Micky Dolenz: The Man, the Myth, the Monkee... and Me

Why, why, has Micky Dolenz -- blessed with one of the great voices in pop music history -- recorded so little all these decades? And what had led him to start taking his recording career seriously at this late date?
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I have a secret to share, one which until now only a few close friends have known, and which even my wife did not find out until recently:

I love the Monkees.

I don't mean it like, when I hear "Last Train To Clarksville" or "Daydream Believer" on the radio, I go, "Oh, I love that song." I mean I LOVE the Monkees. Every obscure album track, every studio outtake, every previously unreleased alternate mono mix. I not only have to have it, but I have to listen to it, frequently, with the diligence of a scholar and the passion of a fan club president. (Which I'm not. Yet.) I usually listen on headphones, because I don't want to drive my wife and daughter crazy. Sometimes being a Monkees fanatic is a lonely pursuit.

My passion for the Monkees, which began when I was a lad of fifteen or so, never extended past their 1970 breakup. For years -- decades, even -- I reckoned that it would be sad to see Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones and Peter Tork (Mike Nesmith rarely joined them) on their periodic reunion tours, trying to look contemporary (their late '80s outfits were particularly heinous) and butchering their old hits with synthesized keyboards and drums. I stayed away from their two comeback albums, even the one with Nesmith back in the fold. I contented myself with the Monkees as a thoroughly '60s entity, which was easy to do as more vintage outtakes and deluxe expanded collections continued to surface.

But last February, Davy Jones died quite suddenly -- only a few months after completing the Monkees' 45th anniversary reunion tour, which I'd missed as usual. And I realized that time was running out to see the remaining Monkees while they yet walked the earth.

Thankfully, the team of Dolenz, Nesmith and Tork did decide to strap on the gear (yes, naysayers, they do play their own instruments!) and hit the road one more time. Without Davy, of course, but with Mike back in the fold for the first time in the States since 1969. After enlisting the assistance of a core group of friends who could be trusted with my still-secret Monkeemania, I scored a pair of orchestra seats for the last show of the tour, in New York's Beacon Theater.

Around the same time, I got to hear Micky Dolenz's latest album, Remember (Robo/Fontana), which quietly slipped out in September and is scheduled to be re-launched with a bit more fanfare in early 2013, along with a live DVD shot in New York a few months ago. Micky's kept himself busy between Monkees reunions -- he was a TV and film producer/director in England for many years, and he's also done a lot of musical theater both in the U.S. and England, including shows like Hairspray and Aida. But his solo musical output has been sporadic, and it's been weird. A handful of singles in the '70s, a pair of kids' albums in the '90s, and of all things, a karaoke-styled re-recording of some of his Monkees hits.

And that was it until 2010, when his first "real" solo album, King For A Day, surfaced. A tribute to one-time Monkees songwriter Carole King, it featured Micky tackling selected nuggets from her catalog, ranging from the awesome (a stomping "Don't Bring Me Down," first made popular by the Animals) to the icky (I don't need to hear anyone cover "Take Good Care Of My Baby," even a Monkee).

But Remember is not only the best record he's made since the Monkees' heyday, it's one of the best records I've heard by anyone in 2012. It's a... well, I'll get to that in a bit. But on this record, and at the Monkees gig I saw, he sounds like his voice had been cryogenically frozen around 1969 and thawed out this year. It's shocking. It's astounding. It's... depressing.

Why, why, has Micky Dolenz -- blessed with one of the great voices in pop music history (whether or not you afford the Monkees any credibility, you can't listen to "Pleasant Valley Sunday" and not agree that the guy can sing a goddamn song) -- recorded so little all these decades? And what had led him to start taking his recording career seriously at this late date?

I became intrigued. And fascinated. I wanted to hear the story from the man himself. And so I pulled as many strings as I could and arranged a phone interview with Micky Dolenz. The giddiest of schoolgirls had nothing on me as I planned and plotted to sound like a bonafide journalist and not a 43-year-old husband and father with a longstanding man-crush.

After screwing up the time and calling two hours late (damn time zones), I found myself chatting with the man himself. He opened with "How are ya, Tony?" I could have ended it right there -- Micky Dolenz addressed me by name! -- and have been satisfied, but I had 20 minutes allotted to me, so it was time to ask The Question.

"So... why have you not recorded more over the last 40 years?"

"That's a good question - I don't know!" he replied, genuinely sounding like nobody had ever asked him why he didn't make more records. Kinda made me wish I could have asked him back in the '80s. "The thing is, I'm not a prolific songwriter. Basically, unless somebody would come to me with an offer, a deal, you know, I wasn't -- have never been -- the kind of person who has gone out and shopped album deals or record deals."

I parried his "not prolific" thrust: "But you say in the liner notes of the new album that you've got some songs sitting around that you'd like to record one day." I quickly did the math. Even if the guy wrote one song a year -- which I believe qualifies as not prolific -- that's still about three or four albums worth of tunes.

"Over the years I've had a couple of ideas for albums come up -- actually, one of them was Dolenz Does Nilsson. He was a very good friend of mine. And indeed, 'Remember' [written by Nilsson] is the title track on this album." I'm a big Harry Nilsson fan, so I was ready to get my credit card out and rent the studio time myself. But I played it cool.

"He had his first hit, his first record with us [The Monkees], 'Cuddly Toy.' He got to quit his job at the bank, absolutely a true story. That's what he told me. Lester Sill was the head of publishing at Screen Gems music publishing. [Nilsson] walked out of the studio, and he told me years later, Lester Sill said, 'You can quit the bank.'"

He then returned to the subject at hand. "But like I say, I've never been extremely prolific as a songwriter. And then I'd kind of wait until somebody would come up and express some sort of interest in recording me, and that's what happened with King For A Day."

Of the new album, he told me, "This album was envisioned to some degree by [producer/arranger] David Harris. He came to me, I didn't go to him. We met years and years ago, and he kept hounding me -- 'I really, really am a fan, I really love your voice, I really think we can do a great album.' Finally I met up with him and we started chatting, and out of those conversations came this idea of an audio scrapbook.... I started telling him these stories, and we decided, this is a great idea for a concept."

Remember revisits songs that have significance, in one way or another, in Dolenz's life and career. There are a handful of Monkees remakes, of course, but some more intriguing choices as well. His stunning acoustic reworking of the Beatles' "Good Morning, Good Morning," for example, is included because they were working on that song when he first met them. "Just An Old Fashioned Love Song" was offered to Dolenz after the Monkees' breakup, but Three Dog Night got to it before he did and had a Top Five hit with it. Now, I've hated that song since I first heard it, which was probably when I was about four years old. But I can't get enough of Micky's interpretation, with a winsome, McCartney-esque vocal and even a nifty scat interlude.

"So we started going backwards," Micky said, "from the songs that I had stories about, to some degree. Then he said, 'I would love to re-envision 'Randy Scouse Git' [a Monkees hit written by Dolenz]. And I was like, hey, go for it. I'm probably too close to it to be able to do that one.

"And then I told him the story of 'Sugar Sugar,' and he said, 'That's a great story. I'd really like to try and come up with an idea for that.' And I said, 'You've got to be kidding me! I can't do "Sugar Sugar"!' But now it's one of my favorite tracks."

To show what a bad interviewer I am, I didn't ask him to actually tell the story of "Sugar Sugar" because I already knew it. So now it's my job to tell it. As Monkees lore has it, original Monkees svengali Don Kirshner told the band, "'Sugar Sugar' is your next single, now go into the studio." The Monkees basically said, "Who are you to tell us what to record? You're only the guy who's chosen our material since Day One and helped make us the biggest band in America when we're not even really a band. So screw you." Quite a shocking career move, when you think about it. But anyway, the Monkees never recorded "Sugar Sugar." Kirshner, of course, scored a huge hit with it a couple of years later when he had another fictional band, the Archies, record it. Dolenz's reinvention of it on the new album sounds nothing like the bubblegum pop tune it originally was, but he sings the hell out of it, and the new arrangement really works.

Dolenz said the album was in gestation for about three years. "There wasn't a record company involved, it was a labor of love. [David Harris] was putting in his time, and I was putting in my time -- I came up with a bit of money here and there for musicians and a bit of this and a bit of that -- and we all had other things going on. But the upside of that is that there was an enormous amount of time for reflection which you don't normally have.... He had his studio in his house, so nobody was spending a whole lot of money on studio time or equipment. We were able to really take our time."

One benefit of that arrangement was that Micky was able to record all the backing vocals himself -- and on some of these tracks there are a lot of backing vocals. "I decided at one point, early on -- because we'd talked about getting other vocalists, background vocalists -- I said, 'This is what I do. I'm a singer, I wrote a couple of these, but... I wanna just sing.' And I'm glad I did. I'm very proud of the fact that I did all these vocals. And there's no electronic doubling or anything. Like that one song, 'Prithee (Do Not Ask For Love)' [a Monkees outtake resurrected for Remember]. That is probably upwards of 30 or 40 vocals. There were so many layers of vocals on the album that I joked once, 'Let's call the album Getting Layered.'"

"Speaking of your vocals," I asked, "how do you keep your voice in such great shape?"

"My parents were both in the business and they were singers, both of them, so I suspect that... you know, singing is like a sport. And singing is a physical thing -- your vocal cords are these muscles. I suspect that might be part of it, because my sister Coco (who was a backup singer on the latest Monkees tour) is also an incredible singer."

"Do you do a lot of training?" I envisioned him constantly drinking tea with honey and singing scales nonstop from the '60s to the present day in order to maintain his range.

"After the Monkees, when other groups and other singers were going out in the '70s and '80s, and singing in smoky clubs with no monitors -- I missed all that. It was like ten years when I didn't sing a note. So just in terms of wear and tear, I got ten years ahead of the curve. And then, when I did come back, one of the first things I started doing was musicals. When I got cast in Aida, the Elton John-Tim Rice musical, back in 2000 and somethin' [2004, actually], I started training properly. And really, for the first time in my life, I actually learned how to sing properly. I learned how to train, I learned how to warm up, I learned how to do vocal exercises.

"I remember once my mom, who was a really good singer, back in the days of the Monkees she said to me, 'Micky, you really should learn how to breathe.' Because I'd never taken any lessons, I never knew about proper breathing and your diaphragm and all that. I remember saying, 'Mom, I've sold 65 million records!' I really had no clue."

As I moved the conversation from Micky to the Monkees, I vowed not to ask him what pretty much every interviewer had asked him for the past ten months -- something like, "So Davy Jones died, how do you feel about that?" Because, first, he'd answered that question a bajillion times, and second, how would you feel if your friend and co-worker for 45 years suddenly passed away? Besides, there was plenty of other stuff to ask him about.

"Now that it's over, how do you think the Monkees tour went?"

"Fantastic, it was absolutely wonderful. And it was wonderful, of course, playing with Mike again. He brings a very different dynamic to the show. I don't want to say it's necessarily better or worse, it's just different. But I personally had a great, great time playing with him. Even in my solo show, I've always done two or three Nesmith tunes, and every Monkees show we did with David, we always did Nesmith songs, always. And I would usually sing them or we would do them as a medley or something like that. So it was wonderful to sing with him as we did originally."

"Do you think you'll tour together again?"

"You never know. That's the short answer. I just don't know at this point, it's too soon to tell what's gonna happen."

"I'm just glad you don't all hate each other, because that's what I read after every Monkees tour."

"Well, it's never quite THAT bad. I'm not saying that we didn't have our differences.... But I don't think ours were as bad as some of the other ones, the horror stories I've heard about. I don't think we were even that bad when we were that bad! You have problems -- when you live and work and play and have the kind of experiences that we did over years... you know, I describe it as like having siblings. If you have a sibling, you love him, you hate him, you have wonderful times, you have arguments, you have bad times.... When you spend that much time and you're that close, and it's that intense, as families can be. You know, Davy was the closest thing I ever had to a brother."

He gave me the perfect opening, but I still wasn't gonna go there. Like I said, I'm not much of an interviewer.

"Did you consider yourself an actor or a musician before the Monkees?" (He'd been a child star on TV in the '50s show Circus Boy, and he'd also played and recorded with a couple of bands.)

"I was an entertainer, ever since I was a kid. I mean, my first instrument was Spanish classical guitar. My father got me into that and I was doing that... and then I discovered the Kingston Trio, and then I was into singing [laughs]. So my sister and I, we would sing, and I had a friend, and we used to play at some private parties. Then, that sort of morphed into folk rock, and then rock n' roll. Before the Monkees, I was in a couple of cover bands. One was called Micky & The One-Nighters, the other one was the Missing Links, believe it or not, doing cover band stuff. 'Johnny B. Goode,' 'House Of The Rising Sun' was one of my first party pieces when I was on stage.

"So when I was cast, they were clearly not just looking for actors, otherwise they would have cast four actors, like in the old Hollywood system, and not even bother with the music. But you had to be able to sing, you had to be able to act, you had to be able to improvise. The screen tests, I remember, were heavily weighted toward improvisation. So they clearly knew what they were doing -- they didn't just want to have four guys out there acting.

"You know," he said, "the closest thing to The Monkees that I've seen come along since the Monkees -- 'cause there have been so many attempts, I can't tell you the production meetings I've been in where they said, 'We wanna redo The Monkees,' and they picked my brains, and then they'd do some stupid attempt. The closest thing that's come along, I think, is Glee. Because it's obviously a show about an imaginary glee club at an imaginary high school, but all the people, all the cast of that show, they can actually do it. They can actually sing, they can dance, they can act, they're for real. And I've heard they've actually been on tour, if I'm not mistaken.

I stifled the urge to say, "But Micky, on Glee they just butcher other people's hits in some kind of unlistenable Broadway musical/karaoke hybrid that makes me want to kill every time I hear it!" Instead, I simply said, "Yeah, but they don't do original material."

"Yeah, that's true, but they can actually do it. You know, they can actually sing, these people. But it's a show about an imaginary glee club, like The Monkees was a show about an imaginary rock and roll group that wanted to be the Beatles. And never made it! Because almost all rock groups are unsuccessful, and that's what it spoke to -- all those kids out there around the world, not just in America, that wanted to be the Beatles. And they were in their living rooms and their basements and they were practicing and they were trying to be the Beatles. And on the Monkees' TV show we were never successful. Which does beg the question -- how did we afford that beach house? Which no one ever successfully answered."

I saw another opening, and this time I went for it. "Clearly it was the Liquid Paper fortune." (A little Monkees humor there -- Mike Nesmith's mother invented Liquid Paper, which back in the pre-computer days made every student and secretary's life a lot easier.)

"Yeah, right!" And oh my friends and oh my foes, Micky Dolenz, comic actor supreme, cracked up at my joke. That's going in my obituary.

I managed to maintain my composure, and asked another question I'd always wondered about: "Did you have any primary vocal influences?"

"Early ones, of course. The early influences I had were rock n' rollers.That was what I was doing before the Monkees -- those were my influences. I was into Eric Burdon, I was into Sam The Sham & The Pharaohs, I was into much harder rock. My influences were LIttle Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry. I was a screaming rock n' roller.... But then when the Monkees came along, of course, I took direction. It was obviously a pop group, with pop music and pop songs, and I was hired to play the part of a drummer in a pop group. Which was designed -- the show and the music -- for ten year old little girls. And they said, 'This is the style.'"

"Were there any songs where you said 'No, I'm not doing this'?"

"Well, 'Sugar Sugar,' I said no, but that was political reasons. You know, the song's not a bad song, and I love the version that we've done. It's a rude song [laughs] -- it's pretty dirty. I didn't say no because of any creative reason. I said no because of the 'palace revolt' against Donnie Kirshner, that Mike was spearheading.

"I do remember when we were doing 'Gonna Buy Me A Dog' [the so-bad-it's-good song from their first album] I seem to remember that they wanted Davy and I to sing that straight, like legitimate. Meaning a little pop tune for little girls, And I remember Davy and I going, "We're getting into our early and mid-20s here, and we're singing to eight year olds. I mean, this is weird." And that's when we started goofing on the song, and of course it turned into a little mini-classic. It's hilarious. And we've been asked over the years, why don't you do it onstage? I don't think we ever tried, because you couldn't possibly pull that off. It was totally improvisation, it was totally made up, you know?

"And to their credit, somebody -- I don't know who, Donnie Kirshner or whoever -- somebody must have said, you know, 'We're gonna use that version.' I'm pretty sure they never kept a straight version, because I don't think we ever did one. I think that we just said, no, we're just not gonna sing 'I'm gonna buy me a dog because I need a friend now because my girl left me.' I think we just said no, and just started screwing around."

At this point, with my time running short, I had to get in a little collector geekery: "Any plans for any new Monkees reissues on Rhino anytime soon?" (Personally, I'm hoping for a 3 CD deluxe version of The Monkees Present, an album which barely cracked the Top 100 back in 1969. No, really.)

"Well, I don't know... nobody's told me. All that stuff, they just put out. Sometimes they'd call me and they asked me if I wanted to do comments, when they did the DVD of the show and [the Monkees' 1968 psychedelic classic cult film] Head.... But no, they don't call us and ask about all that, because they don't have to. They own it all."

Damn! Sounds like shades of Don Kirshner all over again. "But you'd think they'd want some input from the actual band members?"

"Well, remember, it wasn't a band! You know, maybe it became one, but in the original days, we had absolutely nothing to say about anything, you know. Which is kind of weird in itself. But if you realize, or if you just accept the concept, that it started out as a TV show about a band, then everything makes a little more sense."

Touché, Micky Dolenz. Touché.

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