Michael Nesmith’s Good Riffs
Well into Michael Nesmith’s new “autobiographical riff,” Infinite Tuesday (Crown Archetype), he gives us reason to pause momentarily about the stories of his life he’s been sharing with us. In a conversation with an Australian journalist, Nesmith tells us, he chooses to lie to the reporter, and he tells the interviewer he’s going to lie. The journalist, Nesmith says, was at first quite surprised and then nonplussed, asking Nesmith the reasons he’s going to lie. The former Monkees guitarist simply replies that it’s because he “didn’t trust the press, that he didn’t expect him [the reporter] to tell the truth, so neither would” Nesmith. As Nesmith and the interviewer grow more comfortable with each other, Nesmith finds no opening to lie credibly, until the reporter asks about the sales of the Monkees records; Nesmith replies that “we sold over thirty-five million records in 1967; more than the Beatles and the Rolling Stones combined.” The journalist diligently writes down the statement, and it appears as fact in the next day’s paper, and until now—as Nesmith tells this story for the first time ever—that record number has stood as truth.
Does this mean we can’t trust the earlier stories Nesmith has told us? Of course not, since this is one riff layered over many others, played in Nesmith’s playful, creative, and candid way. By the mid-1980s, when he was in the midst of making music videos and when he was starting to re-evaluate much of his personal life, Nesmith discovers a truth that he lays bare with this story: “I had started to understand the fundamental importance of trust, and becoming trustworthy had moved to the top of my active endeavors. But there was a kind of hucksterism in corners of the business world that I found myself constantly tripping over. Such was not the case in the arts or in philanthropy, or even in the majority of businesspeople I knew and did business with, because I could usually see the traps and falls and they were usually honest and forthright. But I could not see it when ordinary people broke trust or purposefully and maliciously lied in a business deal. I simply couldn’t imagine people being that evil.”
In the 1980s, he learns one of his most instructive lessons about trust and the extent to which those in positions of power will go to get what they want, no matter the cost to the human spirit. Nesmith, already engaged in making videos and turning his creative vision toward eventually combining music and video, started buying and licensing documentaries—he licensed the entire series of Jacques Cousteau documentaries on the ocean and sea life—under the company name Pacific Arts, which turned out to be, at the time, the largest “nontheatrical video catalog in the world.” Pacific Arts eventually attracts the attention of PBS, which tried to acquire it from Nesmith. In the end, the deal went sour, sending Nesmith and PBS into a protracted court fight that Nesmith won, being awarded $47.5 million in direct and punitive damages by a jury.
These riffs loom large in Nesmith’s song of life because from the beginning he admits that his “natural bent was toward peace and love … harmony and tolerance … kindness, loyalty, mercy, and forgiveness.” And these proclivities toward love and peace echo loudly throughout his book. Nesmith weaves the facts of his life like a colorful thread through the book—his growing up in San Antonio as the only child of a single mother, Betty, who went on to amass a fortune by inventing Liquid Paper; his early infatuation with music (he was 3 years old when the muse entered his life: “it felt solid and natural and dependable”); his lurching college years and his time in the Air Force; his marriage to Phyllis, and her influence on him (she “opened a door into a whole world of literature and music and art”); his stint with the Monkees; his friendships with Douglas Adams, Jack Nicholson, Jimi Hendrix, and John Lennon, among others; and his explorations of Christian Science, the religion to which his mother was devoted and to which he turns eventually in search of ways to explore the mysteries of the infinite.
As Nesmith tells us, “A good riff can embody and express the essence of a song or melody in just a few notes, the same way a quick anecdote can frame an actual event, making its spirit clear even to those not present to those at the event.” Infinite Tuesday is so chock full of these good riffs that every page glimmers with some insight into Nesmith’s relationship with others or his discoveries about himself and his work.
For example, after the Monkees breakup and following his own attempts to put together another band, he reflects that he “was learning, by experience, a little bit of ‘bandology’—that having songs and players and uniforms and a bit of skill does not by itself create great music … besides loving the music, it takes inspiration, a point of view, and a workable sense of artistry—and after all that, very hard work and perseverance.”
He’s also honest with us and himself when he admits that “Over the years I have become more comfortable with talking to myself. One of the benefits of talking to myself is that I always know when I am being ironic. Because being ironic depends on saying something you don’t mean as if you mean it, or saying something that isn’t true as if it is … it is a precise tool that can cut deep.”
In contrast to the titles of Davy Jones’ memoir, They Made a Monkee Out of Me, and Mickey Dolenz’s memoir, I’m a Believer, Nesmith is canny enough never to let anyone make him a monkey and wary enough not to believe the tales of those who would say that good artistry comes with ease and without some cost to body and soul. Nesmith’s autobiographical riffs cascade over us in sparkling layers so that we’re washed in his brilliance, his candor, his genius, and his compelling insights into music, movies, and the business that drives them both.