Why losing Michael Nesmith means so much more than the death of the “Quiet Monkee”
Anybody who ever had to live down an image they didn’t want in the first place can relate to the Monkees’ saga. Michael Nesmith, the band’s guitarist/songwriter who died of natural causes last week at 78, lived that saga.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
In the mid-sixties, when the Los Angeles music scene was going through a renaissance, The Monkees’ television show premiered on NBC. It only ran for two seasons, but was rerun constantly through the decades. When you have a television show about a struggling rock & roll quartet who lived by the beach, naturally there’s going to be records and concerts spun off from the program. Luckily for all involved, the band/television show spawned many hit singles that continued to live on in oldies radio rotation: “Last Train To Clarksville,” “I’m A Believer,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” “Daydream Believer,” and many others.
As you would expect from a band that was put together solely for a television show, the actors seem to divide into two different directions. Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz were actors who dabbled (quite well) in music. Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith were musicians who dipped their toes in acting. While Davy and Micky were content being the actors they were, Peter and Michael likely felt constrained. As they hung out on the Strip, or traveled through Laurel Canyon, watching Roger McGuinn, Arthur Lee, Stephen Stills, Frank Zappa and Jim Morrison revolutionize the music industry, it’s fairly certain Peter and Michael wanted a piece of that. But they couldn’t; they were tied to this teen phenomenon called “the Monkees,” who weren’t expected to make Grand Statements and were vilified when they tried. Even though the television show tried to hide it, Michael Nesmith was definitely one of the great underrated talents of the sixties.
Born in Houston, Nesmith latched onto the early sixties folk boom, incorporating a country influence, which followed him to the West Coast when he moved to Los Angeles, CA, hosting the Monday night hootenannies at the Troubadour and recording a single for Colpix under the name “Michael Blessing.” When the auditions for the Monkees’ TV show were held in 1965, Michael Nesmith was among the final four picked. Although all members were required to sing and play instruments, Monkee mastermind Don Kirshner had other plans that involved the band merely just singing and smiling – and nothing else.
Already a prolific songwriter (the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s version of “Mary Mary” was released before the Monkees’), Michael made that influence known from the gitgo, getting his songs included on the first two Monkees albums, as well as getting played on the TV show. And this was before Nesmith bitched, publicly, about not being able to play on his own records. The album that followed, Headquarters, was solely a Monkees production from start to finish, with all four members playing (plus the occasional guest).
Admittedly, it wasn’t the most polished production (Micky Dolenz’ drumming does get sloppy at times), but it did prove that Davy, Micky, Peter and Mike were more than just products of the Hollywood machine. Had it not been for the television show, the Headquarters album would have been seen as a slightly raw and rugged take on the Buffalo Springfield – and there’s nothing wrong with that at all.
The four songs that Nesmith penned by himself were great advertisements for his abilities. “You Told Me” and especially “Sunny Girlfriend” were basically inventing country-rock; “You Just May Be The One” hearkened back to Buddy Holly’s Tex-Mex sound. The next album, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd., was a tremendous step forward. Mike only wrote two songs, but he sang lead on five. All were sharp indicators that the Monkees definitely had something to offer the New Seriousness in rock & roll.
While Mike’s Monkee contributions didn’t stop there, their career was somewhat undermined by a record label that kept slapping together odds & ends from three years’ worth of sessions, making it look like the band was farther behind the times than they actually were. Throw in the cancellation of their television show and a poorly-received satiric movie (Head) and television special (33 ⅓ Revolutions Per Monkee), and the band couldn’t win credibility for losing. The absolute low point came when CBS started showing reruns of the program in the fall of ‘69, as part of the kiddie lineup. The band was reduced to doing commercials for Kool-Aid and making embarrassing TV appearances that played them up as comedians more than a rock & roll band. The ship was sinking, and Mike bailed out at the quickest opportunity.
AUDIO: Michael Nesmith “Joanne”
Even though the Monkees are dismissed by know-nothings as actors who thought they were musicians, Mike was the most prolific member on record, after the band broke up, releasing a series of albums on RCA and later his own Pacific Arts label. While still on RCA, he even scored a hit single with “Joanne.” The earliest solo albums explored the same country-rock terrain that the Monkees only hinted at, with the later material expanding into different genres. A music video for his 1977 song “Rio” inspired Nesmith and his Pacific Arts company to expand into the burgeoning video market. A video program he created for the Nickelodeon channel was sold to Time Warner/Amex; that program later developed into what is now known as MTV.
When the Monkees had their reunion/revival in the 80s, Nesmith was literally too busy to join the other three on tour, making infrequent appearances but being fully present for the Justus album, as well as a 90s TV special. In 2016, the surviving members of the Monkees (Davy Jones passed away four years earlier) regrouped to record the Good Times! LP. What was great about this album is that it presented the band as musicians and not aging teen idols trying to stay current with the kids. The concerts that followed were along the same lines; rather than tell jokes and cash in on Generation X nostalgia, Mike and Micky just came on stage and played the tunes, forcing you to focus on the music and not the phenomenon. (Peter was ill and in no position to tour. He died of cancer in 2019.)
This was a great way to bring the whole thing full circle. As a Monkees fan, I’ve always gotten the distinct impression that Michael Nesmith was never 100% comfortable with the image of the Monkees as cartoonish actors who made records every once in a while. 55 years later, some people still believe this. The totality of Nesmith’s career proves that he had much more to offer than being a sarcastic joker on UHF reruns. Closing the Monkees circle with an album and a tour that didn’t rely on any schtick was a great way to end the chapter.
We laughed at the show, loved them as personalities, but as one Nesmith/Monkees tune once stated, now it’s time to “Listen To The Band.”
VIDEO: MeTV’s Tribute to Mike Nesmith
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