Sermons from Our Songs
Looking Back at The Monkees'
Shades of Gray
by Tommy Towery
Looking back I have come to realize a lot of wisdom was embedded in many of the songs we listened to when we were younger. We enjoyed most of the songs for their beat and how much we liked to dance to them, and were often oblivious to the underlying messages they contained. Whether or not they had an impact on our lives or thoughts is up to the individual to decide, but I would like to point out a few of the ones I feel might be revaluated as we get older.
This week I will look back at a song by The Monkees. Formed in Los Angeles in 1965 by Robert "Bob" Rafelson and Bert Schneider for the American television series The Monkees, which aired from 1966–1968, the musical acting quartet was composed of Americans Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork, and Englishman Davy Jones. The band's music was initially supervised by producer Don Kirshner. Rafelson's and Schneider's original idea was to cast an existing New York-based folk rock group, The Lovin' Spoonful, which was not widely known at the time. However, the canny John Sebastian had already signed the Spoonful to a record company, which would have denied Screen Gems the right to market music from the show on record.
On July 14, 1965, The Hollywood Reporter stated that future band member Davy Jones was expected to return to the United States in September 1965 after a trip to England "to prepare for a TV pilot." Jones had previously starred as the Artful Dodger in the Broadway show Oliver! In September 1964, he was signed to a long-term contract to appear in TV programs for Screen Gems, make feature films for Columbia Pictures and to record music for the Colpix label. Hence, Rafelson and Schneider already had him in mind for their project and when they chose him he was essentially a proto-star looking for his lucky break.
On September 8–10, 1965, Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter ran an ad to cast the remainder of the band/cast members for the TV show: Madness!! Auditions. Folk & Roll Musicians-Singers for acting roles in new TV series. Running Parts for 4 insane boys, age 17-21. Want spirited Ben Frank's types. Have courage to work. Must come down for interview.
Out of 437 applicants, the other three chosen for the band/cast of the TV show were Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork and Micky Dolenz. Nesmith had been working as a musician since early 1963, and had been recording and releasing music under various names, including Michael Blessing and "Mike & John & Bill" and had studied drama in college; contrary to popular belief, of the final four, Nesmith was the one member who actually saw the ad in the Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. Tork, the last to be chosen, had been working the Greenwich Village scene as a musician, and had shared the stage with Pete Seeger; he learned of The Monkees from Stephen Stills, whom Rafelson and Schneider had rejected. Dolenz was an actor who had starred in the TV series Circus Boy as a child, using the stage name Mickey Braddock, and he had also played guitar and sung in a band called "The Missing Links" before the Monkees, which had recorded and released a very minor single, "Don't Do It." By that time, he was again using his real name of Micky Dolenz; he found out about The Monkees through his agent.
"Shades of Gray" was written in 1965 by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and recorded by The Monkees for their 1967 album Headquarters. This song was the first in which the group played all its own instruments (except a French horn and cello, both of which were featured in this song). Lead vocals were shared by Davy Jones and Peter Tork. The lyrics are:
When the world and I were young
Life was such a simple game
A child could play
It was easy then to tell right from wrong
But today there is no day or night
I remember when the answers
It was easy then to tell truth from lies
But today there is no day or night
It was easy then to know what was fair
But today there is no day or night
How ironic a song we listened to when we were teenagers has a deeper meaning in our lives today than it did back then. If we thought the world only had shades of gray back then, what about today? This was wisdom beyond our years then, looking back at "when the world and I were young" as a teenager. Now, as senior citizens, it is even more appropriate as I see it.
Perhaps we are just to the stage where we like to remind folks "Well, back when I was young I...."
However, there were some life lessons we could find in the music we enjoyed, if only we had looked. I came upon this conclusion this weekend when I was driving and popped in a CD containing some oldie goldie songs and this was one of them. I listened to it with a new pair of ears, those of an inquiring older mind as opposed to those of a teenager with raging hormones. It made me wonder why we enjoyed it so much back then, when we really could not relate to the message it presented. I am sure part of the reason was the British accent of Davy Jones.
Waukee, IA - We spent the Fourth of July holiday in Iowa again this year and enjoyed one of the coolest Fourths we have ever enjoyed, temperature wise. It was on this road trip I listened to the greatest hits of the Monkees and heard the song featured in this week's reflection.
It is time once again to put in a plug for the upcoming 50th Reunion of the Class of '64 and to remind all of you it is not limited to just members of that class but all of you are welcome to attend. Please click on the Upcoming Events link in the left navigational panel for more information.
TV Western Stars of the 50s and 60s
Terence Steven McQueen was born in 1930 in Indiana. He never knew his father, who abandoned the family when he was 6 months old. His mother gave the child to an uncle, who raised him until Steve left home at age 16, becoming rebellious, hard, lonely, defiant and unpredictable, learning early on to face the harshness of life. Much later, as an actor, several directors dubbed him "a troublemaker."
In his 20s he studied at the famous Actor's Studio, as did several other rebels of American cinema, among them Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Paul Newman. His acting debut was on Broadway in the play "A Hatful of Rain."
The BIG breakthrough was in 1958, when "Wanted Dead or Alive" was introduced on CBS as a TV Western series. He was 28 years old. Soon after, he co-starred with Yul Brynner (who was granted top billing) in "The Magnificent Seven" on the big screen. He was the first TV actor who successfully crossed over to movies.
Who among us mid-60's LHS graduates can forget the thrilling car chase in "Bullitt" (1968, arguably the first on-the-edge-your-seat car chase in modern cinema) with McQueen driving a dark green Mustang Mach II chasing a black Dodge Charger through the dizzying, hilly streets of San Francisco after the two bad guys. Even viewing it on YouTube, with the sound of supercharged engines roaring in my ears, I still developed shortness of breath, motion sickness and a bit of nausea. The chase sequence lasts a full 10 minutes. Try it, but have a barf bucket at your side. WOW!!!
In addition to "Bullitt" and "The Magnificent Seven", other Steve McQueen films include:
Papillon (with Dustin Hoffman)
The Cincinnati Kid (with Karl Malden and Ann-Margret)
The Getaway (he married his co-star, Ali McGraw)
The Great Escape (he drove the motorcycle himself)
The Sand Pebbles (for which he received his only Oscar nomination; did not win)
The Thomas Crown Affair (with Faye Dunaway)
The Towering Inferno (a 1970s disaster flick, box-office flop)
A long-time heavy cigarette smoker, Steve McQueen died of Mesothelioma, a rare type of lung cancer that is notoriously resistant to chemotherapy, in 1980. He was only 50 years old. It seems unreal that such an icon of our youth has been dead 34 years, yet lives on so vividly in memory. Given the chance, I would happily sit through any of the above-named films (all of which I have seen, at least twice) with or without popcorn. I hope you all would as well.
Answers to last week's Trivia Questions:
1) Josh Randall's sidearm was an 1892 Winchester Rifle, sawed off at the stock and barrel, worn in a holster, called a "Mare's Leg." Note the size of the bullets in his gun belt. In the TV series, he could draw and shoot faster than the bad guy, who wore a pistol at his side.
2) In "The Magnificent Seven" three out of the seven survived the battle to live another day. Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen rode off at the end, and a young Horst Bucholz, who had fallen in love with a young Mexican Maiden (reminds one of Marty Robbin's "El Paso") rides back to become a domestic member of the the village The Seven had saved from the bad guys. The four who died protecting the village: James Coburn (threw a switchblade), Robert Vaughn (a closet coward, wore all black, including gloves), Charles Bronson (became a hero to Mexican little boys, until they got him shot to death), and, the actor almost NO ONE ever remembers, Brad Dexter, who rides away, then returns, and is informed (lied to) by Chris (Yul Brynner) as he is dying that they were really coming back for "The Gold" so he drew his last breath happy, thinking that they were in it for a get-rich-quick scheme.
3) The leader of the Mexican gang that terrorized and extorted the village was Calvera, played by Eli Wallach, who just died last week at the age of 98. A few years later, in the 1960s, he played a similar role as Tuco in "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly," a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western following the breakthrough "A Fistful of Dollars". As "The Ugly," he co-starred with Clint Eastwood (who else?) as "The Good" and Lee Van Cleef as "The Bad" (again, who else except maybe Lee Marvin?)
4) The song "Wanted: Dead or Alive" was released by Jon Bon Jovi in 1986, made it to #7 on Billboard's Top 100. It was part of an album titled "Slippery When Wet". It became popular again in 2003, for reasons that the CIA refuses to divulge.
From Our Mailbox
Subject: Judy Scarborough's Mother
Ann Pat King Fanning
I remember Judy's mom so well, too. She was sooooo supportive of Judy and always around for any of us. I imagine they are having a wonderful reunion in heaven -- that will continue forever.