The Monkees' singer reminded us of the artifice of pop—and its power.
The Monkees in 1966. Clockwise from top right: Mickey Dolenz, Mike Nesmith. Davy Jones, and Peter Tork. (AP Images)
"You don't create me, I am me," Johnny Rotten said in The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, but it might be even more true of Monkees singer and chief tambourinist, Davy Jones, who died on Wednesday at 66. If Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider, and Don Kirshner hadn't invented Jones, he would have had to invent himself. Like Rotten, he remains a singular archetype in rock history, part of a band that would have been first-ballot shoo-ins in any Rock and Roll Hall of Fame devoted to the real history of the genre. The Monkees weren't the first packaged rock band, but they might have been the best, and no Monkee seemed more comfortable with this legacy than Davy Jones.
As soon as the notion of authenticity became introduced into rock, the fully manufactured rock group became not only inevitable but utterly necessary. But such was the Monkees' achievement that they continue to serve a far richer role in history. As the first massively successful manufactured act, they also hold the distinction of providing a doorway to deeper truths to generations of young rock listeners: the knowledge that there are such things as session musicians, professional songwriters, script supervisors, and stunt vocalists. The reason for the Monkees' success was precisely because of the aforementioned assemblage, but an invented band requires public faces, and Jones—5'3", Mancunian—was perfectly cast. In early episodes of the Monkees' TV series, a recurring special effect was to make cartoon stars sparkle out of his eyes. They were hardly needed.
The least conflicted member of the group, Jones was probably the purest as well, the Monkee least likely suspected of authenticity. The bulk of his most famous songs were unapologetic pop—rock music in vague presentation only. In that way, Jones was never pretending at all. Famously appearing in the cast of Oliver! on the same Ed Sullivan episode where the Beatles debuted, Jones's career path was to be an entertainer, at which he was effortlessly real. It would be a stretch to call him an underrated songwriter, given his propensity for total schlock, but—deep in the Monkees' catalogue—he's just as likely to surprise the listener as a lost countrypolitan nugget by Mike Nesmith or a minor fuzz-pop masterpiece by the songwriting team of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. Witness, mainly, the wistful Jones-penned "You and I," from the post-Peter Tork album Instant Replay, featuring a burning and instantly identifiable guitar part by Neil Young.
But in terms of the band's role as ferrymen to Truth, Jones was the band's unquestioned leader. That was especially the case as the Monkees returned to the stage for wildly successful tours in 1986 and 1987, surfing the early, bleeding edge of big-budget reunion nostalgia as the shows went into reruns on MTV and syndication and hooked young viewers. Like the Beatles, the Monkees survive into the present as children's music because of the sheer exuberance of the recordings, and for the generation of kids who caught the Monkees reunion tours (including this writer and, per Twitter it seems, many others), it was precisely Jones's existence that revealed the band as more complex characters than their technicolor caricatures suggested. It would be inappropriate to link to YouTube footage out of respect for the dead, but Jones acted the role of the dangerously manic ringleader, taking a Richard Simmons-like approach to wireless microphones and cutoff clothing and singalongs and mullets. (And for that generation, seeing opening act "Weird Al" Yankovic, in his Dare To Be Stupid-era glory, was probably what it was like to see Jimi Hendrix open for The Monkees, as he did in 1967.)
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Any time he appeared onstage singing Monkees' songs, Jones provided visible, constant reminder of the Monkees' plasticity. Like Mike Love in the Beach Boys, his 6'1" fraternal cheerleading twin from California, embodied the band's natural vapidity: pure entertainment and almost nothing more. With or without Mike Nesmuth, The Monkees' various reunions were incomplete affairs, stubbornly committed to the idea of the "authentic" Monkees being comprised of the four frontmen. Though the "original" Monkees—Jones, Nesmith, Tork, and Mickey Dolenz—toured occasionally and even recorded an album playing their own instruments on 1996's Justus (not quite recommended), a true reunion would have to include surviving members of the Candy Store Prophets, the Los Angeles band led by songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, as well as drummer Billy Lewis and bassist Larry Taylor, who provided the bulk of the material and music for the Monkees' most famous recordings.
But if he increasingly seemed like the most calculated member of the band, Jones was paradoxically also able to remain the most innocent. Considered as children's music, Davy was the band's most obvious captain, the one who sang songs like "Daydream Believer" and "I Want To Be Free." The Monkees' plotline extended far beyond any script ever written for them, and Jones stayed in character as deeply and as for as long as he could. He remained a believer, touring and performing Monkees songs up until earlier this week—maybe the only man in the history of the planet who could still sing "Hey, hey, we're the Monkees" and really, honestly mean it.