By John Kelly
Sunday, July 21, 2013
That local rock group down the street that’s trying hard to learn their song?
Well, that local rock group is me. I play drums in a Monkees cover band.
Please note that I did not say “tribute” band. The Stepping Stones do not try to re--create the Monkees experience. We do not wear matching red, double--placket shirts. Our lead guitarist does not wear a green woolly hat.
We are not like the Missing Links, a band out of Los Angeles that won the coveted Cloney Award, given by the International Guild of Celebrity Impersonators and Tribute Artists.
We are not like Pleasant Valley Sunday, another Monkees tribute band from Southern California that actually performs with a laugh track.
I like to think of us as the Monkees meet the Smithereens ---- and then go have a few beers. We’re in it for the music, man.
That can be a gutsy thing to say, since to many people the Monkees were a fake band created for TV by The Man to siphon money from the pockets of teenage Beatlemaniacs. Which they sort of were, but . . .
“I think I can shorthand this really quickly for you,” says Monkees singer and drummer Micky Dolenz when I reach him by phone aboard the limo that’s taking him to LAX. “The closest thing that’s come along to the Monkees is ‘Glee,’ which is a television show about an imaginary glee club, but they go on the road and they can sing, dance and act. So ‘The Monkees’ was a television show about an imaginary band that lived in this imaginary beach house ---- which was a set ---- and yet we could sing and dance and act and play.
“There’s another reference I can give you. . . . Did you see the movie ‘Galaxy Quest’? It’s the cast of a TV show like ‘Star Trek.’ They’re doing the autograph shows and then the aliens come down and think they’re real and say ‘Come and save our universe.’
“That is what happened with the Monkees. The fans said, ‘We want you to be real.’ We said okay. It’s a really, really interesting phenomenon.”
Adds Dolenz: “Mike [Nesmith] always described it as Pinocchio really becoming alive.”
So by playing in a Monkees cover band, I’m a real boy pretending to be a puppet that’s pretending to be a real boy. Unless I’m a puppet pretending to be a real boy who’s pretending to be a puppet.
But what a puppet! The Monkees ---- Dolenz, Nesmith, Peter Tork and Davy Jones ---- had some of the country’s greatest tunesmiths writing for them: Carole King, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, Carole Bayer Sager, Neil Diamond, Harry Nilsson. . .
For their earliest hits, most of the music was recorded by the Wrecking Crew, the famed L.A. session band that featured Hal Blaine on drums.
So, how does one become a Monkees drummer?
“I guess the first thing would be you’ve got to learn really, really quickly,” says Dolenz. “I played Spanish classical guitar when I was a kid. . . . Then they cast me as the drummer and I said, ‘Okay. Where do I start learning?’ ”
Dolenz says it was just like when he was a child actor and was cast as the title character in the 1950s TV show “Circus Boy.”
“They said, ‘You’re going to ride an elephant.’ I said ‘Okay. Where do I learn?’ ”
Which was harder: learning to play the drums or learning to ride an elephant?
“Riding the elephant. Definitely.”
Dolenz says he paid close attention to Blaine and the other session drummers who worked on Monkees albums.
“I learned what I had to learn for the Monkees,” he says. “Pop music, basically: 4/4 time. Boom chaka, boom chaka. It’s a lot more to do with emotion than necessarily technique. But that can mostly be said for rock--and--roll. You’ve got to be into it. You’ve got to get in the groove. The grooves aren’t complicated.”
It’s funny that of arguably the two most famous drummers of the 1960s, one was sometimes criticized for being not a very good drummer (Ringo Starr) and the other was criticized for not being a very real drummer.
“They got that it wasn’t a band,” Dolenz says of the Beatles’ reaction to the Monkees. “John Lennon was the one who said, ‘The Moonkees are the Mocks Broothers.’”
(He says this in a Liverpool accent.)
Of course, it’s possible to like both. The Monkees did. So did the Beatles. During the “Sgt. Pepper’s” sessions, Dolenz was invited by Paul McCartney to Abbey Road studios, where he watched the Beatles work on “Good Morning, Good Morning.” (He covers it on his new solo album, “Remember,” which he describes as “an audio scrapbook of songs that meant something to me.”)
So there’s something fitting about the Monkees coming to town ---- they’ll be at the Warner Theatre on Sunday ---- barely a week after McCartney played at Nationals Park. They’ll be without their bona fide mop--topped Englishman, Jones, who died in 2012. (“We still pay tribute, shall we say,” Dolenz says of his late Monkeemate.)
I worry sometimes that much of the appeal of being in a Monkees cover band comes from a certain kitschiness: an uncool thing made cool by admitting its artifice and inbuilt irony. Did the Sex Pistols cover the Monkees’ “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” because they really liked the song or because nothing is funnier than the Sex Pistols playing the Monkees?
And yet I think the music is great ---- and great fun to play, even if we don’t wear woolly hats. Not just the Brill Building hits everyone has heard, but little oddities like Harry Nilsson’s “Cuddly Toy” and Mike Nesmith’s psychedelic “Daily Nightly” or his proto country--rock originals. Even the album “Headquarters,” on which the Monkees actually did play their own instruments.
I refuse to think I am suffering from musical Stockholm syndrome.
What’s funny is that the Monkees were created, marketed, celebrated, excoriated and broken up long before I became a fan. For fans of my age, a lot of pop and rock music is like that, existing in what I think of as Tralfamadorian time, after those aliens in “Slaughterhouse--Five” for whom all of history exists simultaneously.
I ask Dolenz about that.
“I’m a big history buff,” he says. “There’s something that I stumbled across not long ago, this idea that since the advent of recorded music, recorded film, recorded sound and action, time to some degree has become a little bit immaterial in the world of entertainment. People live on. They really do. And not just the people but their whole zeitgeist can live on.”
We now have the ability to capture time, he says.
“And to capture the emotions of the time, which is what we were doing anyway. We’re not selling plastic. We’re selling the emotions that have been magically, miraculously encapsulated on that vinyl or on that celluloid.”