“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