13 January 2011

No primate punning here: A Review of Eric Lefcowitz's "Monkee Business"

  I just finished reading my first book ever on my new (used) Barnes and Noble e-reader, Eric Lefcowitz's Monkee Business: The Revolutionary Made-for-TV-Band.
     First a word about the nook.  I enjoyed the reading experience quite a bit (especially when curled up under the covers while still being able to "turn the page" with just a thumb push)!  On cold Connecticut nights that's a good thing.  The ease of navigation made it all go very smoothly.  I'm no tweeting texter, so the reader interface (or whatever its called) must be fairly straightforward for me to have become so comfortable with it so quickly.  Very occasionally the captions under the photos were either hard to read because of their size or incomplete because of the layout, but overall, I'm encouraged that this is a very viable way to read.  (I will say I'm not sure I could use a nook to read a book with which I was already familiar in hardcopy because the size of the page is fairly different, but with a book new to me -- like this Monkee one -- I had nothing with which to compare it.) 
     Now the book.  I should state that I've been a Monkees fan since the 60s.  I used to watch the show in syndication.  The family owned both the More of the Monkees and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, and Jones, LTD albums.  I remember cutting out a cardboard guitar to play along with the records, and I sang a pretty mean version of "She" -- especially the "And now I know just why she keeps me hangin' round (hangin' round)/she needs someone to walk on/so her feet don't touch the ground (don't touch the ground)/but I love her (love her), need her (need her), want her (want her), yeah (yeah) yeah (yeah) yeah (yeah), SHEEEEEEEE" part!  I learned a lot about heartbreak from those songs.  Looking back, although my personality and size made me more a Davy Jones showbiz type of guy (and I was quite fond of the Nilsson-penned "Cuddly Toy," I really wanted to be Michael Nesmith (whose performance of "What Am I Doing Hangin' Round?" is as good a Leaving-the-girl-in-Mexico-was-indeed-a-mistake song as Sinatra's "South of the Border").  In short, I always have liked the Monkees and considered them a non-inconsiderable part of my cultural heritage.
     Eric Lefcowitz's book, therefore, is a god-send.  It offers not just a history of the band from it inception in 1965 until 2010, but more importantly it places the band/television show(s)/albums/concerts/film into the larger cultural scene.  It demonstrates how the Monkees foreshadowed many things (great and small, good and bad) that are central to our world in 2011. 
     We meet a cast of characters, both the obvious (Mickey Dolenz, Jones, Nesmith, and Peter Tork) and the unexpected (i.e., familiar names not normally thought of in relation to the Prefab Four: creators Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, music mogul Don Kirshner, actor/writer Jack Nicholson, songwriters Boyce, Hart, Neil Diamond, Carole King, Nilsson, et al.).  Then add in the friends, fans, and close acquaintances of the band (Stephen Stills, who had auditioned for the band and recommended Peter for it; Jimi Hendrix, who opened for the Monkees at their request!; Van Dyke Parks; the Beatles; David Crosby; Neil Young; Jackson Browne, et cetera...a veritable "Who's Who" of rock).
     Lefcowitz's style is straightforward, and the book both informative and insightful.  We get plenty of the details (the personalities, feuds, and factions) that such a history must offer.  More significantly, however, when looking at the larger cultural landscape, the author, while making significant claims about the Monkees' place, never oversteps, never attempts to make too grand a case about them.  Anybody who's ever written about anything knows how difficult that can be, and Lefcowitz deftly avoids that trap.
     In short, if you're a Monkees fan, you love this book.  If you're interested in the pop culture of the late-60's or interested in rock history, you'll love this book.  If you've never "gotten" the Monkees (or think they were no more than a cynical money-making fabrication of some corporate suits), you'll learn much from this book.  If you ever wondered the background of the creative team behind Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces and how the Monkees' film Head fits into it, take a look.  And, if you ever wondered how Mike Nesmith managed to be at Abbey Road studios while the Beatles were recording "A Day in the Life," well, here's your book!
     Hey, hey, we're ALL Monkees.

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