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Psychedelic Bubble Gum Boyce & Hart, the Monkees, and Turning Mayhem Into Miracles by Bobby Hart

Psychedelic Bubble Gum Boyce & Hart, the Monkees, and Turning Mayhem Into Miracles by Bobby Hart

Ask me if I prefer authorized works/memoirs to unauthorized, and I’ll hesitate. When I pick up a non-fiction book I hope to learn as much as possible about the subject, and when a public figure writes an autobiography you get what that person is comfortable revealing. When it comes to musicians, some are franker than others, and often those are the most fun to read.

Going into Psychedelic Bubble Gum (AMZ / BN / KOBO / ITUNES), the most I knew about Bobby Hart involved the songs he wrote for The Monkees and the few hits he enjoyed with his partner, Tommy Boyce…that and they composed the Days of Our Lives theme. If you read this, you’ll find Boyce and Hart (and Hart on his own and with other partners) claim a prolific legacy in popular music. Hart has gold and platinum records, an Oscar nomination, and other accolades to his credit, and an interesting story to tell.

However, all through Bubble Gum I got the impression Hart kept up his guard. Indeed, he ends the book on an upbeat note, focusing on the blessings rather than the hardships. The epilogue in which he talks about Boyce’s death is very brief, though he seems to seed hints that foreshadow the tragic end of his writing partner throughout the book (see the frequent mentions of a particular song made popular by The Monkees).

Speaking of the Pre-fab Four, Hart’s memories of the group comprise a smaller percentage of the book than I anticipated. The mid-70s “reunion” tour of Dolenz, Jones, Boyce & Hart aside, there isn’t much new information to learn there. Doesn’t mean it’s not interesting – one can sense Hart’s exasperation with having to work with four unpredictable personalities – but I found myself more drawn to Hart’s earlier history in music.

Like I said before, though, Bubble Gum lives up to its name in that it focuses more on the positive. Hart’s spiritual journey takes up the latter third of the book, and while it’s interesting to read how various forces came to influence him, that wasn’t the story I hoped to read. You won’t find much in the way of salacious gossip here, and in some places Hart downplays a liaison or two. I respect that Hart likes to keep things positive, but it’s not always conducive to a well-rounded story.

Still, if you enjoyed the 60s pop era, and if you aspire to write music, you will find anecdotes here to enjoy.

Rating: C+

Kathryn Lively writes mysteries and books reviews.

A Natural Woman: a Memoir by Carole King

A Natural Woman: a Memoir by Carole King

I may have told this story on another blog, about the Christmas I was to receive my first “grown-up” stereo. I had asked for one that year, and gladly informed my parents that I required no more gifts other than the stereo if money was a deciding factor in whether or not I got it. Right now, I couldn’t tell you the brand – it might have been Panasonic or any other name that’s since been eclipsed by Apple – but it came with a built-in tape deck and turntable, and AM/FM tuner. If you’re under twenty and reading this, you’re probably wondering what the hell I’m talking about. In truth, I’m surprised you’re reading this at all.

Getting off track here. Of course, with the stereo I required actual records and tape to play on it. I was long ready to graduate from the cast-off 45s from my parents’ record collection (lots of Elvis and doo-wop groups) and crank up the music I wanted to hear. I was pleased to find in my stocking that year three wrapped cassettes to go with the stereo. I’d asked for Joan Jett’s I Love Rock and Roll. I got ABBA’s Waterloo (okay, I liked that one song), The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (acceptable), and Carole King’s Tapestry.

Who? asked the eleven-year-old for whom popular music didn’t exist until the late seventies, and even then there was no Carole King on the radar. Not wanting to insult the gift givers (partly, perhaps because I feared I’d lose the stereo), I gave Tapestry an obligatory listen. Now, you’ll probably expect the next sentence to explain how the music blew me away and changed my life forever, but actually what happened is I sat there listening to this mellow-70s schlock staring at some barefoot hippie chick and grousing that she neither looked or sang as cool as Joan Jett did.

The life-changing moment didn’t happen for years – not until college when my appreciation for music broadened and Tapestry became a voluntary choice on my hit parade. I eventually played that cassette until King’s voice warbled and stretched and the tape spilled from its casing, so badly I couldn’t loop it back in. If you’re under twenty and still with me you may not understand that last sentence, but there is a chance you’re familiar with King’s work.  As one of the most prolific songwriters of the rock era (over 100 Billboard Hot 100 hits to her credit or co-credit), her songs have been recorded from The Beatles to Amy Winehouse. If you watched Gilmore Girls, you know her music through the show’s theme; if you’ve seen The Simpsons episode where Lisa sings “Jazzman,” you know her music. If you watched Antenna TV’s recent Monkees marathon…you get the idea.

I looked forward to reading A Natural Woman as a sort of companion to another book that similarly covered the early to mid rock era, The Wrecking Crew. Where that book chronicled the history of the musicians who supported some of the biggest acts of the 50s-70s in the studio, King – alone and with various partners, including then-husband Gerry Goffin – handled the writing aspect of the business for artists who required it. King recounts rather quickly the circumstances that brought her from a childhood in New York City with aspirations to act to a position as songwriter for some of the top hit-makers in the country. Reading it, King makes it look so simple – you walk into an office with an appointment, show off a few demos, and you’re handed a contract. Everything in life should happen so easily.

Years slip with great speed through A Natural Woman – there’s marriage and kids, success in the early 60s like “Loco-Motion” and “One Fine Day,” (through much of the book I’d blink and say, “I didn’t know she wrote that one!”) and professional growing pains. The threat of the British invasion – in particular bands who write their own material – is countered with King’s association with Don Kirscher and a lucrative turn writing for The Monkees. I was a bit disappointed to see this era relegated to such a short chapter, as I’ve read in other books of tensions between Mike Nesmith and various songwriters. What valleys in her career and personal life King does share are done rather quickly.

The transition from cubicle songwriter to singer-songwriter and the classic Tapestry reads fast as well. It should be noted that King acknowledges in the beginning of her book that memory isn’t as constant a companion as it used to be – indeed, her book reads like a chronological vignettes in short chapters. She jams with these artists, she meets James Taylor, she meets John and Yoko, etc. These bits of fascinating history weave into a (and please forgive this) tapestry of words and song lyrics.

I did come away from A Natural Woman with a greater appreciation of King’s music, for others and her own work. I am reminded, too, that it’s time to replace that worn cassette and add Tapestry to my iTunes roster. I did hope for more stories of the early part of King’s career, but I did find this book a reference to a period of music history worth remembering.

Rating: B+

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author and book blogger.

Monkee Business by Eric Lefcowitz

Monkee Business by Eric Lefcowitz

I will not apologize for having been (and remaining, to some extent) a Monkees fan. I came into the mania during its third trip around the sun, in the mid to late 1980s. Some may argue this MTV-encouraged wave of Monkeemania served as the pop group’s initial comeback, but others will confirm that a less-prominent renewal of interest in the band and accompanying TV show happened in the mid-70s when The Monkees enjoyed a healthy run in syndication. No doubt that gust of wind propelled Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones to team up with their prime songwriters – Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart – to tour. Of course, many people my age may remember what MTV did for them – good and bad. Sadly, with the recent passing of Davy Jones, we are reminded that subsequent reunions may become less likely with each passing year until the “final” reunion happens.

Back when MTV still aired music videos instead of tanned trash, they devoted a good amount of air time to Monkees  reruns to commemorate their 20th anniversary. Long story short – the network gifted the Pre-Fab(ricated) Four with a new audience, myself included. Seriously, I had it bad – I bought all the Rhino reissued vinyl, I collected the Tiger Beat and 16 issues devoted to them, I subscribed to Monkee Business fanzine, and I begged my mother to let me and my friend Angie go to Gainesville to see their reunion show. Fifteen years old, and granted permission to take my first overnight trip without adult supervision – just me, Angie, and her older sister…all to moon over three men twice our age. I still regard that experience as one of the best in my teen years – I still have the program, and a stack of dark photos taken a mile away of three Monkees blurs walking across a stage.

Now, we can argue about music quality and whether or not The Monkees deserve to be mentioned in the same breath with “real” musicians. As I understand it, Mike and Peter came to the Monkees with some musical ability – it wasn’t really an issue of the Monkees being unable to play their own instruments, but rather were they allowed. This is one issue discussed in Eric Lefcowitz’s Monkee Business, (AMZ) which is (according to a listing on a revised and expanded edition of his original book The Monkees Tale. I had not read the original version of Tale, which I will presume ended the story somewhere in the 70s since ads for the book had run on MTV during the mania period and therefore would not have included that comeback history. A similar book, Monkeemania by Glen A. Baker, came out around the same time and seemed more accessible – I’d received that one for Christmas instead of the requested Tale, but unfortunately I no longer have it. I’ll have to rely upon my faded memories of that book and the Peter Tork chapter of Bruce Pollock’s When the Music Mattered to make any comparisons to Monkees Business in terms of accuracy.

I recall Lefcowitz from the many “Monkee Minutes” that aired on MTV in the mid-80s. They seemed to set him up as the de facto expert on the band, and we’d learn little tidbits like the story behind the UK alternate title to the song “Randy Scouse Git,” and how Stephen Stills auditioned for the group, etc. I came into Monkee Business knowing much of the trivia and hoped that a revised edition of Tale-cum-Monkee Business might offer deeper insight into the band’s story. When you really think about it, The Monkees and the people behind the brand (Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider, Don Kirscher, etc.) not only inspired much of what we see now on television and music (“boy bands”, music videos) they pioneered practices that have influenced creative minds.

The TV series broke the “fourth wall” and allowed the band to speak to the public and expose the backdrop of their production. One scene where Micky leaves the set to talk to the show’s writers probably worked as a gag on Family Guy at one point. I had hoped to read deep into the workings of the show and the creative process in the studio – one in which the group weren’t necessarily encouraged to participate – but I have to admit Monkee Business left me wanting at times. The book was a quick read for me, one that gave the impression that I had read more of a detailed summary of The Monkees than a deep history.

To be fair, I’m writing this as somebody who went in knowing quite a bit about the show and group. A Monkees newbie may find Business a valuable source of information, and I will admit I learned a few things. I had not realized, for one, that many markets refused to air the show, and this contributed to lower Nielsen ratings. Also, while I’d assumed low ratings axed the series, I hadn’t known that the group provided some push toward cancellation, and that the band still enjoyed some level of popularity in this time.

What struck me about the book, too, was the overall impression that most players in the story had been cast as unsympathetic. Rafelson and Schneider saw The Monkees mainly as a meal ticket and springboard toward better things (not untrue, Monkee profits in part allowed them to film Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces), while the band members themselves clashed personally and professionally. The suggestion of a long-running tendency toward self-sabotage did help me understand the dramatic career nosedive in the late 60s and again in the mid-80s – it still amazes me to think that one broken commitment to MTV spurred the network to shun the band altogether and foil any hopes of a lengthy comeback. A scene in The Simpsons has Marge discussing The Monkees with her therapist, who bellows that The Monkees weren’t about music, they were about “rebellion”! Reading Business, one can see how that rebellion affected them negatively.

So, did I like the book? Well, yes and no. For me, Business served as a way to rejuvenate memories of my teen years and my free-fall into 80s Monkeemania. As a book, it didn’t offer anything new to me aside from a few points of trivia and the revised, updated content, which covered the various reunions and projects in the 90s and early 21st century that I missed. Even then, all points seemed glossed over – they did this TV special, they made that album. They argued and split up again. For me, an ideal book on The Monkees would cover detailed anecdotes of show production and interaction with guest stars, and even recollections of actors who appeared as guests (Rose Marie and Monte Landis are still kicking, surely they have something to contribute). I remember in Monkeemania, for example, an incident where Mike Nesmith left Carole King in tears that was only glossed over in Lefcowitz’s book. Were there more clashes between the front group and the wrecking crew working behind the scenes? What toll did Monkeemania in the 60s and 80s have on their relationships with family?

If you know absolutely nothing about the Monkees beyond the music they made and have come here by way of a search on Davy Jones’s passing looking for more information, you will probably find something to enjoy in Monkees Business. The die hard fan like the ones who ran the fanzines and now operate the websites probably have more insight on the guys and would view this as a simple primer. As the band might put it, it’s a stepping stone.

Rating: C

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author and freelance writer.