Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

Michael Nesmith, Manchester Royal Northern College Of Music

Posted in music by Andrew Hickey on October 29, 2012

This will necessarily be brief, because I only had four hours of sleep last night and I was incoherent even before seeing one of my musical idols. But I promised people a report on the gig, so here it is.

Much like the Beach Boys gigs in Italy, today was a day of coincidences. We’ve got a few people doing a six-week residency at my work, and just as I was leaving, one of them pointed to my Monkees T-shirt and said to me “My girlfriend [in the USian usage, for friend-who-is-female] got married by one of them. Mike… Nesmith, is it?” — Nesmith had officiated at her friend’s wedding. Not only that, but my colleague’s husband turns out to be one of The Golden Dawn, a classic 60s garage-psych band I like. So that was nice.

And then at the gig, after buying myself a T-shirt and a cut-priced box set of Nesmith’s last four albums (with free DVD), I took my seat — I had a great seat, third row centre. Not quite as close as Iain Lee’s description of being so close to Nez at Glasgow that he could see the shape of his penis, but then frankly that’s a good thing. Some things are better left to the imagination — or even better left unimagined.

I found myself sat next to the same person I’d been sat next to at the Monkees gig last year. I’m afraid I talked a bit too much at her, because when I’m this tired I have no filters, but on the upside she turned out to be a fan of classic Doctor Who and Canterbury scene prog, and generally to be a very interesting person. Who I’m sure I bored to death, but I shut up once Nesmith came on.

Nesmith’s show is absolutely stunning. His voice is almost unchanged since the 70s, and those rough edges it does have just give it a worn, comforting quality that, if anything, improves it. And he’s such a great natural singer that he manages to work around the limitations his age imposes in much the same way that someone like Tony Bennett does. He’s got a gorgeous, rich baritone, and I hadn’t realised just how *bloody good* he is until hearing him live.

He was backed by Joe Chemay, who he’s played with since 1979 (and who also played with the Beach Boys in the late 70s), on bass and backing vocals, and by Charlie Judge on keyboards and computers.

Because Nesmith has *radically* rearranged some of these songs, to incorporate electronic soundscapes, beats and samples. This has been the most controversial decision of this tour, but it’s both absolutely right and absolutely wrong. On songs like Silver Moon and Rio, it doesn’t work very well, and it ends up sounding a bit 80s cheese, like someone backing themselves with a Casio keyboard. But on the other hand, on Grand Ennui the result was something like Tom Waits by way of the Radiophonic Workshop, while Laugh Kills Lonesome became space age lounge music, something like Cornelius remixing Esquivel.

Possibly the most interesting reworking was Different Drum, which he performed in waltz-time, to a backing of accordion sounds, and which ended up sounding remarkably like Leonard Cohen.

I’d rather see a performer experiment and fail than not experiment at all, and the experiments worked more often than not. But for those who wanted him to do everything exactly as he used to, many of the most famous songs — Some Of Shelly’s Blues, Propinquity, Papa Gene’s Blues, Tapioca Tundra, Joanne — were done pretty much straight, and worked as well as ever. And the computers were also used on the last song to allow them to fly in Red Rhodes’ original pedal steel solo for Thanx For The Ride, which was a beautiful moment.

The songs worked better than ever, in fact — one thing that people have not properly mentioned in reviews is the way Nez has set the songs up. In order to make them fresh for himself and the audience, he tells a little… story isn’t *quite* the right word, maybe scenario?… before each one, describing a context in which the songs could happen. These are very visual descriptions, told in Nez’s wonderful Jimmy Stewart voice, and they do conjure up very vivid images in the head while listening to the songs. It’s easy to see why he took to making videos with such enthusiasm — the descriptions sound like storyboards for videos.

The interesting thing about these is that the contextualising does help give the songs new meanings. Some Of Shelly’s Blues and Different Drum, for example, are both songs I like a lot but which have a macho arrogance and callousness to them that makes it hard for me to love them. The settings Nez describes manage to remove that sting and make them both seem much more compassionate, empathetic songs, and all the better for it.

The best of these, though, was actually one he read from a book — Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling’s conversation about fate, writing and how art becomes the property of the reader, as recounted in Craig Brown’s Hello Goodbye Hello — which manages actually to make Tapioca Tundra’s lyrics make some kind of sense.

To give some idea of how great Nez is as a live performer, when I saw the other three Monkees last year, even when they were posing for photos outside before the show, I was hit with a rush of childhood nostalgia. “That’s Micky! Off of the Monkees! Off of the telly! It’s MICKY!!!” — they were great, but they could have been godawful and I’d have loved them because I reverted to being eight years old.

On the other hand, when Nesmith mentioned the Monkees, which he did two or three times, I actually thought for half a second “Why’s he talking about the Monkees? Oh yeah! Michael Nesmith is Mike out of the Monkees, isn’t he?” — I was so lost in the music and the show that the fact that the little old man who was playing, talking and singing had a connection to a TV show I loved as a kid (and still love as an adult, of course) was about as important as what brand of shoes he was wearing. I was watching someone with a remarkable voice (and, other than Brian Wilson’s, the most infectious smile of anyone I’ve ever seen) performing songs that are equal parts Cole Porter and Hank Williams, that make up one of the most remarkable catalogues in modern popular music, and that’s pretty much all I was thinking about.

This has been a wonderful year for gigs. I’ve seen Neil Innes play to an audience of about fifty people, and the Beach Boys fill stadia, I’ve seen Ray Davies play Autumn Almanac with just an acoustic guitar, and Van Dyke Parks play Heroes & Villains with the Britten Sinfonia. In a year of wonderful performances by great eccentric 1960s songwriters, it’s impossible to choose a best, but Nesmith’s show was at least comparable to all of those.

He hasn’t toured the UK solo since before I was born, and has barely ever gigged, so it’s not likely you’ll get to see him if you’re reading this and haven’t (although he’s touring the US with the Monkees in a couple of weeks, doing a very different, but undoubtedly excellent, kind of show). But in the unlikely event you do get a chance, *GO*.

Setlist was Papa Gene’s Blues – Propinquity (I’ve Just Begun To Care) – Tomorrow And Me – Grand Ennui – Different Drum – Joanne – Silver Moon – Some Of Shelly’s Blues – Tapioca Tundra – Rio – Casablanca Moonlight – Crusin – Life,The Unsuspecting Captive – Marie’s Theme – Prison Closing Theme – Laugh Kills Lonesome – Thanx For The Ride

The Wrecking [History] Crew

Posted in music by Andrew Hickey on October 26, 2012

Proper blog post tomorrow, but I just wanted to rant:

One of the most annoying things in the world is the way the fantasies spread by Carol Kaye are destroying music business history. For years people claimed — because of Kaye and a few others — that the Beach Boys never played on any of their records, and the Wrecking Crew did everything. In fact the only albums where the Wrecking Crew played the majority of the instruments were Summer Days and Pet Sounds.

Similarly, I *keep* seeing people saying that the Wrecking Crew played on the Monkees’ hits. No, they didn’t.  Looking at their famous hits, The Candy Store Prophets played on Last Train To Clarksville, She, I’m Not Your Stepping Stone, Valleri and Words. New York musicians whose names we don’t know played on I’m A Believer and A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You. And the Monkees themselves (sometimes augmented, but as the core of the band, and never by the Wrecking Crew) played on Daydream Believer, Pleasant Valley Sunday, Goin’ Down and Randy Scouse Git.

Here, for the record, is every Monkees song on any of their studio albums or singles that featured mainly Wrecking Crew members (from a list of hundreds of songs) :

Papa Gene’s Blues
Sweet Young Thing
I Don’t Think You Know Me (first version) — not released til the 90s, but I’m being generous here
Mary Mary
The Kind Of Girl I Could Love
The Day We Fall In Love
Laugh
Dream World
We Were Made For Each Other
The Poster
I Won’t Be The Same Without Her
Someday Man
A Man Without A Dream

I may have missed one or two, as I just scanned through the sessionographies, but that’s the lot.

The Wrecking Crew played on many, many great records. But no matter how often Carol Kaye chooses to lie through her teeth, they didn’t play on the Motown hits, they didn’t play on Light My Fire by the Doors, and they didn’t play on any of the significant Monkees records. They also played on far fewer Beach Boys records than people think.

Me On The Radio (Davy Jones)

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on March 1, 2012

I just recorded a rather stuttery interview with Alan Simpson for BBC Radio Ulster, about Davy Jones. I did about five or six minutes, and that will be broadcast, intercut with Monkees music (and hopefully with some of my repe- re- repetition, repetiton, repetition and st-stu-stuttering cut out) some time between three and five today. Those of you who use Flash can hear it on BBC iPlayer. I don’t think I came off particularly well – I’ve got a migraine today – but I hope I did Davy justice.

I may be posting something to the Mindless Ones site about Davy and the Monkees tonight, but then I’ll not be talking about this much more.

RIP Davy Jones

Posted in music by Andrew Hickey on February 29, 2012

Some people have said that in my book on the Monkees I’m a little harsh on Davy Jones. It’s entirely possible that I am. But even so, he was capable of some great music, like this:

The thing is, Jones was primarily an actor, rather than a singer or songwriter, which is why he doesn’t come across especially well in my book, because it focuses on the music. Were I talking about the band as *entertainers* though, I would have placed Jones at the top of the list. The man had a stunning stage presence, was effortlessly funny, and seemed a genuinely decent person (as for example in this anecdote from Mark Evanier about an appearance from only a couple of weeks ago)

Davy Jones made my childhood happier with his TV show, and he made my adulthood happier with his work on some of my favourite albums and in one of my favourite films. I feel very, very lucky that I got to see him live on what must now be the last ever Monkees tour.

I have a horrible feeling that my Monkees book will start to sell more, now, for all the wrong reasons. I don’t want to profit off the death of a man I admire, so any profits I make from sales of my Monkees book in March will be given to a Manchester-based charity (since Davy was from Manchester and I live there, I thought that a donation to improve the city he came from would be a good way to go). At the moment, I’m leaning towards the Booth Centre, a drop-in centre for homeless people, but if anyone has any better suggestions let me know in the comments.

Meanwhile, here’s a spotify playlist of some of his best moments as a singer (not all of them — Spotify doesn’t have his lovely version of Nine Times Blue, or the cast album for The Point, or his version of McCartney’s Man We Was Lonely). When he was good, he was *bloody* good, wasn’t he?

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Review: Monkee Business by Eric Lefcowitz

Posted in books, music by Andrew Hickey on December 13, 2011

Rather surprisingly for such a hugely successful band, there are very few actual books on the Monkees. Other than annuals and fan cash-ins from the 60s, some ebooks that appear to be just articles culled from Wikipedia, some self-published fan-fiction on Lulu and a notoriously-inaccurate book called Monkeemania that at one point confuses Micky Dolenz with Micky Kantner from Jefferson Starship, there are only six real books I know of, and luckily for Monkees fans they all cover slightly different areas.

Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz have both written insubstantial autobiographies, there’s an unauthorised biography of Michael Nesmith, there’s my own book (a song-by-song critical analysis), there’s Andrew Sandoval’s day-by-day look at everything the band did (Sandoval has actually written probably another book’s worth of text on the band in his extensive liner notes for the band’s reissues), and there’s this book, the only narrative biography of the band I know of.

Originally published as The Monkees Tale, this was reissued in an expanded version this year – unfortunately just *before* the Dolenz/Jones/Tork reunion tour was announced, thus making what was an up-to-the-minute biography instantly dated.

How interesting it will be for fans will depend on how familiar the reader is with Lefcowitz’s source material. While he conducted a long interview with Peter Tork for the original book, and apparently interviewed Michael Nesmith on more than one occasion, almost every quote in the book from a band member appears to be traceable to two documentaries from the late 90s – Hey, Hey, We’re The Monkees and E! True Hollywood Story.

This may not, though, be Lefcowitz’s fault – all the band members, especially Jones, have spent the last forty-five years telling anecdotes about the same two-year period of their lives, and they have refined everything into smooth, streamlined, versions they can rattle off without thinking. Whenever he’s asked about Tork, Jones will say “Hare Krishna, brown rice and waterbeds”, Dolenz will always say of his trip to England “I’m told I had a great time”, and so on. It’s entirely possible that Lefcowitz’s interviews ended up revealing little that was not already available on the public record in the same words.

Rather less forgivable are the occasional factual errors – errors that access to Sandoval’s book would easily have cleared up. Lefcowitz claims, for example, that Tork had little involvement in Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn And Jones, Ltd, when Tork is on almost every track on that album. He also claims that Jones appeared in Coronation Street only after moving to London, when in fact Coronation Street is filmed in Manchester, where Jones grew up, and that Hal Blaine was a member of the Candy Store Prophets (he wasn’t).

The book also has a large number of typos and proofreading errors, possibly because it’s been published by a small press. Coronation Street is, for example, a ‘soap operation’. There are also some unusual stylistic quirks, like an overuse of hyphens, that a professional editor would probably have smoothed out.

Nonetheless, this is an engrossing book. Lefcowitz pulls everything together into a narrative, and one that does justice to the facts (rather than, as all too often, claiming the Monkees’ commercial failures began as soon as Don Kirshner stopped being involved). He is clearly passionate about the band and the music, and while this can be a double-edged sword (he dismisses outright everything the band did post-Pisces, with the exception of the Head soundtrack, and regards some of Nesmith’s best work as attempts at sabotage), his very personal viewpoint allows him to tell this as a story, rather than a recitation of dry facts.

This does, however, mean Lefcowitz plays favourites. The story that clearly comes through in most tellings of the Monkees’ career is a battle for dominance between Nesmith the artist and Jones the star. Here, though, Nesmith’s manipulation of the band (which at times can appear to have been near-psychopathic, though he appears to have mellowed enormously in the ensuing decades and may now be the most well-adjusted band member) is excused at every turn, as Lefcowitz appears to have a huge respect for him. Jones, on the other hand, is pilloried as a talentless, deluded narcissist, quisling and shortarse. It’s not surprising that Nesmith is the only band member who is thanked in the acknowledgements.

In this battle of the egos, the (comparatively) more modest Dolenz and Tork don’t get a great deal of discussion, though Lefcowitz’s admiration for Dolenz’s vocals is apparent. In particular, the Tork/Nesmith feud seems barely dealt with. It’s always seemed odd that the two band members who most wanted the band to be actual musicians fell out so completely, and Lefcowitz never explains this, just stating in passing three-quarters of the way through that the two loathed each other.

Tork seems, in fact, to be a fascinating character, and it’s a shame that he’s the only band member not to have had any kind of biography out, as he’s intelligent, articulate and musicianly.

It might seem that I’m being unduly harsh on Lefcowitz, but overall I was very impressed with the book. Yes, it has faults, and it’s not quite a definitive biography, but compared to some of the utter drivel that has been published about some of the band’s contemporaries, it’s a minor miracle that the one Monkees biography is this readable.

It won’t tell the die-hard fans much that they don’t already know, and I’d advise anyone reading it to have a copy of Sandoval on hand to double-check the facts against, but for anyone who wants to read the Monkees’ story, we can be glad that the one place to do it is as decent as this is.

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