starring Maxwell The Magic Cat.
But of course, this also means that the beginning of the story is a bit of a slog (and that I’ll have less to say about this volume than about later ones). Sim started out as a 21-year-old with little obvious talent. The first few issues of Cerebus are very obviously in thrall to two creators. As an artist, Sim desperately wants to be Barry Windsor-Smith, while as a writer he clearly admires Steve Gerber. You could have worse models, of course, but it leads to the first few issues being like this:
These first few issues are essentially just Barry Windsor-Smith Conan comics, but with the title character replaced by an aardvark, with ‘hilarious’ consequences.
But what’s fascinating about this first volume is just how quickly Sim grows as an artist and writer, and how soon he starts pushing the boundaries of what’s doable in comics. By issue twenty (of the twenty-five included in this volume) we get this:
Read page by page, the grey and black areas represented different states of consciousness in which Cerebus, drugged by a kidnapper, talks alternately with that kidnapper and a telepathic communication from elsewhere, but the comic as a whole made the image above. When Alan Moore and J.H. Williams did the same thing thirty years later it was praised as wildly innovative, but Sim not only did it first, but had it make more in-story sense and had form and function fit better.
Over the course of this ‘phonebook’ (as the trade paperbacks of Cerebus are referred to – they’re often over 500 pages long, and printed on cheap newsprint, much like the Marvel Essential or DC Showcase series. Among the many things in the comic industry Sim pioneered was the now-standard practice of keeping everything in print permanently in trade paperbacks) one can see Sim shake off the influence of Barry Windsor-Smith and start trying on a variety of different styles. My particular favourite in this one is this Eisner-inspired panel from issue 11:
But he was still definitely learning at this point, and also struggling with keeping to a regular schedule – one can often see the linework getting sloppier towards the end of an issue as he rushes to complete it by the deadline. At this time as well, Sim was still obviously having difficulty integrating the cartoony Cerebus into the more ‘realistic’ world he was creating:
From very early on, though, we start seeing the characters who will form the supporting cast for the first 200 of Cerebus’ 300 issues. In issue three we get Red Sophia, an airheaded parody of Robert E Howard’s ‘female Conan’ Red Sonja:
Issue four gives us Sim’s first really inspired creation, Elrod of Melvinbone. The albino last ruler of a dying race, with his black sword Seersucker, Elrod is Moorcock’s Elric in body, but with the vocal mannerisms of Foghorn Leghorn. Looney Tunes cartoons would be one of the main inspirations for this early phase of Sim’s work:
Issue six brings us Jaka, a dancer who Cerebus is drugged into loving and then forgets – for now. Their romance becomes one of the major driving forces of the story:
There’s also the Cockroach – a mentally unstable man who takes on various guises throughout the series – The Cockroach, Captain Cockroach, Moon Roach, Wolveroach and so on – in a parody of the superhero genre that clearly (ahem) ‘inspired’ The Tick a few years later:
And we have the first of the real-life figures (of sorts) to make his way into the story, in the person of Lord Julius, the rather familiar-seeming ruler of Palnu, who rules by instilling so much confusion in the bureaucracy that he’s the only one who understands the system:
While introducing these characters, in stories that are mostly one-off stories (with the occasional two- or three-parter) parodying other comics (we have Professor Charles X Claremont’s School For Girls and the first meeting of Sump Thing and Woman Thing, for example) Sim slowly sets up the background against which the first two hundred of his three hundred issues will be played. Lord Julius is ruling the city-state of Palnu and is the most important political figure at the moment. ‘President Weisshaupt’ (a George Washington lookalike – a reference to the conspiracy theory that Adam Weisshaupt, head of the Illuminati, replaced Washington) is trying to take over the United Feldwar States.
There are various tribes of barbarians to the North, and there are at least three other groups – the Cirinists, a group who at this point seem like nuns, whose ‘only goal is to wipe out fun in our lifetime’, who worship the goddess Terim (rather than the god Tarim, worshipped by Cerebus), and whose holy book is called “The New Matriarchy”, the Illusionists, led by Suenteus Po, who at this point seem to be hippies-cum-Buddhists, who mostly just want to smoke dope and be left alone, and the Kevilists, about whom we’re only told they exist.
The power struggle between these different groups will power the main plotlines for Cerebus’ first eighteen years or so, but we also have some of the themes that will come up over and over again cropping up here. Two separate groups (the Pigts, led by Bran Mak Muffin, and the Cirinists) decide they want to worship Cerebus as the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy. We have several oppositions between male and female (and a third, neutral, force) from Cerebus’ fight with Red Sophia through to the meeting of Sump Thing and Woman Thing. And we already have the sense that Cerebus is very important to all the groups and individuals who are jostling for supreme power, and that political and religious power are closer in this world than in ours.
Cerebus gives little clue as to just how great a cartoonist Dave Sim was soon to become, but of its twenty-five issues, maybe ten of them are at least as good as anything of its time. Had Sim given up after these issues (and had the rest of comics continued on the same course – an incredibly unlikely event, as for all that Sim has been airbrushed out of comics history he was probably the single most influential creator of the 80s) Cerebus would be remembered now as a pretty good Howard The Duck knock-off with a few funny gags and some nice ideas.
But it got much, much better quickly.
Next week (honestly, I promise) High Society
I’d planned to do this later in the week, but Xianrex asked me on Twitter if I had a list of twenty Monkees songs for the neophyte, and in fact just last night I put together this twenty-song playlist. I’m posting it now, before finishing the Cerebus post, because my wife’s not a Monkees fan, and she’s out – I don’t especially want to subject her to multiple plays through of this music while I write about it.
I’ve been asked about this because I’ve been hugely excited that I’ve this week bought tickets to see the reunited Monkees (minus Mike Nesmith, who has decided to spend the time rolling around in his estimated $300M fortune and going “ha ha ha! I have *ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD!” Probably.) and most people have been saying “You mean the Monkees as in on the TV show? Why on Earth would you do that?”
I’m doing that because the run of four albums Headquarters, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd, The Birds, The Bees And The Monkees and Head is about as good as any four-album run in popular music, is the simple answer. But to explain why, before I get to talking about the individual tracks here, I’ll just deal with the two most common criticisms of the band.
The first one, and the stupidest, is “they didn’t play on their records!”.
It’s true that on the first two albums (of the nine they released during their original period together) they didn’t play on the backing tracks (though apparently Peter Tork added a few bits of guitar and banjo even there). That was, however, just common practice at that time. The Byrds didn’t play on Mr Tambourine Man, The Beach Boys barely played on anything during their commercial peak, the Mothers Of Invention were ‘augmented’ on their first album by session players, there are a couple of tracks on Forever Changes where Love don’t play, the Rip Chords didn’t even *sing*, let alone play, on their hit Hey Little Cobra… even in the UK, where the notion of the band was stronger, Ray Davies and Mick Avory of the Kinks didn’t play on their early records, Ringo didn’t play on Love Me Do, Jimmy Page filled out the sound of early Who records, and so on.
And unlike those other bands, the Monkees had a rather good excuse – they weren’t, at least to start with, a band. Rather they were performers in a TV show *about* a band. As they often say themselves, “no-one complains that William Shatner never really captained a Starship”.
What *is* worth noting is that after those first two albums, they *did* take control of their own music – even on the first album Mike Nesmith was writing songs for the band and producing tracks, in fact – and that the music *got better* when they got rid of the professional session musicians, producers and songwriters (or hired some of them on the Monkees’ own terms). On top of that they had the artistic bravery to make Head – a film which, as my friend Tdaschel puts it, is in a genre with only one other example, Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels. (Head both came first and is far more adventurous than Zappa’s film. It also features Zappa in a cameo, along with Sonny Liston, Victor Mature and Jack Nicholson. Nicholson also wrote the script).
The other criticism is that they were a purely manufactured band. This is true – and it’s actually their greatest strength. Under normal circumstances, it’s impossible to imagine these four people ever working together. Micky Dolenz is a former child star who just happened to turn into one of the great soul vocalists of all time (it’s not just me who says that – Carole King apparently thinks Dolenz is the greatest interpreter of her songs ever, which given that she’s had songs performed by everyone from the Beatles to James Taylor by way of the Righteous Brothers and the Beach Boys says a lot). Mike Nesmith is an intensely literate country songwriter and vocalist, someone who manages to tie the simplicity and emotional power of country music of the Steve Earle or Willie Nelson style to a literate, complex lyrical style. Peter Tork is a folk and blues musician, and a virtuoso on several different instruments. And Davy Jones is a great song and dance man and showman.
To show the differences between them, we just have to look at the songs they perform (or performed) as their solo spots on Monkees reunion tours. Micky will sing the blues song Since I Fell For You (most famously performed by Nina Simone). Mike would perform his solo hit Rio. Peter would perform a Bach two-part invention, and Davy would sing a medley of songs from Oliver! (he originated the role of the Artful Dodger on Broadway).
That combination would never, under normal circumstances, have been brought together. They’re neither musically, nor by all accounts personally, compatible in any normal sense, but it gave their music a breadth and diversity matched by few other bands.
This playlist is a mixture of hits, fan-favourites and genuine obscurities that I’ve put together to try to explain why I think the Monkees deserve to be treated as one of the more interesting, inventive, and talented bands of the 60s. It’s biased towards songs by Mike, and towards songs with Micky on lead, because those are my personal favourites, but I hope it gives a good flavour of the band as a whole.
St Matthew from the rarities collection Missing Links Vol 2 is a country song written and sung by Mike Nesmith. The lyrics to this actually remind me of Leonard Cohen, but musically this – and many of Nesmith’s other songs from this era – could only be described as psych-country, with the ‘heavy’ sound of the era applied to arrangements that are at base standard country songs. This is the kind of thing that Gram Parsons would get a huge amount of credit for several years later.
(I Prithee) Do Not Ask For Love is a very odd track indeed – a pseudo-Elizabethan, almost madrigal, song by Nesmith’s friend Michael Murphy, turned into a baroque pop track by Nesmith’s production. This was actually recorded with vocals by three different band members – a version sung by Tork appeared on the 331/3 Revolutions Per Monkee TV special, and this backing track with vocals by Jones appeared as a bonus track on the CD release of More Of The Monkees. It’s sung here, though, by Micky, who is far and away the best vocalist in the band. This version is also from Missing Links vol 2.
Randy Scouse Git is written and sung by Micky and is from Headquarters, the band’s third album, on which they played all the instruments themselves. It manages to go through an astonishing array of different musical styles in its 2:34, from angry almost proto-punk to scat-sung semi-jazz. The fact that Micky didn’t actually know what a ‘randy Scouse git’ was when he wrote the song just makes it all the better.
Calico Girlfriend Samba is a Nesmith song that was recorded for The Monkees Present but not released until it became a bonus track on the CD reissue (though Nesmith later recorded it on his solo album Magnetic South. It is, as the title suggests, a samba, and a good one.
Mommy And Daddy is a rather sixth-formish political song by Micky, a bonus track on The Monkees Present, but it’s quite astonishing sounding, sounding to me like an early 80s post-punk thing far more than late 60s pop – until the ending, which is pure 60s pop apart from the dissonant horns and throbbing drums.
A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You is a non-album single included as a bonus track on Headquarters. A Neil Diamond song, this shows just what a master songwriting craftsman Diamond is, under his Vegas exterior. Davy Jones does a decent enough job on lead vocals.
Magnolia Simms is a Nesmith song, a gorgeous Western Swing number made to sound like an authentic 1920s 78, right down to the slight speed wobble and the needle hiss. (And note that this was from more than a year before the Beatles did something similar with Honey Pie). Nesmith is the only Monkee credited on this track, the rest of the instruments being provided by session musicians, but as well as Nesmith’s guitar there’s definitely a ukulele on there, and I think either a mandolin or banjo as well. I wonder if they were Tork?
Propinquity (I’ve Just Begun To Care is another Nesmith country song, left unreleased in this version until the Missing Links Vol 3 rarities collection. Nesmith gave this song to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and later recorded it himself on his solo album Nevada Fighter. As with many of Nesmith’s songs, this sounds now ‘just’ like extremely good country-rock, but Nesmith invented country-rock – this was before Gram Parsons and Gene Clark started following in Nesmith’s footsteps.
Cripple Creek is a low-fi live recording from 1967. I’ve included this because Peter Tork is often overlooked in the Monkees, because he took very few leads on the studio recordings (the only ones on the ‘canonical’ albums are the comedy track Your Aunty Grizelda and the second verse of awful ballad Shades Of Grey). However, he was the only first-rate instrumentalist in the band – and a multi-instrumentalist at that. This live performance shows off his banjo-picking on an old-time folk song.
Two Part Invention In F Major and here’s Tork on the piano, playing a Bach piece. He fluffs a couple of notes, but then this was just him playing around in the studio between takes, not intended for release. Pretty good for someone in a band who ‘couldn’t play their instruments’ – especially as keyboard is Tork’s third instrument, after banjo and guitar.
Don’t Call On Me is Nesmith stepping outside of his comfort zone, providing a gorgeous soft/lounge pop-jazz song in the vein of Paul Williams or Burt Bacharach. Melodically similar to Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying, Nesmith actually wrote this long before joining the Monkees, and it’s hard to see why it was left until the band’s fourth album, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd, before they recorded this. Nesmith’s lead vocal also sounds utterly different to anything else he did.
Cuddly Toy is another track off Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd, this time written by Harry Nilsson. The bouncy, cheery melody covers up possibly the most vicious, misogynistic, nasty lyric ever written in pop music (though Nilsson was, of course, writing in character). Davy Jones takes the lead, and Micky is harmonising with him.
Love Is Only Sleeping a song from the Barry Mann/Cynthia Weill songwriting team, this actually sounds like a Nesmith original. A psych-country track in the vein of What Condition My Condition Was In, this has a driving riff in 7/4 time and a great air of menace. From Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd.
Goin’ Down was a B-side, now included as a bonus track on Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd, that grew out of a jam session around Mose Allison’s Parchman Farm. This is one of the most startlingly good vocal performances in the Monkees’ repertoire, with Micky Dolenz apparently effortlessly managing a song whose rapid flow of syllables would tie the tongue of pretty much any rapper. The lyric (about an attempted suicide by drowning who eventually decides just to float down the river on his back) is a great one too, though it takes many listens to make it all out.
Porpoise Song is the theme from Head, the Monkees’ film, and seems to have been written by Goffin and King as a parody of psychedelia – certainly I can’t imagine them writing lyrics like “a face, a voice, an overdub has no choice, an image cannot rejoice” with a straight face (the line “riding the backs of giraffes for laughs is all right for a while” is a reference to the TV show Circus Boy, on which Micky had been a child star). But musically it’s gorgeous, and the vocals (by Micky on the verses and Davy on the choruses) absolutely sell the song. Jack Nitzsche’s arrangement is also stunning – the coda, with diving bells (representing the images in the film, where the band have all committed suicide by drowning at the start) is an extraordinary piece of arrangement work.
She Hangs Out is a great little garage rocker by Jeff Barry, of the sort that could have been done by a thousand bands of the time, but is still enjoyable enough. Davy turns in one of his better vocals here. From Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd
The Door Into Summer is, yet again, from Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd (guess my favourite Monkees album? Bet you can’t…) . Written by the band’s producer Chip Douglas and Nesmith’s friend Bill Martin, this is a country rocker based on a Robert Heinlein science fiction novel, with Nesmith on lead.
A gorgeous Paul Williams/Roger Nichols soft pop song, this was the B-side to Listen To The Band and was eventually released on CD as a bonus track on Instant Replay, the band’s first album after Peter Tork left. Structurally, this is fascinating, with all sorts of different little melodies coming and going, and shows again why the easy listening and soft-pop end of the musical spectrum from that time is far more interesting than much of the supposedly more ‘progressive’ music of the same period. Davy Jones sings lead, and does a far better job than you’d expect.
Daddy’s Song is another Nilsson song, this time a Broadway-style uptempo song-and-dance number about Nilsson’s parents’ divorce. In the film Head this was sung by Davy Jones, but this version, a bonus track on the soundtrack album, has Nesmith singing lead in the style he used on Magnolia Simms.
Daydream Believer You probably know, but it’s still one of the best singles ever recorded. Written by folk musician John Stewart, this is sung by Davy Jones and has Peter Tork on piano – apparently the only track on The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees on which Tork features, the band having started to drift apart by that point (Tork would remain for one more album, Head, before quitting). Tork also arranged the track.
I’m working on my Cerebus post now – expect it some time this evening, with a Pet Sounds one tonight, and the next part of How We Know What We Know tomorrow. But I’ve got a question:
I’ve got a pretty good idea for an interesting science fiction novel, and I’ve been planning to serialise it on here. But working out the plot, I’ve hit a brick wall. I’ve got my protagonist, my antagonist, a big mystery, several smaller mysteries, the conflict between protagonist and antagonist and the cause of that conflict. I’ve got a theme, and a science fiction idea I actually think hasn’t been done before. What I haven’t got – and what I can’t see any way to get – is a way to satisfactorily resolve the conflict.
Now the way I’m planning on structuring this is as twelve independent short stories, each of which can be read on their own, but which fit into a wider framework, with at least some jumping around in place and time rather than being a strictly linear story. Think of it like a TV series with a ‘story arc’ but independent episodes. But for this to work I would *need* to have the principal conflict come to a head in about the ninth story, and I’ve hit a brick wall in my planning there.
Should I start writing and posting these stories – at a rate of roughly one a week – and hope that I get an idea within the two months or more it would take for me to get to that point (or that an idea falls out of what I write in that time), and take a chance on leaving the story unfinished, or should I wait til I’ve got everything worked out?
The results of my Kindle sale have been mixed – per-day sales tripled during the last week. Unfortunately, I’d need to sell ten times as many books to make the same amount I was making previously. So at 5PM UK time I’m going to return my books to the original, still-pretty-cheap, $5 price.
Cerebus post tonight (ETA make that tomorrow night. Migraine. Hate everything