It’s worth noting, if only to confirm age and susceptibility, that it is kind of spooky hearing Mike Nesmith on the other end of the phone: he sounds exactly the same as he did coming out of my television speakers 40 years ago when I first watched The Monkees, a show already a decade old.
I mean, exactly the same, as if something wacky has just happened in that apartment he shared with Micky, Pete and Davy and he’s about to give me a droll response.
Ahead of Australian shows next week with the sole remaining member of The Monkees, Micky Dolenz, on a tour billed as The Monkees present The Mike & Micky Show, Nesmith talks television, lost songs, pleasing fans, pleasing himself, the past and the future.
In this first part of a three-part special, we explore the world of, and the world outside, The Monkees.
Yes, there’s for Robert Michael Nesmith, of Houston, Texas, on the line and there’s business to conduct, but there’s a bit of fan indulgence to get through first.
As this is the first time in many, many years that Nesmith will be performing Monkees songs in Australia, I have a question which has been burning a hole in my back pocket ever since I fell in love with this song (while knowing the likely answer, and the futility of asking).
Is there any chance that he and Micky Dolenz will be performing If I Ever Get To Saginaw Again?
The song, a beautiful country ballad written by Jack Keller and Bob Russell and not a million miles away in tone from Gentle On My Mind, was recorded in 1968/69 with Nesmith on lead vocals, but not released until the 1990s compilation album Missing Links Vol 2.
From a modern perspective you could definitely see connections to the material Nesmith wrote for his post-Monkees, pioneering country-rock group, The First National Band. From any perspective, it’s just a great few minutes.
“No,” Nesmith says immediately, before any further hope can rise up. “The chances are very, very low, for a couple of reasons. The first one is the band we carry with us do not know it, have never learnt it, and we have never played it. And, it’s an outlier.
“A lot of people are like you, they think it’s a great song, but it doesn’t really sit in the bullseye of Monkees fandom. We’ve only got so much time and we made a decision early on to play the hits: that’s what people are there for.”
While it is an obscure song and Saginaw’s writer, Jack Keller may not be a big name, he was hardly unknown by the time he brought that song to the table, having written since the late 1950s for artists such as Paul Anka, Connie Frances, Bobby Vee and Frank Sinatra. He also contributed two songs to the Monkees’ second album, More Of The Monkees: the sweet Hold On Girl and the comedy turn Your Auntie Grizelda.
“I was the champion when the demo came in for Saginaw and was the reason that it ultimately ended up in the catalogue, I think it’s a great song and I enjoyed singing it, but I’m sorry,” says a more sympathetic Nesmith, who nonetheless chuckles as he adds. “I will think of you when I don’t sing it.”
This does raise a question of purpose. Obviously, Nesmith wouldn’t be doing this tour if he wasn’t enjoying the Monkees experience he mostly eschewed while the other three regularly toured since the 1980s.
The man is independently wealthy and has lived a couple of lifetimes really since he was last, properly, a Monkee, including ground-breaking television and music video production and solo hits including Rio.
Does Nesmith see the shows being for our benefit, rather than his?
“I do, I do. It really is about Monkees fandom,” he says. “We explored a lot of musical avenues when we were working in the ‘60s and ‘70s and the guys when they went out on their own in the ‘80s and ‘90s there were a lot of different paths as you probably know. I still have a very active presence with my First National Band and that approach to music, but there won’t be any of that in the Mikey and Micky shows.”
He thinks this approach works pretty well, looking out of on audiences with 70-year-olds, 40-year-olds and teenagers, helped along by the fact that “Micky is a great front man, and I’m okay”.
Since he mentions it, I guess there is no chance that he might tour with the First National Band? There’s a market here. (Hey, give me a break, I’ve been waiting decades to talk to him and I’m not the only one who would love to see songs like Dedicated Friend, Silver Moon, Joanne or Lady Of The Valley played here.)
“That’s great to hear and the promoter who is bringing The Monkees over has made it clear to me and my people here that if this goes the way he is hoping it will, he will set up a tour for the First National Band and bring me and them back,” Nesmith says. “I can tell you, personally, it’s so satisfying to sing with [First National Band]. They are fabulous musicians, even more fabulous people, and with a multi-voice choral and the material and the way they all play, it makes for a kind of startling evening.
“My ex-wife came out to see a sound check and when we started to play, she leaned over and said, my God this is a smoking band. And that’s what it is, a smoking band.”
Tomorrow, in part two of this interview, Michael Nesmith talks about the missing Monkees, dives into the appeal of the band then and now, and reminds us “No one can get rid of their 12-year-old days,” so why fight it?
The Monkees Present: The Mike And Micky Show will be at: QPAC, Brisbane, June 12; Palais Theatre, Melbourne, June 15; Astor Theatre, Perth, June 16; Sydney Opera House, June 16.