Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


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The price of admission

Saturday, August 11th, 2018

Yes, I want to see Public Image, Ltd. in November at the Fonda Theater with a friend of mine. Johnny Rotten is probably the last “get” for me — a music hero I haven’t seen who I’d like to see. The tickets are $50.

But NO, I don’t want to pay $16 for a “convenience fee.” That’s thirty-two percent of the ticket fee!

A few years ago, I read four extremely dull books on pricing, because I was curious about the subject and wanted to see what I could learn. I learned a lot. One of the things I learned about, for example, was anchor pricing. Once you know how to recognize it, you’ll see it frequently on menus and in other places. Here’s how it works:  In a clearly visible area of the menu, you place something outlandishly priced, like the frutti di mare at $200 a plate. You’ll think, “That’s crazy!” and not order that — but now that your eye has been drawn to the crazy price, the nearby lobster, at $69, looks like a deal. You’ve been anchored at $200, so now $69 is reasonable. Watch for that dynamic and you’ll start to see it everywhere.

These dull books were chock full of useful and enlightening information, but the major thing I learned is something that, in retrospect, looks obvious. All good pricing relies on fairness. If you believe you’re getting taken, you won’t buy. If you are spending a lot, you expect a lot:  either higher quality, or faster delivery, or better service, or scarcity of availability. I remember a story many years ago about the producer Joe Papp, and why in his Broadway production of “Angels in America” actors had to ride in already seated, and why in a previous production of something of his people had to have little working cars on the set, and so forth. (In LA, the actors simply carried in their chairs and sat.) Papp said the production always had to look like the high price was justified. Of course. Or people would resent it otherwise. You have to believe  you’re getting something in fair return for what you’re paying, or you feel ripped off.

Adding 32% (!!!) as a “convenience fee” when I know damned well that there is nowhere near a $16 cost in providing that ticket, there being no physical artifact and the electronic system to deliver that electronic artifact — the e-ticket — having been perfected and paid for years and years ago now, is unfair. I’m not paying it.

So, instead, I’ve asked my friend to drive into Hollywood and buy the tickets at the box office for us.

Seems fair, right?

The strange dream of Yoko Ono

Thursday, June 7th, 2018

Last night, I dreamt that a small group of us, really just a handful, were in our theatre, Moving Arts, where Yoko Ono started performing a song. It was just Yoko and an abbreviated electronic getup, something computerized.

When she had finished, I turned to the colleague next to me and asked, “Did you record that?” and when I found out that she hadn’t, I was pretty annoyed, even though no one had known that Yoko was going to burst into song.

Then I realized that I was being unreasonable, and that the person I was actually mad at was myself. (Not an unusual occurrence.)

So then I decided I’d be happy with a photo. Yoko agreed to pose in a photo with me. She stood to my right, and I was ready to do a classic arm-around-your-shoulder pose when I decided that that was too passe, and that instead, we should stand very stiffly next to each other, almost like mannequins shoved up against each other, and wearing blank expressions. Yoko played along, but said to me, “You’re strange, Lee.” Which, coming from Yoko Ono, is remarkable and possibly a compliment.

Then someone I used to know well, a wealthy patron of the arts I knew 15 years ago and had a falling out with, showed up and it turned out that Yoko was staying with her, and then I was really annoyed.

And then I woke up.

I should add that I’ve always been a fan of Yoko’s work, that for 40 years I have been the proud owner of her double album “Fly” on vinyl (which has more ideas on any given side than most artists will have in their lifetime), as well as other recordings of hers on various formats, and that I don’t care if you think she broke up the Beatles. (And I like them, too.) Why she would stay with that disreputable person from my past when I would gladly put her up I don’t know.

What Everybody’s Listening To At My House

Monday, May 7th, 2018

We can’t get enough of David Byrne’s new album, “American Utopia.” It’s on constant replay on the home stereo (such as it is), in my car, and in my head. (Fitting, for a former Talking Head.) It’s a terrific album, filled with fun weirdness.

It’s also provided a backdrop against which to note the evolution of what I’ll call David Byrne’s positioning. The David Byrne of the 1970s and 1980s, who evoked the jittery discontent of modern life through abstruse words and a highly neurotic sound, is long gone. The more recent David Byrne, heard here and on his collaboration with Brian Eno of 10 years ago, “Everything That Happens Will Happen Today,” is very direct in his concerns and somewhat homiletic. “Is this meant ironically? Is it a joke?” he asks in the liner notes re the title of the new album. “… These songs don’t describe an imaginary or possibly impossible place but rather attempt to depict the world we live in now. Many of us, I suspect, are not satisfied with that world — the world we have made for ourselves. We look around and ask ourselves — well, does it have to be like this? Is there another way?” Byrne was similarly earnest on that surprisingly upbeat disc with Eno, and has gone so far as to launch the blog “Reasons to be Cheerful,” which promulgates the good news from around the world about Economics, Education, Health, Culture and more. If you fear that, say, Climate Change is hopeless, you’ll want to turn here. I don’t think it’s just because he figures we can’t handle any more bad news. Somehow, David Byrne, who always seemed emotionally remote, has become a warm-hearted social activist.

Three weeks ago, I took my wife to Las Vegas to see Byrne’s show, at the gorgeous Smith Center, where the acoustics proved to be remarkable and the performance even moreso. In addition to reinventing his music, Byrne has set out to reinvent the stage show that accompanies it. Note, below, the absence of an onstage set or, even, the normal components of a live concert: no drum kit, no cables, no amps, no keyboard stand, no guitar rack, no foot pedals, indeed, no nuthin’ except the musicians and whatever they can carry. This is very much a marching band.

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Rock concert? This didn’t seem like one. My wife said it was more like a combination of performance piece with music. Above, they set a mood for “Burning Down the House.” Below, note how the band, including the 65-year-old lead singer, plays dead while just the keyboardist carries on.

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And, here, how he opens the show, simply sitting alone onstage and singing about the workings of the human brain.

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That photo alone shows that Byrne is an interdisciplinary artist, not a rock musician. (As did this sensational and odd installation he put in the Pace Gallery in Menlo Park, which I went to see last year.) He’s a musician, yes, but also a visual artist, a film director, and a writer of non-fiction books, including “How Music Works.” His show is also tightly choreographed, and filled with joy — the joy of the music, and also the joy radiating from the performers who are delighted to present it.  In that same week, my wife and I saw another interdisciplinary artist, Laurie Anderson. (Byrne on Wednesday night; Anderson on Friday night at the Wallis in Los Angeles.) Byrne has said he won’t be reuniting with Talking Heads because that would be an exercise in nostalgia and he’s not interested in that. Laurie Anderson, meanwhile, is on what’s clearly a nostalgia tour:  a clip show of her greatest hits, of sorts — video bits; some spoken word; talk about past events; very occasional electric violin. It was disappointing to see such a provocative artist reduced to just showing up and pulling bits out of a hat, and even more dispiriting to learn that, when unscripted, she can’t tell a good story.

Byrne’s show featured eight songs from the (highly recommended) new album, eight Talking Heads songs, and six songs from his many collaborations over the years. If there are tickets left somewhere near you, you might want to get them. Maybe watching this recent appearance on “Colbert” will help convince you.

The David Bowie Listening Party, part one

Wednesday, February 28th, 2018

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For Christmas, my longtime friend, playwright Trey Nichols, bought himself the recently released boxed set of David Bowie discs from 1977-1982, “A New Career in a New Town.” Last night we were finally able to coordinate our schedules so he could bring it over for us to listen to it together.

Listening to three Bowie albums in a row reminded me that no matter how much I love and appreciate an artist in theory, there’s nobody I love in toto. I admire a lot of Kurt Vonnegut’s work, and Philip K. Dick’s work, but I will never again read “Slapstick,” and I’d like back the hours spent trying to read Dick’s execrable mainstream novel “Voices from the Street.” Much as I like the Beatles (at times), I never need to hear, say, “Octopus’s Garden” again.

I had the great pleasure of seeing David Bowie on tour twice — on the “Serious Moonlight” tour in support of the “Let’s Dance” album, in 1983, in Philadelphia; and on his final tour, at Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim in 2004. Both times, with very different shows and very different set lists, he and his band sounded great. On “Stage,” though, an early live album reissued in this new boxed set, I don’t hear any of the sort of magic I heard onstage. Instead, these are almost rudimentary live versions of songs that are far more magical on their original recordings, as performed here by what sounds like an above-average local cover band. Ouch.

The next disc we listened to was “Re:Call 3,” made up of rarities of a sort:  non-album singles, somewhat-different versions of album singles, b-sides, and ephemera. This was more like it, with different versions of some of my favorite Bowie songs:  “Heroes,” “Breaking Glass,” “Fashion,” “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)” and more. It also includes the soundtrack version of “Cat People,” which I hadn’t heard in years, a 1979 folkie version of “Space Oddity” that I’m fine without, and, most interestingly, Bowie’s songs for Bertolt Brecht’s “Baal,” which I’d always heard about but never actually heard.  Now that I’ve heard them, I can say unequivocally that I prefer Bowie the rock star over Bowie the musical-theatre singer; in the former, his femme operatic voice is balanced out by the hard punches of rock-and-roll, while on the latter all his fluty indulgences flit around unanchored in a way that would have me running for the exit.

Finally, we listened to Tony Visconti’s recent remix of “Lodger.” Visconti, who was Bowie’s longtime producer, has stated that he didn’t feel the album had gotten the credit he deserved, and now he’s taken a swing at producing a better mix in hopes of better serving the music. As an enormous fan of this album, Trey was able to point out all the subtle differences; being less familiar, I didn’t hear them. Listening to it — and enjoying it — did give me occasion to look up this very positive review from Pitchfork, which left me howling with laughter. Here’s just one wonderful excerpt:

The music is punky and dramatic and a little odd, with detours into reggae and near-Eastern tonalities (“Yassassin”) and nebulously exotic “world” sounds (“African Night Flight”), all filtered through the ears of a British guy with plenty of money and the imperial leeway to appropriate whatever he felt like. To this day, no musician has better mastered the hermetic intensity of cocaine, a drug that makes you want to have long conversations with everyone you’ve ever met without leaving your room.

Whether you care about David Bowie’s music or not, I strongly recommend reading the entirety of that review for the pungent wit alone.

Given that it was approaching midnight, we didn’t get to the other albums in the boxed set last night, and unfortunately we didn’t get to sit outside and have cigars while doing this because Los Angeles was uncharacteristically approaching freezing, so we’re looking to set another play date, in March. That’ll give us a chance to listen to what may well be the best three albums of Bowie’s career:  “Heroes,” “Low,” and “Scary Monsters.”

Monkee don’t

Monday, October 23rd, 2017

On Friday night, instead of going to see “Blade Runner 2049,” I almost went to see The Monkees 2049, the age that the surviving members are fast approaching. I was on Twitter when I saw that Mike Nesmith would be joining Micky Dolenz for his concert at the Canyon Club, not far from here up in Agoura Hills. Last year, and a few years before that, my friend Richard had gone with me twice to see the Monkees. (You can read about those concert experiences here and here.)  So I emailed him:

Late last night, I learned that Mike Nesmith will be joining Micky Dolenz in his little club shows this Friday.

It’s pretty last-minute — but I’m toying with the notion of going.

Want to go?!?!?

Nesmith has tweeted about it and said he and Micky are rehearsing “Me and Magdalena.”

My main interest here was, of course, in Mike Nesmith, who had said that last year’s appearance in Hollywood would be his final concert with The Monkees. Although I’m a huge fan of their 50th anniversary album of last year, I’m not much of a Monkees fan; what I am is a fan of Mike Nesmith’s singing voice and his Monkees songs. That this appearance would feature Mike Nesmith and Micky Dolenz and no Peter Tork just seemed like a bonus:  even more focus on Nesmith.

Richard passed on the opportunity. I’m not much of an agonizer, but I have to admit even after Richard said no I was agonizing a bit about whether to go to this show. The Canyon Club is not my favorite venue; to get a seat, you have to order a (bad) dinner. When I went to see The Tubes there, the steak I ordered could have doubled as home plate, and I think it cost me thirty-six bucks. It’s like dinner theatre, with aging rock bands or people who’ve been kicked out of their bands putting on solo shows. Some time ago, Adrian Belew played there with some other former members of King Crimson. I’m surprised Pete Best isn’t playing there as “Best of the Beatles.” So you can pay handsomely for both the concert ticket and an inedible meal but claim a seat, or you can buy just the ticket and stand in the back for hours, through the opening act(s) and the headliner.

Finally I decided that as much as I would have liked to see Mike Nesmith, especially singing “Me and Magdalena,” one of my recent favorite songs,  I’d pass. Instead, I took my wife and kids out to dinner and to Amoeba Records in Hollywood, where I bought myself another copy of Pere Ubu’s exceptional new album, “20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo,”and bought my wife a copy of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ Greatest Hits because she wanted one and because I guess we were the last household in America to own one. Between dinner and the record store and my wife stopping in to ask excited questions at a sushi place where all the sushi comes along on a  conveyor belt and you just pick what you want, and then her oohs and aahs when we stepped into the Arclight Hollywood and then the Cinema Dome, movie palaces she hadn’t been to before, we were having a terrific time, and then we went to see “Blade Runner 2049” and all of that slowed to a crawl… much like the movie… which left me thinking that maybe I should’ve gone to the Micky Dolenz / Mike Nesmith show.

Except:

As Micky Dolenz continued to tweet (or retweet) promos for Mike Nesmith’s forthcoming appearance at his show, the message got subtly changed:

Tonight! Join @TheMickyDolenz1 & special guest Michael Nesmith (1 song) in Agoura Hills, CA at @canyonconcerts

Note the “(1 song)” part. I had read that at the end of dinner while I was waiting for the check to arrive. Somebody felt the clarification was important (perhaps Mike Nesmith himself) — but didn’t it come too late for all those people who’d already bought tickets?

Here, by the way, is that one song (although it appears that Nesmith joined in for an encore at concert’s end as well). It gives me no satisfaction to note that Nesmith isn’t playing guitar… and that his vocal is off-key. Ouch.

Record achievement

Sunday, June 11th, 2017

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Last weekend, a friend brought over a bunch of sealed box sets of music from Warner Records as a donation to an event our theatre company was having. He also presented me with a gift that his wife had gotten for me a while ago but hadn’t had a chance to give me yet:  a sealed box set of all eight of Roxy Music’s studio albums, on LP. This was a reissue from a few years back; when the set originally came out, circa 1985, on Deutsche Grammophone, I had ordered one (from Europe, I believe) for a then-unconscionable amount of money.

I took the new set inside and showed it to my 18-year-old daughter. She wanted to see inside, so I opened it up and slid out the albums. I immediately noticed that the vinyl was far thicker than it was the last time I’d bought vinyl; that would’ve been about 1979, when records were so thin you could’ve used them to wrap leftovers in. My daughter found it even more remarkable, though, because it turned out she’d never seen a record before.

“You’ve never seen a record before?” I asked. I felt like I’d uncovered a new dinosaur in an archaeological dig. She just shook her head no.

I took one of the albums, Manifesto, over to our turntable. To some of us, Manifesto is notorious for having two versions:  the one with the good (original) version of “Angel Eyes,” and the one with the bad discofied version that annoys us mightily. Decades ago, I’d had a cassette tape version of the album that had the “real” version of “Angel Eyes”; when I’d bought the album on CD some time later, I was horrified to find that this splendid, dirty, nasty-sounding song had now been rereleased with a galloping disco beat and cloying harp sounds behind it. Poor Phil Manzanera was still slashing away at his guitar, but now he was trapped in a Bee Gees nightmare. I wanted to see which version of the song might be on this album from the new boxed set.

First, I had to clear stuff off our turntable. It isn’t really a turntable, or not much of one; it’s one of those cheap all-in-one units designed to look retro, but with every component vacuum molded from recycled foam cups or something. Here, it’s one of these:

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I call this the Crosley Crummy Sound F, because that’s what you get out of it. Yes, theoretically it will play a CD, or a cassette tape, or an album, or the radio, and sound of a sort will come out of it. It’s an all-in-one that my beloved wife, who musically speaking has a cowbell for an ear, proudly brought home one day from a department store. The music it generates sounds like it should come with a monkey on a chain. Most exasperatingly, all of those little press buttons arrayed across the middle don’t light up and have tiny raised lettering that blends perfectly with the background, meaning that those labels cannot be read even with our overhead lamp on, and so every button pushed is a mystery. Whenever I’m instructed to do something with this sound box, I have to get a flashlight to see what those buttons say.

The stuff now cleared off the machine’s top, I lifted the lid. Emma watched in fascination. She hadn’t seen a turntable either.

“Never?” I said.

“Audrey had one in her house,” she said, invoking a childhood friend, “but nobody ever turned it on.”

That was understandable. When’s the last time I played an 8-Track tape?

I put the record on and it started spinning and playing and she oohed over it for a moment, and then I went on to do whatever it was I was going to do. I came back about 20 minutes later and heard nothing happening. I went over and looked and the record had finished playing but was still on side one.

“You know you have to flip it over, right?”

“Oh.” She hadn’t known.

So I showed her how to flip it over. Then I showed her the lever to lift and drop the needle. I started side two. Some time later, she asked if she could switch the record — “Sure!” I called back — and heard the album Siren start mid-song.

I took a look. “Um, you see those grooves?” I asked. “Those are the spaces between the songs. You missed the beginning.”

“Oh!” she said.

So I showed her more carefully how to place the needle, while an image came to my mind of the guys from “American Pickers” showing somebody in a barn in the woods exactly how a Harley from a hundred years ago would have to be hand-cranked.

I couldn’t think of anything else to explain about the record or the record player — I’d explained that records needed to be flipped in order to hear both sides; that the needle needed to be raised and lowered via that lever; that the spaces in the tracks denoted the separation between songs; and I’d cautioned her not to jump up and down or she’d put a scratch in the record. I strained to think what could possibly be left to explain, but couldn’t come up with anything. But as I moved away, I saw her looking closely at the inscrutable indicators on the front of the unit.

Finally, she asked, “How do you know when the song is done?”

“Huh?”

“How do you know when the song is done?”

I couldn’t figure out what that meant — until finally I realized that she was thinking there’d be an LED readout, like for a CD:  “Track 1.” “Track 2.” And so forth.

“You don’t hear it any more,” I said. And went to get the newspaper.

Two last things:

  1. I was delighted to learn that, yes, thank you Lord, the LP has the original version of “Angel Eyes”; and
  2. It’s been a week now and nobody has played any more records

 

The human(less) condition

Monday, May 15th, 2017

Are advancements in technology primary aimed at improving the human condition — or eliminating human interaction?

David Byrne lays out an interesting argument that it’s the latter.

Here are just a few formerly human interactions that are now mostly replaced or on their way out:

  • Buying books — replaced by Amazon.com
  • Banking with a teller — replaced by ATMs
  • Grocery checkouts — replaced by self checkout or ordering online
  • Customer service phone calls — routinely handled by automated phone trees and responsive bots
  • Board games — replaced by video game consoles, online video games and smartphone apps

Byrne’s got a much longer list than this, which you can read here, along with his analysis of the situation.

As for my own brief list above:  I’m not missing my interactions with bank tellers; I alternate between buying books online or in person (at comics shops and book stores); I hate the automated telephone situation more than I can express; I still play board games with family (and card games), and also play on an xBox; and I make a point of having humans check out my groceries because it’s quicker than me at the self checkout and because I get to brag about how much I saved through coupons and also because I’m trying to help humans somewhere stay employed.

Because, unlike machinery, humans need to eat.

Musical legacy

Tuesday, April 4th, 2017

We don’t always recognize the people who’ve made a significant impact on our lives. Sometimes it’s the engineers we can’t name who built the roads and bridges we drive; sometimes it’s the people who created the systems we use; sometimes it’s the person who designed, say, the handy squeezable ketchup or mustard bottle. Sometimes it’s artists, and sometimes it’s the business people behind the artists. Usually, those business people behind the artists get a (deservedly) bad reputation.

Which made it all the sweeter today to read about a tribute to Robert Hurwitz, who just retired as the head of Nonesuch Records.

During his 33 years heading up Nonesuch, Hurwitz helped helm the careers of John Adams, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Kronos Quartet, Randy Newman and many others. All of those names, and several others in his professional legacy, can be found in my music collection. It’s nice to see a “suit” get some credit for having taste, and for helping the masses share in that taste. Although I’d never heard of him before, it turns out that for decades Robert Hurwitz has helped to curate my listening.

Thank you, sir. Enjoy your retirement.

That’s entertainment

Sunday, February 12th, 2017

One night last week, after another full day of Trump, I decided to take my wife to see the touring production of “Motown the Musical” at the Pantages in Hollywood. I’m not generally much for musicals, but I love Motown (who doesn’t?), and I thought it’d be a fun evening out, and a welcome distraction from everything going on in the news:  protests, police actions, presidents breaking the law, and more.

The show was everything I was hoping for:  great songs well-sung, interspersed with some storytelling as we moved chronologically through the history of Motown. If a glance at the program left me wondering just how on Earth the show was going to get through more than sixty hits from the Motown catalog, the show soon clarified it:  while occasionally you’d get the full song, or most of it, for the most part you’d get about three bars, which is the musical equivalent of a nod in the direction of a song you know. Which was frustrating. You’d get keyed up to hear a song you love, and just when you recognized it, it was over. Imagine hearing, say, a “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” — but then having it cut off at “Ain’t No–.” It was kinda like that; like ain’t no song finishin’ no how.

That said, the performers were terrific, especially a little boy who completely channeled the pre-adolescent Michael Jackson, and a beautiful honey-voiced young woman who, in an extended sequence that replicated Diana Ross’s solo debut in Las Vegas, reminded everyone present just why Ross was a huge star.

The show also reminded everyone about something else.

As the history moved further and further into the 1960s and later, the backdrop turned to Vietnam and Watergate… and protests, police actions, and presidents breaking the law.

My wife turned to me and said, “Wow. Nothing ever changes, does it?”

Not Monkeein’ around

Wednesday, September 21st, 2016

monkees

Much to my own surprise, last Friday night I went to see The Monkees again, this time on their 50th anniversary tour. Four years ago, I had publicly pledged not to see them again — you can read about that odd evening here — but the moment it was announced that Mike Nesmith would be playing with them, for the only time on this tour and for the last time ever, my friend Richard and I, the same Richard who went with me four years ago, decided to buy tickets.

And y’know what? They were terrific.

This was very much in the spirit of The Beach Boys’ 50th Anniversary Tour, in which the remaining living Beach Boys (Brian, Mike, Al, and I guess we’re still counting Bruce) put on an incredible four-hour show for which my friend Trey and I had 4th row center seats, in an experience not only worth the trip to Dallas, but also one that remains seared in my memory bank of positive experiences. That night, the Beach Boys were generous of spirit, played and sang together, and Brian Wilson even seemed to know where he was at times.

Whereas, in 2012, the Monkees seemed like strangers who’d arrived on the same stage by accident, this time the three principals seemed like they could be (or could have been) in the same band. They harmonized; they played together; they deferred to each other. At some point, it dawned on Mike Nesmith that he was actually having a good time. A smile spread across his face and he relaxed into the music. He played probably half of the evening’s songs with them, including a stint of six songs in a row during the second set that culminated in a solo performance of a song they’d once recorded that he’d envisioned in a different way. In his capable hands, “Circle Sky” was a blazing centerpiece, as it should have been. Most importantly to me, he played and sang “Me and Magdalena,” from their new album, which is one of the most achingly beautiful and haunting songs I’ve ever heard. The combination of the song, the timber of his voice, and the pangs of his 12-string Gretsch, transports me. All together, they played 32 songs, and then they were done.

Except they aren’t. Kind of. The tour now goes on, without Nesmith, which left Richard and me puzzling over what that non-Nesmith experience must be like. Diminished, for sure. (Evidently, on the rest of the tour Micky Dolenz sings “Circle Sky” and he is joined by Peter Tork for “Me and Magdalena.” I will go to my grave happy not to hear that.) I ventured to Richard that the contribution of Nesmith’s sound grounds what would otherwise be a flyweight pop contraption; Richard went perhaps further and said that he lends them credibility. I think that’s true. Dolenz can sing, but somehow there’s an authority to Mike Nesmith’s vocals, his songwriting, and his guitar playing, that lends credence to the whole enterprise. Without any intended slight to the band’s powerhouse songwriters such as Carole King or Neil Diamond, without Nesmith, the Monkees are like Herman’s Hermits, with more hits. I wonder if people catching the rest of the tour will even suspect what they missed.