“I live in a world of music, in a house of music; a planet, a star of music,” Nesmith told Australian Musician in 2019. “It goes on in my head all the time. There’s something about music in my life that is like food to a starving man. (I know what he means – ME.)
Mrs. Music Enthusiast – “Oh look, a monkey died.”
ME (from another room) – “What monkey? Did they send another one up in space or something?”
Mrs. ME – “No. A Monkee, you know, the Monkees. Michael Nesmith.”
ME: (somewhat shocked.) – “Wow! Didn’t they just play somewhere? How old was he?”
The answers – Nesmith and Dolenz played their last show at the Greek Theater in LA on November 14th. And he was 78. Confession here – the Music Enthusiast was a Monkees fan. Now in all the time I’ve been doing this blog – about six years now, thank you – I haven’t really gotten around to writing about the PreFab Four. (The press started calling them that when they realized they weren’t playing their own instruments.)
Why you ask? Well, several reasons I guess. The main one I suppose is that while I enjoyed their music, I had the same kind of ambivalence about them that Nesmith himself did. He questioned whether they were a band or a TV show.
He was a serious musician who wound up in a goofy, cartoon-like TV show for teenyboppers. A struggling musician, he made somewhat of a devil’s bargain just to have some kind of job in music. What it gained him in fame and non-Liquid Paper (more on that later) fortune, it cost him in credibility.
Wikipedia: “Robert Michael Nesmith was born in Houston, Texas, in 1942. He was an only child; his parents Warren and Bette Nesmith divorced when he was four. His mother married Robert Graham in 1962, and they remained married until 1975. Nesmith and his mother moved to Dallas to be closer to her family. She took temporary jobs ranging from clerical work to graphic design, eventually attaining the position of executive secretary at Texas Bank and Trust.
When Nesmith was 13, his mother invented the typewriter correction fluid known commercially as Liquid Paper. Over the next 25 years, she built the Liquid Paper Corporation into a multimillion-dollar international company, which she sold to Gillette in 1979 for $48 million. She died a few months later at age 56.
Nesmith participated in choral and drama activities at Thomas Jefferson High School in Dallas, but he enlisted in the Air Force in 1960 without graduating. Honorably discharged in 1962, he enrolled in San Antonio College, where he met John Kuehne and began a musical collaboration.
Nesmith began to write more songs and poetry, then he moved to Los Angeles and began singing in folk clubs around the city. He served as the “Hootmaster” for the Monday night hootenanny at The Troubadour, a West Hollywood nightclub that featured new artists. In late 1965, a friend from the Los Angeles music scene pointed him to a magazine ad seeking “four insane boys” to play in a Beatles-inspired band on a new TV show.”
Nesmith showed up at the audition wearing a wool hat to keep his hair out of his eyes. According to ABC News, “A prankster by nature, he’d arrived at the audition carrying a guitar and bag of dirty laundry he said he planned to wash immediately afterward. With a harmonica around his neck, he stormed into a casting office, banging the door loudly. After pausing to gaze at a painting as if it were a mirror, he sat down and immediately put his feet up on a desk.” He got the job.
Personally, I always thought Nesmith was the unlikeliest of guys to be a rock star. He wasn’t particularly good-looking, not a bad singer or guitarist but not a towering influence as either of those. And most of all, he just didn’t look like a rock star in any way, shape, or form. He always seemed like he should be a professor or something.
The irony is that he was inarguably the most talented in a variety of ways. As a songwriter, he had early success with a couple of his songs, but not as performed by the Monkees. The producers of the show rejected “Different Drum” as not sounding like a Monkees record. Consequently, it made its way into the hands of a band called The Stone Ponys whose then-unknown singer Linda Rondstadt, made it into a big hit.
Here’s Nesmith’s much more countrified version:
And, from the other side of the known universe, here are the great Butterfield Blues Band doing Nesmith’s “Mary Mary.”
Were the Monkees popular? Are you kidding? Does the Pope wear a funny hat? “1967 was the year the Monkees began to take more creative control over their own music. It was also the year the Monkees outsold the Beatles and the Rolling Stones combined. This is especially impressive given that 1967 was the year of Sgt. Pepper’s and the Rolling Stones’ Between the Buttons and His Satanic Majesty’s Request.”
And interestingly, while you might assume the Beatles thought the Monkees were – as Nesmith himself said to Lennon – a “cheap imitation of the Beatles” the Fab Four didn’t necessarily agree (although not always in musical terms.)
“John replied, ‘I think you’re the greatest comic talents since the Marx Brothers. I’ve never missed one of your programs.’ George Harrison was a Monkees fan as well. “It’s obvious what’s happening, there’s talent there…when they get it all sorted out, they might turn out to be the best.”
Peter Tork wound up playing banjo on Harrison’s film score for the movie Wonderwall. (Inspiration for the Oasis tune.) The bands hung out together either in London or LA when the chance arose.
As to tunes, I think my favorite song of the Monkees that Nesmith wrote and sang was the terrific “Tapioca Tundra.” The tune appears on the 1968 album, The Birds, The Bees and the Monkees. By then, the band had wrested control of the band’s output from the oily Don Kirschner who famously went on to create a cartoon band called The Archies.
Kirschner did this largely because he could control the anonymous band members. No word on whether the Beatles cartoon characters hung out with the Archies cartoon characters. (The music scene in the Sixties wasn’t all Hendrix and Cream. It had its incredibly dopey side as well.)
Nesmith – who Dolenz says was always their leader – led the charge to let the Monkees not only sing but also play their own instruments. They achieved that in May of 1967 with the album Headquarters. “You Just May Be the One” is a nice piece of Sixties pop with the entire band and Nesmith on electric 12-string.
It should be here noted that Nesmith was a pioneer in a couple of other ways. He left the Monkees in early 1970 and formed an early country-rock band called The First National Band. It always frustrated him that that genre took off with The Eagles and Poco and all those others but not for his band. Part of the reason for that was his lack of credibility – even with other bands – when he came on stage. People would yell out for “I’m a Believer” or “Last Train to Clarksville.”
Here’s a really nice Nesmith tune called “Joanne.” It became a minor hit and the band lasted a couple of years.
And lastly, Nesmith’s attention had turned to the music video genre. He by no means invented them – arguably the Beatles did with “Strawberry Fields Forever” – but he had created a TV series in 1979 called PopClips which aired on Nickelodeon. This evolved into MTV which you may have heard of.
Some tout this song “Rio,” as the first music video. Again, I think Nesmith would agree the Beatles beat him to it. But this is one of the tunes that led directly to the birth of MTV, for good or ill.
Weirdly, Nesmith eventually wound up kinda broke until he inherited his mother’s fortune. Why she couldn’t slip him a few bucks prior to that is anybody’s guess.
I’ll leave the final word on Nesmith to the only remaining Monkee.
“I’m heartbroken. I’ve lost a dear friend and partner,” Micky Dolenz wrote on Instagram. “I’m so grateful that we could spend the last couple of months together doing what we loved best — singing, laughing, and doing shtick. I’ll miss it all so much. Especially the shtick. Rest in peace, Nez. … All my love, Micky.”
Sources: Wikipedia, Songfacts, Showbiz Cheatsheet, Rolling Stone.