Well, I was going to write about both Q & As at the Monkees Convention, but then I spat out about 3000 words just on Nez’s conversation with Rachel Rosenfelt and Rob Horning of The New Inquiry. I trimmed where I could, but given its once-in-a-lifetime nature I didn’t want to give the analysis short shrift. Nez’s Q&A was pretty short–about 34 minutes after subtracting out introductions and Rachel’s anecdote about totaling her sister’s Engine on the way to Videoranch (which, Rachel, I totally would have done in your shoes and I KNOW the difference between gasoline and diesel). However, the brevity was made up for by the sheer density of a discussion that ranged from feminist avant-garde film theory (yes, really) to Christian Science (YES. REALLY.). There’s a lot to unpack, as my dissertation advisor might say, so we’re gonna just jump right in.
A note on methods
My discussion roughly follows the chronology of the interview, but within each major section of the discussion I hop around a little bit organize the talk into key themes. This is especially true of the more rambly middle section of the interview. The few points where I pull quotes of more than a couple of words, I time stamp them so you can easily see them in context. Also, for the two of you who are into qualitative social science research I didn’t do a true analysis per se, partly because I didn’t actually conduct the interviews in question, and partly because of, y’know, ethics. There was no transcribing or coding or anything of that sort—I pretty much just played back the video, pulled bits that caught my ear, and freewrote impressions that arose inductively from attending and then-re-watching the conversation. All of that was refined down into this post. That data-driven approach wound up being surprisingly appropriate, because both Nez and (to a lesser degree) Micky actually seemed to be using the interviews in part to construct their own grounded theories about what makes us fans tick. Anyway! On to Nez.
Part 1: Understanding each other
From the opening comments, it was pretty clear that Nez is at least as curious about us as we are about him. He seemed to think the origin of a Monkees fan comes down to “That moment, that gem they [i.e. we] polish off in early childhood.” (2:55), I’ll go with that—it’s certainly true in my case. A few seconds later he noted that such a moment is “ageless “(3:25). To me that’s a big part of the charm of this fandom, and probably similar ones that combine a childlike kindness of spirit with some deceptively deep themes. As a proud member of the 80s “Third Gen” cohort I’m something of a “middle child” of the fandom–and yet at the con I had awesome conversations with fans both 20 years older and younger than me, where our generational divisions dissolved. So many of my Monkees friends seem to combine an old soul with a young spirit. In those magical moments of connection with art (or at least this art), is it possible to become ageless, if only for the length of a concert or a singalong? Intriguingly, Nez says something in response to a later question about his favorite music that backs up this theory. Apparently, anything uplifting can be found in his playlists, regardless of genre. He said, “I tend not to brood, I tend to not be dark”, but he does love “teen angst”. He connects with anything that “brightens my day. I dance around the kitchen in my underwear.” (6:28) If only all 71 year old decreasingly-retired singer/songwriter/actor/producer/director/author/philanthropist/inventor/CEOs had that kind of “youthful” lightness, hmm?
So after that self-deprecating (and slightly disturbing) mental image, the conversation segued into Nez’s career with The Monkees. When asked what he would have done if he hadn’t gotten the part on the pilot, Nez truthfully states that he couldn’t imagine doing anything else with his life. Strictly speaking, that’s obviously correct. After all, can anyone really imagine what they would be if they had a different life? It’s the blessing and curse of perceiving reality as a subject-in (and subject –to) the rest of existence. Having dispatched with the origin story, Rachel and Rob moved on to the number one question of the last year and a half—Why Now? (6:45). After taking a moment to clarify that “I never didn’t embrace [The Monkees]” Nez then goes on to mention one or two of the 18,000 creative and entrepreneurial projects he had going in the 70s, 80s, and 90, before re-verifying the official story of the 2012 reunion. Per Nez’s statements, his absence in previous years was no more than schedule conflicts, also (to my ear anyway) implicitly combined with a very obvious desire to follow his own muse as well, referring to the Monkees era as “one part of his life”, in a way that seemed to possibly imply a desire not to let it grow beyond a certain proportion in the larger context of his life and career. Assuming I’m reading that correctly, I’m certainly the last person to begrudge him any of that.
Throughout this part of the Q&A, Nez repeatedly and subtly draws a distinction between his involvement with what I may start calling The Monkees™–the manufactured media machine of which he was a self-described “cog”—and his professional and personal relationships with Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, and Peter Tork. When discussing The Monkees™, Nez jokes “I feel the same way about it now that I did then, which is to say, ambivilant. *laughs*” (8:45), before going on to flatly state “I appreciate them. Never left them”, and that we can “take [that] to the bank”. Of course that’s true–if the last 2 years have taught us nothing else it’s that, in the minds of many these four guys will be buried within the black box. Of course whether Nez wanted that to be true in times like, say, 1970 or 1997 is another issue, and not any of our damn business. That said, I certainly can believe that on March 14, 2014, Nez believed that The Monkees™ has been a predominately positive force in his life. In any case, his feelings about The Monkees™ at any given point, were and are obviously a very different matter than his stated (and frankly obvious to anyone paying attention) lifelong affection for Micky, Peter, and Davy. It’s easy to miss that the individual Monkees’ feelings about The Monkees™ and their feelings about each other as people seem to be two very different issues. Just as Nez (correctly) reminds us that he will never be able to understand our outsider view of The Monkees™, we’re more likely than Nez is to struggle to distinguish between the black box and its contents because of our distance from the phenomenon.
On a lighter note, and as many of you know, Fairy Tale was the 28 minutes of television that turned me from a mild-mannered 9 year old nerd to a MONKEES FAN FOR LIFE (though it’s actually tied with the dramatically and thematically superior “The Devil and Peter Tork” for my favorite episode). So yeah, hearing Nez’s Princess Gwen live (10:20) in the context of discussing his favorite episode ticked off a bucket list item I didn’t even know I had. (It also helped my friend Jaime build up the nerve to take something of a risk…). Nez’s falsetto hopefully obliterated the preconceptions of any lingering sticks in the mud who still believed the whole “Grumpy Monkee” meme. Side note: Even if Nez WAS grumpy in the 1980s or 90s—which I buy less and less as I get older by the way—haven’t you changed a bit here and there over the years?
Part 2: Mutually exploring The Monkees™ as a construction
And then, in the moment that many of us were waiting for since he took the stage, Nez asked to ask some questions of Rachel and Rob, a format flip that turned most of the rest of the chat into a three-way discussion. For almost 20 minutes, Rachel, Rob, and Nez chatted about why one becomes a Monkees fan, the possible key traits of the fandom, and the deeper philosophical meanings of the Monkees in general. My first reaction to his relatively cerebral questions was that some things can’t be explained by logic. The heart wants what the heart wants. But when I viewed that Q&A again and (more embarrassingly) re-read some of my old essays, I realized that there are some rational responses to his (spoken and unspoken) questions. I’ll tackle those questions and other key themes from this section in more-or-less chronological order.
First, “Swept up in fandom” though we may be at times, 99% of (present-day) Monkees fans are not “going along with the crowd” (11:20). In fact, I doubt the existence of any Monkees fan under the age of 55 who got into this fandom because the mainstream told them to. Like most fans of the 80s era, I got into the Monkees (and stayed over the long haul) because as a child, I was both unwilling and incapable of “going along with the crowd”. The Monkees’ fictional (and eventually real) stories helped save my life and what passes for my sanity from the forces of “the crowd”. Being a Monkees fan taught me I have the power to (metaphorically) punch some walls and tell “the crowd” to go fuck itself when necessary. Assuming you can keep your head in the clouds and your feet on the ground, fandom in general and Monkees fandom specifically can lead to new friends, fascinating intellectual journeys, and a hell of a lot of fun.
Also, being a “clear-eyed” critical thinker and a Monkees fan, for me, are two sides of the same coin. I struggle to think of a pop culture phenomenon that would serve as better early training in critical analysis, looking beyond surface assumptions, accepting the complexities of humanity and traveling to the beat of one’s own drum than The Monkees™. Just consider Rob’s description of intellectually grappling with society’s assumptions about the band versus his own tastes. The Monkees’ cultural reputation as “fake art” gave me a framework in which to struggle with those same ideas of personal aesthetics versus cultural trends at the ripe old age of nine, for which I’m actually pretty grateful. Later on, I spent my twenties and early 30s in a slightly grim state of goal-oriented determination for both personal and professional reasons– I didn’t have much time or inclination to play, to put it mildly. While Davy’s death introduced a hairline crack or two into my stoic, businesslike façade, losing Anissa three months later was one of the worst blows I’ve ever endured. And yet, meeting her students, colleagues, and friends at her funeral helped me understand that a full life requires connecting with and serving others, while having fun in the process. Unlike me, Anissa never tuned out her childlike side. But you know what? She still used her sharp, quirky mind to create some wonderful plays and influenced hundreds of kids’ lives in the process. Anissa’s last lesson to me was that wisdom and courage must be leavened with compassion and silliness. Not only was returning to Monkees fandom a key force of my recent growth, I made sense of my journey through The Year of Our WTF through the lens of Nez, Micky, and Peter’s actions in an unnervingly similar situation. Long story short, I am a better scholar, administrator, and friend than I was two years ago because I am a Monkees fan—not in spite of that.
On to HEAD! Like Rachel I tried to write a paper about HEAD too—like so many things that have shaped this blog it happened during that sophomore year in Dundee, when I read Derrida. Most of it sailed merrily over my head, but I followed just enough to be appalled at both his theories (I’m more of a Foucault/Freire girl) and the Structures of Unquestionable Objective Authority that had arisen around him in the mid-90s. So being a sophomore in both senses of the word, I got it into my “bright” little mind to deconstruct deconstructionism, using aspects of HEAD as a theoretical tool. I bombed the paper, of course. I learned that I bit off WAY more than I could chew, but also that a 20-year old exchange student from *gasp* Oklahoma can’t tell an Oxbridge-educated professor his emperor has no clothes. Both were important lessons. In any case, neither Rachel nor I understand HEAD either—though we seem to save similar understandings of the movie. Of course if you listen to Ditty Diego, you’re reminded that there are as many valid ways to view the movie as there are viewers (maybe even viewings) of HEAD. In any event, like Nez I can’t take my eyes off Davy in that movie either–nor the rest of them, as they were all at Peak Hotness in early 1968. I don’t particularly care anymore if I’m regarded by others as a Deep Thinker, so I’m allowed to say that. 😉
After HEAD, the conversation began to drift into serious “What’s it all about?” territory. I’ve come to read the art created by The Monkees™ as a body of work that, broadly speaking, examines the means one uses to attain freedom in 1960s America, not just (as the discussion seemed to say) the merits of freedom itself. For me the show and much of the music seems to be arguing that liberation from power structures ranging from country club restrictions to Mister Zero is best achieved through the work of a small group of friends, acting together in love while not taking each other or their antagonists more seriously than absolutely necessary. I don’t know as much as I’d like to about the collaborative nature of the show, the music, and the balance between art and commerce that all concerned were attempting to strike in their very different ways while constructing The Monkees™ and its constituent works. Therefore, I’m not sure if that ethos flowed from the art outward to its creators, or if the internal and external philosophical battles that the larger “Monkee Machine” was struggling with influenced the creative projects birthed by its constituent parts. That’s probably unknowable anyway. As Nez noted, none of the individuals involved actually had control over the phenomenon–at a certain point everyone was overpowered by events and was just along for the ride. The Monkees™ was an organic gestalt that emerged as much out of the collective unconscious of the creators, fans and their milieu as it did from the individual creative insights of anyone involved.
In any case, to respond to Nez’s next question, in my opinion the contemporary media phenomenon that comes closest to the Monkees’ ethos is The Big Bang Theory. Swap out “musicians” and “romps” for “young academics” and “geeking out over pop culture” and they’re pretty much the same show, updated somewhat for contemporary values about gender. Both shows at their best are about young, disregarded misfits finding joy and freedom by subverting society’s restrictions and assumptions. In both shows, this liberative process takes place through the power of friendship and the embrace of art forms that the mainstream initially finds suspicious (but soon co-opts thanks in part to the broader success of the shows in question). Aside from Mayim Bialik being a “real” neurobiologist, however, the metaphor breaks down—nobody’s bashing Jim Parsons’ authenticity because he hasn’t published any peer-reviewed articles, after all. Then again, broader culture isn’t in the same place as 1966, for better and for worse.
Part 3: the soul of Nez
As the more interactive part of the interview drew to a close, Rachel noted the inherent spiritual note in some of Nez’s comments, and then…she went there. Yes, THERE. Far more than the guys’ chemical and sexual antics, even more than the “Where were you before Davy died?! bullshit, Nez’s Christian Science beliefs have always seemed to be the third rail of the fandom. It’s one of those topics that’s only debated infrequently in hushed corners of the fandom, often complete with dark innuendos and probable urban legends.
In any case, I spent my first 30 years as a spiritual seeker, trying to get satisfactory answers to some Big Questions from one of a long succession of faith traditions. In addition, I’ve benefited immensely from modern medicine (ie, my heart didn’t kill me before I was potty trained and my dad didn’t drop dead from his seizures before I got out of 4th grade). I’ve brought up a LOT of sacred cows on this blog, but this was the one Nez-related topic I knew I didn’t have the ability or inclination to touch. I’ve actually gotten a little push back in a forum after the Infamous Davy Essay because some thought I should have gone there, but I just couldn’t do it. Simply put, when it comes to this particular elephant, my tree trunk is his rope, and that ain’t likely to change. I’ve been dancing around this particular theological can of worms for over a year, afraid I might come to hate one (two really) of my personal role models if I looked at this issue too deeply. But as my Qual methods prof taught us, you’ve got to follow the data. Besides, if Nez had the guts to talk about this in front of 500+ of the hardest-core Monkees fans around, the least I can do is suck it up, bludgeon the existential dread and the fear I can’t be “analytical enough” down to a dull roar, and engage the topic in a similarly serious manner. At any rate I, like Rachel, was curious about Nez’s spiritual perspective and how it’s in formed his take on The Monkees™ . So when she asked that question I was thrilled in a gobsmacked kind of way.
After Nez briefly discussed his wildly early initiation to some Heavy Existential Topics (Having grappled with my own mortality as well as my dad’s for as long as I can remember, I can empathize in a different sort of way), he described his own metaphysical conception of the world. In a nutshell, and again I’m going to refer you to the video, Nez’s metaphysics seem to gravitate around the centrality of what he calls “Infinite Ideas”–which (not being a Christian Scientist…) seem pretty similar to Platonic Ideals. Nez tries to explore those Infinite Ideas in one way or another in his own work, which upon reflection, partially explains WHY I connected with his very lyrical work so deeply. Even as a kid, when I was “supposed” to be more into the fluffy pop stuff, I played the the meatier Monkees songs far more often. They were the tunes that stayed with me over the long haul, and that eventually led me to Nez’s solo work. My creativity takes a very different form than Nez’s and can be both scholarly and artistic at times, but like Nez I am a sucker for grappling with the Big Ideas–if nowhere near as insightfully.
I also resonated very deeply to what Nez described as the Monkees’ ethos of “easygoing loving kindness”, if for no other reason than it was a force I thirsted for as a kid, and which I’ve consciously cultivated in my life in various ways (very few of which were overtly related to The Monkees) as I’ve grown. To the extent that I still think there is a Divine Idea (after 30 years of intensive searching let’s just say I seriously doubt the existence of an omnipotent, benevolent deity who plays a role in human affairs), I contend that WE are always (re)creating that Idea in new forms via loving and whimsical collaboration. In any case, whatever its source, I believe that Idea is the one force that has the power to beat back the darkness and change the world in the bargain. All that said, I would have liked learning a bit more about how Nez’s early spiritual experiences shaped him, and how his understanding of those Ideas has evolved between then and now. If nothing else I suspect it may have some relevance to his decision to return to public life as well as other events right before Davy passed *cough*cataracts*cough*. I suppose that’s really none of our damned business though, and of dubious relevance at a Monkees con anyway.
Still, I am totally stealing the phrase “regimen of radical metaphysics”. Maybe if I play a cleric in my next RPG campaign I can work it into some dialogue…
Anyway, that was the Nez Q&A, and my thoughts on it. Hope you enjoyed. I’ve got one more dissertation chapter to draft over the next week and a bit, then I’ll tackle Micky’s, and try to make some joint sense of the two. I actually even found audio of Peter’s Q&A from the 2013 con. I haven’t listened yet, but I’m slightly tempted to attempt some sort of three-way analysis (shut up, Naked Persimmon, you know I didn’t mean it like THAT). I had been rushing to finish my con coverage as quickly after the con as work and school and marriage allowed, but I think 2 weeks of distance actually made this analysis a better piece, especially the closing section. Sometimes you need to soak in the data for a bit, and sometimes you do a little too much background research and your *ahem* Issues get triggered. Fortunately all you have to do then is to spring your demons from your subconscious’s black box, take ’em out for a walk in the sunshine and listen to them rant themselves out for a bit while they soak up some rays. It’d be nice if the light did destroy ’em, but at least they usually wind up pretty sunburned and docile for a while, and can be drowned out by singing along to Garfunkel and Oates or something similarly silly.
See you next time. 🙂