Review: Monkee Business by Eric Lefcowitz

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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