The year is 2014 and The Monkees are returning to New Jersey. The legendary pop-rock pioneers of the music-television format will be back in the Garden State with a highly anticipated stop at NJPAC on May 24.
Originally conceived by Hollywood producers in the mid-1960s as an unabashed way of capitalizing on the staggering success of The Beatles, The Monkees have outlasted decades of detractors and misguided music critics who failed to embrace a simple truth: The Monkees matter. Fueled by a warehouse-size arsenal of some of the most timeless pop songs ever crafted and a contagiously fun screen and stage presence, the “make-believe” TV group, which famously fought to become a real-life rock ‘n’ roll band, continues to thrill audiences almost 50 years after their debut.
Stunned by the unexpected death of singer Davy Jones in February 2012, the surviving members soldiered on to overcome what many thought might be an insurmountable loss. The reconstituted trio of Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith has been performing to critical acclaim for the last 18 months and shows few signs of slowing down. Unapologetically a diehard fan of the group since the age of 5, I was beyond delighted to receive a call last week from Monkees singer and drummer Micky Dolenz, who was phoning in from his office in Studio City, California. What follows are highlights from my candid conversation with the always energized 69-year-old entertainer:
Q: Micky, many of our readers will be attending the upcoming Monkees concert at NJPAC. What can they expect to hear and see that night?
MD: Well, we do all the big hits. We kind of believe we have this unspoken contract with our audience over the decades. They want to hear those songs and they want to hear them in their entirety. And we’ve always incorporated a lot of visuals, using video material from the television show and the early days, which fans enjoy seeing. In this particular show we do a number of tunes from our “Headquarters” album, and then it’s kind of like a chronological trip through Monkeedom.
Q: What has it been like having guitarist/singer Mike Nesmith back on board for the recent tours?
MD: The tour we did a couple years ago, while it wasn’t the official Davy Jones memorial show, we definitely paid tribute and an homage to David. With Nez (Nesmith), it’s been great having him back. We’re just still catching up with him from the last decade or so. And I’m having a wonderful time. Drumming and singing his songs, with Nez handling the lead vocals and me doing the high-harmony parts like we did on the original records. That has been a great thrill for me going back and revisiting that. It really harkens back to our original tour in the 1960s.
Q: Let’s talk about New Jersey and you. Besides the obvious West Orange references mentioned in your monster hit, “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” has this state ever factored significantly into your long career or personal life?
MD: Careerwise, it has always been a really strong base for our audience. And personal life? Certainly. (chuckles) I met my wife at Harrah’s Casino in Atlantic City and my wife’s sister lives in Jersey, so I’m there all the time. Every year to this day we go down to Ocean City every summer; it’s one of our favorite places to vacation.
Q: The Monkees phenomenon seems almost indestructible. To what do you attribute the band’s popularity and longevity after nearly half a century later?
MD: That’s a good question. I think there is a certain combination of people and things and ideas that clicks or doesn’t, and in our case, it did. I don’t think you can reduce it in any scientific sense and say, “Oh, it was just the songwriting or it was just the TV show or it was my vocals or David being cute.” You put together a certain number of people who have a concept, songs, scripts, directors, producers and writers, and at a certain point the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
Q: But wouldn’t you agree that you, Davy, Peter and Mike shared an undeniable chemistry and connection as Monkees?
MD: Absolutely, but you could also say the same thing about something like the original “Star Trek”. What was it about “Star Trek” that still resonates with people to this day? Was it just William Shatner? Was it the solid writing, the art direction and set design? Leonard Nimoy’s pointy ears? There’s really no formula for a success like that, otherwise you would never have a flop.
Q: I was born the very week your show first aired in September 1966 and grew up in the 1970s watching reruns of “The Monkees” on Saturday morning TV. Generations of people just like me have all these wonderful memories linked to you guys. Am I over-simplifying it too much to submit that as a reason The Monkees still endure?
MD: Not at all. The television show was very upbeat and the comedy was not topical. It was more like a Marx Brothers movie. And the music was written by some of the greatest songwriters of our time. Folks like Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, Carole King, Neil Diamond, Harry Nilsson, Paul Williams and David Gates. These people don’t write a lot of dud tunes.
Q: In your opinion, what was the best or most fully realized Monkees album from the original 1960s catalog?
MD: That’s a difficult question. The first few albums we had very little control over anything to do with the music. I didn’t have a huge problem with that; I was quite happy to take it on as an assignment. Boyce and Hart did an incredible job of producing and writing some of those big early hits, and those records are wonderful. When we did start to get more control over the music, the dynamic changed a bit. “Headquarters” is where the group wrote, co-produced, sang and played on a lot of the tracks. It’s a very different album from the others.
Q: What are the three Monkees songs you most enjoy performing live?
MD: Oh boy. Currently? “Pleasant Valley Sunday” is always at the top of my list. I also like doing another Carole King tune, called “As We Go Along,” from our movie, “Head.” Then it’s a toss-up between “Steppin’ Stone,” by Boyce and Hart, and “Goin’ Down,” by Diane Hilderbrand.
Q: One of my most indelible Monkees TV-show memories can be traced back to the Christmas episode, when the four of you harmonize on a gorgeous a capella version of “Riu Chiu.” Do you have a favorite episode?
MD: Oh, that was a beautiful tune. (long pause) I don’t remember the experience as “episodes” because we filmed them continuously. I do remember working with great people, like Rose Marie and Stan Freberg, actors and guest stars who appeared on our show. But I don’t really recall them in terms of separate episodes because it was kind of like one long episode. (laughs)
Q: Looking back on The Monkees brilliantly subversive 1968 motion picture called “Head,” what do you think of it now?
MD: Well, I still don’t know what it’s about. (laughs) Maybe somebody can tell me?
Q: Honestly? I think the movie is about you guys deliberately deconstructing the band right there on film.
MD: Well, if you want to get philosophic about it, it was about the deconstruction of The Monkees, but using that as a metaphor for the deconstruction of the Hollywood studio system. Which is exactly what director Bob Rafelson, producer Bert Schneider, Jack Nicholson (who co-wrote, co-produced and briefly appeared in “Head”), Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda (of “Easy Rider” fame) were creating at the time, the independent Hollywood film industry.
Q: If I may ask, of all your iconic rock ‘n’ roll and movie-star buddies that you partied with back in the day, who was the absolute wildest?
MD: Ummm… (laughing) I can’t remember!
Q: OK, what if you had not been chosen to be a Monkee way back in 1965? What alternate path would you have taken in life?
MD: That’s pretty simple. At the time I was auditioning for “The Monkees” and a bunch of other pilot episodes, I was in college studying to be an architect. I was going to start an architectural business with a friend of mine. In fact, I didn’t even quit college when I was selected to be a Monkee because I knew that pilot episodes often are not picked up by the network. I actually took 10 days off from school to film the pilot. When the series was sold, that’s when I quit school. And I loved doing architecture, so I would probably still be doing that now.
Q: You’ve been a successful child actor, heartthrob, singer, musician, producer, author, radio DJ, and the list goes on. What does the future hold in store for you?
MD: Hopefully touring with my solo show. And, of course, performing with The Monkees. I’ve been doing an awful lot of musical theater on Broadway and London’s West End. And I’ll be doing a new play later in the year as well.
Q: This truly has been an honor and a pleasure for me. One last question: If we could travel back in time to 1966 and tell the 21-year-old Micky Dolenz that The Monkees will still be performing to packed houses, garnering rave reviews and selling tons of albums in the year 2014, what do you think you’d say?
MD: (Long pause) I would say, “Get a psychiatrist, buddy. (laughing) You’re gonna need a psychiatrist.”
David VanDeventer is an entertainment reporter for Worrall Media. Archival research and technical support was provided by Dennis Pellicano.