Charting the evolution of The Monkees’ Michael Nesmith
Michael Nesmith must have inherited pioneer genes from his mom, who famously invented Liquid Paper (Google it, kids). Arguably the most interesting member of The Monkees, Nesmith has played a crucial part in fusing music with television and video, first by playing guitar in the world’s first made-for-TV band, and then by coming up with the idea for MTV. For better or worse, his efforts have helped shape a music industry in which a powerful visual presentation is often as important to an artist’s success as the music itself.
As a Monkee, Nesmith was refreshingly forthcoming with his opinions on his own band’s industry-manufactured nature, once berating the group’s record company for promoting the illusion that the band was making its own music. Interestingly, his swan song as a member of the group was a TV commercial for Kool-Aid and Nerf Balls, ending with a shot of the irritated-looking musician declaring “E-Nerf’s E-Nerf” as Nerf products rained down upon him.
Just over a year after Davy Jones’ death, Nesmith, now 70, performs at The Rio Theatre on Tuesday, March 26. Backed by keyboardist Boh Cooper, bassist Joe Chemay and drummer Paul Leim, he will play a set consisting almost exclusively of post-Monkees solo material. GT took the opportunity to pick the singer/guitarist/songwriter’s brain about music-making, the bizarre 1967 concert tour that found The Jimi Hendrix Experience opening for The Monkees, and the even more bizarre 1968 full-length Monkees movie, Head, which, to this day, is one of the stranger cinematic experiences that a domesticated primate can have.
Good Times: I’ve always been fascinated with The Monkees’ movie, Head. Can you tell me a little about the writing sessions for that movie? Was there consciousness alteration involved?
Michael Nesmith: Do you mean drugs? As in psychotropics and the like? Not so much … and I hope that is not a disappointment! But there was nothing more than a little recreational pot smoked. Most of the inspiration came from a playful weekend pasting together the disparate past and laughing pretty hard at the pictures it conjured. The Monkees were surreal enough in their own right, and it didn’t take much to see and appreciate that from the center of the hurricane. I found myself gazing intently at, and pondering the surreality of, the whole thing.
To what extent do you feel you’ve influenced the music industry to be more visually oriented?
There are all sorts of natural connections in nature that I see regularly—simple, obvious connections, like food and fire. Film and music has had that obvious correlation to me since I first started in the arts. My efforts to develop that connection might have had something to do with the way the connection is perceived, but there were and are a lot of people who work in that form, especially now that the trail has been blazed.
What were your feelings about the pairing of The Monkees with Jimi Hendrix?
Touring with Jimi was just bizarre in the extreme—one of the great pop ironies. But his music remained transcendent, and I never missed a performance while he was with us; didn’t even miss a soundcheck. It was astounding to hear live. Hendrix was so extraordinary that he appeared almost plain when close up. He was a gentle soul and generous, especially to me, and simple, in the elegant sense of that word. Once, when watching him at a soundcheck, I thought, “This was what Wagner must have been like.” I liked him very much and enjoyed our time together, brief as it was.
What are some of the most rewarding aspects of making music?
Once I had my percussionist, Luis Conte, teach me the words to “Brazil” in Spanish, and I sang it that way on the Tropical Campfires album. He is Cuban, so I learned that accent and phrasing and sang the song the best I could with my own twang. Years passed, and one day a friend of mine who had just returned from Rio told me that while on the beach at Rio during Carnival, in a little bar there, he heard my version of “Brazil” played over and over and over one afternoon. That thrilled me. Of course, I didn’t write “Brazil,” but to feel just my recording of the song travel like that and to have someone bring it home to me is what I enjoy the most about songwriting: feeling and savoring the power of a song.
Michael Nesmith and his band perform at 8 p.m. Tuesday, March 26 at The Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $34. For more information, call 423-8209.