I’ve been thinking of The Monkees a lot this year, I knew there was not much time before it would be just ‘The Monkee’. Mike Nesmith was in poor health before the off again, on again Farewell Tour was announced, almost torpedoed at the last minute by the most recent COVID wave. Somehow they pulled it off. Less than a month after the final concert Mike passed away. Mikey Dolenz is the last Monkee standing, which is fitting but I’ll get that in a bit.
The Monkees legacy has long since revived and survived as Mark Rozzo pointed out in his Vanity Fair piece:
if anyone cares about the semantics anymore…the Monkees are, in fact, very much real, no matter what Nesmith or Dolenz may think—a talented and original band, a pop-culture force, a touchstone for multiple generations, a lasting influence, and even today, a viable commodity. Nesmith’s vast résumé alone practically proves the point.
I’m glad that I live in Japan where such stupid distinctions as real or fake rock bands are meaningless. The Monkees have always been popular with the Japanese who don’t have the ‘yes, but’ negative western cultural snobbery of ‘my music is good, your music sucks’. The eighties witnessed a great Japanese language Daydream Believer cover by The Timers that reached #2 on the Oricon charts in October 1989 (the original version peaked at #4 here in 1967). It’s known and played everywhere now as the official 7 Eleven theme song. Ka-ching!
The conventional wisdom is that the Monkees legacy has endured because of the tremendous concentration of talent behind the TV show and the records. That’s true of course but I’ve always felt this ‘yes, but’ take is a slight to the tremendous talent and creativity of the four Monkees themselves, Mikey, Mike, Peter and Davy. Everything had to work through the magic of their talents to make it real, and it did, spectacularly.
From the Buddhist point of view, there is another reason the Monkees legacy endures. In the very last episode of the series, The Frodis Caper directed by Mikey Dolenz, written by Mikey and Dave Evans, there is a particularly surreal scene in a very surreal episode. Mikey, Mike and Davy are trying to save the world but are trapped. They need Pete’s help but he is hypnotized and trapped back at the Monkee pad. Mikey gets an idea to reach out to him.
We’ve got to concentrate real hard and then we need to repeat this chant I learned…
Namu Myoho Renge Kyo…
A chant that he ‘got from sending in a cereal box-top’. The chant works to free Peter’s mind and he goes to help the other Monkees. They all get trapped again, escape and free the world of evil television waves in typical zany Monkees style that was the good natured charm of the show.
How did the Monkees end up chanting Odaimoku on prime time TV? Was it Mikey’s idea or Dave Evans? We’ll probably never know. The practice of chanting Odaimoku, the title of the Lotus Sutra, is central to all Nichiren Buddhist schools and lineages but the most important thing about it is this: no matter where you are in your life, you have a connection with the Buddha and your own Buddha nature when you chant it.
What does this have to do with the Monkees? One of the things the Buddha repeats again and again in the Lotus Sutra is the merits gained by teaching the Lotus Sutra to others, even with just a word or title, a seed that eventually causes receiver to seek the way of the Buddha and strive for enlightenment.
In Buddhist terms the Monkees, especially Mikey, have gained countless merits for planting the seed of the Lotus Sutra in the minds of millions with their silly TV program. In Nichiren Buddhist terms they are the Bodhisattvas of the Earth reaching out to save others, but they probably never knew that or cared. But like the whole Monkees phenomenon, it worked on levels they were never aware of. I know this because when I encountered the Odaimoku much later in adult life, it was nothing to fear or disdain, it came wrapped in a fuzzy happy Saturday morning memory from long ago, ‘oh yeah, that’s the chant the Monkees used when they were having crazy fun adventures saving the world.’ It was a positive thing…like the Monkees.
So yes, the lasting influence of the Monkees, Micky, Mike, Peter and Davy, makes perfect sense. A multi-cultural touchstone of many levels, wrapped in a prime time TV program with some great music.