By: Claudia Schou
Dedicated Monkees fans can take in The Monkee Experience with three of the original members–Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork–as they embark on a 24-city musical tour called “Midsummer's Night with The Monkees,” making a stop on Tuesday night at the Terrace Theater in Long Beach. Wildly popular in the late Sixties, the “Pre-Fab Four” (as they were known) were American Television's answer to the Beatles. Legions of teenie boppers pasted the foursome's magazine covers to their bedroom walls and were hooked on bubble gum pop classics such as “Last Train to Clarksville,” “(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone” and “I'm a Believer.”
While Monkeemania was at its height, the members were learning how to legitimize their sound. On their latest tour, the trio will perform songs from Headquarters, the first album in which they wrote and produced their own music as well as deep cuts from their first five albums (including some performed for the first time since the 1960's) and fan favorites from the soundtrack to their cult film classic Head. OCWeekly recently caught up with bassist Peter Tork (a former Orange Countian) and drummer Micky Dolenz.
OC Weekly (Claudia Schou): What are your memories of living in Orange County in the late sixties?
Peter Tork: I hung out and sometimes played at Sid's Blue Beet in Newport Beach and I worked as a busboy at The Golden Bear in Huntington Beach. Orange County was a wonderful place to be back then. In our concert, we show a clip of Micky saying “I'd like to buy six blocks and plant Orange Groves in Orange County.” Are there any orange groves left in OC now? There certainly were at the time. Working as a bus boy making modest wages I was able to get a room in downtown Huntington and make a life for myself without a car. I was living there when I got the call for The Monkees audition. It was an exciting time.
Micky Dolenz: I grew up in San Fernando Valley and there used to be a lot of orange groves there. I remember as a kid my favorite orange grove was bulldozed and a building or a track of homes went up in its place. I used to joke about how, when I got rich and famous, I would tear down the buildings and plant orange groves.
As a comedy troupe and teen idols, what were some of the challenges in getting people to take your music seriously?
Micky: I guess it was the same challenges the Beatles or Elvis had in getting their fans to take their music seriously. You're open to criticism and up against what I call the “Hip Wazi” music aficionados. The Monkees were cast as a group that could perform music–and we all had musical backgrounds. Peter went to a conservatory, Mike and I were previously in bands and Davy performed musicals onstage. When I was 10 years-old, I learned how to play guitar and then Spanish guitar. I enjoyed listening to The Kingston Trio. My audition for The Monkees was “Johnny B Good.” I learned drums for show, but I could read music, so it was not like I was starting from scratch. Even though we were contributing and writing songs for the show, the record company had other plans. There was a point where we just wanted to have some input. Before that we had little input.
Reflecting on the TV show, Micky once said: “Expecting the Monkees to go out and function as a real band was like expecting Starsky and Hutch to go out and catch real criminals.” Can you elaborate more on that?
Micky: (laughs) I don't remember that particular quote. I think I said it “was like Leonard Nimoy really becoming a Vulcan.” It's been a long transformation. The producers expected us to play. You had to play an instrument to audition for the show. If you use the word “band” you won't get there. “The Monkees” was about a band that wanted to be famous. It's like interviewing a cast member from “Glee” and asking what it's like being in a glee club.
What was the transformation like going from pre-fab band to real musicians?
Peter: Try to find a band like that today! We've grown to think of ourselves as a group in a lot of ways. When I quit the group after the TV show the other three members went on as The Monkees and then we reformed in the '80s. I think of us as an entertainment group with a musical catalog that people identify themselves with. On this tour, Micky sounds as great as ever, Michael sounds like the Michael of old and I am singing better than ever. We go up on stage and we joke and play these songs. It was a different experience for The Monkees because we were selected to be a response to Beatlemania. Each of us wanted to be like The Beatles. All I ever wanted t do is play music in a group.
What led the three of you to tour again?
Peter: Last year was the 45th anniversary of our Headquarters album, and this year is a continuation of that. The most ardent Monkees fans, even a lot of casual Monkees fans, love that album. Headquarters was our third album but it was actually the first album The Monkees made. We worked in the studio and cranked out the arrangements. Davy didn't participate on it as much as the other members. I think he always felt that it wasn't his album. We planned this tour with Michael, Micky and me before Davy's passing. [Davy Jones suffered a fatal heart attack in 2012] He wasn't interested in touring over Headquarters, but the other three of us were and we basically wanted to create a tour that concentrated on the album, which is the centerpiece of this tour. Making Headquarters was a proud moment for us all.
So your tour is an homage to Headquarters?
Peter: Not really. It's a collection of some of our best work and includes Headquarters. What we've done is present a live show in chronological order with a narrative. The show features a psychedelic section with music and video footage from our film, Head.
It's been 45 years since the release of Head. What do you think of the film now?
Peter: It was interesting and very adventurous for a mainstream movie… and I think it's a great contribution to the arts. It still baffles me to this day, but I am glad to have been a part of it.
Michael has not participated in previous tours. What kept him from participating in the group?
Peter: Michael was involved with some highly intense projects for the past few decades. The burden of those projects lightened up and he was available for this tour. He's made a wonderful career for himself in music, TV and film with some memorable features such as Time Rider, Repo Man, Tapeheads and the TV show, “Elephant Parts.”
The Monkees had their own TV show and a huge teenage fan base. But you were also pretty hip, living near the Sunset Strip, attending the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and you hung out with Jimi Hendrix and got stoned with The Beatles. What was it like being part of that music scene?
Micky: It was a small community of [musicians] living in Laurel Canyon. The character I played on “The Monkees” was not who I was. In the '50s I grew up as a child actor on a TV show called “Circus Boy,” and from an early age I worked in show business. “The Monkees” was a tough schedule where we would rehearse for the show all day and then record in the studio in one night. There wasn't much time to do anything else. I almost didn't make it to the Monterey Pop Festival.
Peter: It was fabulous! It was wonderful to become acquainted with the humanity behind the talent. Jimi was one of the sweetest men I ever met. John Lennon was in private as he was in public: smart, cynical and funny. It was the humanity of those musicians that made them so great, not being famous.