That The Monkees were a phenomenon is indisputable. Exactly what kind of phenomenon they were, however, is open to much debate.
This month, the Smithsonian Channel premieres “Making the Monkees,” a one-hour documentary on the band’s bizarre ride, as Mike Nesmith, Davy Jones, Peter Tork and Micky Dolenz are hired to play a fake and funny band on TV; earn legitimate No. 1 singles and albums with songs written and played by others; and reject success by bristling against their handlers, struggling like Pinocchio to become real.
The documentary shows some surprising sides of The Monkees, especially Nesmith, the most contrary of the group, who once, after receiving a $250,000 royalty check, showed his gratitude by slamming his fist through a wall. Bankrate spoke to Monkee Davy Jones about some of the insights revealed by the special, and about how The Monkees set the stage for the rest of his life.
Bankrate: When you were first hired for The Monkees, were you under the impression that you’d be singing your own songs?
Davy Jones: It’s like anything; like getting to know your wife. It’s OK when you’re engaged, looking like it’s all gonna be roses. But then you realize she’s untidy, or snores, or whatever. You don’t determine any of that stuff.
We were hired hands to start off with, and I had no idea that Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork would be so adamant about the music part. I’d been signed to Columbia Pictures since 1963, and they had sent me to Hollywood. I auditioned for “Hogan’s Heroes,” “The Wackiest Ship in the Army” and “F-Troop,” and they wanted to put me in as Robin in “Batman,” all the stuff that was going on in the early ’60s. So I never looked any farther than that.
I thought The Monkees was a musical band, TV-show spin-off of “A Hard Days Night.” It wasn’t until I realized that Nesmith was driving a friggin’ Eldorado and I had a Volkswagen that I realized he had all the B-sides with his material. He had quietly contributed more than we had in the studio, and was very adamant about not having to go in and be directed by (songwriters) Tommy (Boyce) and Bobby (Hart) or (producer) Donny Kirshner.
Mike was a young adult, he was 22 years old at the time, and he had his own thing. It was very difficult, because I was a company man at the time. I’d already been part of the company for a number of years. I didn’t really understand it, but being soldiers in arms … it was the first time I’d had brothers around me, and sort of school chums. I never really had to make decisions like that. My background was Broadway, and the theater had a discipline I was used to, being directed, produced and wardrobed and everything else.
I’m a working actor, a theatrical performer, and that’s all I cared about. I made $450 a week, then the second year we made $750, and we had songwriters, and people that did things that I didn’t do. I’ve learned to do those things, and I have a new single out right now, a new Christmas song, and I put the music down in my basement here and it’s all over the world on iTunes. So now I can do it, but I wasn’t going to hold up operations because of that.
Bankrate: Is it correct to say that you and Micky saw this for what it was, a show business entity, and that Peter and Mike were less willing to look at it as a comedy act, and wanted to be the next Beatles?
Davy Jones: I don’t know if they wanted to be the next Beatles, but they wanted to be taken seriously as musicians. Micky and I had kids that joined forces every weekend and went swimming in either their pool or my pool, and we played baseball with the Alice Cooper All-Stars every weekend.
We just don’t have that happening 24 hours a day. We’re not looking around thinking, where’s my next performance? I don’t want to be negative about Mike and Peter either. They are great musicians. Mike Nesmith was responsible for a lot of what’s happening in country music today. He was the first one to get into a lot of country rock. He wrote great songs, had hits on his own, wrote Linda Ronstadt’s first hit, “Different Drum.” He just didn’t want to do certain things. He didn’t want to have to look back at this time 40 years later and seeing himself being stupid.
Bankrate: When did you first realize that you were part of a genuine phenomenon?
Davy Jones: I was always a bit of a showoff; always in the school play. To me, everything I ever do is absolutely no different than the school play. I really look at it as saying I’m a lucky son of a guy (sic), and I never ever thought any more of anything I was doing.
I was big with the girls in school and I was on the soccer team, and I always felt different. I was on Broadway. I went to lunch with Judy Garland and went and met Buddy Rich at Birdland. I used to spend weekends on Fire Island (N.Y.) with Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy and Tammy Grimes, and Judy and Georgia Brown, and an endless amount of well-known characters.
So I was never really overwhelmed by the success. It’s all been the same to me. I always felt that this was my calling; this is what I do. So The Monkees was no bigger to me — honestly, I swear to you — than playing Tom Sawyer in the school play. And if I was to think any different … you know, show business is a minefield.
I’ve always had people listen to me or look at me. When I was a kid, they’d tap me on the head and say, ‘what a handsome boy.’ So I always felt pretty special. People have treated me that way all my life. I’m very blessed. So I never had any thoughts of, it’s gonna get bigger, it’s gonna get better. It’s as big as it ever was. I go through airports and there’s always someone who shouts, “Hey hey, we’re the Monkees!” And that was 40 years ago. It’s like being in the Mafia. Once you’re in, you’re in.
Bankrate: Looking back, the documentary shows that you had some good times, but also a whole lot of bad times. Are you grateful you were in The Monkees and had this experience?
Davy Jones: I am very grateful, and I’m even more grateful when people tell me they’ve seen me on the stage in “Oliver” back in the ’60s, or playing Fagin in the ’80s and ’90s. I’m very proud of all the things I’ve done in The Monkees, and if I wanna say it ruined my acting career that would be true, but then it’s up to me to carry on and change people’s opinions.
I just got two sheets for me to do some voiceovers in a movie, some stuff for a cartoon or a TV animation, so my career has always been moving. I’ve always been on the go. Not always in the magazines and all that kind of stuff, but I’ve been a working actor all my life. It doesn’t matter if the load is heavier or lighter, I’m still paying the rent. I’m still doing the things I do.
I’ve got 11 horses sitting in the back here (at my home in Pennsylvania), I’ve got homes in Florida, I’ve got a home in Santa Barbara (Calif.). I quietly do what I do, and I’ve never been any different about that. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m approachable. I’m still the same guy I was. Remember me the way you hoped I’d be, and that’s who’s talking to you right now.
Bankrate: With all that happened, did you make any money from the original Monkees success?
Davy Jones: As you see on the special, Donny Kirshner did hand us all a check for $240,000, our first royalty check, and the money came in after that.
The problem was, other people came aboard at the time. I had a guy come around who stole money from me and left me penniless in the late ’60s, early ’70s, and I still had to pay the tax on the money. It took years to recover from that. A $50,000 gig on the Tom Jones show helped, and the Tennessee Ernie Ford Thanksgiving Day special helped, but it wasn’t gonna recover me from the hundreds of thousands of dollars that just walked away from me. The lawyer’s not gonna work for you on contingency if you say, “he stole it and I don’t have it.”
Bankrate: How was the money stolen from you?
Davy Jones: It was just taken out of my account: power of attorney, bank accounts. It happens to everybody. Everybody’s gone through that. My father said, “you learn by your mistakes, son.”
No, you don’t have to learn from your mistakes. You just have to either carry a big stick, or have people around you. You need a good, legitimate firm, somebody that’s not unknown around the world — although that doesn’t always work for you either, after what we see in the stock market, and all that’s going on lately.
But you don’t need someone who believes in you and your talent and wants to go with you all the way and be your buddy. You need a legitimate, bonded lawyer or company. We’ve all seen it happen with different court cases where the lawyers made a difference. They come up with one little word or phrase that they pinpoint as being negative, and all of a sudden we have a mistrial.
I’ve had a few mistrials in my life. But I have a beautiful home in Santa Barbara at the polo fields. I have a beautiful house in Pennsylvania. I was divorced a number of years ago, and I had a beautiful mansion estate in England that I handed over to my wife.
So all those years went by, and The Monkees opened the door for me to be able to do a commercial in Macon, Ga., that’s showing even now, and voice-overs; being the voice in a doll for Mattel. This came after all the Monkee stuff.
The Monkees gave me $450 a week the first year and $750 a week the second year. We probably make about $20,000 a year in royalties on the Monkees, which, when you think that they sold 70 million records, is not a lot by today’s standards, but it’s a lot more than a lot of people take home for a year’s work.
So I can’t sustain these homes that I have — and my race horses, my car, my horse trailer, all those things — by sitting around and thinking, oh, I’ve been hard done by. I work because I want to, and because I want to sustain the lifestyle I have.
I was in Vegas on the 27th of December, I’ve done symphonies last year; this year I’ll be doing them as well. There’s so many different avenues for me to go down, and it’s only because I’m a professional. I’ve been in this all my life, since I was 11 years old. I was 63 on Dec. 30. I need underwear and socks. That’s all I care about.