Back before box sets, there were some LPs which were released in a box. The first I know of was Donovan’s two disc release ‘From A Garden To Flower’ which came out in 1968 but my first box purchases were both by George Harrison, ‘All Things Must Pass’ and ‘The Concert For Bangladesh’, both of them three platter affairs. They seemed extravagant for the times with inserts and lyric books and whatnot and of course, they cost a bit more than your standard album purchase although they weren’t ridiculously overpriced. Mike Nesmith’s 1975 release ‘The Prison’ also came in a box but it was a horse of a different colour. Subtitled ‘A Book With A Soundtrack’ it comprised of an LP of Nesmith songs along with a hefty 64 page book, sized the same as the 12” disc and containing an illustrated short story which is printed in English and French translation for some reason.
Nesmith was of course an ex-Monkee and by 1974 he had long dropped off the radar of his previous teen listeners. Staying well below the radar he had forged a new career as a singer songwriter in a country-rock vein releasing several albums with his new combo, The First (and then Second) National Band before going solo on his 1972 release ‘And The Hits Just Keep On Comin’’ which was followed up by the superb ‘Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash’. For most folk back then these albums meant diddly squat but thanks to magazines like Zigzag and the fortuitous opportunity to find many of Nesmith’s albums in the cut out bins we’ve previously mentioned, I was fortunate enough to add him to my burgeoning collection of albums by the likes of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Poco, New Riders Of The Purple Sage and the good old Grateful Dead. Papa Nez, as some folk called him fitted right in with this country rock vein but it seems he was straining at the leash to move on and by 1974 he had left RCA Records and started his own label Pacific Arts with ‘The Prison’ being the label’s first release.
Pacific Arts was envisaged as a multi media company (eventually becoming prime movers in the rise of the music video and hence MTV) and ‘The Prison’ was Nesmith’s first tentative step into mixing genres, the general idea being that you read the book as you listened to the music. The story, written by Nesmith, concerns a prisoner, Jason, who discovers that his confinement is primarily in his mind, his prison walls don’t exist but he has to achieve a level of inner consciousness to be aware of this. Once enlightened he attempts to persuade his fellow prisoner and girlfriend Maria to follow him but she ultimately is not prepared to do so and the story ends with Jason as a guide of sorts, awaiting the next prisoner who discovers the illusionary nature of their confinement. Some folk dared to call the story Kafkaesque at the time but given its woolly metaphysics it’s probably best considered alongside the then popular writings of Carlos Castaneda and Richard Brautigan.
The music is, to this listener at least, prime time Nesmith. Aside from the country lope of ‘Hear Me Calling’, the songs, seven of them and all quite lengthy, find him in a contemplative and philosophical mood and prefigure the style he perfected on his next release ‘From a Radio Engine to the Photon Wing’. He retains pedal steel wizard Red Rhodes and expands the sound with Michael Cohen on keyboards and David Kempton on ARP Odyssey, an early rival to the mini moog synthesiser, with synthesised drumming courtesy of a Roland Rhythm 77. Nesmith plays all guitars although it’s not clear who or what provides the excellent bass playing which burbles and swings throughout giving some of the songs a sound which is not a million miles away from that of Joni Mitchell on ‘Hejira’. Some of the songs are quite glorious – the opening song, ‘Life, The Unsuspecting Captive’ and the following ‘Dance Between The Raindrops’ are both Nesmith perfection while ‘Marie’s Theme’ has some tremendous pedal steel playing.
So, does reading the book and listening to the record make for a new experience? In his introduction Nesmith writes, “I have found that attending to two simultaneously occurring ideas takes some getting used to…finally, after three or four listening/readings I was able to see both occurring distinctly and equally. It was that state of consciousness that provided thought with a new vista.” Maybe you had to be there at the time to fully inhale the import of this but I was there at the time and I reckon I read the story once on the first listen and thereafter just listened to the songs. For the purposes of this article I did sit down and simultaneously read and listened but next time I’ll just stick the record on.
I can’t recall where I bought this but it was around the UK release date in early 1975. Digging out a review of the album in Zigzag magazine it says the album cost £5 at the time, a hefty expense as normal releases were more around the £2.75 mark back then.
Original copies seem to run around £20 to £30 on Discogs (although one chancer in the USA is looking for £1000 plus shipping). In the wild, I’ve never seen a secondhand copy in my years of crate digging but you never know, if you find one, just buy it. The album has been reissued on CD in several guises and with various remixes (a vexed topic apparently) but frustratingly none of these seem to be readily available and it doesn’t feature on Spotify. Seems like the best bet is to go for an Edsel Records CD reissue on Ebay. There’s an online Nesmith record store, Videoranch, which appears to offer downloads of the various versions but it just wasn’t working for me when I visited.