Tuesday, December 14, 2021

"It's A Very Extraordinary Scene To Those Who Don't Understand ..."

One of this blogger's favourite musician/songwriter/actor/video director/multi-millionaires, Michael Nesmith, has died aged seventy eight. He rose to fame initially as a member of The Monkees (the TV series and the band), but went on to have a long and influential career in music, television and movie production. Mike died from heart failure on Friday at his home in Carmel Valley. 'With Infinite Love we announce that Michael Nesmith has passed away this morning in his home, surrounded by family, peacefully and of natural causes,' his family wrote in a statement posted on Nesmith's website. 'We ask that you respect our privacy at this time and we thank you for the love and light that all of you have shown him and us.'
Along with his surviving bandmate, Micky Dolenz, Nesmith recently completed a Monkees' farewell tour. 'I'm heartbroken,' Dolenz said, in a statement. 'I've lost a dear friend and partner. 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.'
Robert Michael Nesmith was born in Houston, Texes in 1942. He was an only child; his parents, Warren and Bette, divorced when he was four, Mike and his mother moving soon afterwards to Dallas to be closer to her family. Bette took temporary jobs ranging from clerical work to graphic design, eventually attaining the position of executive secretary at Texas Bank & Trust. When Nesmith was thirteen, his mother invented the typewriter correction fluid known commercially as Liquid Paper. Over the next twenty five years, she built the Liquid Paper Corporation into an international company, which she eventually sold to Gillette in 1979 for forty eight million bucks. She died a few months later at which point Mike inherited her vast fortune to go with the other vast fortune he subsequently built for himself through his songwriting and various smart business dealings post-Monkees. (It's probably worth, at this point, dispelling one popular urban myth. Mike Nesmith's mother did not invent Tipp-Ex®™, a 'fact' which has become a staple of a thousand somewhat under-researched pub trivia quizzes. Tipp-Ex is another form of correction fluid which was created and produced by a completely separete company; it was invented by West German Wolfgang Dabisch, who filed a patent in 1958 and remains a registered trademark. It's a minor point but it's worth setting the record straight.) Bette is reported to have made an uncredited cameo appearance in an early Monkees episode, Dance, Monkee, Dance as her son's dancing partner.
Mike attended Thomas Jefferson High School in Dallas, where he participated in choral and drama activities, but enlisted in the US Air Force in 1960 before graduating. He completed basic training in San Antonio and was trained as an aircraft mechanic at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls. He was honorably discharged in 1962. A talented self-taught guitarist, Mike started writing and performing music after his stint in the Air Force and found some success as a songwriter for acts such as The Paul Butterfield Blues Band (who recorded his song 'Mary, Mary' a year before The Monkees). He played solo and in a series of folk, country and rock and/or roll bands. He also enrolled in San Antonio College, where he met bassist John London and they began a musical collaboration, performing a mixture of standard folk songs and a few Nesmith's originals. The duo moved to Los Angeles and began singing in folk clubs around the city including a Monday evening residency at The Troubadour, a West Hollywood nightclub that featured new artists. Randy Sparks from The New Christy Minstrels offered Nesmith a publishing deal for his songs and he began his recording career in 1963, releasing a single ('Wandering') on the independent Highness label. He followed this in 1965 with a one-off single on Edan Records ('Just A Little Love') followed by 'The New Recruit' under the name Michael Blessing on Colpix Records.
In late 1965, a friend pointed Mike to a magazine advert seeking 'four insane boys' to play in a Beatles-inspired pop band on a new TV show. He rode his motorcycle to the audition and wore a woollen hat to keep his hair out of his eyes; producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider remembered the 'wool hat guy' and called Nesmith back. Part of Mike's ad-libbed screen test featured in the first Monkees episode, Royal Flush. With Nesmith alongside Mickey Dolenz, Davy Jones and Peter Tork, The Monkees were an immediate sensation both as a - genuinely innovative and groundbreaking - sitcom and, via their spin-off records, as a proper twenty four carat beat combo. Although some press controversy was stirred up (particularly in the UK) which attempted to portray the quartet as a 'manufactured' band (which, to be fair, they were) who didn't even play on their own records (which was only true for a few months and, anyway, the same 'crime' also applied to The Beach Boys during this period), The Monkees was genuinely ahead of its time. Packed with avant-garde film techniques (The Monkees collectively never met a fourth wall they wouldn't gleefully break) and musical sequences which are the direct ancestors of today's pop videos. Nesmith himself later helped develop the format which eventually morphed into MTV.
Nesmith was the only one of his bandmates who had much prior recording experience (although Dolenz had released singles, Jones was a veteran of musical theatre and Tork a hugely talented multi-instrumentalist from the same LA club circuit that Nesmith came through). Nesmith immediately clashed with the music publisher Don Kirshner - who had been hired to oversee the show's music - over creative control of the band, once even putting his fist through a wall and reportedly telling Kirshner 'that could have been your head!' Mike eventually won the battle - The Monkees was making too much money for Screen Gems to argue with one of the stars; Kirshner was fired and went on to work with another fictional band, The Archies (who, as cartoons, were considerably less likely to argue with him over their material). One of the first series' episodes of The Monkees, I've Got A Little Song Here, even parodied the trials of the working songwriter when Mike writes 'I'm Gonna Buy Me A Dog' (actually, a Tommy Boyce/Bobby Hart song from The Monkees first sessions) which becomes a hit for a 'proud and just a little bit 'umble' girl singer but sees Mike fleeced out of his royalties by an unscrupulous publisher who was, clearly, not based on Kirshner. Oh no, very hot water.
Although prevented by Kirshner from contributing musically to the first two Monkees LPs, Mike did get to produce some brilliant country-flavoured songs to both The Monkees ('Papa Genes Blues' and 'Sweet Young Thing') and More Of The Monkees ('Mary, Mary' and 'The Kind Of Girl I Could Love'). Once control of the band's sound had been wrestled from Kirshner's hands, Nesmith became, effectively, the band's musical director, contributing the b-side to their third single (the magnificent 'The Girl I Knew Somewhere') and writing some stupendous songs for their third and fourth LPs, the band's two masterpieces, Headquarters (their Rubber Soul) and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd (their Revolver) both released in 1967 on which they proved that they were every bit as good a band as the majority of their detractors believed they weren't. On the former, Mike wrote 'You Told Me', 'You Just May Be The One' and 'Sunny Girlfriend', for the latter, 'Daily, Nightly' (the first song on a pop record to feature a Moog synthesizer), 'What Am I Doin' Hangin' Round?' and 'Don't Call On Me' (as well as providing vocals for three other songs on the LP, 'Salesman', 'The Door Into Summer' and 'Love Is Only Sleeping').
Mike also wrote four songs on 1968's strange, but occasionally brilliant The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees (including the terrific 'Tapioca Tundra'), one of his best songs, the slyly political 'Circle Sky' for the band's weird-as-shit Jack Nicholson-scripted movie, Head (also 1968) and, another of his finest works, 'Listen To The Band', as the closing song to their 1969 TV special 33⅓ Revolutions Per Monkee. 'Circle Sky', in particular, is a work of considerable interest, with its 'Bo Diddley' riff and extremely direct lyrics about Viet'nam. Sadly, on the Head soundtrack LP, Nesmith chose to include a rather muddy studio take with the vocals buried deep in the mix rather than the crackling live version performed by The Monkees in the movie. (A much more satisfying alternative studio take, in which you can actually make out what he's singing, can be found on several Monkees compilations - notably Missing Links Vol III - whilst the live version is available on recent extended reissues of the Head soundtrack.) During late 1967, one of Nesmith's most beautiful pre-Monkees songs, 'Different Drum', was a massive US hit for the LA band The Stone Poneys, featuring teenage vocalist Linda Ronstadt. They also recorded another of his songs, 'Some Of Shelley's Blues' as a, less successful, follow-up.
As part of a promotional deal, Gretsch built a one-off, natural-finish, twelve-string electric guitar for Nesmith when he was performing with The Monkees. He earlier played another customised Gretsch twelve-string (best heard on the classic arpeggio opening riff to 1967's 'Pleasant Valley Sunday'). Nesmith used this guitar for his appearances on the television series, as well as The Monkees' live appearances in 1966 and 1967 (check out, for instance, the version of his regular solo slot, Bo Diddley's 'You Can't Judge A Book By The Cover' featured in The Monkees episode, the documentary-style Monkees On Tour. Beginning in 1968, Nesmith used a white six-string Gibson SG for his live appearances. He used that guitar in Head and, for the final original Monkees tour in early 1969. In a post on his Facebook page in 2011, Nesmith reported that, sadly, both guitars were stolen in the early 1970s.
The TV series was cancelled in 1968 after two series and Nesmith left in 1970, following Tork's departure the previous year. Nesmith's last contractual Monkees commitment was a commercial for Kool-Aid and Nerf balls in April 1970 (the spot ends with Nesmith frowning and saying, 'Enerf's enerf!') After the release of their 1969 LP The Monkees Present Nesmith asked to be released from his contract, despite it costing him: 'I had three years left ... at one hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year.' He remained financially restricted until 1980, when he received his inheritance from his late mother's estate. In a 1980 interview with Playboy, he said of that time: 'I had to start telling little tales to the tax man while they were putting tags on the furniture.'
Next Nesmith formed his own group, The First National Band - which included his old friend John London and pedal steel player Red Rhodes; the collective made three fine LPs and had a modest chart hit with 'Joanne' in 1970. While Nesmith never matched his Monkees-era musical successes his First National Band records are hihgly regarded today as pioneering examples of country-rock. That trio of LPs - Magnetic South (1970), Loose Salute (1971) and Nevada Fighter - featured a number of songs which Mike had written and demoed when still with The Monkees, most of which have, subsequently, been released on Rhino records extensive Monkees CD reissue programme ('Calico Girlfriend', 'Nine Times Blue', 'Little Red Rider', 'The Crippled Lion', 'Listen To The Band' and 'Propinquity'). His next group, a psych-rock outfit The Second National Band, featured José Feliciano on percussion and Mike also released music under his own name, including an acclaimed LP of country ballads, the ironically titled And The Hits Just Keep On Comin' (1972).
As the 1970s went along, Nesmith turned more towards production, founding the Pacific Arts Corporation to manage his music and television projects including, in 1979, a show called PopClips, which combined music videos with commentary from a 'veejay', which later became one of the models for MTV. Nesmith recorded a number of LPs for his own label and had a moderate worldwide hit in 1977 with 'Rio'. A few years later, he won the first video of the year GRAMMY for Elephant Parts, a TV special with a similar format to PopClips: music videos, parody commercials and comedy sketches. In 1983, Nesmith produced the music video for the Lionel Richie single 'All Night Long'. Four years later, he produced the video for Michael Jackson's 'The Way You Make Me Feel'. Another notable Pacific Arts production was Alex Cox's cult movie Repo Man, which starred Emilio Estevez as a young punk and Harry Dean Stanton as the titular character in pursuit of a 1964 Chevy Malibu with a possibly-alien secret locked in its trunk. Pacific Arts became a pioneer in the field of home video, before a legal dispute with PBS forced Nesmith to shut it down in the early 1990s; there was a blizzard of lawsuits and countersuits over the home video rights to properties like Masterpiece Theatre and Ken Burns' The Civil War and a jury eventually sided with Nesmith, awarding him more than forty million dollars in punitive damages. 'It's like finding your grandmother stealing your stereo,' he told BBC News at the time. 'You're happy to get your stereo back, but it's sad to find out your grandmother is a thief!'
Nesmith continued to record and perform - even, occasionally, showing up onstage with The Monkees, after a Thirtieth-Anniversary revival catapulted them back into the public consciousness. This blogger was fortunate enough to be at the first gig on that 1997 tour, at Newcastle Arena. It was, with one sole 1986 exception, the first time that Mike, Micky, Peter and Davy had shared a stage since 1968. Always the most reserved and hard-to-interview of the four, Mike was dogged for years by rumours that he didn't get along with his bandmates, or that he wanted to distance himself from the entire phenomenon. Glenn Baker's 1986 biography of the band, Monkeemania: The True Story Of The Monkees, was particularly mean-spirited and hostile towards Mike (much as Shout! was in relation to Paul McCartney) suggesting that, perhaps, Baker had an unfortunate experience with a Mike Nesmith poster at an early age. But, as the band approached its fortieth anniversary, Nesmith began to lighten up in relation to his past. 'The Monkees reside in my life like a little nugget, a gem I enjoy,' he told Uncut magazine with, seemingly, genuine sincerity, in 2016. 'The struggles, the victories are long gone. What has continued has been the remnant light of it.'
Following Davy's horribly untimely death in 2012 Nesmith reunited with Dolenz and Tork to perform concerts throughout the United States during the following two years. Backed with a seven-piece band that included Nesmith's son, Christian, the trio performed songs from across the The Monkees discography. They also produced an exceptionally decent 2016 CD, Good Times! featuring songs written for the band by fans like Noel Gallaghger, Paul Weller, Andy Partridge and Ben Gibbard. When asked why he had decided to return to the band, Nesmith stated, 'I never really left. It is a part of my youth that is always active in my thoughts and part of my overall work as an artist. It stays in a special place.' After Peter's death in 2019, Nesmith and Dolenz elected to perform as a duo, in recent months undertaking The Monkees Farewell Tour, which was originally planned for 2020 but was delayed by Covid.
In 1998, Nesmith published his first novel, The Long Sandy Hair Of Neftoon Zamora. It was developed originally as an online project and was later published by St Martin's Press. A second novel, The America Gene, was published in 2009. In 2017, he released a memoir and companion 'soundtrack' CD Infinite Tuesday: An Autobiographical Riff. Mike was married three times. He met his first wife, Phyllis Ann Barbour, in 1964, whilst they were both at San Antonio College. Together, they had three children: Christian, born in 1965; Jonathan (1968) and Jessica (1970). Nesmith and Phyllis divorced in 1972. Nesmith also had a son, Jason, born in August 1968 to Nurit Wilde, whom he met whilst working on The Monkees. In 1976, he married his second wife, Kathryn Bild. In 2000, he married Victoria Kennedy, but the marriage ended in divorce in 2011. He is survived by his children.