The guy who wrote Different Drum and Rio and The Kind Of Girl I Could Love, one of the pioneers of country rock with his First National Band, an adventurer and innovator in music videos, a philosopher of TV and fame. And, yes, one of The Monkees – the band who weren’t real, and then became more than real.
Michael Nesmith lived a life, and then some. None of which made the news of his death late last week any less a jolt, especially if you saw him on his last tour in 2019 and revelled in the rare opportunity to see him perform.
To mark his death and his life, Wind Back Wednesday flits back two years to an expansive interview with Nesmith ahead of that tour with his bandmate, and now sole-living Monkee, Micky Dolenz. He was fascinating to speak with on music, fame, TV, history and what it is exactly that an audience wants. Or thinks it wants.
This interview, which ran in three parts originally, is here presented in one piece, so settle in for a bit of a read.
YES, THERE’S 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, 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.”
In the first part of this interview, Mike Nesmith let me down gently with the news that I wouldn’t be hearing If I Ever Get To Saginaw Again, and raised me up with the possibility that he might be back here soon for a solo tour with his First National Band.
Which is rather exciting, but that’s not who we are here to talk about after all, and if The Monkees don’t play Saginaw, surely we stand a decent chance of hearing Nesmith sing his self-penned The Kind Of Girl I Could Love or Mary Mary, alongside She, Pleasant Valley Sunday, Valleri and more.
This is not a shallow back catalogue, just as his is not a narrowly defined career, even if he more than the others has had a mixed relationship – both at the time and since the TV show and subsequent film, Head, wrapped – with that legacy.
It was Nesmith who led the revolt against the show’s original producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, to force them to allow the actors-turned-musicians to play on, write for and contribute more substantially to their records. There seemed for a long time a suspicion that Nesmith was not exactly a fan of that part of his life.
“Everybody’s grown up now, we’ve been through our salad days, and when I play Monkees songs I am not nourished by them in the same way I am nourished by other pop songs of that era, but I don’t dislike them in any way and I don’t dislike playing them in any sense,” Nesmith says. “I really do enjoy it quite a bit and it’s a rare moment for me because there’s not a lot of people that I know who get to do this and I have a smorgasbord to choose from.”
That smorgasbord isn’t just from our perspective though. Nesmith has come to see the value of childhood pleasures for all of us. Yes, even him.
“I am not a nostalgia buff at all, and I’m not one for going back and exhuming anything or poring over the ashes, but we, we being the collective humanity, have these great treasures lying around that we somehow overlook until something like Notre Dame happens and makes us all sit up and say wait a minute, these are treasures beyond measure,” he says. “I’m not putting The Monkees or Monkees songs in that category of Notre Dame in any way, but I am saying there are things there that formulated people’s early years and their childhood and when you come to the show that Mick and I are preparing for Australia and New Zealand you will see that we will deliver more than memories.
“It will revisit a time that remains constant throughout all of our lives. No one can get rid of their 12-year-old days. I don’t how to describe it as anything other than wonderful.”
One of the disappointing aspects of this Monkees tour - and disappointing is a rather severe understatement - is that it is coming without two of the band who have not survived: Davy Jones, who died in 2012, and Peter Tork, who was here with Dolenz in 2016, but died in February this year.
“It’s a shadow of its former self, no doubt,” says Nesmith. “Micky is the principal voice these days and we stick pretty close to what was popular in record sales and on the television show. That show seems to have a lot of traction and approbation. What Micky does is he provides a homage to those songs and I follow him right in. Doing the best I can.”
There is a sense, even more so presumably for Nesmith and Dolenz than for the rest of us, of honouring Jones and Tork and their work by still enjoying this ongoing phenomena. There’s no room for snark here. Not in the audience; not on the stage.
“The thing about it for me, it being the Monkees phenomena, is that is thoroughly good. Good on really every level: socially, spiritually, good craft, everything about it is good and it’s fun and it rewards our attention with something our attention is rarely rewarded with,” explains Nesmith.
“This band Mick and I are with just the lights up the stage and then it lights up the audience and everybody is so thrilled with it that the approbation is just overwhelming.
“And I can tell you, from having been in both places, that they are nearly identical: it’s almost like 1967. It doesn’t even have the slightest taint or aroma of nostalgia. It has this current power that really good popular music does.”
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 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 from 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.
SPOTIFY: Monkees fanatic, Nesmith fan, and all 'round music maven, John Encarnacao, has put together a playlist of Michael Nesmith songs - sung by him; written and sung by him - from The Monkees years. Enjoy a big hit of Nesmith here.