KEVIN RENICK is one check closer to completing his bucket list.
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
“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.
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.”
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.
“Thank you very much,” is his modest reply. And then I went along, with a HEAD full of impressions…