Gotta watch out for the quiet ones. Especially the ones wearing knit pom-pom hats indoors.
Michael Nesmith died Friday, so there is now just one surviving Monkee, Mickey Dolenz. Nesmith was indeed a member of one of the first pre-packaged boy bands, but he was much more than that, which I will talk about further down.
I am a Gen X guy, aged 54, so one might wonder why I am writing about a “Boomer Band.” Well, The Monkees are kind of our band, too.
Many of us Gen Xers were introduced to The Monkees via syndication, often via those UHF stations that we watched as a kid. UHF stations showed a ton of “old shows” in the 1970s-1980s. By old shows, I mean programs from the 50s and 60s. I grew up in York, Pennsylvania, 50 miles from Baltimore and 90 miles from Philadelphia, so we got both cities TV stations, and when we got cable, we didn’t have to move around the rabbit ears to get a clear image of Maxwell Smart.
The Monkees were part of a kids’ TV show of shows known as Captain Chesapeake on a Baltimore TV station, and every day after school I’d hear the good Captain announce it was “four bells, and time for The Monkees.” (Four bells = 4 pm for you landlubbers) I found them funny, and as a shockingly knowledgable music kid (thanks to an older sibling, think Cameron Crowe in “Almost Famous”), also thought some of their stuff was pretty good.
Nesmith was my favorite. Something about his wry detachment struck me as extremely cool. When The Monkees made their return in the mid-late 80s during all the Summer of Love 20th anniversary nostalgia that was driven by a 1986 marathon of Monkee shows on MTV, I was disappointed Mike didn’t come along. But in a way, I got it.
Through my brother, I knew of his post-Monkee solo work and figured he didn’t want to be bothered with all that mess. His solo work is impressive, and if you are unfamiliar, I recommend checking it out. For starters, he wrote “Different Drum,” a hit song by The Stone Poneys, who had a big-eyed lead singer, Linda Ronstadt, who went on to do some things. Criminally Underrated White Bluesman Paul Butterfield and his Blues Band did Nesmith’s song “Mary, Mary” and he had another song, “Some of Shelly’s Blues” that was recorded by The Stone Poneys and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
I’ve often wondered why the network fought The Monkees’ so hard when they wanted to do their own thing and become a true band (which they eventually did, in a way). Granted, their songwriting stable for The Monkees included some punters like Carole King and Neil Diamond. But Nesmith was a solid songwriter in his own right, as were the other members of the group.
Nesmith then went on to a solid solo career, beginning with his First National Band and then, after they broke up, the Second National Band. Arguably, Nesmith did as much to create the genre of country rock as Gram Parsons, Poco, or Emmylou Harris. In my opinion, his best country-rock album is Just Your Standard Ranch Stash, which featured a long-haired Nesmith in cowboy hat winking, perhaps one of my favorite album covers ever.
As the 70s progressed, Nesmith became more involved in producing and became the head of his own label for a bit, then turned his attention to the infant genre of music videos. He created a video program called PopClips for Nickelodeon, and in 1980, it was purchased by Time Warner and used as the foundation for a silly little network known as MTV.
That’s not all, as Nesmith was an entertainment renaissance man. He was an executive producer for movies like “Repo Man” and “Tapeheads.” He raced in the Baja 1000 off-road race with P.J. O’Rourke. He was president of The Gihon Foundation that hosted The Council on Ideas, was a vice-chair of the American Film Institute, and wrote novels.
All this time, he kept on writing and recording music, including his final album “Rays” in 2006, and bringing back a version of The First National Band a few years ago. Unfortunately, by this time, his health was slowing him down.
I haven’t even covered everything the guy did, and yes, his mom really did invent Liquid Paper. It was a life pretty damn well lived for a guy who America first met as the quiet pom-pom hat guy in a made-for-TV rock band.
The last word goes to Mike, and I choose his wonderful tale of a woman who loves her whiskey a little too much.