A year ago, The Monkees’ Micky Dolenz was literally digging in at his Los Angeles area home as the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic clawed into the U.S. With a tour with fellow Monkee Michael Nesmith postponed, he had his hands in the soil of his garden and in his woodshop as he and his wife welcomed the unexpected time off from touring.
For one grandkid, he built an art workstation desk out of mahogany and maple; for another, a wooden toy house—“The last thing it was was a fire station,” he said. Next, he got into fishing. The isolating nature of the hobby, he decided, was tailor-made for a pandemic.
“You’re out on a lake by yourself, so it’s safe. I keep the fish and eat them and cook them for my wife. I got a fish finder and everything,” he said. “When I was a kid, I fished. But, I really started to study it. I really get into the nitty gritty of it, and the different lures and techniques.”
A year later, there’s an end to the pandemic in sight. Dolenz and his wife, fully vaccinated, are on a monthlong trip to visit his kids and grandkids that will see him touring his family’s homes in Boston, Baltimore and in Pennsylvania. It’s the first time he’s flown in more than a year.
“My children were very concerned about me,” he said. “I’m 76 years old now, with high blood pressure. They didn’t want me traveling or going anywhere until it felt relatively safe. So this is it. I’m seeing my grandkids for the first time in a long time.”
Dolenz’s and Nesmith’s tour in support of their collaborative album, The Mike & Micky Show Live, is also back on for this fall. Dolenz is approaching it cautiously. On the one hand, he feels he owes it to fans who purchased and held onto their tickets. On the other, he is still nervous about whether safety can be ensured.
One thing with which Dolenz has no reservation is using his bandmate “Nez” (Peter Tork passed away in 2019, and Davy Jones in 2012) as a muse on his latest solo album, Dolenz Sings Nesmith. The former Monkees’ drummer picked from the guitarist’s illustrious songbook—which included some Monkees cuts, solo material from First National Band and “Different Drum,” which was popularized by Linda Rondstadt. The album, out May 21, is his first solo studio outing in nine years.
Dolenz got the idea to cover the songs of his bandmate years ago, wanting to model it after Harry Nilsson’s 1970 tribute to Randy Newman. It fomented after Jones’ passing, as Tork and Dolenz gathered at Nesmith’s home in Carmel. He had Nesmith’s support but didn’t pursue the idea until early 2020.
Before the pandemic struck, he’d recruited Nesmith’s son, Christian Nesmith, and producer and Monkees historian Andrew Sandoval to find the songs to include and write updated arrangements for them.
“I got them together and said, ‘Look, I’m too close to this material to be any help in re-envisioning it,’” Dolenz said. “[Christian] said, ‘I know what you mean. I’ve been living with this stuff my whole life, but let’s give it a try.’”
Dolenz credits the two producers for selecting and rearranging the 13 songs on the record (with a bonus track on physical versions of the album), avoiding Monkees hits and most of Nesmith’s better-known songs.
“‘Circle Sky;’ that one just blew me away when [Christian Nesmith] came up with that … Eastern Ravi Shankar kind of thing,” he said. “I definitely had an influence, of course. ‘Nine Time Blue’ is me singing a tempo with a piano player. That was my idea.”
“Different Drum” is perhaps the best-known track on the album, which made the cut after numerous conversations about how to properly remake it. Other Nesmith favorites like “Joanne” (his biggest solo hit, in 1970) and 1977’s “Rio” were purposefully left out early on.
“Christian is the one who really sat there until the wee hours of the night with a guitar trying to find different ways to approach the songs,” he said.
One of the vocal highlights of the record is the twangy country inflection in Dolenz’ voice on some of the songs. That’s something he said he and Nesmith shared because of their similar backgrounds; Nesmith is a Dallas native, while Dolenz’ mother is from Austin and played a lot of country music as he was growing up.
“I grew up with the same kind of stuff that Nez probably grew up with, like Sons of the Pioneers and Tennessee Ernie Ford,” he said.
From the early days of “The Monkees” TV show, when the quartet would meet “around the campfire,” singing songs, most of the songs were Nesmith’s because he was the only one writing his own material at the time.
“It tended to be that they had a little bit of country flavor to them,” Dolenz said. “We just fell into what I call the Everly Monkees, because I was a huge Everly Brothers fan. I immediately fell into those harmonic blends with him. He would sing melody, and I would sing the third above, or vice versa. I would do a melody, and he would do a high harmony. We would just hit our stride with this blend. I sang with David and I sang with Peter, but with … Nez and I, it really stood out. We had this really wonderful connection. … We were doing that right from the get-go if you listen to some of the early Monkees’ stuff like [1966’s] ‘Papa Genes Blues.’”
Much of the actual recording was done remotely. Christian Nesmith and his partner, Circe Link (who sang back-up vocals on the record) made sure COVID protocols were taken to keep the group of musicians and others safe. Dolenz would record vocals and send stems to the musicians, who would record their parts and send them back.
Michael Nesmith didn’t get involved in the arranging or recording at all. For his part, Dolenz relied on the strengths of his producers to get the album done right. He referenced an English saying: “You don’t keep a dog and bark yourself,” meaning that he had no desire to micromanage the project.
“I said to Christian and Andrew, ‘Look, I want to come in like Frank Sinatra. I want to walk in and do a great track,” he said. “I want to sing. That’s what I do.”
Micky Dolenz loves to sing and play shows, but acknowledges that even after a year off, he doesn’t miss the grind of the touring lifestyle.
“The shows are wonderful, but the shows are two hours out of a 24-hour day, and the rest of the 22 hours sucks,” he said.
Still, he wouldn’t confirm a comment Sandoval made to Rolling Stone that the fall tour would be the last for the two Monkees.
“I didn’t read that or hear that; typical,” he said, laughing. “It’s always the last and final tour until the next one. I don’t really think about it in those terms … unless Nez or I just say, ‘That’s it. I can’t go on the road.’”
Until the fall tour, he’s content to enjoy a more solitary lifestyle. He’s passed up gig opportunities as he continues to wait out the pandemic.
He said he hopes vaccinations will be required to attend concerts in the fall.
“I’m not comfortable going and doing any shows yet even though I’ve been vaccinated. … Now, we’re worrying about the variants,” he said.
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.