Nearly 40 years after, here I sit watching The Monkees’ one and only feature film, Head, on a little Toshiba (won’t play on the ‘puter), my mind pretty well blown away by the fact this was co-written and co-produced by none other than Jack Nicholson and Bob Rafelson (Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens) and how bizarre is that. This is my second viewing of the movie, so I could blog about it. The first time, Marty was watching with me and said, “Wait a minute, is that Jack Nicholson walking through?” “Nah,” I replied, still focused on the unexpected appearance of Not-Divine. (Note: Oops! See the comments. Jennifer at Saying Yes saved me on this one. I’d identified initially the actor as Divine but it’s not Divine. It’s T. C. Jones, died 1971, and a good 25 years younger than Divine. No WONDER Divine was sooooooo unexpected.) But it was Jack Nicholson, and I wonder if it was Nicholson or Rafelson who decided The Monkees should play dandruff vacuumed out of the hair of Victor Mature, who afterwards gleefully terrorizes them as the Jolly Green Giant on the back sets of Hollywoodland, laughing as he stomps about and they run. I’m guessing the choice of Victor Mature has something to do with his playing Sampson, but what do I know. Mature’s tyrannical pursuit of the American Fab Four could instead be inspired by his having once remarked, “I’m not an actor – and I’ve got 67 films to prove it!” If there was one thing that would follow The Monkees, purportedly (according to their theme song) the voice of youth, the up-and-coming who had “something to say”, was if these spokesmen were musicians, were even actors, if they were anything beyond an advertising scheme a cut above the Lucky Charms Leprechaun (Kellogs being one of their sponsors), a wildly successful marriage of faces and fast-paced slapstick and accessible voices that took the selling of music from local radio to national television, priming the preteens for MTV, a concept sold by Nesmith to Warner Amex as Popclips.
The movie begins with a shot of red ribbon and feedback all through my ears (I’ve got on earphones, ooow), security, police, press and lots of suits.
“I think we’re ready to go, Mayor,” says security to one of the suits, helping him out of his car.
The mayor begins his speech but keeps getting feedback on his mic. As he continues with his dedication of the bridge, one of the largest arch suspension bridges in the world, comes crashing through the red tape, Micky Dolenz, followed by the other Monkees, sirens pursuing. Micky leaps from the bridge into the water, the other Monkees halting at the guardrail and watching him fall fall fall fall fall fall fall fall as The Porpoise Song starts and Mickey’s dummy hits the water.
“But the porpoise is laughing, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye…”
Psychedelic mermaids with zippers unabashedly, prominently running the length of their flippers show up to escort The Crazy Monkee through the color bombardment that was so popular then for depicting a mind supposedly bent by drugs.
And since this IS the movie’s opening tune, seems essential to give its lyrics in full.
My, my the clock in the sky is pounding away
There’s so much to say
A face, a voice, an overdub has no choice
And it cannot rejoice
Wanting to be, to hear and to see
Crying to the sky
But the porpoise is laughing good-bye, good-bye
good-bye, good-bye, good-bye
Riding the backs of giraffes for laughs is alright for a while
The ego sings of castles and kings and things
That go with a life of style
Wanting to feel, to know what is real
Living is a lie
But the porpoise is waiting good-bye, good-bye
Good-bye, good-bye, good-bye
Good-bye, good-bye, good-bye
Good-bye, good-bye, good-bye
There you have it. A life of style. Ego. What is real? And, more significantly, riding tandem on that bike, “an overdub has no choice”.
Shall we move along, bidding goodbye, goodbye, goodbye to The Monkees’ fan base of pre-teens (I was one of them, who hearted The Monkees deeply, at least for a season) with “Head”, a movie I never saw as a child but was already over my infatuation with The Monkees by 1967, a year before their show was canceled, a year into the phenomena, having already decided the packaging was too saccharine. Besides which, the 1968 movie was probably released with a mature rating, officially estranging the fan base which wouldn’t be left hanging but shifted to Bobby Sherman and then The Partridge Family, the elder siblings of soon-to-be MTVers already prepped from infancy by the Mickey Mouse Club’s Mouseketeers which gave them Annette Funicello and eventually introduced their children to Christine Aguilera, Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears.
Dolenz ascends to the cry of porpoises.
Oh my! Sex! He is kissing a young woman, not an eight-year-old fan, in a rather too real not for avid consumers of marshmallowy breakfast cereal way! Tinkle of druggy wind chimes in the background as the woman moves away from him with a dubious backward glance (bright blue eye shadow, residual water fillip recalling the savior mermaids), moves on to OH MY kiss Mike Nesmith full on the lips (and he was married, gasp) then Peter Tork and lastly, before a stained glass window, the heartthrob of millions of eight-year-old girls, Davy Jones, the windows opening with a surge of dramatic strings, seagulls playing in the blue sky beyond. The windows close. The young woman picks up her coat and as she leaves Mike asks her, “Well?” “Even,” she replies, not very impressed. When Mike whispers, “Why don’t you come back later?” she laughs “Are you kidding?” and is gone.
KISS-OFF! NO ONE LOVES THE MONKEES! KISS-OFF YOU EIGHT-YEAR-OLD FREAKS, DESPITE THE FACT WE PRETTY WELL HAVE SEEN THE FUTURE AND WE KNOW ANYONE OVER THE AGE OF CONSENT ROLLS THEIR EYES IN DISDAIN, GUESS WHAT, WE ARE FULL GROWN MEN (well, most of us) WITH CAREERS (well, hopefully) AND WE LIKE BIG GIRLS, GOT IT? WE LIKE BIG GIRLS IN BIG BOY WAYS.
But the big girl’s not sticking around.
Mike faces a mirror to straighten his tie.
Begin a pile-up of scenes from the movie as stills grabbed from television screens, and instead of The Monkees’ anthem that started each show informing they were too joyously making music to put anybody down, there is now the rapid-fire rant,
Hey hey, we are The Monkees, you know we love to please, a manufactured image with no philosophies. We hope you’ll like our story, although there isn’t one, that is to say there’s many, that way there is more fun! You told us you like action, and games of many kinds, you like to dance, we like to sing, so let’s all lose our minds! We know it doesn’t matter, ’cause what you came to see, is what we’d love to give you, and give it one two three! But it may come three two one two and jump to nine to five, and when you see the end in sight, the beginning may arrive! For those who look for meanings, and form as they do fact, we might tell you one thing, but we only take it back. Not back like in a box back, not back like in a race, not back so we can keep it, but back in time and space! You say we’re manufactured, to that we all agree, so make your choice and we’ll rejoice in never being free! Hey hey, we are The Monkees, we’ve said it all before, the money’s in, we’re made of tin, we’re here to give you more!”
The last television screen image becomes a moving one and is the famous footage of Chief Brig Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing Viet Cong officer, Nguyen Van Lem, with a shot to the head, February 1 1968.
The next television screen footage is a girl screaming.
Not at the shooting but for the Monkees! One of those 1960s freak-faint-and-fall teenybopper Dionysian heathen rites where they piled into auditoriums and concert halls and blew out their vocal chords in hysterical fits of mass passion.
Teenyboppers no longer go into hysterical panics over their stars. Neither does the media expose them any longer to the kind of footage and shots of the Vietnam War to which we were exposed back in the 1960s. Still, I can tell you, that had a preteener been in the movie audience for “Head”, the execution quickly following THE KISS OFF, would have sent them out in the lobby dialing up mom or dad to come pick them up and take them home.
Actually, preteens going in packs, the offended one would have been dragging down the aisle to the lobby the friend who was confused by the film but wanted to stay and see what happened next.
* * * * * * * *
And now may I take a moment’s break here to discuss the title of the movie, “Head”, that execution scene having featured toward the beginning. What does “Head” refer to any way?
Could it possibly be referencing the argument with Don Kirshner about 1967 when Nesmith put a hole in the wall, declaring, “That could have been your head!”, after which The Monkees gained recording control of their songs.
* * * * * * * *
Head. “It’s War!” Mickey Dolenz gives his helmet to Davy Jones who needs a boost to see what’s going on outside the trenches. Peter Tork does a run for ammo only to be continually butted by “We’re Number One!” Ray Nitschke of the Green Bay Packers. When he flees, Nitschke throws his golden helmet after him, which Tork gives to Dolenz, who likes the STARS.
* * * * * * * *
Head. “What you say, you and me, go some place where we won’t bump into each other again,” Davy Jones says to T. C. Jones who’s played a Bette Davis talking waitress haggling them. S/he responds with a slap, and down he goes in the ring now, getting pummeled by Sonny Liston, made up so he’s bloodied, one eye swollen shut, the wide-eyed white-toothed smile that he brandished throughout the television series, carried into the movie where it becomes nearly freakishly absurd, replaced by a large white mouth guard that even further disfigures his face, making him nearly unrecognizable. “Stay down!” Mickey yells. “Stay down!” But Davy, senseless, keeps struggling back to his feet.
* * * * * * * *
Head. Here is an interview with Eddie Adams, who took the famous Pulitzer Prize winning image of Nguyen Van Lem being shot, which is sometimes called the shot that ended the war. A horrible picture that made a star of Adams, but he didn’t want the responsibility that came with the public’s judgment of that pic, didn’t understand how they could criticize Nguyen Ngoc Loan, who he had personally known, when he had shot Nguyen Van Lem in war time. Two people died that day, he says of the event and its aftermath. And playing over it is “Porpoise Song”, so loud as to drown out his voice, which is an mp3 from this page where I got the lyrics for Porpoise Song, coincidentally loading in and beginning at the same time as the interview. The song and interview began so and-a-one-two-three on cue together that for a moment I thought “Porpoise Song” had been purposefully laid in over Eddie Adams.
* * * * * * * *
At which point a great sadness overtakes me, and I’m not even a few minutes into my second viewing of the movie.
And I decide that is really all that needs to be blogged about the film which is, no, not a good movie, but is certainly a document of its time, cynical and self-immolating and straightforwardly ambiguous in its hate/love for marketing and its vision of what makes for an acceptable future in virtuals sold as real. “Suck it before the venom reaches my heart,” Terri Garr says in another scene. But no one does. And eventually, in perhaps the most bizarre moment of the movie there is a bikini-clad girl atop a building, screaming she’s going to jump, clumsily gyrating in a way that looks every bit like unbalanced Edie Sedgwick in “Ciao, Manhattan,” her plaintive, sluggish, garbled cries of “You don’t think I’m going to do it!” “I’m going to do it!” sounding every bit like Edie Sedgwick, predating her 1971 broken doll performance as Susan Superstar. Though ending undramatically and with a not-to-be-bypassed opportunity for the camera to make eye candy of her charming, bikini-clad exterior, if there is one disarming delphic flash of inspiration floating in the snap, crackle, pop, it is that one.
* * * * * * * *
“So long and thanks for all the fish!”
(Yes, yes, dolphins are not the same as porpoises, but they are cousins. Just begged to be said.)
* * * * * * * *
Marty (as I play the “Porpoise Song” at Youtube): I just realized what the key to the Monkees’ sound is. Micky Dolenz is always flat. It never fails.
Me: But it works.
Marty: Well, he’s not the only one. I know other singers who are always flat.
Whom I will not name here because you may get the idea they are bad musicians when in fact they are excellent.
And though Marty had two Monkees’ albums in his collection as a teen, it was more for appreciation of the writers who penned the early songs. What can’t be recreated for today’s listener is how good some of this material sounded on our tinny little mono radios back in the 60s. Straight forward, finely tuned pop refrains cutting through the sun, background music that buoyed you from street to street, making your day your very own musical in which you starred, which is also what the show sold, you in the musical that is your life via the ministrations of The Monkees. “Take the last train to Clarksville…” Accessible music to young ears that sold emotional rather than sensational stories. “I’m a believer…” The furor over who did what didn’t escape my youthful notice, and expanded my awareness to the idea of the studio musician. Because at a young age I had assumed all music came in band packages, and was surprised to learn that there was this thing called a Studio Musician, faceless and largely nameless to the general public, most kids not paying attention to anything but the bold print. “What? There are people who are called in to play on songs who aren’t in bands? And this is just what they do? They’re musicians and this is what they do despite the fact of getting no glory? And they help create a sound that a band might otherwise have not achieved, and they get no glory?” Who were these shadow entities? I absorbed it on a very basic, physical level. Such as “The Monkees” as the manufactured band and sound was the sun and the open street, while the studio musicians who played the songs were the cool shadowy bedrooms in which I sat and turned the albums over and examined the back covers. And that is how it has remained with me to this day, my fresh nine-year-old awareness of the studio musician. I return to the bedroom of my slightly older friend Janice, who was swiftly outgrowing me as she moved into true preteen years, and I’m turning over in my nine-year-old hands her copy of “More of the Monkees” to wonder at the back cover, a memory which immediately gives way to some other friend’s bedroom (as kids, we lived in each others’ bedrooms) and I’m slightly older and continuity is they too have the same album and again I’m turning it over to look at the back cover and reflect on the mystery that is the studio musician. Who the hell were these guys and why did they play if it wasn’t for album cover fame and fortune?
Upon reflection, looking back at how the show helped create for us (or me) the sense of our lives with us as stars fronting our very own musical, for sing-along single-digit age kids it could have been the very fact that The Monkees weren’t the featured instrumentalists in the initial albums, but were sing-alongers, just like us. The world is your shower.
The movie communicates how the show worked making us each stand-ins, how it fit with our little brains, so when Peter Tork, in “Head”, pops the waitress in the jaw who turns out to be T. C. Jones who is a man, he can angst over having popped a woman in the jaw not only because of T. C. Jones’ s/heness but because of all the female youthful viewers of the series standing in for both male and female characters. It’s less an expression of a philosophy of every person made up of both masculine/feminine, but another example in a primer on what made the show work and how, as divulged in Head’s chant that replaces The Monkee’s anthem and is their workbook. How we were able to blend into the mirage.
The magic of the show, for its time, was that it left space for you–just like the plague of advertising does. The stories left space for the child to be a participant, because instead of selling a “story” the shows were also a kind of background wallpaper. The big screen musicals couldn’t do this, existing for the theater. Later television shows such as The Partridge Family didn’t do this because their vehicles were too constrictive, too linearly structured, too tied up around a beginning-middle-end story of some sort rather than wallpaper actions and bits that reflected your every day preteen physical movements–as in now I get up and go to the kitchen for something to eat and now I go out and run around like a fool on the playground. Walk Like Me.
So the album “Head”, with its original mylar cover reflecting your face, was right on target. As was the heart of the movie, telling us that what we vividly imagined might be experienced as real, becoming a part of us (maybe, maybe not, sort of, like vividly imagined fake tupperware becomes a part of our lives). As the chant relates, a reason for this with The Monkees was because of the break from the linear, the nine-five-ten storytelling rather than one-two-three constructions. Just as life isn’t linear.