Davy Jones is dead. The prettiest Monkee is gone, and I am left to think about change and art.
Let me tell you how it was at my home. If I wanted to listen to rock and roll I had to wait until my father was out of the house. Then I could find it on the radio as long as I remembered to change the station back so he wouldn’t know. Once I was in high school rock and roll had finally nosed its way far enough into society that I could get away with actually owning a record so long as I bought it myself and didn’t play it while Dad could hear it. Dad didn’t want me to listen to it because it was about change, and he feared change. He thought black people were behind it all. He’d already seen this happen in the fifties, and had let it sneak up on him. He was damned if it was going to happen again.
Believe it or not, battles over music raged between parents and children all across America in the sixties, just like in the movies, and often, worse. Children were known to run away from home forever over it. Over music. Over dress. Over hair.
There is nothing more pitiful on the planet than the American who is sure of himself. In the sixties there were literally millions and millions of parents who were very sure indeed that rock and roll meant the collapse of all that was good and decent in our country. (Hell, there are probably millions out there who believe it now.) Considering the attitudes of the time it is a simple miracle that the Monkees ever made it on the air.
In my home there was no question we would not be watching the Monkees. And I suspect it started that way in many other homes, but the network found a way to put it over and quiet the clamor. They portrayed the Monkees as gentle idiots who somehow managed (barely) to feed themselves while wandering aimlessly from one song to another. Meanwhile the Ministry of Truth kept the conversation boiling: none of them can play instruments; they don’t do their own singing; they all wear wigs; they’re all sex maniacs; they’re all gay! And the gayest, most sex maniacal, least instrument playing wig-wearer of them all was Davy Jones.
It should have been a disaster, but it wasn’t. Americans were a lot savvier than they had once been, even we teen-agers. We knew they were a band put together by producers. (So were Peter, Paul, and Mary.) We knew they were clumsy in their playing sometimes. (So were ninety percent of our popular bands.) None of the rumors mattered. Davy Jones at one time could have walked into Grand Central Station and gotten half the women there to disrobe for him just by asking. He was athletic and fun and he didn’t take himself too seriously. After all, one of the purer ways to be a rock and roller is to blow off all the hype and baloney. That attitude worked pretty well for them. Over time the Monkees have grown in regard. No one is going to confuse their creativity with Led Zeppelin’s, but they were fun and their hits hold up pretty well and they managed to spend all these years in their own shadows without whining, or embarrassing themselves. Damned few groups have managed more.
The Blue Rider suggests change. (Kandinsky’s, remember? Up top. “This is a post about Kandinsky,” Arlo said.) His horseman rides on a mission. Some have suggested he is hiding something within his robe, or cape, that he cradles a lover or a child as he gallops. An entire artistic movement was inspired by and took its name from this picture. It straddles the line between impressionism and expressionism and is harbinger of the abstraction to come. Kandinsky is generally credited with creating the first major abstract work, but that is yet a few years away from the Blue Rider.
Why Kandinsky and the Monkees? Kandinsky came to believe that paint could be inspired by sound, by music. He took to calling his major abstract works compositions as if they were musical pieces; to him they were. The masthead for the Automat is a detail from Kandinsky’s Composition No. 7. Paint to emulate sound. Sound to emulate color. There is nothing more inspiring in the world than the artist who is unsure of everything, who struggles to see beyond the veil of reality to what might lie beneath.
To this day the vast majority of people think abstract art is a complete and total sham.
To this day the vast majority of people hate ballet.
To this day the vast majority of people hate opera.
To this day the vast majority of people hate classical, country, rock, blues, hip-hop…
For all their bubble gum pop sensibilities, the Monkees were about something positive. They didn’t hate anything.
That is cool with me.