Davy Jones: The Life of a Monkee

How a child actor joined the best fake band of all time - and never escaped

davy jones monkees
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Davy Jones on the set of 'The Monkees.'
By |

In September 1965, a small ad appeared in L.A.'s Daily Variety: "MADNESS!! Auditions. Folk & Roll Musician-Singers for acting roles in new TV series. Running parts for 4 insane boys." Longhaired kids showed up by the hundreds at a studio lot just off Sunset Boulevard, ready and willing to sell out – among the aspiring TV stars were Stephen Stills, Harry Nilsson and Van Dyke Parks, all pre-fame. But one tiny, chipmunk-cheeked performer walked right past the other guys, straight into the producers' office. "I was like, 'Wait a minute! Who was that?'" says Peter Tork, who would become the Monkees' bassist. "I was extremely jealous."

As Tork and the rest of the world would soon discover, that was 19-year-old Davy Jones, a seasoned professional who'd already been working on TV and Broadway and London stages for half a decade. In a screen test with producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, he comes across as sheltered and naive – a precocious kid who couldn't imagine the hall of mirrors he was about to enter: He was auditioning to play a prefab Paul McCartney in the Monkees, a fake band that would soon fill real stadiums and outsell the Beatles themselves.

"I'm really a clean-cut kid," Jones chirps in his Manchester accent, standing in the producers' office wearing a newsboy hat and turtleneck. Jones struggles to answer questions from Schneider and Rafelson (they would go on to produce Easy Rider and the Rafelson­directed Five Easy Pieces) – but does better when the producers ask him to dance: He does so on command, breaking into a cheerful little jig.

At that moment, Jones – who died of a heart attack at age 66 on February 29th – won what would be the last major role of his life. In just a year, he'd become one of the biggest pop stars of his time – and lose his chance at what had been a promising acting career. The Monkees' commercial heyday lasted a mere two years, faltering soon after they tried to take control of their own music and TV show. When the bubblegum burst, they were left nearly broke. But Davy Jones would be a Monkee for as long as he lived.

Jones was more than willing to play the showbiz game, to sing the songs he was given. He always hit his mark with a smile. Even in the beginning, however, he was more than an empty vessel: Though studio musicians played all the instruments on the Monkees' biggest hits, it was his own yearning, delicate voice that broke hearts by the millions on "Daydream Believer" and "I Wanna Be Free." To the end, he was eager to defend his status as an artist: "Here comes Davy Jones, here comes the emotion, the drama, the real," he said in 2000. "Underneath the tinsel and fabric is real tinsel and fabric."

Real or fake, being a Monkee was brutally hard work. The-Marx-Brothers-meet-the-Beatles-slapstick show filmed for 12 hours a day, and then an exhausted Jones trudged to RCA Studios to sing. For the two years the series aired, he rarely slept more than four hours a night. "It was ridiculous," Jones wrote in his 1987 autobiography, They Made a Monkee Out of Me. "I'd call my manager for a diet pill to get me going – then a beer at noon to give the pill a kick."

But he rarely complained. In a group with four distinct personalities, he was the cute one, a hopelessly love-struck naif who literally got stars in his eyes on the TV show. Girls loved his accent, his ear-to-ear smile, his nervous laughter, his Broadway-honed voice. "For me, David was the Monkees," says the group's guitarist, Michael Nesmith. "We were his sidemen. He was the focal point of the romance – the lovely boy, innocent and approachable."

Davy became so famous that another David Jones – a struggling singer-songwriter at the Monkees' peak – had to change his last name to Bowie. Even Davy's dance moves spanned decades – his shimmying later showed up in an incongruous context. "Justin Bieber stole my haircut," Jones said last July. "And Axl Rose stole my dance!"

The other Monkees played instruments (onstage, if not in the studio), but Jones got more cheers by merely shaking his tambourine. The Monkees grew to fear teenage mobs, and Jones had it the worst. "A girl stuck herself in a cardboard box and her friends brought her up to Davy's hotel room," recalls Monkees singer-drummer Micky Dolenz. Adds Nesmith, "The girls would spot David, and the chase was on. We would flee in blind panic."

Jones was a child star, appearing in Oliver! and Pickwick, both based on books by Charles Dickens – which was almost typecasting: Jones' Manchester childhood was truly Dickensian. His mother suffered from emphysema, and passed away when Davy was 14. All four Jones children slept in a single bedroom, and the bathroom was outside the house. Davy's father, who worked for British Railways, fell into a depression when his wife died.

Understandably, Jones dreamed of escape. At first he imagined himself as a soccer or cricket star, but all the other boys in his grade towered over him. For a time, he used his stature to his advantage, briefly training to be a jockey. But he found more satisfaction in acting – especially when he learned it was a guaranteed way to meet girls. As a teenager, he landed a role on Coronation Street, England's longest-running soap opera, and he later got the part of the Artful Dodger in the original West End production of Oliver! He followed the show to Broadway in 1963, at age 17.

After one of his plays arrived in Los Angeles, Jones began getting bit roles on TV shows like Ben Casey. Around that time, producers Rafelson and Schneider – two hip, thirtysomething execs who first worked together on the flop 1965 series The Wackiest Ship in the Army – were starting a show about a fake rock band. "When I was 17, I was in a band in Mexico," says Rafelson. "We had a lot of misadventures, which inspired me to write a pilot about a folk-rock group that had its own misadventures. Then the Beatles came along and suddenly the studio wanted the show."

The Monkees premiered on NBC in September 1966, and the timing couldn't have been better. The Beatles had just abandoned touring forever, the Stones were scary, and young American pop fans were ready for something new to scream about.

The show's producers hired Don Kirshner – an old-school publishing exec with Brill Building roots – and gave him absolute authority over the show's songs. He recruited some of the country's best songwriters – including Carole King, Neil Diamond and the team of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart – to write them. It became almost an industrial process: "There were producers on both coasts," says Hart, "making Monkee records we didn't know about."

From the start, Tork and Nesmith wanted the Monkees to be a real band. Jones and Dolenz saw it differently. "We came from theater and TV," Dolenz says. "David approached the Monkees as a role. They gave assignments. We didn't have a lot of experience, but we could tell these were pretty good pop songs. We were happy to say, 'Absolutely,' just as I'm sure the people of Glee do."

In 1967, The Monkees sold more records than the Beatles and the Stones combined – along with untold numbers of lunchboxes, breakfast cereals and dolls. They had released a stream of massive singles, including "Last Train to Clarksville" and "I'm a Believer." They were some of the most famous people in L.A. during the Summer of Love, but Jones found the counterculture baffling. His bandmate Tork was more laid-back – if you visited his house on a typical day in 1967, you might find members of the Byrds and the Mamas and the Papas swimming in the nude. "It was a very different kettle of fish," says Tork. "I was hanging with these people, and Davy didn't join me very much." Jones later said that he feared Tork's world of "water beds, brown rice, Hare Krishna. I didn't want to go to his house. I thought I'd be in some sort of orgy or drug den."

Just months into the Monkees' career, Tork and Nesmith pushed for more control – they asked Kirshner to let them at least play their own instruments on B sides and deep cuts, and to let them have some input on their releases. Kirshner ignored the demands, and put out the band's second album, More of the Monkees, without even telling the group about it. As his bandmates' rebellion intensified, Jones felt caught in the middle. "David continually admonished me to calm down and do what I was told," says Nesmith. "His advice to me was to approach the show like a job, do my best, and shut up, take the money and go home."

Nesmith knew the group couldn't win the battle for artistic freedom without a united front – and he slowly persuaded Jones to join the mutiny. "His support made it unanimous," says Tork. "If Davy said, 'Nah, I don't care,' it wouldn't have happened. I owe Davy a lot on that front."

The Monkees broke free of Kirshner, and became more popular than ever – for a while. Ratings remained strong through all of 1967, and they stayed in the Top Five with "Daydream Believer" (written by John Stewart of the Kingston Trio) and "Pleasant Valley Sunday" (courtesy of King and Gerry Goffin). The emboldened Monkees demanded radical changes to their TV program as a third season approached: Their plan was to turn it into a Laugh In-style variety show with celebrity guests. But ratings had dipped by then, and rather than negotiate with teen idols who were demanding control, NBC simply canceled The Monkees in the summer of 1968. When the show stopped, so did the hits.

Undaunted, Rafelson moved forward with a movie that would shatter perceptions of the group. Rafelson, Schneider and a friend, the unknown actor Jack Nicholson, went to Ojai, California, with the four Monkees, where they smoked Hawaiian pot while dictating into a tape recorder. Nicholson took the tapes, dropped some acid and wrote a screenplay that would eventually be called Head.

The psychedelic, surreal film – one of the most infamous flops of all time – didn't bear the slightest resemblance to the Monkees' show. In the film, the group sings a vicious parody of its own theme song: "Hey, hey, we are the Monkees/You know we love to please/A manufactured image/With no philosophies." The Monkees had released the original song just two years earlier – the phenomenon had consumed itself with almost uncanny speed. "The Monkees didn't quite understand what the movie was," says Rafelson, who was already moving on to Easy Rider, "and I'm not so sure that Jack and I knew what we were doing."

After two years of madness, Jones was exhausted. "I didn't know what I wanted," he wrote in his memoir. "Part of the time I was trying to get everyone united, and the rest of the time I just wanted to go home and sleep for a few years." The group limped along for another year, releasing singles that failed to crack the Top 40. The Monkees quietly disbanded in 1970.

Nearly everyone involved with the band profited from the experience – except for the actual Monkees. Jones and his bandmates were flat broke. They had opted for a percentage of profits instead of a lump sum of cash, not realizing that all expenses – planes, hotels, recording time – were deducted from their share.

Jones discovered that his time as a Monkee was more of a tombstone than a steppingstone for his acting career – his most prominent Seventies TV moment was playing himself on The Brady Bunch. He was forced to return to the stage, even reclaiming his old Artful Dodger role in an L.A. production of Oliver!

The first glimmerings of Sixties nostalgia soon arrived, and in the mid-Seventies, Jones made some cash on an oldies tour. Newly separated from his wife, no longer a fresh-faced teen idol, a thirtyish Jones embraced the debauchery he had previously shunned: "Women, booze... I went crazy."

Jones and his bandmates had been out of the spotlight for nearly a decade when, against all pop-culture odds, Monkee-mania erupted all over again. In 1986, MTV – then hungry for nonmusic­video programming – began regularly airing episodes of the old Monkees TV show. An entire new generation fell in love with Davy Jones, and the Monkees quickly signed on for a reunion tour, minus an uninterested Nesmith. They wound up packing 20,000-seat venues across America. "The most thrilling thing for me," said Jones, "is when I see in the first row a 30-year-old mom and a six-year-old kid."

Opening act "Weird Al" Yankovic was overwhelmed by the fans' youth and enthusiasm: "Teenage girls would come running to my tour bus. I'd open the door and they'd say, 'Al! Al! Do you know where Davy Jones is staying?'"

The Monkees kept touring through the Nineties, to smaller but still enthused audiences – and even reunited with Nesmith for an album and a European tour. For Jones, though, a certain bitterness crept in: He was incensed at the Monkees' exclusion from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – and in 2000, he announced a bizarre plan to open his own "Davy Jones Rock and Roll Museum" that would honor the Monkees, K.C. and the Sunshine Band, and other groups he felt were unappreciated. "What the hell is [the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame] doing in Cleveland?" he asked. "I don't need any more awards... I'm not going there, anyway, if they put me in."

In 2011, The Monkees returned to the stage for an international tour that got some of the best reviews of their career. Over the years, they'd picked up a surprising amount of respect: "People realize how great the songs are," says R.E.M.'s Mike Mills. "It doesn't matter anymore that they didn't write them. It's just not the perceived crime that it was then." On their final tour, the Monkees were more of a real band than ever – digging deep into their catalog, even playing much of the Head soundtrack. Dolenz is grateful the group got one last chance: "Thank goodness we did that," he says. "It was phenomenal, and David had so much to do with putting that together and staging it."

Jones spent the early months of 2012 playing club gigs and tending to the horses he kept at a stable near his adopted hometown of Indiantown, Florida. He was at his stable on the morning of February 29th when, by one account, he complained to the staff of chest pains. He went to rest in his car, and when they went to check on him he was already dead of a heart attack.

Just 11 days before he died, Jones performed at B.B. King's Blues Club in New York. It's a cramped basement club in Times Square, but Jones was happy to be there – and he still sounded like Davy Jones. Toward the end, he sang "Daydream Believer," swaying to the beat and soaking in the cheers. "One more time," he said, pacing the stage during the chorus of one of the last songs he'd ever perform. He held his microphone out to the small but joyful crowd, and yelled, "Everyone sing!" They sang, loud and clear, and Jones smiled: They still believed.

This story is from the March 29th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.

Related
My Date With Davy Jones
Rob Sheffield: In Memory of the Cute One: Davy Jones' Greatest Musical Moments
Exclusive: Michael Nesmith Remembers Davy Jones


From The Archives Issue 1153: March 29, 2012
x