11 December 2021 ☼ Pop Music ☼ Artist: The Monkees
I almost didn’t go; I’d read about the tour early in the year, and then lost track of the date. A surprisingly long and sympathetic piece in the Journal-Constitution made me realize that no, I hadn’t missed it, and I was lucky to get a front-row balcony seat two days before the event. There were more people in their teens and twenties than I expected to see. I don’t think the charming couple seated to my right were animated by the same spirit of history as I was. She had pregamed quite thoroughly; he, easier to talk to, told me they went to concerts all the time as a hobby, showed me photographs on his iPhone of when they’d been near the stage for ZZ Top in Macon over the summer.
But for me it was definitely: this might be your last chance. And I was right.
I mentioned in Part 2 of the Ninety One Series that the Monkees were my introduction to idol-pop fandom. Like anyone else who grew up with mass culture, there are works I loved when I was growing up and don’t enjoy nearly as much now (Duke basketball, Marion Zimmer Bradley novels, The Rembrandts’s “Just the Way It Is, Baby”) and I will confess I cannot actually watch The Monkees anymore. My sophomore year of college a fellow Monkees-loving friend and I staged a Monkees night in our dorm commons area, and we were chagrined to find that the Laugh-In-style humor didn’t hold up. (I haven’t watched any of Ranking King in a while, in part for fear that something similar will happen.)
But if you ask me about the music? The music still holds up. This is not a particularly brave critical statement, admittedly. Conventional, but still true. You give me “Last Train to Clarksville” or “Mary, Mary” or “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” or “Randy Scouse Git,” I’m still happy.
Mike and Micky—I’m just going to keep with the idol-pop tropes, and refer to them by the names I’ve known them by, parasocially, for more than thirty years—played all four of the above when I saw them. “Mary, Mary” was the first song for which I let out the shriek of OH MY GOD THEY’RE PLAYING MY FAVE!!!!! (Conventional, but still true.) “Randy Scouse Git” was highest on my pre-concert list of I-love-this-song-but-they’re-going-to-skip-it-because-Micky-is-76-and-time-happens-to-everyone. Micky is 76, but his voice has held up better than anyone had any right to expect, and he had the energy to make it work.
(My two favorite songs that I knew they were not going to play, and was at peace with them not playing, are “Words” and “Your Auntie Grizelda.” Two tangents on the latter: first, time happens to everyone, but it turned out to work in the song’s favor: “Your Auntie Grizelda” as delivered by a wizened, elfin Peter in 2015 was a different song than “Your Auntie Grizelda” as delivered by a yelping young Peter in 1967, but not necessarily a worse song: it turns out to be more versatile than it looks. And second, be warned that the footage from the original show for which “Your Auntie Grizelda” played in the background has aged horribly, with some nasty Fu-Manchu-esque costuming.)
The energy was there; the banter was surprisingly limited; the concert was professional, and I mean that as a high compliment. It may have been indulgent, but it wasn’t self-indulgent: on stage were two people with a century’s worth of music performance between them, and a band of veterans behind them, with everyone focused on putting on a good, clear show. I hadn’t anticipated a good, clear show, frankly. We tend to assume that by the time a person reaches his late seventies, he no longer derives joy from working—fairly, since for most of human history to be in your late seventies and still working was to be in an unenjoyable situation. (Also, there’s a line of writing that fears that any talk of enjoying work only serves to benefit the corporations and/or greater capitalist machine that sustains and is sustained by said work.) But: Micky Dolenz is 76, and has been a public performer for the better part of a century, and however his relationship to his work has ebbed and flowed over all that time, on stage he gave every impression of a man energized and comforted by the experience of performing publicly. He sang the majority of the songs; he occasionally played drum or tambourine; he emceed; he introduced the band; when not singing he trotted or danced around the stage, as if having too much fun to keep still.
Well. I’ve been stalling this entire blog post, haven’t I?
From now on I’m not going to be able to separate my experience of the concert from my experience of being told by my husband yesterday that he’d just heard over the radio that Mike had died. (My husband has never identified as a big Monkees fan, and didn’t go with me to the concert, but the news affected him more than he expected, and he asked me to write.) And any portents I might tell you about will look rather overblown: when I said to myself, this might be your last chance, I was doing an actuarial calculation, not acting on any special knowledge. So understand I’m telling you a story that’s been affected by my knowing the ending. That having been said, even at the time I sensed—maybe I should say, we sensed; I’m pretty confident I wasn’t the only one in that audience thinking was I was thinking—that we were seeing a man approaching the threshhold.
Let me be clear: Mike was not pathetic. Not pitiable. He knew all the words to all his songs. He shuffled off stage several times, but apparently that was not a new development; I read somewhere (I can’t find it now) that said he kept leaving the stage during his last appearances with Micky and Peter. (In the “Your Auntie Grizelda” clip I linked to earlier, Micky is helping with the percussion but Mike is nowhere to be seen.) At any rate, Mike’s leaving the stage seemed to surprise no one actually putting together the show, including the person in charge of lighting cues.
Nor was Mike operating completely on autopilot. Before “Tapioca Tundra” he started talking about doing one of the Monkees’ first live concerts, way back when, and feeling an unseen fifth presence. (He’d apparently told this story quite a few times.) “Elvis!” a woman shouted from the audience. “Jesus!” Then Mike stopped and addressed her: “Are you going to do this all night?” And we roared, as much with relief as with laughter.
So, he was present, and he was performing: but performing seated, still where Micky was moving, his voice quavery in contrast to Micky’s powering through. What struck me more than anything else was his hands. When he wasn’t singing or otherwise addressing the audience, he would face the band, and flap his hands to the music—not comically pretend to play, not keep time for the audience’s benefit, just flap. It was the gesture of a musician who has loved music all his life, yes, but it was the sheer unselfconsciousness that got to me. Only two types of people flap their hands like that. One is babies and toddlers, who aren’t old enough to internalize that other people are watching them. The other is people close enough to death that they’re not worried about who’s watching them anymore.
Mike Nesmith was present, on that stage, and yet he was not. He was performing, and he was beginning to enter a place where performance is impossible. It is an odd thing to think, that one can be simultaneously fully alive and dying: I should say, fully alive and accepting of one’s impending death. We think of the two as a binary: either one is alive, fighting for life, or one is dying; to be comfortable with one means warding off the other. I could be wrong, obviously. It could be that he was a lot less happy to be on stage than he looked, and what I describe now as being present was actually a veteran performer’s reliance on longstanding habit and long-practiced audience-pleasing tricks. I won’t ever know. But having seen them—and having read Micky’s conversation yesterday with Rolling Stone, where he talks about Mike’s enjoying the tour, and also about he himself being especially mournful at the end of the tour—I do think that Mike was at peace with being there, on stage, in front of a bunch of strangers who loved hearing his music, as he had wanted all his life, and also simultaneously at peace somehow with the knowledge that soon it would all be behind him.
Last night I picked up a book called Jewish Reflections on Death, an anthology that contains one compilation of stories of how the great sages went out:
When the hour arrived for Rabbi Simhah Bunam of Psyshcha to depart from this world, his wife stood by his bedside and wept bitterly. He said to her, “Be silent—why do you cry? My whole life was only that I might learn how to die.”
It also has an essay by the great Rabbi Heschel, titled “Death as Homecoming”:
The love of life calls for resistance to death, resistance to the last, unconditionally.
Life here is where partnership abides between God and man. With death, man surrenders his freedom, and only God’s will is done. The soul is receptive, there is no room for freedom.
Life here and now is the task. Every moment can be an achievement….
It is a distortion to characterize the life of man as moving toward death. Death is the end of the road, and while moving along the long road of days and nights, we are really moving toward living, acting, achieving. Death is the end of the road, but not its meaning, not a refutation of living. That every moment of life is a step toward death is a mechanical view. Every moment of life is a new arrival, a new beginning. Those who say that we die every day, that every moment deprives us of a portion of life, look at moments as time past. Looking at moments as time present, every moment is a new arrival, a new beginning.
Andrew Sandoval, who has probably done more to contextualize and sustain the Monkees in the last three decades than anyone save the four members themselves, wrote when the news came out, “I know that Michael was at peace with his legacy.” And said something similar to Variety: “He died knowing that they were beloved, and he finally embraced what they meant to so many other people. I think he finally got it.” Again, I can’t know that this is true: it’s the kind of thing one would say in the situation, to reassure the fans, aging themselves. But the statements about Mike being at peace when he crossed that threshold are the kinds of statements one can easily, discreetly, avoid saying, if they’re not true. I think they were true.