On Dec. 10, 2021, Michael Nesmith died at age 79. I should have been ambivalent about his death; back in 2014 Mike Nesmith had left me holding the proverbial bag — an empty bag. When I first started writing about music over 50 years ago, I made a list of Texas artists I wanted to interview. Since that time, I’ve been lucky enough to interview many of the people on my list. Several have been (for me) impossible to reach. I’ve called Willie Nelson’s publicist so many times, we’re on a first-name basis. She once told me, “Willie says he’s tired of interviews; you have his permission to use any old interview out there.” Fine — but I wanted to interview him about growing up in Texas. Don Henley is the same story. I told his publicist, “I want to interview Don about his early bands in Texas — not the Eagles.” No response.
Mike Nesmith was another interview I genuinely wanted. We both grew up in Dallas, and he’s always been a favorite artist. I followed his career with the Monkees and afterwards, buying all his albums, including the depressing two-record set The Prison. I told his publicist, “I don’t want to talk about the Monkees,” knowing Nesmith had a special dislike for answering questions about the pre-Fab Four. “I want to interview him about his days before the Monkees, growing up in Texas — his early music and his career after the group ended.”
In 2013 Nesmith stiffed me for an interview I was promised. Finally, on June 15, 2014, I was promised another. I was ecstatic. I had all my questions and tape equipment ready. But when I called the number at the appointed time, I was told by his publicist, “I’m sorry, Mike has decided not to do the interview.” I was crushed. “This is the second time he’s stiffed me!” I exclaimed. The publicist replied, apologetically, “I can’t control Mike’s mind.” From my youth I recall old-timey Southern-type Texans who’d say “Bless you” when you coughed. Then there were the ornery Texans who told Santa Anna, “Come and Take It” when the Mexican dictator wanted his measly cannon back. Mike Nesmith was more like the latter. Jerry Jeff Walker called these Texans “contrary to ordinary.”
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In the 1947 film noir classic Nightmare Alley, Tyrone Power, as con artist/mentalist Stan Carlisle, ponders aloud, “I wonder what makes me that way — I only think about myself.” That line sums up Nesmith. His entire life, Nesmith was an exceedingly difficult person to like. Lester Sill was one of the finest and best-loved of all old-time music men — he taught Phil Spector the so-called Wall of Sound technique. Sill once said, “I hold Mike responsible for breaking up the Monkees. That was his intention, and I tell him that when I see him. I told him he played the part of a cold-hearted Rasputin that didn’t consider Mickey [Dolenz], Davy [Jones] or Peter [Tork].”
Jones once said, “Mike could be quite tall when he wanted to be — not to mention rude, arrogant, belligerent and aggressive. He says yes, yes, yes, then does what he wants to do.” Tork, in a 2004 interview, added, “I don’t know how he came to be that way, but the poor boy can’t work with anyone else.” Dolenz recalled, “He’s a person who likes to control all aspects — that’s why he writes and makes films.” In his autobiography, Infinite Tuesday, Nesmith said when the Monkees ended, he worried he wouldn’t find a single person to work with him — he was so disliked. He freely admitted his flaws, including his selfishness. Nesmith wanted total control; in fact, Randi Massingill titled her biography about Nesmith Total Control.
Yet the man practically invented country-rock. He created some of the finest examples of this type of music with his two groups, the First National Band and the Second National Band. Rolling Stone called these efforts, “The best music you’ve never heard.” He made movies that were ahead of their time. He formed the basis for the idea of MTV. He had a TV show that introduced to the public many groundbreaking comics such as Garry Shandling. His company, Pacific Arts, owned the rights to hundreds of documentaries and distributed these for public television.
Nesmith also received a groundbreaking patent before he died for a 3-D filming process. In the end, when I heard Nesmith had died, I couldn’t ignore Papa Nez; I shed a tear. I couldn’t forget the times his music elated me. Nesmith should have been recalled for more than a green wool hat, but his ability to dismiss others caused his legacy to diminish.
What made Nesmith this way? He flunked out of high school, but his gordian knot of a mind created a genius poet, lyricist and linguist. He was kicked out of the Air Force, yet his organizational skills made him a multi-millionaire several times in his life. He dismissed his time with the Monkees, but their music has outlived most of their contemporaries and lasted for more than 50 years, making Nesmith a legendary figure. But just who was Mike Nesmith?
Robert Michael Nesmith was born in Houston on Dec. 30, 1942. His mother Bette and his father Warren married just two months prior to Warren heading overseas for World War II. The two never really knew each other, and by the time Warren returned home, Bette was ready for a divorce. Michael, as he was always known, was 4 years old. Bette had a bad bout with kidney poisoning — she also was living a wild lifestyle. A Christian Science practitioner met with Bette, and she became “healed,” either through a miracle or mentally. Whatever passed, Bette became a devoted practitioner of Christian Science, a religious belief she’d pass on to Michael.
Mary Baker Eddy founded the Church of Christ, Scientist in 1870 — the church was set up in 1879. The religion, which has sharply declined since World War II, practices healing through prayer and devout worship. Christian Science teachings eschew using medical doctors (although it isn’t prohibited). The church has no clergy and uses readers for worship services. Bette believed in Christian Science to the point of being a fanatic. When Mike hurt his hand seriously as a youngster, she didn’t take him to a doctor. As a result, Nesmith couldn’t make a fist with his hand, and he lost the use of his third finger. This hampered his guitar playing as an adult. Nesmith says in his autobiography, “Every time Bette and I talked, a portion of the conversation was devoted to Christian Science teachings.”
In 1948, Bette and Mike moved to Dallas to be near her relatives, two sisters and a brother-in-law. A great uncle, Chick Adair, became a huge influence on Nesmith. Bette received a small inheritance and bought a modest five-room house. Nesmith wrote several times during his lifetime, “My life in Dallas was miserable.” He hated his house, hated his school and often remarked he lived a “block away from poor Black people.” Nesmith often claimed he attended a “colored high school,” but like many of his stories, this was fabricated. He attended Thomas Jefferson High School, which was segregated and all white during his attendance.
Bette became a secretary, and when electric typewriters became the norm, she discovered, like many secretaries, mistakes could hardly be erased away. Bette experimented with paints, and, after attending a local paint manufacturing plant, she learned to mix paints. The result was a famous invention: Liquid Paper. Bette mixed the potion at home and at first sold the bottles from her house. After being fired for doing Liquid Paper business at work, Bette bought a building and started her own business. She became a model of female success to women everywhere.
Nesmith did some work for his mother’s company, but he was often distracted. In high school he took to just leaving class if he didn’t like the subject. He enjoyed choir and acting class — he had roles in several school plays. But he often skipped classes and sat in on others he didn’t belong in. He’d sit for hours outside of a music store, listening to an organ player. Later he went to work in the store by just continuing to show up and sweeping. The store owner paid him in records.
Nesmith, who loved Hank Williams, discovered Bo Diddley. He learned during this period to do whatever he wanted. If James Dean was Rebel without a Cause, Mike Nesmith was nerd without a cause. Nesmith often went to Louann’s, a popular teen club in Dallas, where he saw his hero Bo Diddley in concert. He finally quit school. Bette remarried frozen food salesperson Bob Graham in 1962. This upset Nesmith such that he stole the family Triumph and drove to California. When he came home, Bette insisted he join the Air Force. Mike obtained his GED while in the Air Force.
The Air Force didn’t work out when Nesmith tipped over a general’s airplane he was supposed to be cleaning. He was given a general discharge from the service. In his book, Nesmith claims he asked out of the Air Force, and they let him leave voluntarily. This is unlikely, since during this period military service was mandatory. Upon coming home, he moved in with Uncle Chick Adair and Aunt Aida and started attending San Antonio Junior College. For Christmas, Bette and her husband bought Nesmith a guitar after he expressed interest in folk music. He learned to play it by teaching himself in three months.
Nesmith became something of a local celebrity on the folk circuit in San Antonio. He and partner John Kuehne (who performed as John London) played folk favorites and some of Nesmith’s songs. Nez, as he was called, had a Triumph Bonneville motorcycle, and he made the rounds with a green wool hat he wore to keep his hair in place. He met Phyllis Barbor, whose father was a career military man stationed at Fort Sam Houston. He was at once attracted to Phyllis when he said, “Nine is brown” and she answered, “Three is red.” He lived in a garage apartment — to pay his rent, he read to his landlady’s blind son, who was studying law.
Nesmith’s autobiography is a brilliant study in the English language. His catch phrases for events and quips border on genius. I would suspect his grasp of linguistics happened because of his reading/study sessions with the blind man. While living there, he didn’t own a TV — he and Phyllis asked the landlord if they could watch the Beatles during their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. “It changed my life,” Nesmith said. He decided to drop out of school, tooling around San Antonio in his Austin Healy “bug-eyed” Sprite, playing wherever he could. Nesmith managed a few local record deals and briefly played in a group called the Trinity River Boys and recorded on a local label owned by Phil Spector called Prospector. The Trinity River Boys included John Kuehne and Michael Martin Murphey.
Nesmith soon ran out of money, so he briefly left San Antonio and went to work in Dallas for his mother’s thriving business. He returned to San Antonio on June 27, 1964, and married Phyllis, who was pregnant. His mother gave him a new MG 1100 (with one payment made) and Nesmith, Phyllis and John Kuehne packed a small trailer and loaded into the MG and headed for Los Angeles for fame and glory.
Nesmith and Kuehne hired an agent, and she sent them on a 40-city tour of smaller towns and cities in Texas. Nesmith was happy with the tour — the people who turned out seemed to enjoy his songs, and while walking around in some rural cities he was mistaken for George Harrison. Joy turned to sadness, however, when arriving back in Los Angeles, Nesmith found out his agent had stolen most of the money from the tour.
He attended folk workshops with Michael Martin Murphey and John Denver and did some folk gigs. He was the MC at the Troubadour on open mic nights. Nesmith became popular for his chatter. He signed a deal with Colpix records to do some recording and released a record under the name Michael Blessing. Colpix was the recording branch of Screen Gems, the TV arm of Columbia Pictures. Nesmith was notified about a new TV show that would be a take on A Hard Day’s Night, the popular Beatles movie. A fictional band was to be formed, all living together, and the show would consist of skits written with musical scenes in between. No one had any idea this would revolutionize popular music.
Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider created the show. After hundreds of auditions and scientific audience research, the four Monkees were picked for the TV show — Nesmith, Tork (both musicians), Dolenz (a former child star who was a competent actor) and Jones, from the theater in London. It was an opportunity for worldwide fame. Nesmith won his part when he showed up for his audition wearing the green wool hat he wore while riding his motorcycle. Actor/director James Frawley gave the boys acting classes, and they recorded songs selected by Don Kirshner of Screen Gems with the Wrecking Crew in L.A. The boys would later practice three months and became capable of playing their hits on tour. (Dolenz says they played 200 concerts the first year.)
The series was an unprecedented hit, winning the Emmy in 1967 for Best Comedy Series. The music sold millions — the first LP, The Monkees sold five million copies and was No. 1 for 13 weeks. It was replaced at No. 1 by More of the Monkees, which sold five million copies and was No. 1 for 18 weeks. In total, both albums were No. 1 for 31 straight weeks.
Nesmith, as has been well documented, bristled under the control of Kirshner. He says he had assumed the band would be real, and he and the others could release their own material. Nesmith had songs written before the Monkees. He offered his wonderful song, “Different Drum,” for the group. It was rejected and became the first and best hit song by Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys. On the first album, Nesmith wrote two songs, “Papa Gene’s Blues” and “Sweet Young Thing.” His song “Mary, Mary” was first recorded by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band prior to being placed on More of the Monkees along with “The Kind of Girl I could Love.”
All this success wasn’t enough for Nesmith. He threatened to quit the group in a meeting at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where he punched the wall. He wanted the Monkees to be an actual group. The result was Headquarters, an album where the Monkees produced, wrote and played nearly all of the material. The album didn’t include the last Kirshner-supervised recording, “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You.” The Neil Diamond–written song reached No. 2 and went gold without appearing on an album. Headquarters reached No. 1, but without Diamond’s hit single, the album sales dropped to two million copies. It’s a fine LP, with Nesmith standout compositions “Sunny Girlfriend,” “You Told Me” and “You Just May Be the One.”
Dolenz’s song “Randy Scouse Git” reached No. 2 in England but inexplicably wasn’t released in America. On the next album, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd., Nesmith sang lead on five cuts, including a rousing version of “What Am I Doing Hangin’ ’round?” a song written by his old Texas friends Michael Martin Murphey and Owen Castleman. Nesmith began to withhold his best songs, upset that he hadn’t received a lead vocal on a 45-rpm single. This wouldn’t happen till the Monkees train had slowed down considerably with Listen to the Band in 1969, which reached only No. 63 on the Billboard charts.
By this time, the Monkees had blown up their image with the Jack Nicholson–written movie Head. After Headquarters the group all did their own thing musically, and on the TV show Soundstage, they lounged in a converted meat locker full of pillows. The meat locker was often visited by young groupies. Screen Gems star Sally Field tells in her book how she was trapped in her trailer by Jones and other Monkees till rescued by an assistant.
The boys were wild. Nesmith was fully engulfed by “hubris syndrome.” In his book, Nesmith calls it “Celebrity Psychosis.” He was disliked by everyone he worked with. He thought he and Nicholson were good friends after working together on Head, but later Nicholson said, “Don’t come over unless you call first.” Nesmith treated Phyllis poorly — the couple had three children, but he also had a child out of wedlock with Monkees photographer Nurit Wilde. In 1968, Phyllis drove her Lamborghini off a cliff on Mulholland Drive. She had a broken hip and a tear in her mouth from lip to ear. When Nesmith heard the ambulance took her to the hospital, he was furious. “Bring her home,” he roared, his Christian Science beliefs kicking in.
She spent five days with a prayer practitioner and walked down the stairs on her own. Keith Allison saw her afterward and said, “There was just a pink line from her mouth to her ear.” Nesmith would later claim she was healed. The couple divorced in 1972 after Nesmith ran off with his best friend’s wife. By March 1970 he bought out his remaining Monkees contract for $160,000. The buyout left him broke, then the IRS hit Nesmith for over $300,000 dollars in back taxes. The future looked bleak, but Nesmith worked out a five-record deal with RCA. Nesmith centered his new band around steel guitar session man Orville “Red” Rhodes. The group was called the First National Band. The music was anything but Monkees pop. Nesmith had been going to the Palomino club in L.A., watching country acts. He wanted to fuse country and rock, a style experimented with by Gram Parsons and the Byrds.
The music was brilliant. Rolling Stone writer Andy Greene later remarked, “It was like finding a whole new universe of music.” Nesmith had a hit single, “Joanne,” written with serendipitous lyrics. Hauntingly beautiful, Nesmith’s vocals-with-a-yodel, along with the lyric “But staying with her / And my little bit of wisdom / Broke down her desires like the light through a prism / Into yellow and blues / And a tune I could not have sung” are pure poetry. The song rose to No. 21 on the Billboard charts in October 1970, No. 4 in Canada, No. 7 in Australia and No. 1 in New Zealand. Nesmith’s First National and Second National band LPs (along with a genius project, And the Hits Just Keep on Coming, in 1972, which is Nesmith solo with Red Rhodes) are today considered pioneering efforts of country rock.
In 1973 Nesmith would release his finest solo album, Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash. The LP is Nesmith’s high-water mark, with a rating of 4.5 stars from AllMusic.com. Nesmith couldn’t understand why the Eagles were making it with the same music he invented, while his albums languished in bargain bins. He later said he was “Van Gogh agonized to the point of cutting something off.” He seemed at his best when his back was against the wall. He’d been to England and noticed how the singers there would do “pop clips” of their songs, showing just their heads. He took the idea home and launched a video of his song “Rio” with a fantasy. He married his girlfriend, Kathryn Bild, in 1976 and devoted himself more to Christian Science.
His idea with “Rio” became a TV show, Pop Clips, on Nickelodeon. The show was a hit, and Nesmith sold the idea to Time/Warner who developed it into MTV. He then produced a TV special, Elephant Parts, which won the first Grammy for a music video. From this, Nesmith created a TV show, Television Parts. Although the show failed, it introduced Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Whoopi Goldberg and Gary Shandling to television.
Nesmith’s beloved mother, Bette, died on May 12, 1980, at age 56. She was bitter — she had to sell her Liquid Paper company to Gillette after being forced out of her royalties in late 1979, but she made nearly $48 million. Nesmith didn’t have money and was living deep in debt at one point, but he became awash with money. Realizing VHS tape was the next big deal coming, Nesmith decided to try to combine tape with music.
He created a company, Pacific Arts, which was involved in VHS, eight-track and cassette tape distribution. Nesmith also dabbled in movies — he made the cult classic Repo Man, Time Rider, Square Dance and Tape Heads. The movies lost money, and Nesmith recalled in his book that he’d become what he despised: “a hamburger Hollywood mogul” — nouveau rich with money to burn.
Pacific Arts was a success. Nesmith bought up the rights to documentaries he correctly realized would be needed for VHS players in the home market. His company became the distributor of video tapes for PBS, including top-selling brands like Ken Burns’ The Civil War and Masterpiece Theater.
Nesmith had a resurgence of sorts as a businessperson. In 1986, MTV aired The Monkees again as a salute to their 20th anniversary. No one had foreseen the show would become a huge hit again, especially with teenagers. Nesmith appeared with the trio once or twice, but mostly avoided the excitement unless it suited his agenda. In 1987 he and Kathryn divorced quietly. Nesmith began to have troubles with Pacific Arts; PBS sued, and there were countersuits. The legal mess would go on for nearly 10 years.
In 1990 Nesmith met a model named Victoria Kennedy and was smitten. She was 24 years his junior, but he felt a connection. They married in 2000 but divorced in 2011 when Nesmith discovered she was cheating with another man. He felt it was partially deserved, considering his past life. Nesmith was crushed and seemingly lost. Then in 1998 a jury found PBS at fault and awarded Nesmith and Pacific Arts more than $48 million. He settled out of court for a lower amount. Nesmith later said, “It’s like finding out your stereo is stolen by your grandmother. You’re happy to get it back, but sad to find out your grandma is a thief.”
Nesmith was once again wealthy, but he folded Pacific Arts. In 2012, right after Davy Jones suddenly died, my wife and I went to Dallas to see the Monkees — Micky, Mike and Peter. The show was stunning. I went to see Nesmith; I’d never seen him live. The Monkees did all their songs in chronological order, with a screen behind them that synchronized old videos and then segued to the group on stage. It was magic — one of the best times I’ve ever had.
Nesmith seemed content — happy. After Tork died on Feb. 21, 2019, Nesmith was seen on several interviews, where he became visibly upset. He made a tribute video to Tork. He seemed to finally understand the Monkees. He said for the first time he figured out “Last Train to Clarksville” is a song about a soldier leaving his sweetheart for Vietnam. The lyrics touched him, and he said “The Monkees were a force.”
It’s sad it took Nesmith so long to figure this out: the Monkees were a TV show that became a band. The boys received brilliant material from Hall of Fame songwriters, but they still had to deliver the songs, and the songs still sell. In his book, The Monkees, Head and the 60s, Peter Mills makes the point that the group may not have been authentic, but the music was authentic, some of the greatest pop of all time.
Andy Greene of Rolling Stone, in a tribute story called “Me and the Monkee: A Final Visit with Mike Nesmith,” says Nesmith realized this on the last tour. Mike seemed to know he was dying, yet he played his heart out on his final tour with Dolenz, which ended four weeks before his death. Greene says, “He looked like he loved being a Monkee.”
Almost normal, but still contrary to ordinary, Nesmith never stopped ripping Don Kirshner from the stage. “Kirshner never got it,” exclaimed Nesmith on his second-to-last tour. (Still, by February 1967 the Monkees, singing songs selected by Kirshner, had sold an astonishing 27 million records.)
Nesmith died finally content with the Monkees, content with their legacy and with his life. The group had four No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200 in 1967, a record to this day. Dolenz, the best and most under-appreciated rock ’n’ roll voice in history, released an album on May 21, 2021, called Dolenz sings Nesmith. “My mom was brought up in Texas,” said Dolenz. “We always connected.” The album was produced by Nesmith’s son, Christian. It’s a great tribute to one of Texas’ best country-rock songwriters.