[Are The Monkees Silverback-worthy? I think so. Yes, they started as a joke, but they told the joke very well and created some good music along the way. It’s hard to believe that 3 of the 4 have passed away. They also left a legacy of film. You can watch a recent bio-pic to their career called Daydream Believers. Watch an episode of the TV series on YouTube to get an instant reminder of the tenor of the times in the mid-1960s. SB SM]
On December 10, 2021, Michael Nesmith passed away.
Unquestionably the most complex character to be cast as a Monkee, Michael Nesmith grew up an only child in Dallas, Texas. His father and mother separated when he was young, and he took up the guitar while in his teens, melding poems he’d written to the music his burgeoning skills allowed. His mother Bette, who had remarried, was famously the inventor of Liquid Paper (not “White Out”). She amassed a fortune when she sold it off, but what this demonstrated was that mother and son shared an inventive (and entrepreneurial) mindset; something that would become evident as the years went on. (Sadly, they also shared a Christian Scientist belief system that did not help either one of them with longevity; Bette passed at 56, months after selling her company to Gillette.)
Young Michael served a stint in the Air Force (as a mechanic) before heading west with his wife Phyllis and young son Christian to pursue a career in music. As an aspiring pop/singer folkie, he issued a pair of singles (under the name “Michael Blessing”); he also served as “Hootmaster” at The Troubadour. Pre-Monkees, he had a music publishing deal that saw some of his songs get noticed (“Mary Mary” was covered by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band). As it happened, he shared a label (Colpix) with future bandmate Davy Jones, though they did not meet until they were cast.
1965 saw the famous ad that drew thousands of respondents to audition for The Monkees; of the final four, only Nesmith saw (and responded to) it. He impressed the producers with his humor and laconic attitude (https://youtu.be/63nhSFFFfJ4 ). His green wool hat (worn full time to keep his hair out of his eyes when he rode his motorcycle) was an attribute that further made him stand out, and it would be incorporated into the show’s first season.
Nesmith was quickly established as The Monkees’ alpha – in the same way that Lennon was seen as “leader” among the four Beatles. Nesmith wasn’t the cutest or the child-man dummy or the biggest goof, but his strong drive for self-assertion was evident in the sitcom and accommodated as the series developed. Offset, he recognized opportunity when he saw it: while his fellows were content to ride the wave of a hit TV show, Nesmith’s need for self-expression and perfectionist tendencies tended to rile those around him. He was allowed original (or co-written) material on their first pair of albums (masterminded by Don Kirshner) but issues of authenticity irked him, culminating with the quote shared with the Saturday Evening Post just months into the series’ run: “Tell the world that we’re synthetic because, damn it, we are!” It did not sit well with him that millions of fans watching the show believed that the records issued bearing their names and likenesses were of THEIR creation.
This agitation – shared only to varying degrees by his cast-mates – led to the “palace coup” in early 1967, with Nesmith’s fist puncturing a plaster wall with the assertion “That coulda been your head!” to a show executive. Kirshner was seen as not worth keeping around (after incurring a terminable infraction) and dismissed; The Monkees were then given leave to record a single and an album wholly on their own. Nesmith, impressed by the success of The Turtles’ “Happy Together” single, recruited bassist and arranger Chip Douglas to serve as Monkees producer, resulting in the Headquarters album. It shot to number one without the benefit of a single issued from it, and showcased the musical diversity of the ensemble that held together surprisingly well. (The fact of Sgt. Pepper’s release a week later quickly ended its chart-topping run.) Nesmith’s originals were a particular stand out: https://youtu.be/nvdP8xFO0eE
Its success validated their belief in themselves – something they might have felt heretofore was unearned – especially after the warm embrace of The Beatles in early 1967. In England to promote the show, the individual band members were each befriended by Beatles, the Nesmiths staying in Kenwood with the Lennons. (1967 saw the two ensembles as mirror images of each other: The Monkees were a fake band wanting to be real, while the Beatles were a REAL band now hiding behind a false identity.) The Beatles endorsement of The Monkees came as a relief to the latter, not least after the charge “they don’t even play their own instruments” took root.
The Monkees thereafter each followed their own bliss in the studio; in a way, pioneering a paradigm where recordings were issued under a group brand while containing solo creations from the individual members, collaborating occasionally but not full time. (This aspect broke Peter Tork’s heart; he really wanted to continue the group explorations of Headquarters but found no takers.) Nesmith used his newfound wealth to produce a vanity project (The Wichita Train Whistle Sings was a collection of his originals, recorded by studio pros as instrumentals as a sort of precursor to Thrillington.) In his final years with The Monkees, he began a deeper exploration of country and rock, laying the groundwork for country rock as the world would come to know it: https://youtu.be/hyK11X1r_gQ
Following Tork’s departure in 1968, Nesmith bought out his contract and in 1970 formed the First National Band. They issued THREE albums within a year, scoring a pair of minor hits with “Joanne” and “Silver Moon.” The band, featuring a full time pedal steel player (Red Rhodes) and Nesmith’s very literate lyrics, produced a wonderfully unique body of work that went too long under-appreciated by the masses, while other acts mining the same vein struck gold. (An appreciation: https://tinyurl.com/2atvx46j ) Despite lacking robust sales, Nesmith recorded and toured prolifically during the 1970s (https://youtu.be/hcnr3mre6C8), his music developing into an uncategorizable sound by decades’ end. (https://youtu.be/Mi0b8tcCQSE ) He experimented with a “book and soundtrack” concept piece: The Prison in 1974; followed by a sequel, The Garden, two decades on.
Nesmith’s business acumen and foresightedness was evident with his concept for packaging music videos for television as Pop Clips – this evolved into MTV. He also produced a music and comedy sketch TV one-off, Elephant Parts, in 1982. This was developed as the Television Parts series, airing on NBC in 1985. Outside of music, Nesmith produced a trio of Hollywood films (including Repo Man). All the while, a Monkees resurgence was bubbling under: a greatest hits package sold steadily from 1976 on, but in 1986 – the 20th anniversary of the show – an MTV marathon of episodes exploded into a full-blown return of Monkeemania. Given all that was on his plate, Nesmith could not clear his schedule to partake in the subsequent reunion tour and projects (leading to the perception of his disdain for the undertakings) but he did agree to come out and play once the tour reached LA, which it did, at the Greek Theater.
Nesmith would partake in further projects: 1995’s Justus reunion album, writing their 1997 TV special: Hey Hey It’s The Monkees!, and a tour of the UK that same year. But going on the road as a four-piece in his home country was just not in the cards. Following the unexpected death of Davy Jones in 2012, he at last joined a tour with Micky and Peter – whether or not it was already planned or came about BECAUSE of Davy’s loss is uncertain, as Jones expressed a particular disdain toward Nesmith in some of his final interviews (characterizing him as arrogant, rude and only out for himself). By this time, there seemed to be no doubt as to Nesmith’s fondness for Monkees past. He would go on to tour again with them in 2013 and 2014, sat out most of 2016 due to health issues but DID contribute to their 50th anniversary group effort, Good Times! and the subsequent 2018 Christmas album.
Micky and Mike toured as a duo that year, following this with an official Monkees tour in 2019. 2021 saw the last round – billed as the Farewell Tour (as it indeed was), Michael Nesmith played his final show on November 14, at The Greek:
Nesmith’s legacy as a pioneering artist and Renaissance man has been long evident to those who were paying attention. The fact of a Jann Wenner blocking Nesmith and The Monkees from the recognition of induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (FWIW) may be emblematic of a larger held belief of their unworthiness, but it seems that Nesmith goes to another level of existence secure in the knowledge of how loved he was and how much what he gave the world was revered by so many. A better conversation about this you will not find than this: https://tinyurl.com/mr46yadh
Grendel: The Four-Chord Opera is here!
Part 1 is available for your viewing and listening pleasure on the Grendel page at silverbackdigest.com