My absolute favorite moments in D.A. Pennebaker’s classic rock concert film Monterey Pop (1968) are not one of the iconic era-defining musical performances. They are the cutaways during Ravi Shankar’s climactic set to a blissed-out Micky Dolenz. At this point, I should confess that when I saw the film as a young teen during its original theatrical release, Shankar’s set was my cue for a bathroom break/popcorn refill. It wasn’t until years later when I saw the film again and sat through Shankar’s entire performance—mesmerized, this time—that I caught the Micky moment.
Dolenz graciously extended a scheduled 15-minute call to share with TCM his memories of attending the Monterey International Pop Music Festival, along with a welcome Marxist (as in the brothers) digression. At 76, Dolenz is still Monkeeing around. He has a fine new solo album out that pays tribute to his Monkees bandmate, Michael Nesmith. He still tours and is a producer and director (his stage adaptation of Bugsy Malone, which he also directed, is something of a rite of passage for children in England). Monterey Pop is brimming with legendary performances, but for Dolenz, “groovy” as the music is for him, it wasn’t this life-changing event. He knew most of the performers. “We used to hang out all the time,” he said.
Before talking about Monterey, I wanted to give a shout-out to your new album, Dolenz Sings Nesmith. Why didn’t someone think of this sooner?
Micky Dolenz: I did think of it sooner. One of my dearest friends was Harry Nilsson. He recorded an album in the ‘70s, Nilsson Sings Newman. I was at some of the sessions. It stuck in the back of my mind, I guess, 40-50 years. When (the surviving Monkees) Peter, Mike and I got back together a few years ago after Davy’s passing, we were putting together a memorial tour. We were in the studio rehearsing and I said, ‘I’d love to do a Dolenz sings [Mike] Nesmith album.’
What was Mike’s reaction?
(Effecting Nesmith’s Texas drawl) ‘Well, that’d be nice.’ He even offered up some song choices. I do “Different Drum,” but I didn’t want to do a karaoke cover version [of other more familiar songs], because what’s the point? I finally mentioned it to 7A Records and they thought it was a wonderful idea. Christian Nesmith (Mike’s eldest son) is the producer. The artwork is by Dean Torrence of Jan and Dean, who did the cover for Nilsson Sings Newman. The whole thing comes around full circle.
Speaking of segues: the Monterey International Pop Music Festival. Dennis Hopper is quoted as saying that if you can remember the ‘60s, you weren’t there, and here I’m asking you about a rock festival from 54 years ago.
MD: (Laughs) There is some accuracy there. In my case, it’s a little bit more of that fact that it’s been 54 years. And also, it’s hard to dredge up a lot of memories only because there was nothing outstanding to me about it; it was just part of our zeitgeist at the time. It wasn’t, ‘Oh my god, I’m going to Monterey’ or ‘Oh my god, it’s the Mamas and the Papas.’ I saw the Mamas and the Papas every day at the market. I knew the other acts. We hung out all the time.
There wasn’t a feeling that this music, this time, was special?
MD: I knew it was cool and groovy, but did I think, ‘Wow, I’m going to be doing interviews when I’m 76 about every one of these people and songs?’ No, of course not. If you had asked Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. if they felt the Rat Pack thing was special, I suspect they would have said, ‘We were just hanging out and singing great songs.’
What are your most vivid memories of the Monterey Pop Festival?
MD: I was invited up by the Mamas and the Papas. I just remember it was, ‘Hey, we’re having a concert festival thing up in Monterey, can you make it?’ Originally, I said no, because we were filming [The Monkees]. Then the producers of the show actually decided to take a hiatus because they wanted to go. I had this cool outfit made; I got an Indian headdress from the wardrobe department because I’m part Indian. It was a last-minute thing. Peter and I flew up or drove up. So, I just started hanging out. And that’s where I saw Jimi Hendrix and suggested to our producers that he be the opening act for The Monkees. I had seen him in one of those Greenwich Village clubs as Jimmy James. He’d been described as ‘the guy who could play guitar with his teeth.’ When he came out onstage with Mitch (Mitchell) and Noel (Redding), I said, ‘That’s the guy who plays guitar with his teeth.’ And after that he was booked to be our opening act.
There was a backstage kerfuffle between The Who and Hendrix about who was going to be the first to destroy their instruments onstage. That was the big gimmick at the time. I was onstage during The Who with my friend Henry Diltz, the photographer. He was getting right into the thick of it, and I was saying, ‘Henry, look out for that guitar.’
Why did you think Jimi Hendrix would be a good opening act for The Monkees?
The theatrics. It was all an act; like Alice Cooper. These guys didn’t go home and smash their guitars while their wives were making tea. I don’t know if you know Alice….
I’m always surprised that he was friends with Groucho Marx.
I was (friends with Groucho), too! It was John Lennon who compared The Monkees to the Marx Brothers, and he was absolutely right. It’s much closer than comparing The Monkees to the Beatles. The writers and the producers screened Marx Brothers movies for us in the early days as we ramped up to do the show. So that was not coincidental.
Okay, I could talk Marx Brothers with you all day, but back to Monterey….
I do very clearly remember hanging in one of the empty tents and somebody strung in an extension cord and a couple of amps, and Jimi and some others— I’m sure they were very well known, but I can’t remember who they were—were jamming until 4 or 5 in the morning. We were just sitting on the grass watching. And I remember Jimi said something like, ‘Does anybody have an orange?’ For some reason, oranges became very important, and I took it upon myself to go out and find oranges. I don’t know how, but I managed to find a half a crate of oranges that somebody left in one of the stalls and I brought them back. I remember peeling the oranges and places slices of peeled orange into Jimi Hendrix’s mouth because he didn’t want to stop playing.
Monterey Pop was for many people their first glimpse of Janis Joplin. My second favorite moment in the documentary is the cutaway after “Ball and Chain” to Mama Cass mouthing the word, “Wow!”
MD: I didn’t know the San Francisco acts. I had heard of them, but that crowd I did not know well. There was this sort of friendly Frisco/L.A. competition; you were either L.A. or Frisco.
(At this point, another call came in and Micky had to end our conversation. But he shared one more musical memory of Otis Redding.)
I was a huge R&B fan. It was only a few months after Monterey that Dewey Martin, the drummer with the Buffalo Springfield, called and said that Otis Redding was playing at a club in San Francisco. I said we could catch a flight in an hour and be back before midnight. My wife said go for it. We jumped on a plane, got to this club and I sat in the front row and Otis Redding singing right in front of me, sweating on me. It was just before he died.