Michael Nesmith: A Cosmic Monkee on the Rise
If any Texas born country singer-songwriter could be considered a cosmic cowboy it would have to be Michael Nesmith. After even a brief perusal of his 70’s solo albums it becomes clear if Gram Parsons coined the term “Cosmic American Music,” Nesmith certainly defined and expanded it. A listen to his current album, Rays, solidifies his credentials as a surveyor and journeyman in the American music landscape extending beyond any label, which he believes only limits the first-hand experience of music as something words cannot capture. How do we label or define something so elusive, he wonders? According to Nesmith in a recent interview, “I steer away from labels and especially generalized or categorizing ones — words aren’t precise enough, unless they are made up.”
These thoughts reflect the experience of Rays, which combines styles and textures into something ethereal but still connected. It is musical alchemy at its finest. He continues today with the same approach as his early post-Monkee days pushing the envelope just a bit ahead of the rest of the crowd in the music business.
As executives, record companies, artists and producers have scrambled to keep up with the changes in the music industry, Nesmith remains the pacesetter with new adventures like his Video Ranch 3D, where audiences are invited in real-time to experience a virtual concert. If it fulfills its potential Nesmith may once again be a jump ahead of us all in terms of how we experience music as individuals and as a community.
From his beginning days as a host of Doug Weston’s Troubadour on the Monday Hootenanny nights to, his first song publishing gig with The New Christy Minstrels’ Randy Sparks, it was his good fortune to be cast in the pre-fab’d four television band, The Monkees, that would place him squarely on national television and the pop music charts. From 1965 to 1968 The Monkees would sell millions of records while America tuned in to the comparatively hip-minded, Hard Day’s Night inspired tv show smack in the middle of broadcasts that included I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched. The production team of Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, who were behind the television show, would later bring us American classic films like Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces and would help launch the career of Jack Nicholson.
While few of his own songs were used during the Monkee’s era–one notable exception was the way-ahead-of-its-time country-rock song “Papa Gene’s Blues,” from the first Monkee’s album–he managed to archive most of his songwriting for future use or for other artists.
Today, Nesmith’s thoughts about The Monkees lasting legacy are uncertain, “I’m not sure where The Monkees are in rock & roll history since that history is still being written by the hands of time.” He said. “If I had to guess I would say that television will figure prominently in what the Monkees were and what they meant to their audience.”
However, The Monkees have become one of the more durable pop bands of modern times. Nesmith’s contribution has proven to be fairly sizable as he helped steer them from television fiction to a real band through their most successful days of touring and recording. Today, The Monkees recorded legacy stands as substantially good pop-rock music with well crafted songs, creative studio production and a vibrant energy that holds water today.
One of the main contributions of The Monkees, who have recently been inducted into the Pop Music Hall of Fame, was the bridge they provided between the Brill Building stable of songwriters, so active in the early 60’s, waiting to break out from the conventions that had begun to stifle them later in the decade. This was one branch that would bloom into the singer-songwriter movement that had its roots in the early 60’s and would later give birth to the careers of James Taylor and Carole King. The Monkees early albums gave them an outlet. Songwriting credits on the band’s first two albums reveal some of the best of the era including Carole King, Gerry Coffin, Neil Sedaka, Carol Bayer Sager, Neil Diamond and David Gates. And of course, their classic, “Daydream Believer,” was penned by San Diego’s own native son, former Kingston Trio member, John Stewart.
The other major contribution coming from The Monkees’ legacy, which Nesmith may not admit to, is Michael Nesmith himself.
From 1965 on, he began to make his mark as a skilled and gifted songwriter. It was a mark that would largely go unnoticed as he wrote songs recorded by artists as diverse as The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (“Some of Shelly’s Blues,”) Linda Ronstadt (“Different Drum”), and Paul Butterfield Blues Band (“Mary, Mary”)
In 1970, following The Monkees’ first demise, Nesmith’s career as a country-rock recording artist was assured. During the early 70’s he would release a series of albums that enlarged the scope of what Gram Parsons was calling ‘Cosmic American Music,’ that would find a home a few decades later under the label, Americana. However, staying true to his own experience and philosophy, Nesmith says, “Americana is one of those words that almost gets it right, but the spirit and the sound are elusive to verbal or written description, like most art. I know it when I hear it, of course, and yes it resonates with me — but I don’t use the word to express it.”
His solo career trajectory proved to be a unique one broad with rock and roll visions, honky tonk poetry with a distinctive Hoagy Carmichael like melodic twists in style. While his albums didn’t burn up the charts, he had two moderate hit songs in “Joanne,” and “Silver Moon.” A later song, “Rio,” would also prove to be well-loved over the years.
The series of albums from the 70’s with titles like Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash, Infinite Rider on the Big
Dogma and From a Radio Engine to a Photon Wing were imaginative, well-crafted and consistently satisfying records. However, what many fans and critics may consider to be his best work happened in 1972 when he was left without a band and was still under contract with a record to make. And The Hits Just Keep on Coming, is an eloquent and beautifully conceived album which includes just Nesmith and steel guitarist, Red Rhodes. The exchange between the two musicians reflects the personal bond between them that come across clear on the album. Rhodes, a veteran L.A. based pedal steel player, was the one constant in Nesmith’s career until his death in 1995.
But, going back to his earliest days as a Texas folk singer, Nesmith was a restless soul, always looking for something new, a breakthrough. He would find it in the early 80’s and once again, television would provide the direction. In 1981, Nesmith released the innovative, comical and entertaining, Elephant Parts. Widely considered to be the first music video, it consisted of comic skits with video presentations of original songs by Nesmith. It went on to win the first ever Grammy for a music video the same year. Later, in 1985, he continued the concept on with a short-lived summer replacement series called, Television Parts. Guest artists included Garry Shandling, Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfield, Whoopi Goldberg, Arsenio Hall, Jerry Lee Lewis, Rosanne Cash and Jimmy Buffett.
Following the success of Elephant Parts in 1981, Nesmith, executive produced a show called PopClips to be broadcast on the still fledging cable media outlet, Warner Cable. It was the same concept as Elephant Parts without comedy allowing major artists of the day like The Pretenders, Thin Lizzy and even The Rolling Stones to release video promotions for their newest work. The show was bought by Nickelodeon, but soon became the basis for the launch of MTV. The rest is television and music history.
Through the intermittent years, The Monkees experienced comebacks and reunions, the first being their 1986 tour which found them a top concert draw and their greatest hits and even the previously released, The Birds, the Bees and the Monkees, back on the charts. Although, Nesmith was happy with the new found success for his old band, he only joined them onstage at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles. Reunions would be reoccurring through the years for the band, but he returned to full time touring with them after the untimely death of bandmate, Davy Jones in 2012. The 2012 through 2013 Nesmith version of The Monkees continued the band’s critical and commercial success of previous years with their final shows of 2013 being considered among the best ever in their long history. Nesmith’s trade seems to be in the first-hand experience of art which he has sought to put into the hands of the audience as both participators and fans. It is really a much larger scope, vision and experience than most consider making today’s techo-rush seem static in comparison with our downloads, headphones and frequently passive modes and emphasis on isolation over community. With all of his experience in technology, he continues to thrive on audience contact. “ I started as a “live” performer, in front of audiences — and never really stopped. TV and Film were hard for me. I love the moment and the interaction between the crowd and performers since I feel we are all on stage together, creating our worlds.”With his current tour and as he brings his particular magic to the stage, Michael Nesmith carries on down the same path he began and has walked with integrity, imagination and his own brand of creative genius.
Michael Nesmith is currently on a solo tour with dates including April 29th at The Roxy in Hollywood, Ca.,The Belly Up in Solana Beach on April 30th and the Stagecoach Festival on April 27th. For more dates visit his concert schedule on the 3D Video Ranch. This article originally appeared in San Diego Troubadour.