Walter Mencken 8:54 a.m., May 21
On the last day of last month, on the other side of the continent from our San Diego, not far from the Atlantic coast of our nation's only tropical mainland state, an older middle-aged man was encountered in his car, suffering severe chest pains and shortness of breath. Though I don't know the details of what transpired and don't need to, having passed through that part of Florida not so very long ago I can picture in my mind the unhappy scene.
Indiantown lies between Lake Okeechobee, the source of fresh water for much of Southern Florida, and the coastal town of Jupiter. I'd stopped there once toward the end of 2010, just long enough to fill up the tank and buy a Slim Jim, beef jerky, and a tall can of beer. It seemed the sort of town where people, in their basically decent way, would try to come to his aid. Probably they had no idea who he was, and probably for most of the time he'd lived in the area that was just fine with him. Among the moderately famous, there's much to be said for being able to fill up your tank and buy a few things at a convenience store in anonymity.
Davy Jones, formerly of The Monkees, passed away peacefully shortly thereafter of a heart attack at age 66. Hearing of it really made me stop and think for a moment, though of late I've about had my fill of being told that someone has died.
Maybe it's because I'd so recently been in Southern Florida where it happened--such an odd place for a native Southern Californian to be--while accompanied by my high school sweetheart, whom I hadn't seen since early 1981 but have now since visited twice more. We'd reconnected through a well-known social networking site, and during this first visit were trying to figure out what to do, while realizing that our confused feelings were one thing that hadn't changed much in all that time. She'd lived in Miami since the late '70s, and I'd lived all over the world. I'd even been in Miami a few times over the years for conventions and such, but sometime in the early '80s she'd gotten married--though not forever, as it turned out--and I figured at the time that was that.
Distinctly I recall a Saturday morning in the fall of '72, while we were both seniors in high school. There was still that thrill of being able to go anywhere I wanted with my own vehicle, which at the time was a little Honda CB160. I rode it from the family house in the college area to the top of Mt. Helix, and stood there leaning on it while taking in the view. When you're a teenager not long removed from passing your first driving test, such things can seem like a really big deal.
My brother and I shared a room in the old family house, and had recently pitched in on a cheap stereo from Radio Shack. It played LP's and 45's with a clarity we'd never heard before, and between us we'd accumulated a modest collection of records. One of these was "Daydream Believer," which despite it being a Monkees tune we found ourselves liking.
I recall that song running through my head as I sat there taking in the view to the west from the top of Mt. Helix. My gal was there somewhere in that grand view, probably at her home near the corner of College and University, which I could identify by the large water tank atop the hill to the southwest. With my little freedom machine, she seemed indeed to think of me as a white knight on his steed, and we certainly didn't have dollar one to spend.
Just sitting there, thinking of that song and taking in the view, is one of those youthful moments that's always stuck in my mind. Trying too hard to analyze why would probably spoil the pleasant memory.
By 1972, that or any 1967 track was hopelessly un-hip and out of date. The '70s, afterall, were the only time the '60s weren't cool. Just the same, it would have been impossible for me then to conceive of its singer some forty years later as an older man at the end of his life.
The Monkees have been called the first, and arguably the best, of the pre-packaged rock groups that sprang up in the late '60s and early '70s. It didn't seem so at the time though, not to a pre-teenage male like myself anyway. When their show came out in Fall 1966 I was a 6th grader in elementary school at Henry Clay, and like many boys, I vaguely resented those guys. The girls swooned over Davy in particular, who struck me as an untalented twerp who had little going for him other than a British accent.
My sister, of course, loved their show, so naturally my brother and I conspired to keep her from seeing it. We claimed to prefer "Cowboy in Africa," a not-too-bad series actually, which starred Chuck Connors and was up against The Monkees on another network. Majority rules, so we figured we'd trumped her. Cowboy in Africa was strong enough that it was later shown at another time in the week while being kept in its competitive position with The Monkees, and when my brother and I claimed that we didn't want to watch it at that alternate time my parents figured--probably correctly--that we were being unfair to my sister.
As a young adult some years later, when home video was still something of a novelty, I came across a VHS collection of The Monkees' first season and offered to buy it for my sister. She told me no thanks, and that particular episode of sibling rivalry was quietly buried forever.
During the 1967 Summer of Love, however, my low-intensity annoyance with The Monkees continued. I was taking an art class in summer school at Horace Mann, surrounded by kids I didn't know. It still strikes me, even 45 years later, as one of the most disorienting times in my life. Henry Clay was one of the smallest elementary schools in the district, and Horace Mann was one of the biggest junior high schools in the country. A bell would ring, and everybody would go off to another class on their own individual schedule. This in itself was plenty, but in summer '67 there was that whole Sexual Revolution thing getting under way, with all of us on the cusp of puberty. The girls wore short dresses and such, and we guys were starting to have to hold a notebook in front of our pants if the teacher called us up to the board at... certain times.
The art teacher fancied himself hip, and let us bring in records to play as background music while we worked on our art projects. He was a pretty good teacher, actually, and my folks kept two or three projects I made during that summer as house decorations until the end of their lives. He set a few ground rules with the music, though. No "Sergeant Pepper," which had come out just a few weeks before and was somewhat controversial as the sort of thing to play in a school classroom. I can't remember any of the other specifics, but what we ended up with was a whole lot of Tijuana Brass albums and a heavy smattering of The Monkees.
Davy had a particularly irksome song, where he didn't really sing but simply spoke his lines in that British accent of his, about how it would be "On the Day We Fall in Love." My best buddy--the oddball friendship from an earlier story--shared my loathing for this syrupy tripe, which his older sister swooned over.
Time passed, the regular school year got underway, the music got more and more astonishingly out there, and The Monkees came to seem like quite the little wet-fart of a group. At some point, I lost consciousness of the TV series as well as the group, and didn't care whether my sister watched it or not. Then, aside from his cameo appearance in "The Brady Bunch Movie," years passed and I seldom gave Davy Jones a thought.
Apparently Davy had a consistent, if unspectacular, solo career. Mike Nesmith was the one I'd hear of from time to time, and in retrospect I suppose it was his outspokenness and serious drive that contrasted with Davy's easygoing cheerfulness to make for the appealing dynamics of what--I now believe--evolved into a surprisingly accomplished musical group. They took the utmost advantage of whatever lucky breaks came their way, and plenty did; Neil Diamond certainly wrote a lot of catchy songs for them, though it's former Kingston Trio member John Stewart's "Daydream Believer" that most endures.
Nesmith seemed to resent their not being any more than what they were, while Davy seemed appreciative for all the fine things that had come his way. I can imagine him there in a Southern Florida coastal town, filling up his tank and getting himself a beer at the convenience store and thinking life had been quite good to him.
The other day, on the way to teach my class at the community college, I rode my motorcycle to the top of Mt. Helix again. It's much nicer than the bike I had in 1972, and I've got a few more dollars to spend than back then. The same gal is prominent in my life, though we're still trying to figure out what to do.
At least now, it's merely a continent that separates us rather than our teenage angst. I thought of that song, I thought of her, I thought of Davy, and I thought of passing through the place where he spent much of his post-Monkees career, not knowing at the time that it was home to him. He seemed like a genuinely happy fellow who lived in a nice place and passed on all too soon.