RIP Mike Nesmith. A Monkee, But Not Just a Monkee
If media prophets attracted the same attention as popular music stars, that might be the way we’d remember Mike Nesmith tonight.
Nesmith, who died Friday morning in his Carmel, Calif., home at the age of 78, reportedly of heart failure, was best known to several generations as one of the original 1960s Monkees.
Assembled through auditions for a TV show, the Monkees quickly became both 1) hugely popular as the objects of teenage affection and 2) widely dismissed as a manufactured product of the music biz.
Nesmith hated that second part. Like fellow Monkee Peter Tork, and to a slightly lesser extent Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones, Nesmith had been making music and clawing for a career well before winning the Monkees lottery.
After the Monkees broke up in 1969, Nesmith formed The First National Band, an early country-rock ensemble that had a modest hit in 1970 with the wistful “Joanne.”
He continued to record and play, solo and with other bands, for the rest of his life. But whatever he did, like writing the Linda Ronstadt hit “Different Drum,” he remained best known as the Monkee with the wool cap and the Texas drawl.
“I think people make less and less identification for me with the Monkees as time goes by,” he said in a 1988 interview, perhaps with as much hope as evidence. “I tend to have a large circle of young friends and there’s almost none of that at all.”
His decision not to join a reunion tour with the other three Monkees two years earlier fueled speculation that he would have liked to ditch the association altogether. Not true, he said.
“Checking in with them is a fond hello to the memory of a good time,” he said. “Any time someone expresses love, you feel it and hold it in high regard, that not always being part of daily life. I definitely look back in fondness.”
Just to keep it in perspective, he added, “The Monkees fit into the logical sequence of events in my life. I would have kept going the same way if I hadn’t had that experience.”
Asked whether he felt the Monkees’ TV show still held up, two decades later, he shrugged and said, “It’s an unanswerable question. Does it hold up? I don’t know. I don’t watch it. It seemed to be well done at the time.”
While the Monkees’s video legacy was mixed — their only movie, Head, was not a hit despite the early presence of Jack Nicholson — Nesmith himself has periodically been credited with helping pioneer the music video concept that spawned MTV.
In 1979 he codeveloped a video show called “Popclips” for the fledgling Nickelodeon channel, featuring pop songs with entertaining images. This wasn’t a new concept, but had rarely been a main attraction before. Two years later that concept became MTV, and videos became a standard, almost essential element in popular music promotion.
Nesmith said in 1988 that MTV came together from a wide range of converging sources, and added that he bailed because some of the early alleged visionaries didn’t have what he considered much vision at all.
“To have it be an entertainment service that’s music-driven, you need comedy,” he said. “You’re making short films, with everything that’s demonstrative in that form. You’re bringing all the elements of the coming cultural revolution together.
“To the people I was talking with, the important idea was ‘radio with pictures.’ That’s when I realized, ‘Get your money and get outta here, Nez.’ “
But he wasn’t wrong about where media was going. “We’re coming into a video and computer revolution,” he said. “Suddenly we’re going to have control in our lives over the information we receive, and that information is going to be very dense.
“It will change the way we learn, because watching is easier than reading. They say it produces a shorter attention span, but that’s because too often TV isn’t putting out things that interest us. It’s like when you see an ad and you know in two seconds where it’s going. But if you have a great teacher, we will get access to incredible information.
“The cultural revolution is now where rock ’n’ roll was in 1952 or 1953, just hanging around waiting to explode.”
Nesmith himself hung around long enough to see that explosion, though there can be a discussion about whether the “great teacher” part has worked out.
Nesmith’s own life had random teachers. He dropped out of high school in 1960 to join the Air Force, where he earned a GED. After discharge he got a guitar, started writing songs and moved to LA as a folksinger. He and his first wife lived in their car for a while before he got the Monkees gig.
Once the Monkees had some hits, Nesmith led the group’s collective rebellion against producer Don Kirschner, arguing that Kirschner was picking too many lightweight pop songs and that he was subjecting the band to further derision by hiring studio musicians to play on their album tracks.
Nesmith took it personally, he said, because he was a legitimate musician — an assertion he underscored this fall when he played a final Monkees tour with Dolenz despite obviously failing health.
“In retrospect,” he said in 1988, “my music has focused on romance, whimsy, charm and delight. In the early days I set it against a motif of country-western. I didn’t play rock ’n’ roll, really.
“So my first six or seven albums were C&W and then I abandoned that motif. I don’t know what you’d call my music now. I don’t hold any ideas that it’s gonna give Bruce Springsteen a run for his money.”
Nesmith never scored a lot of solo hits. What he did get on his own was the respect he often didn’t get when he was having major hits with the Monkees.
While he seemed okay with that irony, he did say it may have reflected a more widespread American problem.
“You see too much now,” he said, “that reminds me of Dr. Demento playing some bizarre record and then saying, ‘What were they thinking?’ At some point we need to address the wholesale erosion of the culture.
“The country must provide an environment that nurtures and cares for the beautiful and the true.”