07 04 16 Hey Hey!
Note: I’m in the middle of a summer that is not letting up—writing, editing, planning, traveling—and it’s going to go right up to the new semester (and probably into the next three years, I should live that long). Several likely blogpost subjects have come up, and I’ve done half-drafts of a couple, and…nothing. Quoth the Red Queen: “It takes all the running you can do,” etc. Phil has written on Deep Stuff, and I feel like I haven’t a thought in my head most of the time, save what I’m trying to cobble into the next paper/book chapter/detailed letter to a grad student/E-mail to colleagues, etc., at any given moment. I apologize. So I’m writing about something that just makes me happy.
How long has it been since you drove on a hot day, windows down, stereo up, hearing a new good-time album? For those who remember the ’60s or early ‘70s, I’m guessing a long time. For those born after, you’re excused. There’s a particular kind of wackiness that can be heard on a lot albums from that time: killer, ear-candy singles, occasional hilarious bits of session chaff, or stuff left on vocal tracks either accidentally or to suggest the in-the-moment recording experience, a cover version or two, and best of all, the one or two utter turkeys. But you listen hungrily, song by song, while (as Randy Newman put it) “Santa Ana winds blowin’ hot from the north!”
Folks, the Monkees are back with a new album. A sweet-as-an-orange-popsicle feel-good project on Rhino records, Good Times is that album. The whole band is there, including the departed Manchester Cowboy himself, Davy Jones—an unreleased version of a Neil Diamond song, “Love to Love,” done back in the day, never released, and requiring only minimal punch-up. Davy sounds great, the arrangement is school-of-I’m-a-Believer, and it’s the knife-edge between giggling and having a lump in your throat, because all the pieces are there but the person no longer is. Others from back in the day that deserved and received resuscitation: “Good Times” (a Harry Nilsson song; he’s playing on it, even) and a cover of Carole King’s “Wasn’t Born to Follow”…enjoyable, though I myself can only really conceive of that one in the McGuinn/Byrds incarnation. There’s a Boyce and Hart number, and there’s another one—“Gotta Give It Time”—in the trying-to-convince-her-to-go-the-distance genre (think “I Think We’re Alone Now” by Tommy James and a gazillion others). All upbeat, catchy, good humored. As for the turkey, well…sorry, Mr. Nesmith. “I Know What I Know” has apt period hypersensitivity and turgidity, but that verisimilitude doesn’t make it any easier to listen to. Even if he wrote it back then and brought it back for this precise reason, it’s pretty leaden.
So the first point is: BUY THIS! It makes me happy, and I like things that make me happy. Slap it on the iPod and fire up the Millennium Falcon or whatever you’re currently driving and turn it up.
My second point is a bit more serious. In the later eighteenth century, music for Kenner und Liebhaber—both for cognoscenti and for those who like a toe-tappin’ good tune, in other words—was particularly valued. The broader potential audience didn’t hurt, of course, but there was a particular value in composing fine music that was so accessible that it could wear its learning lightly. C. P. E. Bach, a musician’s musician, published music with that German phrase in the title, and Mozart and his father discuss similar ideas in their correspondence: it was high praise indeed to write music everyone could enjoy but which highly educated musicians could admire and dissect on their own professional level. In my own work, I think about this a lot; music that does not require repeated listenings and self-education—and, indeed, conquest of initial resistance—tends to be distrusted. How good can it be, the thinking seems to run, if I can just immediately like it? We descendants of the German tradition hardly want our music to be easy, after all. Chopin, Dvořák, and Gershwin have all paid a critical price for the appeal of their music…
Good Times repays repeated listenings because it works on several levels. You get these wonderful, catchy, chirpy songs (old and new alike), yes. But you also get the inside jokes in the songwriting, in the recording, and a variety of references to 1960s albums and musical genres: a reprised version of one of the songs, some poppy sitar-psychedelia, everything about the pacing. Your non-music-major friends will be the Kenner on this trip, getting jokes and references that leave you behind. The entire thing is a love note from the Monkees to their past and to their fans, and…y’know? You’ve been working hard. You deserve this.