Tonight, Bell House will screen the Monkees’ 1968 film Head. The group and their management thought it wise to keep copping the Beatles’ moves, and the film was likely greenlit with the idea that it would be their Help! Thankfully, the Monkees — fueled by their growing insecurity over being perceived as hack marionettes and proximity to formidable Hollywood fringe pals like Jack Nicholson — were able to unwittingly turn this flick into something ten times more bent than any Beatles movie, stuffed with nonsensical half-plots and low-brow psychedelia.
A post-flick panel will feature comedy scribe Julie Klausner, who hosts podcast “How Was Your Week,” Monkees historian Eric Lefcowitz, longtime rock journalist Kurt Loder, and Rolling Stone contributing editor Rob Sheffield, whose chronicle of karaoke obsession Turn Around Bright Eyes comes out next summer. We spoke with Klausner and Sheffield.
Did the Monkees mean anything to you when you were a kid, or were they a late-in-life discovery?
Julie Klausner: The Monkees were everything to me as a little girl. When I was eight, they re-ran all of the episodes on MTV every day. I was obsessed, in love, completely into the music, the comedy, the boys. It was hard to get my friends in third grade to acknowledge how awesome they were, but those girls all grew up to be boring and awful, if Facebook is any proof…. There’s no question that my heart beats to the rhythm of their songs. I don’t know any purer beauty than their shiny hair shot on color film from 1967. A man in a white turtleneck with sideburns and a medallion playing a Moog is my kryptonite. Head is so much more important to me than the other “New Cinema” joints [of that era] because of the high/low mashup. The psychedelia, the fact that it flopped, that it builds on a touchstone from my childhood and subverts it, that it came from TV and alienated everybody – hipsters and kids alike. Also, Teri Garr.
Rob Sheffield: I loved watching the Monkees every afternoon on channel 56. They helped form my childhood sense of what California is, how it looks, how it sounds. The first record I ever bought was a “Monkees Greatest Hits” comp, $5.99, ordered from a TV ad. VCRs hadn’t been invented yet, so I put the cassette recorder under the TV to catch the songs. My wife loves the Monkees so passionately, Mike Nesmith could have won her heart forever with one sideburn tied behind his back. (I’m just glad I met her before he did.) But she’s a Davy girl, always will be. We went to see their 45th anniversary tour last summer at the Beacon. It was just an astonishingly great show, including a whole sequence from Head, including “As We Go Along,” which has to be one of the five most beautiful versions of a Carole King song. Davy did the boogaloo to “She Hangs Out” like he just invented it. I’ll always remember him that way.
Do you have a good story about seeing Head – high at a college party, or maybe sitting amongst hoity-toities at some art house?
Klausner: Being 8 or 9 and having seen all the Monkees episodes and wanting to rent it from the video store with my brother. I was too young to grasp the counter-cultural themes, and the whole experience really fucked me up. I began to cry. I wanted to turn it off. It wasn’t funny and silly like the show! Ten years later, I was exiting a phase where I had read Helter Skelter and was tickled by the rumor that Charles Manson had auditioned for the Monkees. [I watched it again and] the psychedelia and the darkness of the film completely hit me right between the eyes! And the sex appeal of those four beautiful boys, running around foppishly, feverishly, about to nosedive, career-wise, having painted a mural of what seemed like self-aware aggrandizement after a week in the hills with Jack Nicholson and tab after tab of fresh acid. What could possibly be more appealing?
Sheffield: I never saw it until a few years ago; my wife got me into it. A brain-torking experience. I recognized it as a flick I used to see playing on TV with the sound down at the club Don Hill’s (R.I.P.) on Saturday nights. Somehow, it’s even harder to understand with the sound up. I’ve seen it quite a few times since then, but nothing compares to seeing it on the big screen with an audience full of fans, which we did a couple years ago at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in the Catskills.