The Monkees at the Mayo: True confessions in Morristown

micky dolenz
Micky Dolenz of The Monkees at the Mayo Center for the Performing Arts in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Somewhere, buried in a drawer or packing trunk, along with NASA pictures of the Apollo program, I have a postcard from the Monkees.

From their fan club, actually.

The postcard isn’t in color, and it’s not black-and-white. It has this reddish tint, sepia almost.

They are singing and playing, even though in those days, as rumor had it, their instruments were played by others. (Wonder who dubbed Davy’s tambourine?  Glen Campbell? Neil Young?)

mickey dolenz
Micky Dolenz of The Monkees at the Mayo Center for the Performing Arts in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

As revelations go, this postcard does not rank up there with, say, Weiner-gate. Yet I admit some trepidation, realizing that such a public confession precludes my hoping for another date with anyone born after the Johnson administration.

Still, the back story is important for purposes of reviewing the Monkees in Morristown on June 9.

Because the show was not about them. It was about us.  The people who packed the Mayo Performing Arts Center to trigger some rusty synapses before they shut down for good.

Everyone in there had a Monkees story. Here is mine.

First, it’s essential to realize that reality has very little to do with any of this. Entertainment is about fantasy and illusion and escapism.

The Monkees began as the “prefab four,” a made-for-TV knockoff of the Fab Four, a real-life band.

“Whatever happened to those guys?” Micky Dolenz wisecracked about the Beatles, before launching into Randy Scouse Git, a song he wrote after partying with England’s “other Royal Family.”

peter tork
Peter Tork of The Monkees, at the Mayo Center for the Performing Arts in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

From 1966 to 1968, the Monkees beamed into America’s living rooms every week as a musical sitcom. They were on lunchboxes. They were on the radio. One of their albums supposedly charted longer than any Beatles record in the ’60s.

(Every group from that era boasts of outselling the Beatles for 20 minutes…which raises the question: When, exactly, did the Liverpudlians sell all those gazillions of records?)

In our family, the Beatles always will be number one. They were so different that even a kindergartner got hooked– bad news for neighbors forced to endure the little twerp banging on a backyard trash can wailing I Want to Hold Your Hand.

That 45 single (a distant ancestor of the MP3, kids), with its potent flip side, I Saw Her Standing There, joined Peter & the Wolf, The Singing Nun, Mary Poppins and Petula Clark’s Downtown on what must rank among the strangest playlists of all time.

These records blared endlessly from a crude stereo with a cast-iron business end that practically showered sparks from the vinyl. Many thousands of dollars of audio gear later, I can honestly say nothing ever sounded as good.

The challenging thing about the Beatles was their remoteness. Scarcity was part of their marketing campaign. Concerts ran 20 minutes. In the days before e-blasts and social media, a little kid was lucky to find out about a TV appearance. If you missed the broadcast, that was it. No YouTube replays. There was a cheesy Saturday morning cartoon series. Otherwise, access amounted to scanning the magazine racks, spinning the bedside AM dial as long as you could stay awake, and cajoling your grandmother to take you to each year’s Beatles movie. (R.I.P., Grandma. We’ll always have ‘Help!’)

The Monkees were more accessible. Every week, you knew exactly where to find them. They served goofy fun and catchy songs written by pros like Neil Diamond, Carole King, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, and later, by the Monkees themselves:

(Theme from) The Monkees…Last Train to Clarksville…Pleasant Valley Sunday…I’m a Believer…(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone…Daydream Believer…Mary, Mary…She…For Pete’s Sake…The Girl that I Knew Somewhere… Papa Gene’s Blues…I Wanna Be Free…

davy jones
STILL SHAKIN’ : If there were a Maraca/ Tambourine Hall of Fame, Davy Jones of The Monkees would be a first-ballot inductee. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

These songs, and many more, formed much of the soundtrack of my youth. They drove me and my siblings into a cave-like duplex basement in Winchester, Mass., for “concerts” with plastic guitars, bongos and wheezy organs. Thank God there were no Flip Cams.

At the Mayo on Thursday, the audience heard reasonable facsimiles of all those Monkees tunes with the help of a seven-piece backing band that assisted Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork and Davy Jones with the high notes.

Here is where we get to the illusion part. And it’s almost as odd as Head, the Monkees’ trippy film with Jack Nicholson that virtually nobody (including me) has ever seen in its entirety.

Strictly speaking, the trio on stage was not the Monkees.

The original group was a quartet.  Michael Nesmith has been AWOL for a long time.

(Playing banjo, Peter Tork sang Michael’s What Am I Doing Hanging Round? Curiously, Peter sounded more like his former band mate–and at times, like Ringo Starr–than like the Peter Tork of yesteryear. One exception was on Your Auntie Grizelda, which still channels my inner second-grader.)

All that TV camaraderie flashing onscreen throughout the concert?  Hollywood, baby.

Critics can debate the Monkees’ artistic legacy. When it comes to dysfunctional musical families, the Monkees rank with the legendary acts of rock and roll.

Mathematicians may know how many combinations are possible with four people; the Monkees seem to have gone exponential. On their 45th anniversary tour, they appear to have made peace after many years of sniping at each other in between gigs at stadiums and high school gyms.

Please click icon below for captions.

My first reality check came in the early ’80s, as a cub reporter for a small newspaper in Paterson.

I was excited–and nervous–about scoring an interview with Peter Tork.  For better or worse, people used to say I looked like Peter. I figured my story about the fan club postcard would amuse him.

It did not.

To put things in perspective, the Monkees’ heyday already was a long way in the rear-view mirror at that point.  The Go-Go’s, who brought their nostalgia act to the Mayo earlier this month, were just starting their careers.

Peter, who was launching a new band, called his agent and snarled: What the hell am I doing here with some kid from Paterson, N.J.?

The Monkees debut album
THAT WAS THEN: The Monkees first album in 1966.

Fast forward to somewhere near the turn of the new millennium. Three of the Monkees were playing Vegas. House of Blues, if memory serves.

What that show lacked were the impressive visuals that were the highlight–and the most unsettling part–of the Morristown concert.

Watching clips of four Monkees cavorting on screen for two hours, complete with ’60s commercials for Kool-Aid, was like cannon-balling into the Fountain of Youth. Or rather, like dashing through the lawn sprinkler back in Winchester.

It got weird only if you paused to remind yourself that all their television bonhomie was scripted…and a diversion from the fact that the real Monkees on stage were creeping up on 70.

Imagine your grandparents having to compete with their larval forms, preserved in celluloid amber.

Technology has made such spectacles possible. It’s hard to picture  Charlie Chaplin, in his golden years, dancing with a larger-than-life projection of his Tramp, as Davy Jones did with his ’60s mop-topped self.

Can you even call a 65-year-old man “Davy”?

Time flies.

Like I said, it’s not about them. It’s about us.

monkees at mayo
The Monkees at the Mayo in Morristown. (L-R) Peter Tork, Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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  1. One of the reasons I love the monkees and their er..’showboat” themes, is the fact that these tunes, though some not written by then, were damn catchy and still good. As for the movie with Jack N, sorry, have not seen it either..

  2. I lost my regular television a few years ago and as a result I’m watching some of the regular channels that aren’t on cable. One of those channels displays the Monkees every weekend and I simply get lost in watching the episodes. I grew up watching those shows as well as The Brady Bunch, J.P. Patches who was a local clown and I loved him for years but not near as much as I loved the Monkees. The were the “babes” of my youth when I was just beginning to notice boys. Especailly Davy, what a good looking kid he was. Too bad that all of us have grown old but we will always have the wonderful memories of our youth and I’m happy that one of those memories includes the Monkees!

  3. Hi– Thank you for your thoughtful comments. To clarify, let me emphasize that I too enjoyed the show. As the piece mentions, I grew up with Monkees tunes and they are as catchy as ever. And it was mostly fun to re-visit all those video moments. My purpose was not to denigrate the band, but rather to reflect on the phenomenon of ’60s and ’70s acts taking their victory laps. I have caught quite a few of them–Paul McCartney, Ringo, the Moody Blues, America, Crosby Nash, various Beach Boys combinations, Roger McGuinn, the Go-Gos, and the Who, among others. When many of these acts were starting out, they would have laughed at the notion of performing into their golden years–or even reaching their golden years. “Hope I die before I get old” by the Who is one of the most famous refrains in rock. It’s good that so many of these acts can still put on an entertaining show and transport us back in time for a couple of hours. The Monkees show hit me a little more viscerally, because they were so entwined with my youth, and because the visuals are such a huge part of the evening. The videos invite direct comparisons between then and now, and for me, were a reminder of how much time has passed since those childhood memories were made. That’s what I meant by “it’s about us, not them.” As for the Beatles, they always spoke well of the Monkees. John compared them to the Marx Brothers, Paul defended them to fans, George lauded their potential and Ringo did a commercial with them. And Davy Jones has said he became a Monkee after seeing Beatlemania first hand, as a performer on the Ed Sullivan show during the Beatles’ famous appearance in February 1964. The one point where I differ with you is on the Michael Nesmith question. He was an integral part of the Monkees. A tour with any combination of surviving Beatles would not have been the Beatles without John Lennon. Michael’s songs–“Love Is Only Sleeping,” “You Just May Be the One,” “Papa Gene’s Blues” and others–were among my favorites. Sadly, it’s not possible for the Beatles, Beach Boys, the Who, the Stones and other great groups to present their original lineups. The Monkees still could do so. It’s a shame they can’t take their victory lap together.

  4. Mr. Coughlin,
    I attended the concert at the Mayo and had a great time. I truly admire these gentlemen not only for their talents, but for the fact that 45 years after their debut, they are still able and willing to entertain their loyal fans. I started watching their t.v. show in 1966 at the age of six. And for the past 40 years, I feel like I’ve been explaining their appeal to folks who just don’t get them. LIke you, I admire the Beatles. So do The Monkees. When a reporter back in the 60’s asked Davy about some perceived competition between the two groups, he answered humbly “if we could be only a tenth as good as they are…”
    Your comment that “strictly speaking, the trio onstage was not the Monkees” is not only silly, but innacurate. By your rules, if you’re missing one original member, you no longer exist as a “real group” Which means that The Rolling Stones do not exist, nor do The Temptations, The B-52’s, Yes, Journey, The E Street Band, Heart, Fleetwood Mac, and as for The Who….let’s not even go there. I guess what I’m trying to say is….relax. It’s entertainment. The above mentioned groups are still touring (with support musicians, I might add, just like The Monkees) and there are fans who go to their shows and enjoy themselves whether it’s out of nostalgia, or just simply because the music moves them. And as for the age issue? I think it’s great that they’re secure enough about themselves that they can show film of how they looked 45 years ago on a backdrop screen while performing in the here and now. Shades of gray, indeed.
    Performers who, like The Monkees, are moving toward their seventies and still put on a show as energetic and fun as this concert was are heroes to me. They are proving that aging doesn’t have to resemble what our generation saw happen to (most of) our grandparents….retire, sit in a rocking chair and wait to die. The music and the performance obviously helps them stay young. “(They’re) too busy singin’…to put anybody down”. You should try it, Mr. Coughlin.

  5. yes it is about us,I was Blessed to grow up in the Movie and Music Industry in Hollywood., I was born at Ceders of Lebanon in Hollywood and went on to live the good life in the movie and Musoc Industry, My father a Big Bandn Singer ,took me to jam Sessions from yje time I was able to walk…..My mothers father Sam .was Edith Head’s personal Tailor that made all her creations. I can go on for hours, well my highschool boyfriend, Richard , lead singer of the sandpipers, went to hollywood high school, with Mickey Dolenz and a bunch more. we went to MONKEE’S Concerts and store openings for years……just a regular life of a Blond Valley Girl………oxoxooxxooxo Chef Melody