The first generation of that singular brand of celebrity known as the “rock star” came into being in the early-to-middle 1960s. That group included a lot of Englishmen: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Keith Richard. But the Yanks had their share of rock royalty as well. Think Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Jimi Hendrix…and the world first saw and heard four others on September 12, 1966: Davy Jones, Peter Tork, Micky Dolenz and Michael Nesmith: The Monkees.
Every one of those musicians who have survived are still writing and performing music, in varying degrees of frequency and grandiosity. Nesmith, who now resides in Carmel Valley, has slowed down his touring schedule to a complete stop, but hasn’t entered anything approaching retirement. In the latest of an astonishing string of accomplishments—any one of which would be enough to define the career of a successful entrepreneur—the 74-year-old iconoclast has penned “Infinite Tuesday: An Autobiographical Riff,” an often irreverent, frequently funny, always glib look at his life and times.
“I’ve always thought of myself as a writer,” he says. “I have a natural feel for it.” Surprising to many, surely, but not to those who have read the two long-form novels he’s published, or those who are lucky enough to be included among his 5,000 Facebook friends. He’s the kind of writer who other writers are nervous about writing about. Nesmith is possessed of a wry sense of humor paired with a keen, insightful, rapier-sharp intellect that belies his laid-back, Texas-drawl mien.
“My life changed when I learned how to type by using the ‘Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing’ course,” he says. “Before, I couldn’t get the words down fast enough. Mavis saved my life.”
In the decades prior to learning that valuable skill, Nesmith’s life was one of nearly Forest Gumpian diversity. Born in Houston and raised in Dallas, he was drawn to music through his school choir and wrote poetry. His mother, Bette Nesmith Graham, worked as a secretary and hit upon the idea of using paint to correct mistakes on typewritten documents.
Her invention, Liquid Paper, made her a multi-millionaire. “My mom used to make vacation arrangements in Carmel for her boss,” her son recalls. “She decided to see what the attraction was, so when she got a little ahead, she visited and bought a home in 1963.”
The young Nesmith knocked around as a musician and songwriter, and like so many aspiring performers, made his way to Los Angeles in the early 1960s. A music-industry connection led him to audition for a new television show, concocted to cash in on the current mania surround the Beatles, Rolling Stones and other teen idols.
To those born perhaps after 1980, The Monkees were always real-life musicians, members of an actual pop band that did all the usual rock star stuff like living in a beach house together, making records, appearing on fan magazine covers, going on tour and having their own weekly prime-time network television series. Wait…what? TV series?
Truth be, the Monkees were initially a Hollywood fabrication: a “Pre-Fab Four,” ala the Monty Python inspired group The Rutles. Producers perceived them as actors, and they were not allowed to perform on their early recorded efforts (except to sing—instrumental duties were handled mainly by a team of top-tier LA session musicians known as “The Wrecking Crew”). The show was wildly popular, but the four young men soon began to assert their desire to be taken seriously as, well, real-life musicians.
And they were. Jones had performed as the Artful Dodger in “Oliver!” (receiving a Tony nomination); Tork was an experienced New York folkie; Dolenz sang lead with his band “Micky and the One-Nighters.” Michael Nesmith, known on the show as “Mike,” was an experienced musician and songwriter.
The television show had a run of 58 episodes, but thanks to syndication— and, later, YouTube—continues to earn new fans. And the band has continued to perform live, mostly without Nesmith’s participation, but sometimes with it, especially after Jones passed away in 2012.
“I thought it was fitting to do some sort of memorial tribute after David died,” he says. “I had not thought I’d ever go back out, but it was fun and the songs were easy to play.” He followed that up with a short solo tour.
“When I got back, Micky and Peter wanted to put together a bigger show, take it up a notch.” Other interests won out, however. “I thought, ‘This is getting to be more of my life than I want it to be,’ but I decided to do it one more time, not the whole tour, but dates here and there.”
Those included a show at Monterey’s Golden State Theatre in August 2016 and a 50th anniversary performance in LA.
“I was in the middle of my book deadline, and all the pins lined up to walk away,” he says. “It was time to close it all down, but I was glad to have the opportunity to say goodbye to the fans.”
Since his teen idol days, Nesmith has released nearly two dozen albums, including 1977s’ “From a Radio Engine to the Photon Wing” that contained the single, “Rio.” Under the aegis of his production company Pacific Arts, he was inspired to create a promotional video film for the single. Looking for a way to disseminate it to a wide audience, he produced a television show, “Pop Clips” that morphed into music juggernaut MTV. He is widely acknowledged as a leader in the nascent LA country rock scene that gave rise to bands like the Eagles. And also with Pacific Arts, he was among the first to distribute programming for the home video market that took root in the 1980s. A long-form comedy/music video, “Elephant Parts” (filmed almost entirely on the Monterey Peninsula) was released in 1981 and led to a short-lived series, “Television Parts,” that featured then-unknown performers such as Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno and Whoopi Goldberg.
That’s an impressive string of firsts, one that might lead some to call him a pioneer, but Nesmith is typically modest about it.
“I don’t think of myself that way,” he says. “I understand the point and I understand how someone might look back and think that. I haven’t chosen that for myself. I’m comfortable going out and exploring and covering uncovered territories. I love discovery. It’s an important element of thought. The road less traveled, innovation and discovery and the basis of an idea are wildly appealing to me.”
An unusual project Nesmith recently participated in consisted of providing a song for a sculpture installation by Texas artist/musician Terry Allen. “Road Angel” is a bronze replica of a ’53 Chevy, seemingly abandoned among trees at Laguna Gloria in Austin. The work contains a sound system that plays a six-hour loop of spoken stories, electronic music and songs, including one by Nesmith, “Dance of the Mother and Child.”
“That song…I listened to it over and over,” Allen says. “It really works in that car.” The piece struck a chord deep in Nesmith.
“When I saw it, I thought of a family driving cross-country and their car broke down here,” Nesmith says. “The idea that there are these journeys that we take off on, these efforts we make and for some reason, they don’t fulfill or complete the path we have for them. Seems sad at the time. But even though the trip broke down, another trip persists and continues…I thought that was rich content for the piece and I think it has a deep resonance for me. That music is one of the most satisfying things I’ve done.”
The songwriter has made a free download of “Dance of the Mother Child” available at www.tinyurl.com/nesmithroadangel.
Allen adds: “That’s one of the interesting things about that car. It became a vehicle for people to hang either surface or real deep ideas about motion, or music and cars or nostalgia.”
What’s next? “Infinite Tuesday” was recently released and Nesmith is in demand from media outlets for interviews. Early reviews are positive. Maybe there will be a book tour; maybe not. It’s a sure bet that whatever Michael Nesmith does, it will be done his way, under his own terms and in his own inimitable style.
“I curate my life consciously,” he says. “It’s not a good idea to let anything that blows the door open to come in that door. Close the door on thoughts you don’t want, and leave it open to the sunlight and the things you do want.”
A warning on his Video Ranch website pretty much sums up that philosopy: “Be aware ‘Contact Us’ doesn’t always work.”