9/09/2013

The Monkees: Listening to the Band

On the warm evening of August 18, 2013, the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland, Oregon, was filled with high-spirited memories of the 1960s, when The Monkees offered a collection of upbeat songs to an audience of excited fans. As The Monkees smoothly made their way from one hit to another, from "Last Train to Clarksville" to "I'm a Believer" to "Pleasant Valley Sunday," it seemed that every corner of the hall was overflowing with wave after wave of good feelings, providing unquestionable evidence of the longstanding affection in which the amiable performers are held by the public. The lighthearted mood that prevailed while The Monkees were onstage brought a joyous flood of happiness to the older members of the crowd (and to all of the younger ones, too), during a sprightly performance that deftly reached back to the brightest years of a bygone decade.

In September, 1966, The Monkees, a new sitcom starring Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, and Peter Tork as four young musicians who had a look and a sound that was closely patterned after The Beatles, began a run of two seasons on NBC. A handful of singles, and two albums, quickly were released in connection with the show, featuring the voices of Davy, Micky, Mike, and Peter, with backing by other musicians and catchy songs from top songwriters (Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Neil Diamond), and The Monkees soon became stars on television and radio. (On later recordings, they were allowed to write and perform their own songs.) In 1968, after The Monkees had been canceled, the foursome starred in Head, a freewheeling film whose visual style was overtly psychedelic, which had the effect (perhaps intended) of distancing them from many of their youngest fans.

With Davy Jones having passed away in 2012, at the age of sixty-six, the membership of The Monkees now comprises Micky, Mike, and Peter. (The poignant absence of Davy Jones, a diminutive Englishman whose boyish charm and cocky humor were essential ingredients in the early appeal of The Monkees, was the only drawback to the evening.) The three Monkees who continue to tour under the collective name are no longer young (which also is true, of course, in regard to most of their fans), and, in all truthfulness, it must be reported that each of them looks their current age (they all have much less hair than they did in their heyday, with Micky choosing to cover his pate with a fedora), but their general demeanor still has a decidedly youthful flair, and the undoubted quality of the songs has stood the test of time. As they performed, video clips from The Monkees and Head were streamed on a huge screen behind them, artfully putting their easygoing music into its rightful context.

When The Monkees first appeared in 1966, they frequently (and quite wrongly) were accused of being fraudulent performers, but the actual range of their musicianship was, and clearly still is, thoroughly impressive. Peter Tork, in particular, nimbly displayed his varied abilities on guitar, banjo, and keyboards, in addition to serving as lead vocalist on "Your Auntie Grizelda" and "For Pete's Sake." Mike Nesmith handily carried the music along with his guitar, and also sang a number of his own compositions, including "Papa Gene's Blues," "Sunny Girlfriend," "You Just May Be the One," "Circle Sky," and "Listen to the Band." Micky Dolenz, who remains as sharp, as funny, and as engaging as ever, applied his familiar voice to many of the songs (it was a special delight to hear him sing "She," "Mary, Mary," "The Girl I Knew Somewhere," "Randy Scouse Git," "Goin' Down," "Words," "Porpoise Song," and others), ably played the drums on several tunes, and cheerfully served as chief spokesman.

The Monkees, as reckoned within the narrow minds of certain self-proclaimed hipsters, were never seen as equals to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, The Byrds, or other musical giants of the 1960s (and in fairness, it should be remembered that The Monkees never made any such claim for themselves), but their music, at its best, always was honestly pleasing, and possessed a vigorous element of unassuming freshness that has endured for more than forty-five years. As active entertainers, they have succeeded in outlasting many of their peers, which is something of a feat in itself. Onstage in Portland, where The Monkees were making the final stop of their summer tour (backed by a skilled band that included Micky's sister, Coco Dolenz, on vocals, and Mike's son, Christian Nesmith, on guitar), they had no difficulty in proving that their fame was never merely a random happening, but rather, the solid result of their hard work and their straightforward talent.