HEY, HEY, WE'RE (STILL) THE MONKEES
It's been three decades since their television show ended, but here they come...walking down the street...again
B Y B R U C E N E W M A N
Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, and Peter Tork are sitting on folding chairs in tuxedos, waiting for Michael Nesmith. The three of them have waited for Nesmith for 27 years, though not on these exact chairs -- all dressed up with no place to go. Today, though, the "thinking Monkee," as Nesmith was known, is on an adjoining Los Angeles soundstage, preparing to direct them in the next scene of ABC's new Monkees special, set to air February 17 at 8 P.M./ET.
More than a quarter century after NBC canceled The Monkees, Nesmith, who's found success as a film producer, composer, and creator of music videos, has been welcomed back with open arms by his band mates. He is treated as a kind of visiting deity on the set. It's as if the Liquid Paper heir had descended to blot out the memory of every nightclub and amusement park where the not-quite-Monkees played without him. "Michael was the galvanizing force behind this project," says Tork. "He brings a sort of meta-artistic look at this thing. I think he's basically looking at the Monkees from a point of view consistent with current trends in art deconstruction and postmodernism. All the existential questions about the Monkees -- are we? aren't we? -- this TV show makes reference to in some very circles-within-circles kinds of ways. And that's Michael."
Their long wait finally -- if perhaps temporarily -- over, the Monkees have floated back into the cultural mainstream like a warm memory. Rhino Records has reissued all nine of the group's old albums and the 58 TV episodes, as well as putting out a coffee-table book and a CD-ROM about the band. And last month, the Disney Channel took an affectionate look back at the Monkees phenomenon with a special entitled Hey, Hey We're the Monkees. And hey, hey, they finally are. Again.
They proved it with the recent release of Justus, the first album ever completely written and performed by the Monkees. "It's just the four of us playing now, so nobody's going to be saying, 'They can't do this, they can't do that,'" says Jones, still the group's heartthrob at 50, referring to the criticism the Monkees got in the early days for not playing their own instruments.
The only thing that could truly recapture the antic style of the original Monkees was a TV show -- and, oddly, that was not part of the original plan. But when ABC, whose prime-time ratings seem to have caught the last train to Clarksville this season, suggested a one-hour special, it became the centerpiece of the band's comeback. "The Monkees was never a band, it was a television show about a band," says Dolenz. "The Monkees has nothing to do with the Beatles. The Monkees has to do with Bonanza."
Still, the Monkees have sold out London's Wembley Arena for concerts on March 19 and 20 -- and Hoss and Little Joe never did that. Between July 4 and Labor Day, the band plans to tour the United States, just as they did for hundreds of concert dates during the late '60s. Dolenz says performing as an actual band has always seemed surreal. "It's like one of the actors on ER actually becoming a doctor," he says.
Though NBC pulled the original TV series in 1968, after only two seasons on the air, the group went on to make its movie debut three months later with "Head." The script was written by one of the TV show's creators, Bob Rafelson, and a then little-known B-movie actor named Jack Nicholson, who also appeared in the film. Meant as a valedictory for the Monkees, it played less like an episode of the TV show than an extended acid flashback. It bombed at the box office, and Rafelson and The Monkees' other creator, Bert Schneider, went on to other projects. "I think their attitude was essentially, 'We don't like these wiseass kids. We've had enough of them,'" says Tork, who was the first to quit the band because, as he says, "I wanted to be in a real group." Nesmith soon followed. "The show went off the air," says Dolenz, "so there wasn't anything driving the idea of the Monkees anymore. The mechanism had shut down."
The man who had set the Monkee machine in motion was record producer Don Kirshner, who was responsible for creating the group's uncluttered pop sound, using musicians and songwriters whose contracts he controlled. In addition to the formidable talents of Harry Nilsson and Carole King, Kirshner used Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, who wrote The Monkees' theme and "Last Train to Clarksville," and Neil Diamond, who very reluctantly turned over "I'm a Believer." Among the session musicians who performed on the group's records were Leon Russell, Stephen Stills, and Neil Young.
Kirshner wanted full credit for the 16 million albums and 71/2 million singles that were sold under the Monkees' name during the band's first 30 months. And to get it, he often implied he could have put any four chimps together and come up with the Monkees. It was this question of musical authorship that led to the group being dubbed the "Prefab Four."
The band rebelled and eventually parted company with Kirshner. With the release of 1967's Headquarters, the group's third album, it was possible to hear "the real Monkees sound," says Dolenz, "as opposed to the fictitious real Monkees sound of the TV show." Unfortunately, record sales quickly plummeted.
Though Nesmith made a guest appearance with the group in 1986, he has refused to participate in the many reconfigurations of the Monkees as duos and trios that have taken place during the passage of a generation. "The oldies aspect of it never appealed to me," says Nesmith, finally joining the group on the set. "Those early hits are a legacy, not just nostalgia. We look back on those records and those television shows with a lot of pride, and think, 'Gee, that was great, and we had a good time doing that.'" Nesmith continues: "And I still want to do that. That's why I don't want to go back and try to revisit it like a high-school reunion. I just want to keep on going. And that's what the [new show's] script does to a great degree. It's like we just never quit."
The premise of the special is that the original show was never canceled, the Monkees never ceased to exist, and that episode number 781 is being shot. "We're doing this show as if the Monkees had gone through all the changes four men would go through over the past 30 years," Dolenz says. In the script that writer/director/executive producer Nesmith has created for the special, one of the running jokes has the Monkees trying to avoid the banal plotlines of 30 years ago. "It's gotten more intelligent, maybe a little wittier," says Dolenz. "We're not trying to be zany, and we're not not trying."
Nor are they trying to get their hopes too high that this special could lead to another series in the future. After all, it's being aired with the blessing of a network president -- ABC's Jamie Tarses -- who was only 2 years old when The Monkees first appeared on NBC. But that doesn't bother the Monkees. They have already found satisfaction with the project. "We are the production now," Jones says proudly, "and we knew that nobody but Mike could have directed this. What makes the whole thing so great is that this time, we are the masters of our own destiny."
Bruce Newman is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.
Photo credit: The Monkees by Catherine Ledner for TV Guide
(c) TV Guide Entertainment Network
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