Concluding the interview with Mike Nesmith, whose tour of Australia with Micky Dolenz as The Monkees Present: The Micky And Micky Show, which began last night in Brisbane, we switch on the medium which launched and later repositioned his career.
Having already – in parts one and two of this interview - been frank about his complex relationship with The Monkees’ past, his non-Monkees career and why that band that wasn’t meant to be a band has lasted in the hearts and minds of several generations, Nesmith has some thoughts on the box in the corner of the room. And some thoughts on us.
In an odd, certainly not intended, way – for who in the mid-‘60s could have dreamt of Take That or New Kids On The Block and not woken in a cold sweat totally unrelated to bad acid? – it is possible to see The Monkees not as imitators but as progenitors.
Yes, the TV series “band” created by Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, was clearly modelled on the zest and interplay, not to mention pop song-nous, of The Beatles. And fair enough too.
Every music label looked for their own Beatles once the Liverpool quartet broke big on singles and album charts everywhere. Likewise, once the Beatles two films, A Hard Day’s Night and Help, showed cinemas could also be filled with Beatles fans, the demand for rock’n’roll films got another boost.
But what if you could put that Beatles music and film synergy onto television? And what if you took the Beatles’ personalities and extrapolated? Hey, hey it’s the Monkees.
Or, if you think about it – the serious one; the kooky one; the livewire; the heartthrob – hey, hey, it’s the template for every boy, and for that matter girl, band of the ‘80s, ‘90s and onwards.
So, we know how the four Monkees – Mike Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork and Davy Jones – were “different”, but what was it they had in common?
“Certainly, it was that we were all actors and had spent time on the stage, that was a part of it,” says Nesmith. “You probably know that David was present at the Ed Sullivan performance of The Beatles, he watched it from backstage. The Beatles in that music joined us altogether in a pursuit of whatever it was that was driving them, if we could use it to drive our lives. It seemed so good and so fun and so easy to integrate into our culture.”
Integrate into the culture? Or remake the culture?
“Keep in mind, and I’m not instructing or even scolding when I say it, this music and the band and what it represented and how it was presented, was a product of television. And it was television that had just come into our lives,” Nesmith says. “In the mid-60s in United States we had just watched television elect a president, and no one figured on that. We have watched it now create the warp and weft of a social topography that I don’t think anybody could anticipate.”
So it was more than music, or even youthful energy. It was more than a post-Kennedy assassination need for joy. Couldn’t that have come from any of the pop groups bursting out of the ether once that Ed Sullivan Show performance told millions “you could do this too”?
“But the music that the television made, and specifically in the form of the Monkees TV show and I Monkees live shows, is sui generis,” he explains. “It was unique to television, it was unique to our times, and it stands a few steps apart from the usual pop songs and usual pop bands who were a driving force and set up so many great songs.
Frankly, if Nesmith who has studied, produced for, and written about the nature and cultural place of television, doesn’t know why some of these things work and how some of these things work, we certainly stand no chance.
As someone who predicted and sought to initiate the creation of music television – after watching the way his music video for the song Rio, from his 1977 album, From A Radio Engine To The Photon Wing, make him a star again in places like Australia - Nesmith might actually be considered something of a visionary.
He’s still thinking about what TV does to us, even if we’ve moved on to streaming services and watching on small portable screens.
“When you hear a Monkees tune played in its original form, you wake up something that lies dormant in our elder years. It sounds like I’m saying we are in old folks homes, but we live with these great parts of our youth, we pass them on to our children and our grandchildren, and they begin to live with them,” says Nesmith.
“I watch that happen with great satisfaction. It’s a completely different thing in its present incarnation than any of us anticipated. All of us get asked the question at some point or other to what do you a tribute to success and the continuing success of these Monkees tunes and these Monkees records and this Monkees phenomenon, and the answer consistently, across the four of us when we were together, was ‘I don’t know’. None of us know. I’ve never met a writer who knows. I’ve written a couple of books now and I don’t completely try to put my arms around it but I can certainly feel it.”
What’s that got to do with an audience coming to see The Monkees, or the remaining Monkees, in a theatre in 2019? Is this the replacement for the communal experience we had in our long, long-past childhood? Something new, or maybe just something older still?
“I’m writing a book now on television and it takes things that the music, that television, delivers into our living rooms at 7.30 at night, eating our dinner with our families and watching it, has gone frm within the lives and the collective consciousness in a way that I never anticipated. But it certainly is there [in the concerts] and it certainly is nourishing to the people that come. So that by the time the show is over, everybody’s on their feet, everybody’s having a great time, everybody remembers how the songs are, and they still have that magic.
“And we deliver it with all the respect that the songs deserve and we never abandon the notion that it was a television show. It was created for TV and it fostered itself on TV, it proffered itself on TV, and it’s part of our life where TV lives. It’s not so much a part of our life where pop music lives, although there is an intersection between the pop music of The Monkees and the cultural ties of television.”
He laughs at this, at himself, and says self-deprecatingly, shutting this down. “I’m getting a bit long winded here so I’ll shut up.”
For now, maybe. But not for long. Nesmith, and The Monkees, have a story likely to last at least as long as someone remembers those opening credits, or those first notes..
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.