Michael Nesmith of the Monkees: an extremely talented and innovative songwriter | Music
Up until a few weeks before his death, Mike Nesmith was on tour as Monkees with Micky Dolenz, the band’s other surviving member, performing I’m A Believer, Pleasant Valley Sunday, Daydream Believer et al, on what was billed as their farewell tour. There was a certain sweet irony to it.
Nesmith was known to be the Monkee most horrified by the prefabrication of the four prefabs. Already a gifted songwriter when he signed on for the TV show that would make him famous (Screen Gems, the company behind The Monkees, bought a few Nesmith songs for the show, though they turned down Different Drum, following the song that launched Linda Ronstadt), he was furious at the restrictions imposed by producer Don Kirshner. At the height of their fame, it was Nesmith who bluntly informed an American magazine that the band weren’t playing on their records – “I don’t care if we never sell another record … tell the world we’re not recording.” not ours. music ”- and that their current album, More of the Monkees, was“ possibly the worst album in the history of the world ”. It was Nesmith who became legendarily so outraged by the bossy treatment of Kirshner and lawyer Herb Moelis that he put his fist in the wall of Kirshner’s hotel room in Beverly Hills and informed Moelis “this could have been your face ”.
It was the first of a number of truly groundbreaking things Mike Nesmith would do: although subconsciously, he had single-handedly created the loose cannon figure of the fabricated pop group, unable to cope with the restrictions of being staged, ready to blow the blunder to escape them: a recurring character in the story of the following pop.
At the time, Nesmith’s behavior caused chaos – strangely enough, rather than praising him for standing up for himself and his bandmates, the press turned on the Monkees, decrying them as “a shame to the world of pop ”- but he ultimately won the fight: Kirshner was fired and the band took control of their own musical direction.
Nonetheless, Nesmith’s attitude towards the Monkees seemed to remain equivocal at best. The brilliant country rock albums he made in the ’70s didn’t get the reaction they deserved, at least back then: it was as if the Monkees’ fabricated legacy clung to his. name, whatever music he was making. Even when the Monkees’ work was reassessed as a subject worthy of scholarly boxes and the television series rebroadcast on MTV with huge success, Nesmith remained detached. He sometimes went on group reunion tours and recording sessions, but usually refused. When he agreed, said meetings sometimes ended acrimoniously. “He’s always been that distant and unapproachable person,” Davy Jones protested in 1997, “the fourth part of the puzzle that never fits.”
And yet, for the last decade of his life, Nesmith happily participated in projects featuring the Monkees’ name – long tours and an acclaimed 2016 album Good Times !, which came with writing contributions. of songs by Paul Weller, Noel Gallagher and Rivers Cuomo by Weezer. . On the last tour, according to band manager Andrew Sandoval, Nesmith used to give an unscripted speech on stage “about his relationship with the fans … [telling] them, he knew them and cared about them, and that he loved the Monkees and that he loved the fans of the Monkees ”.
The question of what has changed is an interesting one. Perhaps the death of Davy Jones in 2012 and then Peter Tork in 2019 made Nesmith rethink his past. Or maybe he felt like his own reputation as a musician and songwriter had become so established that the specter of the most famous made-up boyband of the ’60s no longer mattered.
Since the rise of Americana as a genre, it had come to be hailed as a truly innovative figure in the history of country rock. The Byrds had laughed at the Monkees in 1967 So You Want To Be a Rock and Roll Star, but a few months before the release of their country-rock album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Nesmith could be heard pushing the Monkees towards his sound. own definition of American cosmic music on Tapioca Tundra, taken from 1968 The Birds the Bees and the Monkees, a direction he explored further the following year on Don’t Wait For Me and the glorious Listen To the Band . His 1970s albums – some with the First National Band, some released as solo projects – had long passed their cult following to be hailed as masterpieces of the genre. And rightly so: listen to 1970s Magnetic South, or its Loose Salute sequel, and you won’t hear someone following in the wake of the Flying Burrito Brothers or the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, but an extremely gifted and determined songwriter. to forge its own eccentric path through musical fusion.
Just before the Covid hit, Nesmith was performing in 1972… And the hits Just Keep On Coming live with alternative rock luminaries Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie and former REM student Scott McCaughey. Meanwhile, his 1974 album The Prison – heavy with synthesizers and drum machines, home to the incredibly beautiful Dance Between the Raindrops, and released with an accompanying short story – went from being dismissed as “horrible.” and the work of a “crackpot” to be celebrated as a unique and innovative triumph. And then there was the story that Nesmith subsequently “invented” MTV: Still fascinated by the potential of pop video, he sold his TV show based on the 1979 PopClips video to Time Warner, who according to director William Dear, “watered down the idea and came up with MTV.” It became so widespread that it gained a reputation as the ancestor of the most powerful force in pop promotion of the 1980s.
It was a fully deserved and correct rewrite of history, which belatedly gave Nesmith the praise he was due. Maybe it changed his take on the band that launched his career and which, after all, provided a succession of fabulous examples of his songwriting talent: not just his early country-rock experiences, but the blues by Papa Gene; Marie, Marie; You Just May Be The One and Circle Sky, the latter his fierce contribution to the soundtrack to the cult film Head. Certainly at the end of his life Papa Nez, as he called himself, sounded like a man who had made peace with his past. “I kind of got the feeling he meant he finally figured it out,” Sandoval said of Nesmith’s speech on the last few shows he’s played, “that he has understood why they loved him, when he didn’t always. “