MICKY DOLENZ: CHATTING UP MY FAVORITE MONKEE AT LONG LAST

KEVIN RENICK is one check closer to completing his bucket list.

Micky Dolenz (photo credit: KAY TUOHY)

Micky Dolenz (photo credit: KAY TUOHY)

Micky Dolenz was always my favorite Monkee. They all had their charm, of course, but Micky seemed to me to be the most knowing, the most IN on the joke and the most determined to have as much fun with it as possible. The initial “joke,” of course, was that this quartet of Beatlemania-aping youngsters – three Americans and one Brit – would produce a madcap TV show in the mid-’60s that would hopefully yield a non-stop string of radio hits penned by the likes of Carole King, Neil Diamond, Boyce and Hart and many others. Producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider definitely seemed to view the whole thing through the lens of satire, and hired hand music producer Don Kirshner felt it was his job to feed the music through the hit machine he was in charge of, and to NOT let the boys get too cocky or assertive. Let’s have FUN, kooky visuals but slick, well-constructed pop tunes for the ears… that seemed to be the mandate. And Micky was the singer on a majority of the band’s hits… “Last Train to Clarksville,” “I’m a Believer,” “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and many more. He wasn’t the “cute one,” that distinction went to Davy Jones. And Mike Nesmith was the group’s quirky intellectual, the one who had a discernibly broader agenda and undeniable charisma. Peter Tork was arguably the group’s most polished musician. But Micky Dolenz embodied the spirit of the Monkees thing better than anyone – he delivered his lines with the most sass, he had nonstop energy (throughout the many reunions as well), and, frankly, he had the best voice, one which has probably been underrated through the years. Micky can SING. And his natural ability to be a professional showman, an audience pleaser, has probably been the most anchoring element of this group in its different incarnations. It’s impossible to imagine the later Monkees successes – the ’86 comeback on MTV, the later trio tours, the wildly successful 50th reunion album and tour – without Micky’s boundless energy. You really HAVE to thank him for the band’s durability all these years later; he’s a gamer, plain and simple. And by the way, that “joke” I mentioned above? Well, the real joke – and triumph – was that the Monkees were damn good. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame be damned – these guys showed a staying power that no one could have predicted, thanks to fabulously catchy songs, the early determination to prove they could actually PLAY their instruments (and even write songs!), and a gift for both re-invention AND nostalgia stoking, which meant that every time they “came back” from seeming oblivion, a huge audience was waiting. One that included the rabid older fans and ever curious NEW fans. Hey hey, they’re the Monkees! But they didn’t monkey around when it came to delivering what fans wanted, time after time.

The Monkees (Peter Tork, Mike Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones) (screen shot)

The Monkees (Peter Tork, Mike Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones) (screen shot)

I realized a long time ago that if you give the audience what they want, which is those hits they like, you can just about do anything else you want,” said Dolenz during a long-awaited phone interview recently. “And in my case, every time I do a show, I liken it to someone throwing me a birthday party. The audience is so excited to hear those songs. It feeds you! It feeds the fire.”

Dolenz was responding to my question about how an artist mostly associated with an “oldies” type act, can keep singing the same songs over and over, and still be engaged. How do you keep the experience fresh for yourself?

I can only speak for myself. I can’t speak for Mike or Peter or David,” he said. “After the Monkees, I sort of bailed out on that part of the business for a while. I moved to England, and for about 15 years I was directing and producing television shows. I did no Monkee business. And when I came back in 1986 for that reunion, it all felt very new to me again! I never really made a major attempt after the Monkees to have a solo career. Not as an artist or writer. I don’t write that much, you know… I had done a couple of little things here and there, but I was never really a writer or anything.”

So for Dolenz, performing those eternally popular songs was not a problem. “Pleasant Valley Sunday?”

Oh, that is definitely one of my favorites. I always favored Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s stuff.”

The concert favorite “Goin’ Down?” “Yeah, that’s a great one.” More on “Goin’ Down” in a moment, but the point is that Dolenz was perfectly happy fulfilling audience expectations.

I wasn’t trying to do all new material,” he said. “I’m not one of those performers who says ‘I’m not gonna do any of my old hits.’ But again, I can only speak for myself.”

I mention that nostalgia is actually a good thing in music, it provides added resonance for listeners who grew up with a certain kind of music. People WANT to relive great moments from their youth, and what’s wrong with that?

Sure. And another reason I have no problem with it is, I have done other things in my life. I’ve done musical theater (his credits include AIDA, PIPPIN and a London stage production of HAIRSPRAY in 2010). I’ve gotten great reviews, and I’ve played great characters. So if I go out and do a Monkees concert or a Mickey Dolenz concert, it’s not the only arrow in my quiver. It’s not the only thing I’ve done. But it’s certainly the thing I’m most remembered for.”

Micky Dolenz and Joyce DeWitt in a 2014 production of COMEDY IS HARD! (uncredited photo)

Micky Dolenz and Joyce DeWitt in a 2014 production of COMEDY IS HARD! (uncredited photo)

Any baby boomer can recite favorite moments from the first phase of Monkee mania: that inescapable theme song from the TV show, the irresistibly catchy early hits like “ …Steppin’ Stone,” “I’m a Believer,” “She” and “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You,” the frenzied energy of the show, a pioneering experiment in the concept of music video. Some people may even remember the unlikely, limited tour that featured Jimi Hendrix as an opening act, something I did NOT have a chance to ask Dolenz about. I was more interested in talking about their music, and though I didn’t get to bring up all my favorite songs, I DID ask about “Goin’ Down,” easily one of Dolenz’s finest hours as a vocalist. Over a jazz-laced romping arrangement that expanded the group’s sonic palette rather significantly, Dolenz sings a rapidfire, tempo-challenging lyric that would be far beyond the ability of most vocalists. The case for Dolenz as one of the finest pop singers of the era was made right then and there, and that was way back in 1967. I tell him how extraordinary the track is.

The story is, there was a song that Mose Allison, a jazz singer, had done – it was called ‘Parchman Farm,’” Dolenz begins. “It was an old bluesy/jazzy kind of thing. I don’t even know if he wrote it (Kevin’s note: he didn’t). It was only three chords. And I always wanted to do it. Peter had done it in the Village when he was coming up, he liked it also. So Mike and I and Peter and Davy laid down a track… it had no melody, just basically this three-chord progression. And when we finished, it was so hot, but then Mike said, and rightly so, ‘I love Mose Allison, and I love that song… but why would the Monkees cover Mose Allison? It’s just a three chord progression! Let’s have someone write some WORDS for our track.’ So we gave it to Diane Hildebrand. And she came back with the song… and the first time that I routined it with her, we played the track. And I had the lyrics in front of me. So I sang it, (Dolenz sings a few lines of the song to me first at the familiar rapid tempo, then at the sluggish tempo he employed when first rehearsing it.) And Diane goes ‘No, No, it should be TWICE that fast!’ (he laughs) And I said ‘What?’ So I rehearsed it, obviously, and then laid the vocal down. Yeah, it’s a big one.”

I tell Micky my poignant story about “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” which in a nutshell, is simply that my good friend and musical colleague, Rick Haegg, whom I had a lot of music plans with, died before we could get ourselves on video significantly. The performance of us doing the Monkees song live at Lindberg’s, in Springfield, MO, is destined to be the only YouTube clip of us out there. Micky used my mom’s expression “Oh, wow” in response to this story. But what I had LONG wanted to ask Dolenz about was, of course, Neil Young. Dolenz did a gentle cover of Young’s “Sugar Mountain” on his 1991 collection of pop lullabyes, MICKY DOLENZ PUTS YOU TO SLEEP. But more significant is the fact that it’s still not widely known among casual fans that Neil played on three or four Monkees songs, including “You and I” and the gorgeous “As We Go Along,” from the legendary HEAD soundtrack.

Micky Dolenz, soundchecking on the Monkees' 2014 tour (uncredited photo)

Micky Dolenz, soundchecking on the Monkees’ 2014 tour (uncredited photo)

Oh, God,” Dolenz exclaims at the mention of that song. “Absolutely one of my favorites.” The shimmering acoustic guitars of the track and another stellar Carole King lyric (in collaboration with Toni Stern) propel Dolenz to what might be his most romantic vocal ever. “Give up your secrets/Let down your hair/And sit with me here by the firelight… Why think about/Who’s gonna win out?/We’ll make up our story as we go along.” Those are beautifully evocative lines that, when combined with the exquisite tune and a sweeping performance by Dolenz, can induce genuine chills. And yes, Neil Young plays guitar on it. But just HOW did ol’ Neil get involved?

Well, he was just around, like everybody was at that time,” Dolenz replied. “I think he had a close relationship with Carole King, and so that’s why he might have been on that one. But everybody was around. Stephen Stills, Buddy Miles, Carole. It was a pretty small community. Everybody sort of hung around at everybody else’s house. Neil was around all the time. It could’ve been the producer, Jack (Nicholson, a co-producer of the soundtrack). Or Ry Cooder, he was the other guitar player on that. It’s also well known that not only us, but everyone was using the Wrecking Crew. Have you seen that documentary?”

Dolenz was referring to an acclaimed 2008 documentary about the legendary group of studio musicians who played on countless major recordings in the ‘60s. I felt guilty that I hadn’t seen it and told him I’d make an effort to do so.

You should watch it. Yeah, the Wrecking Crew… it was Tommy Tedesco, Hal Blaine, Joe Osborn, Carol Kaye, Leon Russell. Glen Campbell. Lots of others. They played on everybody’s stuff. A lot of the Beach Boys stuff. In fact, the story goes that there isn’t one Beach Boy on ‘Good Vibrations’ except for the singing, of course. They played on a lot of early Byrds recordings… the Association… Mamas and Papas. In those days, that’s what you did. Lots of stuff. I’m so glad they are finally getting recognition.”

I asked about Glen Campbell, since he’d died quite recently. What did Micky most remember about him?

Oh, I have lots of memories. We became really good friends. He was in the Wrecking Crew. We kind of just hit it off. We both had families at the same time… in fact, our families hung out. We had barbecues together. One day Glen said, ‘Do you remember your first recording session? Before the Monkees?’ I vaguely remembered it. I was singing around LA at the time. I didn’t know much about recording at all. There were four or five musicians there at the session. I was maybe 19 or 20. So we did the recording, and then the Monkees thing happened. And Glen Campbell said ‘Well, I was your guitar player.’ It was the Wrecking Crew! The song was called ‘Don’t Do It.’ Glen played on it. And Joe Osborn on bass. We did another one called ‘Huff Puff.’ Yeah, Glen was just a great guy.”

Dolenz had also been friends with another legendary songwriter, Harry Nilsson. For the 50th Anniversary of the Monkees, a remarkable set of circumstances came together to spark a new Monkees record, GOOD TIMES, in 2016. It’s a fantastic and surprising recording, which got some help from the discovery of some half-finished Monkees tunes in the vaults, one of which featured Nilsson.

The Monkees (Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Peter Tork, Mike Nesmith) (publicity photo)

The Monkees (Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Peter Tork, Mike Nesmith) (publicity photo)

It all came together pretty quickly when we were discussing what we were gonna do for the 50th anniversary,” Dolenz explained. “We had some unfinished tracks from the ‘60s, songs written by Carole King, Neil Diamond and Harry Nilsson. And there were vocals on some, like ‘Good Times,’ the one that Harry wrote. That was obviously gonna be for me to sing on eventually. Harry had put down a pretty hot vocal as a guide vocal. And I thought, Wow, I could do a duet with my old friend Harry Nilsson! So we ended up calling the album GOOD TIMES, that was my idea. And that was the title track.”

Then all sorts of famous songwriters came out of nowhere to be part of this project, right? You discovered that the Monkees had fans in high places!

What happened was that the record label and producers reached out on their rolodex, and all of a sudden we get songs submitted by Rivers Cuomo, Andy Partridge (from XTC). Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller. Ben Gibbard. It just exploded and took off. I am very grateful and flattered and proud of the album. We got great reviews, too. Even ROLLING STONE gave us a good review, and they were never so into the Monkees before!”

I mention how unprecedented it is for a band to have a top 20 album 50 years after the fact. Compilations or hits collections might make the charts later in an artist’s career, but for that to happen with a NEW album? Truly remarkable!

Yeah, it occurred to me,” Dolenz began with a laugh. “The equivalent in 1966, back when the Beatles, Stones and the Monkees were around, would have been for an act from 1916 to now have a top 20 album. It would have been something by Al Jolson or Enrico Caruso!” We both laughed loudly.

Micky Dolenz, 2014 Monkees tour (uncredited photo)

Micky Dolenz, 2014 Monkees tour (uncredited photo)

But there was something truly remarkable in the strength of the songs on GOOD TIMES. Mike Nesmith sings “Me and Magdalena” with a delicacy that truly elevates the gorgeous melody to a transcendent level (Dolenz provides harmonies). Peter Tork is at his very strongest on “Little Girl” and “Wasn’t Born To Follow.” And no one could have anticipated the luscious psychedelia and beautiful joint vocal performance of Nesmith and Dolenz on the Noel Gallagher/Paul Weller co-write, “Birth of an Accidental Hipster.” Such musical surprises led ULTIMATE CLASSIC ROCK to declare that “the fact that there is a new Monkees album in 2016 is miraculous enough, but that said album, GOOD TIMES!, is nothing short of a masterpiece is astounding.” Fans like yours truly were genuinely amazed.

It’s obviously very gratifying,” said Dolenz. “It took the three of us… well, actually the four of us, because even Davy has a song on there (“Love To Love”). But everything just came together… It had a lot to do with the producer, Adam Schlesinger, who really was enthusiastic. We just kind of caught lightning in a bottle.”

Is there any chance of another Monkees record happening in the future? After all, Micky said that even the notoriously reluctant Mike Nesmith loved making this record.

Well, nothing is in the works right now. We are still riding the crest of the wave off GOOD TIMES. It did pretty well. In my solo show, I even do three songs off that album. The general consensus was that we didn’t want to try to follow that up right away with GOOD TIMES 2. But down the road, you never know.”

Speaking of “the road,” Dolenz performed no less than 60-plus concerts last year, which took him and Peter Tork to four countries. And this summer, he’s been doing the 50 SUMMERS OF LOVE tour with Mark Lindsey (from Paul Revere and the Raiders) and the Beatles tribute band, the Fab Four. Solo, duo or the odd theatre gig, Dolenz seems to never rest. How does he keep up the stamina for so many shows?

To answer your question, I DON’T,” he laughs. “I get beat up pretty hard. There’s a saying we have, ‘You don’t get paid to sing, you get paid to travel.’ The singing is FREE. I don’t travel very well, it’s hard on me. Probably the hardest thing about doing this.”

Micky Dolenz performing at the Davy Jones Memorial show, 2012 (photo credit: CINDY ORD/GETTY IMAGES)

Micky Dolenz performing at the Davy Jones Memorial show, 2012 (photo credit: CINDY ORD/GETTY IMAGES)

Nonetheless, Dolenz is having a good time doing the 50 SUMMERS OF LOVE tour, and I asked him what it’s like performing with his old chum, Lindsey, whose parent band was big around the same time as the Monkees. This show features them performing together.

Yeah, this is not like a typical compilation show, where one act comes out and does 20 minutes, then the next act comes out,” he said. “The unique thing is that we do the whole show together. We’re both on stage the whole time. He sings on some of my songs and I sing on some of his. We talk in between and do some schtick. We open with ‘ …Steppin’ Stone,’ and we talk about it. He recorded the song, and he’ll say, ‘You know, I did it first.’ But I’ll say ‘Yeah, but I had the hit!’ It’s quite interesting. The set list is based on the SONGS, not who is singing them. It’s a little bit like a Rat Pack thing.”

Dolenz talks about how both he and Lindsey were on the ‘60s TV show WHERE THE ACTION IS, which I tell him I remembered watching. We also talk about enthusiasm for the Monkees’ music in England, Australia and Japan. And the participation of his sister Coco in the latest touring Monkees show (vocals and percussion), and how his daughter, Georgia, just graduated from the Groundlings improve comedy school, and how she and her pop run a furniture business together, called Dolenz and Daughters Fine Furniture. It seems there are constant surprises in Micky Dolenz’s career, and nary a dull moment. It’s plenty of work, and not much “monkeying around.” He knows he’s a beloved pop legend, though, and is grateful for his unlikely and diverse career. I had a zillion more questions I would have liked to ask him, and felt like I had barely scratched the surface in our short chat. But he’s a super busy guy, and was nice enough to give me some time despite an illness in his family. I try to express a level of admiration that would cover how I grew up with him, found myself astonished by the many Monkees reunions through the years and by that amazing new album, and how he’d been on my bucket list of desired interviews. I couldn’t say it all. Micky Dolenz! Wow! But even though I am hardly the first to tell him I’m a devoted Monkees fan and that he is truly one of the most underrated singers ever, I am happy to say it to him personally, anyway.

Micky Dolenz in his Dolenz and Daughters workshop, 2014 (uncredited photo)

Micky Dolenz in his Dolenz and Daughters workshop, 2014 (uncredited photo)

Thank you very much,” is his modest reply. And then I went along, with a HEAD full of impressions…


PAUL MCCARTNEY

(August 13, 2016; BUSCH STADIUM, Saint Louis MO)

Paul McCartney (The Busch Stadium crowd enjoys the show) (photo credit: JEFF KING)

Paul McCartney (The Busch Stadium crowd enjoys the show) (photo credit: JEFF KING)

It’s really worth a moment of reflection here: What’s it like to be Paul McCartney? None of us can really know. McCartney is almost unarguably the most successful and influential singer/songwriter/musician in the history of popular music. He’s reached a place no one else has gotten to, a rarified zone of rock royalty where interest and reverence for him is ongoing, on a global scale. Taylor Swift and Bruce Springsteen may be able to sell out stadiums at times, and the Rolling Stones can say they’ve been around as long still doing their classic rockin’ thing. But NO ONE has had the impact through multi generations, the acknowledged cultural influence, the extensive body of work and the ability to sell out shows around the world, like Sir Paul McCartney. On the pop culture landscape, it’s like there is Mount McCartney, soaring high towards the clouds to a peak you can’t even make out or even comprehend, and then way below, there are some other peaks that are also impressive but not as gigantic. Mount Dylan. The Jagger-Richards Range. Who International Park. Et cetera.

Paul McCartney (photo credit: JEFF KING)

Paul McCartney (photo credit: JEFF KING)

You get the idea. So beloved are the Beatles, and so deep and enduring is the nostalgia for all that they represented, all the good memories they provided for millions, that people around the world want to experience any taste of that magic again, and to believe that Beatlemania is not just a thing of the past. Sir Paul McCartney bears that burden (not discounting Ringo here, but he doesn’t tour as much and he simply wasn’t one of the prime architects of that Beatles songwriting thing that changed the world) on his 74-year-old shoulders, and he does so with class, good cheer and almost unbelievable energy. Mount McCartney indeed! And we fans are lucky enough to still climb those musical heights each time Paulie decides to perform. He’s doing it often these days, and it is never less than a spectacle. He might be technically a senior citizen, but man oh man, Mister McCartney still shows he’s got it, and that he loves doing it. Song after song after song.

Paul McCartney (photo credit: JEFF KING)

Paul McCartney (photo credit: JEFF KING)

At Busch Stadium, August 13… nearly 50 years since the Beatles played here at the stadium’s previous location (the year that REVOLVER, one of their very best albums came out!), McCartney treated a wildly enthusiastic crowd to a generous platter of classic songs and some obscurities, from throughout his career. He opened with “A Hard Day’s Night,” a timeless classic that he’d not done before live. Another from that beloved movie, “Can’t Buy Me Love,” soon followed. I’m sure I wasn’t the only long-time fan to experience a chill or two just from those two rockers. Dressed smartly in a purple jacket and dark jeans, McCartney sounded and looked younger than his age, and wasted no time chatting up the audience. Miraculously, considering that the acoustics for a sold-out stadium show are by no means always optimal, you could hear just about every word he uttered. And you WANTED to “listen to what the man said” because, hey, how often do you get to share time with him? At one point, McCartney took time to acknowledge all the many signs people were holding up in the stadium. There were the usual lovey-dovey kinda things, but a young girl held up a sign that said (I had high-powered binoculars to try to catch all this), I think, “Loved you as a bug, loved you as a wing and love you still today.” I saw her laugh delightedly when McCartney mentioned that sign. In fact, the ample projection screen repeatedly showed people laughing, dancing, and singing along to favorite tunes. It was a celebration, after all, McCartney being “one on one” (as it was billed) with thousands and thousands of delighted fans. And the set list was by no means predictable. Sure, you’d be reasonably safe to expect stuff like “Back In the USSR,” “Let It Be,” the inevitable “Hey Jude,” “Maybe I’m Amazed” (and yeah, he DID mostly hit those high notes despite a few subtle strains evident in his vocals here and there) and the great “Band on the Run,” one of his finest solo songs. But genuine surprises (unless you were an internet set list junkie) included “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “We Can Work It Out” (a personal favorite), a warm and tender “Here, There and Everywhere,” “And I Love Her” (gorgeous) and “Fool on the Hill.” At one point, McCartney gave a nice mini-talk on where songs come from, something he’s obviously been asked a zillion times. He explained that sometimes it’s a melody, sometimes a lyric idea, and sometimes an insistent chord progression that has “potential.” He began playing one such evocative progression on guitar a few times until it evolved, marvelously, into “You Won’t See Me,” another delightful surprise. And what else can be said about brilliant songs like “Eleanor Rigby” and “Blackbird,” two of the many, many touchstones in Macca’s career, never losing their beauty or impact?

Paul McCartney (photo credit: JEFF KING)

Paul McCartney (photo credit: JEFF KING)

Of course, there were not just Beatle songs on the list. Solo numbers as diverse as “Let Me Roll It,” “Temporary Secretary” (I personally enjoyed this one though others apparently were not in my company), “1985,” a searing “Hi, Hi, Hi” (an early Wings classic) and a clutch of tunes from McCartney’s last disc NEW (“Save Us” and “Queenie Eye” among them) sounded just fine, although it was amusing to see McCartney gesture or feign mock disappointment when the reaction to less famous songs was not as thunderous as that for Beatle classics. McCartney knows full well that fans want to hear the tunes they grew up on, and he is incredibly generous (he has been for many years) in bulking up beloved tunes on set lists these days. Two potently touching and dramatic moments occurred in the middle of the show. “Here Today,” the song McCartney wrote as “a conversation I never got to have” with John Lennon, is a tune he almost always plays in concert, but it had an intense emotional resonance to it in this performance… delicate, tender, unbearably sad… and the legend almost looked like he was tearing up anew as he sang. The audience was spellbound. Another genuine surprise was “In Spite of All the Danger,” a song the boys conceived in their Quarrymen days, and which McCartney explained they cut in a primitive studio as a demo. This event is depicted at the end of the movie NOWHERE BOY, which I’d been lucky enough to see, so it had a major impact on me, and McCartney seemed delighted to tell the story. For a song that few at the stadium could have known, it was staggering that McCartney was able to get the crowd to sing the repeated “Whoa oh oh oh” chorus with almost perfect timing. Maybe I’m amazed by this, indeed! Also a sweet and tender “My Valentine,” which he dedicated to his wife Nancy, was subtly compelling in its intimacy, and featured visual aids by Natalie Portman and Johnny Depp on the adjoining screens, something that struck me as surreal but beautiful. But it was old Beatles classics that got the crowd really jazzed: “Lady Madonna,” “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da,” the George Harrison tribute “Something” (which McCartney began on ukulele as expected, but this time it quickly evolved into a full Beatle-y band arrangement, unlike the last time I saw him perform it), and a stirring “Love Me Do,” complete with the precise harmonica part that Lennon played all those years ago. No one can ever say that Paul McCartney is not a good team player, by the way… the band he’s with now, which consists of some of the most crackerjack players around (keyboardist Paul “Wix” Wickens, bassist and guitarist Brian Ray, guitarist Rusty Anderson and drummer Abe Laboriel, Junior), has been with him for 14 years plus, longer than the Beatles were together! And any encore that includes the perfection that is “Yesterday,” the White Album novelty “Birthday” and the gripping “Golden Slumbers” section of the dazzling ABBEY ROAD medley, well, it lets you know in no uncertain terms that you are one lucky fan to be at this concert. You’re getting rock history live, right here, right now.

Paul McCartney with Abe Laboriel, Junior (photo credit: JEFF KING)

Paul McCartney with Abe Laboriel, Junior (photo credit: JEFF KING)

Paul McCartney’s importance is not just his place in the musical scheme of things, it’s the fact that he is a living testament to the ongoing power of songwriting, performing and communicating with fans. He’s had to endure continual comparisons to his former partner Lennon, judgments about his work since the Beatles, and the always fascinating reappraisals of his recordings that new writers always feel motivated to offer. For example, the once-maligned RAM album is now considered a charming low-key classic by most, and Wings, who nearly always got short-changed in the 70s by snobby comparisons to the Beatles, now have their own special fan base, and McCartney knows that. More than anything, what McCartney knows is that music can transform, inspire, document, delight and be really, really personal for different people, different generations, over a long, long time. You just don’t get to go on the kind of journey Paul McCartney has been on, very often. Because of the volatility of the times he flourished in, and the unimaginable success, McCartney gets to see the impact of his life’s work over and over, and to keep writing, recording, and rocking. And somehow he still manages to do it with that same boyish glint in his eye that he had back on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW. That is one staggering triumph of an artist and a human being, across six decades, and still going. How can you not regard Mount McCartney with absolute awe? And he’s still here today, his legend secured for all time.


THE MONKEES: GOOD TIMES!

(RHINO RECORDS; 2016)

Monkees-Good-Times

If you had told me last year that the Monkees were not only going to come out with a new album, but that it would be an extremely good one that added a new chapter to their legacy and would feature all four band members, well, I’d have said you were nuts. Davy Jones was deceased, Mike Nesmith had apparently gone into a new phase of ambivalence, and the other two, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork, were keeping the group’s popularity high through frequent live shows, but hardly seemed capable of putting anything new together. How, then, did this mini-miracle occur – a fantastic new Monkees record coming out in 2016. If you wanna know who to give the lion’s share of the credit to, well, it’s Adam Schlesinger. Best known as the frontman for Fountains of Wayne and the composer of the titular hit song from the Tom Hanks-directed film THAT THING YOU DO, Schlesinger is a huge Monkees fan, the kind of person who found inspiration and delight in their music and wondered if they could recapture some of that old-time magic again. A kind of “That was THEN, this is NOW” redux. Schlesinger had talks with the three remaining Monkees and suggested putting the call out to today’s indie rockers and closeted Monkees fans for material in the Monkees’ vein. And everyone was excited by the fact that it was the Monkees’ fiftieth anniversary – wouldn’t it be kick-ass to celebrate with a brand-new album?

You bet! Songs began arriving by composers as cool as XTC’s Andy Partridge (“You Bring the Summer”), Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo (“She Makes Me Laugh”) and Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard (the luminous gem “Me and Magdalena”). Schlesinger himself wrote “Our Own World,” produced the record and plays on ten of the album’s 13 songs. If that isn’t about as auteur-ish as you can get with such a project, well, I don’t know what is! The masterstroke here, and another place where credit should be given, is the honchos at Rhino Records, the Monkees’ label, a couple of guys who love the band and began scouring the vaults for old material that might be worthy for this project. They dug up a Neil Diamond-penned tune from 1967 that had a perfectly fine Davy Jones vocal on it (well done, lads!) and simply needed a bit of overdubbing and engineering work to make it a go, a Goffin/King gem called “Wasn’t Born To Follow” which finds Peter Tork pouring all his energy and enthusiasm into (he says THIS of the song in the liner notes: “What a joy to be singing a Carole King song! This dreamy, Dylan-esque song is a tapestry unto itself.”), and even a Harry Nilsson tune, the title track, which gives Dolenz a chance to “duet” with the songwriting legend. All this, man, and even some originals! An attempt was made to recapture the sound and feeling of the late ’60s – production slickness was avoided at all turns, something that sorely diminished the appeal of two previous attempts by the Monkees to release new material (POOL IT! From 1987 and JUSTUS from 1996). So what you get is an album that almost sounds like it could have been the next project the band really put their “heart and soul” into after their amazing late ’60s run, mixing snappy rockers like “She Makes Me Laugh” with multi-textured psych-rock as represented by “Birth of An Accidental Hipster” (a truly unlikely offering from Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller that is one of the album’s high points) and seamless originals (Tork’s breezy “Little Girl” and Nesmith’s melancholy “I Know What I Know”). You just wouldn’t think the Monkees could’ve come up with something like this. It’s the nicest of surprises for long-time fans.

The Monkees, circa 1967 (Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork) (uncredited photo)

The Monkees, circa 1967 (Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork) (uncredited photo)

I have two quibbles with the album, one that could have been helped and one that maybe couldn’t. The latter is the fact that they could only find one Jones song to include. If they were gonna go that route of making sure Davy’s presence was felt, was there really NOTHING else in the vaults that could’ve been dusted off and messed with a bit? So pleasant is it to hear Jones sing again on “Love To Love” that you kind of LONG for the stronger balance that would’ve existed if he’d been on one more song. That balance issue brings me to my only real criticism, the fact that GOOD TIMES! opens with five songs in a row featuring Dolenz on lead vocals. Now, it’s funny for me to say this, because Micky Dolenz is my favorite Monkee, but I’m puzzled that the first half of the record is sequenced this way. Moving a Nesmith or Tork vocal to an earlier slot would’ve solved this problem – as it is, a kind of repetitiveness sets in that diminishes the listenability of “Our Own World” and “Gotta Give It Time.” That loses half a letter grade in my book, although others may not feel that way. But, from track 6 to track 13, you get pure, unadulterated Monkees bliss, and nary a misstep. “Me and Magdalena” is so beautiful, so haunting, that you can’t believe you are getting this gift of a tune from these guys. Schlesinger plays sweet, lovely piano and Nesmith turns in an intoxicating vocal just about matched by Dolenz as the secondary singer. “Whatever’s Right” sounds like a long-lost Monkees hit, even penned by their old writing mates Boyce and Hart, but no, this is a new tune. I’ve already mentioned my fondness for the Davy Jones contribution. But it’s worth commenting again that “Birth of An Accidental Hipster” is just amazing. It’s the second best song here, with inspired performances, mulitple hooks and another wonderful vocal pairing by Nesmith and Dolenz. This song breathes, shimmers and kicks serious conceptual ass. Peter Tork is another sort of hero on this record… he was often a creative underdog in the past, but both his original, “Little Girl,” and the fetching Goffin/King entry are complete delights. And the ending is perfect, a songwriting collaboration by Dolenz and Schlesinger called “I Was There (And I’m Told I Had a Good Time)” that could sum up the band’s feelings about their wacky pop culture odyssey. It rocks (a little), it’s got sass (a LOT), and it exudes spontaneity and minimalistic charm. “We are here, and we’re gonna have a good time/Like we did before/Supposedly,” Monkee Micky sings, filled with both the wry knowledge of the band’s storied and often controversial past, and his obvious glee at being here, 50 years later, not only still doing it but making one of the band’s best albums. GOOD TIMES! is just a nice surprise all around, not necessarily a masterpiece but way better than any fan could possibly have predicted. I’m a believer, that’s for sure. Nez, Peter, Micky and um, gosh, Mister Schlesinger? Thank you, and Happy 50th Anniversary!


BRIAN ENO: THE SHIP

(Warp Records; 2016)

61zbHBTfBLL._SL1200_

Brian Eno doesn’t release albums casually. It tends to be a big deal with him: He’ll start a project, mess around with it, change it substantially from the initial idea, mess around with it some more, and maybe scrap it for years, filed away in his vast archives for an unknown duration. Maybe, though, just MAYBE, he’ll like the results, or the specific parameters of the project dictate that it be released sooner rather than later, OR, a collaborator will inspire him or advise him to get the thing out, like, NOW. All those things seem to have taken place during the gestation of his latest Warp recording, THE SHIP, which began life as part of a sound installation and a provocative initial theme having to do with the Titanic and the folly of World War I, two oft-cited examples by Eno of man’s technological arrogance and delusional thinking that resulted in catastrophe and harsh lessons not learned well enough. Eno is certainly not interested in any linear history lesson, however, or even anything approaching a conventional song cycle. What we fans treasure about the man is the sonic EXPERIENCE he provides listeners: The studio innovation, haunting sounds, stylistic surprises and contextual shift from album to album. THE SHIP is a most welcome entry in Eno’s considerable canon: A consistently listenable platter that harkens back to previous releases, features familiar immersive ambient textures and breaks new ground simultaneously. Describing it is tough, but here are the main features of this remarkable work.

Brian Eno (photo credit: SHAMIL TANNA)

Brian Eno (photo credit: SHAMIL TANNA)

It consists of two very long pieces and two short ones. First up is what we used to call the “side-long” piece, “The Ship,” which commences with lovely, drifting ambience that certainly can make you think you’re on the vast open sea, under disarmingly calm skies. Much like Titanic’s passengers were, of course. Just when you’ve been lulled by a healthy slab of Eno’s familiar synthscape, the first surprise: Eno’s own vocals, intoning “The ship was from a willing land/The waves about it rose.” With his voice utilizing intervals both a fourth and an octave apart, Eno provides something we haven’t heard on one of his records for a long time. There are shades of “By This River” and the atmospheric feel of his classic ANOTHER GREEN WORLD here (which referenced water several times). “A slave to hopes of destiny/Illusion of control” is a line that pops up later in this section, clearly a key lyric in the context of the theme. Increasingly diverse sounds begin to enter… nautical beeps and pings, clanging sounds (it’s known that much of Eno’s childhood in the Woodbridge area of England found him soaking up the sounds of nearby shipyards and greats masts probably flapping in the wind), unsettling background voices and whispers. The ghosts of lost souls are active on this record, no doubt. The spell that is cast is a considerable one. You find yourself amazed that this innovative artist and composer is using all his familiar tricks, and yet somehow coming up with something fresh, something that gets under your skin once again. It’s kind of stunning. There is certainly a narrative at work here, but it doesn’t all need to be clearly discerned or “conventional.” This is MUSIC, after all. Not oral history. “Wave… after wave… after wave” a disembodied voice concludes in this shimmering, lovely track. The three-part “Fickle Sun” is up next, and this is a doozy in Eno’s vast output. The lengthy first part, titled simply “Fickle Sun,” again features ambient layers unfolding, but something really ominous quickly grabs our ears. A pulsing, uncertain bass keeps intruding at various volume levels, with distant brass and a threatening feeling imposing itself with increasing intensity. Eno’s voice again comes in, talking about “a cumulus of pride and will/Dissolved in all the oil and steel,” and other provocative lyrics. “The line is long, the line is gray/And humans turning back to clay/Right there beneath the fickle sun/The empty eyes/The end begun… ” (not sure about the last two words). Things begin to get ferociously intense after this passage. “There’s no one rowing anymore… ” Eno sings, an obvious image from the aftermath of the Titanic sinking. Then we hear pounding orchestral music, another big surprise on an Eno record. All hell has broken loose, and there wouldn’t even NEED to be words in the piece for it to be effective. But the combination of the evocative, minimalistic lyric passages and the enveloping music is simply a wonder. “All the boys are going down/Falling over one by one… ” our narrator tells us, now getting a piercing image from World War I into the mix. Sad, organ-like keys now adorn the unspooling narrative, with Eno’s voice receding or changing character dramatically. The next seven or eight minutes rank as one of the most powerful sections on any Eno album. It’s weird, it’s disturbing, it’s utterly beautiful and texturally gripping. It doesn’t need to be described in detail, but it’s classic Brian Eno, ending with a sequence of huge, lush chords and ghostly voices that are the work of a master. I’m STILL shivering from listening to this section repeatedly.

Brian Eno (photo credit: SHAMIL TANNA)

Brian Eno (photo credit: SHAMIL TANNA)

A spoken word essay delivered by Peter Serafinowicz and accompanied by simple, straight melodic piano, constitutes “The Hour Is Thin,” a short and memorable interlude. Eno has had more than a fair amount of spoken word on his recordings in recent years, but this piece is effective here, clearly addressing the nightmare of post World War I England and the changes that befell the populace. I love the last line, “The universe is required. Please notify the sun.” It’s immediately followed by another delightful surprise, a gorgeous Eno-sung cover of the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Set Free.” It’s rare that Eno covers other artists, and when he does, he usually keeps such tracks tucked away in his studio. In fact, in recent interviews he talked about how much he liked this song and what it meant to him, but he couldn’t find the right context for this legendary recording until now. What a gem it is. “I’m set free to find a new illusion,” he sings, and Eno clearly regards that as a working mantra, tipping his hat to what Lou Reed and the Velvets meant to him in the process. Sweetly sad, captivating, filled with gorgeous synth work and Neil Catchpole’s fetching violin and viola contributions, “I’m Set Free” serves as an unlikely yet perfect coda for a truly stirring record. THE SHIP is the work of a master craftsman still finding ways to surprise both himself and his vast audience. Drift along with Brian Eno, folks… he’ll make sure you get safely to shore with new things to think about.


…AND THE REST: THE DAWN WELLS INTERVIEW

(Part Two of a Two Part Series by Kevin Renick)

Dawn Wells, circa 2014 (publicity photo)

Dawn Wells, circa 2014 (publicity photo)

The following interview with Ms Wells was conducted by telephone in Fall 2015 during one of her many publicity jaunts for her latest book, WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO?: A GUIDE TO LIFE. Throughout the chat, Dawn was charming, revealing, appreciative and fun, just the traits you would expect from the gal who created the iconic Mary Ann Summers character on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND. Dawn is seldom wanting for new projects… she’s an actress in multiple mediums, an author, a designer, a brilliant marketer, in demand for special appearances constantly and, as she says, kind of an “adventurer.” She appreciated the essay I wrote about her, and we talked quite a bit about the GILLIGAN days, as well as plenty of other topics.

THE MULE: Hi Dawn. Pleasure to talk to you again! We met some years before in Columbia.

DAWN: Oh, it was probably the Children’s Miracle Network thing?

THE MULE: Yes, indeed. And you were just delightful then, also.

DAWN: Well, what you wrote about me was so lovely. As a fan, you could see the depth of that character and it was really sweet, all the things you said.

THE MULE: I just felt very strongly that you were the heart of the show. You held everything together amidst plotlines that were often preposterous. Not sure anyone else could have done that.

DAWN: That’s the reason that Mary Ann has sustained for so long. And she really has. There are no Mary Ann’s today.

THE MULE: Well, one reason I knew I was onto something with my premise is because I spoke to some female friends about the show and its longevity. And to a one, they said you were their favorite character. Maybe that isn’t so surprising.

DAWN: I’d have been their friend!

THE MULE: Right. Well, let’s talk a bit about your new book, WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO?. What led you to the writing of this book?

WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO? A GUIDE TO LIFE (TAYLOR TRADE PUBLISHING, 2014)

WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO? A GUIDE TO LIFE (TAYLOR TRADE PUBLISHING, 2014)

DAWN: It was the fans! 80% of the men I meet say, “I married a Mary Ann.” Or, “Mary Ann would have been my partner.” You’d have to have been pretty sophisticated to say that as a young man. The grownups say that they married Mary Ann, and they have their kids with them. Which made me think, there is something to this character that still resonates. Then I went into, Why? What is it about her? As funny as it may seem, I was raised by a Mary Ann mother. In Reno, Nevada. Where there’s legal prostitution! As far away from Kansas as you can be! But it was the morality, the manners, the work ethic, that my mother raised me with. And no matter where you are, it doesn’t make any difference. It was my mother’s influence on me. And I was talking to someone recently, I asked, “Why didn’t I run away? Or go out and drink with my buddies or something like that, like the kids are doing today?” And it’s because I respected my mother. And nobody can teach respect. My parents were divorced. And that’s what I talk about in the book. I had two families that loved me. My mother and father… I never heard a negative word from either of them about each other. My dad would say, “I think your mother needs a washing machine… what do you think?” And then she would ask me something. Raising me was the emphasis in their relationship. And again, that depends on the parents. You know, if you come from a bitter home, you’re listening to what’s around you. And I never had any of that. I really was raised to be a “Mary Ann” and there’s something to be said for that. Today, everybody’s in their room with their computer, nobody knows who they’re talking to or what they’re saying. Nobody has dinner together much anymore. And this bullying? I mean, we had a bunch of kids that I’m sure you’d consider the kids you’d bully maybe. Someone wouldn’t be very good at something but… we loved him anyway. We’ve sort of lost that. I thought this book would be maybe for a mom or a dad or a grandma, to sit down with their kids and read it.

THE MULE: That’s all beautifully expressed, Dawn. I think you’ve really hit on some big things there. You’ve been traveling a lot, and I know you’ve appeared in bookstores and on talk shows and stuff. What has been the response – overall – of people, both the fans and the people who interview you?

DAWN: It’s all positive. I don’t think I have ever had a negative interview.

THE MULE: Really?

DAWN: No, I don’t think so. Well maybe, uh, I don’t know. I did an interview on the Howard Stern show years ago.

THE MULE: Oh, no!

DAWN: I always kind of trusted… and he said we’re gonna do it. And I said okay. Well, it was the most embarrassing thing in the whole world. They did a skit where the Skipper had died and (unintelligible), and Mrs. Howell was pregnant and was played by a guy with a hairy chest. Bob (Denver) and I looked at each other like, Do we walk off or do we continue? But then years later, Howard Stern asked me to be on his radio show, and I said to my PR guy yeah, let me sit down with him for an hour. And I turned him around completely. We got through all of the nonsense right at the beginning. And we ended up talking about the difference between female education and male education in school. And the nitty gritty of who Mary Ann is, which we all know…

THE MULE: Lordy, I’d be terrified to think of the kind of stuff Howard Stern COULD have asked you. (we both laugh) Can you relate an incident or two about fan enthusiasm over the years that stood out? Something more than just, “Oh, you were my favorite character.” Where it maybe surprised you in some way.

DAWN: Well, I tend to get a lot of the same reactions. Some 45-year-old guy will come up, and he’ll bring his 10-year-old daughter. And he wants her to listen to Mary Ann, I think. And they’re not gonna be embarrassed by what I would do. I’m not bra-less, wearing a low-cut gown. So I think they have this trust in what I would say… I mean, I’ve had proposals. Uh, well I did have a cute little thing happen with Nick Nolte. I was doing a show for Australia called “The Castaway Correspondent”. I was interviewing all the people in the movies and everything. And the only person who told me they liked Ginger better than Mary Ann was Robin Williams. (laughs) But Nick Nolte said, “Oh my gosh, you got me through puberty in the nicest of ways!”

THE MULE: That’s a pretty good compliment! In my essay about you, I talked about the fact that you were probably the most popular character on GILLIGAN, that both males and females like you the same, which is amazing. How do you put this in perspective, that you got the most fan mail on the show and continued to be the most popular character years after?

The cast of GILLIGAN'S ISLAND (Russell Johnson, Alan Hale Junior, Bob Denver, Dawn Wells, Tina Louise, Jim Backus, Natalie Schafer) (publicity photo)

The cast of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND (Russell Johnson, Alan Hale Junior, Bob Denver, Dawn Wells, Tina Louise, Jim Backus, Natalie Schafer) (publicity photo)

DAWN: I really don’t think I was the most popular… I’m sure it would be Gilligan, maybe, or the Skipper. But, I think Mary Ann was relatable. And for you, as a young person growing up watching the show, Ginger was too much! You have to be pretty sophisticated. And Mrs. Howell could have been your grandmother. I think you identified with me because I’d have been your buddy! I’d have been your buddy if I had gone to school with you and you were a guy. I don’t mean to be too modest, but I don’t think it had anything to do with ME. I just think Sherwood Schwartz put these seven people together and took seven personalities… and I think Mary Ann was… I don’t think I carried the show, but she was the center of making everyone pitch in. Y’know, let’s not bully you and let’s get the Skipper on a diet, and make Mister Howell be a little nicer to Mrs. Howell. And I don’t know that it was really in the writing. There were no messages. I think it was the relationships between us all. And there was no jealousy between Mary Ann and Ginger at all!

THE MULE: That’s interesting… that comes up a lot, people wondering about the relationship between you two.

DAWN: I used to think (regarding Tina Louise), gosh, you’re so glamorous. I don’t know, I never had a leopard outfit on before, and I kissed Gilligan and I kissed the Professor and I thought, oh boy, I get to be a girl now. (laughs)

THE MULE: Well, you brought it up, that episode where you played Ginger… what else do you remember about that one? It’s among the most popular with fans, I think. And it showed off your acting chops.

DAWN: Well, she was very sweet, cause she does that little Marilyn Monroe thing with her mouth. That kind of cute little thing… So I’d say, “Now say that again,” so I could kind of imitate her. And I tried to do that. There’s always a Ginger and Mary Ann question, so you’d assume there would be a competition between us. But Ginger… had never had a Thanksgiving dinner! And she said to me… I’m a pretty good cook and my mother is, too… and she said to me, I don’t know if it was our second or third year, but she said, “Would you mind teaching me how to make a Thanksgiving dinner?” And I said “I’d love that!” So she came to my house, and she sat on a stool with a pencil and paper, and my mother did all the shopping. We chopped all the onions and the celery… and she sat there and took notes. And I don’t know if she ever did it. Eight or nine years later, maybe even later, because she had a daughter by that point. And I met Caprice (Crane, Ms Louise’s daughter). And Caprice said to me, “You know how much I love that story about Thanksgiving, how you taught her how to do it?” And I would not have thought Tina would have embraced it that much!

Tina Louise and Dawn Wells in GILLIGAN'S ISLAND (video still)

Tina Louise and Dawn Wells in GILLIGAN’S ISLAND (video still)

THE MULE: That’s a great story! So, there wasn’t any rivalry between you and Tina on the show? Was that just a made-up thing from the fans?

DAWN: I think the fans, at a certain point, decided they had to make a choice, which was silly. Tina was a big movie star. I had just been in the business a couple of years. She’d done GOD’S LITTLE ACRE with Rock Hudson and she’d been on Broadway. She was a beauty. I remember, we started wearing false eyelashes and Tina ordered them from New York. They were $25 a pair. And they were mink. Well, I didn’t know anything about things like that! I watched her… she was very conscious of only wanting to be photographed from the left side. She was very conscious of how she looked best and everything. And I kind of learned a lot from that! She had the experience, I didn’t.

THE MULE: Did you ever get to have input about Mary Ann’s dialogue or story lines on the show?

DAWN: No. No. I don’t think anybody did… Gilligan might have, a little. But we had good writers, and you all had to just stick to the ridiculous plots. I just did what they told me to do, and read the lines.

THE MULE: There’s a particular episode different friends have mentioned, the one where you did a musical version of HAMLET, which was kind of surreal. What do you remember about that one?

DAWN: Oh, yeah. I didn’t really realize until a few years ago, Phil Silvers was our guest star, and I didn’t realize he helped finance the pilot! Sherwood Schwartz and Gladysya Productions. Not until about six months ago did I realize that Gladysya was Phil Silvers! But no, that was fun. That was quite extensive, what they did with the costumes and everything for that one.

THE MULE: I have a friend who, to this day, if I bring up that episode, she’ll break into one of the songs. They stick in your mind!

DAWN: (singing one of the tunes herself) “Neither a borrower nor a lender be!”

THE MULE: Well, you certainly created something very iconic. No doubt about it. So many memorable episodes. What about you and the other cast members? I know you got along really well with Russell Johnson. I loved you two together. You had great chemistry.

Dawn Wells with Russell Johnson and Bob Denver (uncredited photo)

Dawn Wells with Russell Johnson and Bob Denver (uncredited photo)

DAWN: I think we did, too. And we always laughed in that first year about ” …and the rest” (the theme song for the show the first year said ” …and the rest” instead of crediting Wells and Johnson). We’d send each other cards saying “Love, the Rest” for Christmas and birthdays, stuff like that. Bob (Denver) was very private. Very private. He had a lot of children, and he’d come in looking exhausted. There was a childlike soul in Bob. I was one of the few people he allowed in his home. Um, allowed is not the right word. Alan (Hale) was the same size as my dad. So, every time Alan hugged me, he picked me up half off the floor. So there was this big robust, jovial human being there. And he was a good cook. And Natalie (Schafer) and I were very close, especially in later years. I was the least close, probably, to Jim (Backus). I think Jim and Tina were very close, I think they both had that kind of movie star/Hollywood life, which I never did. But Natalie didn’t have any children, and towards the end she confided a lot of things to me. We really were a tight knit cast, though, and I think that shows. I think the charm of the show was that you could kind of tell we all liked each other.

THE MULE: Yes, I agree. There had to be a reason why the show was so popular and never went off the air. Some people don’t realize that, that it has always been on the air, somewhere. People of a certain age still view it with such love and fondness. What’s it like to be part of something so iconic, that people feel such nostalgia for now?

DAWN: You know, it translates easily, into all these other languages. Because you don’t really have to understand any PLOT particularly. And I can’t go anywhere in the world without being recognized. My favorite story… I’m in the Solomon Islands… (she says something about a knee replacement) I’m not an athlete but, I’m an adventurer. Stephens College… went with some of my Stephens College friends to Rwanda, we climbed up to see the gorillas. And I went with five other Stephens women to the Solomon Islands, where no white women have ever been. There was no running water, and no electricity. We had a photographer who had married a Solomon Island girl, so he said, “I’ll take you around.” And, as we canoed up to an island, the chief – his family had been chief for nine generations. And they were all in huts, up on stilts. No running water, no electricity. And he had a little greeting for us. So these young kids did a little dance and as we canoed up to the island, the chief’s wife looked at me and said “I know you.” And I went “WHAT? What are you talking about?” She said “I was on the island of Honiara (capital of the Solomon Islands), in 1979, going to nursing school. And I used to come home and watch you in black and white.” In the middle of the Pacific Ocean!

THE MULE: Oh, I can’t believe it. You must have absolutely fallen over!

DAWN: I almost dropped dead! And then the other thing was, we were probably in production for four or five weeks and Sherwood came in with the Coast Guard. Six or seven big mucky-mucks from the Coast Guard. And we stopped filming for a minute or so. And he said “The Coast Guard has something to say to you all.” And I don’t know what the ranks are in the Coast Guard, but the guy said, “We have received several telegrams saying there are seven people stranded in the Pacific Ocean. Why can’t you find them?” Some people believe everything!

Dawn Wells as the giant's maid in the GILLIGAN'S ISLAND episode, V For Vitamins (video still)

Dawn Wells as the giant’s maid in the GILLIGAN’S ISLAND episode, V For Vitamins (video still)

THE MULE: Amazing, truly. Even though the show was a huge hit in syndication, you guys didn’t really get to share in the profits at all, right?

DAWN: Not a dime. I was just talking to Bob Denver’s wife recently and she said, “It just makes me so angry.” We’ve never been off the air, and in how many languages around the world. And we haven’t had one nickel from it! Sherwood Schwartz, I was told, made $90 million on the reruns of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND alone. He could have split it between the seven of us, maybe given us a million, but nope.

THE MULE: And there’s no lawyer out there clever enough to remedy the situation now, maybe?

DAWN: No, cause a lot of other shows have tried that, like F TROOP and stuff like that. But it’s been tried. And that was the contract! That’s what it was. And Jim Backus used to get so angry, like “Hey, you took the part! You knew there weren’t any things along that line.” And how do you go back? You can’t be bitter, that’s stupid. We wouldn’t be known for who we were… so that’s a plus.

THE MULE: Did I read somewhere that a pair of your shorts from the show will be in the Smithsonian?

Dawn Wells as Mary Ann in that classic two-piece outfit (video still)

Dawn Wells as Mary Ann in that classic two-piece outfit (video still)

DAWN: They’ve asked me. They want them. And I don’t know whether to do that. I have a family foundation and we have funded a children’s museum in Reno… we are tied to the Smithsonian. So I was going to the Smithsonian a couple of years ago and he was pulling out all the costumes from THE WIZARD OF OZ, and they’re all in drawers! I mean, they come out once in a while and display them, but… I don’t know that I want my shorts to be in drawers! I think maybe some fan would rather have them. I still have them, so I don’t know what I’m going to do.

THE MULE: Well, they’re famous! Your shorts, as I mentioned in my essay, came years before the Catherine Bach “daisy dukes” from the DUKES OF HAZZARD, which got so much attention. So, I don’t think you got enough credit!

DAWN: I had to cover my navel, though. I helped design them… I tried to make my legs look longer by making them go up on the sides, and my torso looked longer so I dipped it down on the side but I still had to have that little rise in front so you wouldn’t see my navel!

THE MULE: Still a conversation piece all these years later! Can you just mention a couple of your favorite theatre roles through the years? I know you were in THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT. I think I told you that my brother Kyle produced the first version of STEEL MAGNOLIAS in New York, a show you were in elsewhere.

Dawn Wells in THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT, circa 1969 (publicity still)

Dawn Wells in THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT, circa 1969 (publicity still)

DAWN: I was not in the New York production, but boy, I love that play. I played Ouiser.(in the Judson Theatre Company production in North Carolina). I did LION IN WINTER. I’m doing a play in Jacksonville, and I’ve been looking at some other things. I just asked the Dramatists Workshop if they ever thought of doing SLEUTH with two women. It took us a long time to get two women to do THE ODD COUPLE. I’m always challenged. I don’t know, THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT was about as far from Mary Ann as you could be. However, I gave her the heart of gold. I made her a nice person. I’m always up for a challenge. I’m doing LOVE, LOSS AND WHAT I WORE again in Laguna Beach. I’ve had some funny things happen. I was doing OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT at the Barn Dinner Theatre in Dallas, and we had to run down the aisle to the dressing rooms to change clothes. And some guy grabbed me around the thigh, and put me on his lap! (laughing) And of course, it’s black out… y’know, you gotta be changing costumes, and I’m trying to get his hands off me! It was quite an experience.

THE MULE: Wow, that’s a good one. And you’ve also done a fair number of movies… which one was the best experience for you?

DAWN: WINTERHAWK. Because it was so incredibly beautiful, and I had been working with such professional character actors. And we were really in the snow. I mean, I had on pantyhose over my long underwear, and I was bareback on the horse, trying to go up the Rocky Mountains. And my little horse had just a little tuft of his mane. And we started up the hill and my pantyhose would slide back towards the tail. And I tried to grab ahold of his mane. And about a week into it, I said to the director, “Charlie! All the Indians have saddles under their blankets. Why can’t I have a saddle?” He said “It’s too late now, I put ya there without one.” But you really got to have that feeling… and Michael Dante was a wonderful actor in the role… I think that was my favorite. (She also mentions the horror movie THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, which was based on a true story and conjured suspense for both the cast and viewers)

THE MULE: Anything else you are working on now that you’d like to mention?

Dawn Wells (uncredited photo)

Dawn Wells (uncredited photo)

DAWN: I’ve been looking at some plays that I could do, now that I’m more mature. I could do GIN GAME and a few things like that. I’m also in the midst of a cookbook. And, I’ve been asked to do a radio show. And I’d really, really like a radio show, so I am contemplating that… what could be my theme, what could I talk about? I like fans that call in, and having conversations. We’ll be talking seriously about that.

THE MULE: (we talk a little about growing older, and I relate the story of my song “Up In the Air” for the George Clooney movie of the same name, and how I have harbored different impulses myself.)

DAWN: See, isn’t that wonderful. That’s what I always say, you know, “why give up?” Everybody has something to offer in this world, you just gotta do something about it!”

THE MULE: Well Dawn, you have managed to create such good will and a lasting impact from what could have been a less substantial role, and I just admire that so much. Any look at the internet shows how much fans love you. And you’ve managed to stay so positive and accessible through the years. Not every star does.

DAWN: It’s not very hard to be loved. (laughs) I certainly appreciate the admiration. I mean, If you were a secretary somewhere, and somebody was saying, “You did the best job, or you wrote the best blah blah blah,” you’d sort of feel flattered. I do feel flattered, but I also feel a connection. I guess, you know, when you find that many people that… fathers with kids, and passing that down, there must be something connecting us somehow. And I love people. maybe it’s the way I was raised. I don’t know. I wouldn’t change my life.

THE MULE: You preserved something on that show for all time, creating such a lovable character. Something you did transcended the limits of a silly half-hour television show, that’s for sure.

DAWN: Well I wonder, was it the dialogue? Was it my presenting the dialogue? Was it just because I was cast as that character? I don’t know. You can’t put your finger on it..

Two of our favorite things, Dawn Wells and the Monkeemobile (uncredited photo)

Two of our favorite things, Dawn Wells and the Monkeemobile (uncredited photo)

Dawn Wells is currently appearing at the Fanboy Expo in Nashville, Tennessee through May 15. Her book WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO? is available in bookstores and at Dawn’s website now. You can also keep up-to-date with her upcoming appearances at the site. GILLIGAN’S ISLAND continues its syndication run everywhere, and is probably a popular show on distant planets in outer space by now.


DAWN WELLS: A TRIBUTE TO THE ENDURING SWEETHEART FROM, Y’KNOW, THAT ’60S SHOW

(Part One of a Two Part Series by KEVIN RENICK)

Dawn Wells as Mary Ann Summers in GILLIGAN'S ISLAND (video still)

Dawn Wells as Mary Ann Summers in GILLIGAN’S ISLAND (video still)

Ginger or Mary Ann? It’s a simple question featuring the names of two girls, and the debate behind it, along with all kinds of underlying implications, not only continues to this day but represents an utterly singular phenomenon in pop culture. The question refers, of course, to the two comely actresses who held baby boomers in their pulchritudinous grip on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, a sitcom about a “three-hour tour” in the Pacific that essentially never left the air after its three-year run came to an end in 1967. Ginger was Ginger Grant, played by Tina Louise; the character was a movie star and glamour girl patterned more than a little after Marilyn Monroe. Mary Ann (Summers) was portrayed by Dawn Wells as the definitive “girl next door” type: Sweet, approachable and down to Earth. Why did this question about the two iconic portrayals gain such traction? Why are there multiple articles about it on the net, including a hilarious point/counterpoint essay on the RetroCrush web site that goes into great detail about why EACH lady deserves to win the argument? What could be so significant about a mere question of preference for certain kinds of women that it caused almost the entire male population of television viewers to immediately take a stand, bonding with those who agreed with their choice and driven to rag on those who didn’t? There may be more intriguing or important questions out there when it comes to pop culture history, but I can’t think of another show or even ANY other entertainment medium that gave rise to such an enduring debate about two women. That deserves some recognition, for sure, in a culture that loves polls and “hall of fame” type debates.

So then, Ginger or Mary Ann? Well, I am proud to say I’ve always been completely, totally in the Mary Ann camp. As a baby boomer, GILLIGAN’S ISLAND was one of the shows I never missed growing up; it was an essential part of my childhood. Dawn Wells was the first actress I ever developed a crush on; it was a rather immediate thing, even in the first season of the show when it was in black and white. I’ve run into many guys of a certain age that said the same thing. The easygoing charm and friendliness of Wells’ Mary Ann was arguably the heart of a sitcom that stuffier critics would often ridicule because of the absurd plots. Few of us ever analyzed the plots; we just loved the good fun of the show, the chemistry of the cast, and the pleasure of watching our favorite characters do their thing in each subsequent episode. For me, that meant Mary Ann, followed by Russell Johnson’s charismatic and brilliant Professor (only in one episode did we learn that his actual name was Roy Hinkley), and then poor besotten Bob Denver as Gilligan. There was a familiarity about GILLIGAN’S ISLAND and especially watching it in endless reruns that kept you tied to a vision of simpler, happier times. The castaways became like an extended family. It may have been just an innocuous sitcom, but Dawn Wells, in particular, did something worth examining on the show – she created a female character so fetching, so warm and caring, and so REAL, that millions of fans fell in love with her. Quite early on, the fan mail coffers started filling up more for Dawn than any of her co-stars, and once the “Ginger vs. Mary Ann” debate started in earnest, Dawn almost always came out ahead (with the arguable exception perhaps being polls that appeared in a few men’s magazines). You can find polls and “lists of faves” all over the internet, but we’ll just mention one from the entertainment site, imdb.com. When the question was put to a vote (even asking for other preferences in TV gals; it was phrased as “Ginger or Mary Ann or… “), Mary Ann was the solid winner out of 3200+ respondents, with 652 votes. Barbara Eden of I DREAM OF JEANNIE, not dissimilar in her overall aesthetic, came in second place, with 418 votes. Where was Ginger? Way down in 6th place, with 218 votes.

GINGER OR MARY ANN? (Dawn Wells and Tina Louise... the debate continues) (video still)

GINGER OR MARY ANN? (Dawn Wells and Tina Louise… the debate continues) (video still)

Let’s face it, we like our stars, and we like falling in love with characters from TV shows and movies. It’s part of the escapism that’s really quite necessary to get through life. Dawn Wells became one of the true touchstones on television to embody the concept of “the girl next door.” How she portrayed the endearing Kansas farm girl Mary Ann was to bring her huge, lasting fame and launch a million fantasies and discussions about “desirability” that would utterly transcend producer Sherwood Schwartz’s initial hopes for his unpretentious little TV show. These things can’t be planned or predicted. Audiences do their own thing (especially so in the pre-internet age), and the march of time ultimately determines who wins the popularity contests. Countless actresses earned male admiration and substantial fan bases through the years, but it takes a special combination of circumstances to make someone an icon, a hall of famer, a list topper. The kind of star fans will flock to every appearance for, or write impassioned letters to, year after year after year. Dawn Wells somehow made ALL of that happen, on a TV show that critics thought would fail right away and that was never considered a classic. So, let’s take a look at how she did it, and celebrate a lovely, vibrant woman who has been able to enjoy the fruits of her achievement for many years now.

MARY ANN, THE APPROACHABLE “FRIEND”

It’s not a put-down to say that almost everyone on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND was a bit of a caricature or exaggeration. Bob Denver’s Gilligan, though well-meaning, was always messing things up and preventing rescues; NO ONE would screw up that much in real life. The Skipper, played by Alan Hale Junior, was a commanding if often blustery presence, and spent an inordinate amount of time reacting to Gilligan’s screw-ups. The Professor made too many improbable creations out of crude elements on the island and came up with all sorts of far-flung solutions to problems faced by the castaways. There was likely not much resemblance to any real life scenarios in what he did on that island week after week, but let’s acknowledge just how charismatic and energetic Russell Johnson’s performance was; he deserved more credit than he got. How patently bizarre that the first season’s theme song said “and the rest” instead of naming “the professor and Mary Ann,” something corrected in subsequent seasons. It might’ve made more sense if the lyric said “and the BEST,” since Wells and Johnson were arguably just that. Continuing, though… Ginger? Way too much of a stereotypical “glamorous actress” type, with, again, too many Marilyn Monroe-isms, even if Tina Louise was a game and devoted actress with the part she was given. The Howells? Silly, exaggerated rich people caricatures, though you can hardly fault the quirky and enjoyable acting of Jim Backus and Natalie Schaefer.

Dawn Wells in leopard skin dress, from the GILLIGAN'S ISLAND episode, "The Second Ginger Grant" (video still)

Dawn Wells in leopard skin dress, from the GILLIGAN’S ISLAND episode, “The Second Ginger Grant” (video still)

That brings us to Dawn Wells. Not only was she a totally believable character, with her earnest attempts to help her fellow castaways figure things out and her easygoing charm, she transcended the limitations of the show in almost every way by acting and talking like someone you know or would WANT to know. She was a friend to all. She was tender and caring. She was sometimes motherly, sometimes sweetly innocent, sometimes vulnerable in the most beguiling of ways. I truly think Mary Ann was the genuine heart of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND – the character who provided the most balance and real-life levity. She tended to dole out the lion’s share of reassurance and hope. Her good nature and steadfast loyalty provided forward momentum for a show based on a wacky premise. And emotionally, Mary Ann responded believably to a wide range of situations, her eyes sparkling with vitality and eager curiosity, befuddlement or straightforward concern and empathy. Dawn Wells was a fine actress to accomplish all this; if she was perhaps playing a version of herself, well, it had to take amazing discipline and yes, acting chops, to maintain that level of sweet, affable charm throughout the preposterous scenarios the castaways had to endure. And let’s also acknowledge some of the sassy, sexy moments Dawn gave us on the show. Her physical beauty may have been less showcased, or less “in your face” than Tina Louise’s, but that only made it more distinctive and subtly mesmerizing at times. Who could forget the episode where the girls create a singing group called the Honeybees to compete against fictional pop stars the Mosquitos? One of those “honeybees” generates more BUZZ than the others, and you can guess who it is. Or how about the episode where Mary Ann gets knocked unconscious and wakes up thinking she is Ginger? It’s quite a kick watching Mary Ann wear all her rival’s showy outfits. And there’s the memorable “beauty contest” episode, where the all-knowing Professor promotes Mary Ann as his candidate for “most beautiful woman on the island,” priming her in the important art of showcasing her beauty and talent in different areas. (Professor and Mary Ann ‘shippers must’ve delighted in this scenario.) For the record, Mary Ann’s leggy tap-dancing display would’ve been the most memorable thing in that contest were it not for the glue placed on stage by rivals’ supporters. Every fan can name their favorite episodes and moments, but for me, what Dawn Wells brought to the show was crucial, game-changing. I’d be willing to bet that if you went out and asked a bunch of GI fans who was the heart of the show, the majority of them would probably say Dawn Wells. That says a great deal about a show that started out with such a simple, oft-ridiculed premise.

THOSE LEGS, THOSE LEGS!

GILLIGAN'S ISLAND (Dawn Wells) (publicity photo)

GILLIGAN’S ISLAND (Dawn Wells) (publicity photo)

Here’s a fun fact that is likely only meaningful to male viewers, but for a show that made such a big deal out of having a sex symbol/glamorous actress in the cast, it’s the sweet girl next door who eventually earned a permanent place in the “Legs Hall of Fame” (especially once the internet came along and allowed for endless scrutiny and analysis of, well, every star EVER). Between Sherwood Schwartz’s amiable open-mindedness and Dawn Wells’ evident desire to set herself apart from Tina Louise, the decision was made early on to feature Dawn in the shortest shorts ever to appear on a TV show at the time. They wouldn’t let her show her navel due to absurd censorship standards then in existence, but boy, they let her show her legs, in tiny shorts cut high on the thigh. I would posit that it was the combination of Mary Ann’s sweet innocence and her continual display of leggy beauty that put her over the top with male viewers. These days we don’t think that much about a star merely wearing “hot pants” or other skimpy outfits on their show. It’s commonplace. But in the mid-60s, this was groundbreaking stuff. If I’m not mistaken, a pair of Dawn Wells’ shorts is even headed for the Smithsonian. Sure, she also wore that omnipresent gingham dress and a handful of far more conservative outfits, but it’s the shorts that made the biggest impression with fans. And there were other leg-baring outfits such as the maid uniform she wore in the “Gilligan and the Beanstalk” episode and the short yellow dress from the above mentioned beauty contest, an outfit that she donned again in the “radioactive vegetables” episode. Remember that one? When the Professor tells everyone they need to keep walking and exercising to offset the negative effects of eating radioactive crops, Dawn starts pacing around in that hard-to-ignore outfit. At one point, she complains to the Skipper that she’s too tired and can’t keep walking. “I haven’t got your legs!” she complains. “It’s a good thing you don’t, Mary Ann, or you wouldn’t be able to fit into those shorts,” the Skipper slyly replies. That was one of the few times that Mary Ann’s attire was even acknowledged on the show. But, let it be said that, through the wonders of syndication and endless repeats, hardcore fans got to know every outfit of Mary Ann’s. Who could forget the short little white number she only wore in two or three episodes, including the infamous “vampire” episode (early syndication runs angered some fans by cutting various scenes to accommodate more commercials; one such scene featured Mary Ann and Ginger fighting off a bat until the Professor comes to the rescue. Thankfully, the DVDs and later syndication runs restored the scene). That girly-style frock was also worn by Dawn in the “Tongo, the Ape Man” episode that featured actor Denny Miller as an actor preparing for his role as, well, an ape man. So, yeah, Dawn had legs, and she knew how to use ’em. If we’re talking about the history of women on television, and the evolution of the medium in showcasing female beauty, Dawn Wells pretty much deserves an entire chapter. Giggle all you want, but she wore the shorts noticed ’round the world. Anything that’s a first has relevance and deserves to be mentioned, and appreciated. Ms. Wells gave us a first on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND. With freshness, ease and undeniable sex appeal. Take THAT, Ginger!

THIS IS HOW A STAR SHINES!

STEEL MAGNOLIAS featuring Dawn Wells (theater card for Judson Theatre's 2014 production)

STEEL MAGNOLIAS featuring Dawn Wells (theater card for Judson Theatre’s 2014 production)

The annals of stardom are littered with the cases of performers who couldn’t handle their fame, stars who became bitter due to typecasting, or who succumbed to substance abuse or other destructive behavior. Rare is the star, especially one who rose to fame on a single show or movie, that consistently handles their fame with grace and puts it to good use. Of all the “castaways” from GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, Dawn Wells seemed most grateful for her success and most determined to make it count. Professionally, she did a ton of theatre (THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT and STEEL MAGNOLIAS were among her credits in that realm), and acted in various – mostly low-budget – films such as WINTERHAWK, THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, RETURN TO BOGGY CREEK, SUPER SUCKER and CYBER MELTDOWN, as well as three GILLIGAN’S ISLAND reunion movies for television, the weirdest of which was THE HARLEM GLOBETROTTERS ON GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, actually quite entertaining if you’ve had a few drinks. Dawn has written two books: MARY ANN’S GILLIGAN’S ISLAND COOKBOOK, and the new WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO? A GUIDE TO LIFE, which she has been promoting with bookstore and media appearances for the past year or more. In Idaho, Dawn runs Wishing Wells Collections, an organization that makes clothing for individuals with limited mobility. She also helps her pal, Dreama Denver (Bob Denver’s wife), with the Denver Foundation charity.

Dawn Wells at a 2014 book signing for WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO? (photo credit: MICHAEL TULLBERG/GETTY IMAGES)

Dawn Wells at a 2014 book signing for WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO? (photo credit: MICHAEL TULLBERG/GETTY IMAGES)

But you can read her career stats anywhere on the web. The more important thing to say about Dawn is that she has been fan-friendly to a fault. She has never expressed resentment or even mixed feelings about her GILLIGAN stint; instead, she’s talked about those years with gratitude and the kind of intuitive understanding seemingly beyond the ability of some stars. Dawn appreciates her fans and talks enthusiastically about meeting them all over the world (even relating the tale of a native on a remote island—imagine THAT—recognizing the actress when she was vacationing). She acknowledges the tons of fan mail she gets and answers a good deal of it. She makes autographed photos and other merchandise available on her own web site for modest prices. And, in interview after interview, the divine Ms W talks about the fun she had on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, the reasons why Mary Ann was so popular, and how grateful she was for the whole experience. She even talks about the significance of her shorts with humor and verve. I’ve met quite a few people over the years who were Dawn Wells fans and had the privilege of meeting her at some point. To a person, they state how kind and friendly she was and how appreciative of anything they shared about their fondness for her portrayal of Mary Ann. THAT’S a star. Dawn Wells may not have fully escaped the shadow of GI in terms of subsequent work in the entertainment business, but she has demonstrated, consistently, that she’s at peace with her fame from the show, continuing to work in different media through the years, charming reporters and media types any time she does an interview, and essentially using her fame to keep moving forward while giving fans an ongoing opportunity to connect with her and express their appreciation for what she did on “that show.” Honestly, there just aren’t that many stars of cult TV shows or movies who have so consistently conducted themselves with class and grace, and so openly expressed appreciation for their career path, even if tied to a show with less than stellar critical praise. It’s pretty damn impressive. Dawn Wells could give seminars to fellow celebrities on how to handle fame with true style. And it’s pretty magical how fans seem to light up wherever she goes. She knows that she made an impact with her portrayal of Mary Ann Summers. And she makes it truly FUN to be a fan. That is not necessarily the norm in the entertainment business…

The cast of GILLIGAN'S ISLAND (Russell Johnson, Jim Backus, Natalie Schafer, Bob Denver, Tina Louise, Alan Hale Junior, Dawn Wells) (publicity photo)

The cast of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND (Russell Johnson, Jim Backus, Natalie Schafer, Bob Denver, Tina Louise, Alan Hale Junior, Dawn Wells) (publicity photo)

It’s strangely ironic that Dawn Wells and Tina Louise are the only surviving members of the GILLIGAN cast. With Russell Johnson’s death last year, the two rival actresses are the only ones left to talk about those halcyon ’60s television adventures, and Tina sure ain’t talkin’ much. In fact, she often sounds indignant and embarrassed when the subject of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND comes up. But to the pleasure of many, Dawn IS talking. She surfaces regularly when she has a project to promote, continues to act, and keeps providing plenty of opportunities for fans to enjoy images of the Mary Ann character and fresh insights into the cast and the show. Dawn could’ve been like so many other stars and simply shunned her past. But even into the latter years of her career, she has proved she is SPECIAL. She’s just one of those strong, confident, charming stars that handles it well. She has a good life because of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, and it hasn’t stopped her from doing a damn thing. Nope, Ms Wells is on the move, and her fans will follow her anywhere.

Mary Ann or Ginger? Personally I think it’s no contest. When you grow up loving a star, you want to believe they are genuine, caring, accessible and able to talk about their fame in a way that makes you glad you contributed to it. Dawn Wells does all that and more. She’s assured a permanent spot in the “America’s Sweetheart Hall of Fame.” Read her book. Watch those old episodes of GILLIGAN. Marvel at how composed and genuine she is when interviewed or chatting with fans. This is a gal more than worthy of admiration and boomer fan-ship. Just sit right back and you’ll hear her tales. She’s not just “the rest” (thankfully, Bob Denver helped rectify that absurdity). She’s genuinely the BEST, the girl who, in whatever capacity she affected you, was destined never to leave your memory. We all need a little Mary Ann in our lives.


SOFIA HARDIG: AND THE STREET LIGHT LEADS TO THE SEA

(SOLARIS EMPIRE; Swedish import, 2016)

Street Light II

It’s not easy reviewing an artist as important as Sweden’s Sofia Hardig. She is a singer/songwriter who pushes the thematic and conceptual envelope beyond what we associate with that category, a rock guitarist who is not interested in showing off on the instrument and sometimes buries the sound or zeroes in on one little minimal tone, an electronica innovator who is after something far more ambitious in her compositions than simply making you dance or showing you the cool sounds she can generate on her latest equipment. No, Sofia is after something more significant, something more primal and mysterious, something that is a bit of a secret unless you can either get on her wavelength or follow the “light” she alludes to on this new recording down to, well, the literal or metaphorical “sea” this music tells you to experience. Hardig is concerned about humanity, about things fractured or falling apart, about things sadly NOT working out the way they should because, y’know, PEOPLE and stuff. She is a lonely spokeswoman for angst-ridden characters searching for meaning, but she is not interested in spelling everything out clearly. You’ve got to think a little. “Let, let, let, let love in,” she declares on the opening “Streets,” obviously a universal sentiment, but she sings it like she is surrounded by men with weapons pointed right at her, with a few clangorous chords refusing to let the sentiment simply make its way easily to your ears. Few female artists so convey the urgency of an emotion the way Hardig does. She’s been doing it over the course of half a dozen stellar releases for the past decade or so, and you get the sense that her work is equal parts therapy and humanitarian dissertation. Yet this stuff does rock madly, as on the frenzied “Swim” which is a pretty sexy atonal little creation that INSISTS you listen to it.

Sofia Hardig (photo credit: EMMA GUNNARSSON)

Sofia Hardig (photo credit: EMMA GUNNARSSON)

“The Norm” is primarily a spoken word rant that finds Hardig addressing the “Citizens of the world” somewhat straightforwardly. “It’s not right what they do. They’re not experts on anything. But they think they are. Because they read a little line about what your heart should be. And what your eyes should be. And what your dreams should be. But they’re not right. We know better, you and I,” Hardig declares, then singing the repeated refrain “Keep dreamin,’ baby,” which I like to think is aimed at both the populace that desperately needs to keep having uplifting dreams for a better future, and the oppressive forces almost everywhere these days, that mistakenly THINK they can continue to run things as badly as they have. Hardig has absolute authority throughout this music, and most artists could not pull it off. The clanging, supercharged squall of music behind her helps considerably. Nothing lilting or easy about this sound in any way. It’s gloriously messy and discordant. “Sitting Still” is an ironic title for the next song, which is an ass-kicking rocker that brings to mind Hardig’s countrymen in the band the Knife, who covered some of this sonic territory on their last release, SHAKING THE HABITUAL. The tune just surges madly through a battlefield of opposing forces… no bridge, no chorus, just a furious, short flight past a stressful landscape of the worst of humanity. That’s how it struck me, anyway. After that, “Closed Eyes” is ALMOST lulling, but not quite. There’s a steady rhythm, and some carefully constructed verses, but Hardig’s vocal can’t settle for being merely emotionally resigned and descriptive… real pain rises up in her delivery and the sonic assault of the music is beautifully fierce and controlled, reminding in moments of the Doors on “The End,” the Velvet Underground or various other artists you may think you’ve heard. But this stuff is mostly stunningly original.

Sofia Hardig (photo credit: DANIEL PEDERSON PHOTOGRAPHY)

Sofia Hardig (photo credit: DANIEL PEDERSON PHOTOGRAPHY)

“Low and Slow” is another slam bang rocker, with the guitar firepower turned up high, and Hardig’s underlying punk attitude sneeringly coming to the surface. Only PJ Harvey and Chrissie Hynde come at all to mind when I listen to Hardig, and that’s more because they have a similar kind of absolute authority and rock and roll pedigree, rather than what the music actually does. Hardig comes across as a lonely warrior on these tracks, a woman who looks at the reality of both human folly and the flaws in the human psyche that lessen the quality of relationships and the chance for normalcy. On the brittle, repetitive “Bring It Home,” she seems on the verge of losing it, but the music is absolutely compelling in its driving simplicity and fearless edge. There’s a remix of it (along with one for “Closed Eyes”) on which the lyrics are a bit easier to hear, and the guitars seem to imitate a police siren several times, wailing towards the scene of an emotional crime that has probably inflicted tons of damage. “I lost control of my mind/I’m just skin and bones by your side/I’m layin’ all alone in despair/I can’t control this love that I lost/Come on honey now, bring it home!” Hardig darkly recites, suddenly blasting out those last two lines over and over, and it’s a blistering refrain that takes your ears prisoner while your feet tap along admiringly. With most of these songs, you can’t possibly hope to know the full story. But you don’t NEED to with this Swedish firebrand of a musician; you’ll hear enough and understand enough to get lost in the electrifying power of modern electronic rock and roll, and marvel at the way that mysterious thing called EDGE still exists, at least in whatever studio this woman works in. Sofia Hardig is a welcome antidote to slick audience-pleasing formulas, and a cry in the artistic wilderness for challenging what true self-expression in music should be, with anger and despair rising up to club bland acceptance and positive thinking mantras right over their thick skulls, guitars blazing and passion-infused vocals helping to land the blows. She’s a truly important, powerful sonic auteur who is slowly building a peerless recording catalogue that deserves the full attention of rock fans around the world.


BILLY SHERWOOD: CITIZEN

(Frontiers Music; 2015)

album_cover_CITIZEN_55f05293426d5

Billy Sherwood seems to be a guy who doesn’t rattle easily. A guy who can step in and handle enormous responsibilities without flinching. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, he stepped in to some pretty big shoes, and helped a struggling Jon Anderson-fronted Yes continue their journey on both record and stage. Sherwood’s a big part of the sound on OPEN YOUR EYES and THE LADDER, both underrated. While releasing a series of solo albums and guesting on records all over the place, both proggy and not, Sherwood became a kind of go-to guy when a band needed not just a multi-instrumentalist, but an experienced engineer. Chris Squire, the legendary Yes bassist who succumbed to leukemia last year, initially picked Sherwood to replace him on bass for a huge 2015 Yes tour that Squire knew he couldn’t participate in. That’s no small thing and Sherwood, by all accounts, jumped in ready to go. But then, Squire left this mortal coil, and now, well, we have to assume Sherwood will continue with Yes, and might even be the point man for a brand new phase, one that none of us can anticipate yet. The guy is a fantastic, versatile musician, and he’s earned good karma a-plenty.

Billy Sherwood with Chris Squire (uncredited photo)

Billy Sherwood with Chris Squire (uncredited photo)

Which brings us to CITIZEN, surprisingly Sherwood’s seventh or eighth solo album since 1999. It’s a solid platter, with appearances by Yes members both past and present, and the last song recorded by Chris Squire (he appears on the opening track, “The Citizen”). There’s a familiarity about the sound that you can’t deny, and it wouldn’t be fair to even think in terms of “Yes-lite” or something. These are muscular, strong compositions, and why not use musicians of the caliber of YES men such as Tony Kaye, Rick Wakeman and Geoff Downes if you can? This is still a Sherwood album through and through, and he sings most of the lead vocals. Among standout tracks: “No Man’s Land,” a fizzy prog confection that alternates between memorably processed lead vocals, Yes-like harmonies, and a confidently anchored arrangement. “Age of the Atom” is a stirring piece that has a descending chord progression, a hooky chorus and some zippy keyboard playing… this one definitely sticks in the ear. By the way, this and “The Great Depression” may bring another progressive behemoth to mind – Genesis. Sherwood sounds a tad like Peter Gabriel at times, and it’s worth mentioning that Steve Hackett from that band is also featured on the record (on “Man and the Machine”). “Trail of Tears” is a tune Gabriel would love… it echoes his aesthetic about indigenous peoples and the subject matter definitely takes on the famed Native American death march of the 1800s. Some very airy, charming synth work is an interesting sonic counterpoint to the theme, and you can just enjoy this track musically without worrying about the history lesson. It’s really good, plain and simple. The aptly named “Escape Velocity” is suffused with Yes DNA… if you just heard this playing, especially during the chorus, you would guess it was likely the real YES, an unfamiliar track perhaps. This is really spirited stuff, and you will swear you can hear Squire on that chorus and bass (though it’s really Billy showing the world why he was Chris’ handpicked successor). Anyway, this is one of the album’s highlights. The ending really kicks ass. And so does the ending of the entire disc, “Written In the Centuries,” which finds current Yes lead singer Jon Davison outfront on vocals. Nice, tight harmonies, chiming guitars, mystical lyrics, tempo changes… why, YES, peeps, you’ll recognize this sound! But somehow it’s also… different. Fresh. It’s the Billy Sherwood approach to prog, and it’s plenty meaty!

Billy Sherwood (publicity photo)

Billy Sherwood (publicity photo)

The album has a story line, by the way, something about a lost soul being reincarnated into different historical periods. There’s a song about Galileo (featuring vocals from XTC’s Colin Moulding) and all sorts of references you’ll have fun trying to catch. But you don’t HAVE to know the theme or decipher the lyrics to appreciate this album. There’s a majesty about a lot of this stuff that shows the pedigree of the players. There are melodies, no song is all that long, and the sonics are nicely balanced between what all Yes fans might expect and fresher elements that Billy Sherwood, a thoughtful musician, took care to weave into the compositions. This CITIZEN is a reliable one indeed, and deserves to take its rightful place in the ever evolving community of Yes and related prog-dom. Nice job, Billy boy. I hope your pal Chris got to hear most of this before he said goodbye.


JOHN LODGE: 10,000 LIGHT YEARS AGO

(Esoteric Antenna; 2015)

maxresdefault

I’m rather late coming to this one, which is odd because I am a big Moody Blues fan. I think the Moodys are one of the most underrated (at least by official organizations) bands of all time, and in particular, I think Justin Hayward is an incredible singer/songwriter that deserves some kind of special creative inspiration award for the way he transformed the Moodys from an average ’60s pop band to an incredibly evocative, haunting poetic soft prog band. In fact, there is a new film out about the significance of DAYS OF FUTURE PAST in the annals of rock music. Okay, there were others involved in that process, but… it was mostly Justin. However, this review is supposed to be about John Lodge. His second solo disc is titled 10,000 LIGHT YEARS AGO, and it begs the question, as solo outings always do, what interesting things did John have to share with us that could not fit into the confines of the Moodys’ work? Well, maybe that’s not fair – a parent band generally has a signature sound that everyone contributes to; solo albums allow the “lesser” members to do something where they are in control. John Lodge is a vital part of the Moody Blues, and his collaborations with Justin Hayward have made for some of the best music of all time, up to and including their peerless 1975 BLUE JAYS outing. But vocally, he certainly takes a back seat to Justin’s emotive singing. That said, if you cue up the tune “Simply Magic,” you’ll not only get an acoustic charmer of a tune, you’ll get three Moody Blues – as Ray Thomas and Mike Pinder, both of whom left the band after their heyday, make guest appearances. It’s a breezy little tune. I didn’t respond much to “In My Mind” and “Get Me Out of Here,” both of which struck me as rather bland. Somewhat better is the violin and accordion-laden “Love Passed Me By,” a snappy little supper club tune that sounds like John Lodge making music far apart from his homies. He seems really engaged in this track. One thing, though… after years of making poetic, innovative music with his bros Justin Hayward and Graeme Edge, couldn’t Lodge come up with better lyrics than “Love passed me by/When you said goodbye/For another guy/Gone was the chance/Of our romance/When you said goodbye/Now as I lay in my cold and lonely room/It’s the day love passed me by.” C’mon, John, you were involved in tunes like “Tuesday Afternoon,” “Ride My Seesaw,” and “Question”… you’re gonna tell me that sophisticated comps like that didn’t raise the stakes for ya? Most is forgiven with the out and out rock & roll of “(You Drive Me) Crazy,” which is a ton of fun and might be as loose as Lodge has ever sounded in a recording studio. “Lose Your Love” is quite yucky, and Lodge doesn’t have an interesting enough voice or approach to pull off the bland lyrics and overly familiar subject matter here. The closing title track seems like an attempt to utilize some aspects of the Moodys’ sound in a solo context, and while it has a little bit of grandeur and definite forward motion, I couldn’t help wondering what the song might have risen to if Hayward had been the co-writer. Not much original here, honestly.

John Lodge (publicity photo courtesy: ROGERS AND COWAN)

John Lodge (publicity photo courtesy: ROGERS AND COWAN)

It’s gotta be tough, being in a legendary band and thinking you have more to say than what the band will allow. The creative impulse cannot be denied, but the fact is, countless solo albums from bands like the Moody Blues, Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd and others from the progressive era simply fell way short of expectations. Justin Hayward, as the primary force in the Moodys, always seemed so prolific that he had to get his solo stuff out there, and it retained a familiarity overall that kept fans pleased. While some of Lodge’s tunes rise to the level of melodic pleasantry, there is definitely a sense of something missing on 10,000 LIGHT YEARS AGO. You want it to be dramatic, like the title… searching, thoughtful, maybe even a little epic. At best, though, it is amiable, well-crafted and inoffensive. It’s a “question of imbalance,” a thwarted “search for the lost chord” that would stick with you somehow if these songs were richer in detail, even if most Moodys’ fans will at least be glad this second Lodge outing exists at all.


INSECT ARK: PORTAL/WELL

(Autumnsongs Records; 2015)

insect-ark-portal-well

For many years, I’ve worn it as a badge of pride that I was almost always the one, at whatever publication I wrote for, to champion the weirdest, darkest, most challenging music the publication received. I developed an interest in ambient and experimental music quite early, and although I don’t just automatically like things BECAUSE they are weird and dark, I sure can tell when a creative aesthetic is at work, and when the practitioners CARE what they are doing. There is no doubt that Insect Ark mean it, man. This PORTAL/WELL release, their debut, is a stunning journey to places most folks just won’t go. We’re talking serious, concentrated creepy atmospherics, a sonic template where drones exist at a frequency outside the comfort zone and metallic sounds emanating from a dark urban alley may be from a decaying structure trying to return to its original nature or from the titular “portal” to some very threatening subterranean place. And also, something WICKED this way DRUMS… the pounding, ominous percussion here on tracks like “The Collector” (I would NOT wanna know what he collects!) and “Octavia,” though played by a human being named Ashley Spungin, does NOT represent the sound of physical release, It simply is not the rhythm of anything but perhaps a tortured psyche. Spungin isn’t the auteur here, though. Remarkably, Insect Ark is almost entirely the vision of a woman, a remarkable female composer/multi-instrumentalist named Dana Schechter. Her past music includes the more luminous Bee and Flower project, and she is an animator and video artist working in the film business.

Insect Ark (Dana Schechter) (photo credit: LAUREN BILANKO)

Insect Ark (Dana Schechter) (photo credit: LAUREN BILANKO)

I can only guess Schechter’s reasons for making such unsettling, alien music. She’s probably heard some records by Lustmord and Nurse With Wound, or who knows, maybe she is working through her own inner demons with this stuff. The Insect Ark website helpfully relates: “Creating a personal soundtrack to the human psyche’s underbelly, Insect Ark weaves a brooding textural landscape, a starless night spiked with light and flash.” Yeah, THAT! Gosh, I am not seeing much light, though. “Portal” and “Parallel Twins” could be soundtracks for a modern horror film, something by a European director, perhaps, who pushes the envelope too far. Life is NOT a safe, fun thing as expressed in this music. And yet, there are moments of eerie, spellbinding ambient beauty, as on the haunting “Low Moon,” which fully falls into the genre category of “dark ambient” and probably bests a few male composers of that style in its purity. Not to put too fine an oh so sharp point ON it, but we’re not used to hearing women make music like this. It’s potent, scary and damn self-assured. Insect Ark do NOT want you to sleep comfortably or, in fact, to draw too much inspiration from the beauty of life when there’s plenty of nightmarish stuff also deserving of your attention. But still, this is only a record in the end. A vital, off-center, somewhat unhinged soundtrack to stumbling through the darkness in dangerous times. I admire what Insect Ark have conjured. It’s got a good “buzz” and you can TRANCE to it…