Americana Music Musicians

Michael Nesmith RIP

This one made me heartbroken. Yesterday, December 10th, singer-songwriter and former member of the Monkees Michael Nesmith passed away at the age of 78. As a kid, I was a big fan of the Monkees. Yeah, the whole prefabricated set-up was frowned upon years afterward, but the band dressed cool, were funny, and made some great music.

As I got older, and started to get into country-rock music, I became a big fan of Nesmith. I looked back on his Monkees catalogue, and was surprised how many of the better songs from the band were written by him. He also wrote “Different Drum” for Linda Rondstadt and The Stone Poneys. When everyone in the alt-country and Americana was gushing over Gram Parsons as being the formats’ godfather, I was singing the praises of Nesmith and his influential work with the First National Band, later becoming the Second National Band.

Nesmith really never had to work in his life if he didn’t want to. He could have lived off of his mother’s fortune, as she was the inventor of Liquid Paper correction fluid. Before graduating high school, he enlisted in the US Air Force, and started writing songs upon discharge. He moved from Texas to California, got a publishing deal, then a friend told him to audition for a television show about a Beatles-type band. He beat out Steven Stills and John Sebastian (from Lovin’ Spoonful) and the rest is 1960s television history.

From the beginning, Nesmith pushed for the producers of the show to allow him and the other members to perform on their own instruments and write their own songs. By the time of the band’s third album, Headquarters, they got more freedom. However, interest in this pre-made band and internal conflicts were building up. The group made their own feature film, Head, that was panned by critics, but one could see where Nesmith would move to in the next few years.

After the dissolving of the Monkees, Nesmith formed The First National Band. If you ever come across any recordings of this incarnation or of the Second National Band, buy them! Pedal steel guitarist Red Rhodes was amazing to say the least.

Nesmith also got into video production in its early stages. He produced and starred in an hour-long music video montage called Elephant Parts, which won a Grammy Award in 1982 for Long-Form Music Video. For this and some of his other early work, he has been considered one of the fathers of MTV. He also had a short-lived television show called Television Parts that helped launch the careers of Whoopi Goldberg, Jerry Seinfeld, and Jay Leno. He produced a number of underground films, the best known being Repo Man and Tapeheads (in both he makes a cameo a la Alfred Hitchcock).

During the 1990s, he helped sponsor the Council on Ideas, which was a think-tank of intellectuals discussing the major concerns of the day and would publish the results. He was also involved in a lawsuit with PBS over video licensing rights. He won the case, and gave the best quote regarding the situation: “It’s like finding your grandmother stealing your stereo. You’re happy to get your stereo back, but it’s sad to find out your grandmother is a thief.”

It was Nesmith’s songwriting with what I am most impressed. The list is many that are now considered sing-along classics. “Different Drum,” “The Girl That I Knew Somewhere,” “Mary, Mary,” “Listen to the Band,” and “Some of Shelley’s Blues” are just a few. Besides the Monkees and Linda Rondstadt, other artists that recorded his song include the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Lynn Anderson, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and Frankie Laine.

I met Mike Nesmith in Chicago back in the early 1990s at a hotel. I went up to him and shook his hand, and told him how much I appreciated his songwriting. He was cordial but you could tell he had other things on his mind. I think that he was surprised that I didn’t ask to take a photo with him. I saw him in concert here in Detroit about five years ago. He was doing a tour highlighting songs of his career. I wouldn’t have missed that for the world. He had Chris Scruggs playing lead guitar in the band (one of the best all-around musicians from Nashville, as well as being Earl Scruggs’ grandson), which was really cool.

I guess that my greatest personal tribute to Mike Nesmith came when my short-lived roots-rock band Two-Fisted Tales was asked to record a song for the compilation CD Papa Nez: A Loose Salute to the Work of Michael Nesmith. We did “Papa Gene’s Blues.” Take a listen.

Mike Nesmith made wearing a knit cap and playing a 12-string electric guitar cool. He rocked the long sideburns and big sunglasses. Your songwriting and spirit will live on forever in my rock-n-roll heart.

Chew on it and comment.