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Monkees’ business was make-believe

November 29, 2011 by  
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Micky Dolenz says his famous band wasn’t really a band at all, but the musician – who will be in Montreal next week for a fundraiser – speaks affectionately about the quartet’s pop hits and counterculture weirdness

Micky Dolenz is quite adamant about it.

By the tone of his voice, he has patiently explained it far too often to puzzled interviewers: The Monkees, he insists, was not a real band.

It’s hard to wrap your mind around. After all, out of the 11 albums the group (unfortunately, it will be impossible to avoid that term) recorded, there are a couple on which no one outside the quartet played a note. The four can also take credit for some of the most memorable pop records of their era. And outside the studio, they played live, just like their chart-topping contemporaries.

But ask Dolenz about concert recordings and whether they saw themselves as the garage band they sounded like on stage. The premise of the question, you will find, is quickly rejected.

“First of all, there wasn’t a ‘yourselves,’ ” the friendly and talkative Dolenz said during a lengthy telephone interview with The Gazette. “The Monkees was a television show about an imaginary band living on the beach, getting into all these adventures and making music.”

Dolenz, who will be at Metropolis Dec. 6 and 7 to appear in a fundraiser for the Donald Berman Maimonides Centre for Research in Aging, likens the Monkees concept to the imaginary glee club in the imaginary high school that forms the backdrop of the TV series Glee. The cast members of that show, he said, were chosen for their singing, playing, dancing and acting abilities. And by his reckoning, it was more or less the same with the Monkees, thrown together at a casting call for a weekly comedy show that ultimately lasted only two seasons.

A child actor on the TV show Circus Boy, Dolenz had also fronted or played guitar in bands for years before he was cast as the zany drummer of what has been derisively called the Pre-Fab Four. Approaching his new role as an acting assignment and not a musical vocation, he immediately started taking lessons and practising obsessively. Before long, the four actors and musicians from the overnight-hit television series were playing their first gigs before 15,000 people. And as they tried to bash out Last Train to Clarksville, I’m a Believer or (I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone, they couldn’t hear themselves for the screaming.

Dolenz, who sang lead on most Monkees songs, couldn’t even make out his voice or his drums. “There were no monitors back then,” he explained. “And no click tracks, of course. The only thing I’m hearing is what’s coming off the back wall, two seconds later.” Dolenz said he would close his eyes and hit his leg at the same time as he hit the snare drum, to keep pace. Eventually, he said, guitarist Michael Nesmith, who could hear the whole group from his position near the amplifiers, would click his heel at the right tempo and Dolenz would use that visual cue to stay in time.

“It was crazy, but God, what fun!” he said.

Dolenz still likes one of Nesmith’s lines. “Mike once said the Monkees becoming a real band – which we certainly did, to some degree – was like Pinocchio becoming a real little boy,” he said.

The Beatles, all four of whom went on record with positive words about the Monkees, really got it, Dolenz said. “John Lennon was the first who said – before I even thought about it – ‘the Monkees are like the Marx Brothers,’ which was exactly right. It’s much closer to accuracy to say the Monkees were television’s answer to the Marx Brothers than the United States’ answer to the Beatles.”

But it’s more complicated than that. Nesmith and bassist Peter Tork were working musicians before they were on TV. Both, especially a disgruntled Nesmith, fought to have the group members play their own instruments on record instead of having hired guns do the job. Nesmith, the only Monkee to bring original compositions into the studio at first, was coming up with material as good as the contributions of professional songwriters submitting hits for the band. In short order, Dolenz and singer Davy Jones caught the bug and wanted to come up with their own contributions, Dolenz said. The third Monkees album, Headquarters, a Dolenz favourite, was a product of that rebellion against what Dolenz frequently referred to as “the powers that be.” The 1967 record featured only their playing – an accomplishment that would not be repeated until 30 years later, with the reunion disc Justus. And Headquarters is a gem that stands comfortably beside just about anything released in that heady year of psychedelia.

Dolenz, reflecting on the album, had to give in – just a bit.

“It ended up that there were really two groups: one was the group on the TV show, the imaginary one that lived in the beach house. And then when we went on the road, a new group was invented,” he said. “That group became another Monkees. To this day, when we get together, that’s the group that gets on stage. When we did Headquarters, that’s the other Monkees.”

The group’s definitive cult moment was the 1968 movie Head, a deeply weird film that was co-written and co-produced by a then-unknown Jack Nicholson. A flop when it was released, it lampooned the group, Hollywood clich├ęs and pop culture, ascending to hip credibility in several second lives over the ensuing four decades. A deluxe version of the film came out on DVD and Blu-ray last year, as did an expanded edition of its soundtrack, which featured some of the group’s strongest performances.

“I loved it then and I love it now, although I’m not sure what it was about,” Dolenz said, laughing. “I loved the work I did in it, the acting. I was very proud of that.”

The film coincided with the departure of Tork, who, Dolenz said, was disappointed that the group hadn’t followed up on the self-contained, real-band musicality of Headquarters. Nesmith exited in 1970 and Jones called it a day a year later. Around that time, Dolenz said, Frank Zappa called and invited him to join the Mothers.

“I thought, ‘No way in hell I can play some of that music, with its complicated time signatures,’ but I was very flattered,” he said. Dolenz’s record company at the time would not release him to work with Zappa. “I couldn’t do it legally, but I don’t know – it would have been a hell of a stretch for me,” he said.

Occasional reunion tours have brought Dolenz, Jones and Tork back together, with Nesmith invariably declining to take part. (Dolenz, however, expressed nothing but praise for Nesmith’s songs during our interview.) A critically acclaimed 45th-anniversary tour this summer was the most recent regrouping, but some shows at the end were abruptly cancelled.

“I can’t tell you a lot, because it’s in the hands of my lawyer,” Dolenz said. “There were some improprieties, shall we say, in the financial, the fiduciary world of the tour. Peter and I are currently trying to sort it out.”

Dolenz, an avid golfer and gardener, has added relentlessly to his CV since the group called it quits the first time, after what was a deceptively short lifespan. One night, while Dolenz was part of the Broadway cast of Aida, he realized he had worked longer on that production alone than he had with the Monkees the first time around, he said.

He has also appeared in Hairspray; written the children’s book Gakky Two Feet; tried his hand at hosting an AM drive-time show in New York, Micky in the Morning; and gone out on package nostalgia tours with contemporaries like Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits. His latest disc, 2010’s King for a Day, is a tribute to the music of Carole King, who co-wrote such Monkees favourites as Pleasant Valley Sunday, Take a Giant Step and Porpoise Song (Theme from Head).

In spite of Dolenz’s frequently expressed affection for musical theatre, he said he turned down a recent offer to appear in a production of 42nd Street. “I’ve been on the road for almost three years. I’m kind of beat up. They pay me to travel. I sing for free,” he said. “I’m kind of enjoying just hanging out at home and planting my string beans.”

Micky Dolenz will appear with eight bands made up of dentists, doctors, lawyers and other professionals, as part of the ninth annual Donald Berman Maimonides Battle of the Bands Dec. 6 and 7 at Metropolis, 59 Ste. Catherine St. E. All proceeds go to the Donald Berman Maimonides Centre for Research in Aging. Generaladmission seating in the club’s balcony costs $72, or $25 for people under 30, while reserved-seating packages with various extras are scaled between $500 and a two-night corporate package for $1,800. For more information, go to www.DonaldBermanMaimonides.net.

bperusse@ montrealgazette.com

twitter.com/bernieperusse

via Monkees’ business was make-believe.

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