I’ve been listening to The Monkees since Davy Jones died at the end of February, and I am sad to report that I generally didn’t care for the songs on which he sang lead. Most of the songs that everyone’s mentioned over the last few weeks were sung by Micky Dolenz: “I’m a Believer”, “Last Train To Clarksville”, “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone”.
A lot of celebrities die every year; talented people whose work has touched lives. Mere weeks before Jones’s death, Whitney Houston died tragically young. People remember their work and what it meant to them, and they mourn publicly — sometimes extravagantly, as mourning is a jagged emotion. Some people make juvenile remarks to prove how little they’re affected.
Mostly I feel sorrow for those left behind, and I return to the pressing concerns of my life. If I remember the celebrity fondly, I make a mental note to revisit their work. If the celebrity helped me see life differently, I actually do pull their output out of my stash and give it another watch, read, or listen.
I’ve been listening to The Monkees.
The nature of the band, and their musical frustrations, are well-documented. Thrown together and told what instruments to play despite their actual proficiencies, being allowed only to sing on their own recordings at first, having no input on the track lists: they were a band held at the will of their handlers.
That this treatment was typical of the music industry at large is beside the current point. What matters to me is how The Monkees reacted to the aggravation and absurdity of their situation; and while my natural proclivities tend toward the rebellion most often associated with Mike Nesmith or even Peter Tork (the first to actually leave the group), I aspire to the sort of irrationality judo exemplified by Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz in “Gonna Buy Me A Dog”.
Arguably the stupidest song ever foisted on the band, “Gonna Buy Me A Dog” tells the supposedly amusing tale of a man seeking to replace his lost love with a dog. The lyrics take this clunky conceit straight to the scrapyard with verses like “She used to bring me my newspaper / ‘Cause she knew where it was at / She used to keep me so contented / But I can teach a dog to do that”. Either the singer is extremely easy to please or his plans for the dog verge on the unspeakable.
I don’t know the story of the recording of this travesty, but over the years I’ve built up a story to explain the outcome of the session.
The Entirely Fictitious and Not At All True History of “Gonna Buy Me A Dog”
It starts with Micky Dolenz being steered into the recording booth with the lyrics to a stupid, stupid song. He can’t take it seriously, and every take shows less life than its predecessor until they’re finally dead on arrival.
The producers panic. They need this song! (This part of my invented history is unsettled. I often decide that the producers’ families are held hostage by the songwriters, but as the song was both written and produced by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart that seems really strange. Maybe they each held the other’s family so neither could relent.) Something needs to be done to generate a usable vocal track.
An assistant engineer is sent to the hallway. He breaks the glass on a little cubby where Davy Jones is kept for just such emergencies. Davy is hurriedly deployed to the booth, and the door is locked. Micky eyes Davy warily as the tambourine man picks up the lyric sheet. Davy reads it thoughtful, then sets it down gently.
“It’s not so bad,” he lies. “Let’s give it a try.”
Micky emits a sound that’s two parts scream, and one part defeat. Then he takes a deep breath and nods.
“Yeah. Okay, Davy.”
They put on their headphones, and the music starts. Micky begins to sing, and while he makes two false starts it’s better than before. Then Davy starts in, cracking stupid jokes, making faces — doing his best to make Micky lose it. The mood shifts. Suddenly they’re having fun trying to just get through the take. Micky loses his place, jokes fall flat, their timing is shot to hell, and it’s wonderful. All of the frustration and exhaustion pours out into this ridiculous mess of a song, and the humanity behind the pre-fabricated band stands revealed. Boyce and Hart congratulate themselves and let our boys out of the recording booth. Order has been restored.
Then Davy’s put back in his little room to await the next crisis.
That’s not even remotely what happened, of course. There’s evidence within the song itself that many of the jokes and silly business were planned, just as it’s clear that Micky and Davy flubbed the majority of them. With a band that was partly fictional to begin with, perception is reality; the reality is that a terrible song became a silly track that made fun of itself.
The Monkees had some brilliant songs, but the greatness of the group lies in “Gonna Buy Me A Dog”. They were able to do the job, despite everything, with liveliness and determination. To me, Davy Jones embodied that spirit — the willingness to soldier through.
I think of the scene in Head where Davy enters an empty soundstage and starts performing in the midst of cavernous silence. It didn’t matter if there was no audience; there was a stage, and that demanded he give his all.
That’s a professional. That’s who we lost. The fact that it was all for show is exactly the point.
We’re told that a good goal is one that is achievable. My dog had a single goal, and he achieved it at a fairly young age.
Lucky was an excitable yellow and white mutt who may have had some Collie in his heritage, particularly in his nose. His snout was about five or six inches long, which gave him a much more impressive jaw than that of our sour old miniature poodle.
I used to play “jaws” with him. He’d lie on his back, for reasons he never explained, and his upper lip would hang slightly to reveal his front teeth. The objective of jaws was to tap his teeth and pull my finger away before he bit it off. I always won, and his mouth would snap shut with a clapping noise that delighted me. Not a very good game perhaps, but it entertained us well enough.
His favorite game though was “git ‘im”. This was played during the brief period that we lived on the “less good” end of the street. Our back yard was fenced, and the door to it was in an odd room that only seemed to exist to join the garage to the house. There was a large tree about 20 feet straight out from the back door, just near the picket fence. The most crucial element of the game was “‘im”, the squirrel. I think of it as the same squirrel, waiting for the door to open to try its luck for one more day.
Certainly the sameness of the game play bordered on ritual. Lucky would fidget at the door; I would rev him up, asking “Ready? Ready?”; when I deemed him to be at maximum throttle, I’d fling open the door and urge “Git ‘im”; and within a few seconds he’d be barking and dancing at the base of the tree as the squirrel raced upward to safety. This was a good game that left Lucky well satisfied, and occasionally muddy.
Well satisfied, but not completely satisfied. Lucky lived for one objective: to fill his mouth with squirrel. If he could close his teeth on that squirrel just once, he could die fulfilled. Maybe on the spot.
It came to pass, one fine afternoon when he was about three years old, that Lucky met his goal. Everything began as usual, following established procedure. I wound him up, opened the door, and snarled “Get ‘im!” Lucky tore outside, shredding the turf between the house and the tree. The squirrel shat itself (presumably) and wound its way up the trunk… and then improbability teamed up with inevitability, and Lucky got, well, lucky.
The squirrel slipped. It slipped and fell — directly into Lucky’s mouth.
This is a dog that chewed shoes with the feet still in them. He shook his toys until their hypothetical necks were broken in all of the breakable places. The life expectancy of the squirrel was now a span of time that approached 0 seconds but did not reach it. To be honest, I was shocked. As were the squirrel and, surprisingly, the dog.
None of us moved. For a few protracted seconds, potentials worked out which would triumph.
The squirrel was first to react. Realizing that the jaws of death had not yet closed, it carefully slipped to the ground. It looked up at Lucky, still frozen in confusion, then bolted up the tree again.
With events returned to a familiar course, Lucky came alive. He barked and danced around the tree, tearing up the sod; then he trotted off contentedly to do his business.
He never had a better day.
Would Lucky have been happier if he’d killed the squirrel? Maybe. Certainly not the next day, or the day after that, continuing until a new squirrel moved in to the yard. His goal was simple: catch the squirrel.
End of story, it was a good goal.