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That Was Then, This Is Now

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September 7, 1986

Los Angeles


Mike Nesmith felt inexplicably nervous as he approached the stage door at the Greek Theater. Well, it really wasn’t that inexplicable when he considered the reality of it. He was going in to rehearse with three people he hadn’t performed with in nearly twenty years. Micky, Peter, and Davy were waiting on him inside. Though, given what Micky had been telling him about Davy’s attitude regarding Mike’s “surprise” appearance at the Monkees’ final show of a triumphant three-night stand at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles, he reckoned Davy would be fashionably late to make a point.

Mike was careful to arrive ten minutes early to make a point. He wasn’t trying to steal any thunder from his former bandmates, who had done a great deal of legwork in reforming and assembling a top-notch show — one they had performed many times already. Mike had attended an earlier performance in disguise and had been fairly blown away. It was a Monkees show as it always should have been — a slick, choreographed performance with state-of-the art audiovisuals, costume changes, and scripted banter. And a backing band to fill in the gaps so the guys could focus on the performance/entertainment aspect. And no one was giving them shit for using additional musicians anymore. After all, they’d been a TV cast. This was the closest thing to the melding of a live concert and live episode performance as could be managed. Because of the tight scripting of the show, Mike’s appearance would happen during a two-song encore — “Listen to the Band” and “Pleasant Valley Sunday” — and he was more than fine with that. He hadn’t performed live in a number of years now and would have passed on Micky’s invitation had they not been able to give him any rehearsal time at all.

Micky. After so many years, it still came down to Micky. Micky Dolenz, whom Mike quietly considered a great love of his life. It was Micky who had taken Mike’s breath away on stage. Micky, finally unshackled from the drum kit, had shone as a proper frontman (though Davy would bristle to hear that). Shone like the damn sun. After all these years. Forty-one years old and he could still set a stage on fire with his huge presence. He still thought of Micky in terms of heat and light. He just emitted warmth and made everyone around him blossom.

Mike looked forward to basking in some of that warmth. As much as he could get, anyway. He and Mick hadn’t been in the same room together in many years, though they had kept in touch for the most part. As much as their increasingly busy schedules allowed. Even managed to work together via overseas connections when Mike’s failed Television Parts comedy sketch show was trying to get off the ground and Micky directed a few segments, trying to break the British phenomenon Spitting Image in the U.S. But busy was good. They had not been busy at all the last time they’d spent time together. After Mike’s personal and professional breakdown in the early seventies, he’d sought refuge with Micky and thankfully his former bandmate and lover had taken him in. Cared for him and sheltered him. Fed him and laughed with him. Talked to him and made love to him. For weeks. Until Mike felt strong enough to go back out into the world and start over again. It had taken him a long time and a tragic event to build this new life. 

The untimely death of his mother, Bette (fifty-six years old, good lord, he was closing in on forty-four and he hoped he had more time ahead of him than she’d had, bless her soul), and a generous bequest of a portion of her great fortune, had given Mike the capital he needed to grow his company, Pacific Arts, into a viable and profitable business at long last. He knew he was very fortunate, and he worked very hard to prove himself worthy of the gift. He didn’t want anyone thinking that he was coasting on free money and incapable of sustaining the momentum. At least, he didn’t want to think that of himself. He was trying very hard to stop thinking of himself as an imposter/fraud and to therefore stop self-sabotaging any endeavor he pursued. That was something he’d come to realize when he was living with Micky. And something Micky had said to him that gave him the courage to move forward. Find a different stream so you don’t have swim so hard to get where you want to go.

First, he’d worked on improving his education so he didn’t feel like so much of a hillbilly bumpkin when dealing with high-powered entertainment types. He’d always felt so out of his depth during the Monkee days and the early, hard years after. It had fed his insecurity and belief that he didn’t belong, and any success he found was fraudulent, and therefore had to be destroyed on his own terms before it fell apart outside of his control. And then he’d got to work, alongside his second wife, Kathryn, building something for himself. Something he could be proud of. Something he hoped Bette would have been proud of had she been around to see it. He worked harder than he’d ever worked before. And once things started moving forward, it became his life and obsession. And once he’d started earning some professional respect in the area of technology and media, he could finally relax enough to stop getting his hackles up every time someone mentioned the damn Monkees. Because it wasn’t all he was, and he finally had the proof. And a fucking Grammy award with his name on it. And only his name. Mike had needed an awful lot in order to get to this point. He needed more than most to feel even somewhat comfortable in his own skin and he knew it. At least he could acknowledge that now. It was just how he was. He hoped he’d managed to mellow a little bit compared to the frustrated, insecure, angry young man he’d been twenty years ago.

Also, finally, enough time had finally passed for the Monkees to become a warm, nostalgic thing rather than an embarrassment. A flash in the pan. An experiment gone horribly wrong. The young children who’d been their first wave of fans had grown up and now their children were becoming fans of the show due to MTV. Time really could heal all wounds.

It was a whole other world and Mike had jumped in with both feet. Video technology was his bread and butter and MTV had started off as his brainchild, but ultimately it wasn’t something he’d wanted to run. Not if he couldn’t have full control over it. Yep, that was still his bugbear. A control freak to the bitter end. It was a blessing and a curse. But he hoped now that it wasn’t going to be his undoing the way it had been in the past.

To prove this to himself, he accepted when Micky invited him to appear at this one show. He had wanted to do the full original run of five to ten shows, but then it ballooned into a gruelling, months-long tour and he just couldn’t afford that kind of time. Not now. Not when things were finally going pretty well.

And now, here he was … heading back into the fray. He was looking forward to seeing his old friends. He still called them friends, though their relationships had been off and on and fractured and reformed over the years. But in the end, it was the four of them who made up this strange beast called the Monkees. At the very least it made for a very unusual fraternity.

Guitar case in hand, he took a deep breath and opened the door that led into the future of his past.

He was greeted by a high-pitched scream imitating that of a teenage girl. “OH MY GAWD, IT’S MIKE NESMITH! MIIIIIKE, OMIGOD, HE’S SO CUTE!” And then Mike had just enough time to put down his case before he was hit by the full force of Micky Dolenz in full riff, who tackled him in a hug. Mike laughed, wrapping his arms around Micky and holding him tightly. Maybe a little too tightly, but no one would blame him after all these years. Micky’s relocation to England and reinvention as a director and producer had made Mike very happy and very proud. Glad to see Micky find his “stream” as well after so much struggle. But it also meant they never got to see each other.

Which maybe had been for the best because now Mike was flooded with sense memories of Micky’s scent and warmth and it was all he could do not to kiss him full on the mouth. Instead he settled for cradling Micky’s beaming face between his hands and kissing him firmly on the forehead. “How the hell are ya, Mick? So good to see you.”

“I wasn’t going to believe it until I saw you,” Micky said, making no move to release Mike or move his face out of Mike’s hands. “Was fully waiting for you to flake out.”

“Oh, I still could!” Mike smirked, squeezing Micky close one more, then reluctantly releasing him, stroking a thumb over his cheek as he did so. “Still a few hours until showtime, right?”

“Don’t you fucking dare,” said Peter Tork, coming up to greet him. Mike smiled and tugged Peter into a hug as well. Of all of them, Peter was the one who seemed to have shrunk slightly with middle age instead of expanding. There was a weary sadness that lay underneath his smile and the warmth of his caramel-colored eyes. Mike had heard, through Micky and through the usual grapevine, something of the hardships Peter had suffered in the post-Monkees years. The same mix of industry disdain, money problems, substance abuse. And Peter had also ended up in prison for a short time on a trumped-up possession charge. (Sweet, trusting, hippie-dippie Peter in prison — Mike shuddered to think what he might have lived through there.) The 1960s had really let Peter Tork down the worst. The promise of a shining social revolution crumbling into decadent excess in the 1970s and the glorification of consumer capitalism in the decade they lived in now.

But Mike was glad Peter had lived to tell the tale and was smart enough to hold on to this bandwagon with both hands and hopefully claw back some financial security. And wouldn’t let himself be bled dry by the kind of leeches who had preyed upon him twenty years earlier.

Of course, he could express none of that to Peter. They’d never had that kind of relationship and never would, and anyway, Peter would read it as pity or condescension (the former might be true, but never the latter — Mike had seen his own share of hard times, as well), and it would infuriate him. He knew Peter was a little bitter over his lost fortune and was envious of Mike’s windfall and relative security (hell, if their positions had been reversed Mike would have been seething with bitter envy). He settled for also holding Peter’s face in his hands for a moment to get a good look at him. “You look great, man. However did you manage to keep your girlish figure?”

Peter smirked. “Dirty living and starvation will do it every time.”

Fucking Peter. Mike had set himself right up for that one.

Mike smiled and patted Peter affectionately on the cheek. “Still a smart-ass. It’s comforting.”

There was a flash of something fierce in Peter’s eyes for a moment, but then they softened, and he relaxed a fraction, clearly deciding not to get off on the wrong foot. “There are still some things that can be depended upon in this world, Michael,” he said serenely.

Mike released him and went back for his guitar. “Any word on Mr. Jones?”

Micky snorted. “Oh, I’m sure he’s been waiting out in his car to make sure you arrive first before he makes his entrance.”

“Micky,” Peter tutted.

“Oh, come on, I’m kidding around. Our little Napoleon is just grown up, is all.”

“Don’t listen to him, Mike,” said Peter, somewhat anxiously.

“It’s all right man,” Mike said soothingly, opening his guitar case and lifting out his instrument. “Just happy to be here with you guys. Glad you could make the time for this. I really need it. Point me to where I should plug in, willya? And maybe you wanna introduce me to the guys in your band? Hey, fellas!”

A few minutes later the door opened and Davy strutted inside with his entourage. “All right, then?” Davy said, clapping his hands together. “Let’s get this done. ’Ello, Mike. Nice of you to join us.” Davy was brusque and businesslike, not even offering a handshake, let alone a hug. Mike glanced at Micky, who rolled his eyes and shrugged.

Mike still couldn’t get over Davy’s new “look.” It was … something else. If Peter Tork’s face held sadness, Davy Jones’s face had taken on a kind of … hardness. And a less concealed bitterness. Like Peter, he was angry about money and having been cheated by unscrupulous business associates. Unlike Peter, he didn’t have the patina of philosophical and spiritual insight to soften it. Davy was bitter about the solo singing career that had never really taken off the way it was supposed to. Business deals gone sour. Davy Jones had been promised a lot of things by a lot of people and few of them had truly come to fruition. And he was pissed off. Out of all of the Monkees, Davy had been the most revered, coddled, and idolized, and it had been a long way for him to fall.

It registered in the deep, hard lines in Davy’s formerly flawless face — he was still an extraordinarily handsome man and he’d finally grown out of his baby-faced period. But his pale skin was tanned a deep, unnatural bronze — he was the color of a baseball mitt. And his formerly shiny cap of silky brown hair had been teased and highlighted and cut into a trendy “mullet” style haircut that Mike was more accustomed to seeing on teenagers than a forty-year-old man. It was fairly obvious that Davy was doing his best to turn back the clock and do the pop idol thing right this time. Whatever “right” actually meant. The one thing Mike knew for sure to do was to not comment on it. Or light up a spliff anywhere near Davy’s hair.

There was a lot of ego and insecurity in the room. That wasn’t at all new for the Monkees, but Mike took a breath and reminded himself why he was here. And why his former bandmates might be feeling a little defensive around him. The guy who didn’t need the money. The one who could afford to say no. The one with too much going on to say yes. It definitely wasn’t Mike’s usual style, but for this one night he knew he needed to take a back seat and just do what he was told. No notes, no suggestions. Just play nice. Make it a memorable experience for all the right reasons. No pissing contests.

And so he did what he was told. He stood where he was told to stand. He took direction and played and sang as capably as he was able to. The backing band was tight, and it helped Mike feel more confident that he wouldn’t make an ass of himself on stage. They were a welcome safety net.

And as the songs began to firm up and coalesce, and the reality of what the reunion was really going to look like on stage began to take shape, the energy in the room began to shift. Davy began to relax, and Mike was pleased when the man threw him one of his trademark happy grins for the first time — nothing contrived about it. When Davy smiled like that, it was like all the years melted away and once again he was the little cheeky young Mancunian kid that Mike had known and often loved.

By the time they were practicing the Monkee walk (and it was a regular part of the show, so the other three had mastered it once again and therefore took great glee at his expense as he stumbled and made mistakes, sometimes nearly taking all four of them down), they were all in stitches. Finally Mike found the groove again, and with Micky’s and Davy’s arms firmly wrapped around his waist, he indulged in a comfortable old feeling of being part of a gang. For better or for worse, they’d lived through something extraordinary together. And there was a bond there. And then Davy finally pulled Mike into a hug and Mike squeezed him back, kissing his cheek and murmuring, “Our Manchester Cowboy.”

“Yeah, all right, you big ponce. I’m chuffed to see you, too. FINALLY.”

Mike was feeling sentimental and generous enough to let Davy have the last word on that.

They had a light supper together before final sound check. Mike all too aware of Micky’s knee against his under the table. They kept stealing glances at one another like flirty teenagers. Surely they were too old for this nonsense? Naw, not when it warmed Mike inside and he felt swell after swell of happiness to be near Micky again. The sun to his moon. Mike stayed mostly quiet as Davy dominated the dinner conversation with talk about the tour. Even when Micky and Peter tried to introduce different subjects, Davy inevitably brought it back to the one subject that Mike was not included in. Mike just smiled and nodded. The Brit had softened toward him, but not completely. It was fine. Mike would probably feel the same if their positions were reversed. But thank god they weren’t. Would anyone really want to go see a Monkees show with no Davy Jones? Surely not.

And then it was time to get changed into their stage outfits and Mike wished three broken legs upon his bandmates and took a position on the side of the stage to watch the show. People kept trying to talk to him and he politely shooed them away. “After the show, after,” he said again and again, starting to lose his cool a bit until David finally noticed and assigned a security guard to run interference.

He couldn’t take his eyes off Micky and Micky knew it. He seemed to be laying it on a little extra thick and Mike ate it up. He worked the crowd like the veteran he was, singing into the rafters, shaking his hips and ass like a man half his age, but he still looked fucking great doing it. Mike had to stop himself a few times from becoming preoccupied with what he was going to do with those hips and ass after the show. He and Micky hadn’t even talked about anything like that, but the wives and girlfriends would go home at the end of the night and the band had hotel rooms. He’d booked a different hotel than the rest of them on purpose. He reckoned it could be read as a power move, but it was more to put a little distance between them if he got Micky back to his room after the party.

If. When, more like. Mike watched his former lover gyrate on stage and throw his head back to hit a hard, high note and it reminded Mike of the times he’d made Micky come so hard that he would throw his head back in the same way and his cries would almost sound like song. Yep … there was no way he wasn’t gettin’ some of that later tonight. And what Mike wanted, Mike got. Especially when it came to Micky.

Before Mike knew it, Micky was singing “I’m a Believer” and the band took their bows and came offstage. They mopped their faces with towels and Micky grinned at Mike. “You ready, Mikey?”

Mike chuckled. “No, not even a little bit. I’m scared as hell, man.”

Micky stepped closer to him. “I’d give you a hug, but I’m soaked through and I’ll mess up your cool threads. You know you got this, right? It’s gonna be great. They —” he angled his chin out to the crowd, who were screaming for an encore “— are gonna lose their ever-lovin’ shit when they see you. Tear the roof off. I can’t wait!” He bit his lip and jumped up and down gleefully, flying high on the unique cocktail of adrenaline and dopamine that live performance sparked in the brain. Mike couldn’t wait to get a hit of his own.

And then it was time. Micky, Peter, and Davy went out first and then came Mike’s cue and he took a deep breath and stepped out on the stage. The decibel level of the audience must have doubled in the span of a second. It had been a long time since Mike had been on stage. Even longer since he’d received this particular kind of sonic-boom welcome. He held out his arms in a “Well, here I am” kind of gesture, then held his hands at his waist and just tried to soak it all in and look humble about it. Micky crept up to him and touched him quickly, pretending to check if Mike was actually real. Mike laughed and then he was pulled into a group hug, and he wondered if Micky and Peter could feel him tremoring just slightly. But the adrenaline was kicking in and he was hit by the wave of love and adoration as they stood in a row, holding hands thrust triumphantly in the air. And he remembered what it was once like. Sometimes it was better than sex. And he hadn’t appreciated it enough the first time. The high price of his privacy and sanity had been too much.

And then he had his guitar and fumbled with the microphone for a terrifying second, but the solid backing of the band comforted him, and he slipped into the song like a pair of warm slippers. It felt good to play. It felt good to sing.

And then it was “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and Micky was incandescent by this point. Mike could barely take his eyes off him as he sang so powerfully, nearly rocketing off the stage with his fervent energy. Sometimes Micky turned to him and they just grinned at each other in wonderment. It was magic. Pure magic that he never thought he would experience again in quite this form. He closed his eyes as he played the final chords and tried to soak it all in. He knew he’d made the right decision in abstaining from the tour, but for a moment, just a moment, he let himself feel a tug of regret and a pang of envy that the guys would get to do this tomorrow and the day after and the day after that and collect all that love and energy that had him on cloud nine.

But then, a stark reminder of what the reality often was. As they walked the length of the stage to acknowledge the audience, Davy, fed up with Mike lingering a little too long to shake hands of the ecstatic fans who were yelling his name, pointed at the opposite stage exit, yelling, “Let’s go!” And then his hand was on Mike’s back, in a seemingly friendly gesture that turned into a little shove, causing Mike to stumble for a beat. Mike glanced back at him for a moment, shoving his hands his pockets, thinking, Oh, that little shit. I won’t miss that at all.

One more turn down the stage as they Monkee-walked their way off the stage and into music history. Mike didn’t stumble or fall. Micky wouldn’t let him.