Micky Dolenz reflects on 'wonderful' Georgia visit and storied career in music, television and film
GPB's Kristi York Wooten speaks with Micky Dolenz about his recent visit to Athens, Ga., his Hollywood childhood and his new EP of R.E.M. songs "Shiny Happy People," "Radio Free Europe," "Man On The Moon" and "Leaving New York." At 78, Dolenz is the only surviving member of The Monkees, which also featured Davy Jones, Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith.
Earlier this month, The Monkees' Micky Dolenz visited Athens, Ga., where members of R.E.M., mayor Kelly Girtz and the town itself gave him an enthusiastic reception. Hundreds of fans gathered outside historic Wuxtry Records on Nov. 3, 2023, for selfies and signed copies of Dolenz Sings R.E.M. Now back in Los Angeles, Dolenz is reflecting on how this "Georgia moment" fits into his storied career as a Monkee, musician, director and producer.
This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Kristi York Wooten: Let’s talk about your trip to Athens. What were you expecting before you got there? Had you been to Athens before?
Micky Dolenz: No, no, never had been. And what I was expecting, originally, was kind of a small, little intimate meet-and-greet at the record store. One of my assistants, Jodi Ritzen, who helps with promotion … after we announced that the EP [Dolenz Sings R.E.M.] was going to be released and [Wuxtry Records in downtown Athens ] was pictured on the cover, she's the one that came up with the idea to do an old-fashioned in-store. And I have to be honest, I didn't even think record stores existed anymore! But it obviously it does. And so it was her idea. And she said, ‘You know, let's just show up.’ We’ll, you know, have a little dinner with the Wuxtry people and whoever else wants to show up, and, you know, sign a few autographs and sign some merchandise, some of the EPs, a little photo op, shall we call it, in front of the store…
Well, all of the sudden, it just snowballed. Jodi started getting an enormous amount of feedback and responses from fans in the area who wanted to be there. And the record store started to get inundated with phone calls. And pretty soon it just exploded. And Jodi called the mayor's office to inform them that I was going to be there. And he turns out to be a big fan and wanted to give me a key to the city. And then it just snowballed and got bigger and bigger and bigger. But I knew it as we were going along. But still, nothing really could have prepared me for the that kind of, I don't know, turnout. It was, you know, quite wonderful. And of course, you know, the wonderful participation of the guys from R.E.M…. that was a wonderful, wonderful experience.
Kristi York Wooten: [Regarding the crowd and the atmosphere outside the record store when the live local band was performing Monkees’ hits], obviously [your visit] was pre-planned, like you said, but it had this kind of spontaneous feel where just the feeling of the music kind of takes over. To have these two things converge with members of R.E.M. onsite and you being there was almost like the town [was so excited that they] couldn't handle it.
Micky Dolenz: Yeah. Well, as you say, it was kind of a spontaneous plan, I guess. [laughs]. But in my experience, when things like this do happen, you can't buy this kind of promotion and publicity when things happen from sort of ... grassroots, you know, feeling. But that's kind of how I've always operated. You know, in basically my entire career, I've never been one to beat a drum very loudly, so to speak. No pun intended [laughs].
Kristi York Wooten: Right [laughs].
Micky Dolenz: Or flog a dead horse. You know, that's just the way that I've always sort of done business…I mean, I have a publicist and I do promote stuff. But … you hear, and you see people that have obviously spent thousands or millions or whatever trying to promote something and create a buzz that really just isn't there, right? And that's, I guess, just intuitively, that's the kind of thing I've always done [is let things happen naturally]. And maybe some of that comes from the fact that I was born and raised into a showbiz family that was not your typical one.
My mom and dad were both actors, singers. They met doing a play here in Hollywood, but neither of them nor our family was in the ‘typical’ Hollywood / Beverly Hills showbiz world in the '40s, '50s and '60s. We lived out in the [San Fernando] Valley. We had horses on a ranch and chickens. My mom was from Austin, Texas, very down to earth, and my father was off the boat from Italy, literally. And so very down to earth. And I, you know, I grew up in that kind of environment. There were no showbiz stuff and friends and people around the house. When I did my first series, Circus Boy, in the '50s, I was 10 years old. And when I would do the show, I'd be filming all day on location, shooting the television show, and on the weekends I still had to clean the pool, you know. So I think that when you add all that up and, you know, that kind of answers your question. I don't know. I can't even remember what the question was [laughs].
Kristi York Wooten: I think that's what was so charming about [the Athens event. It did not have a showbiz feel]. Let’s talk a little bit about the songs on the Micky Dolenz Sings R.E.M. EP… do you have any memories of when you first heard R.E.M. back in the '80s, I presume?
Micky Dolenz: Oh, I'm not that old. My mother loved R.E.M.! And that's a joke. [laughs]. No, of course I do. Yeah. I was living in England, and at the time they were huge, and they were big in England, they had a couple of records [out] there. And of course, I remember. I don't know, I guess in an order … but I would say "Losing My Religion," of course, then "Man on the Moon," eventually. But I was not into music [at the time]. I was producing and directing television shows, films, commercials and music videos. So I was a full-blown producer director from the mid '70s until the late '80s — about 12, 15 years. And I really wasn't doing much music. You know, I'd listen to BBC occasionally… Of course I'd heard of R.E.M. — who hadn't, you know. But I couldn't tell you exactly a date or time stamp it, you know, when I first heard their first songs.
Kristi York Wooten: How did you choose the R.E.M. songs for the EP that includes “Radio Free Europe” (1981), “Shiny, Happy People,” (1991) “Man on the Moon,” (1992) and “Leaving New York” (2004)?
Micky Dolenz: Well, it started, actually, interestingly enough, with the original creator and producer of The Monkees, named Bob Rafelson, who became an incredible film director of Five Easy Pieces, King of Marvin Gardens, all Jack Nicholson films. Well, Bob was the original creator of The Monkees — he and his partner, Bert Schneider. And Bob was kind of the creative force behind it all. Anyway, we did The Monkees, but we kept in touch over the years. And over the years, I had heard through the grapevine that R.E.M., particularly [R.E.M. singer] Michael Stipe, said there had been some sort of an influence, some sort of appreciation of the Monkees. And, you know, I kind of take that stuff with a grain of salt unless I'm hearing it from the horse's mouth, so to speak. But over the years, I had heard that.
And then a few years ago, before Bob passed away, he sent an email out to all of us and he said, "I just heard this or read this great article that Michael Stipe had done, saying how the Monkees had been an enormous influence and particularly on ‘Shiny, Happy People.’" Mm hmm. And like I said, I heard rumors about that. And I remember going, ‘Wow, that's very cool,’ you know? And there was another mutual friend of mine named Gary Strobl, an associate who called me up when he read the article and he said, "Mick, you know, this is very cool. You should re-record this song, ‘Shiny, Happy People.’" This was a number of years ago, a few years ago. And I said, "You know, it's a great idea, but I don't have a record deal right now"… And just to do a one-off is kind of tricky. And where's the distribution? And blah, blah, blah. And kind of left it at that.
Well, I got involved with this [British] record company, 7a Records, who have done a couple of projects with us now. And we'd done the Dolenz Sings Nesmith album [a recording of songs written by late Monkee Michael Nesmith]…And it was very well received, this album. And again, kind of a grassroots thing. It just sort of took off. And 7a Records approached me during that period and said, "Listen, we should follow this up with something. What do you have in mind?" And a few — and a few ideas were bantered about. And one of them was R.E.M. …
And so we started to listen to some stuff. And the first name that came up to produce it was Christian Nesmith [son of Michael Nesmith]… So I went to him, because when I do cover material as I have over the years, I don't just want to do a karaoke cover version… like there's so many Beatles songs I would love to cover, but how the hell do you cover a Beatle tune? I mean, it's very seldom been done successfully. And the two times that come to mind were both Joe Cocker! [Laughs]. You know, it's very difficult when it's so well-known. But I went to Christian, and he said, "Well, of course I know who R.E.M. are. Let me start listening." So he started listening to songs, I did, and so did Glenn Gretlund [from 7a Records]. And we kind of came up with a short list, maybe 10 or 12, and that got narrowed down [to 4]. And then in the final analysis, I basically left it up to Christian. And he went off and came back with these wonderful tracks we listened to and tweaked. And then I went in and did the lead vocals over a period of time. And there you go.
Kristi York Wooten: When you got the key to the city of Athens, you mentioned an amazing list of songwriters whose material you’ve recorded. Who's next?
Micky Dolenz: … Frankly, I don't want to get people's hopes up, because I don't know if I will be doing another EP. I mean, you know, it could happen. But again, there are no plans. I have nothing, you know, in the calendar. But there are so many songwriters just in the Monkee catalog alone. For instance, Carole King and Gerry Goffin. I did a cover album of [their] tunes a few years ago called King for a Day. And then I did an album called Remember a few years ago, and on that I covered a tune by Harry Nilsson, who was really my best friend back in the '60s and '70s. And I have thought about doing some more of his material. He was such a good friend, and I was there when he wrote a lot of it. And then, like I mentioned, The Beatles, but I don't see how in the hell you really get away with that. And then, of course, the other writers from The Monkees like, well, Boyce and Hart. I've already done so many songs by them, not covers, but they wrote so many of the big Monkees hits, right? There's Neil Diamond … I covered a song Paul Williams once gave me that I couldn't I didn't get it done in time and Three Dog Night did it. And then there's David Gates, who wrote for the Monkees, and there's just so many people. So right now, I couldn't tell you … but really no plans right now.
Kristi York Wooten: The R.E.M. project was an intergenerational thing and the crowd that showed up proved it. There were definitely three generations, I would say, represented there [in Athens that day]. What do you hope future generations take away from your career?
Micky Dolenz: Well, I guess the simple answer is just the music. But also in terms of the television show, I guess, comedy. And, you know, the thing is that ever since the '80s when we had the first reunion in 1986...since that point, it's never really gone away. That was the first example, as you say, of being inter-generational. And because the show got on MTV, the records were rereleased. I had a hit record with a new song called “That Was Then, This Is Now” [in 1986]. And that's one generation right there. Then 20 years later, the records are still being played. “I'm a Believer” was in Shrek, and [The Monkees] TV show is back on Nickelodeon and back in reruns. It's rerunning somewhere now, and it gets picked up and appreciated by, well, people like R.E.M. who talk about it and other artists. And so in a way, it's never gone away. And in my solo concerts now, which is what I do, there are always three generations, always and have been for years. So it's something that now I've just gotten kind of used to, and, of course, incredibly flattered by and honored and blessed.
But having said that, let's give credit where credit is due. It was not and is not just about me. This has to do with a project called The Monkees, which involved many people, incredibly talented people, like I mentioned, Bob the creator, Jim Nicholson, who wrote the movie, and other guest stars on the TV show. The four of us [Monkees], of course, great writers, screenwriters, great directors. And then the music. Great songwriters, great musicians. And, you know, you add that all up and the way I always put it is that the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. And that's what I think happened with the Monkees and that it just stands up. You know, it has legs, as we say. But you can't plan it. You can't guarantee that from the beginning. Of course, there are no formulas. You know, you do your best. Surround yourself with people that hopefully are doing their best and are talented. And then you kind of keep your fingers crossed and, you know, hopefully it all works.
Kristi York Wooten: [We’re decades into the 21st century,] but there is still something about hearing a song from the 20th century and how it's recorded and how it was made by human musicians and not by algorithms or robots. You know, you can tell there's a vibe. What is the greatest melody of all time?
Micky Dolenz: I couldn't narrow it down to one. And, you know, it'd be like, ‘What's the greatest painting in the world?’ People ask me, ‘What's your favorite Monkees song?’ And my answer is, ‘Oh, what genre?’ You know, the Monkees recorded rock, recorded ballads, recorded country and western, recorded hard rock and roll, recorded folk music. So it would depend on the genre.
And I would say something similar about a melody. I mean, there's ballads that have, of course, gorgeous melodies, and you go back to Cole Porter and then all the way from Cole Porter to Paul McCartney. I mean, [The Beatles’ 1966 song] "Yesterday," of course, is the classic that everybody talks about. But [Hoagy Carmichael’s 1927 song] "Stardust" was, too. And I use those two examples because I heard once that ‘Stardust’ was the most played, listened to covered song in history until "Yesterday." So the short answer is I couldn't really give you just one answer to a melody. But in speaking to your comment about music in the 20th century, you know, somebody asked me, "Why is it that all vinyl records sound better?" And my answer is because the music was better.