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.

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Greg Baker