Hey, hey, they’re (still) the Monkees

This article appeared as printed below in the Austin American-Statesman on Saturday, July 27, 2013. I’ll be posting periodic newspaper and magazine articles of mine on this blog once the first-publication-rights embargo period is past.


Micky Dolenz reflects on fiction versus reality in advance of Wednesday’s Long Center concert with bandmates Nesmith and Tork


In their time, they were phenomenally successful — in 1967, they sold more records than the Beatles and Rolling Stones combined — and also were dismissed equally resoundingly by most critics and tastemakers over the age of 16. The Monkees were never a cult band who labored in obscurity — they just played one on TV — but nevertheless, they’re still kind of underappreciated. As Mike Nesmith, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork undertake a five-week-long “Midsummer’s Night with the Monkees” tour — Wednesday’s stop at the Long Center hits about the midpoint — it’s a fine time to consider the enduring appeal of this custom-engineered group. It’s been 45 years since the show was canceled, but still they come again, rapturously welcomed by a loyal multigenerational fan base as if the Summer of Love never ended.

“To me, it’s like the revival of a show,” says the ever-congenial Micky Dolenz, the self-described “wacky drummer” character — offstage, the guitar is his instrument of choice — over the phone from his L.A. home. “I’ve done a lot of musical theater over the last 20 years. I did Broadway a couple of times. I just got back last year doing ‘Hairspray’ in London, ‘Aida,’ the Elton John-Tim Rice musical, ‘Grease.’ When we get back together, it’s like the revival of ‘Cats’ or ‘Oklahoma’ with the original cast. … If there’s three of us we figure it’s the Monkees, and it happens.”

The elephant in the room is that only three Monkees are indeed left after the sudden death of Davy Jones, one of the signature teen idols of the ’60s, of a heart attack in February 2012. “Yeah, of course, he’s sorely missed,” Dolenz says. “But it’s also turned into, as it would, a very different kind of show than it was with David, and that helps because that keeps it kind of different and fresh.”

Having the long-absent Mike Nesmith returning to the Monkee fold after Jones’s death certainly does that. “Mike, you know, just was never interested,” says Dolenz. “He had other things on his plate; he was running a big company for many years. My sense of it (is) he just didn’t want to perform, and the fact is, he didn’t. Right after the Monkees he had the First National Band for a brief period, and then that was it. We always invited him to every reunion, and a couple of times he showed up. Before David passed we were already talking about going out again, extending (a previous) tour, and Mike was being approached to do that.” After Jones’s death, he adds, “We got together and started discussing doing a memorial concert for David. And Mike said, ‘That’s great, let’s do it.’ And that got some traction and turned into kind of a memorial tour even though we didn’t call it that. And Mike had a great time, we all had a great time, and here we go again.”

Yes, the Monkees started out in the mid-’60s as a fictional band put together for a TV show as a way to capitalize on Beatlemania, with an American twist. And, yes, although the four assembled actor/musicians always sang on their records, other hired hands played the instruments and wrote the songs. But after the first two albums the frontmen, led by Nesmith, got fed up with the charade, demanding more creative independence. The band pulled up the curtain on their own machinery, played their own instruments on record and on tour, and wrote at least some of their numbers (in 1996, for the band’s 30th anniversary, the four made a point of writing and producing all the songs and playing all the instruments on what remains their last studio album, “Justus”).

“I’ve often said the Monkees actually going out and touring and playing is the equivalent of Leonard Nimoy really becoming a Vulcan,” Dolenz says. “So that is somewhat unique. Mike Nesmith always said it’s a bit like Pinocchio really becoming a little boy.

“It’s magical. It really was magical.”

Comparing them to their ostensible role models the Beatles will always leave the Monkees at the very short end of the stick. But if you ignore all that Prefab Four, zero-authenticity stuff (unfair, in any case), you can start to appreciate the Monkees for what they were — a fake rock band, at least at the start, but an endearing one, with a bunch of songs that have stood the test of time and a far better musical legacy than those left by other small-screen entertainments like the Partridge Family and Brady Bunch (thanks in no small part to songwriters like Boyce and Hart, Carole King, Neil Diamond and Harry Nilsson).

“The closest thing that’s come along, I think, with that sort of paradigm is ‘Glee,’ a show about an imaginary glee club,” Dolenz says. “But they can all sing and act and dance. If the truth be known, the Monkees was like musical theater on television, like a Marx Brothers movie. In fact, it was John Lennon that first made that comparison. They were like little half-hour Marx Brothers musical movies, comedy and singing and dancing and some little adventure and some shtick.”

The making of the show remains rather a blur in Dolenz’s memory: a typical schedule involved filming two episodes per week — three days per episode — heading into the studio in the evenings to record up to three vocals a night, rehearsing on the weekends, then starting over again on Monday morning. “I don’t remember a lot of specifics, frankly, about it,” he says. “People ask me what was my favorite episode, and it was like, it’s all the same episode! It was 52 (episodes); that’s a 26-hour movie.”

Despite fans’ continuing efforts to support a Monkees entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Dolenz doesn’t give it much thought. “I’ve never cared about getting into any Hall of anything. I mean, we’ve had a lot of great, wonderful rewards, won a couple of Emmys. But no, I don’t chase that stuff. I’m very flattered that the fans sign petitions, and there was a big article in Time magazine online about it.”

It also doesn’t bother Dolenz that he may not have gotten his due as a singer of pop hits. “It’s probably because I’ve done so many other things and been richly rewarded,” he says. “I have had so many great reviews and so much interest and kudos from my work in musical theater — proper musical-theater singing — that it far outweighs any sort of frustration I might have had. But also, those are really early pop songs. They were very light pop, didn’t take a whole lot of singing. The Monkees was a garage band, basically.”

It wouldn’t be a Monkees show without multimedia, and Dolenz promises lots of visual interest beyond the guys on stage; supremely appropriate since Mike Nesmith, with his longtime interest in video, was a key figure in the birth of MTV, which in turn led to a huge Monkees revival when the station rebroadcast the TV show in 1986. “We always had media in our shows,” he says. “We were, to my knowledge, the first band to go on the road, in ’67, with a full-blown movie screen, projecting bits of the show and our interviews and all that stuff. … And we’ve done that ever since, whenever it was possible — but now with video and with all the archival material that pops up, this is really some of the finest stuff.”

In the end, what does the TV show mean to him? “The Monkees was a television show about a group that wanted to be the Beatles. We had a poster of the Beatles on our set, we’d throw darts at it. And that’s one of the reasons I think it was so successful — because it spoke to all those kids around the country and the world who were in their living rooms and in their basements and garages playing, wanting to be the Beatles. It was always a struggle for success. That was the heart of the show. Always trying to get a gig, trying to get a record contract, trying to do a battle of the bands — but on the television show the Monkees were never successful.”

Dolenz is on to something: Unlike most other music stars of the era, the Monkees seemed approachable. “I put it down to the original show, but also the music,” he says. “It’s not uncommon at all to have three generations (attending) the shows. It’s of course the original fans, and then a huge resurgence of the fans in ’86, and now because of the Internet and Antenna TV and all that, very often it’ll be the grandmother, the mother and the daughter. I feel absolutely blessed to have been a part of that.”

Manufactured band? Check. Forty-five years since the TV show left the air? Check. Revival, even, of a hit musical? Perhaps. On the other hand, when these three aging dudes hit the stage, the audience will likely know they’re seeing something that’s as real as it gets. And if the trio is no longer anyone’s idea of the young generation, they likely still have something to say, even if that something is only “Hey, what’s your problem? You should learn to appreciate the Monkees.”

Sidebar: Micky Dolenz’s Austin roots

The Monkees’ three Texas stops — Wednesday at the Long Center, Thursday in Houston and Friday in Grand Prairie — likely hold a special resonance for two of the three band members. Longtime fans know that Mike Nesmith is a bona fide Texan, born in Houston and raised in Dallas, but they may not know that Micky Dolenz’s mother, the late actress Janelle Johnson Dolenz, was born and raised in South Austin’s Travis Heights neighborhood and studied drama at the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas.

“I remember every Thanksgiving we had to watch the Aggies and the Longhorns,” says Dolenz. “I love Austin, it’s beautiful. Been there many times, loved it.” His mom, he added, “used to tell me about how she would go out to that swimming hole, what’s it called?”

Uh, Barton Springs? “Yeah! But when she went out there was a dirt road, and the kids would just go out there and swim and make out. It was totally off the beaten path. Of course, now it’s developed into quite a local hot spot, right?”

Academic records from UT show that Janelle Dolenz, then known as Ja Nelle Johnson, lived at 1003 Milam Place, just south of Riverside Drive and west of Interstate 35; the 1940 U.S. census also shows her at that address with her mother, grandmother and younger brother Jack. Johnson was valedictorian of her high school class at St. Mary’s Academy, a Catholic girls’ school near the present Saint Mary Cathedral (although when enrolling at UT she listed her religion as Baptist). Johnson was only 16 when she started college in the fall of 1940 and appears to have left at 18, after finishing her sophomore year in the spring of 1942. She married fellow actor George Dolenz the following year.

Before leaving Austin, Johnson performed on her own local radio show, “Janelle Sings,” an impressive accomplishment for a teenager. “She also sang with some big bands in the area, if I’m not mistaken,” Dolenz says. “And then she headed west with her mom and her brother, packed up an old Ford coupe and came out to Hollywood to be a star, and so did my dad.”

Although Janelle Dolenz appeared in a few plays and a couple of minor films, she largely gave up performing to raise her family. She died on Dec. 2, 1995, her 72nd birthday.

— Wes Eichenwald

The Monkees in October 1966. Clockwise, from top left, are Peter Tork, Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones and Mike Nesmith. Jones died of a heart attack in 2012; the three remaining members are on tour.

The Monkees in October 1966. Clockwise, from top left, are Peter Tork, Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones and Mike Nesmith. Jones died of a heart attack in 2012; the three remaining members are on tour.

The Monkees summer tour included a Boston show. Mike Nesmith skipped many of the previous Monkees reunions but is back on stage with Dolenz and Tork.

The Monkees summer tour included a Boston show. Mike Nesmith skipped many of the previous Monkees reunions but is back on stage with Dolenz and Tork.

Mike Nesmith today, back on tour with the guys.

Mike Nesmith today, back on tour with the guys.


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