SF Sketchfest: The Monkees’ Michael Nesmith and Micky Dolenz are ‘believers’ once again

The Monkees, Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, Paul Myers

Moderator Paul Myers (L) with The Monkees’ Michael Nesmith and Micky Dolenz at Marines’ Memorial Theatre on Jan. 12, 2020. Courtesy: Dan Dion.

SAN FRANCISCO — “I’m a Believer” and “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” wafted through the Marines’ Memorial Theatre Sunday before SF Sketchfest’s Tribute to The Monkees: a conversation with surviving members Michael Nesmith and Micky Dolenz.

The conversation was moderated by self-described uber-fan Paul Myers, author of several pop culture biographies, who swore “The Monkees were better than The Beatles.” It precedes a reunion between the two that will include a new album and tour.

The evening was an informative conversation with Nesmith and Dolenz, who’s previously appeared at Sketchfest Celebrity Biography shows. Numerous times, the speakers even dove into how the drug culture of the ’60s affected the band.

“I don’t remember, but I was told I had a great time,” Dolenz of the years after the first season of their TV show aired. “I lied by my pool and drank with Alice Cooper.”

The two were endearing as they regaled the audience with stories of how The Monkees began, both as a band and a hit TV show. The show, which premiered in 1965, was created by young producers Bob Rafelson (“The Postman Always Rings Twice”) and Bert Schneider (“Easy Rider”). Their concept hinged on the idea of a show that would be improvised rather than scripted. Nesmith and Dolenz, as well as Davy Jones and Peter Tork (who passed away in 2019), learned improv from James Frawley, who made them watch the Marx Brothers and Laurel & Hardy. “The Monkees” became the first of many directing projects for Frawley.

The Monkees, Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, Paul Myers

Moderator Paul Myers (L) with The Monkees’ Michael Nesmith and Micky Dolenz at Marines’ Memorial Theatre on Jan. 12, 2020. Courtesy: Dan Dion.

The members were taught camaraderie as they grew to support each other. The plot of the show, about a band that wanted to be The Beatles, yet never succeeding, is what endeared countless fans, Nesmith and Dolenz said. At the same time, the show portrayed the band living in a beach house, with a nice car and surrounded by women.

“‘How did they do it?'” Nesmith joked. The magic of Hollywood.

The producers had a plan to get the band on the road at the outset, Dolenz said. All four Monkees could play instruments—and here Nesmith joked how unlike other great bands of the ’60s like The Beach Boys that often relied on the help of heavy-hitting session musicians The Wrecking Crew, The Monkees never did.

Then they got the “Monkeemobile,” built with a trailer attached that was dubbed “Big Red.” The trailer turned into a stage so they could play supermarket parking lots.

At the beginning of the TV show, Dolenz was studying to become an architect. His fallback was acting. At the time of The Monkees premiere, he’d also been attached to two or three other shows including “The Happeners,” along the lines of Peter, Paul and Mary and a surf rock band a-la The Beach Boys. A third show would have included him performing in a folk group like the The New Christy Minstrels.

Dolenz was fast-tracked through the audition process to The Monkees thanks to his work on “Circus Boy” in the late ’50s. He was a child actor playing the part of an orphan adopted into a circus family in the 1890s.

As he needed to be able to act and sing for “The Monkees,” he auditioned with “Johnny B. Goode.”

Nesmith, meanwhile, had been working at The Troubador in Los Angeles as a house musician. He saw an ad for the show and went in to audition.

Nesmith said he once created a rumor that Charles Manson auditioned for a part, as well as Sally Field and Lassie—there was never any truth to it, though surely the producers could have found a spot for Lassie, right?

Nesmith and Dolenz talked about how the two of them pulled a lot of pranks and gags together. As Dolenz explained one incident, while returning to the U.S. from a tour, immigration officers asked for the members’ “papers.”

Nesmith responded: “zig-zags or Bambus?”—a reference to joint rolling papers.

The Monkees, Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, Paul Myers

Moderator Paul Myers (L) with The Monkees’ Michael Nesmith and Micky Dolenz at Marines’ Memorial Theatre on Jan. 12, 2020. Courtesy: Dan Dion.

Of course, the elephant in the room was the absence of Tork and Jones. Infamously, there was a lot of infighting with the band behind the scenes.

“Do you have any brothers or sisters. Need I say more?” Dolenz said.

“I did not care for [Tork],” Nesmith said. And of Jones: “I tolerated him.”

Dolenz and Nesmith have an incredible bond, however. While Tork and Nesmith may have had their differences, Nesmith felt a great sense of loss when Tork passed away.

“We became brothers; we became a band,” Nesmith said.

Perhaps the most amusing story, as told by Dolenz, was the filming of Jack Nicholson’s first film, the cult-feature “Head,” a precursor to “Easy Rider.” After two seasons of “The Monkees,” the band agreed to the film “because of the drugs.”

Somewhere there is 16mm footage of what really happened.

Nicholson was a B-movie actor who just wanted to write, Dolenz said. The band went to Ojai to make the movie, and “we were all too stoned.”

Nesmith described the band’s success as lightning in a bottle.

“We were four guys who got a lucky break. When on stage we were undeniable,” he said.

Nesmith and Dolenz plan to release a new live album in April and head back out on the road later this year.

Follow writer Rachel Goodman at Twitter.com/xneverwherex and Instagram.com/xneverwherex.

(10) Comments

  1. Dale

    Yes, as the Beach Boys matured, Brian Wilson very creatively used the Wrecking Crew for musical tracks. This is after they played their own instruments on quite a few albums. But who are you kidding?! The Monkees were famous for not playing their instruments on their hit records. Only near the end of their career did they play their own instruments.....and not with very satisfying results.

  2. Marty

    The Monkees way more than anyone could have ever imagined. Some said that it was just a lucky opportunity. The fact is there will never be another group like these four. Four guys who took the heat and the scorn from "rock and roll purists" that they were a fake band who couldn't play their own instruments. Interesting that it was the Monkees who came out publicly to announce they weren't allowed to play on their first two albums. Interesting there were numerous bands at that time from the Beach Boys to the Byrds who also didn't play their instruments on their albums. It was the Wrecking Crew who record companies used to "crank out" the music fast so the record companies could make money. All that said, the Monkees were a phenomena that will never be repeated again, and their music and television show live on today. Were they the best? They were certainly had their place along with the others at the top. Thank you Mr. Dolenz and Mr. Nesmith for loving the worldwide huge fanbase, live on boys!

  3. JC

    @Dale — They mostly played their own instruments on their third and fourth albums—Headquarters and Pisces—which were probably their two biggest albums.

  4. Nancy

    I was a huge Monkees fan growing up. I had a huge crush on Davy Jones and was saddened to hear of his passing. Then the recent loss of Peter brought home how close I am getting to my end of life. I'm happy to see that Mike & Mickey are carrying on the music of the Monkees. I wish them continued success.

  5. Brian

    @Dale You guys never learn because you don't care. Media dishonesty is not a new thing. The Monkees played on several of their top 40 hit singles (in various parts of the world): "Pleasant Valley Sunday", "Daydream Believer" (plus Peter Tork wrote the intro to this song), "The Girl I Knew Somewhere" (written and played by them), "Words", "Tapioca Tundra" (written and played by them), "Goin' Down" (played and partially written by them), "Randy Scouse Git" (played and written by them), "Listen to the Band" (played and written by them). And of those that are still regularly heard in pop culture, "Pleasant Valley Sunday" and "Daydream Believer" and "Goin' Down" they played the major instruments that you'd expect them to play (meaning, just not the horns, etc.). On "The GIrl I Knew Somewhere" (Very Early Hit), they wrote and played everything. By the time of "Listen to the Band" (written by Mike), in other words the real end of their '60s career, they were more or less solo artists in the studio, so it was just Mike playing along with his chosen studio crew. TV show debuted in Sept 1966. 4 months later in January, they were in the studio recording. They were playing on the 2nd season of the TV show.

  6. Thomas

    The Monkees were the greatest group of all time ! The Pisces album is the one that caught it all . Nesmith was the best ! He was the leader. It’s not their fault they weren’t allowed to play in the first 2 albums . But they were honest and on the third album Headquarters , they played every note . They should be celebrated for their honesty . Not scorned. They were put together and became a real band . I just love them and look up to them ! When the four of them went on the road, they kicked butt!! Congratulations to the Monkees ! You are lived by millions ! You are the greatest group of all time !!!!!!

  7. David

    The Monkees were put together as a tv show, but they became a real band . I don’t care about the show. I consider them a terrific band . They were better than the Beatles or any other group . I hate when Micky says they were like the Marx’s brothers . They were a real band and an excellent one at that. Mike had the cool sideburns and the songs like Tapioca Tundra, Wriring Wrongs . The Girl I knew Somewhere , Circle Sky ,Daily Nightly and Salesman were super psychedelic ! Peter playing Banjo, bass and keyboards was super talented and his songs in Head like Do I have to do this all over again we’re simply amazing ! Davy was a great vocalist and Mickys voice is fantastic ! There simply was no better band ! Just put on the headphones and listen . They’re the greatest band ever!!!

  8. Ed weiser

    They should be in RRHOF. Many bands in already did not play instruments wtf. With so many #1 hit songs , hall of fame is a bad joke

  9. Kelly

    Ed and others, I find it ironic, that during the turmoil revolutionary times of the 1960s and what started out to be the intrusion of music studio corporation's might into the television market, that the only band to stand up against the very corporate battle between artistry and control, a fake band, became a real band and rebelled against the system that many today with streaming and direct sales dissolved the music industry take full advantage of. Their iconic voices and contributions will long be remembered. Their music and push of all those great songwriters, musicians and sounds have stood the test of time, and it amazes me the very band the Rolling Stones was looking for to crush the secret dogma were right under their nose the whole time. Are they worthy of the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame museum? of course, and they have inspired many to follow in their footsteps. People seem to think that musicians that make the hall of fame are comparable, or one is better than the other. There are no comparisons in music. Each voice and sound is unique and the Monkees were unique regardless of their birth. It is sad, that Jones and Tones, and maybe even the survivor duo may not live long enough to see it It really does not matter, for the Monkees will be long remembered for what they were, not what they weren't. They were the Monkees and no one else can say that.

  10. Peter Denmark

    David and Thomas (and others), I echo your sentiments exactly. They were and continue to be the greatest band/group of all time. I personally get fed up with the constant comparisons with a certain group from Liverpool. In fact, I just wish we could go one day without someone mentioning the Liverpool based foursome in a discussion/article about The Monkees. The Monkees are the reason I started to learn to play the guitar in 1978. I'm still a lousy player by the way but give it another 42 years and I may just get there.

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