Category Archives: 1960s pop music

Brian Wilson, in the present tense

You’re probably familiar with that annoying cliché job interview question where an unimaginative examiner asks you, “Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a difficult situation.” Speaking of interview questions, I was well aware that although Brian Wilson has a most impressive body of work behind him as a composer and arranger, answering such questions from journalists isn’t exactly his strong suit; in fact, he’s notorious for terse, sparsely worded responses and an air of disconnectedness when apart from a piano (I trust I don’t have to give a medical summary and capsule history of his many struggles throughout his life). Dealing with a fair way to treat this interview subject would be a good final-exam question in my line of work, but I did my best. I also knew that I’d want to interview another band member to get his perspective on Wilson, suspecting that he’d be able to explain the pop-music legend far better than the man himself. As for the result, you, as always, can be the judge. As originally published in the Austin American-Statesman on June 17, 2015.

Brian Wilson, in the present tense

As he turns 73, the former Beach Boy is still writing and performing, but is he being overshadowed by his own story?

Summer has come around again; so, for another season, has Brian Wilson. The legendary pop composer has long outlived his two younger brothers and fellow Beach Boys — Carl by 17 years, Dennis by more than 30. He’s survived the splintering of his old band, now led by his cousin/ex-collaborator/frenemy Mike Love; save for a well-received 50th anniversary reunion tour in 2012, the group’s endless summer has seen more endless bickering and lawsuits than harmony among the players. Last but certainly not least, Wilson has survived decades of crises due to mental illness, as documented in innumerable newspaper and magazine accounts and, compellingly, in the current biopic “Love & Mercy,” starring Paul Dano and John Cusack as his 1960s and ’80s selves.

What, then, should one make of the actual Brian Wilson in 2015? Seemingly against all odds, Wilson not only abides but appears to be thriving. Unlike most of us, the aging icon’s inner child gets to come out nearly constantly, on film, on record and in real life. Those close to him — family, friends, fellow musicians — have long learned to make allowances. Diagnosed with bipolar schizoaffective disorder, he’s endured auditory hallucinations since the ’60s yet now functions well enough in the place he feels most comfortable — the recording studio — and even in a place that long terrified him — the stage. On Tuesday, three days after his 73rd birthday, he’ll be with his band at Bass Concert Hall, not only basking in the “Love & Mercy” attention but touring behind a new album, “No Pier Pressure.” It’s Wilson’s 11th solo record, but rest assured: plenty of the set list consists of the songs fans expect to hear. Wilson is still crafting minisymphonies. They may not all be great art, but the common thread is a longing for a perfect love and a perfect world that never really existed. You listen to get your recommended dose of nostalgic, wistful optimism in spite of everything. And, of course, those harmonies.

“Love & Mercy,” though filled with compassion for Wilson’s troubles, inevitably rehashes them for the old fan and newbie alike: the breakdowns, the drugs, the years in bed, the years under the thumb of quack therapist Eugene Landy. To its credit, it delves deeply into the reason we’re interested in this story in the first place: Wilson’s singular talents as a composer, producer and arranger. The film lingers on the nuts and bolts of the recording process as young Brian directs the Wrecking Crew, a group of seasoned session musicians, in the forging of the Beach Boys’ influential ’60s masterpiece, “Pet Sounds.” From that time, in every possible way, Brian Wilson’s head would be a long way from surfin’ safaris and hamburger stands.

Has any pop or rock musician been as well known for mental struggles as Brian Wilson? (Kurt Cobain may come in at a distant second, with apologies to local candidates Roky Erickson and Daniel Johnston.) Admit it: The difference between the ethereal harmony Wilson pursues in his songs and the well-known discord and tumult in his personal life is captivating stuff. The story of the tortured artist who spends his life creating lasting works of great beauty but suffers greatly for it may have become a cliché, but sometimes it happens.

Most artists, when interviewed, are happy, or at least willing, to talk about themselves and their work; not this guy. For years, one reporter after another assigned to interview Wilson has suffered through awkward silences and minimalist responses. That’s much my experience too. Spending 10 minutes with Wilson on the phone recently, as he zooms down the road fresh from an outdoor daytime concert in Philadelphia to the next venue in north Jersey, he comes off as largely detached; not hostile, just not completely present. After a few minutes of this, the last thing you want to do is keep barking questions into his one good ear. You just want to leave him alone.

Q: “No Pier Pressure” is your 11th solo album, quite an accomplishment for any musician, never mind all your work with the Beach Boys. In your mind, have you finally put the Beach Boys behind you?

A: Yeah, because the Beach Boys wanted to go on tour, y’know, without me, but I’m going to go on tour in June.

Q: When you look back on your life, what were the times that you were happiest?

A: When I was in the studio with the Beach Boys.

The oft-told tale of Wilson’s personal travails, often framed within a California-dream-vs.-dark-reality context, has often overshadowed the actual music he was making, even when that music was by and large extraordinary, like the refabricated “Smile,” abandoned in 1967, then completed and triumphantly taken on the road in 2004. One shouldn’t have to pretend that “No Pier Pressure” ranks with “Pet Sounds” or “Smile” — it has its moments, but also too much sugary adult contemporary schmaltz and a few too many guest artists — but then, one doesn’t listen to Brian Wilson for edginess and acerbic putdowns. When asked what he wanted to express with the new album, he responds, “Mellowness and happiness.”

“Love & Mercy” was made with the cooperation of Wilson and his wife, Melinda, and Wilson calls the movie “very factual and very well-portrayed.” Asked if it bothers him to have his personal life and past troubles so publicly out there and whether it frustrates him when people focus on that rather than his music, he answers, “It does not bother me, because that movie spoke for itself. That movie is a good movie.”

Paul Von Mertens, Wilson’s longtime musical director on tour, does confess some frustration, though. “For me,” he says, “the real story is who he is as a person and as a musician, and the (focus on the) somewhat lurid history really has very little to do with the music and also with Brian’s own heart and soul. He’s a gentle spirit; he had some real painful times in his life, and it would be nice if he could just live in the present and make music and enjoy doing it, because that’s who I know him to be: a guy who’s really gentle, incapable of being mean or sarcastic. That’s the guy that I know and that I love. The other stuff, that’s old news to me.”

Von Mertens (who also plays with Poi Dog Pondering) says the friction reported in the press when the 50th reunion tour ended was misinterpreted. “The tour was always intended to be a finite thing. From the beginning, they said, ‘OK, we’re going to do 50 shows, and that’s it.’ They ended up extending it and doing 75 shows, so everybody went beyond their original commitment because it was going really well and everybody was having a good time. But the agreement was always that everybody would go back to doing what they were doing.”

Von Mertens says the Wilson and Love camps got along reasonably well in 2012. “It was like being at a Thanksgiving dinner with a slightly dysfunctional family every day for six months,” he says. “For some reason, people are fascinated by discord. Mike was kind and gracious to Brian, and I must say, some of the shows were epic, like the most stunning experiences I’ve had on stage. There’s an inherent friction in the Beach Boys’ music that makes it interesting, and this is just my point of view, but Mike is ‘Fun, Fun, Fun’ and Brian is ‘In My Room.’ And you can’t separate the two. And the tension that’s built into that was part of the chemistry that has always made the band interesting, and it sparked a lot of vitality for the music.”

Even in our brief phone chat, Wilson struck me as someone who lives very much in the present; Von Mertens, who has worked with him for around 17 years, confirms the man doesn’t like to dwell on the past. “Absolutely. Or the future. It’s what’s happening now — what time do we eat, when is sound check, what time’s the show, when are we going back to the hotel — that is what’s usually on his mind.”

That’s been the case, Von Mertens adds, ever since he’s known Wilson. “Always, yeah. Not a whole lot of examination of the past and motivations and personalities and conflict. It’s just not something that he talks about. At all. Ever. It’s really, like, what’s happening right now. ‘How do you feel? How’s your wife? How’s your kids?’ Those are the kinds of things that he asks me. ‘What kind of music are you working on? Don’t waste your time learning to type, you should be working on music!’ I mean, that’s who Brian is to me.”

Who is the real Brian Wilson? And should it matter to anyone except the man himself, and those close to him? In the end, it might be reasonable to conclude that this survivor, as he ushers in yet another summer filled with his ethereal, eternal harmonies, has already given us more than enough of himself.

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Here’s a link to my concert review, to which I took my 10-year-old son; it was his first “adult” concert. Coincidentally, my first “adult” concert was a Beach Boys show at Boston Garden, which I attended soon after arriving at college at age 17. There’s the circle game for you.

Well, how DO you know?

Every once in a while I like to touch base with the ’80s-era Boston rock scene, which generally means playing a few tracks on my iPod, popping in a CD or playing a few videos on YouTube. (My accompanying memories load automatically.) Lately I’ve been driving around to the Lyres. I’m not going to go off on a big rock-historian jag here, but for the uninitiated, they were and for all I know, still are known as “the kings of the Boston garage-rock scene” which sparked the daydreams and shaped the nights of a sizable cohort of fevered strivers and party hounds beginning more than three decades ago. I’ve written previously in this blog about the Boston scene, so I won’t repeat myself here; I’ll just talk about the Lyres a bit and call it a day, since it’s only Tuesday night and both of us (I’ll just assume) have other things to attend to.

I’ve long considered “How Do You Know,” which the Lyres first recorded in 1979, the unofficial regional anthem of the old Boston rock scene. (Here’s a link to the reverb-happy recorded version, which, despite the statement of the YouTube video-posting guy that it’s the original single, at least one commenter pegs as the album version from 1986’s Lyres Lyres.)

For all the pessimism, grit and hard times experienced in life and expressed in song — Boston was a hard town in a lot of ways — hope had a funny way of springing eternal on the streets and in the clubs. This could be the year for the Sox, for our love, for our band. This could be the year it all pays off.

Thus, head Lyre Jeff “Monoman” Conolly sings, as much as I can understand him, of doing various things in Boston “for 14 years” — living, drinking, being stuck in the same room, dreaming of making it big, being dug by the girls — and still not giving up, because, after all, how do you know? (One of the great lost opportunities for an ’80s video was a duet between Monoman and James Brown, with subtitles for both, of course. Crossover appeal!) In the end, he decides to stick it out for yet another year, because, well, you know.

Conolly apparently got his nickname because of his major obsession with collecting recordings in mono sound, but it’s just as appropriate to ascribe it to his monomaniacal vision of garage-rock purity. In the live video, the unrelenting, all-conquering organ echoes that vision to a  T — just check out Conolly’s almost disturbingly determined delivery of the anthem above, opening a live concert at New York’s Coney Island High back in 1998. I never got to know Monoman personally, which is probably just as well; for a considerably more one-on-one view of the guy, I’d refer you to this blog post by my friend Julie.

Me, I remember, years ago, the Lyres coming back to the Rat after a long hiatus in California, and opening with, what else, “How Do You Know.” It had the desired effect on everyone in that dark, dank room, the HQ of the Boston underground.

You never know.

This could be the year.

Burt Bacharach is Still Pretty Damn Cool

Burt_B_conductingBurt_Bacharach_2014

The following post is a revised and substantially expanded version of an article that appeared in the Austin American-Statesman/austin360.com on Nov. 21, 2014.

Inevitable preface: I don’t usually do these kinds of jazz improvisations on a journalism theme, so to speak, but  this particular subject seemed to demand a longer treatment, even if only for a blog post.

It’s a sad commentary on recent times that I’ve been thinking lately about whether I need to justify writing so much about such “trivial” things as art and music; I read the news like everyone else and am as disheartened as so many others that things lately seem to be sliding from bad to worse. Of course, if you pay attention that’s the way things always seem, but especially lately, and it’s hard to fight battles against such an overwhelming amount of stupidity, venality, selfishness and shortsightedness that you see demonstrated by people everywhere. (Not from everyone, of course, but it seems to be increasing steadily every year along with the population.)

When faced with the horrible things one watches and reads about every day — some of them very real, some of them phantoms ginned up by the less reliable elements of antisocial media — you might well ask yourself, what good does music and art do? For many, it’s just a detail, something in the background. For others, including me, it’s such a key element of life that doing without it seems unthinkable, whether you’re fortunate enough to create it or just enjoy consuming it, losing yourself in it. Music, literature and other art forms are the way we explain life to ourselves, come for lessons, come to feel, even so briefly, that we’re not alone in this mystery. And so, I don’t apologize for what I do — I greatly value these conversations, which in the best of worlds, run both ways, and I couldn’t imagine not wanting to contribute.

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Some years — OK, decades — ago, when I was in high school on Long Island, the school administrators called an assembly to listen to a songwriter give a speech about his work.

The songwriter was a nondescript-looking middle-aged man named Hal David, who lived in Roslyn, a few towns over in Nassau County. David was a lyricist who had written the words to scads of hit songs composed by Burt Bacharach.

I listened raptly to Hal David’s tales of how he wrote “Alfie” and other songs. I don’t remember a lot of details, but he was amusing in a plainspoken, low-key way, and in the end he received a standing ovation from me and my fellow students.

A couple of years ago, when I mentioned this assembly to the classmates I’m still in touch with on Facebook, nobody else remembered the day we sat and listened to Hal David. But I know it happened, and when, many years later — after, in fact, Hal David had died — I got the chance to speak with the other half of the songwriting team, I told him how much of a pleasure it was for me to get the chance to do so. And it was.

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Take a day trip out to the LBJ Ranch in Johnson City, Texas – properly, the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park – and get on the tour bus. Towards the end of the tour, guides will play a recording of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” written in 1969 for the movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and a number-one hit for singer B.J. Thomas, and inform you that it was Johnson’s favorite song.

When I tell him this, the song’s composer, Burt Bacharach, says, “Oh, that’s great. I’d never heard that. That always is terrific when you hear something like that. Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, he was a good president, he really was. He got things done.”
Bacharach, who stops by the Long Center Sunday night with his seven-piece band and a trio of singers, has gotten a few things done himself. “Raindrops” was just one of a remarkable run of songs – “Walk On By,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Trains and Boats and Planes,” and on and on – composed in the ′60s by Bacharach and his lyricist, the late Hal David, and sung mainly by Dionne Warwick, a vocalist born to handle the duo’s unusual use of syncopation and time signatures.

The result was music two or three degrees of sophistication beyond nearly anything else on commercial radio at the time.

Bacharach hasn’t played Austin since an October 2006 visit to the Paramount (“I remember the bats,” he says), so make no mistake: an opportunity to see the master playing his immodest amount of hits in person with 2015 knocking at the door is a special event, indeed.

Over the phone from his home in LA, the composer charms you with his earnest, deliberate manner, old-school courtesy and unpretentiousness (don’t call him Mr. Bacharach; “It’s Burt,” he insists). Listening to him talk about Hal, Dionne, and Jerry Orbach, you sometimes feel transported into an article in Esquire magazine from 1966, and involuntarily adjust an imaginary tuxedo.

He’s also the busiest 86-year-old you’ll ever encounter, and probably has more plans for the coming year than you do. If his voice is raspier than it used to be and his step maybe — maybe — a bit slower, his mind remains sharp and he doesn’t live in the past. Last January, for example, he wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal urging revisions of the antiquated regulations allowing online streaming services like Pandora and Spotify to get away with paying next to nothing in royalties to performers and songwriters, even for songs getting plays in the tens of millions. “Nobody’s thinking of how people get paid,” he says. “There’s so much free music to be had.”

When I ask, “Do you think there’s still a place for sophisticated, literate songs in today’s pop music landscape?” Bacharach laughs heartily and says, “Nope! Well, do you?

“I think there is a place, I think the songs just don’t get heard,” he clarifies. “Radio has kind of just corrupted that whole possibility, because the playlist is so short. Sting’s new musical (“The Last Ship”) is rich with music, it’s beautiful; now, will it be heard on radio? NPR, maybe. I don’t know.”

In the ′60s Bacharach seemed to bestride the world, a dashing international playboy of a songwriter. But he was also something of a late bloomer. He began his career as a pianist for various singers, notably Marlene Dietrich (for whom he also arranged and conducted), didn’t have his first hit record until he was 29 and didn’t really hit his stride until well into his 30s.

Compared with most of the other songwriting teams clustered around New York’s Brill Building, Bacharach and David, who was seven years his senior, were the adults in the room by both age and musical preference. The simple chords of early rock ′n’ roll didn’t impress Bacharach, who had cut his teeth on the bebop jazz of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and modern classical works by Ravel, Stravinsky and others; he was also influenced by Brazilian music from the likes of Ivan Lins and Milton Nascimento.

(Snippet of interview follows)

Me: Does working with different lyricists or singers affect how you compose a song?

Bacharach: Yeah, absolutely.

Do you hear them in your head performing the work first, or…?

Yeah. We started with Dionne with “Don’t Make Me Over,” and the more I saw that she could do, the more the possibilities became musically, and I guess for Hal lyrically too, because we could stretch – all you have to do, Wes, is look at a song and say, like “Promises, Promises,” in the Broadway show it was very intense and very trying for the singer; the singer had many words and many notes. Jerry Orbach used to say, “God, why’d you have to make it so tough?” Well, I made it so tough because it has to work (out) the anger – “Promises, promises, I’m all through with promises now,” y’know, and showing him pissed off and showing him able to actually go and free himself…I have no regrets that I made it (with) that many notes and that many words. You listen to Dionne’s record, it’s so fluid and fluent, she floats through it. Effortless.

It’s like, “Syncopation? No problem.”

Yeah, and effortless. You know, in one breath, taken this way, that way, no labor, no stress doing it.

That – is the syncopation, the rush of words, the taking people in unexpected places melodically…

In principle.

That’s something that comes naturally to you –

Exactly.

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He was a perfectionist in the studio but tripped up away from it, with an often messy private life marred by bad decisions — if you’re interested in more background on both, including his four marriages and the tragic suicide of his daughter Nikki, read his candid-to-a-fault 2013 autobiography, Anyone Who Had a Heart. (I didn’t elect to talk to Bacharach about his private life. I’m more interested in his music.)

If Bacharach descended into schmaltz – if commercially successful schmaltz – in the ’80s, he became hipper than ever in the ′90s, working with Elvis Costello and seeing his songs covered by appreciative rockers like Chrissie Hynde, Oasis, Sheryl Crow and Ben Folds Five.

In recent years he’s been working on not one but two stage musicals with Costello, with whom he collaborated on the remarkable 1998 comeback CD “Painted From Memory.” Bacharach and Costello have long been noted as one of music’s odder couples, but there’s no denying the chemistry of their complementary sensibilities; aside from Hal David, has Bacharach ever had a more productive pairing with a writing partner?

One musical, currently on hold, is based on the “Austin Powers” movies (in which Bacharach appeared in cameos as a talisman of ’60s cool). What kind of tunes, one wonders, did they end up crafting for this. “Some are funny, but they’re not like run-of-the-mill songs,” he says. “Because I don’t write that way. But they’re good.”

The other work, based on “Painted From Memory,” is a creative alliance between Bacharach, Costello and Chuck Lorre, the TV writer and producer behind “Two and a Half Men” and “The Big Bang Theory” and a songwriter and musician himself. Bacharach calls it “a serious, dark drama musical.”

On top of this, he’ll soon be collaborating with a couple of country songwriters – Bacharach scholars might note here that his first hit, “The Story Of My Life,” reached number one on the country charts for Marty Robbins in 1957.

“Not that I know how to write a country song,” he notes. “I don’t know what a country song is, really. Right now the country market is so male-dominated, ‘I love my pickup truck and a bottle of beer.’ But good songs still have a chance there. I start the day after Thanksgiving with Tim Nichols, who’s coming out here, and he’s a very good country writer. We’ll see what we come up with. Harmonically, I don’t think guitar-wise. I’m more keyboard-oriented, and (don’t think in) simple, plain three-note chord songs or basic chords with no sevenths, no seconds or anything like that.”

Bacharach has always enjoyed performing live, which is why he still does it.

“When you are playing for people, it’s a great kind of a contact,” he says. “I don’t like it when the room is dark, ′cause you’re just playing in a sea of blackness — I like to see people, I like to see their reactions. If there’s a tear shed, I like to see that. If they’re moved, it makes it all worthwhile. If they’re touched, if they feel good, if you can make somebody feel good for a couple of minutes in their day, that’s a big reward.”

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At the Long Center that Sunday night, November 23, he walked out from the wings, casual but impeccable as usual in a blue blazer, neatly pressed dark jeans, and a tieless blue shirt, to tremendous applause from the mostly older crowd. Burt hadn’t only shown up, he was in command, a maestro seated center stage at his Steinway Grand, confident and in his element as he directed the players with quick, minimal arm movements, and relayed brief anecdotes about the songs throughout the concert. As noted, Bacharach is a raspy-voiced singer of limited range, but when he took on “The Look of Love” and “Alfie,” you held your breath as time stopped and just appreciated what he was giving us. Even his minimalist reading of “Wives and Lovers” – a pop song saddled with some of the most sexist lyrics of all time – was a revelation, more of a plea than an breezy anthem.

The seven-piece band — including, naturally, a flugelhorn player (“the sound of the ’60s,” as Mrs. Pogoer put it), Bacharach’s 21-year-old son Oliver on occasional piano, and a trio of three versatile singers, John Pagano, Donna Taylor and  Josie James — moved seamlessly from one hit to the next in a seemingly endless stream (see the set list below, which I scribbled down while I listened in a semi-trance).  I couldn’t find another review of the Austin show online, but for comparison, here’s a review of the show he did two days before in Kansas City and here’s a video of “I Say A Little Prayer” in concert in Ravello, Italy last summer that shows the same basic stage setup.

Call it easy-listening or elevator music if you like; to me, it was two solid hours of classy, superb pop, and it felt like coming home. Believe it or not, Bacharach, at 86, still seemed to be at the top of his game.

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Reasonably accurate set list at Burt Bacharach’s concert at the Long Center, Austin, Nov. 23, 2014 (includes medleys):

What The World Needs Now

Don’t Make Me Over

Walk On By

This Guy’s In Love With You

I Say a Little Prayer

Trains and Boats and Planes

Wishin’ and Hopin’

Always Something There to Remind Me

One Less Bell to Answer

I’ll Never Fall in Love Again

Only Love can Break a Heart

Do You Know the Way to San Jose

Anyone Who Had a Heart

God Give Me Strength

Waiting for Charlie to Come Home (Etta James, b-side of “Something’s Got a Hold on Me,” recorded 1962, lyrics by Bob Hilliard)

Love Theme from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”

My Little Red Book (“My only attempt at writing a rock ‘n’ roll song”)_

Windows of the World

Baby It’s You

Message to Michael

Make It Easy on Yourself

On My Own

Close To You

The Look of Love (sung by Burt)

Arthur’s Theme

What’s New Pussycat

The World Is A Circle

The April Fools

Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Wives and Lovers (sung by Burt, very minimalist, quiet version)

Alfie

A House is Not a Home

Encore:

Two new-ish songs whose titles I don’t know, but they were good (from Some Lovers, a 2011 musical Bacharach wrote with lyricist Steven Sater and the composer’s first musical since Promises, Promises)

Any Day Now

That’s What Friends Are For

Second Encore: Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head (audience singalong)

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.

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

BY WES EICHENWALD – SPECIAL TO THE AMERICAN-STATESMAN

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.

Be My Steady Summer Date: Searching for Vikki Tasso

Over the tinny speaker (here’s the YouTube link) comes the haunting refrain, like a song from the early Ramones catalog as performed by a grade C Lesley Gore wannabe, backup vocalists (unless she’s backing herself) and a barely competent band in the summer of 1963:

Be my steady summer date (yeah yeah)

Come on baby, don’t hesitate (yeah yeah)

I like you, and you like me;

Let’s try it, baby.

Ooh, yeah.

As long as I can remember, that unassuming 45 had always been in my parents’ record collection. I have no idea why; it was hardly their taste, and I don’t remember anyone else ever playing it besides me.  As for Vikki (a/ka Vicki) Tasso, I can find next to nothing about her online. She seems to have recorded only two 45s in 1962, “The Sound of the Hammer/Foolish Me” on Colpix, and “Dear Ricky/My Boy” on Jeffrey, after which she dropped off the face of the earth, or more likely to a quiet domestic life in Queens.  (Here’s a link to an oldies blog with all four of those songs.)

We’ll go walking hand in hand

Leave our footprints in the sand.

I like you and you like me,

Let’s try it, baby.

We’ll go swimmin’ in the sea

Splash splash, you and me.

We’ll go dancin’ every night,

Hold, hold you oh so tight.

Assuming that Vikki Tasso and Vicki Tasso were one and the same, I don’t know why I’m apparently the only person on the Internet who’s ever heard of “I Love You So” b/w “BMSSD.”

Say you like my company (yeah yeah)

We’ll have fun, just you wait and see.

Be my steady summer date,

Come on baby, don’t hesitate.

(bridge)

(repeat last two verses from “We’ll go swimmin’…” to end)

Tasso Side B