Thursday, December 20, 2012

#47 The Christmas Show

Every television show nowadays is essentially required to do something about Christmas.

Contrast this 1967 episode with other holiday TV standards in the immediately preceding years. "Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer", the famous stop motion animation tv special from 1964.  Generations were raised on the premise that being different can pay off, it just takes a matter of belief, persistence,luck and friends.  Coming out of the highly conformist 1950's and early 1960's,  it offers a wholesome version of the James Dean, "Rebel Without A Cause" character.  Apparently, if you can rebel with a clear purpose in mind, one that preferably benefits society, you can redeem yourself.  Even "A Charlie Brown Christmas" (1965) accepts the existence of commercialism but includes moments of religious sincerity.

Getting back to the Monkees' episode, the main trope is about reversing the viewpoints.  Instead of buying into the cynicism of the age, it is the responsibility of adults to gain the perspective of children. That's what the plot is loosely based on anyway; the boys babysit while the emotionally distant aunt goes off on a cruise (although all the family wants in reality is to be together during the holidays).  The goofiness of the 4 guys is rejected at first by the humorless child, but through their charm (and selflessness which ends up costing them their entire salary) they break through the emotional wall of the kid and make him cry and even SMILE.

The most prominent and best thing about the casting of this episode is the use of Eddie Munster; Butch Patrick, who played the werewolf/vampire boy from 1964 to 1966.  The Munsters totalled 70 episodes (vs the Monkees' 58), he already had more experience in front of the camera than The 4 Boys.  In a departure, here he embodies a "cool, calculating machine"; an adult psyche in a child's body which is essentially the opposite of the band.  Child-like playfulness embodied in physically mature adults.  Old enough to kill and barely able to vote; even the idea that they might not need supervision (a landlord, an agent, an adult figure) remained in question during the pilot.

(On a personal note of opposite-land, I first experienced the series as a summertime perk in Boston.  The Xmas show always seemed odd after a swim in Walden Pond.  L.A. was a land of Christmas in July, where all the snow was made out of white flakes of plastic.  I could accept all other incongruities, but the weirdest was not being able to have the show during an actual Christmas season.  As an adult, it is now slightly absurd for me to actually watch it in December.  But I have long since reconciled myself to being surprised by the show in ways I can never suspect.)

This surprise attack is taken to another level in the one musical number of the show. Instead of the typical romp of the latest Monkee single, the audience is teased by a medley of familiar tunes, sung by the "FairyTale Singers" (uncredited!) who will return for that next episode.  As a special gift to the audience they harmonize on an obscure (yet astoundingly beautiful) Spanish song (a Villancico written in 1553), called "Riu Chiu".  It is possible they got it from their producer, Chip Douglas, who had been in the Modern Folk Quartet (which also featured their on-set photog, Henry Diltz).  Or from another folk source, The Kingston Trio's 1961 album, "Goin' Places", on which it is attributed to a musicologist and is called "Guardo el Lobo".  (Note that John Stewart, writer of "Daydream Believer" had been a member of the Trio) Peter had been an NYC Village folk singer himself, so he was probably aware of it, if not the one to propose it.

Regardless, it is an example of preservation, popularization and the generosity of stepping outside of the circumscribed role of "pre-fab product".  If the phantom 3rd season had actually been realized, in the "Laugh-In" like format proposed, this might have been typical of the band (& brand's) evolution.  The final episodes included Frank Zappa and Tim Buckley. Their opening act on tour was Jimi Hendrix.  If they had managed to steer the ship away from the likes of the Don Kirschners and into the uncharted territory of the rock music of the late 1960's, they might have been able to cultivate & spotlight a whole generation of lesser known artists.

The final "gift" and act of generosity within this episode is a very simple, yet highly emotional sequence.  They allow the camera to run for the extra few minutes they have at the end, to allow the behind the scenes personnel to appear in front of the national audience.  Most of the crew seem to be a mixture of the old guard and the new.  The cameraman who worked on "Circus Boy" when Micky was 10 is the same one now; he's known afectionately as "Lippy" and used to take Davy home to dinner  The makeup man is a treasured elder. But most seem to be young (mostly male) and clown around, as if they are the less glamorous dopplegangers of the band.  Literal and figurative stand-ins.

This is not a matter of just breaking the fourth wall, it is a matter of removing it entirely.  In my entire personal history of television watching, I have never seen a similar scene.   Especially not WITHIN the context of the actual show.  Documentaries showing the "backstage reveal", are commonplace.  Where else in American television has the very simple (and heartwrenchingly human) desire to say, "Hi Mom!" actually happened in front of the camera?  Never an entire crew, never introduced by name by the performers, never thanked in full, never as part of the actual show, never a matter of "Look, there is nobody behind the camera now!" because even the cameraman has abandoned his post to join the ruckus.  Like an airplane flying without a pilot. It's extremely unprofessional, and completely riveting.

Watch the show on Youtube here, or right here on this page, you know you want to!!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Personal Miracles

How do they do that?

When I was 8, the most painful physical moment of my life was when I got my ears pierced.

I was about to faint.  Somewhere in the distance, the muzak changed and I heard familiar voices.  "I'm a Believer".   And so I was.

And so here I stand, decades later, a grownup with not much faith in much of anything.  Overcome by a bunch of feelings, suddenly hitting a lowpoint in my day.  Bad enough to start me crying.

I have the radio on, turned to a folk & acoustic music station (WFUV, 90.7fm, NYC).  And I heard the familiar strains of "Valleri".  (Not a regular song for them, just a spur of the moment whim of the DJ)

It's tiny moments like that that tell you not to despair.  Not a religion, not a cult or deeply philosophical belief system.

Sometimes that's all it takes to keep going.

"Just look over your shoulder . . ."

The Reality of Photography: DJ in the 2012 Tour

Hollywood has been around for about 100 years, as of this writing.

Many stars have had their pictures taken, been on film, been glamorized.  Many have been heavily documented throughout their lives.  Take Elizabeth Taylor.  We have pictures of her from when she was a little girl playing with horses, through all of her Cleopatra Salad Days, her marriages and divorces, alcoholic hazes and recovery periods.  The 20th century was the first in which we could watch a person age through most of their lifespan by flipping through a series of pictures.

The 21st Century is about watching ourselves being thoroughly documented daily by pictures on Facebook, on our iPhones and millions of images we will never see. captured by security cameras.

For those people (like me) who began watching the Monkees' TV show at a very young age, there is an odd sense of permanence to the young bodies of those 20 year olds, bouncing around on the screen.

As they did on tour in the 60's, the 2012 tour had huge screens projecting images from the show.  In 2012, however, these ghosts seemed equally as alive as the performers onstage.  Something akin to the "primitive" peoples' idea of a camera stealing your soul as well as your image.  Except it comes off in a beneficent way; a picture preserving a soul, retaining all its beauty and innocence.

It worked in terms of Davy Jones.  He was there, as part of the performance.  Not in a hokey way, or as a sad vague way of paying respect.  There he was dancing to "Daddy's Song", flipping back and forth among the black and white versions.   I had seen him the year before, matching his shadow in the video, move for move. A man of 67 as agile as he was at 21.  And here he was in 2012, still performing on screen.  Flipping back and forth in our collective memories between this world and the next.

Everyone in the audience consciously knew he wasn't alive anymore.  We had his Voice and Image, and in a funny way, his Energy (for lack of a better term).  Watching the TV Show, that is what most of the relationship is made up of anyway.  So maybe there was no difference that his physical body did not exist on earth any longer.

Is it possible to manufacture a Ghost?  All of the artifacts would suggest that is all that there is: a record of his face on film and on posters and t-shirts and buttons.

What is the word for what happens after all that stuff is put out into the world and it still has emotional resonance for millions?  I don't mean to suggest idol worship or anything blasphemous against any religion.

Just the mere fact that a very human man can exist & his spirit conjured up (again, no literal voodoo here) after his actual death.  He can be honored as an elder who has passed on, yet still exist in his most familiar form.

There is a phrase engraved in stone at the entrance to a cemetery: "To live in the hearts of those we love is not to die."

"Evening with the Monkees" Concert, A View from the Audience

A few words about the most recent tour.

I attended the 12/2/12 performance at the Beacon Theater in NYC.  They were incredible.  It was an amazing night and one of the most unusual concert experiences I have ever attended (and I go to a wide variety of concerts).  And the experience is not limited to what happens onstage.

A huge part of the experience for me is the other Fans.  They are an amazingly loyal and loving community. I got my ticket through a friend of a friend.  She needed someone to use her extra ticket and wanted to make sure it went to someone who would appreciate it.  (Especially since I had been feeling sorry for myself not getting a ticket before they were sold out. Hours after going on sale!)  We became instant buddies.  We met up with a bunch of Facebook fans for dinner at a diner and were seated next to another large table of other fans.  We made friends with people in the lobby, some who had come for the first time, some who had been to their performance in Forest Hills, Queens in 1967.  We made friends with the people sitting around us.  We ran into people after the concert and had a snack in the same diner, making more new friends.

It's a wonderful sense of camaraderie and acceptance and altruism, all based around the phenomena of a tv show/band from almost 40 years ago.  Most of the people I met were not around to witness it the first time around, but everyone had a story of discovery.

And hope.  Despite what other setbacks in life, major or minor, they had come to celebrate something.  One woman was talking about how her kids had warned her not to "make a fool" out of herself by dancing or shouting or otherwise acting silly.  Others admitted it was a guilty pleasure.  And most of us (me included) discussed the evening & phenomenon as an oasis of pure joy in our lives.

One woman mentioned how she watches the shows everyday because they make her laugh.  And precious few things do that for her.

Last summer, I went to the tour in Lowell, MA. I got my ticket at the last minute and got a cheap(er) seat in the balcony.  As luck would have it, I was seated right next to a woman and her daughter whom I had met at a Shoe Suede Blues performance.  I remembered them because they were 2 of only 20 people in the audience at a County Fair.  It was raining that day and they were supposed to perform outside.  They ended up singing in a barn whose walls were covered in quilts.  The guitar player's father had died the night before and they had to fly in another performer.  They still gave an amazing performance.  The daughter in question and I got to sing a chorus of "Daydream Believer" together when Peter handed me the mike.  (He had to yank it back out of my hands!!)

The daughter loved the Monkees more than life itself.  Her mother had brought her along just to watch her be so incredibly happy.

Life is full of issues and challenges.  There are lots of bands and performers out there who have very loyal fanbases.  But there is something different about the role that THIS band plays in the lives of the fans.  Subconsciously, we feel as if we have spent time with them as people, watching the show.  Add to that the positive energy of singing and dancing along.  Add to that the live performance experience.

It is the closest I've come to witnessing a specific and almost tangible form of altruistic Love among a large crowd of humans.  Not that I'm trying to make an argument about it competing with religion or other music or other experiences.  But in and of itself, it is beautiful and transcendent. THAT is the part of the phenomenon that will endure.  The Love.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

#25, Alias Micky Dolenz

"I was a Has Been. Now I'm an Am-Is!"

First aired: March 6, 1967

Premise: Micky looks just like a gangster, "Babyface".  The bad guys mistake him for the gangster. The cops want him to impersonate the gangster to catch the rest of the gang.  Hilarity ensues.

Teaser: Micky is parking the Monkeemobile when a member of Babyface's gang spots him.  He gets beat up.

Mike convinces him to go to the police & yet not help them when they suggest he stand in for the killer.  The episode is a light version of the cop show, Dragnet, without the classic narration.

Micky leaves and there is the standard drive-by shooting scene (See Jimmy Cagney movies of the 1930's)  Note speeded-up sequence (allusion to silent movie comedy), in which he runs back into the police station, terrified and ready to help.  As Mike leaves the police station with his guitar case, everyone ducks b/c in the Hollywood Chicago gangster idiom of the 1930's, the instrument cases all held tommy guns. (Gun invented by some guy named Thompson, used in WW1 & during Prohibition. Classic image of what Al Capone's guys would carry).

In the jail cell scene, note that the bars of the jail never actually appear.  A clever lighting technique is used,  called a GOBO ("Go Between"/"GOes Before Optics"), which is a small round silver cutout which gives the illusion of a certain shadow. In this case, jail bars.

Ruby his girlfriend, recognizes him.  "Aren't you gonna kiss your Ruby?" (he kisses his ruby pinkie ring, not the girl named Ruby). The actress is doing a scratchy-voiced version of a gangster's moll.  Her look reminds me a bit of Mia Farrow (although not waif-like), but I can't place her voice.

In the fight scene, during the romp, there is another woman dressed exactly like Ruby.  Probably the actress' stand-in.  Here is where it gets kooky: the stand-ins never usually appear ON CAMERA.  But since they are playing with the whole notion of twins with the Micky/Babyface thing, they include a shot where the girls walk by each other, realize they are dressed alike, and fight!  (Maybe they realized there weren't many other women in the scene, especially after they do a gag where all the other women run into the Ladies' room).

Mansion sequence: gang members attempt to reclaim stolen jewels.  Best unacknowledged gag: they had hidden them in the very room from which they stole them.  And years later, it just so happens to be empty b/c the owners are out of town. Mike puts dynamite in the fireplace, but blows up the piano instead (the absurdity of defying the laws of physics and reason).  Cop comes by and sells tickets to the Policeman's Ball (a euphemism for a thinly disguised bribe. Not sure of the actual prevalence of the practice among real life cops, but consistent with ongoing mistrust of authority figures throughout the series and the sixties).

Note the inexpensive effects of shooting a double for MD, someone who supposedly has the same hair and build facing the actual MD. (Although the stand in's hair has a bit of curl to it) Use of split screen when they appear side by side in the doorway and in the final scene in the jailhouse.  Their sightlines seem to be slightly off in the scene when they are confronting each other in the doorway.  It works pretty well for a quick effect, especially since they probably had to cut & match the film by hand, frame for frame!

Steve Blauner is mentioned as driving the getaway car and hitting a cop.  As the Simpsons would later learn, use every advantage when mentioning a full name.  It's a reference to a guy who has quite a history.  He was Bert Schneider's best friend (from cradle to grave).  He was a huge fan of Al Jolson and Sammy Davis Jr., and was actually Bobby Darin's agent.  He helped work behind the scenes, to get the Monkees on the air when RayBert came to him with an idea.  To quote him quoting (from Wikipedia), "Right after we showed the pilot, the director of NBC, Mort Warner, stood up and said "I don't know what the hell we've just seen but I think we should put it on the air!"  (Note that this is an alternate creation story, as most mention the test audience giving the poorest ratings ever to the pilot)
He later went on to form BBS (RayBert= Bob Raphaelson & Bert Schneider upgrading to Bert, Bob and Steve); they did a few tiny movies including "Easy Rider".  In the 1980's, he was the Executive Producer of the "New Monkees" (no further discussion will be made here of THAT show).

Reward is splitting up the jewelry among the boys.  Which is weird on lots of levels (but is exactly what you would do if it were a child's game-which is a viable premise).  If you accept the conceit that the series was envisioned for the tween and pre-tween age bracket (before the concept was even coined),then the plot lines in Season One can easily be seen as modeling child's play.  Especially when you consider that the father of Bert Schneider (the producer & creator) was the president of Columbia Pictures.  They had his daddy's backlot, sets and costumes to start from.  Most of the scripts were a mashup of old vaudeville routines, plotlines from other shows, and cameos of familiar acting faces and extras from central casting.

The title is a vague reference to gangsters having odd nicknames. "Alias Boston Blackie" (1942), "Alias Jesse James" (1959, Bob Hope movie), "Alias Smith and Jones" (1971-which is what I had mistakenly thought they had taken the title from).  The "Babyface" gangster nickname was actually used by George "Babyface" Nelson (enemy of Al Capone).  There was a movie in 1957, "Baby Face Nelson" starring Mickey Rooney.  His kid, Mickey Jr., auditioned for the Monkees.  Personally, I think it's just a great excuse to get Micky to call himself "goo-goo eyes".

Davy doesn't act in this one, but appears in the end interview (on the DVD) talking about visiting England for his sister's wedding.  He throws a fake- and uncharacteristic to the character "Davy Jones"- hissy fit at the end, kicking a chair, but mostly as a way to end the segment.

"The Kind of Girl I Could Love", "Mary, Mary"

The first romp is essentially a bar brawl.  The classic Hollywood Western includes the idea is that once people begin fighting, everyone gets into the act.  Usually there is some attempt to develop this organically, i.e. someone hits an innocent bystander, who retaliates.  This segment quickly devolves into a fighting orgy of extras eager to smash up the sugar-glass liquor bottles and breakaway furniture.

The "Mary, Mary" segment reveals a very early concept of what the "music video" was.  Why don't they just have the guys play their instruments and sing? Close up of Micky, the drummer, singing lead.  (Dullsville)  They are in their blue Monkee uniforms.  Watch for them in every shade.

Memorize these bits of dialogue to amaze your friends!
IMDB Quotes from "Alias Micky Dolenz"

Detailed notes & trivia used for the DVD:Monkees TV on Tripod (formerly Aaron Handy III's TV Web Shrine)

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Shoe Suede Blues

Shoe Suede Blues is the name of Peter's Blues Band.

Here is the link to their upcoming dates.  Check it right now.  It's okay, I'll wait.

The name comes from the Elvis Presley Song, "Blue Suede Shoes", note the silly pun created by flipping a noun & adjective.  Totally in keeping with PT's sense of humor & Monkee past. Song written & recorded by Carl Perkins in 1955, notable as being one of the 1st rockabilly songs, combining country, blues & rock elements.  If you've never heard it, LISTEN!!  (I'm not sure who came up with it as the name for the band, but it might have been Richard Mikuls, one of the first and fabulous members!)

If you are lucky to be within the vicinity of an upcoming performance of SSB, GO!!  They usually perform on the East Coast, but can pop up anywhere in the US.  It is a great chance to see PT in his natural element.  The crowds are generally smaller and he is much more accessible.  He will even gladly sign anything ("you care to expose") AFTER the show or maybe at an intermission.   Before or during a performance is just tacky.

They do a great variety of blues songs (listen for his Louie Jordan introduction, he might even go into his French and Bronx accents if you're lucky).  Also some classic rock ("Sea Cruise").  And, of course, Monkee songs.

Listen for a slowed down, bluesy "Clarksville".  When he does "Little Bit Me", hold 2 fingers up when he gets to "too".  As in "It's a little bit you, too".  Funny.  If he does not do "Steppin Stone", be sure to scream it for an encore.  He doesn't take requests, but can be perSUEDEd to do it.  And it's worth it.  He covers the Sex Pistols version. And it is the best, fiercest version you'll ever hear.  Worth it to go to a show just for that.  (He will NOT do Grizelda, and don't you dare ask!! He does it for the Monkee shows and is a good sport about it.  If that's your favorite song of his, listen to the record!)

Also worth it to see PT at his absolute best as a performer.  No matter the venue, big or small, he creates MAGIC.  About 3/4 through the show, he always hits some kind of amazing pocket.  The band hits their stride and you can see what it means to be put on this earth to play music.  Him and the other members (especially Joe Boyle!!) trade solos back and forth.  At some point, it becomes transcendent.

Trust me.  Just go.

Due Credit

Hey Folks,

My goal is to do an annotated written commentary of all 58 episodes of the Monkees' TV Show (with other entries for other Monkees' related stuff).  Everything I know or have learned from the show.  And I want to explain some of their obscure (and obvious) references.

I'm writing this as just another Monkee fan.  I've probably seen the entire series as many times as years I've been alive.  It showed on WLVI, Channel 56 in Boston every summer of my childhood (since age 3, one of the earliest memories I have) and I have watched episodes from the 2003 box set far more times than any adult should.  But what can I say?  They still make me happy and make me laugh out loud.  (And frankly, I think every adult should find something like that.)

These shows were my first lesson in American Pop Culture, and though I am not a Baby Boomer, helped me to understand the impact of the 60's.  And incidentally why history and curiosity are important things.  ("Did General Sarnoff start this way?")

I've looked around for some kind of episode commentary that would explain all the obscure references and all the jokes that I am only now understanding as a grownup.  Believe me, I heart Andrew Sandoval and Eric Lefcowitz (Great historians of the phenomenon!!!) and all their incredible work.  And there is plenty of (redundant) info floating around on the interwebs, but I wanted something beyond just which song was misspelled in the credits and yet another interview containing a variation of an ape-like pun.

John Lennon (d.1980, 32 years ago today!!) said that they weren't trying to be the Beatles, that they were like the Marx Brothers. Let's appreciate them for all the things they are.

Apologies for what I get wrong.  Apologies for things I steal/borrow/appropriate without extended bibliographic credit.  Help me to correct the record.  Leave comments. Be nice.

Spread The Monkee Love.

The Creative Tinkerer


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