18 March 2012

Songs of Innocence

I spend a great deal of my time listening to music and trying to understand how it does what it does — that voodoo that it do so well, if you will. This process of exploration and meditation began early, pretty much from the cradle, and so the nearly simultaneous deaths recently of songwriter Robert B. Sherman (5 March) and singer Davy Jones (29 February) strike me as especially worthy of comment. In both cases, because I heard them when I was so young, these men helped to define song for me.

In the case of Jones, he also helped to define rock’n’roll, through his work with the “pre-fab four,” the Monkees. I’d had virtually no exposure to rock when the band’s television show first aired, in 1966, and that show’s principal influence, Richard Lester’s movies with the Beatles, remained unknown to me until I was in college. What the Monkees did was rock only in the most generous interpretation, having mainly to do with instrumentation. If it’s got a drum set and an electric guitar, it must be rock’n’roll. Quod erat demonstrandum.

The Monkees in their hey-hey day:
Jones, Peter Tork, Mike Nesmith, Mickey Dolenz

Most of the songs for which they’re best known were written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, the team also responsible for “I’m Gonna Blow You a Kiss in the Wind,” Serena’s serenade in a seminal episode of Bewitched, which incited me to something like hysteria when I first saw it. But this wasn’t the response of a rock fan, it was the response of a diva-worshipper. (Imagine! Elizabeth Montgomery — one of my first crushes — singing!)

When Serena Met (and Kidnapped) Boyce & Hart.
Photo from the indispensable Harpies Bizarre,
your one-stop Bewitched website.

Real rock is rebellious, subversive: the Monkees, and most especially Davy Jones, were merely cheeky. The band tried to take their music closer to the edge, famously inviting no less an avant-gardist than Frank Zappa to appear on their show and increasingly attempting to exert their own tastes in the selection of their repertoire. It turned out that this wasn’t exactly what the public wanted, and we all moved on, mostly, except for the occasional burst of nostalgia. Let’s face it: “I’m a Believer” is a great song, and you don’t ever want to forget it.*

What would a real rocker have done with Marcia Brady?
Still, these two paved the way for Riff Randall (P.J. Soles) and Joey Ramone in Rock’n’Roll High School.

Soon I would discover rock that was more serious and far more subversive; thanks to a school friend, the late Keith Kaski, I even discovered punk rock while it was still more or less current. For a long time, the most significant thing for this audience about Davy Jones was that his success with the Monkees led directly to the invention of Ensign Pavel Chekov and the casting of Walter Koenig on Star Trek.

Pleasant Walley vass a Russian inwention.
From one of Chekov’s first episodes, when Koenig wore a Davy Jones wig because his own hair had yet to grow out.

If as a child I had no exposure to rock, the responsibility lies largely with my parents, particularly with my mother, who was and is a devotee of the classic Broadway musicals, especially those of Rodgers & Hammerstein and Lerner & Loewe. Thanks to My Fair Lady, Mom was a Julie Andrews fan even before I was born, and it was a matter of course that both she and I would love Mary Poppins, in which the Sherman Brothers’ songs play such an important role.

To this day, I can remember every lyric, and sing passably approximate pitches, to every song from Mary Poppins. Here, too, quite a lot went over my head, though it’s noteworthy that so many of the songs continue to give me pleasure as an adult because they have grown along with me: “Take heart, for Mrs. Pankhurst has been clapped in irons again!” makes sense to me now, though it surely didn’t then, and only a couple of years ago did I understand the veiled reference to date rape in “Jolly Holiday.”

“You’d never think of pressing your advantage…”

Of course, when I first heard the Mary Poppins score, I was so naïf, I actually believed there was a place on earth where people talked with an accent like Dick Van Dyke’s “Cockney.”** My ideas about London — about love — about music — were still very much unshaped.

The Sherman Brothers’ songs were very much a part of my world, a “Small World, after all.” As that song proves, the brothers knew how to write tunes that are unforgettable, whether you want them to be or not. Catchy melodies and a playful spirit make an unbeatable combination for the Winnie-the-Pooh songs, but because the Shermans didn’t talk down to their young listeners, there’s often a great deal going on at once.

The wonderful thing about Tiggers
is Tiggers have wonderful songs.

Consider the Pooh theme song, which begins with a lilting, wistful prelude about “Christopher’s childhood days,” automatically guaranteeing that a specific nostalgia will be passed along to us, too (and it’s worked out exactly that way for this listener), before launching into a jaunty march that somehow manages to capture the rhythm at which you think a stuffed bear would probably walk.

At their best, the Shermans’ songs manage to run deeper still, most notably perhaps in “Feed the Birds” from Mary Poppins. As the New York Times obituary noted, Robert B. Sherman was among the first U.S. soldiers to enter the Dachau concentration camp, an experience that marked him, and his was the darker personality of the two brothers. It’s for others to say whether the tension between Robert’s pessimism and Richard’s optimism was like that between John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and one source of the strength of their songs.

Walt Disney with the Sherman Brothers.

But as I listen in hindsight, as it were, I marvel at how much they were able to convey, without forcing me to grow up too quickly — something the Monkees did to a lesser yet similar degree. These were among the building blocks of my appreciation of music, and if I later grew to love opera and punk rock and all the other music I admire, it’s because inspired craftsmen like the Shermans and appealing performers like Jones gave me such a good start.

Finally, in the context of this discussion, it must be underlined that Robert B. Sherman was not Bobby Sherman, nor even any relation. Thank you.

*NOTE: “I’m a Believer” is an exceptional Monkees song not only in its enduring excellence but also in that it was written by Neil Diamond, rather than by Boyce and Hart. Tom Stoppard memorably paid tribute to it in his play, The Real Thing, which means there’s a very good chance that Jeremy Irons still remembers all the words to the song.

**I’ve always wondered why Julie Andrews — Eliza Doolittle, for mercy’s sake — didn’t take Dick Van Dyke in hand and teach him ’ow to talk proper.

1 comment:

Elaine Fine said...

Thanks for this tour through our (clearly shared) television and movie childhoods.

My favorite Sherman brothers song is "It's a Small World After All." The wrote it for the 1964 World's Fair. Somewhere in our son's closet there is a very worn garage-sale-purchase (perhaps not even by me) Disney LP that has some fantastic orchestral variations on the tune (I imagine they were orchestrated by the Sherman brothers themselves). Sure, it probably sounds best on one of those plastic record players, but it is a treat.