The Story Behind “Me & Magdalena” by The Monkees and Why Ben Gibbard Called Writing It “the Greatest Honor of My Career”

John Hughes and Mark Pinkus of Rhino Records wanted to celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Monkees with more than another repackaging of their greatest hits. The plan evolved into a full-blown album produced by Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne fame. Pairing a ’60s sound with contemporary songwriters and revamping some tracks from their own past led to the critically acclaimed 2016 album Good Times. The title track was a demo recording by Harry Nilsson from 1968 with a modern-day recorded vocal from Micky Dolenz. Davy Jones, who died in 2012, was represented on the song “Love to Love,” a track recorded in 1969 with new background vocals added by Dolenz and the late Peter Tork in 2016.

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Songwriters were always a key ingredient to the success of The Monkees. Previously unreleased Boyce & Hart, Neil Diamond, and Carole King & Gerry Goffin songs were all included, as well as new songs written specifically for the project by Rivers Cuomo, Andy Partridge, Noel Gallagher, and Paul Weller. A particularly poignant song was sung by Dolenz and the late Michael Nesmith and written by Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard. Let’s take a look at the story behind “Me & Magdalena” by The Monkees.

Me and Magdalena
We’re driving south through Monterey
As the sun is slowly sinking
Into a distant ocean wave

Zero Hyperbole

The Monkees was a television show about a band. Records were released, and the fictitious band became wildly successful, leading to tours and legions of fans on both sides of the Atlantic. The group disbanded in 1970, but the television show, canceled after two seasons, continues in reruns. The band reunited in the ’80s after MTV featured the show. A few new songs were recorded to tack onto a greatest hits album, and the wave of nostalgia swept the quartet up with everything else from the summer of love. Nesmith’s involvement was minimal, but he did appear a few times with the other three. The ’90s brought a television special and an album of all-new material called Justus. By the time the 50th anniversary came around, Monkees fans were ready for something new. Good Times was just the right project.

In 2016, songwriter Ben Gibbard told NPR about working with The Monkees, “Before The Beatles, before The Velvet Underground and before punk and/or indie rock, The Monkees were the first band I truly loved. Their albums were always on in our home when I was a kid, especially Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., and I learned to sing alongside them. I spent countless hours in front of the TV in the ’80s watching Monkees reruns, wishing I could climb through the screen and be in the show with them. They made being in a band seem so fun—and goddammit, it should be! For these reasons and a million others, I can say with absolutely zero hyperbole that contributing ‘Me & Magdalena’ to this album has been the greatest honor of my career.”

And I don’t know if I’ve ever loved any other
Half as much as I do in this light, she’s under

A Surviving Partner

Of course, lyrics are subjective and can mean different things to different listeners. Upon first hearing “Me & Magdalena,” I perceived it to be about a recently deceased woman and the song is being sung from the perspective of the surviving partner. This may not be what Gibbard intended, but it works well in that context. Drifting into the arms of the undiscovered is a beautiful sentiment, as is Does he hold you with the hands you remember as a child?

Tell me Magdalena
What do you see in the depths of your night?
Do you see a long lost father?
Does he hold you with the hands you remember as a child?

The Charts

Good Times peaked at No. 14 on the Billboard 200 and reached No. 29 in the UK. This was their best showing since the ’60s. After Tork died in 2019, Dolenz and Nesmith toured as a duo. In 2020, “Me & Magdalena” was included on The Monkees Live: The Mike and Micky Show.

But know everything lost will be recovered
When you drift into the arms of the undiscovered
And I don’t know if I’ve ever loved any other
Half as much as I do in this light, she’s under

Another Level of Perspective

On December 10, 2021, Nesmith died from heart failure. Gibbard paid tribute on Instagram by playing some of the singer’s songs. He set it up with, “I just wanted to play a couple of his songs for you guys because I feel the best way to remember musicians is to play their music.” Gibbard then played “Different Drum.” Nesmith wrote the song, and it was first recorded by The Greenbriar Boys in 1966. It became a hit for The Stone Poneys featuring Linda Ronstadt in 1967. “The Crippled Lion” and “Joanne,” followed by “Me & Magdalena” and “You Just May Be the One,” rounded out the tribute.

But know everything lost will be recovered
When you drift into the arms of the undiscovered
And I don’t know if I’ve ever loved any other
Half as much as I do in this light, she’s under

“It’s Just the Right Way to Do It”

Gibbard reflected on his time with Nesmith in between songs, “He was not in good health this last couple of years. The last time I saw him was in June—his spirit was there, he was still very funny and very personable as always, but he didn’t seem like he was doing too great physically. So, the news today is sad but not entirely surprising. I just felt instead of posting with crying emojis or heartbreak emojis, I’d just play a couple of his tunes for you guys. It’s just the right way to do it, I think.”

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Photo by Noel Vasquez/Getty Images

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