I’m not sure how many people remember their preschool years the way Rye and I can. Maybe it’s a bit unhealthy, this clinging to the past, this attachment to things that happened in life not long after we had learned to properly use a toilet. Nobody really talks anymore about what a wicked collection of Hot Wheels they had. Nobody talks about what it felt like to find a really awesome stick on the ground, one that you could drag along a fence all day long making that perfect, percussive da-da-da sound.
It’s sad, really. In many ways I felt more on top of things between the ages of two and six, than I ever have since. Probably because life was so impossibly immense, that you knew your place in it; stay close to you parents (they have the money, food, car, toys, etc.), stay away from dark areas (closets, mysterious cars), and try to find a good stick.
It was simple. Eat the crust of the sandwich, don’t touch electrical stuff, don’t use bad words, don’t go on the roof, and don’t mess up the pillows on the nice couch in the living room. There was little space for illusion. We were so very small, the thought of even surviving to live as long as our parents was an absurd assumption. Not because we were living in wartime or something, quite the opposite in suburban Silicon Valley (what was it called before the silicon?). It was just that life was so very big, and we were so diminutive, how could it last? Rye and I used to be absolutely certain we would be beaten up by big kids, run over by trains / cars, electrocuted, drowned, or just left somewhere accidentally before we were sixteen. Sounds morbid, but it was just kid-logic; we are small, and there are a great many large and dangerous objects around that we don’t stand a chance against.
Keep out of harm’s way, don’t fight with your sister, try to find a good stick.
Oh, and listen to The Monkees as much as you can, because they are absolutely the greatest band to ever walk the earth.
Every kid needs a soundtrack. Most kids are capable of creating their own, but a little inspiration never hurt. The Monkees were the perfect band for a kid—the tunes were catchy, the themes were innocent, and the guys in the band were likeable. For Rye and I they were the entirety of our rock and roll world in the preschool universe, and there was nothing better. An aunt had left The Monkees’ first two LPs (The Monkees, and the aptly titled More of the Monkees) over at my house and from that point on nothing but Monkee-rock ruled the soundtrack of our lives.
I was partial to “Mary, Mary” and “Sometime in the Morning,” and Rye preferred the harder edge of “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” and “Last Train To Clarksville.” We both, of course adored “Gonna Buy Me a Dog” and would roll around on the carpet in hysterics at the sheer comic brilliance of it. I’m not sure we were the target demographic for The Monkees, but the art cut deep to our souls.
Rye and I spent our time running wild about the neighborhood, humming Monkees tunes, looking for good sticks, smooth rocks, and the occasional lizard, none the wiser to the fact The Monkees shows we watched on television were reruns, and The Monkees, if they had ever been a real band, had splintered years earlier. We didn’t have the concept of ‘break-up’ in our understanding yet. Why would a band as totally awesome as The Monkees ever break up? They all lived together, rode motorcycles, had a firepole inside their house, got into all manner of hijinks from week to week, and also just happened to be the most kick-ass rock supergroup in the world. How could it go wrong? We hoped we could be so lucky as to grow up and live exactly like them.
I once sent a handwritten letter to the fan club address on the back of the record in an effort to join. When the letter came back, I thought they must have moved to a bigger office.
My favorite Monkee was Mickey. Like every young boy, I was partial to the drums, and I loved the way Mickey’s voice sounded, so smooth and thick, like there where two of him. On the show he was clearly the leader, the frontman, and also the funniest. He was zany in a charming way. The girls loved Davey Jones but his songs were crap. We always picked up the needle and tried to skip over ‘On the Day We Fall in Love’ and ‘I Wanna Be Free.’ Even at the age of six, we could identify these offenses as sentimentalist pap aimed at young girls. Mickey’s songs had edge, verve, swagger. Willingly or not, I sported a bowl-cut hairdo just like him. Then again, every kid in the 70’s sported a bowl-cut like Mickey Dolenz.
Rye was partial to Peter Tork, mostly because there was a shot of him riding a motorcycle indoors during the opening of the show. Rye had a big green plastic motorcycle that we could ride (only outdoors, much to our chagrin), so whoever was on it while we were ‘playing Monkees’ was obviously Peter.
We both liked Mike Nesmith. With his skullcap and southern twang, he was a likeable Monkee, but lacked the mysterious allure of Peter, or the command of Mickey. I think it was the hat. Nobody can be taken completely seriously living in LA wearing a ski hat at all hours. When we tried out for a talent show lip synching to ‘I’m A Believer,’ our friend Ray wore his toque and played mike Nesmith. We weren’t asked to be part of the show.
Our days were spent in play. In our neighborhood in the late seventies, we roamed the streets, parks, and sidewalks without care, worry, or fear. Well, there was always the fear of mean dogs who had gotten out, and big kids on threatening skateboards and bmx bikes who were always (we thought) looking for someone to beat on.
It was idyllic. Our adventures were simple, yet the world seemed so grand that finding a new tree to climb, at the top of which you could see a faraway building, or highway 280, was a revelation.
We played Hot Wheels in the dirt. We made bike jumps in the dirt. We collected rocks. We walked the municipal creek behind Murdock Park and found pieces of bottles that had been smoothed over by the water (we called them ‘sea glass’ – ‘creek glass’ just didn’t sound sexy enough). We rode our bikes everywhere. We ghost-rode our bikes down hills and made them crash into each other. We played hot lava tag at the big park. We played tackle football and were smeared with grass stains and the smells of earth. We were on a constant mission of the outdoors—pools, backyards, parks, streets, neighborhoods, trees, bushes, blacktops, and open spaces—these were our domain. All this was done to the sounds and songs of The Monkees swirling in our heads and through the 4-inch speakers on our Zenith television sets. We didn’t think we’d survive to get our driver’s licenses, but our lives were rich. I think we must have known it then. The only burning question we asked was to call each other up and ask,
“Can you play?”
Then, one day, it happened.
Rye’s next door neighbor was Gavin, a high school kid who used to babysit both of us, and our sisters. He had a gap-toothed smile, a loud laugh, manic hair, and was probably a little too young and a little too wild to have been babysitting anyone, but we worshipped him nonetheless. He had a pachinko ball machine in his room, zebra-striped sheets on his bed, and drove a lowered Datsun 510 around the neighborhood at breakneck speed. He was the embodiment of cool, of age, of wisdom, of everything we thought we were too little to reach.
Gavin’s parents had a yellow speedboat in their driveway that Rye and I would play on, even though it was forbidden territory. Upon clambering around the vessel in our underwear playing superheroes (because superheroes wore their underwear around in public), we were always swiftly reprimanded by Rye’s mom.
On this particular day we were messing around on or about the boat in the driveway and Gavin sauntered out in bare feet, running shorts, and no shirt, his gold chain swinging lazily around his neck. We exchanged our usual pleasantries and asked him what ultra-cool stuff he had been up to.
“The usual, dudes. You know, Matt and I were riding dirt bikes yesterday at his mom’s place up off of Skyline.”
Dirt Bikes. Our imaginations swooned at what it must have been like to live even a mere moment in the World Of Gavin. When he asked us what we were up to, we told him the truth—we hadn’t been riding dirt bikes, cruising for girls, or playing with chemistry sets. We had been digging in the dirt with sticks, playing on his parents’ boat, and listening to The Monkees.
“You guys are always listening to The Monkees. How old are you now?”
We were six. Rye and I were born a week apart.
“Okay, you’re old enough now. Come upstairs.”
Gavin turned and walked toward the house. To be welcomed into the inner sanctum of Gavin’s Room was a holy occasion. Gavin was not only mega-cool, his room was an absolute wonderland. He was into building models, and his room was filled with the work he’d done—‘57 Chevy’s, Corvette Stingrays, WWII battle scenes, even displays of two model cars crashing into one another and melting. Very boss.
We weren’t sure what the crux of this particular visit would be. We would often just play pachinko for a while until Gavin had to get in his Datsun and tear away on the next errand of coolness. This time though, he sat down on the zebra-bed and said simply,
“I know The Monkees are your favorite band, and they’re a good band, but you guys need to start listening to The Beatles.”
“The What?” I asked. I loved Gavin, but he was impinging on a pretty sacred milieu.
“The Beatles, man! Haven’t you guys ever heard of The Beatles?”
“You mean like bugs?” Rye asked.
Gavin sighed and turned his attention to the stereo, which, like everything in his room, was big, shiny, adult, and awesome. He popped in a cassette and hit play. The speakers hissed as he cranked the big chrome volume knob to the right. What came out was a noise that transformed Gavin’s room to a symphonic hall, full of wild sounds, color, and people. Then the drums came on with an earth-moving shudder, and the walls of the house seemed to move in and out with the cones of the speakers.
It was the intro of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
I was six.
Gavin laughed, wide-eyed, air-drumming and bouncing on the zebra-bed as he watched our minds split open. “It was twenty-years ago today…”
“The Beatles, man!” He laughed louder.
The sound was frightening to me. The power and clarity of the drums was overwhelming. You could hear everything. Maybe most of that was attributed to the sheer volume of Gavin’s hi-fi, but on most Monkees albums you had to strain to hear anything but the singing. On certain songs, they had neglected or simply forgotten to record certain instruments like the bass guitar. The Beatles not only had bass guitar, they had about 65,000 other sounds I couldn’t name. The music seemed so wide, so spacious, so echoey, my little brain didn’t know what to do with it. The pachinko balls in the tray of the machine rattled and danced with the vibration of the music.
Gavin’s dad roared through the doorway letting him know that a friend had swung by to pick him up. Gavin leapt up, turned the stereo off with a click, and left two preschoolers standing there with their perceptions altered forever.
“Guys,” he chuckled. “Welcome to The Beatles. I’ll make you some tapes.”
He patted us on the shoulders and flew out of the room.
“So, what do you think?” I asked Rye later before he went into his house for dinner.
“I think we’re having spaghetti.”
“No, what do you think about The Beatles?” I clarified.
“They are good,” Rye said. “At least I think so. They sound weird, but I think they’re good. I think I like it. If Gavin likes it, it must be good.”
I paused, probably looking down, developing my shyness even there with my best friend.
“Do you think they’re better than The Monkees?” I asked.
And there it was—the question that hung over the precipice, seeming to dismantle the small, relatively ordered world we’d come to know. The answer threatened to push our understanding and life into a different paradigm. The doors of perception were creaking open.
“No WAY,” said Rye, and for a moment I was relieved. “Nobody beats The Monkees.”
I walked home. Rye didn’t seem as shaken as I was, but even the houses I’d passed a thousand times on Ora Street now looked bigger and more brightly colored. I had gone over to Rye’s earlier that day with an understanding of things; we would mess around, play with cars, have lunch (eat the crust), play on Gavin’s boat even though it was dangerous, and maybe watch some TV. Our parents loved us, we should look out of for cars when crossing the street, and The Monkees were the best band in the world.
Now, the big, unknown, dangerous world that lurked somewhere beyond the known borders of our neighborhood loomed a little larger, a bit gloomier, and in that knowledge a little boy began to slowly creep toward the fears and weirdness of school, reality, and life. There was a world-weary wisdom in The Beatles’ music that suggested what awaited when we got older. There was, and I still feel this way, an immense darkness to The Beatles—a heaviness that seemed to brim with the reality of life. The Monkees were a celebration of ignorance in the face of the realities of life, thus they were safe.
Did a young boy realize all this walking home for dinner in 1977? Of course not, but even after that two-minute sample in Gavin’s room, something inside me revealed that not only were The Beatles better than The Monkees, but I was awakening to what most of the world already knew, and cared not—The Monkees were a joke.
Consequentially, part of what I understood music to be—a safe, happy, rocking place of joy and silliness, was actually something more real, more spacious, more grown. I was scared. If this was what real music was, what was real life like? We knew it was threatening. Every 16mm public-service film we had watched in school said as much; don’t get in cars with / accept candy from strangers, don’t eat the apples you get on Halloween, don’t watch too much TV or you’ll go blind. Once, a big kid told me if I ate too much sugar and candy I would die. While that is, I suppose, empirically true, I believed him until I was in the sixth grade and tried to limit my candy intake accordingly, something a well-meaning kid should never do. The world was opening up, and as the crevice widened, it made the pneumatic sound of sucking childhood and innocence away.
True to his word, Gavin made tapes for us. They were white cassettes from PayLess—60 cents for a pack of three, and they were basically ‘Gavin’s Greatest Hits of the Beatles.’ It was a mix of all the different periods of the band, which was confusing to me. There was even some Paul McCartney / Wings stuff thrown in there, which of course complicated things even further. From song to song they almost sounded like completely different bands altogether. One track would be a jaunting, bubbling pop affair sounding remarkably like The Monkees. Next, the singer would sound like he had sucked on a helium balloon and had summoned a chamber orchestra and bagpipe group to backup the band. Sometimes the music sounded incredibly old, like something coming through a 40’s radio. Sometimes it sounded like something from The Muppet Show, or India.
It was all so weird and exciting—so much so that it felt dangerous. Something within me resisted telling my parents that Gavin had given Rye and I a couple of tapes and I was now listening to The Beatles. We were turned on. Listening to The Monkees was always a recreation, something to pass time while we waited for the next adventure, the next trip to the store with our moms, or the next friend with a swimming pool to call. The Beatles were academic and scary—the stuff of fast cars, cigarettes, and the wild fog that gathered at the borders of our safe, kind neighborhood. We would throw The Monkees on anytime; while we were playing Lego, Hot Wheels, or just hanging around in the living room, watching the dust drift in and out of the beams of light from the windows. The Beatles we would put on and just lay on the floor and dig it.
Rye almost immediately turned against The Monkees, stating aloud that the Beatles had clearly surpassed them and trampled upon their polite corner of the art world.
The Monkees remained my favorite band. I knew The Beatles were riskier, but I held a spot for The Monkees because what if, at the end of if all, listening to The Beatles turned out to be bad for you? We were always hearing that good things, when taken too far, became bad. It was part of what made the world so ominous—swimming pools were heaven, yet you could drown in them. Candy was another slice of the celestial, but it rotted your teeth and might, according to big-kid logic, kill you dead. If we weren’t careful, we might drift into something we couldn’t get out of, like a Johnny Quest villain caught in the quicksand.
Further, I wasn’t ready to yield the throne that The Monkees sat upon to this new band who had obviously stolen many of their best musical ideas. They must have been a flash in the pan that would flame out and disappear. The Monkees had been around forever, at least for the six years we had been around. They were like old friends. The were practically like our parents.
Rye thought The Beatles were from San Francisco. Our neighborhood-based world would allow for the fact that San Francisco was the closest big city, and in fact the only big city we had been to and for sure knew existed (my grandmother used to take us up to The Franciscan to watch the fishing boats ease in and out of the wharf, while introducing us to the weird pleasures of seafood). Logic followed that The Beatles must have been from ‘Frisco, the capital of ‘out there.’
It wasn’t until a few years later that I began to adjust to the truths about The Beatles. They had basically invented pop music and set the template for all rock and roll bands. Not only had they existed before The Monkees, but the Monkees were a blatant, relatively lame marketing attempt to cash in on the sound, look, and attitude of The Beatles, going so far as to hire young actors who weren’t even musicians (at least initially) to play the roles of the four American mop-tops. Both The Beatles and The Monkees were defunct long before I was even born, and I wondered how many Monkees fan club requests had been ‘returned to sender’ just like mine (probably not many). Finally The Beatles were of course from England, a place I’d never really heard of or expected to go to, because someone had told me it was further away than Hawaii.
It wasn’t until many years later that I would make a certain peace with the two bands that had shaped my childhood musical landscape, and in turn became my two main musical influences. It wasn’t until years later that I began playing music, singing in bands, and generally becoming a music person. It wasn’t until years later that I would have the chance to meet Mickey Dolenz, lead singer of The Monkees, in person.
In my early twenties I got a job at a tiny video production studio where we made short films for churches. It was a strange job and an emerging business, and since we fancied ourselves ‘in the film industry’ even from our tiny office in northern California, 400 miles from ‘the film industry,’ we decided to go to Sundance one year.
It was beyond freezing.
Having grown up in California, I thought the phrase ‘Sundance Film Festival’ somehow meant that even though it took place in Park City, Utah, there would be some pocket of warmth brought over from LA. It was not to be. It was so cold even my nose hairs were retreating to parts unseen / unsmelled. I went with three friends—Travis, the guy I worked with at the studio, and Wendell and Jay, who were sometime actors in the videos we made. We drank whiskey openly in the street to keep warm, like we were in a western or something.
On top of the cold, we couldn’t get tickets to anything except a documentary called ‘El Valley Centro’ which was a succession of fixed-camera shots of tractors, crossroads, and fruit trees, which lasted two hours. At one point, Wendell, who was never afraid of speaking his mind at inappropriate moments, addressed the screen, and the entire theater, directly when he asked, “What is this? I don’t even understand what this is! Why are we even watching this?”
We weren’t exactly the players of Sundance—we were out of our league and had crashed the party.
But, on our final night, the guy we were staying with, who we barely knew through Jay, said he could get us into ‘the party’ when he got off work. It escapes me now who was actually throwing this party, but it was at the resort hotel owned by Robert Redford, and the guest list was exclusive. Needless to say, ‘four guys from California freezing their asses off sharing the same bottle of Knob Creek’ were not on the guest list. We snuck in through the kitchen.
Techno music blared. Everyone was hip, looking at these five guys with red noses and wet hair who had just spilled out of the kitchen. Jay found the best looking girl in the place and instantly locked her in conversation. I recognized Michael Stipe from R.E.M. on the dancefloor immediately. He was dancing kind of like a dork, and he really didn’t seem to mind, because let’s face it, he’s Michael Stipe, rock and roll singer. He looked small, as famous people often do in ‘real life,’ and I noted he was dancing with a woman who looked like she might have been related to him.
I boogied a little bit on the floor, really just to get a closer look at Michael Stipe, rock and roll singer, and to confirm that yes, he did in fact have a tattoo of a brick on his hand. I boogied toward the bathroom and blew my nose twenty times and came out and that’s when I saw Mickey Dolenz, my childhood hero.
Travis came up beside me with two drinks and handed me one.
“I can’t believe it, that’s Mickey Dolenz,” I said, staring at him in wonder from across the room.
“The Monkees guy?” Travis asked. He was a few years older than me. Usually if I mentioned one of The Monkees by name I had to explain myself. Travis knew the drill, and also a little about my Monkee-obsession.
“You have to go talk to him,” he said, laughing.
“I can’t not talk to him,” I said. “I practically worshipped the guy when I was a kid.”
Mickey was talking to a woman. He still had that boyish smile, the quality that probably landed him the gig on the show. He wore a white shirt and sipped a drink and smiled politely. His hair was long, thin, and curly, He looked older in the face—puffier yet more gaunt, and his temples made giant, deep crows feet when he smiled. He shook hands with the woman and she disappeared into the party. Mickey Dolenz stood there alone, sipping his drink and casing the room; The man who fronted the greatest band in the world. The man whose albums had outsold even The Beatles in 1967; Mickey Dolenz, lead singer of The Monkees.
“Nobody’s talking to him,” Travis said.
“I know,” I said. “It’s kind of weird, and sad. Why aren’t people mobbing him? He was the damn lead singer of The Monkees!” I was getting butterflies.
“Dude, go talk to him now.” Travis gave me a gentle shove.
“Mickey!” I called from twenty feet away. I decided to go in big.
He looked around and up and down in a comedic way, almost like it was 1966 and he was rehearsing a bit for the show. I walked over.
“Hi Mickey, I’m Kevin Marks. It really, truly is an honor to meet you.”
“Hi, nice to meet you,” Mickey Dolenz said.
We shook hands. He was cordial.
“You’ve been a huge influence on my life. This is really weird that we’re here talking now,” I said, searching for the words to describe all that had gone before.
He smiled and nodded like he’d heard it thousands of times.
“I’ve gone on to play a bit of music myself, and you are big reason for that,” I said.
“Well thank you very much,” he said. Behind his crows feet there was probably a brain thinking, “Here we go again. Where is that girl I was talking to?”
In order to try and pinpoint my appreciation, I tried to describe my preschool years with Rye.
“When I was six, my best friend and I loved you guys. Then an older kid turned us on to The Beatles. My friend liked them almost immediately, but you guys remained my favorite band. I stayed true. I loved The Monkees!”
He smiled politely, nodded, and raised his eyebrows. The subtext of what I had said was a subliminal drama he had probably danced around at every party since he was 22. Here was Mickey Dolenz, lead singer of The Monkees, a band that had gone from being a worldwide smash, to a joke, then on to occupy a certain esteemed place as an important artifact of pop culture as the first manufactured band created for a TV show that went on to become a real band and won an understated piece of musical real estate in people’s hearts and minds. I was trying to tell him that to me, as a kid, they were bigger than The Beatles, and as my first love, they still were, but it was coming out wrong. He said nothing, probably because he couldn’t have begun to describe the pain and weirdness of such a strange, exultant, yet embarrassing public life as his, just like I couldn’t explain the momentousness of that moment. The big world was trying to collide with the ideals of a child, and it wasn’t working.
I tried to change the subject, sort of.
“So what are you up to now, are you making any music? I think I read that you were producing or something,” I offered, trying to show I wasn’t a fair-weather fan.
“Films. I make films now,” he said, as if trying to close the door on The Monkees forever in one sentence.
“Fantastic! So do I!” I offered. It was coming out all wrong. I had tried to communicate that I liked his band better than the Beatles, yet we both knew that the Beatles were clearly better than his band. Now I was simply trying to identify with him, and let him know that I was into film as well, but it felt like I was tearing down his achievements and poking fun. I felt like the Johnny Quest villain hovering over the sinkhole.
I suppose it was fitting. In front of my childhood hero, here I was acting like a child. I thought for a moment that only if I was six I could truly communicate the true scope of his drumming, his hair, his art.
Instead, we talked about his film, the details of which escape me now. It might have been a coming-of-age drama, it might have been a documentary. We talked about how it was doing in the festival, and what his plans were if the film got picked up for distribution. He reiterated that he would go on to make more movies, as that was the world he was embroiled in now.
We never talked about music again. We never talked about The Monkees again. We shook hands and I told him again how big an influence he was on me. He was polite and kind and smiled, and when I left him there wasn’t another fan waiting to talk to him.
I never stopped listening to The Monkees. I sort of rediscovered them in college, when I happened upon a yellowing cassette of their debut album in a used record shop in Los Angeles. Putting that tape in my car stereo was visceral. I could smell the woodsy must of my old house, hear the lazy sound of the expressway beyond our back fence, and feel the bigness of the world as Rye and I laid on the shag carpet with nothing to do, just passing the time, digging The Monkees.
I found that my eyes were welling up. I realized that, without knowing it, I had crossed over. I was now part of the giant outside world, I was out amidst the scariness beyond the neighborhood. Like the mysterious city of San Francisco, I passed through a world that the childhood me never thought he’d see—driver’s licenses, girlfriends, paying for your own haircut, and a host of other adult concerns.
Now I have a son. On my 37th birthday I put on the two-disc reissue of The Monkees’ debut album after picking it up on my annual solo birthday trip to the record store. Even though he was a year and half, I tried to explain to him everything I have here; about how The Monkees were my favorite band when I was a boy, and how Rye and I would lip synch to them with tennis rackets for guitars, and how I met Mickey Dolenz before I met his mom. I didn’t tell him that I always found it kind of sad to meet Mickey, and that there was really no way to have such an interaction with Mickey Dolenz and not sense at least a little regret. If he had been really gung ho and proud of his tenure in The Monkees, it would have felt sad and worn, too.
I didn’t talk about the big world outside, about where life takes you, about how frightening and exhilarating it all is, and how on some days it would be nice to just be a young kid looking for a good stick.
I just put the music on loud and we laughed and danced together in a circle around the room.