Search for the real

As a single-digit, striped-shirt kid of the Sixties, I responded to the camaraderie that the Beatles projected in their films and interviews, that effortless sense of differentiated personalities operating within a coherent ensemble identity: theme and variation, a costumed uniformity within which each found personal latitude and a non-binding, fluid sense of role, moment to moment.

Each Beatle had a distinct voice and valence, but there was a plasticity to it as well. A Beatle became what the moment demanded. Each did time as the acerbic and surreal trickster (John’s default mode), and each sat in Ringo’s sad-puppy corner as well. If the media evidence is to be believed (some of it scripted, some of it not), they shared the bandwidth and burden of fame with the organic, intuitive rhythm of a blood brotherhood – at first, at least. It was the inevitability of individuation that killed the Beatles, not Yoko.

And the camaraderie was real, too, forged under historic traumas of success. These kids (really, kids) had, in about a year, gone from five sets a night in Hamburg, and a sense of the future as something wide-open, to a pinched and suffocating quarantine of fame known only by a handful in all of history: Elvis, Salman Rushdie. Truly, the fate awaiting them if they left the hotel without cover was pretty much the same.

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Ringo once said that they pitied their friend Elvis, for he endured the disfigurations of extreme fame alone. They had each other, as well as a little coterie of confidantes and gofers with names like Mal and Viv, now immortalized in approximately 1347 exhaustively researched books on the subject.

It is because of the Beatles that I and so many others are happiest – only happy – when in bands. And yet it was the Monkees – the Prefab Four, a craven Beatles-inspired market artifice – who provided the archetypal image of band camaraderie: four cute boys living together in a house with a firepole connecting the bedrooms to the living room.

In so many ways, the Monkees were anathema, the opposite of rock ‘n’ roll with its rebel mythologies, its credibility authenticated by genuine danger. They were a band cast and groomed, with a repertoire stocked at first by the ace songwriting team of Boyce and Hart and later augmented by the likes of Neil Diamond and Carole King.

I am not here to tell their story, but rather to argue that in some ways the Monkees may have achieved rock’s ultimate band authenticity and its most genuinely subversive narrative. Born as perfect strangers in a Petri dish, the Monkees grew into the real thing, from fictive to bona-fide, by embracing the identity that Hollywood had invented for them, wresting it from the suits.

Their path was the opposite of the Beatles: from the self-serving individuation of casting calls to camaraderie in the Bolshevik sense. Together, they fought the vested interests of studio heads and seized control of the means of production, by rebellion and leverage, claiming the right to write their own songs, make their own records, and, in short, to be real.


Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.