Davy Jones and ‘Daydream Believer’

I loved “The Monkees,” which I watched as a boy in reruns in the early to mid 1970s. Robert Lloyd of the LA Times has a thoughtful piece on Davy Jones’ passing that to my mind hits all the right notes on the show’s appeal (“the self-aware naturalism of its leads”) and the false arguments about the made-for-TV band’s authenticity.

Reader Bob Terry reminded me that one of Jones’ signature vocals, “Daydream Believer,” was written by Pomona native John Stewart. I wrote a column in 2007 about the song’s 40th anniversary that included an interview with Stewart, who died unexpectedly three months later.

That column appears in full below. And here’s a YouTube video of the song with a nice selection of familiar vignettes from the show.

Pomona man made the Monkees a ‘Believer’ in song
published Nov. 28, 2007

FORTY YEARS ago this week, the Monkees hit No. 1 with their song “Daydream Believer” and its chirpy chorus: “Cheer up, Sleepy Jean/Oh, what can it mean/To a daydream believer/And a homecoming queen.”

I don’t know if it’s a good song, exactly, but once you’ve heard “Daydream Believer,” it’s unshakeable. Even after all these years, what you probably don’t know is that the song wasn’t written by the Monkees but by a man named John Stewart.

And John Stewart grew up in Pomona. He was a Progress-Bulletin paperboy and graduated from Pomona Catholic High in 1957. His parents had moved the family to Pomona after stints in San Diego and Pasadena.

“My dad was a horse trainer and the county fairgrounds were in Pomona and he had horses there, so it just made sense,” Stewart told me by phone last week from Marin County.

Stewart isn’t a household name, but aficionados know him best as a member of the Kingston Trio, the folk group he joined in 1961 after Dave Guard’s departure.

Before that he was in a folk act called the Cumberland Three alongside Gil Robbins, his Pomona Catholic choir teacher — and the father of actor Tim Robbins.

“I used to babysit Tim. He was always crying and usually had a snotty nose,” Stewart cracked. “Whatever happened to him?”

I think he’s living with some obscure actress. Anyway, in 1967 Stewart had left the Trio and was living in Mill Valley, cranking out songs.

“I was writing all day, every day, in a room with Andrew Wyeth prints on the wall. One day I wrote ‘Daydream Believer’ in about half an hour. I remember going to bed and thinking, ‘All I did today was write “Daydream Believer.” ‘ ”

Nobody was impressed by the song. Not his brother, Mike, who led the pop band We Five. Not the folk-pop act Spanky and Our Gang. Not even Stewart’s wife.

Shortly after these rejections, Stewart met Chip Douglas at a party. Douglas was producing records by the Monkees, a made-for-TV band with a string of hit singles. Douglas asked if Stewart had any songs for the group.

Stewart said he did and quickly recorded a demo of “Daydream Believer” on cassette for Douglas’ consideration.

“Two days later, he called back and said the Monkees would do it,” Stewart said. “I knew that was going to be a lot of money.”

One hitch: The line “Now you know how happy I can be” was originally “Now you know how funky I can be.” The band wouldn’t sing it that way. Stewart protested mildly — “Oh man, that doesn’t make any sense!” — but one word wasn’t worth losing out on a big sale.

Stewart went to the Monkees’ recording session in New York. The lilting arrangement — borrowed in part from the Beach Boys’ “Help Me, Rhonda” — and Davy Jones’ cheerful vocal convinced him the song would be a hit.

And on Dec. 2, 1967, “Daydream Believer” did indeed hit No. 1 in America, remaining there for four weeks, until it was dislodged by The Beatles’ “Hello, Goodbye.”

“Daydream Believer” has been stuck in our collective brain ever since. Since I had Stewart on the line, I had to ask: What the heck is the song about?

“It was a throwback to high school,” Stewart said. “I was always the daydream believer, looking out the window. Homecoming queen, that was the fantasy when you’re in high school. ‘Daydream believer,’ ‘homecoming queen,’ it was just euphonious.”

So high school in Pomona inspired “Daydream Believer”? As Kevin on “The Office” would say: “That is so cool.”

Stewart said he never tried to write another song like “Daydream Believer” — some of you will offer silent thanks — and explained that he’s never been able to sit down with the purpose of writing a hit song.

But he’s produced a respected body of work as a gruff singer-songwriter, including the minor hit “Gold” in 1979, with the aid of Fleetwood Mac, and the acclaimed 1969 album “California Bloodlines.”

Stewart also wrote “Back in Pomona,” an autobiographical song about his dad’s horse training days, which I’ll have to go into detail about sometime.

“Daydream Believer” has been performed live by U2, recorded by the Japanese pop group Shonen Knife and made into a hit a second time by Anne Murray. It popped up on “Dawson’s Creek,” was used in commercials for trains, eBay and grass seed and was adopted by English football fans.

“That song’s been very good to me. It’s paid the rent for a long time,” Stewart said.

He still performs a folk version in concert, using the “funky” line. And there may be life in the song yet.

On Halloween, he heard a bar band in Sierra Madre named Snotty Scotty and the Hankies do a loud, raucous cover of “Daydream Believer.”

“It peeled the paint off the wall,” Stewart said admiringly. “It’s so outrageous. It’s got so much energy. We’re going to record the song together.”

If so, maybe we’ll see just how funky “Daydream Believer” can be.

David Allen writes Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, to your disbelief. E-mail d_allen@dailybulletin.com, call (909) 483-9339 or write 2041 E. Fourth St., Ontario 91764. And read his blog at www.dailybulletin.com/davidallenblog

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  • Unclevito

    Daydream Believer was such bubblegum. Really corny but a great tune.

    Since 1967, I could never figure out what Davey was saying when he sung “Cheer up, Sleepy Jean.” I looked up the words only a few days ago.

    Still, what does that mean?

    ["Oh, what can it mean" (the song's next line) might be a more appropriate question. Is the song addressed to a girl named Jean? Perhaps I should have asked Stewart about that. If he wrote the song in half an hour, it's likely that some of the lyrics are nonsense. -- DA]

  • JK Moran

    Well, you need to connect the chorus to the verses – it’s not nonsense at all.

    The speaker is the male half of a young couple – the female half is Jean. They are poor, as the second verse demonstrates (“without dollar one to spend”). The song opens with the guy getting up at 6 am for what we have to assume is a crappy job with low pay. He wishes he could stay in bed – but up he gets to shave (“the shaving razor’s old [the correct lyric] and it stings” [because it's old and dull], something he has to do before he goes to work.

    The situation seems grim – they are married or living together but they are poor – but they have each other. So – he tells his lady to cheer up because each of them is still the person with whom the other fell in love, he a “daydream believer” or idealist and she “a homecoming queen,” or his ideal of a beautiful and perfect lady.

    The second verse starts with a dose of hard reality – he is not really the “white knight on a steed” that she thought him, but rather he is “funky” – the original lyric changed by the Monkees to “happy,” which makes no sense. He is funky – weird, off-beat, and strange. But because they love each other, they have a good time, even without money – “how much baby do we really need?” – presumably not much, because they have each other, an idealist and his perfect lady.

    The Monkee changes to the original lyric make it a bit harder to understand, but the essential meaning of love surviving even a harsh reality is still there.

    [Say, that was a terrific analysis, JK. While you didn't spell this out, based on your scenario, the singer would be speaking to "sleepy" Jean because it's early, he's up for work and she's still in bed. Nice work. -- DA]