It's time for a pop quiz, kids. Keep those No. 2 pencils sharp! Today's bonus question: Name the last band on earth - hugely popular in the late '60s, squeaky clean, cute, cuddly, and funny - that anyone suspected would have marched subterranean war protest songs blatantly across the airwaves? Holler if you answered "the four guys who invented the Monkee walk."
A carefully concocted boy-band emerging from the omniscient imaginings of producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, the pilot episode that spawned The Monkees TV show was their answer to the Beatles' 1964 black-and-white motion picture A Hard Day's Night. In fact, that pilot Monkees episode spoofs A Hard Day's Night from beginning to end, with one scene after another mimicking the Beatles' flick in Marx Brothers fashion.
Heavily laden with charm and chemistry, the boys playing TV's newly-minted silly, single musician roommates (Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork, Davy Jones, and Mike Nesmith) exuded enough of an adorability factor to smoke the TV ratings and instantly become a hit musical act, as well - questionable though it was how much of it was "music" and how much of it was "act." Wherever the truth lies, the fact is they were wildly successful.
And apparently ran a sort of underground musical protest railroad (no pun intended).
Along with "Pleasant Valley Sunday," "Randy Scouse Git," and the more blatant "Zor and Zam," "Last Train to Clarksville" was a protest to the Vietnam War. The song's co-writer, Bobby Hart, admits, "We couldn't be too direct with The Monkees. We couldn't really make a protest song out of it - we kind of snuck it in."
But enough about that. Let's get to the part where we talk about the 3 W's. Where is Clarksville? What is Clarksville? Why did they write a song about it?
Bobby Hart tells the story of toolying around the state of Arizona one day, passing through an early 19th century town about 1 ½ hours north of Phoenix called Clarkdale. Clarkdale, as the brochures will tell you, is a picturesque little place named for William Andrews Clark. As described by the Web site for Clarkdale, Clark was "a man with three big ambitions." It goes on to list one of those ambitions as "owning a town that would be one of the most modern mining towns in the world." (It doesn't disclose his other two ambitions, so we assume they are a secret.) With help from Clark's deep pockets, the town was built around a smelter and it thrived for years.
Research into the personality of William Andrews Clark revealed this colorful description of the man by Mark Twain: "He is as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag; he is a shame to the American nation, and no one has helped to send him to the Senate who did not know that his proper place was the penitentiary, with a ball and chain on his legs. To my mind he is the most disgusting creature that the republic has produced since Tweed's time." We assume the two were not close.
Clarkdale today is a shadow of its former mining days glory. The population is well below the 4,000 mark and nobody actually mines there anymore, unless it's for air conditioning to stave off the heat. But the Verde Valley train still takes tourists on a scenic trip along the actual route in Sycamore Canyon that the miners used, and for historic value alone it's worth the time.
Back to Bobby Hart. As he was passing through Clarkdale, he hatched a thought: he wanted to incorporate the little town's name into a song. But "Clarkdale" didn't scan well. Too clunky. After more thought hatchings and attempts at making it work, he and his writing partner, Tommy Boyce, rejiggered it to "Clarksville," just for musicality's sake.
Here's where things get a bit twisted.
There actually was - and still is! - a Clarksville. It's in Tennessee. And a few short miles from this Clarksville, there is an Air Force Base (101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell).
This Clarksville was named for George Rogers Clark, famed frontiersman, Revolutionary War hero, and brother of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. This Clark has had eight cities and counties named for him, six statues erected in his honor, and nine schools bear his name. Although there's no Mark Twain quote we can offer regarding his erstwhile character, research reveals that his glory days were realized before he hit the ripe age of 30, and from there, sadly, it was all downhill. The rest of his years were spent drunk and running from creditors.
Beyond distance and reputation, however, it was a very short trip from Clarkdale to Clarksville via radio, and the assumption was inevitable. It even makes sense. Next time someone busts out a game of Trivial Pursuit, you will know the answer, even if the game doesn't. So bet the farm. And tell everyone who'll listen what your great source of information was. Don't be one of those boring types that likes to pretend you knew it all along. Everyone knows you didn't. ~ Shawna Hansen Ortega
Boyce and Hart wrote this as a protest to the Vietnam War. They had to keep this quiet in order to get it recorded, but it is about a guy who gets drafted and goes to fight in the war. The train is taking him to an army base, and he knows he may die in Vietnam. At the end of the song he states, "I don't know if I'm ever coming home."
Album : The Monkees Released : 1966 US chart position : 1 UK chart position : 23