BY MARK GUARINO | THE CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
The spoils of 1960s pop culture included two television seasons, several studio albums, and numerous classic songs by the Monkees, the television band that was assembled to resemble musical mannequins but evolved into an unbeatable hit machine that endures to this day.
Unlike many of their peers, the appeal of the Monkees never faded or was cordoned to the oldies circuit. While the comedy of the television show remains fresh and irreverent, the band’s musical output features some of the best work by master songwriters Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Neil Diamond, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, and the Monkees themselves, among others. The comic personalities, vocal strength, and musicianship of the band itself provided the star power.
Reunion tours were inevitable, including this current one featuring surviving members Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, and Peter Tork, which stops at the Star Plaza Theatre Saturday. [Davy Jones died in February 2012.]
Dolenz, 69, portrayed the goofball drummer of the group, but in reality, he was a former child star who emerged much later as a musical theater actor. Monkees trivia time: The first stage Dolenz played was the Pheasant Run Theater in St. Charles in 1970. He’ll star in “Comedy is Hard,” a new play by Simpsons writer Mike Reiss at the Ivorytown Playhouse in Centerbrook, Conn. this fall.
We recently talked via phone. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.
This is presumably a final Monkees reunion tour following many taking place over the years. Is it difficult to get back into the mold of a personality you first played nearly 50 years ago?
I’m only speaking for myself, but when I go back to do a Monkees show, I put my mindset into those days a little bit. Because what I’m doing is recreating that character. The Monkees was a television show about this crazy group living in this beach house — sort of like “Glee” is a show about a glee club but they can actually all sing and perform. And so I say I’m going to play Micky the Monkee. Like when I do musical theater, I go back and visit that character. You may not get that from Peter [Tork] or Mike [Nesmith], but that’s always been the way I looked at it: I’m recreating the role I developed in 1966 along with the writers and producers who were involved. For me, it’s like going back and doing a revival of one of the musicals I’ve been in.
So how did you shape that character?
It was a fairly organic process. They obviously did not just want to hire actors. It wasn’t like, “this is the role and he’s like this and he acts this way.” I think they had in their minds types. In real life we were four very distinct personalities and they wanted that. In television and film, you want to have that distinction … They were looking for that guy who just jumped off the screen at them. And to say how much of it was me — I don’t know if I can quantify it. They developed that character of the wacky drummer. They gave me the funny voice. I don’t do funny voices all the time and I don’t run backward at a high rate of speed. But it was partly my personality.
Which Monkees song has the most meaning for you now?
A bunch of them. Now when we do [the Davy Jones signature tune] “Daydream Believer,” of course, that definitely resonates. We recently did all the songs from [the 1968 cult classic film] “Head.” Some of the greatest music is in that movie. I love singing those songs. The Carole King tunes are just phenomenal. They were a little more mature. By that time, we were in our mid-twenties and the early Monkees stuff was, of course, about singing to 12-year-olds. And the sentiments of those songs were very young. We started to get a bit older and were getting married and had children of our own. So our sensibilities were changing.
“Head” was a commercial flop at the time, but time validated its place as innovative — and also incredibly entertaining.
I would agree. I always liked the film. I never understood it all myself (laughs). It was one of the few films of that time that managed to capture the sensibility of that zeitgeist. There were a lot of films made around that time that were corny. You’d see bunch of hippies driving around in a VW bus with flowers on it and people throwing the peace sign and saying, “whoa, man, far out man,” which became a stereotype of the hippie sixties flower child. But it wasn’t really like that on the streets. Those were older producers, writers, and directors making those assumptions, and creating those stereotypes. And I thought that “Head” was a good example, one of the best examples, of something that was still about that time, but didn’t have that same kind of sixties, hippies kind of thing.
There was a lot of overt commentary in “Head” about the absurdity of war mongering and group thought — Was that in the original blueprint?
When the producer approached us, we all weren’t sure what it was going to be about. We knew we didn’t want to do a 90-minute episode of the Monkees. In retrospect, that would been much more successful, but we wouldn’t have made that wonderful iconic movie “Head!” They introduced us to this guy, a movie actor named Jack Nicolson, and we were told, “this is the guy who is going to write this movie.” We all fell in love with him immediately. We decided we weren’t going to make a 90-minute movie; we were going to stretch our wings a little bit. Jack spent months listening to us. He and [director-producer-writer] Bob Rafelson and [producer] Bert Schneider and Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, they took money from the Monkees experience and made “Easy Rider.” They were the young bucks in town bucking the studio system. That’s a little what “Head” is about. If there is a theme, it’s about deconstruction — deconstruction of the Monkees certainly, but deconstruction of the Hollywood studio system. In one scene, the Calvary scene, Teri Garr and Mike [Nesmith] and I sit around looking bored while the Indians are attacking. And finally, they shoot fake arrows into my body armor. I go “oh Bob, I’ve had it,” and I break off the arrows and say, “I’m outta here,” and I walk through the backdrop — And deconstruct, destroy that imagery. That, I think, is what the theme of the movie was about: that deconstruction of the Monkees, but also the deconstruction of the Hollywood system. And they did it. They singlehandedly created the independent film industry.
But “Head” had to be the guinea pig in a way.
At the time the fans couldn’t even get in. It was R-rated. It was such a departure from a typical Monkees episode. So I think it was just the shock factor. It is easy to take it apart now, decades later, but no one had any idea it would be successful. It had some interesting reviews from the intelligentsia, from the art critics. But all the fans and the general public just had no clear idea what was going on. It was that perfect example of something ahead of its time.
On his radio show, Bob Dylan introduced “Last Train to Clarksville” — the debut single from the Monkees in 1966 — by saying this: “I’ve always believed that the first rule of being subversive is not to let anybody know you’re being subversive.” Did you know the song was subversive at the time when you sang it?
I know what it was about. It’s an anti-war song. It was about as extreme as we could get. Because NBC and RCA Victor did not want the Monkees perceived as anti-American or anti-war. we were not allowed to talk about anything like that. If somebody asked us, “what do you think about the war,” we were supposed to make a joke about it. They did not want controversy. But I knew what [the song] was about. [Co-songwriter] Tommy Boyce played it for us. He grew up not far from Clarksville [Tenn.] army base. It was anti-war very subtly of course. I would not say it was subversive. But it certainly had the sentiment.
What appeals to you as a singer? You recently released a new album, “Remember,” where you revisit classic songs from throughout your life.
I like songs that take some singing. I pride myself in trying to take care of my voice. I trained when I started to do musical theater. I like songs, not just to sing, but those that actually take some effort, whether in the vocal range or lyrics. Frankly I don’t listen to a lot of pop music — very, very little. When I’m at home hanging out, I tend to listen to Sinatra. Maybe that’s because of those great songwriters. I don’t record new material. Those songs [on “Remember”] are all covers but reimagined in very different ways than the originals. They are songs exclusive to me, my career, my life. Each song has a story. Like the title song, “Remember,” by Harry Nilsson. I was there when he wrote it, literally, in his house. “Johnny B. Goode” was my audition for the Monkees. “Good Morning Good Morning” by the Beatles — I was at the session with the Beatles when they recorded tracks for that.
Much was made of the competition between the Monkees and the Beatles, so how did you get along when you met them?
The Monkees was originally not a band; the Monkees was a television show about a band. That was a subtle, but important distinction. The Beatles got that. John Lennon said, “I like the Monkees because I like the Marx Brothers.” He was absolutely right. The Monkees was much more about the Marx Brothers than the Beatles. On the television show, we were a struggling band that wanted to be the Beatles. Like all kinds of bands around the world. But on the television show, we were never successful. And the comedy was not topical, so it didn’t age.
For a brief time, you achieved Beatles-level fame. Which ended up changing that band. But what did it do to you?
By that time, I had been in the business for ten years. I had a TV series when I was a kid called “Circus Boy” and it was very successful and there were fan clubs and parades and people yelling at me and following me around. I had already had a taste of that, so I think it did help prepare me for what happened in the Monkees, which was of much greater magnitude. But nevertheless, I had experienced that to some degree. I approached my role in the show as a character because that was the way I was trained. I was playing the part of Micky the wacky drummer. Over time, there was the line of distinction between reality and fantasy and it got pretty thin.
It’s interesting because you say the Monkees was not a real band at the beginning yet we are living in a time where Disney actors get music careers but don’t really need to know how to sing.
It’s true. But in those days, the cream rose to the top. Because there was only one chart and there were the major record companies, so the good stuff tended to get heard because there wasn’t that demand for that much material. So the crème de le crème tended to get on television and best records tended to rise to the top. You add that all up I think that’s one reason the stuff from that era remains valid to this day.
How are you preparing for this current tour?
We’re always rehearsing. I want to say there’s a difference between rehearing and practicing. I know “Clarksville” pretty good now, so I don’t have to rehearse it to remember it, but I do practice my voice, my guitar parts. I try to keep fit and stretch before the show. “Clarksville” is “Clarksville,” but they want to hear it the way it was originally recorded, which is what we try to do. We want to play it, but really well. So it’s more about practice now than rehearsal. You can call it rehearsal, but it’s essentially practicing your parts so they’re flawless.
How is your relationship with Mike Nesmith; he’s avoided most reunions yet he’s all over this one, plus is also touring solo.
I’ve always had a great relationship with Mike. When I was living in England, I produced and directed a segment for his TV show. Mike didn’t tour with anybody even himself. It’s not like he had another band. Post-Monkees he had the First National Band but shortly after he went into production and distribution. He didn’t play or sing for years. He was always welcome to come back and join the band. And he did a couple of times.
Will you and your fellow Monkees record any new material coming up?
We’ve talked about it. There are no definite plans. But we have talked about it. I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens, but there are no plans right now.