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.