With the announcement of a final tour of duty for the Monkees and this week’s release of a new solo album, “Dolenz Sings Nesmith” — in which he pays tribute to an old friend, elegant songsmith and beloved collaborator — Micky Dolenz is getting his cake, and eating the whole thing with glee.
When guitarist-composer Mike Nesmith returned to the Monkees in 2012 after the passing of singer Davy Jones, it wasn’t the first time he would rejoin the ’60s pop music foursome first created for television after the group’s initial 1971 finale. It was, however, a rekindling of his friendship with vocalist-drummer Dolenz and the comic camaraderie they shared going back to 1965 when the members individually responded to an ad in Daily Variety looking for “Folk & Roll Musicians-Singers for acting roles in a new TV series.”
Since 2012, Dolenz and Nesmith have recorded and toured together under the Monkees’ banner (with the other original member, Peter Tork, before he died in 2019) and also as a twosome, “The Mike & Micky Show.” Dolenz has long had his own solo career, but “Dolenz Sings Nesmith” is special. It doesn’t cover much of Nesmith’s chart-making grounds as a composer for the Monkees (beyond “Circle Sky,” recorded first for their 1970 film, “Head”), but rather recalls Nes’ country leanings and each man’s past connections to Texas. “Dolenz Sings Nesmith” is produced by Nesmith’s son Christian, who will play as part of the Monkees’ last stand.
As for their farewell, the Monkees commence their last tour in September in Spokane, Washington, and wrap up in Los Angeles in November, tackling classics and rarities as well as some music from “Dolenz Sings Nesmith.” Variety caught Dolenz in his Los Angeles home, monkee-ing around.
VARIETY: Beyond the sadness of losing friends and bandmates, discuss the machinations of why you and Nesmith wound up on the road – alone, together – for “The Mike & Micky Show,” which preceded “Dolenz Sings Nesmith.”
DOLENZ: After Peter passed — hell, after Davy passed — Mike and I wondered what we were going to do. What we found out was that our fans wanted us to go out there. Same with the buyers, promoters and our management. People wanted to see Nes and I. Now, Mike and I really didn’t think that we could go out, then, as the Monkees. We couldn’t call ourselves the Two-kees. It all seemed stupid, until one of the agents suggested “The Monkees Present…” Which was cool, as that harkened back to when Mike and I were doing the television show in the 1960s.
Because the two of you, specifically, connected in shared musical and comic sensibilities.
That’s it. In terms of improvisation, we clicked. On the set, doing skits and bits, we’d improv, and crack everybody up. And no joke, we used to say to each other, “One day, it’s gonna be ‘The Mike & Micky Show.'” And here we are, full circle. He and I always got along, certainly in a comedic sense, but musically too; we just blended well. Famously, Nez is from near Dallas, Texas. But my mom was from Austin. After she moved out here to Hollywood, I was raised on the Sons of the Pioneers and Tennessee Ernie Ford. I had so much of that classic country-western influence coming up. Of course, Nes really did. So when he and I started singing together on the show, and rehearsing for tours, sitting around the campfire, as it were, we’d invariably sing Nesmith tunes.
At that time, he was the only one of the four Monkees writing his own compositions.
And they were all so good. We’d sit around, singing folk songs, and harmonize. But really, we started with his music. I would go invariably into the third harmony above him and call it “the Everly Monkees,” because I was a huge Everly Brothers fan. The blend of my voice with Nes’ was always pretty nice.
You mentioned the improvisational connection between you and Nesmith on the Monkees’ NBC show. Is it fair to say that you took the lead as, by that point, you had all the formal acting training and had appeared on screen and stage, as opposed to Nesmith, who was a stage novice?
Funny you put it that way. That is true that I had television experience with “Circus Boy.” What I didn’t have experience with was improv. When you went on a set back then for a typical scripted film, you learned your lines, you said them exactly as written, and you went home. If you improvised, you got fired. So I never learned improv, and was actually uncomfortable with it early on, until we got a an improvisational guy, James Frawley, who wound up directing some of the “Monkees” episodes and won an Emmy. Frawley was out of Second Cit,y with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and made me uncomfortable. Nez, however, took to it, and led that charge, which inspired me; then vice versa, Mike learned stuff from me about the process, structure and scripting of television. He had never done anything before, and in his words, he followed me in. We fed off each other.
Considering that Nesmith had been the longest away from the Monkees following the original break-up, returning only sporadically and briefly – and you carried it forward, throughout the years – aging process aside, were you much the same people when he came back, as when he first departed?
If you look at the Monkees as a typical “classic rock band,” you can use words like “left” and “came back.” We weren’t that, though. We were not a group. We were the cast of a TV show. Strictly speaking for myself, that’s how it was and always will be.
Like the “Friends” reunion on HBO Max?
Or like the cast of an original Broadway musical. The cast goes its separate ways, the show goes on, then you have a revival with the first cast. That’s what the Monkees are about. When Mike chose to sit out the reunion in 1986, I was like, “Aw, too bad,” just as I was when he missed other reunions. But he had a huge production company of his own to run. When he did come back and join us, it was great. A revival of the original show.
How did the process of “Dolenz Sings Nesmith” begin, and what were the criteria a Nesmith song had to have for you to sing it?
Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, my best friend was Harry Nilsson. As a songwriter, he had his first hit big hit with us, the Monkees’ version of “Cuddly Toy.” When it came time for him to record, he did this album “Nilsson Sings Newman,” which was Harry doing Randy Newman songs. I was there with him in the studio when he made that record, and I always loved it. Fast-forward to Mike, Peter and I getting together when Davy passed. We were rehearsing, and I just had a lightbulb moment, asked him what he thought of me doing an album of his songs, and he just said (imitating Nesmith’s drawl), “Well, that’s a great idea, Micky.” Several tours and “Good Times!’’ went by, and my label (7A) asked me if I had any ideas for an original album. Names came up for a producer, and I immediately though of Christian Nesmith. I’ve known him since he was in a crib, and he was part of “The Mike & Micky Show.” When it came time to record, however, I felt so close to the material – I mean, I love Mike’s songs, all of them, the Monkees, his First National Band, his solo work – that I needed his eye as a curator. Andrew Sandoval (the Monkees’ manager), who knows everybody’s catalog inside-and-out, Nez’s included, also became part of the process. We sat down and just spit-balled. We had definitely decided that we did not want to do karaoke versions of the songs. They needed to be re-envisioned.
Did doing Nesmith’s “Listen to the Band” or his beloved “Joanne” come up?
Of course. But how can you do “Joanne” without a yodel? You can’t. So that became the criteria you were asking about: not doing the expected, and not making them into your standard cover versions. And Christian, to his credit, has come up with incredible tracks for each of these songs, mostly by himself during the pandemic, but with a few guests phoning things in. Re-invention as such is not an easy thing to do. I mean, how many great Beatles cover are there, really? But listen to what Christian did on “Circle Sky.” So vivid and surreal.
Whether it was the commitment to the melodies or its lyrics, the songs of “Dolenz Sings Nesmith” truly opened your voice up. You have never sounded fuller or rounder as a singer. You sound so close to this material.
Thanks. That’s just what happened. And with Christian arranging and producing, I was all the more better for it. I purposely didn’t go back and listen to the originals again. A few songs were tough to do, like “Different Drum.” But I think we came out of it all with something amazing. I had lunch face-to-face with Nez yesterday, and he said, “You know, Mick, I not only like it, I am really proud of it.”
Lyrically, it is often a ruminative record. Was there anything emotionally that just grabbed you, or really challenged you?
Yes, actually. One song that I came up for an arrangement of, a treatment of, a re-envisioning, was “Nine Times Blue.” It’s just beautiful, one of his best, and I had the idea to leave the band behind, and tackle it with just a grand piano and me. We really wanted a grand piano in there, so we booked a studio, and did the socially distanced thing. Singing that song brought back so many tender memories. I was cracking when I was singing it, as Christian brought that up over the studio mic. He asked me if I needed a hot tea, and I had to explain to him that I was crying.
As a Monkee, not only have you performed the best of Michael Nesmith, but Neil Diamond, Boyce & Hart, Goffin & King and Paul Williams, along with the latter-day likes of Rivers Cuomo and Adam Schlesinger: the new Great American Songbook. Without pitting one against the others, how did Nesmith’s songs fit into the dynamic?
A great song is a great song. I have been blessed to have such amazing material offered to me from the get go. When you have such incredible source material as this… it’s hard to fuck it up. I’m not a producer or an A-list studio musician, so I have to approach these things like Frank Sinatra as if he’s in the studio with Quincy Jones. I sing. I just sing. It’s like the old English saying goes: “You don’t keep the dog and bark yourself.” Never micromanage. With that, the Monkees and I on my solo albums have also benefitted from some amazing producers, from Boyce & Hart to Schlesinger, God rest his soul.
You just took part in a virtual tribute to Schlesinger, and obviously he is still on your mind. What made him iconic?
What a loss. He was amazing, just one of the best producers I ever worked with. Ever. He knew what he wanted, and was pretty strict about getting it. Maybe strict is a strong word – he just had a vision, and would follow that through. Which I respected. He was happy to hear my ideas and variations, and if he thought it worked, it was fine. If not, no. I liked having a director with a clear vision, and not one who just wafts around.
Both you and Nesmith seem to be at one of your personal and professional peaks. Why stop now? Why call this a last tour?
I’m 76 years old and Nez is 78. It’s fairly unlikely that we would relaunch another tour in a couple of years. I’ll probably still go out as a solo. Mike and I might hook up for single dates… you never know. As far as a Monkees tour goes, this one – a really long one at that, long enough for me – is probably enough. Touring is grueling. Talking with Nez, he feels likewise. But we have a great show, and we love seeing the fans.
You mention your ages for the reason of there being a last roundup. Without sounding maudlin, was there a greater sense of urgency to make that last grand Monkees statement once Mike had the heart valve problem and operation during the Mike & Micky tour?
It’s always the last tour until, the next one. That news, however, caught me by surprise a bit. You never know what’s going to happen.
Lastly, and only because the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame just named its Class of 2021: they still won’t vote the Monkees in, probably because of this arcane stigma that on many of your records, you guys didn’t play your instruments. Which was true of many bands back then. You just took the flak. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is no validator, but here it is 55 years later…
I’ve said it before, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is a club that you’ve got to be invited to. It doesn’t really bother me. You hit the nail on the head: We took the shit for it, pardon my French. Something that was a common practice for the Byrds and the Beach Boys. It’s ironic. Everybody did it because the recording techniques back then were so different and so expensive. Roger McGuinn used to say that they used the Wrecking Crew because they’d nail a song in three takes. When the Byrds went in, it took 73 takes. But we took the shit for it, which is weird because we didn’t have a choice. We were the cast of this TV show.