The Monkees' tragic real-life story

For a band that was initially conceived as America's answer to the Beatles, in sitcom form, the Monkees really didn't do too bad. John Lennon famously referred to them as the "Marx Brothers" in recognition of their comedy chops, and then he got to sit back and watch while the Marx Brothers of rock sold more albums than he did. And they didn't just sell more albums than he did; in 1967 they sold more albums than the Beatles and the Rolling Stones combined.

The Monkees not only had legions of fans, they had legions of squealing fans, just like the Beatles did. They also had two Emmys and sold 50 million records. Despite their questionable origins, there was no doubt that what they had was exactly what music fans of the 1960s were looking for.

Still, as it is with so many rock bands before them and so many rock bands since, the history of the Monkees is full of tragedy, poverty, alcoholism, and band members mostly not liking each other. It's nothing new, really, but for a band that was known for being funny and upbeat, it might surprise some readers to hear that the story of the Monkees was not as funny and upbeat as the characters that audiences adored during those two fleeting TV seasons way back in the 1960s.

The Pre-Fab Four

In 1965, a couple television producers had an idea. Or more accurately, they were trying to cannibalize someone else's idea. The success of the Beatles movies A Hard Day's Night and Help! inspired them to do something similar with an American sitcom, and that's how the Monkees were born. The members didn't come together the way bands traditionally do (in college, while drunk). Instead they auditioned and were selected, not especially for their musical talent but more for the things that work for TV: charisma, good looks, and acting skills. Still, at least two of the band's members — Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork — were accomplished musicians, and AllMusic Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones also had decent musical chops.

The show was conceived pretty much the same way as any sitcom. The actors would play characters, which meant no one ever intended for the Monkees to write their own stuff. The music was to be strictly prerecorded, with the band providing vocals only. After the band released their first single and played a few shows, though, it became clear that they were more than just actors, but the higher-ups remained in control anyway. So the Monkees were never able to shake their less-than-iconic origin story and thus became fairly universally known as the "Pre-Fab Four." (In case that means nothing to you, it was a play on "prefabricated" and the Beatles' nickname, "the Fab Four.")

Hey hey, those other guys write all the Monkees' music

In January 1967, Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith kind of lost it when they listened to their second album (More of the Monkees), and discovered that it was nothing but recycled music from the show. According to AllMusic, at that point the group finally decided to take a stand, demanding creative control over their own material.

Fortunately, the Monkees were enough of a sensation at this point that the producers couldn't just fire them and replace them with more agreeable performers. So they capitulated, fired the show's music coordinator, and the Monkees finally became the "real" band that critics had for so long accused them of not being.

The problem, though, was that creative freedom also meant freedom to disagree, and the band's autonomy also ended up showcasing their creative differences. Their third and fourth albums were both commercial and artistic successes, but the fifth (The Birds, the Bees & the Monkees) was starting to feel a little disjointed. And it was around that time, too, that the television series was canceled — the band wasn't happy with the sitcom format and thought it should be more of a variety show, and the network in turn decided maybe it would be better to just ax the whole thing. That was mostly okay, though, because the band was already working on their first movie. So it would all work out when the band became movie stars. Hopefully.

I know, let's make ourselves relevant by alienating all our fans

Success in music depends a lot on the preferences of your audience, but success in movies depends on other factors, like screenwriting, plot, and not being so weird that the kids who make up most of your fan base walk away from the theater wondering why they ever thought you were cool.

The Monkees 1968 feature film, Head, failed on pretty much all of those points. According to Night Flight, the screenplay was written by Jack Nicholson, but even that didn't do much to recommend it because in those days Jack Nicholson was a B-movie actor no one had ever heard of.

The band basically brainstormed the film while high at a party, and then Nicholson strung the ideas together into a screenplay while he was tripping on LSD. So the finished movie was a weird, plotless, disjointed commentary on everything from consumerism to media deception to police brutality to the exploitation of tragedy. It was also a self-deprecating jab at the Monkees themselves, and their neat and tidy manufactured image. Unfortunately, it was poorly advertised, audiences that did see it were confused, and it was a big ol' flop.

Head is now a cult favorite and is mostly well-liked by modern critics, but in those days it was pretty much both the beginning and the end of the Monkees' film career.

All good things must fizzle out like a warm soda

Head's abysmal box office performance disappointed everyone, but Peter Tork seemed especially deflated by the experience. In a 2011 interview with the Guardian, he said, "The movie dropped like a ball of dark star. The simile of a rock in the water is too mild for how badly that movie did." The weekend after Head's west coast premiere, the band got together to work on a television special called "33 ⅓ Revolutions Per Monkee," and after that Tork left the band. The three remaining members stuck it out for another couple albums but failed to generate any new hits, so at that point it really did seem like the band had stagnated.

According to AllMusic, toward the end of 1969, Nesmith called it quits, too. He'd already released a solo album and evidently saw more of a future alone. Jones and Dolenz recorded a final album, but the two-man version of the Monkees was clearly just a ghost of what the band had once been, and by 1970 it was pretty obvious where the Monkees were headed, which was nowhere. The band officially broke up after that last album, and that was that, the Monkees ended not with a bang but with a fizzle. For the time being, anyway.

Peter Tork hits rock bottom

Things did not go awesomely for the former Monkees after the dissolution of their group, especially for Peter Tork. Tork went on to form a band called Release, which ironically dissolved before it was able to … release … a single record. He also attempted to start a production company, but No Treble says that enterprise also went nowhere.

Tork continued to struggle throughout most of the 1970s. His money ran out, he was forced to rent his home to a friend in order to avoid foreclosure, and he ended up moving into David Crosby's basement (that's David Crosby of Crosby, Stills, and Nash) with his pregnant girlfriend. And then because things were not already dismal enough, he was arrested for possession of hashish and had to spend three months in an Oklahoma penitentiary.

After that, Tork sort of moved away from the music industry altogether and took a job teaching high school math and music and coaching baseball. But ultimately, he had difficulty with the structure of the school system and ended up getting fired. And he had a drinking problem that persisted into the early 1980s, so that almost certainly contributed to his lack of professional success.

Fortunately, Tork was able to turn things around when he quit drinking in the early '80s. He stopped taking drugs not long after that and was finally able to revitalize his music career. But it was a pretty long, hard road to get there.

Michael Nesmith hits rock bottom

Nothing is scarier than the IRS, except maybe sharks. And talking baby dolls. Most of us go out of our way to make sure we never, ever have to deal with the IRS apart from sending them that once-annual envelope postmarked April 15 because not doing that is either crazy or a total denial of reality. We're not really sure which of those things Michael Nesmith was, but in his 2017 memoir he wrote that the dissolution of the Monkees was followed almost immediately by the descent of the IRS. "[They] showed up with a huge bill for unpaid taxes and started seizing property," he wrote. So after his whirlwind rise to fame, he was pretty much left with nothing to show for it.

But that's not the only bad thing that happened. After the IRS took all his stuff, his marriage collapsed, and he dealt with the emotional blow in the most toxic way possible — by having an affair with the wife of a friend. In his memoir he lamented that he was basically at a career and personal rock bottom: "I had no opportunities as an actor, a player, a singer, a songwriter, or a producer."

So that's pretty sad and tragic, and you might be tempted to feel sorry for the guy until you remember that he was also the heir to the Liquid Paper fortune, and he literally invented MTV. So things worked out okay for him in the end.

Dolenz heads for rock bottom, but hits a ledge somewhere in the middle

Micky Dolenz also spent a lot of years doing not very much of anything. For a while, his resume's main selling point was not his success as an actor (which pre-dated the Monkees by nearly a decade) or his vocal talents, it was the fact that he was that kid from the Monkees. That notoriety earned him some small television roles and a few voice acting credits on super-cool, now-retro cartoons like Scooby Doo and Captain Caveman. At one time he was neck and neck with Henry Winkler for the role of the Fonz on the iconic 1970s sitcom Happy Days, but that opportunity also passed him by. "I remember when Henry first walked into the interview," he told Guitar World. "He saw me and said, 'Oh crap, Micky Dolenz is here. I'll never get it.' But I'm so glad he did because he was a much better Fonz than I would have been."

Unlike his fellow simians, though, Dolenz didn't flounder for long. By 1976 he was headed to the U.K. to star in a musical, and plans to stay for three months eventually morphed into a 12-year career as a director and producer. So of all the former Monkees, Dolenz's trajectory was not so tragic, at least not from about 1976 on.

And then they got back together ... again

By the power of MTV and with help from others in their orbit, three of the Monkees (Dolenz, Jones, and Tork) got together for a 20th anniversary reunion tour in 1986 that exploded into an unexpectedly huge hit, popular with critics and audiences. By the 1990s, the former Monkees were all off doing their own things, but the 30th anniversary was approaching and of course no one in Hollywood/the music industry can let an anniversary go by without making a huge fuss and re-releasing everything in the name of "please can you give us more of your money." Anyway, according to AllMusic, the band got together to talk about the impending anniversary, discovered they still had some musical chemistry, and went ahead and recorded another album. The 1996 album Justus became the first Monkees record written and produced entirely by Nesmith, Tork, Jones, and Dolenz.

That was awesome, until they decided to start touring again. That, apparently, is when all of their creative differences and personal senses of not liking one another started to resurface. Nesmith dropped out of the tour early on, and the remaining band members weren't exactly tight-lipped about how that made them feel. And because they hadn't yet learned anything, the remaining three toured again in 2001, but this time it was Tork who abandoned ship, although Jones and Dolenz said they'd fired him. Tork later complained that Jones and Dolenz drank so much on the tour that they became "mean and abusive." But it wasn't just Tork clashing with Jones and Dolenz — evidently Jones and Dolenz weren't getting along swimmingly, either. In a 2009 interview, Jones said he "couldn't imagine sharing a stage with Micky Dolenz" ever again. Ouch.

And Michael Nesmith came down with some bizarre mystery illness

Meanwhile, things weren't going awesomely for Michael Nesmith, either. In 2010, Nesmith's wife left him, and in the middle of all of that emotional turmoil, he started to go blind.

"I lost my sight to cataracts," he wrote in his 2017 memoir Infinite Tuesday: An Autobiographical Riff, "and at the same time lost my flexibility to an undiagnosed condition that crippled me, making it difficult and painful to walk. I was essentially helpless, a captive in my home."

Fortunately, Nesmith's blindness was reversible — cataract surgery restored his sight, but his strange, crippling illness was more difficult to overcome because no one knew what it was. The illness left him largely unable to use his left hand, and his right foot was useless enough that he had to drag it when he walked. And to make matters worse, the specialists he visited mostly just scratched their heads and offered him pain medication.

The good news is that the illness, whatever it was, eventually went away on its own. Nesmith, a Christian Scientist, believes prayer and meditation cured him. Which is cool, but then his memoir goes on to talk about his friend who threw away his chemotherapy drugs and spontaneously recovered from cancer, and that's the sort of batpoop crazy stuff that we just can't get behind. But for mystery illnesses with no known treatment, yay Christian Science.

The death of Davy Jones finally dissolves the band

And then, because toxic relationships have a habit of never ever ending no matter how badly you want them to, the Monkees got together again in 2011 and went on tour again, only without Michael Nesmith who by then had inherited the Liquid Paper fortune and apparently didn't really need to tour anymore.

The 45th anniversary tour actually went shockingly okay for rockers clearly past their prime, although after a summer of traveling around North America the band members, who were all well into their 60s at that point, decided that enough was enough and chose not to add more dates to the tour. It was just as well because in February of the following year Davy Jones died of a heart attack.

Jones' death shocked everyone who knew him. "He was a vegetarian, and there was not an ounce of fat on the guy," a business associate told CNN. "He lived on the beach in Florida and ran miles every morning. … He couldn't have been in better shape." So that, finally, was the end of the Monkees, at least as a foursome.

There was a bright side to the loss, though, or should we say a not-as-dark-as-everything-else side — Michael Nesmith joined the remaining two Monkees for a short set of reunion performances, each of which featured a tribute to their fallen bandmate.

And then Peter Tork followed Davy Jones

In February 2019, the Monkees received their most recent blow — Peter Tork had finally succumbed to the rare form of head and neck cancer he'd been battling for a decade.

Tork was first diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma two years before the band's 45-year reunion tour. In 2011 he told Rolling Stone that the surgery he'd undergone to remove the cancer had been a success. "My checkups have been clear ever since," he wrote. "I'm excruciatingly lucky. I count my blessings every day."

Sadly, cancer is one of those illnesses that doctors will always hesitate to say is "cured," and for good reason. It can come back even years after it's disappeared, and when it does, it's often resistant to the treatments that took it down the first time. After Tork's death, the two remaining Monkees posted heartfelt messages in their bandmate's honor, but Nesmith's was especially profound: "My heart is broken," he wrote. "Even though I am clinging to the idea that we all continue, the pain that attends these passings has no cure. It's going to be a rough day. I share with all Monkees fans this change, this 'loss,' even so. PT will be a part of me forever."