Monkee Business and a Whole Lot More: Catching up With Micky Dolenz (EXCLUSIVE)
When looking back at his days as a member of the TV show The Monkees, Micky Dolenz has no illusions about what he had gotten himself involved with. The media and everybody out there may have claimed that the show was created in direct response to The Beatles, and the creation of the band within it to more or less cash in on their success, but he doesn’t agree. In this exclusive interview, Micky explains, “I was happy being cast into a show. Not the member of a band, but the member of a cast in a television show about a band. That’s a fine distinction, but an important one. I was playing the role of the wacky drummer, and part of that job was they’d say, ‘Okay, on Tuesday night you’re going to record a lead vocal for a couple of songs,’ or sometimes two or three songs in one night. I approached it as an entertainer, an actor, and a singer. That was my job.
“The Monkees,” he adds, “was much more like the Marx Brothers than The Beatles. And if you get that — if that makes sense to you and you get your arms around that — then everything else makes sense.”
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We want to give you that, Micky. We really do, and while the flavor of that classic comedy troupe is certainly a part of the show, over 50 years later people are still talking about The Monkees, with few comparisons any longer being made to the brothers Marx. Whatever the case, that longevity, from the outside looking in, seems pretty mind-blowing.
“After all this time, I don’t find it weird,” he says of its enduring nature. “Frankly, I kind of take it for granted… Well, I shouldn’t say that. I never totally take anything for granted. I feel blessed, you know? I would say that’s a good word. Over the years I’ve grown to understand it, because I’ve given talks on it.”
He recalls years he spent in England following The Monkees, serving as a producer and director of British television shows. While there, he would give talks and people would ask him questions about the business in general and The Monkees TV series in particular, wondering why it has sustained the way that it has. His response is that it’s the same reason that a show like Star Trek still stands up, or a movie like Casablanca, or the music of The Beatles. In essence: who knows?
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“In our business,” Micky explains, “you can’t really reduce in a scientific sense what made Star Trek the phenomena that it was. Like the old story, taking the watch apart to see how it works, and, of course, it doesn’t work anymore. You can’t reduce these things. You put together a team of people and an idea, and you do your best. You work hard and you cross your fingers and try not to make too many mistakes. The way I look at it is that at a certain point the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. One of the producers of The Monkees once said, ‘We just caught lightning in a bottle,’ and that’s sort of the way I look at it. It was the writing, it was the songwriting, it was the comedy of the TV show, the directing, and, of course, the four of us. All of a sudden, it just sort of self-ignites like an uncontrollable fission reaction or something.”
Micky was born George Michael Dolenz on March 8, 1945, in Los Angeles. The son of actors George Dolenz and Janelle Johnson, it’s hardly surprising that he found himself drawn to that world. In 1956, he played the character of Corky in Circus Boy, whose job it was to bring elephants their water. The show, which lasted two seasons, was actually an action/adventure drama set in the 1890s. Following that show, he appeared on the TV series Mr. Novak, but focused largely on his education, at the same time developing a love for music.
“I had cover bands for a few years before The Monkees,” he says, “but mainly I was a child star in the ’50s with Circus Boy. So when The Monkees came along, that was my second series, so I was quite familiar with that whole world of television and television series. I slipped right into that new role, which was the wacky drummer in this rock and roll band.”
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That TV rock and roll band had its origins in Beatlemania, which was sweeping over the world in 1964 (with no small influence from the Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night). The concept was that the four members of The Monkees were a struggling rock band (played by Micky, Davy Jones, Peter Tork and Mike Nesmith) looking for success, but constantly finding themselves in bizarre circumstances (though they still managed to get a couple of songs into every episode). The show ran on NBC from 1966-68, for a total of 58 episodes. And it was those episodes that have lived on and on and on.
It also needs to be said that the fans went ape for The Monkees (sorry), but for a long time the media raised its nose at the show and its bandmembers, dismissing them as Beatles wannabes and the series as a whole was nothing but commercial exploitation.
Laughs Micky, “My feeling at the time, when you’re that successful, is you really don’t give a sh-t what people say, frankly. But the people I cared about got it. They got what it was. It was not trying to cash in on The Beatles. It was a television show. The Monkees was not a group or a band, it was a TV show about a band. And it was about this imaginary band that lived in this beach house — which was a set on the Columbia lot — that wanted to be The Beatles. It was that struggle for that success that I think had a lot to do with touching all those kids out there around the country — around the world — that were in their basements and living rooms and garages. They wanted to be The Beatles, too. It’s important to remember that we were never famous on The Monkees show. We never made it. It was the struggle for success that resonated with so many kids.”
He feels that the closest comparison to The Monkees is Glee, the popular series about an imaginary glee club in an imaginary school where everyone could sing and dance.
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“That’s the closest thing that’s come along in a while,” Micky notes. “Back in the ’60s, of course, that kind of thing was unheard of in Hollywood and especially in rock and roll. People took their rock and roll very seriously, and still do to some degree. You know, Timothy Leary had like half a chapter in one of his books called ‘The Politics of Ecstacy,’ which was about The Monkees and he was essentially saying it brought long hair into the living room. At that point, if you had long hair and bell bottoms, the only time you were on television is when you were being arrested. All of a sudden here come these guys that are just, like, ‘[singing] We’re too busy singing, to put anybody down.’ So the show made it okay to have long hair and bell bottoms; it did not mean you were going to commit crimes against nature. So, like I was saying, the people that I cared about got it. John Lennon was the first one to say, ‘I like The Monkees. They’re like the Marx Brothers.'”
But there did come a point of transition, where The Monkees went from just being a make believe group on a TV show to actually being a band. Micky points out that, again, it was definitely strange for the time, though today it wouldn’t seem out of the ordinary at all given TV shows like The Voice and American Idol.
“Mike Nesmith,” he relates, “the way he put it was that when we went on the road and started performing live, just the four of us, that’s when Pinocchio became a real little boy, and there is something to that. Like I said with Glee, when they went out and performed, were they the characters on the TV show or were they themselves? It’s a good question and I think that, in a way, was the moment when the other Monkee band sort of had life breathed into it. There’s kind of, like, two Monkees in my opinion. One was the imaginary one on the television show, living in that beach house in Malibu, never making it — which does beg the question of how we could afford a beach house in Malibu — and then there’s the Monkees band that rehearsed and worked our butts off to do live concerts. And eventually we did do hundreds of live concerts on the road and, like Mike says, that’s sort of like Pinocchio becoming a real little boy.”
An amazing team of songwriters.
Another point of contention from critics was the fact that The Monkees didn’t record their own music, songs being written for them instead. “Oh, please,” laughs Micky. “They were unbelievable songwriters. Are you kidding me? Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Neil Diamond, Neil Sadaka, Paul Williams, Harry Nilsson, David Gates, Diane Hildebrand, Carole Bayer Sager. They don’t write too many duff tunes, those people. I’m thrilled they were there. I dedicated my solo shows to the songwriters.
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“I can only speak for myself,” he continues, “but I know that Mike Nesmith has a very different take on all this, because he was a singer-songwriter and he was very frustrated. We’ve talked about it; he was frustrated that they had hired him as, presumably, a singer-songwriter, because he’s never done any acting. He tells the story of going in to the music producers one day in the early days, when the whole thing was just starting. We’re filming and started to record and stuff. He played them a song on his guitar, and he said, ‘This is one of my new songs,’ and they said, ‘Oh, that’s fine, but that’s not really a Monkee song.’ He must have been quite confused and said, ‘But wait a minute, I am one of the Monkees.’ And they said, ‘Yeah, that’s true, but, no, that’s not a Monkee tune.’ And he went and gave it to a young girl singer kicking around in Los Angeles at the time named Linda Ronstadt. The song was ‘Different Drum.’ So Nes was very frustrated.
“Peter, who was a folk musician and plays, like, seven instruments and went to a music conservatory, tells the story of going into an early session with his bass guitar, and they said, ‘What are you doing here?’ So it must have been very frustrating for the two of them. For myself, I was used to being cast into something and following directions, hitting my mark. Later on, it was Nes that got me into songwriting. He’s the one that actually said, ‘You know, you really should be writing some stuff. It’s good.’ And I did. I’ve never been prolific, but I did write a few things.”
And then there was Head.
As The Monkees wrapped up its network run in 1968, a movie version (of sorts) was produced and released in that same year. In no uncertain terms, it’s a bizarre mish-mash of visuals that has virtually nothing to do with the TV series and, if anything, seems intent on blowing up the entire Monkees image. What was it all about?
“I wish I knew,” sighs Micky. “I wish I knew.”
Those words hang in the air a few seconds before he offers up his own theories. “The Monkees show was canceled and it was a mutual decision,” he says. “Producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider came up and said, ‘We have a chance to do a movie. What do you think?’ We sort of all agreed — well, I did, anyway — that we didn’t want to do a 90-minute episode of The Monkees. We’d been fettered quite a bit during the TV show because of network censors, and so the general consensus was, ‘Let’s do something a little bit out there.’ Bob introduced us to this B-movie actor, Jack Nicholson, who was going to come on board and be part of it, and write it. We all fell in love with him immediately. He was and still is incredibly charismatic, funny, brilliant. So we all got along. He hung out on the set of the show for months, and then we all got together and talked about this movie.”
Head, he says, came out of those conversations, with Jack writing “that very bizarre” screenplay. Others who got involved included Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, who were among the people that would essentially push back against Hollywood with an indie spirit and would, a year later, make the revolutionary Easy Rider.
“There’s a scene in the film where Mike and I and Teri Garr — it was her first film role — are cavalry officers in the wild west. Indians are attacking us and Teri Garr is lying there with an arrow in her. The whole movie consisted of pastiches on different Hollywood scenarios. I stand there and all of a sudden I get hit with a bunch of fake arrows — special effects arrows. I look down and I break them off and say, ‘Bob, I’ve had it, I can’t do this anymore.’ I’m speaking to Bob Rafelson, the director. I throw the arrows onto the ground, turn around and storm off, going right through the backdrop of this western set. That, to me, is sort of the central conceit of the movie. it was breaking through the old school barriers of the Hollywood studio stystem. And then the producer went on and made Easy Rider.”
Life after The Monkees
While the series finished its network run, and then started repeating on Saturday mornings, Micky began working on his solo career again in terms of music and acting. He recorded a couple of solo albums for MGM Records, provided voice acting for a number of animated TV series, and, due to the rising popularity of The Monkees on Saturday mornings, went out on tour with Davy Jones and songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. In 1977, he went to England and co-starred with Davy in the Harry Nilsson musical The Point!. And as the 1980s rolled in, Micky decided to stay in London where he served as a producer and director of British television shows.
“I didn’t rest on my laurels after The Monkees,” he points out. “I went to England to star in a play and got lucky and had an agent send me around. First thing I did was a drama play for the BBC, and then I went on from there and all I did was direct and produce. It was good, because it gave me a chance to step back from it all and I didn’t do any singing. No Monkee business.”
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That changed, however, in the ’80s when MTV began rerrunning the series and opened it up to a whole new generation. Suddenly there was a renewed demand for The Monkees, resulting in a 20th Anniversary tour, a greatest hits album, new album Pool It! and the hit single, “That Was Then, This is Now.” For Micky, far from feeling trapped by all that so-called “Monkee business”, he felt excited about it, because he’d achieved an awful lot while in England that had nothing to do with the group or the TV show.
“It got to the point in England where they stopped saying, ‘Ex-Monkee Micky Dolenz,’ and the headline would be, ‘Michael Dolenz, television producer, is announcing the airdate of the beginning of a new series,'” he recalls with a bit of triumph in his voice. “So I got to be known and respected as a producer-director, and when I did go back to it in the ’80s for the reunion, I was thrilled. It was only supposed to be a little 10-week tour, if that, just for the reunion, but it lasted… well, it’s lasted until this day.
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“Emotionally, psychologically, creatively, it was very freeing,” Micky elaborates. “That post-success thing can be a problem; we see it all the time. People react in different ways to success. Sometimes they just try to run away from it. I kind of liken your career to a train. You work very hard to get your career going, which is like a train rolling. It takes a lot of work and energy and a lot of time and effort. By that point, with inertia, the ‘train’ starts to pick up speed; it’s very successful as you get it going and everybody loves it. Then one day you want to stop the train… well, some people want to stop the train. You’ve seen that where people say, ‘I don’t want to sing my hit songs anymore’ or whatever. And that’s impossible to do at that point. The train just has way too much inertia. You can try to nudge it sideways a little bit, sort of reinventing yourslf, which someone like Madonna is exceptional. David Bowie is another example. Or you just get off the train, and that’s kind of what I did. I just sort of got off the train and waved goodbye and said, ‘Have a nice time.’ But if you try to stand in front of the train and stop it, it’s probably not going to happen.”
The Monkees Present the Mike and Micky Show
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This June, the train continues on its path with a tour that will feature just Micky and Mike, as Peter is involved with a blues project. When approached about being a duo, they jumped at the opportunity.
“Of all the combinations,” Micky muses, “Nes and I have one of the most interesting vocal blends. We used to sing together and on some of the songs he wrote, I did an Everly Brothers-like harmony to are just spectacular. And we get along. We have a similar sense of humor, but it’s going to be a different kind of Monkees show. It’s called ‘The Monkees Present the Mike and Micky Show.’ It will consist of a lot of material that we’ve done in the past without him, but he’ll be singing it now and I’m doing harmonies and singing along with them. Then, of course, there will always be the big hits written by those incredible writers that we spoke about.”
As far as he sees it, there’s only one downside to this tour. “I’ve been doing this now pretty solid for 30 years,” he comments. “Three decades, so I ain’t too crazy about traveling. But my beautiful wife is going to be coming with me, helping to take care of me. Here’s the thing: they pay us to travel. We sing for free.”