Category Archives: Long post

In which I go on at great length

“More of the Monkees”

About a year ago, someone tagged me on [social media] on one of those posts where you list 10 albums that influenced your life. Here is the first album on my list. The speed and over-thinking of my response are absolutely on-brand for me.


I play music because I love good songs. I love pop songs the most. I don’t play them very much, but as a listener, a good three-minute pop song will always make life better.

More of the Monkees” was the first album I ever bought. I was about six or seven when I bought it used, at a church rummage sale, for twenty-five cents. I think I got to play a few songs from it on my parent’s hi-fi that night. Over the next few years, it got played a lot.

This was right around the time when pop and rock music were becoming the majority of mainstream music, and their aesthetic the majority of mainstream culture. Pop and rock had been around for a long time, of course, but it used to take a decade or two for the mainstream to turn over. The realization that the pop culture had become mainstream culture hadn’t quite hit everyone when I was kid, so pop music was still kind of regarded as a guilty pleasure, and pop culture as a fun, kinda cheap indulgence.

I knew who the Monkees were from watching their TV show on Saturday mornings when I was very little. It was all bright colors and people acting funny and sometimes they’d drive this really cool car. I loved it, though I didn’t really follow what was going on.

For some reason I thought the guy in the toque was the most interesting, but Micky seemed the silliest so he was my favorite.

I knew the Monkees were in a band together, and that was the thing they did that made them famous, but I didn’t think they were referred to as “The Monkees” because of the band. To me, they were just a group of friends who hung out together all the time, and “The Monkees” was just the name that was used to refer to that group of people—like people in a gang are always “Jets” or “Sharks,” or a family is always “The Schmeedersons” no matter what they are doing.

I thought they were “The Monkees” all the time, and when they played music, they were “The Monkees” playing music. When they were on TV, they were “The Monkees” on TV. When they went bowling, they were “The Monkees” bowling. The name wasn’t limited to just one aspect of their lives. The band wasn’t THE reason they were “The Monkees.”

In fact, as a kid my least favorite part of watching The Monkees’ show was when they stopped doing funny stuff and played music. Three minutes of them doing the same thing just made the show grind to a halt for me.

On the other hand, when I wasn’t watching the show and heard The Monkees’ music somewhere, it made me happy, because it was familiar, and it reminded me of all the other stuff I liked about watching The Monkees. If I didn’t have to watch it, I would actually listen to it.

Clearly, the whole marketing concept behind The Monkees had worked perfectly on me. I didn’t understand the trick until much later, but it’s now essential to success if you want to do pretty much anything, especially music: Make a brand; create an audience for your brand by doing something; diversify your brand into anything else as quick as you can.

If you create your brand based on music, then the music is the thing you use to get into peoples’ heads. It’s the bait you use to sell anything else you can.

It’s impossible to go through normal life in North America and not hear at least a few of the songs on “More of the Monkees,” but I hadn’t really listened to The Monkees on purpose in decades until about four years ago. I saw the CD for sale at a hardware store, went all nostalgic upon seeing the cover, bought it, and ended up listening to it over and over for a few weeks. The trick works!

I have a pretty sticky head, but I was still surprised at how thoroughly I knew these songs. I would look forward to specific moments, specific musical phrases—and phrasing—that make these specific recordings of these specific songs mean so much to me.

There’s a chicken-egg debate to be had about why this happens, but no matter how it managed to get into my enormous and very thick head, I am really glad that I ended up loving pop songs, and that my early exposure to this album set such it as a standard for them.

Music nerds love to use marquee value as a measure of quality, as if the mere presence of a famous musician somehow makes a performance magical. But just because someone you recognize showed up doesn’t mean they did good work. It’s a dangerously poor metric, and using it leads to time and money wasted listening to Alcatrazz and Mick Jagger solo albums, G3 tours, live Dylan bootlegs or being forced to dry your teeth through yet another damn rendition of “Imagine.”

More of the Monkees” has some solid marquee value, especially from a players’ perspective. It’s got Carole Kaye, Hal Blaine, James Burton, Glen Campbell, and a whole whack of other, lesser-known but equally bad-ass hook masters who could make forever music out of anything in about an hour. And they were working on songs by Neil Sedaka and Neil Diamond (both of whom probably wrote better songs for others than they did for themselves and THAT IS SOME SERIOUS PRAISE), Boyce and Hart, Carol Bayer Sager, Gary Goffin and Carole King, Michael Nesmith, and more and more.

But none of these people were involved in this album for their marquee value. This album (and countless others) were where these folks earned their marquee value. They were hired because they were really good at what they did, and they were there to do it well. And they sure did. They made an album of super-fun pop genius writing, played and produced brilliantly.

This is great pop music. You put it on, you smile, and you end up bouncing around like a goof and pretending you are holding a microphone. If you’ve heard it before, you remember some good time associated with that. There are a lot of different songs on this album, but it still feels too short. Chances are, you’ll want to play it again.

At the time this album came out, and for years after, The Monkees received a lot of criticism for not playing all the instruments on their albums, and/or not writing the songs and/or using studio “tricks” like compression and reverb and multi-tracked vocals to sound like better singers. This is all pretty funny in hindsight—all of that stuff is so standard now that you’re considered pretty daring if you DON’T do it.

In fact, compared to how albums and careers in music have been constructed over the past four decades, this album now seems relatively DIY. The Monkees actually DID do all the lead and much of the backing vocals (through a mic onto tape, no pitch correction), they (mostly Michael and Peter) actually did perform some of the instrumentation—they even produced some of it. Most of the songs were recorded in two days or less.

Basically, what the Monkees got shat on for on a pop album in 1966 would be considered an heroic contribution by the title artist on a major album in ANY GENRE now.

One criticism of the band DOES still obtain though: None of the Monkees were good enough dancers to be in a band with three singers today.

Taps

I spent the first part of my life choosing heroes.

It’s easy to find heroes. When you’re a little kid, they are everywhere: Anyone who helps you not be scared; anyone who is the best you know at stuff you can do; anyone who can do anything you can’t; but wish you could. People who do stuff that seems dangerous. People who do stuff that you would like to do, but it’s too difficult. People who do stuff you think is cool but aren’t allowed to do. People who play guitar. People who play in bands. People who smile a lot. People who aren’t afraid.


You might pick heroes based on one of these qualities. Some of your heroes might have more than one. As your list of heroic qualities grows, you’ll assume that the heroes you already have already possess all of them.

I spent the second part of my life losing heroes.

As you get older, you start winnowing down your heroes. You play them off against each other, and you play them off against other people’s heroes. Every time one of your heroes wins or loses one of these playoffs, you set the bar for being a hero a little bit higher.


So it’s not just people who play guitar, but people who play guitar really well. Then it’s only people who play guitar like no-one else. Then only people who play guitar like no-one else so well that other people measure themselves by how precisely they can copy it.


Not just people who play guitar in bands, but people who play in bands that are fun to watch. Then people who play in bands that are fun to watch even if you kinda hate half the band.


Then you make your heroes prove that they have all those qualities you used to assume they had. Heroes can’t just be people who can do cool stuff—they have to be GOOD people who can do stuff. And they have to actively do good things. And they can never have done bad things. Not REALLY bad things. Not only do they have no flaws—they have also overcome the flaws they inherited.


Eventually, you raise the hero standard high enough that none of your heroes can meet it. No-one could. Certainly, no-one else’s silly, insufficient heroes could.


But you still need your heroes. They define and defend your idea of what is right, and how things could be. Should be. So you choose a couple that you like so much that you are willing to drag them up to the standard. Get them in on technicalities. Make them the exception that proves the rule. Maybe overlook a flaw or two, or just write those off against the larger upside of your hero’s excellence. Maybe take on your hero’s flaws as your own, convince yourself that you share a common battle with your failings.


This might make it feel like you have more of a connection with this complete stranger you’ve chosen as a champion. For a while.

I’ll spend the rest of my life without heroes, surrounded by them.

Heroes don’t last. You change. They change. You learn more about life. You learn more about yourself. You learn more about your heroes. You can’t help it. At some point, you will have to confront their failure—their refusal—to meet the standard you set for them. You will realize that they actually were afraid the whole time. That they aren’t brilliant at everything. In fact, they are worse at some things than …even YOU. That if you met, you might not be friends.

And that thing they could do that no-one else could? Your hero couldn’t NOT do that.

They weren’t better than everyone else AND excellent at something. They were just as messed up as everyone else and excellent at something. Why did you believe they were a hero at all?

If you are lucky, your relationship with your hero will not survive this. If you are lucky, your hero will disappear, and all that will remain is a person —a stranger you find that you still admire, in whom you take an interest because they do things that you like, who owes you nothing but what they really were and what excellence they were able to share.

A person like that can never let you down the way a hero can.

Godspeed—no, make that Van Halen speed—to you, Eddie.