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Saturday, August 17, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Clarksville: “The Last Train to Clarksville,” the pop song that changed everything.

Today Clarksville examines “Last Train to Clarksville,” the pop song that changed everything.

It came blasting over the AM radio waves a half-century ago this year, topping the charts and propelling four actors with marginal musical skills to the status of rock superstars.

The Monkees.

The unbridled success of this made-for-TV boy band arguably set off a chain reaction of societal disasters, including …

Escalation of the Vietnam War, the election of Richard Nixon and Watergate, disco, New Coke, Milli Vanilli, Roseanne Barr singing the national anthem, the O.J. Simpson trial, the invasion of Iraq, Donald Trump’s run for the White House and The Spokesman-Review’s irregular Clarksville feature that you are enjoying here today.

So what made a simple 1966 song about rail travel and the importance of wearing a timepiece powerful enough to provoke such a cultural tailspin?

One can speculate forever as to how much better life might have been had the last train derailed, causing the Monkees to fade into obscurity after one canceled season of the television sitcom that created them.

But it was not to be. The Monkees ruled.

And with two of the three surviving band members preparing to embark on their 50th anniversary rheumatoid arthritis tour in May, it seemed like the perfect time to ponder the mysteries of their debut single. (Michael Nesmith, of course, is sitting out this tour, which will land at the Moore Theater in Seattle on Sept. 25.)

Joining me on this literary safari are two erudite thinkers: Travis Rivers, music historian and the newspaper’s former classical music reviewer, and Washington state’s own poet laureate, Tod Marshall.

I can’t tell you how gobsmacked I was when these two intellectuals actually agreed to my request to professionally examine a Monkees tune.

Could it be yet another sign of our post-Monkees malaise?

Travis Rivers opined:

“What a delight to see the 50th anniversary of ‘Last Train to Clarksville’ belatedly but deservedly commemorated.

“Its creators, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, did not allow any false sophistication to enter the tender lyrics with its clever refrain ‘oh, no, no, no’ any more than they would clutter up the elegant simplicity of its harmonies.

“They sturdily resisted the slithering chormaticism of Hugo Wolf or Gabriel Fauré or the jolting lurches into the flatted submediant of Franz Schubert or Richard Strauss.

“ ‘Last Train to Clarksville’ was unjustly displaced from the top of the Billboard Hot 100 by Johnny Rivers’ (no relation to this writer) ‘Poor Side of Town.’ Today’s celebration, however, acknowledges the greatness of this Boyce and Hart masterpiece.”

Marshall, who in addition to being a poet also teaches English at Gonzaga University, writes:

“From T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ to Barry Manilow’s epic ‘Copacabana,’ the 20th century is crowded with fine poems of love and loss. Perhaps, though, no single work captures fleeting romance and the burden of isolation like ‘Last Train to Clarksville.’

“From the haunting refrain (that almost sounds like ‘Clocksville,’ a brilliant echo of the carpe diem theme) to the flirtatious innuendo of ‘coffee-flavored kisses’ (Get it? It’s the next morning!), the poem is richly textured and deserving of multiple readings.

“What’s perhaps most haunting is the monotony of the refrain, which repeats over and over and over again until language fails, and the speaker slips into a da-da-de-de-da-dum noise, the brute sound of agonized mumbling that only comes when the absurd universe ignores our cries.

“How can we not be drawn to the isolation of the ‘I’ in the poem (maybe a young drummer with no skills?) as he tries to navigate romance and modernity?

“There are trains! There are phones! And yet there is no connection between the lover and the beloved, and we, as listeners can only share the pain of his cry: ‘oh no, no, no, no, no, no.’ ”

This much is clear. The Monkees attacked Spokane on Aug. 27, 1967, in our beloved old Boone Street Barn of a coliseum.

Following the set list for their tour of 28 U.S. and British cities, the Monkees, riding a tsunami of popularity, opened with drummer Micky Dolenz singing lead on, yes, the tune that started it all.

“Take the last train to Clarksville and I’ll …”

Or did they?

According to my pal Joe Brasch, who was in a folding chair 40 rows back from the stage, it was impossible to discern what exactly the Monkees were playing.

This was due to the packed audience of young, hysterical girls who unleashed a nonstop wail of shrieking.

Brasch, then an impressionable 11-year-old, was dragged to the concert by his babysitter, underscoring the lax nature of parental supervision in the ’60s.

“You just couldn’t hear it,” said Brasch, who admits to being “terrified” yet “fascinated” by the cacophony and the chaos.

“It was just four guys up there on the stage with little tiny amps,” he said. And when someone introduced the Monkees “the girls just went berserk.”

Adding to the Monkee mayhem was the multitude of camera flashbulbs going off, one after another after another after …

“It was like being on the surface of the sun, surrounded by screaming girls,” Brasch recalled. “It was hard to hear or even pay attention to the band.”

Brasch remembers sitting next to one girl “who was absolutely losing her mind.”

He continued, “Everyone was in some sort of crazed, ‘Oh My God’ moment that lasted from the first strum to the very last chord. It was the most insane thing I’ve ever seen as far as a concert.”

Young Brasch soaked it all in: Davy Jones prancing and dancing, Nesmith strumming a really cool white Gretsch. Peter Tork, well, doing something.

All the chicks going flat-out nuts.

Already playing guitar since age 7, Brasch would go on to share a stage with Eddie Van Halen, tour with Peter Rivera of Rare Earth and be named the 2015 Blues Guitarist of the Year by the Inland Empire Blues Society.

You have to wonder. Did those “Last Train to Clarksville” Monkees help influence the course of even my friend’s life?

Brasch pondered his future.

Go on to med school? Become a blazing guitar player?

In the end it was no choice at all.

“Oh, no, no, no. Oh, no, no, noooo!”

The Monkees – Last Train To Clarksville

Take the last train to Clarksville

And I’ll meet you at the station

You can be there by 4:30

’Cause I’ve made your reservation

Don’t be slow

Oh no no no, oh no no no

’Cause I’m leaving in the morning

And I must see you again

We’ll have one more night together

’Til the morning brings my train

And I must go

Oh no no no, oh no no no

And I don’t know if I’m ever coming home

Take the last train to Clarksville

I’ll be waiting at the station

We’ll have time for coffee flavored kisses

And a bit of conversation

Oh no no no, oh no no no

Take the last train to Clarksville

Now I must hang up the phone

I can’t hear you in this

Noisy railroad station all alone

I’m feeling low

Oh no no no, oh no no no

And I don’t know if I’m ever coming home

Take the last train to Clarksville,

And I’ll meet you at the station,

You can be here by four-thirty,

’Cause I’ve made your reservation, don’t be slow,

Oh, no, no, no,

Oh, no, no, no,

And I don’t know if I’m ever coming home.

Take the last train to Clarksville,

Take the last train to Clarksville,

Take the last train to Clarksville,

Take the last train to Clarksville.

Songwriters: Bobby Hart and Tommy Boyce

Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or dougc@spokesman.com.

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