The Monkees have reunited and are on tour?! Right. Next you’ll be telling me someone’s staged a play about The Shaggs!
Putting aside issues of their age and ability, and their potential to draw an audience decades past the height of their popularity, a Monkees tour was an unlikely prospect due to their experience last time around. In 2001, Peter Tork (a recovering alcoholic) quit before the tour’s end, alleging excessive drinking and abusive behavior by Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz. As recently as two years ago, Tork was quoted saying he had no interest in either another reunion or in sharing a stage with Dolenz.
The lure of a 45th anniversary commemoration of the band must have proved irresistible to all concerned, because Tork is currently sharing a stage with Dolenz and Jones on a 30-some-city tour. And however he felt in the recent past, Tork at least gives the appearance of having a blast onstage with the other two. (Mike Nesmith, who reportedly dislikes touring and can’t possibly need the money, is sitting this one out, as he has nearly all the previous Monkees reunions).
Given their origins as a “pre-fabricated” band created for a TV show, along with the “boys’” advanced ages (65-68), modest expectations for a contemporary Monkees concert seemed reasonable. Personally, I would not have been surprised if the show had been a blatant cash grab—brief, heavy on hits medleys and schmaltz—a “hand wave” farewell gesture to their fans. At best I expected the kind of competent yet uninspired “nothing but hits” performances that constitute so many oldies package tours.
What we got instead, at the recent concert my wife and I attended (on June 26, in the fabulous Egyptian Room of Old National Center, Indianapolis, Indiana), couldn’t have been much further from my cynical forecast. Over the course of more than two hours, The Monkees delved some 40 songs deep into their catalog, proving themselves to be at least the equal of any of the nostalgia acts we’ve seen. The song selection, energy, and musicianship so exceeded the typical nostalgia show, in fact, I’d put this among the top ten concerts I’ve attended in recent years.
Having experienced the Monkees’ phenomena first-hand the first time around, with all the fallout over the “pre-fab four” not being a “real” band, it was extremely gratifying to witness Davy, Mickey, and Peter’s energy and proficiency belying their age and the group’s origins. The three took turns providing surprisingly strong lead vocals; Mickey did several numbers from behind his drum kit; Peter contributed integral keyboard, guitar, and French horn parts; and even Davy strapped on an acoustic guitar for a song or two. Tork is singing particularly well, maybe better than he was during the band’s heyday, delivering both his traditional leads and Nesmith’s with truer pitch and authority than I’d ever heard from him, (especially impressive given his recent bout with cancer on his tongue).
And not to get too sidetracked, but it always seemed to me that all that righteous outrage over The Monkees should have been aimed at Hollywood for co-opting yet another facet of youth culture, not over their legitimacy as a band. The four Monkees were hired as actors, not as musicians. And how many rock bands are competent comic actors?
The set list—reportedly developed with fan input—strayed into album cuts, B-sides, and non-hit singles for a nice balance of the inevitable and the unexpected. Nesmith’s “Mary, Mary” is more substantial than its under-powered studio version (if still not as heavy as the Butterfield Blues Band cover); the long-unreleased “All of Your Toys” sparkles with Tork’s harpsichording and Dolenz offering more evidence that he was among the 60s underrated rock vocalists; Tork’s “For Pete’s Sake,” the TV show’s season two closing theme, has all the vibrancy of an essential period classic; and on the pure pop confection, “She Hangs Out,” Jones still shing-a-lings like a man his wife’s age.
Tork also shined on “Shades of Gray,” a gem from songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, one of the highlights from The Monkees’ breakthrough album, Headquarters (the one where they forcibly took away the reins from Don Kirshner and played nearly everything themselves), an LP especially well represented in the concert. If Peter was responsible for some of the evening’s finest moments, though, he also must answer for the inclusion of “Auntie Grizelda,” which was considerably more appealing to the 11-year-old me than to the current version. At least, unlike some UK stops on the tour, we were spared “Peter Percival Patterson’s Pet Pig Porky.”
One would think that The Monkees must have mixed emotions regarding their sole film, Head, its legacy, and its effect on the band’s fortunes. While the film spotlighted some of their most sophisticated music, it also led to the dissolution of their working relationship with director Bob Rafelson and producer Bert Schneider. Now considered a cult classic, the film effectively ended the brief era of intense popularity that accounts for the band’s continued appeal.
Any misgivings they may have about Head, however, are swept away by their dazzling mini-set of the best of the film’s soundtrack. Peter led the band through powerful takes on his “Do I Have To Do This All Over Again?” and “Can You Dig It” (the latter just bit disappointing with the absence of the live belly dancer of earlier shows). The six song stretch was a high point of the night and a well-earned reward for the film’s apologists.
The Head set, in particular, benefitted from the continuous videos projected above the band, although clips from the Monkees’ TV show enhanced the entire concert. At times the show felt like watching an episode with a live soundtrack, a very pleasant sensation for those with any affection for the TV series.
And who could have grown up then not liking The Monkees? Or at the very least, envying them, living on the beach, driving a customized GTO, and playing in a band. All the girls wanted to be with them, all the boys wanted to be them. And even 45 years on, Dolenz, Jones, and Tork make being a Monkee look and sound like a whole lot of fun.