To address the main question first: Yes, they really can.

That’s the definitive answer to America’s burning cultural debate of the 1960’s about whether or not the Monkees could actually play their musical instruments.  Perhaps you remember the general contours of the arguments pro and con: on the one hand, that the Monkees were four studio-molded young actors who merely impersonated a pop group on TV; on the other, that the scripted narrative soon became a reality, and that the lads themselves were in fact talented all-around performers who were ultimately responsible for some of the decade’s great pop-rock standards, quite often including the word Believer in the title.

Without delving too far into the briar patch of psychiatry, let alone the Frankenstein myth, it may even be that the original early twentysomething bandmates—Micky Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork, and the winsome Englishman Davy Jones—started off as mere automata, but then, like the rogue cowboys in the Westworld franchise, went on to become animate and self-aware.  Either way, things took a decidedly strange turn for the Monkees in 1968 when, at the height of their Saturday matinee-cartoon success, they parted company with their management and joined forces with Jack Nicholson to produce a film called Head.  A psychedelic satire of surveillance, state control, consumerism, and corrupt politicians (they never seem to go out of fashion), it begins with Micky Dolenz leaping off a bridge in an apparent suicide dive—the symbolic end of the band’s innocence, perhaps.

So what, exactly, are we to make of the group’s reincarnation nearly 50 years later as a wildly popular live act, and incidentally with a new album, glorying in the superbly unfashionable title Good Times, riding high on the charts?  Are they nowadays a real band playing a manufactured band playing a real band?  Or what?

I asked the seemingly ageless Micky Dolenz (he’s 71) about this following a recent sold-out Monkees concert in Seattle.  “Frankly, I have no idea,” he said disarmingly, flashing me a trademark corncob Monkees grin.  “I’m off in the tall grass like everyone else.”

In search of clues, I looked around at my fellow audience members—for the most part middle-aged and female, one or two of them sporting T-shirts customized with slogans indicating how positively they would react to any romantic overtures Micky or one of the boys might make to them, but also containing a fair number of the scowling, self-lacerated adolescents who contribute so much to the pageantry of daily life here in the Emerald City.  A lady in her early 50’s who gave her name as Jane was eloquent to the point of ecstasy.  Jane told me that she was a bit of a jazz buff like myself, and insisted that the band we were listening to that night had “the same sort of looseness as Miles Davis—and there’s that wonderful scat routine Micky does in one song, and more than that there’s a simplicity and a beauty and a vulnerability about everything they do.  That’s the difference between them and all those manufactured pop groups you see bouncing around on TV; they sometimes goof around a bit, but always with artistic control, they’re absolute masters of their craft, and they’re real.”  (Yes, it’s the Monkees we’re talking about here.)  Jane left me with the thought that Micky, Mike, and Peter (Davy Jones, the band’s diminutive lead singer, and incidentally from my hometown in England, died in 2012) were actually “a very poignant reminder that the corporate machine will always try and grind you down, but you’ve got to hold on to your soul and be true to yourself, which is what this country was always meant to be about in the first place.”

Readers may feel that I sought out the more infatuated end of the Monkees audience for such a rich example.  But no.  There were literally dozens of other people milling around the theater’s lobby during the intermission similarly extolling the band’s timeless virtues of personal exuberance, artistic integrity, and consummate professionalism.  “You don’t sell 70 million records without knowing how to knock out a great tune,” one middle-aged fan in a suit and tie reminded me.  A young woman who looked about 16 but who was perhaps 20 or 21, dressed in a short tartan kilt, extensively ripped fishnet stockings, and combat boots, her face deathly pale but for two drowsy, coal-black eyes, assured me that she, too, loved the Monkees and all they represent.  “They’re all about fighting the big record companies for creative control, and not letting anyone f— with your identity,” she announced.

Really?  I could see now that the Monkees must have had depths I had somehow missed back when I was furtively listening to “Last Train to Clarksville” on my transistor radio in the back row of my school assembly hall in 1960’s England.  Apparently the modern consensus is that the band members were pretty well permanently locked in a struggle for their very creative souls with the suits and breadheads who ran, or run, the music business, and that this message resonates loudly with the sort of Bernie Sanders crowd who seem to dominate our civic and cultural life here in the Pacific Northwest.

Could it be, in fact, that what the average Monkees concert really offers isn’t so much the chance to enjoy a dozen or so neatly crafted pop songs, but a sort of musically assisted therapy session for the audience?  That the most supposedly synthetic of pop groups is actually the most authentic?  Just look at Micky Dolenz and company: no airs and graces, just some weathered but happy-looking guys in their 70’s entertaining the paying audience as well as themselves, appealing on both the here-and-now and what could be called the sociological levels, and with a clutch of really good tunes at the heart of it.  And their new album?  I went straight back home after the show and bought it online, and as the title suggests, it’s very good indeed.

Actually, what’s most surprising about the present-day Monkees is that they’re so personally and musically intelligent, and at the same time fully in tune with the subliterate tastes of young audiences.  One minute they’re performing the sublime 2016 ballad “Me and Magdalena,” a song that sounds something like one of those achingly hip bands such as Radiohead or Coldplay, mixed with a tremulous dash of Roy Orbison, and the next they’re beating the life out of 50-year-old chestnuts like “Pleasant Valley Sunday” that still sound relevant and authentically American in their bright, sharp-edged colors and rhythms, and their lyrics relating the joys of cars, girls, and barbecues.  This is music literally for the ages.  It was a wet Sunday night when I saw the Monkees, and people young and old were dancing in the aisles.  “We spend so much time with our petty differences,” Micky Dolenz later told me, though I’m not sure if he was referring just to the band or to the human condition.  “This is a world [i.e., the concert audience] that is united.”  He raised his eyebrows at the possibilities.  Imagine, he seemed to be saying, what the world would be like if we all just got along.

“What were the Sixties like?” I asked him.

Dolenz gave me the usual disclaimer about his having been there and thus not remembering it, but then added: “Once, when the Monkees were at the top, I went to see the Beatles recording Sergeant Pepper in London.  I mean, the Beatles.  Before I got in the car to go over there I spent an hour dressing up in my best paisley flares and beads, with rings, bangles, and about half a dozen medallions.  If I’d drowned somehow they would have had to send in a salvage crew for me.  This is 1967, and these are John, Paul, George, and Ringo, so I’m expecting peace, love, and flowers at the studio.  Instead, it’s a factory: four guys sitting around on folding chairs, drinking tea.  A minute or two later, [their producer] George Martin comes downstairs from his office in a suit and tie, says crisply, ‘Right, lads, break’s over,’ and everyone promptly goes back to work.  Very British.  Very professional.  That’s the side of the Sixties people don’t talk about.”

I found myself warming to this gentle, self-deprecating, and drily funny man who was a child TV star (Circus Boy) at the age of 11, made and lost a fortune while in his 20’s, and now happily travels around with his colleagues in a bus to perform in American theaters.  “It’s so funny how the Sixties, which was such a really short, tiny time, is so huge in the pattern of your life.  Well, my life,” Dolenz chuckled.  “And when you ask yourself why, it seems to be partly a nostalgic thing and partly a real thing.  Everyone sort of dressed up and did their thing, and of course there was all this great music and art and fashion . . . and then there was the side of it that was more like the Beatles sitting around on their office chairs drinking tea—much more normal and organized than people imagine.”

Leaving the Monkees and their ecstatic fans, I found myself just a few days later sitting in another darkened auditorium for a concert by 74-year-old Brian Wilson and his band.  The Beach Boys’ éminence gris was in town to perform the group’s seminal 1966 album Pet Sounds, as well as a slew of tunes out of the classic American songbook like “California Girls,” “I Get Around,” and the aptly named “Fun, Fun, Fun.”

Here, some discrepancy exists between the sunny promise of much of Brian Wilson’s music and the internecine squabbling (actually, the family feud) that lies at the heart of the Beach Boys’ checkered history.  When people talk about dysfunctional pop-group partnerships, they tend to think in terms of Lennon and McCartney or Jagger and Richards.  But has any creative duo ever adopted their respective Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Moriarty roles quite so effectively as those perpetually battling cousins Brian Wilson and Mike Love?  Life is short, so we can pass lightly over the various dissolutions, resignations, lawsuits, and other “artistic differences” that distinguished the Beach Boys’ life from around 1965 to 2012, at which point the band’s surviving members reunited for a 50th-anniversary tour.  At the end of that supposed celebration of “Good vibes and [the] endless summer of the Beach Boys legacy” (as the official program put it), Love went into print in the Los Angeles Times explaining that he would keep touring under the Beach Boys name (which he apparently owns) without “the other guys” in attendance.  “I did not, however, fire Brian Wilson from the band,” he insisted.

Four days later, Wilson responded with his own Times op-ed.  “It sort of feels like I’m being fired,” he wrote.

So when Wilson walked on stage in Seattle, clearly infirm and holding the arm of a band member for support, I didn’t quite know what to expect.  There was a rousing, Soviet-style standing ovation when he first appeared, but then everyone sat down again, and coughed a bit, and stirred in their seats, while Wilson himself gazed around from behind his piano, seemingly oblivious to his surroundings.  We waited for him to do or say something.  “All happy?” he finally asked.  We shouted assent.  He wasn’t just going to take our word for it, though.  We were invited to sing along to the first song, which Wilson told us was a big favorite of his, called “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”

Brian Wilson, you should know, is a musical genius, and I use the word advisedly.  He’s produced some of the most guilelessly lovely and achingly melodramatic pop melodies of the last half-century.  He’s also one of those individuals who seemingly never quite recovered from the excesses of the 1960’s.  Visibly frail, half deaf, and apparently suffering from “schizoaffective disorder”—which means that while the rest of us are enjoying those wonderfully breezy Beach Boys tunes, he may be hearing negative voices and feeling deep melancholia on stage—he would spend most of the next two hours sitting frozen at his keyboard, obviously singing and speaking from an autocue, except on the occasions when he got up to wander abstractedly into the wings and back again in the middle of a song.  It was a haunting experience: There was Wilson, and next to him was his fellow founding Beach Boy Al Jardine, 74, agelessly energetic in his Saturday Night Fever white suit, and as the eye moved from one to the other and back again you couldn’t help but muse on questions of decay and loss, and the curious way in which certain pop stars are apparently able still to snap into their routines again when called upon, like an old boxer hearing the bell.  The show itself was sublime.  By the time the “Good Vibrations” encore came around, we were all back dancing in the aisles, while Wilson himself sat watching us, his face expressionless.  “I’ve had a great time,” he said robotically, before finally leaving.

As I looked around at the all-ages audience roaring its appreciation, I thought again about the likes of the Monkees and the Beach Boys, and why exactly it is that their music should endure for more than 50 years when that of more contemporary bands seems, to my ears at least, to blend into one homogenous din, relieved only by lyrics that run from the familiar lamentations of unrequited love to gloomy social realism.  Could it be because we need the likes of Brian Wilson, if only as a living reminder that one of rock music’s chief initial functions was to act as an emotional pick-me-up for a weary public?  What a sad lot most of today’s pop stars are by comparison.  Dressed as if they work in the storeroom at Safeway, they offer us only a relentless diet of screwed-up nihilism and phony salves.  Life is literally too short.  At the risk of sounding like an old fogey (a role I find I’m increasingly prepared to play these days), I’d say that the great gift of groups like the Beach Boys and the Monkees is to harmonize humor and outright joy with a certain worldly wisdom, and to make us tap our feet as they do so.  These are virtues that never seem to go out of fashion.  Seattle, we’re often told, is a hip, edgy place where groups of angry young men dressed in torn jeans and flannel shirts regularly spew their invective about the state of the world, and from whom in civilian life you’re about as likely to wrestle an intelligible monosyllable about anything but sex and drugs as you are from a semi-trained gibbon.  And yet here we all were on successive wet Sunday nights, amid crowds cheering both a particular song and our own capacity to cheer, laughing and crying simultaneously at those imperishable tunes that in some cases hark back to the days of the Johnson administration.

To hear a “Daydream Believer” or a “God Only Knows” again is to warp back, however fleetingly, through the decades.  As long as we’re experiencing such moments in the flesh, we’re not old.  In lesser hands these particular tunes might have seemed schmaltzy.  But in the context of the rackety lives both the Monkees and Brian Wilson have lived—from the top to the bottom, and latterly back again—they struck me as the deeply moving testament of men whose music our great-grandchildren will still be listening to.