The lessons sports journalists can draw from the Monkees
I’m angry with myself at the moment. I’ve just concluded an exchange of e-mails in which I agreed to do a hit on a regional BBC radio station without getting paid.
Sure, I do stuff for free all the time — especially since Jamaican radio tracked down my phone number. But the BBC is a different matter. I’ve justified it in my own mind as a favour to the presenter, who is a mate of mine. But he knows nothing of this. I’ve been dealing with the producer, who seemed flabbergasted that I’d had the nerve to ask the ‘how much?’ question. “Do you mean a fee?” she replied. Not a chance. There was, she was keen to stress, no budget at all for the programme.
Bullshit, of course. She’s getting paid. Resources are there — they are just not being made available to the journalist. By agreeing to do this for free I’m not only undermining myself but my colleagues as well, who are, I’m sure, increasingly coming under pressure to provide work on an unpaid basis. And this, of course, is especially hard on the next generation as they seek to get themselves established — and with the crisis of the written press they have things hard enough as it is.
Every week I get e-mails — not exactly a flood but certainly a steady trickle — from young, aspiring sports journalists asking for advice. I used to write back. Indeed, I had a standard reply prepared, full of exhortations to “write for yourself and see where it takes you” and “take no myth for granted”.
After a while, though, I stopped sending it out. From meeting some of these people and hearing their stories I came to worry that I might have been engaged in giving them false hope. Even those with degrees in sports journalism seemed to have little idea of the realities — desperately low rates of pay for internet writing and, worst of all, the repugnant problems entailed in getting paid. I’d like to be able to believe in God, if only for the comforting knowledge that hell exists, and that some of the hottest places therein are reserved for those who welch on paying freelance journalists.
Indeed, one wonders why so many courses in sports journalism have sprung up. It is hard to credit that the industry is calling for them — at the very time when the crisis in written word journalism is gobbling up jobs. Perhaps it is because such courses have a cache of glamour and are thus lucrative for the institution — in itself an argument against the willy-nilly implantation of market principles in the educational process.
But I digress. The question remains — what to say to the young and aspiring? It would surely be a great shame to tell them not to aspire — though they clearly need to be made aware of the realities of that which they are aspiring to. The good news is that our noble profession, in one form or another, is not going to go away. Human beings are addicted to stories. There will always be a space, somewhere, somehow, for those who can tell a fascinating story in a captivating way. The old standards apply — have something to say and say it clearly. But that ‘something’ needs to be a bit different from everyone else’s ‘something.’ How to stand out from the crowd without coming across as false or contrived? I advance the idea that the road to salvation passes through honest curiosity, and enlist as my witnesses the 1960s US pop group the Monkees.
The ‘prefab four,’ a manufactured, contrived, bubble-gum TV show transatlantic ‘answer’ to the Beatles with a bit of the Marx Brothers thrown in, the Monkees nevertheless came up with some enduringly innocent and likeably sunny mid-60s pop and were hugely successful. With a team of top-class writers and session musicians behind them, though, their own contribution was limited, which, with the passing of time became a source of frustration for them. They wanted to express themselves. Their instant stardom had given them plenty of interesting experiences to express and before long their success had provided them with the leeway to be given the opportunity to express them.
One of those experiences was the tour of England in 1967, which inspired one of the first songs written by the drummer Micky Dolenz — released under the title “Alternate Title”, for reasons we shall shortly explain.
The verse recounts a country house party at which the Monkees were guests of the Beatles, referred to in the same as “the four kings of EMI [who] are sitting stately on the floor.” There’s a “wonderful lady” and a butler who “reminds me of a penguin with few and plastered hair.” The jaunty little polka helps re-enforce the air of louche gentility.
But there is nothing gentle about the chorus, which with gathering ferocity recreates the atmosphere in a London press conference.
“Why don’t you cut your hair? Why don’t you live up there? Why don’t you do what I do, see what I feel when I care?”
Or later, “Why don’t you be like me? Why don’t you stop and see? Why don’t you hate who I hate, kill who I kill to be free?”
Towards the end — and at under two and a half minutes the song does not overstay its welcome — the contrast between the two parts is emphasised by playing them both at the same time. It is Dolenz trying to work out how to make sense of this strange little island, where such apparent gentility co-exists with the hysterical, shrieking and hypocritical moralising of the tabloid press.
It is a song of bafflement. It was originally called “Randy Scouse Git”, words which at no point appear in the song. Dolenz was watching Till Death Us Do Part and was struck by the phrase, which comprised three words, all of them ostensibly in his language, but not one of which he was able to understand. It was, then, a splendidly suitable symbol of his confusion.
The fact that he was asked to change the title only adds to the effect. He had picked up the phrase from the broadcast media. So how could it be inappropriate for broadcast media? What kind of place was this? In such circumstances, what could be a better alternate title than “Alternate Title”? Micky Dolenz had come, walked down our streets, and with no song-writing finesse to filter through the experience, had successfully transformed his confusion about English contradictions into art.
Our craft is less visceral, less intuitive and without the same emotional impact. But we can go deeper. We have the opportunity to identify the contradictions in a footballing culture and then analyse the tensions between them.
By way of example, let us take Brazil, my home for the past two decades. A number of articles in the history of this publication have done their bit to explode the myth of Brazilian football as a kind of Carnaval in boots, a romanticised state of nature in which self-expression is all and the scoreline is nothing.
It is junk, though occasionally even clever people can fall for it. The individual talent is no myth, of course. But how to ensure that it is decisive? The perennial search has been for balance, a collective structure capable of attaining victory by supplying the necessary defensive solidity to ensure that the team gets full value from the moments of individual brilliance. Friends and partners, pragmatism and beauty keep up a dialogue.
But, in the dynamic of things, as the two opposites talk at the same time (as towards the end of “Alternate Title”) what if one starts shouting much louder, drowning out the other? Brazil’s World Cup wins of 1994 and 2002 were nowhere near as universally loved as the earlier conquests. And when pragmatism fails to bring victory, as in South Africa 2010, then what is left?
Answer: a rehabilitation of the past. After their dramatic exit to Paolo Rossi’s Italy, Brazil’s 1982 side were always more loved abroad than at home. The 1994 captain and 2010 coach Dunga dismissed them as “specialists in losing”. Now, though, they are back in fashion.
Last year Brazil’s sports daily Lance! issued a collection of shirts of “the best teams which failed to win the World Cup.” There was Hungary of 1954, the Netherlands of twenty years later and Brazil of 1982. Cutting out a number of tokens from the paper and paying a small sum entitled the reader to a replica shirt of one of these great teams. I am the proud owner of a Brazil 82 shirt, a splendid example in 100% cotton of the ongoing dynamic in the cultural tug of war between two contrasting forces.
The methodological clues are there in “Alternate Title”. Identify the contradictions and the tensions between them, and you have the key to the man, or the collective culture — and the gateway to good, original stories, well worthy of a pay cheque. Once written you can look at a photo of the Monkees and conclude that it was a little bit me, a little bit you.