‘Last Train to Clarksville’ writer Bobby Hart unleashes ‘Psychedelic Bubble Gum’
Sporting an attention-grabbing title, Psychedelic Bubble Gum: Boyce & Hart, The Monkees, and Turning Mayhem into Miracles is the debut memoir by Monkees songwriting architect Bobby Hart. Co-written with Glenn Ballantyne, the breezy 338-page tome chronicles Hart’s fantastic life and career.
Along with ace songwriting partner Tommy Boyce’s crystalline sunshine pop-inspired lead vocals, Hart’s blue-eyed soul aesthetic fashioned Boyce & Hart as prime contenders on late ’60s pop-rock radio. While the duo notched hits with other artists — e.g. Jay and the Americans’ “Come a Little Bit Closer”] — their astonishing 25 contributions to the Monkees’ songography endure far beyond the rest.
Kids can still hum the catchy, timeless melodies contained within the ubiquitous “Last Train to Clarksville” — hundreds of bluegrass, country, and even hip hop covers exist — “(Theme From) The Monkees,” “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone”, “She,” “Words”, “Valleri,” and the Beatles-influenced, tack piano-driven “P.O. Box 9847.”
Audiences flock to sold out anniversary tours, and the group’s studio albums have seen multiple lavish deluxe reissue packages. And yet the Monkees and Boyce & Hart are still not members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The “manufactured band who didn’t play their instruments or write their own material” false label rears its head like a hideous scarlet letter among the critical elite some 50 years later and counting.
Monkeemania took the world by storm during the Age of Aquarius and usurped both the Beatles and Rolling Stones’ Billboard stranglehold. By 1967 Boyce & Hart were able to score a record deal with A&M.
Having produced, added instrumentation including guitar and keyboards, and sang backing harmonies during Monkees sessions, listeners finally got to hear the best friends’ voices placed prominently in the mix on solo hits like “I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonight?”, “Alice Long (You’re Still My Favorite Girlfriend)”, and “I’ll Blow You a Kiss in the Wind,” a California pop ditty showcased on the beloved Bewitched supernatural T.V. series — Elizabeth Montgomery also performed it with gusto as her wildly mischievous alter ego “Serena.”
Born in Phoenix, Arizona, Hart spent hours sequestered in his bedroom dreaming of becoming a bona fide disc jockey. Immersed in country, rockabilly, and pop sounds emanating from a tiny AM radio, the shy young man relives vivid memories listening to Rick Nelson as well as Elvis Presley seductively crooning Leiber and Stoller’s angst-ridden “Don’t” in Psychedelic Bubble Gum.
By age 15 the future multi-instrumentalist was pretty adept at playing his father’s banjo and well on the road to discovering his lifelong musical obsession. Hart hasn’t done any live musical appearances or recording in years. The tragic 1994 suicide of his premiere songwriting partner, suffering from severe depression exacerbated by a brain aneurysm, no doubt played a significant role in his decision.
Instead, the Los Angeles resident participates in speaking engagements and nourishes a romance with the Hammond B-3 by playing during services at his local Self-Realization Fellowship Temple. He also occasionally meets with fans at Monkee conventions.
Still closely adhering to the basic formula for creativity — desire + will = energy — Hart has co-written 22 original songs for a play in development entitled Uprising, The Musical, set in a forest and centered around a peaceful, native tribe whose land is being wiped out by a multinational logging operation.
Fingers crossed that in the aftermath of the Monkees’ 50th anniversary, doors will unfasten and enable further speaking engagements embellished by some unplugged music segments, the complete Boyce & Hart catalog — three A&M albums, singles, demos, and other unreleased goodies — will appear on all digital-streaming outlets, an album remaster of rare fan favorite Dolenz Jones Boyce & Hart  will see the light of day, and maybe kindle a Monkee collaboration or two.
Since the shocking demise of Davy Jones, Hart’s friendship with Micky Dolenz has truly burgeoned. The vocalist-drummer contributed a lovely foreword to Hart’s memoir, and both participated in a sold out screening-Q&A session for the first full-length Boyce & Hart documentary, The Guys Who Wrote ’Em, at the Grammy Museum. Before it’s too late, hopefully they will sit down for a writing session and see if any sparks ignite. Check out Hart’s official Facebook or website for the latest developments.
The lack of a discography or songography — Hart wrote prolifically with Danny Janssen in the ’70s and continued to do so with others for decades — are glaring omissions in an otherwise flawless, judiciously edited manuscript that had to be condensed from somewhere in the neighborhood of 150,000 words down to 120,000. Acknowledgements and an index are included.
The 53 chapters are relatively short on purpose, and their titles ably demonstrate Hart’s playful sense of humor — e.g. “Dear God, See You in Nine Days,” “You Took a Gig on Christmas Day?!,” “I’ve Got Steve McQueen with Me,” and “I Could Feel Her Mother Go Limp Before I Finished.”
Fascinating anecdotes abound for Monkee aficionados in Psychedelic Bubble Gum, spearheaded by the revelation that the mercurial Michael Nesmith impatiently mouthed the number seven while the cover of the band’s debut album was being quickly captured in a Hollywood studio alley. Hart later candidly asserts that firing music supervisor Don Kirshner and replacing him with Lester Sill signaled the beginning of the end for the Monkees.
Hart doesn’t glamorize his memories or fling celebrity names right and left. He refuses to conveniently omit Boyce’s contributions to their resounding success, a route quite a few celebrity memoirs tend to follow. Of course, he misses his perpetually optimistic partner considerably.
Pearls of wisdom trace evidence of Hart’s compassionate nature, exemplified by following one’s inner compass and checking ego at the door. Regarding the latter, a startling revelation occurs when Hart had an opportunity to tour with Joe Cocker on the legendary Mad Dogs & Englishmen Tour in 1970, mere months after he and Boyce had unceremoniously disbanded. Told that he would be relegated to sideman status, Hart flatly refused the offer and regrets it to this day.
Towards the end of his amazing journey as recounted in Psychedelic Bubble Gum, the “Hurt So Bad” wordsmith knowingly admonishes readers, “Had I focused on worry or resentment every time I had a setback, or on anger toward those I perceived were responsible for my woes, it seems clear to me now that I would have only gotten better at worry, resentment, and anger.”
In an exclusive, wide-ranging conversation, the talented musician comes across as extremely modest and downright grateful that fans still appreciate his pop culture contributions. Stick around to read a brief excerpt.
The Bobby Hart Interview
For a new listener, what’s the easiest way to distinguish between your voice and Tommy’s?
We had very different vocal styles. Tommy was just really kind of commercial pop. I was leaning much more toward soul and R&B influences. That’s what I did mostly when I played clubs on my own, starting in 1962. Tommy was in New York writing his first hits for Curtis Lee — e.g. “Pretty Little Angel Eyes.”
We came back to California in 1965 after having a couple of hits in New York. We were both moonlighting because we were getting $100 a week from Screen Gems to write songs for them exclusively. We needed a few more bucks than that to get by.
Tommy played a little piano bar in the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles. He would be singing songs like the jazz standard “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby” — stuff that he had heard from his folks. He was more old-style pop and country-influenced at the time. I continued working clubs with an R&B-oriented setlist.
Because of our success with the Monkees, we had these offers to be artists. When we were asked to record together as a duet team, I was against it. I fought it for some time as we always wanted to be artists in our own right. Nevertheless, we accepted the opportunity to work together, and we made it work.
Tommy was basically the lead singer on most of the songs. I think you can pretty well distinguish him from me on a song like “Goodbye Baby (I Don’t Want to See You Cry)” [No. 53 Pop, April 1968] where I do a verse and then he does a verse.
How did you guys decide who was going to sing lead?
We always arm wrestled about it a little bit. I think we made the right choices most of the time. After “I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonight,” which Tommy sang lead on, I came to him with the “Goodbye Baby” idea. We finished that up together. I wanted to sing that one but he said, “No, you should sing the second verse.” I replied, “Well, you sang the whole song last time” [laughs]. It was good that we traded off on that stuff.
“Sometimes She’s a Little Girl” could very well be my favorite Boyce & Hart solo single. It definitely didn’t deserve its middling Bubbling Under fate on the Billboard Hot 100 in the summer of 1967 [No. 110 Pop]. From the breakdown where Tommy pleadingly sings the title underscored by just an acoustic guitar, harpsichord, and string section to the raucous backing vocals and chiming electric guitar riff, everything just cooks.
Thank you. “Sometimes She’s a Little Girl” had a couple of things against it. One was the change of tempo you mentioned — at least that’s what we were told at the time. Herbie [Herb] Alpert, who co-owned our record label, A&M, really liked it. When we finished our first album he said, “That’s gonna be your debut single.”
But Don Graham, the Head of Promotions that worked for Herbie, told us, “This other cut has much more radio appeal. I think you should go with ‘Out and About.’” Which was probably a good choice for a first record. “Out and About” did okay — it went into the Top 40. I guess we had to release “Sometimes She’s a Little Girl” as a second single because Herbie wanted it [laughs].
Boyce & Hart tunes recorded by the Monkees
- “Last Train to Clarksville”…No. 1 Pop A-side featured on 1966’s The Monkees
- “(Theme from) The Monkees”…on 1966’s The Monkees
- “I Wanna Be Free”…on 1966’s The Monkees
- “Tomorrow’s Gonna Be Another Day”…on 1966’s The Monkees
- “This Just Doesn’t Seem to Be My Day”…on 1966’s The Monkees
- “Let’s Dance On”…on 1966’s The Monkees
- “Gonna Buy Me a Dog”…on 1966’s The Monkees
- “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone”…No. 20 Pop B-side of “I’m a Believer” featured on 1967’s More of the Monkees
- “She”…on 1967’s More of the Monkees
- “I’ll Spend My Life with You”…on 1967’s Headquarters
- “I Can’t Get Her Off My Mind”…on 1967’s Headquarters
- “Mr. Webster”…on 1967’s Headquarters
- “Words”…No. 11 Pop B-side of “Pleasant Valley Sunday” featured on 1967’s Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.
- “Valleri”…No. 3 Pop A-side featured on 1968’s The Birds, The Bees & the Monkees
- “P.O. Box 9847”…on 1968’s The Birds, The Bees & the Monkees
- “Tear Drop City”…No. 56 Pop A-side featured on 1969’s Instant Replay
- “Don’t Listen to Linda”…on 1969’s Instant Replay
- “Through the Looking Glass”…on 1969’s Instant Replay
- “Me Without You”…on 1969’s Instant Replay
- “Looking for the Good Times”…on 1969’s The Monkees Present
- “Ladies Aid Society”…on 1969’s The Monkees Present
- “I Never Thought It Peculiar”…on 1970’s Changes
- “Apples, Peaches, Bananas and Pears”…unreleased ’til 1987’s Missing Links
- “Storybook of You”…unreleased ’til 1987’s Missing Links
- “Long Way Home”…written by Bobby Hart / Dick Eastman…on 1987’s Pool It!