If one word could crystallize the zeitgeist of “The Monkees” TV series upon its premiere Sept. 12, 1966, as well as the band that bore the show’s name, it might be “zany.” It’s a quality that was in good supply Friday at the group’s 50th anniversary homecoming show at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood.
Clips from the show were projected on a screen over the stage for an adoring crowd that packed the theater, demonstrating anew the infectious, manic energy that typified the show about four fictional musicians yearning to be the Beatles — a goal that, on TV anyway, always remained a struggle rather than a reality.
“Reality,” however, became a fluid concept for the Monkees, which broke out of the realm of fantasy when the recordings featuring Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork turned into bona fide hits from the outset.
At one point in the show, which ran more than two hours, Tork said he and his band mates had suffered from “Pinocchio complex--we wanted to be real live boys,” a description that applied to their role as actors cast to portray musicians, as well as their ambitions to truly embrace that role in the recording studio.
Yet an impressively lengthy string of songs that spanned the most syrupy teen love ballads to remarkably forward-thinking experimentations were showcased by the surviving band members Dolenz, Tork and, for what he has indicated would be his swan song as a Monkee, Nesmith.
More then simply a musical trek through history, the group also drew from the “Good Times!” album released in May, which combines archival recordings recently completed and released for the first time with new songs written for the group by latter-day fans including Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, Oasis’ Noel Gallagher, Death Cab for Cutie’s Benjamin Gibbard and others.
It was largely a joyful affair, with fallen band mate Jones, who died in 2012 of a heart attack at age 66, present in spirit and image through a generous supply of film clips reminding fans of his place as “the cute Monkee,” the group’s counterpart to the Beatles’ dreamy-eyed Paul McCartney.
Amid the multimedia extravaganza of the half-century celebration, for which the surviving trio was backed by a five-piece band, which included Nesmith’s guitarist son Christian Nesmith, and two backup singers including Coco Dolenz, Micky’s sister, the most poignant moment may have been the solo spot featuring Michael Nesmith, the only such number of the night.
With just his signature 12-string Gretsch electric guitar to accompany him, he told fans about the first time the foursome took the stage, in Hawaii, after demand created by the show’s popularity gave birth to a real-world rock group.
“When we went on that stage, something happened — it was like there was another presence,” said Nesmith, 73, the Texas singer and songwriter whose literate songs and cerebral quips with the group earned him the sobriquet “the smart Monkee.”
“Peter said it was ‘The Monkees’; we all always felt it was you,” eliciting a collective “awwww” from the audience.
That moment, he continued, prompted him to go back to their hotel and write a song, “Tapioca Tundra,” which he played in a stripped-down version that highlighted the pensive expression of what he experienced on the night the band’s Pinocchio wish was granted: “Reasoned verse, some prose or rhyme, lose themselves in other times, and waiting hopes cast silent spells that speak in clouded clues / It cannot be a part of me, for now it’s part of you.”
Along with the strong element of nostalgia at work in the show, which Dolenz and Tork will continue minus Nesmith, as they have for the most part since the tour began, there were a few such moments of real depth of emotion.
That transformation was further helped along by the steady supply of top-notch pop material they recorded by such songwriters as Carole King and Gerry Goffin (“Pleasant Valley Sunday,” “The Porpoise Song”), Neil Diamond (“I’m a Believer,” “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You”), Harry Nilsson (“Cuddly Toy,” “Daddy’s Song”), John Stewart (“Daydream Believer”) and most frequently, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart (too many to catalog here).
The song that may have best summarized the evening, and the remarkable shelf life of what by all rights should have been a flash-in-the-pan pop culture moment a half century ago, was also one of Nesmith’s, “Circle Sky,” in which he sang:
It’s a very extraordinary scene
To those who don’t understand
But what you’ve seen you must believe
If you can
And it looks like we’ve made it once again
Yes it looks like we’ve made it to the end
Not bad for a band that initially professed, in the show’s theme song, that they were “just trying to be friendly.”
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