by Kim Cooper
Rock star? Feh! What a fifth rate ambition. Okay, say you got yourself an electric guitar, took some time and learned how to play, and now it’s happened. You’re signed to a big label that baby-sits your body in exchange for skimming just 90% off the top—if you’re lucky.
Songwriters have the right idea. Songwriters simply don’t become stars in the unmanageable sense of the word. Successful writers seem to glean most of the benefits of celebrity while avoiding the trauma.
Two of the grooviest songwriters to ever Chelsea-boot it down a record company hallway were Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. These lean and fetching dynamos apparently spent the last half of the sixties churning out timeless pop classics in spare moments between nuzzling babes and racing their matching XKEs. They had it all: commercial and artistic success, genre-hopping status as writers-producers-performers, an apparently seamless creative union, and drool-worthy mod wardrobes, heavy on the turtlenecks. As writers, no one could touch their classic blend of youthful energy and structural smarts. The titles alone conjure up effervescent distillations of a teenage place: "(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone," "Last Train to Clarksville," "Valleri," "She," "I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonite." Can the Boyce & Hart experience have been anything less than a gas?
Of course one can’t understand just how great it was without considering Sunshine Park, Boyce’s incredible Hollywood mansion. "[It] had strobe lights in the front room, disappearing walls, Japanese beds, films projected onto the walls 24 hours a day, and a sauna that was turned on for 11 months straight, in case anyone ever wanted to use it. You could walk out of 180° heat onto a diving board and 95° scented water; the whole house was submerged in a London fog all year round."
By 1967, the partners were beginning to look and dress alike, and to mimic each other’s body language. This hardly matters, since the little girls love them equally. But it is possible to tell them apart: that’s Bobby at the piano, with the sexy cleft in his chin; Tommy’s smaller, with soulful, yet mischievous eyes. Dreamy Tommy blew his brains out at the end of 1994, a horror which must inevitably color these observations.
But in the time frame we’re exploring, Tommy’s pain was years away. Boyce and Hart were Hollywood’s greatest writing team, a West Coast Goffin-King with no marriage to hobble their lyrical tomcatting. Their on-off relationship with the Monkees had spawned a series of smash singles and a degree of industry pull that allowed the pair, who had previously failed to attract much attention to their drippy solo tunes, to cash in on the Monkees connection with tours and albums, their work aimed squarely at the Monkees’ pubescent following. Or was it?
I trust you’ll forgive me if I don’t delineate every twisting curve of the history that brought Boyce and Hart into the studio to create the Monkees’ sound, their subsequent firing and rehiring, Mike Nesmith’s hat, the gruesome specter of Don Kirshner. What matters is that A&M, that incredible only-in-Hollywood label (then featuring the TJ Brass, Baja Marimba Band, Chris Montez, We Five, Claudine Longet, and… Phil Ochs?) permitted Boyce and Hart to record three albums in quick succession in 1967 and ’68. These strange and wonderful platters, a bizarre combination of perfect pop singles, blatant sonic plagiarism, and jaw-dropping experimentation, are at least as worthy of reissue and reassessment as, say, Nancy Sinatra’s oeuvre.
If the Monkees were desperately searching for mere creative recognition amidst the flurry of the idol-making machine, Boyce and Hart longed to be spoken of in the same breath as "genius" contemporaries like Brian Wilson, Arthur Lee, and Phil Spector. They knew they were brilliant, that it was only an accident of fate that had rendered them hugely successful on the kiddie circuit.
That said, Test Patterns (A&M SP 4126) is a calculating quickie, basically an innocuous setting in which to place the Monkees-rejected gem "Out and About." Tommy made no bones about coveting the Colgems Kids’ fame: "I watched the Monkees from backstage and saw all those little girls go crazy while they played our songs, so I said to Bobby, ‘forget being the opening act, here’s the deal: all we have to do is write a couple of smashes and within a year we can dash out on stage with a band behind us and have all those kids go crazy for us!’"
Bobby’s "Out and About" is one of those magical celebrations of the California myth that, for a variety of reasons, no one ever writes anymore. In their place we have gangsta rap, which for all its charms is unlikely to induce in anyone the giddy joy of:
Things I want I can’t afford ’em
Nothing in this house but boredom
I’ve gotta run outside and see what’s happening!
Out and about,
where the sun is always shining
Look at all the fun I’m having
Bumping into friends and laughing
What a groovy time we’re having.
Okay, so that last line is a little lazy, but with its punchy production and ecstatic arrangement, "Out and About" is a great radio song. The rest of the album has the patented let’s-mess-around-and-see-what-we-come-up-with feel, typical of artists sent into the studio with the instructions "Give us a hit; you’ve got three days." "My Little Chickadee" gives us a taste of T&B’s vaudeville roots—just how old were these guys, anyway—but wouldn’t make the New Vaudeville Band nervous. "Girl I’m Out to Get You" is a more successful melange, a hepped-up klezmer track with machine-gun lyrics describing a not-so-casual pick-up in the park: "Come back with me to my flat, it’s late and I must feed my cat/On my Chinese mat we sat, commenced to chat of this and that, and then I tried to kiss her tenderlee-ee-ee." In what will prove a recurrent lyrical theme for B&H, there is no resolution of the attempted mating, although we do get to hear the would-be lovers play a duet for piano and violin. The fundamental schizophrenia of Boyce & Hart’s recording career is revealed in the closing track, the 4:50 Webbian composition "Life," including the indistinct movements Sunday Night In Phoenix, Life In Hollywood, Sunrise Through The Meadow, and What’s It All About. The song is a deeply misguided stab at the blues, which I need only briefly quote in order to convey its horror: "Life, life, life, what’s it all about? No matter how hard I try, I just can’t figure it out.” Fortunately, and by whatever means, all would become clear in time for the next album.
Said record (A&M SP 4143) asks the titular question I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonight? If Boyce & Hart have anything to do with it, she’s in the bathroom right now, attaching that second pair of false eyelashes before she hops in her daddy’s car and cruises over to Bobby or Tommy’s pad, where a leisurely evening of fine music, conversation, and discrete petting is anticipated.
Wonder is Boyce & Hart’s ultimate statement about their place in the universe, in which they fully embrace their peculiar role as (if I may speak in archetypes) the Slightly Older, Frightening, Yet Very Sexy Stranger that every little girl longs for while simultaneously recoiling from. It is this quality that makes their brief status as teenybop idols at once fascinating and disturbing, for in song after song their is that weird lyrical moment, the emotional fillip that says, "This is no kid singing, baby. Come along with me and you’ll be in for one far-out, grown up trip!"
In the wonderfully titled "I’m Digging You Digging Me," that older man vibe chimes in with the mawkishly appealing lines, "Let’s sit and talk about each others’ feelings tonight/ I think that something on your mind has got you uptight."
But you mustn’t think that B & H only had one thing on their minds. Sure, girls seem to have occupied 98.25% of their waking thoughts, but that other 1.75% was chock-full of political awareness, as evinced by the glorious "Population." Think of a word that rhymes with "population." Now another. And another. Chances are that all the words you thought of are included in this frantic incantation, which is equal parts high-art protest and goofball parody. At one point the boys break into a credible Allen Sherman "Hello mudder hello fadder routine," but they back it up with a far-flying denunciation of all the irritation of their post-war generation. "What’s your destination, civilization, assassination, explanation, fabrication, etc. etc. etc." It’s no accident this puppy was fused in a medley with the yearning "I Wanna Be Free," a song which in this context becomes surprisingly poignant.
The title track is "I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now?" updated for the free love generation, and another perfect fast-car radio confection, in which innocence and impotence blend to form a male voice of startling nakedness:
We were close but we should have been closer
And it’s making me feel so sad
But I tell myself I didn’t lose her
‘Cause you can’t lose a friend you never had
And truly, she never was his friend, as shown by her post-breakup cruelty. Worse still, the singer is being punished, nay, tortured, for behaving like a gentleman and withholding those convenient words of love that would spell "n-o-o-k-i-e" to a less principled man: "If I told her that I loved her she would have stayed till who knows when/ But I guess she couldn’t understand it when I said ‘I wanna be your friend.’" It is a sad picture, the side of playboy life we rarely see. But you know, even Hef himself must have cried, sometimes, all alone in that big round bed. Well, maybe once.
Before you find yourself feeling too sorry for our hairy-chested pals, they remind you that when life is good it is very very good. Side one closes out with a track so tacky and joyously unbelievable that it alone would justify this survey. "Two for the Price of One" appears to be a partially rewritten soul tune (credited to Watson-Williams-Mundy, a rare non-original from two guys who knew the meaning of a royalty check), the subject of which is: Boyce & Hart! The boys trade off vocals to tell each other’s story, inspiring shocked fascination in everyone for whom I’ve played it. Over a funky beat, our heroes expound:
BH: Lemme tell you about Tommy Boyce, he’s a gangster of love—
TB: Ah, don’t tell ’em that, Bobby!
BH: Wanted by the girls all over the world for the crazy things he does—
TB: I’ll never get outta trouble!
BH: Be public enemy #1 if making love is a crime
He drives a 1967 XKE, he’s a legend in his own time!
TB: Now let me tell you about my man Mr. Bobby Hart, he’s a son of a gun—
BH: Don’t tell everybody that!
TB: When it comes down to messing up those little cutie-pies’ minds
Ha ha!—I ain’t the only one
BH: My reputation!
TB: He’ll swoop down on one of those little miniskirt-wearers
Before she understands it
Swish Shazam a puff of Jaguar smoke, he’s an old love bandit!
BH: Now girls all over the world
Gather round when Tommy Boyce is on the scene
Flowered shirt, a string of beads around his neck
He’s looking pretty clean-
TB: Now wait a minute!
All you girls who love Bobby Hart, they just love him to death
All he has to do is act like he’s gonna call somebody’s name
They can’t control themselves!
In unison: So all you pretty girls better come down to the show tonight,
have a lot of fun, and get two for the price of one!!!
You are getting a couple of pretty deep characters, even if their public personae blend to the point that it’s hard to tell whether a given trait originates in Tommy or in Bobby. The suavo archetype is further explored in "P.O. Box 9847" (from the third album). Here, Bob Rafelson’s offhand suggestion that they write a song about personal ads results in a striking portrait-de-Lothario:
Quiet, sincere gentleman, well-mannered and mature
Fond of music and the arts and love the theater
Educated, sensitive, a traveler of the world
Wants to meet an eligible young girl!
The song, like so many others in their oeuvre, trails off into hopelessness and disconnection (represented by the sound of the paper ripped from the typewriter and crumpled).
Say that our nameless “eligible young girl” from the song above somehow found herself out on a date with the Monkees’ Davy Jones. It would surely be a blissfully innocent experience, punctuated by quiet talk and laughter, the feeding of ducks with stale bread, perhaps a chaste kiss upon the cheek.
But Tommy and Bobby seem more likely to pick their frail up right off the Strip, or from among the taut hordes of knowing, hungry chicks who stand around backstage, or wait by the studio gates. While you might attract any given Monkee with a costume of hip-hugger jeans and a fun op-art blouse, accented by a nice smile and not too much make-up, to catch the Boyce-Hart eye you’ll have to show a lot more skin and imagination. Most likely the little girls who bought Boyce & Hart albums were more at home in the former persona, but after listening to songs like “Strawberry Girl” (bubblegum stripped of even the pretense of innocence) and catching our boys’ shirtless guest appearance on Bewitched, it seems inevitable that they would start aching for the day they would turn a slinky sixteen.
I like to imagine that, on some ethereal Los Angeles plane thirty-odd years ago, these two fantasies might have met and, in their fashion, coupled. On one hand, the dreams of Boyce & Hart, aging tunesmiths remaking themselves as psychedelicized Casanovas. On the other, the half-formed visions of suburban nine-year-olds, just beginning to see themselves as erotic creatures in the world. I think they would have liked each other. But out of respect for these spirits’ privacy, it seems best to draw a veil over the scene, even in conjecture.
The music of Boyce & Hart is an enduring delight. It has a subtlety of vision not often found in the bubblegum genre (to which it only peripherally belongs). All the energy and melody of the Monkees’ best material is fused here with a stronger sense of personality, and a sly wit. To listen is to tap into a non-existent (yet hyperreal) 1960s that blend all your favorite parts of spy films, sleazy soft-core hippie exposés, slick menswear ads, fun furniture, bearskin rugs, convertibles, coffee shops, nightclubs, kissing, expensive stereos and exaggerated sex roles. It’s also, quite unrelated to such pleasant fancies, simply great music. The golden age of pop (and of bachelorhood) may be gone, but blessedly, perfect pop singles, and fantasies, never change.