Monkee On His Back

Every year in springtime music-bizzers -- songwriters, producers, agents, players, critics, programmers, sycophants -- gather in the muggy city of Austin, Texas, for South by Southwest, an industry gathering during which they booze and schmooze and take a stab at shaping the future of rock and roll. As the Nineties broke, just after sunrise, Jim Johnson was at the wheel of a van pushing across the emptiness of Texas on his way to the conference. That's when it dawned on him. The world was quiet, and Johnson was lost in his thoughts, pondering tribute records in particular, music in general, and one of his fave bands, the Monkees. The dust kicked and the sun awoke, sky brightening, and Johnson looked forward, at that moment deciding a Monkees tribute album was an idea worthy of further consideration.

When he broached the subject at the conference, reactions ranged from interested to amused. Back home in Atlanta, Johnson, perhaps best known for his work with Miami expatriates the Chant, launched the project, but soon hit a roadblock. "The problem was monetary," Johnson says now. "I had a house and car to pay for." One band, Opium Hello, had submitted its version of a Monkees tune, "Sweet Young Thing," recorded with the band's own money and initiative. Others began contributing, and soon Johnson had a smattering of examples of the sort of things he hoped would constitute the finished record.

A year passed, money was short, but Johnson wasn't yet ready to abandon his idea. He returned to South by Southwest, this time with tape in hand, hoping that someone would like what had been done so far and back the completion. "I gave out about 50 tapes," he recalls. "And I got no response at all."

In Atlanta the Chant was working with the DB Records label, where Steve Pilon had been employed for about five years. Johnson's undertaking was almost complete, but all the money was gone again, and it seemed that the tribute would die.

Exactly one year ago, Pilon formed his own label, Long Play, which released an album by Big Fish Ensemble in April. It met with some success, more than expected, Pilon says. (Ironically, Big Fish Ensemble had already recorded their Monkees cover, "Last Train to Clarksville," before Long Play released their album.) Pilon was prepared to follow with another Long Play release, and he chose Johnson's Monkees project. "Steve had always been behind it," Johnson says, "and he wanted to put it out. With their machinery, the Big Fish release going well, and their contacts, it was easy for me to say, `Okay.'" At the beginning of November, nearly three years after Johnson first thought of it, Long Play issued Here No Evil: A Tribute to the Monkees. The initial run, 5000 pressings on cassette and CD, has already sold out; more will be manufactured soon.

The prefab four are in memory trapped in that not-so-pleasant valley between the mountain of artistic legitimacy and the steep cliff of disposable hyprockracy. To ponderers, the Monkees were judged to be either appealing entertainers who cleverly and sincerely gave the masses just what they wanted, or well-trained posers manipulating the suckers. Mickey, Davy, Mike, and Peter would eventually find their legacy nestled somewhere betwixt the Beatles and Milli Vanilli.

The four members didn't come together in the dark incubator of clubland, nor did they form in a black-lit bedroom over tokes and group readings of some dogmatic doctrine. In fact, they were recruited, like actors, which they were, like the group Beatlemania, which they weren't. Their work carried no weighty subtext, their mission was not noble. They were cardboard-cutout shills for greedy show-biz orchestrators. And so, as human beings, as artists, they were caught in a trap.

Then again, the Monkees were perhaps the greatest garage band ever, and there's nothing more noble in rock than a garage band. "Everybody knows the tracks were laid and they just came in and sang," Johnson says. "But it is also the truth that they did play later on. I have a live record of them from '88, it's them playing, and, you know, um, it's fairly awful."

Technical proficiency is not relevant to garage-band music. Nor is songwriting. Take away the goofy (then) but cool (now) television series, take away the early "live" shows, take away the fan clubs and posters and matching outfits, toss out your prejudices, and you're left with a band that made, on record at least and with plenty of help, some fine and wonderful music. That's why the Monkees endure nearly three decades after their hey-heyday. And of that '88 gig, Johnson adds, "The guitars were out of tune. The cymbal goes right into Mickey's vocal mike, there's a din throughout, and it's really good on top of that. A good listen, really fun." Like any great garage band.

Covering the songs originally recorded by the Monkees is nothing new. One reason is that most of the tunes were written by stellar craftsmen such as Tommy Boyce, Bobby Hart, Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Neil Diamond, John Stewart. A half dozen of the 21 selections on Here No Evil were either written or co-written by Michael Nesmith, and Mickey Dolenz's "Randy Scouse Git" gets its due courtesy of Live Bait. Whatever you make of the Monkees, you can't knock the material they recorded. Before launching into a bizarre spoken-word reading of "The Day We Fall in Love" at the beginning of Here No Evil, the late performance artist Deacon Lunchbox puts it in perfect perspective: "In the mid-1960s I was a young teenage boy. I was aware of the fact that the Monkees rock band was 90 percent hype. But I liked 'em anyway."

Throughout this album you can tell, you can feel, that the groups playing are respectful of the material. Anne Richmond Boston, the former Swimming Pool Q enjoying solo success with The Big House of Time, was the second artist to contribute, delivering a hauntingly absorbed rendering of "Mr. Webster" she sounds absolutely lost in. Powerful stuff, matched in strength by the earnest entry of "St. Matthew" by Bob Rupe and House of Freaks. Rupe made his name in South Florida in the early Eighties with the legendary Bobs before forming the highly celebrated Silos, a masterful outfit that signed to RCA and then broke up. Rupe is among America's top performers and producers, a guy who once turned live covers of Johnny Rivers's "Secret Agent Man" into rock magic. Currently working with Steve Wynn, Rupe and the Freaks pump "St. Matthew" with a grooving melody and a rich-as-mousse resonance that fills the room, fills your brain.

About half the bands on Here No Evil were actually paid for their efforts, the others volunteered. Only one invited band -- from "up North" is all Johnson will say by way of identification -- refused to participate. That spirit of sincere belief in the Monkees' music burns through this record like Mike Nesmith's fiery comments to the press in 1967, when he enraged the orchestrators by confessing at a press conference that the Monkees could play their own music, but weren't allowed to. "They were stifled by the powers that were," Johnson says. "They were trying to keep the band away from the creative end, make them puppets. Things might have worked out differently. When the Monkees did play, just the four of them, they pulled it off. They were as good as almost anybody doing that type of thing. People wanted them to be clowns in front of the camera -- bad idea."

Johnson's compilation is a good idea, and the varied and vital music here proves beyond doubt that Nesmith was right, the suits wrong. Mitch Easter remains faithful to the celebratory arrangement of "Valleri," but also elevates the soaring tune by dropping Sixties pop references, by overindulging in an already-indulgent song. Easter -- the famed North Carolina producer and Let's Active mastermind -- is clearly in his element, pure pop joy, and his rendering would make the Grinch smile.

There's more fun to be had from Miami's Boise and Moss (with a side of Joe Hamm on drums) for "Gonna Buy Me a Dog," and Man Size Job (essentially Lava Love, one of America's best live bands, joined by Johnson and guitarist Rob Gal) melodizing new life into "Daydream Believer." Singer Esta Hill could cheer up a death-row inmate, and while this isn't the typical dervishness of Lava Love, it is pure and sweet and true.

The most joyful entry might be the Doll Squad's irresistible "Let's Dance On." "The members of the Doll Squad," Johnson says, "are all in their early twenties. I was talking to the bass player, and she says, `Yeah, I've got the Rhino picture disc and all these other Monkees records.' These kids weren't even born when the TV show went off the air."

A month ago Doll Squad joined Mitch Easter with Lava Love (as Man Size Job), the Chant, Opium Hello, Those Big Belt Buckles (the bluegrass version of Atlanta's mighty Right as Rain), Anne Richmond Boston, Big Fish Ensemble, Tampa's Multi-Color House, and the Diggers at an Atlanta club called the Point for an album-release party. It was wildly successful in terms of turnout and good fun had. Videos were projected, and when a snippet from a Brady Bunch episode involving Davy Jones came on, bedlam broke out. "I was upstairs doing something," Johnson says, "and I had to go down and see what was going on. People were hooting and hollering. It brought the house down."

Despite the success of that event, a national tour seems unlikely. "It's such a huge headache," Johnson says, adding that with Multi-Color House having to drive up from Tampa, Easter cruising in from Carolina, and other geographical conflicts, along with the fact that some of these bright musicians continue to work day jobs, mounting such a tour would be too much. "I just tried to take care of everybody's gas money for that show," Johnson says. "And believe it or not, each group ended up making $100. Maybe we could do a fast three-day thing. But then again, I don't want to leave anyone out. I think too much about other people's feelings."

That concern entered into the making of the record, but Johnson deserves mega credit for the way he handled it. You cannot protest his putting the Chant, his own band, up second with "Take a Giant Step," because the guitar-fueled rendering is so fantastic. And the contrast between the fourth track, Big Fish's revved-up reading of "Last Train to Clarksville," next to Magnapop's multilayered "Pleasant Valley Sunday" couldn't be more right.

Speaking of right, how ingenious is it to have the Flying Subs provide the requisite "(Theme from) The Monkees" as an instrumental? Almost as brilliant as allowing Peter Holsapple (all by himself) to reinvent "You Just May Be the One" as a psychedelic mystery tour that would make the Dukes of Stratosphear pawn their reverb pedals. Or permitting San Francisco's Pat Johnson and the Wellsprings of Hope to turn "The Door Into Summer" into poignant pathos. Perhaps it's unfair to cite just some of the masterful work here. Wouldn't want to leave anyone out.

It's funny, or maybe sad, that the Monkees themselves have been left out. The corporate owners of the rights to this music, according to Long Play's Steve Pilon, were less than enthusiastic, demanding their royalty payments while grimacing at Johnson's concept. And Johnson hasn't heard a word from Peter Tork, Mickey Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, or David Jones. Well, maybe a word. For the recent release party, Long Play contacted all four, Johnson says, but the only two offices that responded were Jones's and Dolenz's. "Davy wanted $3500, a first-class flight, room service in a first-class hotel, plus expenses," Johnson says. "Mickey wanted $7500, and we didn't even get around to the perks. That's just to come and do the show. Maybe they were thinking we wanted them to perform, but all we wanted was for them to stand around and announce the bands, maybe sign a few autographs. Maybe they didn't understand."

Their loss -- they missed a shot at some exposure. People are locking into Here No Evil, as they should. "Yeah, and I'm as surprised as anybody," Johnson says with a laugh. "Who's gonna lay out thirteen bucks for this? You have to really want it." Older listeners aren't likely to be hip to these younger bands, younger listeners might not even remember the Monkees -- that dilemma crossed Johnson's mind, but his goal was never to make a million bucks anyway.

"I was in a band that opened for Mike Nesmith at the beginning of the summer," Johnson notes. "Afterwards I got to meet him. He was very cordial, very nice. But no more or no less than that. He said, `Nice to meet you, but now I have to go.' I gave him the tape and told him some of the songs he wrote or sang were on it. He said, `Okay, thanks,' turned to the guy next to him, said, `Put this in my bag, would you?'"

Davy Jones, like Nesmith, remains active, releasing new material and continuing to tour. Johnson went to one of his shows, too. "His manager wouldn't let us backstage. I was with a radio guy who was set up to interview him, but somebody said no. It was like, `No! Go away!'"

The Monkees' music is better for the fact that Jim Johnson wouldn't go away.


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