Micky Dolenz, Full-On
By request, here's my entire recent interview with Micky Dolenz, which the Tribune published a section of last week.
With more than 40 years of showbiz experience, do you have guiding principles in this business?
Yes, but it wasn't until another journalist asked me about this that I figured out what it was... I don't have a preference as it were [about the art form], saying, you know, "I really love to direct more than anything," or like that...there is no "only thing" that I want to do.
Aside from the music, the directing, and the acting, I have a children's book coming out at the end of the year. I've even invented a domestic tool that we sold to a company, actually, in Chicago. The product isn't public yet, so I can't tell you much more...so now, I'm [also] an inventor.
I get attracted to a project, a property, and the content of it is what interests me-the role I'm gonna play, as it were. The exact job I'm going to have is, well, not irrelevant, but it's the content that gets me excited. I'd rather be directing a great little TV show than acting in a bad musical. I'd rather sing in a little musical than be on tour in a lousy show. It's the project itself.
[Former Monkee] Peter Tork has called you an intuitive genius; you do successful work in every genre you touch.
Well, that's very generous of Peter. The term "genius" is sometimes thrown around casually...but having grown up in the business, and it's the only business I know, it's not that unusual [to work in many fields].
In the old days it didn't apply so much, but look at someone like Barbra Streisand, who sings, writes, directs, acts...it's not that uncommon these days. I tried retiring once, when I lived in England, and I was never so bored in my life. It was HORRIBLE. I realized that this was not for me.
What we do in this business, you can hardly call it 'work.' It's so creative. I get attracted to projects, and always have had a number of things going on at the same time-sometimes too many! If I have a weak suit, it's that I have too many things going and get a bit scatterbrained about it. I tend to dilute some of my energies. Over the last few years, I've managed to control that, focus a little bit better...I've accomplished more by attempting to do less.
But I always have a number of things in the works, because the nature of who I am and the business. [Two days after being taken off the radio] I got a call out of the blue from England from a major production company about a new reality show they want me to create and host. It's on the backburner now, depending on what surfaces and which project ripens, or finishes cooking, to mix my metaphors.
That happens in this business-you have a film "in development," a couple of TV ideas "in development"...there are plans for me to write another children's book. To some degree, you have to do what's at the top of the pile first.
Even when I had the radio show, or on any of the Monkees tours, I was doing things...I have to be busy. I'm bad at relaxing and staring at the moon. It's just not in my nature. On the 1986 Monkees, tour I wrote a screenplay, because there was NOTHING ELSE TO DO during the day!
Three days after the WBCS gig ended, I had an audition for a new musical in New York. I do have an affection for live musical theater-I came to it late in life growing up in L.A., where there's little or no theater. I always thought that The Monkees were sort of a musical theater on television, and it's was a fairly accurate representation of the genre, like a Marx Bros. movie...Essentially, The Monkees weren't anything like The Beatles. They were more like the Marx Brothers, doing these little movies on TV.
I love doing musicals. Aida [in which he appeared on Broadway] was great. To get a shot to play a villain...this was the first time since before The Monkees that I could play the bad guy; back then I could do it because of my punk kid look, the look of a kid who got in trouble. After The Monkees, everyone just thought that I was a drummer.
The most important move I made, and it was serendipitous, was going to England after the Monkees. I had nothing going on in L.A., nor did I have to [financially]...I was just kind of partying all the time, with lots of people who are now dead, actually-people like Keith Moon, Harry Nilsson, and John Lennon, back in the early 70s in L.A.
I had gotten divorced [from first wife Samantha], and I happened to meet another English girl and went over to England to do a musical, [Nilsson's] The Point, based on his animated featurette. They were doing it as a musical and Harry asked me to do it, and I went with my new English fiancé, and we got married so I could work in England.
I didn't have a project, or anything else that was keeping me in the states. I had directed an episode of The Monkees ["Mijacogeo"] and some commercials after that...and lo and behold, I'm sitting in England after this play is done and an agent I met there had sent my tape over to BBC and I got a job directing a drama for them. It's one of those stories when I went to England for three months and stayed for 15 years.
That was huge change in my life; I had a psychic tell me that going to the U.K. literally saved my life. It saved my career, and I stepped back and thank God I didn't have to tour and play clubs and make a living singing Monkees songs at that time. [In 1976, with Davy Jones and songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart], I remember doing a few shows in Vegas, and people saying, "Make me laugh, because I just lost $10,000."
Having a new career gave me a chance to step back from The Monkees for those 12 to 15 years, there was little said or mentioned about them at that time [the 70s and early 80s]. I was known as Michael Dolenz, not Micky ex-Monkee; it was "Michael, the TV Director." It enabled me to detach myself from The Monkees, and from the danger of starting to believe that I was "Micky of The Monkees," which is always a great danger, especially when you have a lot of success. You start believing that you are the character. It is still dangerous to this day. If Britney Spears starts believing she's "Britney Spears," that's very dangerous. It's happened to close friends, people I've worked with.
Tell me about your current act with [his sister] Coco.
Basically, of course, the meat and potatoes show is Monkees songs, all the big hits. I always do them and I stay faithful to the original recordings. I really think you owe it to the fans to do that. Since I sang most of the hits, it makes up a good portion of the show.
I have a big band, a 9-piece band now. Over the years, I didn't do a lot of solo touring until quite recently, after spending a lot of time in England then doing musicals here...I really didn't do any solo touring after The Monkees.
I feel it's important...sort of an unspoken contract with an audience, that when you have a string of hits like I did, you owe it to them to play them. I've been to shows with artists, who will remain nameless, who had hits and didn't do any of them, or just did them in a medley, or did a reggae version of them or something. I just think doing them is important. And they're great songs, easy and good to sing. That makes up a good portion of the show.
I had, of course, to include some other material. I didn't want to just cover other tunes that I happen to like. There are a lot of songs that I like to sing, and could sing, by other groups, and I tried it a couple of times, but I got the feeling the audience was thinking, "Why is Micky Dolenz covering this old tune?"
So one of reasons I have my sister Coco on tour with me is that we've been singing together since we were kids. Both my parents were singers and actors, and [to prepare for this tour] I went back and started recalling and working up material that had influenced me through the years.
So we came up with quite a few songs...for instance I remember my mom singing "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" by the Andrews Sisters. She had sang that in the Big Band era, and my sister and I do a version of that...I tell a story of my mom teaching it to us as kids.
I started coming up with these stories...one of my audition pieces for The Monkees was a Chuck Berry tune. If I were to do that out of the blue, people would wonder, "why is he...?" But if I say that this was the audition piece for the Monkees, cause I was a guitar player at the time, it makes sense to take the audience on this trip through time and do songs that have relevance for the audience.
She sings a couple of tunes herself; she sings "Different Drum," which Michael Nesmith wrote and Linda Ronstadt had a hit with. Coco sings that and does a couple of other tunes.
What was it like moving from the front of the camera to behind it, then back again for other TV, theater, etc.? Are you a hard actor to direct now?
I think now I'm easier to direct after having been on both sides of the stage, shall we say...if I'm in a project, as an actor I try to turn off my directing radar. You have to. I can't direct everyone else and myself. It's difficult to direct yourself...I've done it a couple of times and I don't like it. It's hard to be objective, especially in comedy. Woody Allen is an exception to that rule. Jerry Lewis was one of the first ones to do that who was quite successful. You can count them on one hand.
I'm easier to direct now because I know the problems a director faces...once you buy into the material, you have to let the director and writer and producer have their vision. [As an actor] you have to let them do that. I remember working with actors [when I directed] who thought they knew better than anyone else. Nine out of ten don't.
[Rolling Stone editor] Jann Wenner's anti-Monkees bias has kept you out of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Had you heard that REM would not accept an induction until the Monkees are inducted?
I don't think The Monkees should be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. They should be in the television Hall of Fame. The Monkees was not a group. It was a TV show about an imaginary group that didn't exist. We lived in an imaginary beach house and had imaginary adventures.
We used our real names, which confused the issue. That was a wise move to help people identify with us, but for me as an actor it was harder to go into an audition after The Monkees, because people thought I was a drummer. But I was an actor playing a drummer!
Of course, we went out and became a group, and toured. I took about a year to learn to play the drums before we had to really play in public. But I approached it as an actor, an entertainer, as I would approach any role...if I was offered a role as an airplane pilot, I would have taken flying lessons.
So clearly The Monkees went on to become something else...as I've said in the past, a bit like Leonard Nimoy becoming a Vulcan. Or like Tim Allen in the film Galaxy Quest. That, in a very real sense, is the story of the Monkees...Galaxy Quest featured the cast of a TV show that the fans (i.e. aliens) believe are real. And fans demanded of us that we be real and play concerts.
Jann Wenner, and some others, never got that. A lot of people just didn't get it. Something like The Monkees had never happened before. Many, many people take their rock and roll very seriously. It's no laughing matter. You're not supposed to have fun with it. And there is still that attitude...it's supposed to be serious, or dark, or have some intense social commentary, and people still feel that.
For a long time The Monkees, which were about having fun, were outré. It's bizarre, but at the time we came on TV, the only time you saw long hair on TV was when people were getting arrested!
We did represent the counterculture, and to the hippie movement we represented all those kids that were wearing the paisley and growing long hair, but were normal, regular kids. We were into the style. Sort of like Henry Winkler helped make leather jackets and motorcycles cool in the 70s, or that the way that Will Smith did for hip-hop with Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Timothy Leary said that The Monkees brought long hair into the living room. "Look mom, these kids are wearing paisley and not committing crimes..."
The Monkees were an imaginary band that wanted to be The Beatles, and it was that struggle for success that made the show. We never "made it" on the show. It was all about the struggle. This was endearing, because lots of kids were doing the same thing in their garages and basements. The show was about these guys who wanted to be The Beatles. And at the time, to be honest, people like Rolling Stone and others in the media just didn't get it.
But the musicians got the Monkees. Someone who got it immediately was Frank Zappa. John Lennon got it; he was the first to say we were like the Marx Brothers. The smart people, musicians and Leary and people in TV, got it. The pop/rock and roll journalists and radio people and people like Wenner just never got it...and probably still don't. R.E.M. are kind to say those things...but it may not be appropriate for us to be in there.
Having said that, the writers and producers made a major contribution to pop music, rock and roll. Now, a lot of groups [from the 60s] are admitting they used the same session men we did-the Wrecking Crew [Drummer Hal Blaine, bassist Carol Kaye, etc.] Some of these groups, like the Byrds, were big; they are now admitting that they didn't play on "Mr. Tambourine Man." Everyone was using session guys. Even if you knew how to play, or played well, you might use a session guy because they knew the ropes, as it were. Not to take anything from the Byrds--they're one of my favorite groups of all time, and I know David [Crosby]--but in a funny way, The Monkees were the most honest of all. We were a flat-out television show.
I do take exception to the use of the word "manufactured" [to describe us]. This implies something derogatory...were no more manufactured than Star Trek or I Love Lucy or Friends or Fresh Prince of Bel Air. It's a television show. I was a cast member of this television show.
I think it pissed people off that The Monkees [soon] became a good, ass-kicking band. It doesn't bother me what Rolling Stain thinks; we were successful over a long period of time, so you have to figure that something's wrong there...a lot of talent was involved with The Monkees. The producers picked four talented guys. The auditions were intense, nothing like American Idol. You had to be able to play just to get into the audition.
Obviously the producers of The Monkees had in mind that we could actually perform, otherwise they would have just cast actors, or not even attempted to go the traditional Hollywood route, which was to cast an actor, like Val Kilmer, in The Doors, or Sweet and Lowdown, with Sean Penn. You knew that Sean Penn wasn't playing the guitar, but it didn't matter. It didn't matter that Natalie Wood didn't sing in West Side Story or that Sal Mineo didn't play the drums in The Gene Krupa Story.
Finally, have to ask-how are things between you and Mike, David, and Peter? Are the Monkees like a family that you don't always see but are always going to be part of?
I've known them as long as I've known my youngest sister. It is like a family, with all the relationship issues that come along with that. Sometimes you love them, and sometimes you hate them. It's much like that.
To anticipate your next question, there are no plans to get back together as a group. I've learned never to say never, but at this point it is very unlikely.
(C) Stuart Shea 2005. Reprinted with permission of the Chicago Tribune.