That Was Then, This Is Now
TV/music/pop Icon of the ‘60s, Micky Dolenz looks back and Forward to the Present
As a member of the so-called Pre-Fab Four, Micky Dolenz was lead vocalist and drummer for the made-for-TV Monkees. An obvious nod to the Beatles, the group went on to equal and in some cases better the sales and successes of those Liverpool Lads. Now 50 years later, he has a storied career with multi-media successes and a catalog of band and solo material that continues to garner new fans of all ages. Currently on tour with his solo revue, Dolenz returns to town for a show in early April at City Winery.
Unlike many of your peers who enjoyed massive success in the ‘60s, you had a very productive, creatively diverse ‘70s.
Yeah, it was huge, and it was a bit of good luck, and a bit of planning and strategy. When the Monkees show ended, I already knew what that was like because I’d had a series [“Circus Boy” in the mid-‘50s] that went off the air when I was a kid. I knew you just had to move on. At that time, I was already moving in the toward producing and directing TV, films and commercials and stuff. I’d directed an episode of the Monkees and I’d decided that was the way I wanted to go. I knew that I probably wasn’t going to get a lot of action as an actor at that point. It would have been wonderful to get a series like, say, Happy Days, but I really wasn’t up for that. I went to a couple of auditions for acting gigs and they said, “What are you doing here? We don’t need any drummers!” But you get typecast and we all know that happens. So I was keen on moving on into production.
You mentioned Happy Days. Legend has it that you actually auditioned for the role of Fonzie on that show.
Oh yeah, that’s true! It was finally down to me and Henry Winkler. I’ve become good friends with him over the years and he tells the story that it was just down to the two of us. He remembers me because I’d just come off the Monkees show and he saw me walk in the room and thought, “Oh Christ, Micky Dolenz is here, I’ll never get this!” But he was perfect for it.
So you went on your way behind-the scenes.
Yeah, I started a little production company and then I got really lucky. I went to England to do a play based on Harry Nilsson’s “The Point.” As you know, he was a dear friend of mine and he asked me if I’d like to go and be in a production of it in London’s West End. Of course, I jumped at the opportunity. It was a limited run and we went over there for a while. I happened to have married an English girl, so it was ok that I could work over there. I didn’t have anything going on in Los Angeles at that time, so I brought my reels with me and gave them to an agent. “I’m here for a few months, see if you can get anything going with this.” She sent it to the BBC and from that, I got a gig directing a drama - of all things.
That began a whole new chapter in your life.
Yeah, it really did. I said to my wife, “Listen, I’ve got nothing going on in L.A., I’d like to just stay here and see what happens.” It was one of those “pack for three months and stay for 12 years” kind of things. I didn’t go back to the States, we just put everything in storage and I became quite a successful television producer and director.
You went from Micky to Michael during those years and really avoided the whole “ex-Monkee” stigma.
Well back then it wasn’t unusual over there for a film star, like Alec Guiness, say, to do television. Unlike in America at the time. Plus, I think they just got it over there. The British fans and press just sort of got what the Monkees was all about. In fact it was John Lennon who famously said the Monkees were like the Marx Brothers and he was absolutely right. Pretty soon, over there, it would go from “ex-Monkee Micky Dolenz” to “producer-director Michael Dolenz.” It was wonderful because I was able to step back and accomplish something besides just being in The Monkees. I’m very proud of that, of course. But I can imagine if I’d stayed in Los Angeles and around all those people and places of the time, what would have happened. I doubt very much I’d have gotten the breaks I got over there.
Flashback to L.A, at the Rainbow there’s still a plaque upstairs commemorating the “Hollywood Vampires.” And that legendary debauchery has been resurrected as a rock band with Alice Cooper, Joe Perry and Johnny Depp. But the upstairs was headquarters for you and Alice, Harry Nilsson, John Lennon and a few other like-minded ne’er-do-wells.
(Laughs) It’s funny, the Vampires has kind of reared its ugly little head again. Of course, it wasn’t a band back when I was part of it, but now it is, and Alice and Johnny [Depp] have created that wonderful little metal thing. Johnny is really good, you know? He can play. And of course Alice is one of my oldest and dearest friends. It all started because Alice said, “Let’s start a softball team.” We’d play charity matches against the police or fire departments or music industry companies. That’s how it started. We’d play softball games on the weekends and then we’d go to the Rainbow for pizza and beer after the game to drink and hang out and party. If you see pictures of us from back then, we’re wearing the baseball shirts.
Such a wholesome beginning to such legendary decadence. Or is that a myth?
Well it wasn’t nearly as decadent as people would like to believe. It’s become an urban myth as things get a little exaggerated. It wasn’t nearly as decadent as some people would like to think, but that’s fun, it adds a bit of color.
If [singer-songwriter] Harry Nilsson was involved, there were obviously some colorful times.
Well yeah, craziness. He was one of few people I can say I’ve met who were a true genius. If you look at what he accomplished in his rather short life, yeah we partied hard and he partied very hard, but you can’t accomplish that kind of stuff on a regular basis for so many years without having some sort of discipline. He knew when to step back from the edge of the cliff.
It was a Nilsson song that kicked off the recent Monkees record Good Times.
It was. It was just a perfect storm, a gathering of so many perfect elements. We found these old tracks, unfinished multi-tracks in the vaults. One of them was a song by Harry that he’d written for me and done a demo of - with him on piano and vocal and Michael Nesmith on guitar. I heard that and I thought “Oh My God, I can finally do a duet with my old friend.” That fired up the record company and we had the title track. Then we found two or three others and the record company started reaching out. Soon we were getting these submissions from Noel Gallagher, Paul Weller, Ben Gibbard and Andy Partridge and it was so incredible. The whole album really fell together very quickly and [producer and Fountains Of Wayne founder] Adam Schlessinger and I just got along great. It turns out these guys were huge fans and it turned out great. I can’t tell you how thrilled I am because of it.
It’s so rare for an act to celebrate their 50th anniversary with a record that is an actual vital statement of now, rather than just a quick rehash made for the merch table.
You know, I was thinking about this other day. It went Top 20 and we got great reviews from places that never liked the Monkees, like Rolling Stone. But to have the equivalent of this happen when we started… well ok, cast your mind back to 1966. A great year for music with the Beatles and the Monkees and the Stones and Hermans Hermits and everybody, of course a big, huge music year. This would be like an act having a Top 20 album and tour from the year 1916! It would have been like Eddie Cantor or Al Jolson or Enrico Caruso. I feel blessed.
So what’s next for you personally and for the Monkee legacy in general?
I’m always thinking and working on stuff. I get offers and I’m doing my “Little Bit Broadway, Little Bit Rock and Roll” show in New York again at the end of March [at 54 Below, under the old Studio 54 location]. We’re talking about another Monkee project. Nothing to announce at this point, but it’s in the air because this year is the 50th anniversary of our first real tour. So there’ll be stuff going on this summer and fall and then, well you just never know.
Micky Dolenz will perform on April 2 at the City Winery. For more information, please visit citywinery.com/atlanta.