THE LAST ANGRY MONKEE
You can't blame Micky Dolenz for being cranky. After all, he's sitting in a hotel room in Rochester, New York, where he's currently appearing in a production of that theatrical landmark Grease. Worse, he's got a cough and a touch of the flu that he's been unable to kick. He should be resting in bed, a hot towel over his face, Vicks VapoRub slathered all over his chest. But instead, he's got to talk at length about his greatest claim to fame--the time he spent as Micky the happy-go-lucky drummer in a CBS television show called The Monkees. And while he does his best to maintain a professional demeanor--an attitude that's kept him going through forty years as an entertainer--you don't have to dig deep to reach the resentment.
"I have come to terms with it," he says, somewhat unconvincingly, about his Monkeedom, "but I don't like to dwell on it. Because basically, it was thirty years ago for me--and it was only two or three years of my life. I've had dinner parties that were longer than that. But that's what everyone wants to talk about. Would you like to talk about what you did thirty years ago for 24 hours a day? I doubt it."
Although these complaints are eminently understandable, they're also more than a little hypocritical. You see, the fifty-year-old Dolenz hasn't shunned all things Monkee; rather, he's done as much as anyone to keep them in the public consciousness. He helped promote syndicated airings of the 58 Monkees episodes, which aired nationwide on prime-time TV between 1966 and 1968 and on Saturday mornings between 1969 and 1973. He willingly participated in a 1986 Monkees reunion tour that also featured cast members Davy Jones and Peter Tork (Mike Nesmith was the sole holdout). He wrote an autobiography/Monkees memoir called I'm a Believer. He hyped the recent CD reissues of the nine original Monkees albums in association with Rhino Records. And he's spending a considerable chunk of 1995 touring with Jones under the moniker "Best of the Monkees."
In short, then, this is not a man who sees money earned from Monkees nostalgia as tainted. He's a veteran of the footlights, a trouper extraordinaire. And as a man who wants to work rather than sit on his ass and live off residuals, he understands that practically any job is a good job. Every real thespian knows that. And Micky Dolenz is a genuine thespian--as he'll tell you every chance he gets.
"The Monkees were not a real group," he says, with considerable exasperation. "It was a fictitious group. And I was an actor playing the role of a drummer in that fictitious rock-and-roll group. There was never any mystery about it, I didn't think. But back in 1967, I think what we were doing went over a lot of people's heads. We'd get criticisms of us as a band--which we never were. To tell you the truth, it confused me. I'd wonder, do these same critics think Leonard Nimoy is really a Vulcan?
"But critics have never really bothered me. I've been too successful to be concerned with them--and we were certainly too successful back then to even care. We always knew the music was good. We had writers like Carole King and Neil Diamond and Harry Nilsson and Paul Williams, and they don't write duff tunes. So the people who were criticizing us were criticizing them, too. Somebody had to be wrong, and I reckoned it was them. So, to be blunt, who really gives a fuck what critics say?"
Sentiments like these have had four decades to germinate. Dolenz got his start in show business as a child and first found fame before he was in his teens. Using the name Mickey Braddock, Dolenz starred in Circus Boy, a TV series that ran on NBC in 1956 and ABC in 1957 (reruns were Saturday morning staples until 1960). He played Corky, a blond-haired orphan who was taken under the wings of Big Tim Champion (Robert Lowery), Joey the Clown (Noah Beery Jr.), Little Tom (Billy Barty) and the other employees of a traveling circus. Young Corky's main chore was to serve as water boy for an elephant named Bimbo.
After Circus Boy's cancellation, Dolenz followed the usual former-child-star trajectory and did a wind sprint toward obscurity. As the mid-Sixties approached, he was barely making ends meet. At one point he joined a combo called the Missing Links, which Nesmith dismissed at the time as "strictly San Fernando Valley rock and roll. Comb your hair back into a pompadour and sing everybody else's music." However, Dolenz left the act after a bone ailment from which he suffers flared up. He had quit acting and singing to study architectural drafting when he heard about auditions for The Monkees.
The sitcom's concept was straightforward: Creator Bob Rafelson (who went on to direct films such as the 1981 remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice, with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange) wanted to bring to television the wit and verve that fueled the Beatles' movie debut, 1964's A Hard Day's Night. To that end, he auditioned some 500 actors and musicians for the parts of four bandmates intended to approximate the charm of John, Paul, George and Ringo. Stephen Stills was among the also-rans in this selection process. And the winners? Nesmith, a veteran of a folk group called the Survivors, as well as the heir to the Liquid Paper fortune (his mom invented the goop). Peter Tork (born Peter Torkelson), a folkie and ex-member of the Mugwumps, which featured Mama Cass Elliott and Zal Yanovsky, later of the Lovin' Spoonful. Davy Jones, a onetime jockey who appeared on Broadway in big-budget productions such as Oliver. And, of course, Corky the Circus Boy.
In spite of a vigorous marketing campaign, no one really expected much out of The Monkees. So it was a considerable surprise that CBS scored a ratings smash. Moreover, the program quickly turned into a perpetual publicity machine fueled by the popularity of songs that were plugged on the air. Between 1966 and 1968 the quartet had eleven Top 40 hits--and three of those ("Last Train to Clarksville," "I'm a Believer" and "Daydream Believer") topped the sales charts. Four Monkees albums during this period also went to number one, with The Monkees and More of the Monkees ruling the roost for the last portion of 1966 and the first quarter of 1967. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones were hitting artistic peaks then, but they often took a commercial backseat to a faux band whose members initially didn't even play their own instruments.
As Dolenz accurately points out, however, a lot of the Monkees' material was quite strong. "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone" (from More) was surprisingly tough and engaging, and even the filler that padded such discs as Headquarters and The Birds, the Bees & the Monkees is a lot more solid than the tunes spat out by some other pop-rockers from the era. Especially during the early years, the Monkees were supplemented by songwriting pros such as King, Diamond, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, Neil Sedaka and plenty of others. Their efforts resulted in product, certainly, but product of a generally high caliber. The same is true of the program itself. Although some aspects of The Monkees haven't aged well, its quick cutting, bold color schemes, irreverence and cheerful surreality mark it as a pop-cultural artifact every bit as enjoyable as the first-season productions of Batman and Get Smart.
Dolenz lists King contributions such as "Pleasant Valley Sunday," "Sometime in the Morning" and "As We Go Along" (included in the soundtrack for the nutty Monkees movie Head, co-written by Rafelson and Nicholson) as the ones he most enjoys performing. He's more reticent when asked to name the ditties he'd love to put on the shelf forever. "Oh, God, no, that's unfair," he stammers. "I know those songs too well. That's like being asked to say who's your least favorite child.
"But I would not have chosen a lot of the tunes that the Monkees did if I had been a solo artist. I would have done the Stones and stuff like that. But our producers, in their infinite wisdom, decided that light pop rock was going to be more in keeping with our audience, and I didn't have a problem with that. If somebody were to hire me today to play a part in a country-and-Western music band on television, I'd be quite happy to play country-and-Western music, even though I don't listen to it all the time."
Clearly, not every Monkee agreed with Dolenz in this regard; Tork and Nesmith, in particular, chafed at the artistic compromises they were continually asked to make. Even today, Dolenz is reticent to defend their viewpoint. "It's like Rashomon--everybody has their own perspective," he notes. "But eventually the troubles came when Mike and Peter were not getting the attention and the respect they had expected and that they may have been led to believe they were going to get. They may have been told, `You'll get the chance to record and sing all your own tunes,' which was not the case. But no one ever said anything like that to me. I was there as an actor, not a musician.
"But having said all that, we did go on the road. We played 200 dates, and I recorded songs. It took me about a year to learn how to play the drums--it wasn't brain surgery. To me, it was a really unusual story, of life imitating art imitating life. The fantasy kind of became the reality."
For the most part, the Monkees' tours were lucrative, in spite of the foursome's frequent inability to capture the sound of the studio recordings in a live setting. In addition, promoters had a difficult time finding compatible combos to open the concerts. Reviewers regard the Jimi Hendrix Experience as the most incongruous of the Monkees' opening acts--but not Dolenz. "I don't want to say I discovered Jimi, because he would have done very well without me," he acknowledges, "but I saw him at the Monterey Pop Festival and I thought he would make a good match with us. He was very theatrical, you know, and in a way he was playing a part, too--of this crazed guitar player. But he wasn't like that offstage. We had a great time together."
Still, the reception to the Hendrix-Monkees pairing was a harbinger of bad press to come. The Monkees phenomenon burned brightly and then burnt out. Tork split prior to the disc Instant Replay, and by Changes, the final Monkees platter, only Jones and Dolenz remained. When it flopped, the Monkees were seemingly gone for good. After their demise, Dolenz tried to resume his acting career but made little progress. "I was trapped by the Monkees," he recalls. "I couldn't get away from it. You create this success by virtue of your hard work, and then suddenly this stuff kind of takes off without you. It's like a train, and you can't catch up. It got frustrating."
Finally, in 1975, Dolenz moved to England, where he worked as a director and producer of television shows for most of the next fifteen years. "I got away from the Monkees thing entirely," he claims. "Whenever anyone would do an article, it didn't start out with `ex-Monkee Micky Dolenz.' It would start out with `producer-director Micky Dolenz.'" His primary Monkee business during this span took place in 1986, when he joined Tork and Jones to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the show's debut. Then & Now...The Best of the Monkees (featuring the minor hit single "That Was Then, This Is Now," newly recorded by the trio) was released and became moderately popular thanks to a splashy U.S. tour. But without Nesmith--author of the Stone Ponies' "Different Drum" and an influential country-rock tunesmith in his own right--the Monkees again faded from sight. So, too, did The New Monkees, a 1987 attempt to revive the concept's original format with new actors; it lasted thirteen weeks and spawned an LP that became a cutout-bin staple within a matter of months.
Upon his return to the States in 1990, Dolenz once again tried to carve out a post-Monkees career for himself--and he's managed it to some degree. He's been in the casts of numerous musical-theater companies, and he's recorded two CDs for children on the Kid Rhino imprint--Micky Dolenz Puts You to Sleep, a collection of lullabies, and Broadway Micky, a compilation of show tunes. "I did a couple of concerts for kids," he notes unenthusiastically. "It was tough. Kids are notorious for not being very focused." He also conducted a solo singing tour. "I sang mostly Monkees stuff, because that's what everyone wants to hear. But given the opportunity, I threw in some rock and roll. It was all right doing it, I guess."
The future projects that have Dolenz most enthused have nothing to do with the Monkees. He reveals that he has two television series "in development" and adds that he may get the chance to direct a feature film this fall. "I don't want to say anything more about it right now--I don't like talking about things unless they happen," he says. There's also another Monkees reunion looming. With 1996 marking thirty years since the birth of The Monkees, even Nesmith has expressed interest in a tour. "I'd like to sing some of his songs with him again," Dolenz says.
Of course, a full-bore Monkees blitz next year will open Dolenz up for more queries about a past in which he dislikes wallowing. Will this prospect prevent Dolenz from hopping aboard that train--that gravy train--one more time? Not a chance. "I'm a performer," he declares. "That's what I do. And I do think that The Monkees was interesting. Really, it was the first Spinal Tap."
He pauses before noting, "I can really relate to those guys."
KOOL Koncert '95, featuring the Best of the Monkees, with Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz, the Four Tops, Johnny Rivers, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and the KOOL Cats. 3:15 p.m. Saturday, June 10, Mile High Stadium, $12/$7, 832-5665.
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