Micky Dolenz and Michael Nesmith carry on, despite the loss of Davy Jones and, most recently, Peter Tork. Their current tour is a tribute to lost friends, a celebration of their “Good Times!” in the present day, and a reminder that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has failed to acknowledge the truth of the Monkees’ greatness.
There’s an apocryphal gag that’s less funny in light of the recent Monkee reminder that we’re all, even our heroes, unavoidably mortal. Peter Tork, who passed away last month of adenoid cystic carcinoma, first left the Monkees at the end of 1968; he was followed two years and two albums later by Mike Nesmith. Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones released one more album as the Monkees in 1970, with the joke being that if one of them followed Tork and Nesmith out the door, the next album would be credited to “The Monkee.”
This is the unspoken reality lurking unwelcome in the rafters of The Monkees Present: The Mike & Micky Show, a tour originally planned and partly undertaken a year ago before health issues forced Nesmith off the road. These are the last two Monkees standing, and we’d better enjoy them, celebrate them, revel in the longtime Mike-and-Micky-bromance while we still can.
The Palace Theatre in Albany, New York is a little over a decade shy of its centennial, an opulent nearly-3,000 seat former RKO movie palace somehow built with great attention to detail in the thick of the Great Depression. It remains, 88 years after it opened, a bit of a wonder, holding as many fans of the Pre-Fab Four as Manhattan’s Beacon Theatre, where the Mike & Micky Show played one night earlier. If Albany is a letdown for performers after playing the Big Apple, the Monkees and their sizable and able band were too professional to let on. It was a night of professionalism, with a few charming slip-ups for good measure. At the risk of cravenly paraphrasing the title of the Monkees’ surprise – as in really, really great – 2016 album, it was a hell of a good time.
A short film with Peter, Mickey and Mike talking about the 2016 album, Good Times!
Putting the Mike & Micky Show into proper context requires a brief overview of the previous three-plus decades of reunion tours, most of which liberally tapped into the comedic romps of the group’s beloved television program. The various configurations of the Monkees on these tours – for the most part Micky, Peter and Davy, but also Micky, Peter and Mike, and also Micky and Peter with occasional Mike, and for a brief run through Great Britain in the ‘90s Micky, Peter, Davy and Mike, and then finally Micky and Mike – played the songs they sang in the ‘60s, with Dolenz often filling in on popular favorites by whichever Monkee happened to be on the sidelines. The shows were multimedia-based, with the music providing a soundtrack to spectacle.
But what about the music, man? The Monkees have been fighting for a nod of credibility since around 1967, correctly noting that while everyone from the Byrds to the Beach Boys, not to mention countless vocal groups, have somehow escaped cries of “Phony!” while cutting records with backing musicians, Micky, Peter, Davy and Mike were excoriated for doing the same. Hell, most of those acts are in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, while the Monkees – for all their hits, for all their pioneering by way of everything from country rock to the Moog synthesizer, have never even been nominated.
This burden has always weighed heavily on the Monkees, though maybe not all of them. Davy was a singer and showman, and Micky a genial fellow, and without the displeasure of musicians Mike and Peter, the group might never have rebelled against the machine which churned out their first two albums, might never have been given free rein to create Headquarters, for many their greatest record because it’s really them playing on it and, as they did onstage in Albany, it sounds like they’re having a hell of a good time.
The Monkees in 2019 are too long in the tooth to cartwheel across the stage. They only resemble the Monkees of the days of romps if you squint. I showed my nearly five-year old daughter photos of the show, and she asked where Mike was.
Me: That’s him right there, with the guitar. With the sparkly shoes. With the white hair.
Marguerite: What happened to his black hair?
Me: Same thing that’s happening to mine, kid.
It was an evening for remembering lost youth, but also lost Monkee brothers. “Daydream Believer” remains in the set in tribute to Davy Jones, who died in 2012. Ever since, the song has been sung first by fans pulled from the crowd, and more recently by Dolenz, with room for the entire venue to join in. By now, the moment is familiar and expected.
Tork, who died two weeks before the Albany gig, was seen in a photo montage projected against the backdrop while Dolenz belted out “For Pete’s Sake,” for the cathartic portion of his tribute. But at the end of the first set is when the real tribute happened, with a clip of Tork from 2012 playing “Till Then,” a hit for vocal group the Mills Brothers in 1944. The video is just Tork, deftly picking his electric guitar and singing the song, and man, does it ever hit the right spot.
Peter Tork performing ‘Till Then” live in 2006:
But beyond the tributes to Davy and Peter, it was also a tribute in a way to The Monkees, the TV show that was built around comedy and music. The jokes are still very much the Monkees, and there are two versions of these. There’s the pre-written one-liners, delivered with professional aplomb and resulting in waves of polite laughter. And then there’s the off-the-cuff comedy, which rings truer. The Monkees today exist for three reasons: The music is still great, their appeal even as septuagenarians is non-generational, and Mike Nesmith and Micky Dolenz genuinely, palpably love one another. Sure, they’re touring because that’s where the money’s at. But what happens onstage is driven by the love between two men.
In the group’s second set, Nesmith was introducing “Joanne,” a hit for his immediate post-Monkees group Michael Nesmith & the First National Band. In the middle of a very funny and quite touching story of a conversation with a fan for whom the song meant a great deal, a woman interrupted him, bellowing, “I LOVE MICKY DOLENZ!” Without missing a beat, Nesmith worked that into the story, and then at the end, added, “I love Micky Dolenz too.”
“Joanne”-Michael Nesmith and the First National Band
The night was full of little moments, stolen glances between Micky and Mike, secret smiles and waves of joy emanating from the two of them. The bromance was very, very real.
But let’s get back to the music. Because perhaps for the very first time, a Monkees tour is designed to showcase the music. With little in the way of physical comedy, and the video screen used sparingly, the music and musicians were left to carry the weight, and they really delivered. Micky Dolenz, at 74, remains one of rock’s great vocalists, able to belt ‘em out every bit as powerfully as he did half a century ago. Nesmith’s voice was always built to age well, his Texan drawl and wry delivery maybe even better suited to a man of a certain age than it was when he was trembling under the weight of his sideburns in the ‘60s.
Hell, most of those acts are in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, while the Monkees – for all their hits, for all their pioneering by way of everything from country rock to the Moog synthesizer, have never even been nominated.
Their setlist was nearly 30 songs long, so you’ll have to forgive Nesmith’s being tethered to an iPad throughout. There were the obvious hits, which were deftly delivered by a large band featuring Nesmith’s son, Christian, on guitar and vocals, and Dolenz’ sister Coco on backing vocals and occasional percussion. But there were also a satisfying amount of deep cuts, opening with “Good Clean Fun,” a country-fried single from 1969 that features the telling line, “I told you I’d come back, and here I am.”
The set included terrific album cuts and B-sides like “Door Into Summer,” “You Told Me,” “Auntie’s Municipal Court,” and an electrifying “Circle Sky.” Two other highlights came from the group’s 2016 album Good Times!: “Birth of an Accidental Hipster”, written by Paul Weller and Noel Gallagher, is a dense psychedelic jam; and in one of the evening’s most perfect moments, “Me and Magdalena,” a gorgeous love song written by Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, saw Nesmith and Dolenz share vocals and raise goosebumps.
David Bowie, Prince, the Beastie Boys’ Adam “MCA” Yauch: They’ve all left us in recent years, with many fans wishing they’d taken the time to go see them one more time. By the time you read this, the U.S, leg of the Mike & Micky Show will have ended. They’re headed to Australia and New Zealand in June, and then, if we’re lucky, they’ll want to go another round. All good things must come to an end, but as was the case in the Palace Theatre on March 10, let’s hope no one’s in a particular hurry to drop the curtain on these good times.