By Andy Greene
From the earliest days of the Monkees, Micky Dolenz and Michael Nesmith had a special bond. Their harmony blend was a crucial part of the group's signature sound, and on the group's television show they shared impeccable comic timing and loved nothing more than to go off script and improv with one another. "We even had this odd idea about doing the Mike and Micky Show because we enjoyed playing together and singing together so much," says Nesmith. "We just never had the big money support for it because it was all about the Monkees, so we'd just set up on some of the set furniture and sing songs while the crew set up lights."
It has taken over 50 years, but their dream of the Mike and Micky Show is finally coming true in June when the "The Monkees Present: The Mike and Micky Show" kicks off a month-long run of dates in Chandler, Arizona. It's going to be a very different show than anything any incarnation of the Monkees has ever presented since there won't be screens displaying vintage clips of the group and they're dipping deep into the catalog to resurrect songs that have never been played live. "It's been a lot of work because Nez is quite the perfectionist," says Dolenz. "But it's so exciting to hear these songs done in their original context and harmonies. It's so great to recapture all these moments."
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the tour is that Nesmith agreed to it in the first place. Less than two years ago, he retired "Monkee Mike" after an emotional farewell show at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles. The group was in the middle of a huge 50th-anniversary tour, but Nez sat out nearly every date, leaving Dolenz and Peter Tork to carry the Monkee banner as a duo. But once those dates wrapped in December 2016, Tork told Dolenz that he wouldn't be available for any shows in the foreseeable future. "I realized if there was going to be any more Monkees music played live that Micky and I were going to have to do it," says Nesmith. "From the old Mike and Micky stuff I felt there may be some creative fun to be had here."
Rehearsals began at Nesmith's home in Carmel, California, a couple of months ago. At first, it was just the two of them and Nesmith's son Christian poring through the 12 Monkees studio albums, picking tunes they felt like singing and trying them out vocally without any band. "We did a version of [the 1967 Headquarters song] 'You Told Me,' the vocal part, that was really electrifying," says Nesmith. "I was like, 'Wow, this song does well under a little rock & roll power when you get away from the pop shampoo commercial stuff.'"
Special attention was paid to latter-day Monkees LPs The Birds, the Bees & the Monkees, Instant Replay and The Monkees Present. These came out after the peak of Monkee-mania and are packed with Nesmith originals he wrote while beginning to plant the seeds for his groundbreaking country rock group the First National Band. "One of the first songs we dusted off was 'St. Matthew' and 'Some of Shelly's Blues' [from the sessions for 1969's Instant Replay]," says Nesmith. "Mick asked if I wanted to sing 'Joanne' [a minor hit for the First National Band in 1970], but I felt it was way too much off into my own corner and not associated with the Monkees at all. But we are doing 'Different Drum' since that fell into the Monkee stew because Coco [Dolenz] started singing it in the live shows."
The show will also feature all of the band's biggest hits, including "Last Train to Clarksville," "I'm a Believer," "Daydream Believer," "Pleasant Valley Sunday" and "Stepping Stone." They call these the "can't cannot play" songs. "Those will always be about half to one third of any Monkees show," says Dolenz. "Nez likes some of the early Monkees hits more than others and I do too, but it goes without saying that we're doing all of them. I've learned over the years that once the audience knows they are getting those hits they will listen to just about anything else."
Once they had a working list of songs they wanted to do, Dolenz and Nesmith went into a rehearsal space with a band that includes Wayne Avers on guitar, Christian Nesmith on guitar and vocals, Alex Jules on keyboards, John Billings on bass, Rich Dart on drums, Coco Dolenz and Circe Link on background vocals, Pete Finney on pedal steel, and Paul Kramer on banjo, fiddle and guitar. The latter two will help them flesh out Nez's country rock tunes. "It's an astoundingly good band," says Nesmith. "This band and this iteration of the Monkees music is the best I've ever heard. It's the most fun to play, too."
They're going to rehearse all the way up to opening night on June 1st, and they have yet to settle on a final set list. "Good Clean Fun" from 1969's The Monkees Present is provisionally slated as the opening tune and "Me & Magdalena," "Circle Sky," "Porpoise Song" and "Birth of an Accidental Hipster" are near certainties. Dolenz is pushing very hard to get Nesmith to sign off on a version of the First National Band's "Grand Ennui" the ensemble has worked up. "I have been begging him to do that," says Dolenz. "Wait unit you hear it. It friggin' rocks!" Nez isn't quite convinced. "I told him it couldn't be any further from a Monkees thing, from subject matter to the way it's performed," he says. "When we started doing it, it jumped up to its full bright, sprightly self and we realized this would be a great song to sing. But so would, you know, the Beatles catalog and we have to stop at some point and say, 'This is a Monkees show.'"
One thing they aren't doing is any song originally performed by the late Davy Jones beyond "Daydream Believer." "Nobody can sing what David sang," says Nesmith. "He was so sweet and generous and the songs need this voice there when we play them. We made a decision to not do them."
Lingering over the whole tour is the absence of Peter Tork. The singer-guitarist successfully battled a rare form of oral cancer in 2009 and was an eager participant on every Monkees tour between 2011 and 2016, though he kept an extremely low profile in 2017. Earlier this year, he said he wasn't going to be involved in the tour because he was focused on his Lead Belly tribute LP Relax Your Mind. But the disc came out in January and he hasn't announced any tour plans behind it. "I've always had a certain distance from Peter," says Nesmith. "I don't really know what he's doing or what he's thinking."
Dolenz is slightly more willing to talk about the situation. "Last year when we talked about reconnecting he said, 'I'm not available,'" he says. "He told me a couple of years ago that he wanted to pursue his dream project, which is the Lead Belly album. He worked on it for a long time and he's going to tour with [his band] Shoe Suede Blues. My understanding was that Peter was just not available for this tour. That's his business and you'd have to ask him for more about it."
Tork's absence is a big reason Dolenz and Nesmith aren't touring as the Monkees, though when you ask them whether or not the band on the stage will be the Monkees you get a very long and philosophical answers about what the group was in the first place. "The Monkees is a television show," says Nesmith. "It was a group we played on television. Once it steps outside that show, people have to nourish it and make it something on their own. When you play the songs in your car or in headphones at your office it starts to integrate itself into your life like a real band. But that doesn't mean the television show is coming to life. You, however, might see it as a band. There's a real bifurcation in the way it exists in my mind. In some ways, it's a creative extension of the job I get called up to do every once in a while and really enjoy."
Dolenz looks at it from a bit of a different angle. "There's no short answer to this," he says. "It's like saying, 'What is Star Trek?' How many casts have been in Star Trek? But it's all Star Trek. You can't reduce these things in any scientific sense. We've never controlled the brand name and we have to pay [Rhino] every time we tour and use it, which we're happy to do."
Whatever you call the band, they have no plans beyond the end of the tour in Red Bank, New Jersey, on June 25th. Michael Nesmith already has a First National Band tour booked that will take him to the southern United States and up the East Coast in the fall. Dolenz is booking solo shows and is in talks with producers about returning to the stage on Broadway or the West End of London. But they both say they are very open to resuming the Mike and Micky Show at some point in the future when their schedules permit. "You just don't say no to anything right now," says Nesmith. "Who knows what's going to happen?
The Monkees Tour Facebook page posted videos of Micky, Michael, and the band rehearsing "Sunny Girlfriend," "Auntie's Municipal Court" (!), and "Different Drum" today at Videoranch:
Andrew Sandoval shared a photo from today's rehearsals on Instagram:
And courtesy of Videoranch on Facebook, here's a look at Michael's guitars at rehearsals: