Tuesday, August 14, 2007

“Last Train to Clarksville” / The Monkees

I wonder what people who never saw the Monkees’ TV show think when they hear their music. These guys really were a good band; their songs deserve much more respect than they’re usually given. But I am helplessly subjective, because in 1966 I was the PERFECT age to be a Monkees fan. I tuned into that show faithfully each week; I read every magazine article I could find about the Monkees; I had endless debates with my friends about which Monkee was cutest. (Davy Jones, absolutely, no contest.)

It was a brilliant TV show, with delirious energy and that same subversive, cockeyed wit that had made A Hard Days’ Night so groundbreaking. It’s easy now to assume that network TV was cynically packaging youth culture, but those were more innocent times; I prefer to believe that a scared bunch of network execs knew they needed something fresh and turned over the reins to young mavericks like Bob Rafelson to save their butts. For one brief, shining moment the inmates were allowed to run the nuthouse, and it was wonderful.

So forgive me if I love these Monkees songs more than they deserve. There’s history there. I can’t hear “Last Train to Clarksville” (their debut single) without visualizing Mickey Dolenz singing so earnestly behind his drum kit. That sibilant tambourine? That was Davy, working the percussion accessories for all he was worth. And Mike Nesmith, always in that dumb wool knit cap, wryly raising his eyebrows as he peeled off those guitar riffs; Peter Tork (rhymes with ‘dork’), brow furrowed as he concentrated on his repeated bass phrase.

Network resources did allow the Monkees to buy songs from the best songwriters around, in this case Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. Those pros knew right where to go to rip off a great sound – the melody is patterned after the Beatles’ “Run For Your Life” and the harmonies are straight outta “Paperback Writer.” Mickey and Davy couldn’t play their instruments yet when this was recorded, but they were both fine vocalists (Davy came fresh from playing the Artful Dodger in the London production of Oliver!) and there was no faking those harmonies. Those nifty “dih-dih-dih-dihs” in the middle eight, backed by the tambourine, have an exotic Eastern sound, very au courant for ’66.

The scenario for “Last Train to Clarksville” is familiar: it’s a classic phone call song. “Take the last train to Clarksville, / And I'll meet you at the station. / You can be there by four thirty, / 'Cause I made your reservation.” But the key to the song is at the end of the chorus: “And I don’t know if I’m ever coming home.” As a kid, I didn’t worry about what that line meant; I was certain this song was about a touring musician. However, Boyce and Hart were trying to slip political protest past the network suits – they wrote it as a song about a soldier shipping out to Vietnam, but kept it intentionally vague. (Clarksville was an Air Force base in Arizona, where Hart grew up.) This gives more meaning to the lines “'Cause I'm leaving in the morning / And I must see you again / We'll have one more night together / 'Til the morning brings my train”; it makes the anguish in Mickey’s singing all the more apt. The fact that it’s the last train becomes doubly poignant now.

I love the line “We'll have time for coffee-flavored kisses / And a bit of conversation” (shades of Rod McKuen – but that’s what I thought poetry was in 1966). And then, of course, there’s the plaintive “Now I must hang up the phone. / I can't hear you in this noisy / Railroad station, all alone / And feeling low. / Oh, no, no, no!” Mickey’s phrasing on this is just great; you can just imagine the poor dumb draftee choking up.

So you tell me – do I just love this song because of my girlhood crush on Davy Jones, or is it really a great track? I’ll be waiting at the station for your answer.

Last Train to Clarksville sample


Julie said...

Yes, it's a great track and yes, you had a crush on Davy. Didn't we all?

RoRo said...

Yes! We all did. I think there is a direct line from Davy's big brown soulful eyes to those of George and Ray. (Just a theory.) Likewise, unless you had hip parents or older siblings who played The Beatles for you, The Monkees were your gateway drug to the great bands of the 60's. I was only in first grade when I got into The Monkees and it was in large part thanks to the TV show.

Can you imagine if The Monkees had been a "real" band that wrote their own music and played all their own instruments? They would have gotten even less respect for having had as their main venue the small screen. The "make believe" aspect of their band identity was in keeping with the make believe aspect of TV. It just worked. And there was enough reality there to make it work in a big, big way.

Some of my favorite tracks: I'm Not Your Stepping Stone, A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You, Porpoise Song, Valerie, and Saturday's Child. :-)

I feel very nostalgic now!

RoRo said...

Oops! Spot the error in my post.

(Dear me. You would think from all the times I've looked deeply into Ray's eyes I would know what color they are! *rolleyes*)

Holly A Hughes said...

Ray's eye color is very changeable -- he's such a chameleonl anyway. But I believe Paul McCartney's eyes are brown, no? *wink*

Anonymous said...

It is indeed great!
I also saw the show every week.
My fav Monkees song is ¨I´m a believer¨


Richard Sambrook said...

Great song, great band - even if they were a confection. For Beatles rip-offs try "Forget That Girl" - harmonies, key changes, the lot.
For me their best was either Randy Scouse Git (or ALternate Title as we were only allowed to have it in Britain) marking their single moment of social rebellion or A Little Bit Me A Little Bit You which still gets me grinning some 40 years on...

Mark Jacobsen said...

I've heard the song so many times, but only recently found out about it's anti-war meaning. All this time I thought it was about a guy who was heading out into the world to make his way, and didn't know if he was gonna come back to his hometown or not. He wanted to say goodbye to his girlfriend one last time. Sure, looking back now, that doesn't make too much sense, but, hey, I just wanted to enjoy the song. :)


hot stix said...

There's not much I could say that hasn't already been said, but, The Monkees are one of my toppermost. I wasn't born till '75, but when I was 12, MTV had a 'Monkees marathon' and I sat in my grandparent's basement jacked up on Mountain Dew, watching EVERY episode (in order!). I used my pocket money to buy every Monkees tape I could get my hands on, and listened to them constantly. All my peers were into NKOTB and Milli Vanilli and all that dross...I didn't care. The Monkees changed my life, and they ARE deserving of love and respect for the awesome music they helped bring to the world. Boyce and Hart rule. The Monkees rule. End of story.

p.s. I had a crush on Mickey...I always go for the clown!