It is with a very heavy heart that I find myself today, for the first time ever, in the regrettable position of having to write about the death of a celebrity crush. My very first celebrity crush, in fact: Davy Jones, aka the Cute Monkee, who tragically died of a heart attack this week at only age 66. Today I am feeling a personal loss, but more importantly, Davy's passing is a huge loss for music in general, even if he and his bandmates didn't initially get the critical respect they deserved.
Looking back, the Monkees' influence is obvious, extensive, and impressive. In a post-MTV age when television and music are so utterly intertwined, be it on reality shows like "American Idol" and "The Voice" or scripted shows like "Glee" and "Smash," the band's legendary television series, which made them the first music artist to win two Emmy Awards, was a clear ground-breaker and game-changer. (It boggles my mind that it only lasted TWO seasons, yet made such a decades-spanning impact). The band also introduced the music world to legends like Jimi Hendrix and Tim Buckley (the former embarked on his first U.S. tour as the Monkees' opening act in 1967; the latter appeared on "The Monkees'" very last episode on Labor Day 1968), and their songs have been covered by everyone from the Sex Pistols, Johnny Thunders, and Minor Threat, to Run-DMC, to Coldplay and the Polyphonic Spree. The Monkees' hit "Daily Nightly" was actually the first rock recording to feature a Moog synthesizer. Legendary acid guru Timothy Leary even once said that the Monkees "brought long hair into the living room." Not too shabby for a band that was once considered to be a made-for-TV novelty act, huh?
But that's exactly what music critics thought of the Monkees when their TV show made its debut 46 years ago. The series, inspired by the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night, was put together via an open casting call for "4 insane boys," advertised in the Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, which read: "Folk & Roll Musicians-Singers for acting roles in new TV series." Twenty-year-old Davy, a former horse jockey and established stage actor, was one of 400 applicants, along with actor Mickey Dolenz and two men who were primarily musicians, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork. And thus, a band was born, and on September 12, 1966, the Monkees were introduced to America on NBC. It was hardly the most organic way for a band to develop--and the Monkees weren't really a band in the true sense of word, at least not back then, although that would soon change--so it's no wonder that skeptical music critics scoffed at the time, dubbing the Monkees the "Pre-Fab Four."
Of course, when I was a wee child and first discovered the Monkees, I was blissfully unaware of what music critics had to say about them. Or that such a thing as a "music critic" even existed, really. All I knew was that I loved Davy's music. The Monkees' Greatest Hits was the first album I ever owned, a Christmas present I begged Santa Claus for at age 5, after my parents let me switch the channel from PBS for the first time and "The Monkees" quickly replaced "Sesame Street" as my childhood TV obsession. "The Monkees" seemed not like a sitcom, but like a reality show to me: a totally realistic rockumentary serial chronicling what it must surely be like to be in a band, what the rock 'n' roll lifestyle was supposedly all about. And to this day, I still choose to believe that bands are sort of like gangs: that they all live together in psychedelic "Real World"-style houses, sleep side-by-side in twin beds, cruise around in custom cars emblazoned with band logos, and get into all sorts of madcap adventures soundtracked by their own awesome pop songs, walking down the street and getting the funniest looks from everyone they meet. That's what a band should be, right? I secretly suspect all bands aspire to be the Monkees in real life.
At the time, I didn't know these episodes were reruns, that the band had broken up in 1971, or that my official favorite Monkee, cuddly toy Davy, had long since abandoned his famous bowlcut for an unfortunate Brady perm, and later, a mullet. (When my hipster babysitter, who thrillingly used to visit me every weekend with a stack of vinyl records under her arm, informed me that "The Monkees" had actually originally aired before I was even born, it was worse than the time I found out the aforementioned Santa Claus didn't exist.) Back then, the Monkees just seemed like the nowest, wowest band on the planet. And the nowest and wowest Monkee of all was Davy, with his impeccable pageboy and exotic British accent and signature side-to-side shuffle dance (which I am still convinced Axl Rose totally appropriated without proper credit). To me, Davy was the perfect pint-sized pop star, and I am certain that my sometimes questionable life path of swooning over cute, shaggy-haired British rocker boys can be traced to that magical moment when I first saw Davy shuffle-dance to "Daydream Believer" in that iconic rainbow-striped romper room.
As I grew older and wiser, and became more of a "serious" music fan, I, like many others who grew up watching Davy and his bandmates play pop stars on the small screen, came to appreciate the Monkees on a whole other level. I viewed their rebellious, experimental film Head, and felt my own head explode as I bug-eyedly, gaped-mouthingly watched their psychedelic celluloid adventures. (Can you imagine a modern-day boy band like, say, the Jonas Brothers making a movie in which they portray giant pieces of dandruff and hang out with Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson? It would never happen.) I excitedly learned how the Monkees had actually evolved from a "fake" band, initially barred from having any real input into their music, to a REAL band that wrested control of the artistic process and somehow, against all odds, successfully made the transition to legitimate music-makers. That's when I bought the first album on which the Monkees played most of the instruments and did much of the songwriting, Headquarters, which is still my personal favorite Monkees record. Incidentally, it's the one that still garners the most acclaim from all of those music critics, too. Headquarters was a turning point for the band, and it solidified their standing in rock culture.
For many impressionable budding music fans like me, Davy and the Monkees were a true gateway band--a more kiddie-friendly version of, well, the Beatles, and one that inspired a lifetime of loving rock and pop. And the reason that Davy's death is hitting so many people so hard this week is Monkees nostalgia cuts across generations: from the people who discovered the band during their original 1960s run; to the kids who came of age watching '70s reruns; to the twenty- and thirtysomethings who discovered the Monkees when MTV (a network that ironically owes so much to the Monkees' influence) began airing old episodes in 1986, a programming decision that unexpectedly made the Monkees bigger than ever before and spawned a huge reunion tour.
And by that point, no one even cared that the Monkees hadn't gotten their start organically jamming in garages or playing grimy rock clubs like a "real" rock combo. Because by that point, the Monkees were no longer a joke band, or a manufactured boy band, or a novelty act. They weren't the "kiddie Beatles," even. They were a real band, and they were practically the Beatles' peers.
The fact that the Monkees are not yet in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (a snub that Peter Tork has quite vehemently, and justifiably, protested) is actually ridiculous. But now, with Davy sadly gone, the Hall may soon finally posthumously recognize his achievements, on the screen and in the studio. But millions of fans, like myself, recognized him long ago.
Rest in peace, Davy Jones. There are still multiple generations of music fans out there who believe in your rock 'n' roll daydreams.