'I Wanna Be Free,' They Sang, and 20 Years Later the Monkees Are No Longer Prisoners of the Past

UPDATED 08/12/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 08/12/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

MADNESS!!" screamed the Variety ad that ran in the summer of 1965. TV producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider were looking for "four insane boys, aged 17 to 21," who were expected to clown on camera and sing catchy tunes written by some of the top professionals in the business. The 437 fellows who auditioned were winnowed down to Mike Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones and Peter Tork, and the Pre-fab Four—a/k/a the Monkees—were born.

The Monkees claimed in their theme song that they were "too busy singing to put anybody down." Good thing, since everybody else was busy putting them down. Rock critic Richard Goldstein wrote in the New York World Journal Tribune: "The Monkees are as unoriginal as anything yet thrust upon us in the name of popular music. Ultimately the Monkees are a tribute to the originals...the Beatles are so good, even their imitators are interesting." Herman's Hermits co-manager Charles Silverman said, "The Monkees don't rate at all as musicians. They have been artificially created and nothing in show business sticks around very long if it's false." Beatles manager Brian Epstein himself said, "I don't see much of a future for the Monkees. I can't see a synthetic talent lasting."

Okay, so they weren't mop-top Mozarts, but the Monkees' detractors failed to reckon with the American teenager's insatiable appetite for all things Beatle-like, even such blatant copycats as the Monkees. It was this appeal that helped The Monkees win an Emmy as "the outstanding comedy series" in their first season (1966-67), propelled six of their singles to the Top 10 and led to sales of millions of records worldwide.

Just three years after they were created, the Monkees called it quits. A short-lived sensation they may have been, but guess what: All these years later their songs sound pretty good. And there is a resurgence of interest in the band. A Monkees Festival was held in Columbus, Ohio recently. Michael Nesmith in Television Parts was a special this past season and seven of his half-hour segments aired this summer. Rhino Records is currently re-releasing all nine Monkees albums.

The individual band members have of course moved on, but the Monkees legacy is still with them. On the following pages is a report on what they're up to today.

Michael Nesmith: The maverick makes good

With his jaunty knit cap and ironic smirk, Michael Nesmith always seemed to be the one who got the joke. He just didn't think it was particularly funny. The most outspoken and iconoclastic member of the group, Nesmith seemed from the beginning to be disdainful of the whole Monkees enterprise. A proven songwriter in his own right, Nesmith was known oxymoronically as "the intellectual Monkee." Long after the group disbanded, Nesmith reflected, "We were totally a video group. We were no more a rock group than Marcus Welby is a real doctor. It was all an illusion."

Today Nesmith, 42 and graying, is in the business of creating more such illusions. Credited with pioneering the whole rock-video revolution, he has two feature films to his credit—as writer/producer of Timerider and executive producer of Repo Man—and has made an assault on network television. Having created a series of minimusical fantasies to promote some of his own songs back in the mid-'70s, Nesmith released a "video album" called Elephant Parts in 1981. A work he says was inspired by the Monkees, it set the stage for MTV-style rock videos and earned him a Grammy award. NBC programming chief Brandon Tartikoff saw Parts and reportedly paid him several million dollars to create Michael Nesmith in Television Parts.

Had Nesmith's post-Monkees career never taken off, the Texas-born college dropout wouldn't have had any trouble paying the mortgage on his plush Carmel, Calif. home. His mother, Bette Nesmith, invented a method of correcting typewriter errors. In 1979 she sold the rights to Liquid Paper to Gillette for $47 million. When she died in 1980, Michael was her sole heir. "You don't go from five zeros to seven zeros without some change," Nesmith says about his inheritance. "There's more to do and manage, and also there's a certain amount of freedom that comes with it."

Married to second wife Kathryn since 1975, Nesmith leads a relatively sedate life. He will not discuss the Monkees and has consistently refused all overtures, including those from his former partners, to participate in a Monkees reunion.

Micky Dolenz: The beat of a different drummer

Child actor Micky Dolenz—he was Mickey Braddock in the 1956-58 ABC television series Circus Boy—lent a sort of Mouseketeer (call it Monkeeteer) cuteness to the assembly-line pop group. Dolenz admits that he was always "an actor playing a musician." As a drummer, he says now, "I was adequate. With all respect, it isn't brain surgery."

Now 39 and a resident of Britain, Dolenz has a successful career as a television and theatrical director and producer. Despite the show's madcap image, making it wasn't all Monkee-ing around. "That kind of success," he says, "is exhausting, mind-boggling. It was a devastating experience for anyone. I don't remember much about it, subjectively. I'm told I had a great time. But so much happened so quickly. I think I was probably quite an ass at times. I'd been through [success] before, when I was about 10 years old in Circus Boy. But still it took me a couple of years after we disbanded just to recuperate emotionally, intellectually and physically."

The son of actor George Dolenz (who played the Count of Monte Cristo on television), California native Dolenz spent the first several years after the Monkees broke up hanging out in Southern California, playing tennis and becoming "one of the original hang-gliding enthusiasts, making kites out of plastic and bamboo. Obviously," he adds, "I didn't have to work." In 1975 he and Jones went on tour with Bobby Hart and Tommy Boyce, two of the songwriters and musicians who wrote and performed some of the Monkees' hit songs. "I'm no fool," Micky says. "You can make a lot of money on the road." After two years he quit, while the band was playing Vegas. "I found myself looking at an audience of losers. I suddenly realized they're the only people who watch the shows in Las Vegas."

Having directed some Monkees episodes under Bob Rafelson's tutelage, Dolenz landed a job directing a segment of a BBC show called Premiere in 1977. "It was an incredible opportunity," says Dolenz, "and I've never looked back."

With more than 60 television production and directing credits, Dolenz now plans to turn his talents toward feature films. Married to second wife Trina (left), Dolenz, a father of four, lives in a Georgian country manor house in Nottinghamshire. There he is known personally and professionally as Michael. "Micky is a rather childlike name," he says. But he realizes that as far as most of the world is concerned, he'll always be Micky.

Davy Jones: He's a daydream believer"

He was cute and lovable and unthreatening. He could sing and act. And though at 5'3" he was short enough to be a jockey—he was, and is, an amateur rider—Davy Jones had something extra, something the producers of The Monkees desperately wanted—an authentic English accent. Jones was by far the most popular member of the band. "I can't explain why the girls think I'm cute," Davy said when the Monkees were still in the high branches. "I don't encourage them. On television I merely play myself."

A ubiquitous presence on British yap shows and variety programs, Jones is still the most gung ho of the Monkees. Now 39, he's as eager as ever to discuss the group and encourage his former mates to come out and play. "That was a real important time for me and a real fun time in my life," Jones says. "I have no regrets whatsoever. We went straight to the top with a million dollars worth of publicity, stayed there three years and sold millions of records. So the Monkees getting together again to me is not such a farfetched idea. A lot of people would like to see it. There are only a few groups—the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Monkees and maybe The Who—that can generate that kind of nostalgia." Much to Jones' dismay, the other Monkees have nixed several very lucrative offers to re-form. "We couldn't get it together. The guys were all too busy doing their own things. A good thing is worth repeating, but time is running out."

Dolenz had some acting experience before signing on with the Monkees, but only Jones had extensive dramatic training. A high school dropout, he made it all the way to Broadway in 1963, playing the Artful Dodger in Oliver! Jones returned to the stage after the Monkees broke up and in 1975 tried to cash in on the Monkees' lasting fame—he and Dolenz went on the road with The Golden Great Hits of the Monkees, playing packed houses around the country. But after touring on and off for another year, "I got a bit tired of singing the old Monkees tunes and decided I wanted to do some of my own music," Davy says. In 1976 he and Dolenz appeared on the London stage in Harry Nilsson's play The Point, the last time Jones has worked with any of his former partners. At the end of The Point's successful run Jones left town. "I figured that two Monkees in any one place was one Monkee too many," he says.

Jones now lives with second wife Anita, 33, and their daughter; Jessica, 3½, in Hampshire, 200 miles from his Manchester birthplace. Last year he hosted a children's show on British television. Jones knows that a re-formation of the Monkees is unlikely. But no matter how much of a daydream that may be, he remains "a believer."

Peter Tork: A country bumpkin no more

At 24, Peter Tork was the oldest of the Monkees, although you never would have guessed it from the character he played. He came across as a befuddled bumpkin. Peter was the first member of the group to bolt, but in the years following the group's demise, no one was more befuddled than Tork.

The years 1969, '70 and '71 were spent in something of a haze. "I was still living in Souther`n California, although I can't for the life of me remember exactly where," he says. He was plagued by booze, pot and, to a lesser degree, cocaine, throughout the Age of Aquarius. A bust for possession of hashish resulted in three months in jail in 1972. Attempts to form new groups failed. ."I just sort of bumbled around trying to make a career as a musical performer," he says.

By 1975 Tork found himself in Santa Monica teaching at an avant-garde private school where the students called him "Peter," and, in addition to English and social studies, he taught courses in Eastern philosophy, drama and rock 'n' roll. The son of University of Connecticut economics professor John Thorkelson, Peter twice flunked out of Minnesota's Carleton College, and by the fall of 1978 he dropped out of teaching to embark on a "nostalgia" tour with a band of non-Monkees doing Monkees songs. In 1980 he put together another group called the New Monks, which quickly went into retreat. Tork worked with pickup bands until May 1983, when he launched his next venture, The Peter Tork Project, which failed to take off. Tork, who has been separated from his third wife for four years, wasn't much luckier in love.

Tork's period of befuddlement has passed. At 43, he is comfortably settled in a modest apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side. For the past three and a half years he has lived with artist Jennifer McLeod (above), 33. He has been drug free since early 1981 and now pays the rent by coaching pop and rock performers, and performing himself. Last month he had a gig at New York's Speak Easy, where he plays twice a year. On August 20 he will perform at a folk festival in Bethlehem, Pa.

Tork is philosophical about his years as a Monkee, perhaps because of the turbulent times he had after the group split up. "The '60s were a very schizoid period," he says. "We had, on the one hand, a lot of hope and good cheer and gentility going on, and on the other, a lot of pretty brutal stuff. I think in some ways the Monkees were the distillate of the cheery side. They were the epitome: ultrasharp, ultragood cheer, ultraharmless."

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