An ME Tribute to Mike “Wool Hat” Nesmith

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.

 

 

18 thoughts on “An ME Tribute to Mike “Wool Hat” Nesmith

  1. I was a fan back in the day. I took my younger sister to their concert in Dallas, I believe it was 1967. They were quite good, and it was like a Beatles show, young girls screaming the entire time. I have four of their albums in my collection, so today I will give a few spins of my favorites.

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    1. And he was a Texan to boot. I had no idea he was a veteran till I did some research. Alas, in the Sixties that was not necessarily something a band or its publicists would play up.

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      1. I saw the three of them, minus Mike, in Blue Ash Ohio at an oldies outside concert. I believe it was 1993 or 94. They were pretty good, but would have been better with him. Peter Noon of the Hermits also put on a good show. Down to one Monkee, two Beatles, and missing others. The “back in the day” musicians are making a quick exit.

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        1. Yeah. 78 is a pretty ripe age for a rocker. It’s a tough, tough business with many pitfalls. But God love him, Jerry Lee Lewis is still with us at the ripe old age of 86.

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  2. As I commented a little while ago on Max’s (PowerPop) post, I quickly changed my opinion about The Monkees after I started listening to their songs. Whether or not you find the thought of a “fake band created for some TV show” cringeworthy, they had some of the most memorable ’60s songs – and they were just done incredibly well! Plus, The Monkees fairly quickly became a “real band”. So, yes, call me a fan as well!

    That being said, while I dig their songs, I never took the time to explore the band’s history in greater detail. As such, frankly, I had no idea about Nesmith’s career outside The Monkees – and what looks like a pretty impressive solo catalog.

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    1. I confess I didn’t pay much attention to any of them post-Monkees. But I was well aware of Nesmith’s reputation and always liked “Joanne.” And I love much of their stuff for sure.

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    1. Embarrassing admission. I moved from Philly to New York, started listening to blues and harder rock, decided I had outgrown the Monkees and put all those albums in the trash room in the high-rise we were living in. Not that they were heirlooms or anything but just a dumb, immature move. Never stopped digging ’em though.

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  3. I bet I went through 1000’s of scratched up Monkees albums before I found any decent ones. It makes sense. Teen girls didn’t care for their “vinyls”.

    Nice tribute. I found a few things about Mike today. Partly from you, so thanks for that.

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    1. Frankly I could have done a better job with my vinyl. My kids grabbed some of mine and they were in rough shape. Nature of the beast, I think. I’m far better off with CDs or streaming.

      Glad you dug the piece. I need to check out your Ian Matthews post. Haven’t heard that name in a long, long time.

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        1. It’s a shame we find out stuff about people after a death. I just found out a friends dad played drums for Canadian musician Gordon Lightfoot.

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        2. Some people are very quiet about their accomplishments. I attend a local professional networking group. The woman who was president died. I only found out at her funeral that she had been an international correspondent for Christian Science Monitor in an earlier life. So it goes.

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