A Dispatch from COVID-19 Quarantine: Checking in with Micky Dolenz of the Monkees

Ken SharpCategories:Featured Articles

Rock Cellar Magazine

For Micky Dolenz, most of his life is spent out on the road, touring in celebration of his music with The Monkees or as a solo artist. But with the COVID-19 pandemic impacting upon the entire world and hitting the pause button on music in general, he’s had to temporarily hang up his rock and roll touring shoes.

Despite that, the show must go on, as they say. A new live record, The Monkees Live: The Mike & Micky Show, has just been released, landing at the No. 13 spot on the Billboard album charts.

Micky Dolenz will also be participating in All Together Now!, a special streaming event scheduled for March 27, 2020 benefiting COVID-19 relief in the Los Angeles area. For more details on that, check below:

We spoke with Micky about the new live album and his deep connection with Monkee cohort Michael Nesmith, how he’s spending his time during the quarantine and much more.

Rock Cellar: Growing up, what were the greatest lesson your parents taught you that you carry with you?

Micky Dolenz: To put it in perspective. Both of my parents were in the business. My father was an actor, moderately successful and a singer. He sang light opera, Mario Lanza kind of stuff and did a couple of musical movies and my mom was a singer and an actress and played piano.

In fact, they met doing a play in Hollywood in the ‘40s. So I grew up in a showbiz family and unlike many of my peers at the time, we didn’t live in Beverly Hills or Hollywood. We didn’t run with that crowd.

My father was off the boat from Italy. (laughs). He was pretty down to earth and pretty darn level-headed. He got out of Italy before the second World War so he wouldn’t have to fight for Mussolini. He was pretty much a salt of the earth kind of guy and my mom was from Texas.

We had a ranchette in the Valley and had horses and pigeons and chickens and stuff. So I grew up in a pretty down to earth family. They never made a big deal out of the showbiz thing; it was a job.

Then when I was 10 I got a series called Circus Boy so that put me in the business — but they made sure that I didn’t get all crazy about it, not only the way they lived but the way they treated me. I’d come home after filming and on the weekend I’d have to clean the pool (laughs).

They didn’t pull any punches. I had a very normal childhood. That’s the short answer and what carry with me; it’s all down to the way they treated me and the way I was brought up.

I didn’t get to play the little spoiled Hollywood brat.

It helped when The Monkees came along that I thought my fans were not screaming at me, Micky Dolenz, a kid who grew up in the Valley, they’re screaming at the persona, the wacky drummer making funny faces.

I didn’t verbalize all that at the time but I just sort of intuitively knew it.

Rock Cellar: Given the coronavirus pandemic dominating the globe, we’re all in self-quarantine these days. What have you been doing with your time creatively and personally?

Micky Dolenz: Well, that is a good question. I’m doing OK under the circumstances. It’s pretty crazy out there.

I hate to say I’m “enjoying” this time off and I hate to use that word considering how many people have suffered and are suffering. Keeping that in my mind, I feel like I’m on a bit of a vacation because my life is normally travel and doing shows.

Airports and concerts and meet and greets and I get home and maybe I’m home for three, four, five days but for the last few years due to the touring we’ve been doing as The Monkees and also all the touring that I’ve been doing on my own, this is the first time that I can remember completely unpacking my suitcase and putting it in the garage.

As for what I’ve been doing during this time, it sounds very boring and mundane but I’ve been cleaning out closets and drawers that I haven’t gotten to in five years [laughter] and finding stuff that’s been tucked away. I’ve also been starting projects that I’ve always wanted to do. Every year I try to plant a vegetable garden but for years I’ll plant it in the spring and sometimes I may get back for a little harvest, but often not.  It just goes to seed ‘cause I’m on the road on tour.

You know the old joke, they pay us to travel, we sing for free.

Rock Cellar: What’s the first thing you’re gonna do when the self quarantine order is lifted?

Micky Dolenz: Well. That’s another good question; I haven’t really thought about it. I supposed what I’ll be doing, whether I like it or not, is going back out on the road. One tour has been pushed back twice because of this and there’s another one due in the fall but who knows, we may not be able to do it then.

It’s kind of a day to day thing. Nez and I are right up there with the best of them in terms of our vulnerability because of our age. Touch wood, I don’t have any serious underlying medical conditions, or at least that I know of anyway, maybe a little hypertension.

But of course, as you know, Nez had that pretty serious cardiac thing a few years ago. That was scary. So his doctor I’m sure is saying, “Don’t even leave the house.” So as for touring, we’re gonna just have to play it by ear.

Rock Cellar: The new live album is called The Mike & Micky Show and I understand The Mike & Micky Show was in place as far back as The Monkees days.

Micky Dolenz: I don’t know if that phrase ever made it on the show, I don’t think so. But how it came about was basically quite simple. Nez and I connected very quickly on a couple of things. We connected very quickly in the singing and with the harmonies.

Some of my favorite songs are the one where we would do what I like to call “Everly Monkees.” (laughs) We had that blend.  My theory is that he was from Dallas, and my mom, who I mentioned was a singer, was from Austin. So I grew up in my household with my mother amongst many other things, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Sons of the Pioneers.

I also  became a huge Everly Brothers fan and to this day remain so. So when Nez and I stated singing together, we just did it. It was just automatic, I would do a third above him, atypical rock and roll harmony, and he would do a third above me or something and it just worked. A lot my favorite songs are where we’re doing that; he’s either singing lead and I’m doing the harmony and the other way around.

So that was one thing. But the other thing is in the comedy — we also clicked. We had the same sensibility. We were both Monty Python fans so we had similar sense of humor and similar sensibilities in that area. We just kind of hit it off. We was good at improvisation right from the get go. I wasn’t very good at it as I’d never done it. I grew up in Hollywood doing a TV series — where you do not improvise. (laughs) You get your script and you learn your lines and then you go and do it and go home. But they encouraged us on The Monkees to improvise and to be spontaneous.

They even trained us in improvisation right from the day one when the show was eventually sold. James Frawley, who became an incredible director, who’d been in Second City with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, he was the one who trained us in improve and went on to direct and won of couple of Emmys for The Monkees and some other shows. So we hit it off in the comedy and we’d go off on some riff and crack everybody up and then he and I would look at each other and go, “Mike and Micky Show!” (laughs)

Rock Cellar: As a songwriter, what makes Mike so special?

Micky Dolenz: That’s a tough one. You could ask that about every songwriter that is unique or successful. I mean, look at Paul McCartney. That kind of thing is undefinable in our business, including script writers, book writers, artists, painters, directors. You can’t reduce art in the same way you can reduce a sauce or reduce something scientifically. You can’t take it apart and say “’St. Matthew’ was a great song because of the melody” or “it was a great song because of this chord or this lyric.”

The way I look at in cases of music, books, movies or TV shows, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. You have a song that is a hit and everybody loves it and think it’s just fantastic, but why? How can you possibly take it apart and find out how it works? If you could, that would be a formula and if there was formula we’d never have a flop (laughs); no one would fail.

Rock Cellar: Unlike other Monkees tours, these shows have a more stripped-down feel, focusing on the essence of the music itself rather than comedic skits intertwined in a show. It’s a much deeper immersion in The Monkees catalog than just playing the hits.

Micky Dolenz: The way it typically happens is there are so many songs in our show. We have so many “can’t cannot do” songs. There are songs I believe we have to do and they’re obvious, “Clarksville,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” “I’m A Believer,” “Stepping Stone,”  “Daydream Believer.”

I know, and Nez does too, that the majority of the audience want to hear those songs. They don’t care what order you do them in, and long as you do them. And as long as you do them the way that they were done originally because people are singing along, it’s great.

It’s funny, I mentioned The Everly Brothers earlier. I was living in England and directing and producing television shows in the ‘70s and ‘80s and wasn’t doing any singing and wasn’t doing much of anything else. I was just directing and writing and producing television shows.

The Everly Brothers had gotten together for that famous reunion way back then. I went to see them and I got tickets for my wife and I was concerned. I’d been a huge fan and I was like, “God, I hope they do ‘Wake Up Little Susie’ and all the songs that I remembered so well.” I thought maybe they’re just gonna do new material because we’ve seen that happen many times where an act will come out and if they do any of their hit songs they’ll do it with some derision (laughs) or won’t do them at all or they’ll say things like, “I guess you want to hear this one.”

Every time we’ve done a show it’s always dependent on who’s involved. If It was David and Peter and I, which was  the majority of the past Monkees shows, or if it was Peter and I, just the two or us, or Davy and I went out for years just the two of us, then that changes the configuration. We still have the “cant’ cannot do” songs, but then after that point it’s a bit of a pot luck, a bit of a beggar’s banquet and it changes every time we go out on the road.

In this case without Peter and David there, Mike and I were like, “What are we gonna do?” (laughs) He sang a few songs in The Monkees but none of the big ones and neither did Peter, but David and I would do most of the lead vocals on the big hits. But Mike had this wealth, this wealth, of wonderful material that he’d written and I tended to sing a lot of it and he did also but we started dipping into that vault.

Rock Cellar: For these shows you touch on many deep cuts part of the Monkees catalog, wonderful songs like “The Door Into Summer.”

Micky Dolenz: It’s a great song. That was written by good old Bill Martin, our dearly departed Mr. Martin. A couple of songs we did on this live album, we’d done in the past with Davy and Peter, We always did Nesmith tunes in our shows like “Girl I Knew Somewhere,” “What Am I Doing Hanging ‘Round?”,” “Listen To The Band,” “Circle Sky,” So we were always doing Nesmith stuff and I must say it’s been quite a thrill to do these songs with him now. It’s a little icing on the cake, I guess you’d say.

Rock Cellar: There are very few songs in the world that are blessed with a heavy dose of Beatles magic and you sing one of those rare gems. This is a song performed on The Mike & Micky Show tour but didn’t make the album, and that’s the “Porpoise Song.”

Micky Dolenz: It’s one of my favorites. It’s a fantastic song. I love singing it. I’ve sung it many many times through the years. It was written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, They didn’t write too many dull tunes. [laughs]

All of the songs in the movie Head I love. “Circle Sky” and “As We Go Along” too, that’s just phenomenal and Carole King wrote that one as well as “Porpoise Song” with Gerry Goffin. If you’re asking do I remember singing it at a session I don’t, but I do remember signing “As We Go Along” and it was in 5/4 time and I never sang in 5/4 time but I knew what it was because of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” but I’d never sang in that tempo before.

Rock Cellar: Sadly, we lost Adam Schlesinger, a wonderfully a talented artist, singer/songwriter/producer,  to complications from COVID-19. He’s also the man who produced The Monkees’ magnificent studio album Good Times! and the Monkees’ Christmas album. How do you remember Adam?

Micky Dolenz: Oh man, Good Times! was an absolute highlight of my career, both recording it and then performing those songs. I’m still in a little bit in shock. I got along great with Adam and I worked a lot with him because I sang a lot of the songs on those albums.

I also wrote one with him, “I Was There And I’m Told I Had A Good Time.”

Adam was great to work with. He was very precise and very, very clear about what he wanted.  He worked fairly quickly because we didn’t have a huge budget. And of course he played on it as well.

Rock Cellar: In the ’70s you were part of The Hollywood Vampires, a coterie of folks like Alice Cooper, Harry Nilsson and Keith Moon. Thinking back to that time, what’s your most memorable Keith Moon story?

Micky Dolenz: Keith, boy, talk about a unique character. He definitely had a personality. But like most of us, our persona is different from our person. Alice Cooper being the most extreme example, but there have been others, like Boris Karloff, for instance.

Your onstage persona is not necessarily your day-to-day persona. And so Keith was like that and I’m like that to a little bit of a degree. On the television show I played this wacky drummer but in real life I’m not a wacky person, frankly.

I like to think I’m fairly down to earth, but I’ve had my moments. I was playing a character on that television show and I always knew that. Even in real life Keith was unique and a little bit on all the time. Incredibly funny, a really nice, sensitive guy but a little bit out there. When he was on stage of course that was obvious, incredibly obvious. So I never played with him but we did hang out a lot.

Back then you didn’t know how much of it was personality and how much of it was what you were smoking at the time.

Rock Cellar: There’s an amazing and somewhat surreal photo of you with John Lennon, Harry Nilsson, Alice Cooper and Anne Murray shot back in 1974. What were the circumstances behind that image?

Micky Dolenz: I have a copy of that photo up on my wall right here. It was an Anne Murray concert at The Troubadour in Hollywood. Her manager was a guy named Shep Gordon and he also managed Alice Cooper and still does, as matter of a fact. I knew Shep and he must have invited me and Harry and John and Alice to come to Anne’s show. The four of us would have been sitting in that booth together and I suspect Shep came over with Anne and arranged that photo.

Rock Cellar: You met John Lennon back in 1967 when The Beatles were recording the Sgt. Pepper album. Was the John Lennon you knew and were hanging out with post-Beatles in the seventies much different from the man you first encountered in the xixties?

Micky Dolenz: I didn’t spend that much time with any of The Beatles in the ‘60s. I met them and hung out a few times at parties and in the studio briefly, but I didn’t know any of them that well in the sixties.

In the seventies I did get to know John, and I’d say he was not much different at all. He was always very contemplative. I remember him as being kind of quiet, incredibly intelligent. John was funny as hell but not funny in a Keith Moon kind of way. Keith was incredibly funny and Harry was incredibly funny but more in an intellectual Oxbridge way, and John was more like that, I’d say.

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