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Why the Monkees Still Matter

Posted on 06/20/2011 by | Movies & TV | Comments

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(NOTE: This post is from June of 2011, when the late Davey Jones was still very much a Monkee)

I’ve just gotten in from the Wolf Trap amphitheater where, for all I know, a couple of thousand middle-age women, their daughters, and their granddaughters are still standing, screaming, and begging for Peter Tork, Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones to return to the big stage for just one more rendition of Pleasant Valley Sunday. Or maybe Last Train to Clarksville. Or just perhaps for one of the three to come back to the edge of the stage, lean gingerly forward, and let someone plant a delirious kiss on his sweat-glistened cheek.

I went to see The Monkees tonight because I was a kid in the 60s, and because in those days there were no bigger stars on TV than The Monkees. Even then, we all knew the rap on them: They were the “Pre-fab Four,” a packaged product from a Hollywood studio, singing songs written by the denizens of a latter-day Tin Pan Alley, pretending to play instruments to a soundtrack created by real musicians, toiling in anonymity  on some Hollywood soundstage.

And it was all true. But Tork, Dolenz, Jones, and Mike Nesmith (the missing link of Monkeedom, who almost never participates in reunions like the Monkees’ current 45th anniversary tour) soon seized control of their creative destiny–much to the chagrin of the studio suits who hired them. As musicians, they were of varying competence, but they all got better. As singers, The Boys (not to be confused with The Lads, those British fellows from across the Pond) were all solid talents right from the start.

Three Monkees (Tork, Jones, and Dolenz) Now

Tonight when I saw the Monkees’ eight-piece backup band gathering on Wolf Trap’s giant stage, my heart sank a little. Was this 1965 all over again? Had “real” musicians been enlisted to save the day for the headliners? When the stars showed up and the assemblage cranked into I’m A Believer as an opener, that seemed to be the case. In fact, in the early going Tork, Dolenz, and Jones seemed more like honored guests than featured performers. Dolenz was there at his drum set, all right–but next to him was another drummer with his own kit, feverishly pounding out the beat. Jones was smacking his tambourine gamely, but looking sadly like the guy who gets to be in the band only because he owns a van. Tork, certainly the most accomplished musician of the trio, stood at front with his electric keyboard., picking out tunes—but behind him, ensconced at a double-decked keyboard array the size of an aircraft carrier, the show’s musical director was clearly doing the heavy lifting.

My disappointment was shared, of course, not in the slightest by any the 4,000 others around me. When the three Monkees took the stage, beaming widely, waving like retired tourists disembarking from a world cruise, it seemed the wood timbers of the theater’s ceiling would tumble. Fans leapt to their feet, screamed out requests, and stretched their arms skyward before the guys had played or sung a single note.

I suppose The Monkees could have settled into their supporting roles, and the adoring audience would have forgiven them (or perhaps not even noticed). But somewhere along the way on this night, just as they did with their career 45 years ago, the three took command of the show. Standing up front, wielding instinctive showmanship as their instruments of choice , they rocketed from one song to another in a nonstop set that lasted, almost to the second, two hours—without an intermission. Dolenz, 65, and Tork, 69, left the stage frequently during numbers that didn’t feature them—but 65-year-old Jones, the lifelong theater veteran who started out onstage as the original Artful Dodger in Oliver!, was almost never out of sight. As far as I could tell, he disappeared just once–to don a white set of tails for a show-stopping dance routine.

“Hello,” said Jones spryly at the start. “I’m Davy Jones’ father. Davy will be out here in a minute…”

Jones still has the jaunty English Music Hall style that provided the early Monkees with that necessary dash of  Beatleseque DNA. Dolenz, who should always have been the group’s lead singer rather than its drummer, shows a sonic range that remains at times staggering. And Tork—thin, a little frail, but occasionally brilliant whether behind a keyboard or with a guitar or banjo slung around his neck—might as well have been sent from Central Casting in the role of “former rock star who burned out, nearly drank himself to death, and is now enjoying a late life renaissance clean, sober, and successful.”

There was some chatter between songs, often about the band’s struggles to chart its own musical course in the face of studio resistance.  There seemed to be some residual bitterness there, even as the audience roared its approval of the very songs those studio heads forced the Monkees to sing, songs like Neil Diamond’s I’m a Believer. Tork made not-too-subtle reference to the Monkees’ annual snub by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—and really, if the Hall’s got room for the Dave Clark Five (or Dick Clark, just to pick on the “Ds”), surely there’s a niche for the group that from 1966 to 1968 sold more albums than the Beatles and the Rolling Stones combined. It’s that decades-long legacy of sniffing dismissal, perhaps, that helps keep these guys playing together through personal conflicts and catastrophes. History has shown that the Monkees don’t always like each other, but they are bound by their music, just as those 4,000 delirious fans at Wolf Trap were.

“If you want to shout out some requests,” said Tork, “shove it!” And the audience howled its approval—although even the most die-hard Monkee Maniac would be hard-pressed to come up with a missing fave among the 30 or so numbers unleashed during the show.

Behind the band, clips from The Monkees TV series played throughout the concert. Yes, the 45-year-old images served as vivid and sometimes sobering reminders of the passage of time, but there was also a brave kind of jubilation about them. To see those fresh faced kids cavorting on the screen—along with their present Social Security-eligible selves below—is to be reminded that we cannot erase the years of our lives, any more than Davy Jones can erase that wrinkled brow. But like The Monkees, we can live triumphantly, the dark years between be damned, and look to a full future informed by a thoughtfully examined past.

The Wolf Trap audience rose to its feet, clapping out the rhythm to Daydream Believer, and I found myself joining them. I watched those three fellows up onstage bathing in the adulation…and perhaps the notion that being a Monkee was at once the best and the worst thing that ever happened to him.

“How wonderful it must be,” I  thought, “to be 65, and a Monkee.” Hey-hey.

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