The Monkees; June 29, 2011; Genesee Theater, Waukegan IL
I was a junior in college when I fell in love with Monkees. M-TV had a Monkees marathon, showing every episode over the course of a weekend. My roommates and I watched nearly all of it, and by the end we each had our favorite Monkee (mine was Peter Tork) and the opening song was engrained in our brains. In addition, we ate so many bags of cool ranch Doritos and drank so much cherry Pepsi that I haven’t had either since. My youngest sister, fourteen years my junior, also fell for the Monkees at the same time. Mickey Dolenz was her favorite, though she didn’t quite understand that he wasn’t still that age. Even though she did eventually figure out that he was old enough to be her dad, she remained a Monkees fan. So much so that she didn’t even hesitate when I told her I told her the ticket price for the 45th anniversary tour. “Of course I want to go, it’s the Monkees.” Sadly, as with other reunion tours, going back to the first revival following the M-TV attention, Mike Nesmith sat this one out.
Nesmith was undeniably the musical star of the band, something I didn’t appreciate till later or I likely would have chosen him as my favorite. While Dolenz and Davy Jones were actors first and singers second, Tork and Nesmith were musicians. He wrote Linda Ronstadt and the Ponys’ hit song “Different Drum,” which still surprises people when I tell them that. He also wrote many of the Monkees best songs. While their hits were written by well-known songwriters like Neil Diamond, Neil Sedaka and Carole King, Nesmith’s songs were better and have definitely held up over time. In the show, Tork seldom sang, “and if you ever heard me sing you know why,” he joked the first time I saw the band back in 1986. He stuck to backing vocals or the occasional humorous turn like the silly “Auntie Griselda.” However something has changed since then, and when he took lead vocals on some of Nesmith’s best numbers like “Papa Gene’s Blues” and “What Am I Doing Hanging ‘Round,” he sounded great.
Arguably he sounded the best of the three. While Jones sounded basically the same, Dolenz seemed to be trying too hard, like he was putting on his opera voice and oversinging every song. That ruined beautiful songs like “Sometime in the Morning,” while one like “Going Down” fared better since its James Brown style scat singing kept him in check. Jones’s songs were always the silliest, and sometimes verged on nauseatingly saccharine like the ridiculous “I Want to Be Free” with its absurd plea, “Don’t say you love me, say you like me.” Luckily we were spared the dreadful “On the Day We Fall in Love.” While those songs can be tedious, it is impossible not to be charmed by him on lighter songs like “Cuddly Toy” and “She Hangs Out.” Plus, he definitely still has his sense of humor. When they took the stage he quipped, “I’m Davy Jones’s Dad, Davy will be out later.” In addition to the three Monkees a backing band of nearly a dozen members filled the stage. While they played, a big screen behind them showed scenes from the series. Instead of being distracting, it actually enhanced the show, and I left with an overwhelming desire to go home and watch every episode (a feat I half-heartedly attempted the following Sunday). One of the more amusing segments strung together clips of Davy with stars in his eyes, a frequent occurrence since he fell in love every week.
During their heyday the Monkees took a lot of heat for not playing their own instruments, which seems a silly criticism of a band that was made for TV. Eventually they did win the right to do an entire record themselves, that record and accompanying movie Head left a lot of people scratching theirs. These songs were never featured in any episode of the show and are entirely unfamiliar to me (and likely much of the audience), so I was surprised (in an admiring way) when they dedicated a portion of their set to these songs, notably “The Porpoise Song.” But that was almost the only thing I didn’t know. Gina looked at me shocked when they announced one song as Paul Williams’ “Someday Man.” “I don’t know this one,” she admitted, and I didn’t either. Otherwise the set was nothing but sing-a-longs, saving the biggest hits for the end. Defying those early critics, they all played instruments during the show. Peter played on nearly every song, switching between keyboard, guitar and banjo. Dolenz was behind the kit on many songs, there was a second drummer, and they played together in perfect time. Jones, who once appeared on Paul Schaeffer’s Top Ten Tambourine Players of All Time list three times (with the Monkees, solo and with the Monkees reunion), mostly stuck to percussion, maracas and tambourine, but he did pick up an acoustic guitar on accession, though he looked slightly uncomfortable with it.
It was a little cheesy at times, and the jokes seemed scripted and sometimes awkward, but it was a completely enjoyable experience. And for three guys looking at seventy, they put on a pretty great show. When the fiftieth anniversary show comes around I’ll be there, and I’m sure Gina will be with me.