Having long been admirers of musical artists, my tastes usually run toward those who wrote their own songs and, with a few exceptions, play musical instruments.
Genres don’t matter much to me. I loved what is now called traditional country music rock music, jazz, blues bluegrass or gospel. I agreed with Willie Nelson’s maxim — if it’s good music, I like it.
Used to listening to artists ranging from Hank Williams to Jimi Hendrix — as Neil Young so aptly described his own musical tastes in one his songs — I’ve always tried to listen to music with an open mind. I’d just as soon listen to Louis Armstrong as I would The Rolling Stones.
However, while staying with my aunt Shirley and her family one summer, I learned I was not as open-minded as I’d thought — and it took my cousin Elaine Stuart and her then-love of the Monkees to teach me differently.
While staying with my aunt in Baxter Springs, Kansas that summer, I’d taken along a handful of albums, but not many would fit into my suitcase. I did bring Bob Dylan’s “John Wesley Harding” and The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” — essential albums that I could not pass the summer without hearing.
However, I also got to listen to my relative’s records. Shirley shared my love for the music of Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Buck Owens and this guy with an unusual style who usually performed in a suit and tie named Willie Nelson. His song “The Party’s Over” was big at the time. Austin and the Outlaw Country music movement were still years into his future.
My cousin, Sue, who was Elaine’s younger, sister had some albums by the Beach Boys — yes! — that I’d never heard and added to my playlist. She also had a great collection of albums by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs of “Wooly Bully” fame, who, despite their name — were actually from Texas.
While I’d always admired my cousin Elaine’s taste in music, I felt taken aback when I thumbed through her special album collection — consisting mainly of The Monkees.
What? At the time I considered The Monkees a band made for teeny-boppers — not for anyone who seriously listed to music. After all, I’d heard the stories. They didn’t write their own songs. They didn’t even play their own instruments. They weren’t even a “real” band, but one put together by television producers in hopes of making a situation TV comedy that might gain from the reception given to the two movies by the Beatles — “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!”
I went back to my other albums until one day, bolstered by how much my cousin liked them, I decided to actually play some of their recordings.
Hey, I decided after playing the first one, these guys aren’t so bad. By the second one, I started to actually like some of the songs. And why not?
Looking at the songwriters’ credits I learned many of those songs were written by such magnificent songwriters as Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Neil Diamond, Michael Murphy and the duo of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart.
Their song “Last Train to Clarksville” sounded absolutely Beatlesque, while “Pleasant Valley Sunday” locked into that back-to-nature vibe so prevalent at the time. “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” had a rock vibe. “I’m a Believer” locked into groove and “Daydream Believer” sounded like a near-perfect pop confection.
I especially liked one of their deep album cuts, about catching a train to “San Antone” called “What Am I Doing Hangin’ Round?” It was written by a songwriter whose name I didn’t recognize at the time: Michael Murphy, in collaboration with another writer named Owen Castleman. Murphy would go on to have huge hit of his own in the 1970s, with “Wildfire.”
I also especially liked Nesmith’s song “Magnolia Simms,” which had a 1920s vibe, kind of like Paul McCartney’s “When I’m Sixty Four.” Nesmith’s song went on to add the sound of an old scratchy 78 rpm record — and even included a “scratch” toward the end that repeated the same part again and again, just like a broken record.
I went from disdaining The Monkees to liking them — hey, the boys were a lot of fun. So what if they played the fool on their TV series? They weren’t much sillier than the Beatles were in their movie “Help!”
I later learned that the Monkees could indeed play their instruments — but since they’d recorded in LA, those ace studio musicians known as The Wrecking Crew had played on those early recordings. So what? I later learned The Wrecking Crew had played on countless records by other artists, including The Beach Boys “Good Vibrations” — and, as proven in countless concerts, The Beach Boys were more than capable of playing their instruments.
I continued to follow Nesmith’s work, including his later solo hit with the First National Band, “Joanne.” Today, Nesmith is considered one of the first to tap into the country-rock movement.
Looking back, The Monkees had an ingredient that’s always been part of my favorite groups — multiple singers capable of singing lead or harmonies.
Drummer Mickey Dolenz, vocalist Davy Jones and guitarist Mike Nesmith and occasionally bassist Peter Tork were capable of singing lead or stacking harmonies — a trademark of other groups such as The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Moody Blues, The Band and a group of singers that would soon release their debut album, Crosby, Stills and Nash.
I wrote this column following the passing of Peter Tork, who died Thursday at the age of 77. That leaves Mickey Dolenz and Michael Nesmith now as the only surviving members of the group,
As I had initially been disdainful of The Monkees, my cousin, Elaine, hadn’t understood at the time my love of the Beach Boys music, apparently considering them to be little more than a band that performed odes to surfin’ and hot rods.
Oh no, I explained to her, they were so much more. Even before their masterpiece “Pet Sounds,” Brian Wilson and his bandmates had produced remarkable albums such as “The Beach Boys Today.”
A few years later, I talked to my cousin again. She told me she and her friend, Shannon, had recently seen the Beach Boys in concert and she now shared my opinion that they were great singers and musicians.
And I thank you too, Elaine, for teaching me to always listen to music with an open mind.
Contact James Beaty at email@example.com