Phoenix may seem like just another major city stop on the Monkees’ 50th anniversary tour, but the Valley — and Arizona at large — boasts many key and quirky connections to the Monkees, starting right at their origin. To celebrate the Monkees’ 50th anniversary, and their stop in Mesa on Thursday, the following is a list of those Arizona connections — as best as I, a mere super-fan, can compile them.
The Last Train to . . . Clarkdale?!
“The Last Train to Clarksville” was the Monkees’ first single, topping the charts before their TV show even aired. The song, written by ‘60s pop music masters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, boasts a rock twang laced with lyrics of longing. Some have presumed that the tune is about a solider off to war, and based on the the title, its tale is often associated with Clarksville, Tennessee. According to Hart, such speculation is a few thousand miles off.
“We didn’t know at the time that there is an Air Force base near the town Clarksville, Tennessee,” Hart has explained. “We were just looking for a name that sounded good. There’s a little town in northern Arizona I used to go through in the summers on the way to Oak Creek Canyon called Clarkdale.” They changed Clarkdale to Clarksville for the melody’s sake, but its origin is undeniable. Just imagine, my favorite band from childhood was a hit thanks to a favorite memory from Bobby Hart’s childhood — all right here in Arizona!
The Monkees Play the Coliseum
On Jan. 21, 1967, just a few months after their TV show became a hit with kids across America, the Monkees performed at the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum. This was no ordinary stop on their tour, though, as footage from the concert was used in the television episode “The Monkees On Tour,” the last of their first season, featuring a day in their lives on the road. If you watch it, note the scenes filmed at Mountain Shadows Resort, and the inclusion of classic Valley radio station KRUX! The episode truly plays as a mini-documentary of a band in its prime — in retro Phoenix!
Davy Jones, Humanitarian
One of my favorite stories about the Monkees is born of tragedy, but proves that the love between a band and its fans can be a two-way street. One day, at the height of the Monkees’ popularity, 11-year-old Rhonda Cook was crossing the intersection at Sweetwater Avenue and Cave Creek Road in north Phoenix when a truck struck her. She lost her left leg from the accident, and when local DJ Pat McMahon heard that Cook was carrying a new Monkees album with her at the time, he reached out to the record label. Davy Jones received the message, and a picture from The Arizona Republic shows him at Rhonda’s bedside shortly after he flew to the Valley to wish her well. At a loss for something to autograph, Davy pulled out his driver’s license, signed the back of it, and kissed her on the lips, something every girl in 1968 could only imagine . . . and it happened right here in Phoenix.
Harry Nilsson, Party Animal
Harry Nilsson was an amazing singer/songwriter in the 1970s, and his career began as a contributor to the Monkees’ catalog, including the tune “Cuddly Toy.” After the Monkees’ success waned, he and Micky remained friends and became infamous party-goers in Hollywood. In many interviews, Micky explained that Harry would come over for lunch, or call him at some odd hour of the night, and, in Micky’s own words, “three days later I’d wake up and we would be in some massage parlor in Phoenix.” Now, I haven’t been to every massage parlor in Phoenix with pictures of Micky and Harry to validate this story, but that may be how I celebrate Monkees’ 51st anniversary.
Peter Tork, Traffic Lamp
In 1986, the Monkees reunited for their twentieth anniversary and released a new album called Pool It! It isn’t their best work, but they were clearly having fun in the spotlight again, occasionally poking fun at the glam rock that succeeded the Sixties’ bubble-gum pop. Their video for Pool It! single “Every Step of the Way” ends with text explaining “where are they now,” as many movies did that decade. Here’s Peter’s fate: “In April 1991, Peter was electrocuted while on stage at Carnegie Hall. He now works as a traffic lamp in Phoenix.”
Papa Nez flies solo at the MIM
Michael Nesmith (sometimes called Papa Nez by fans) was notoriously absent during many of the Monkees’ reunions, but when Davy passed away in 2012, he joined Micky and Peter for a tour and has since been on stage much more often. In 2013, he launched a rare solo tour called “The Movies of the Mind,” during which he’d precede his songs with original narrative to set their context.
Among the songs Nez sung was “Different Drum,” which he wrote, though it was popularized by Linda Ronstadt, a Tucson native (thus, a connection to Arizona in itself).
The performance was a magical blend of music and prose — and the tour started at the Musical Instrument Museum in Scottsdale on Oct. 27, 2013. I remember the date well, because it’s the day I met Mike, who then finalized my dream of meeting each of the Monkees at some point in my life. I’d met Micky, Peter, and Davy individually over the years, and Mike, storyteller at heart, helped my story conclude happily ever after.
Thankfully, thanks to the rich Monkees history all around me, and the legacy of their entertainment, their story will never really be over. I am, and always will be, a believer!