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.