Forgotten Artists – Mike Nesmith

Of course Mike Nesmith, The Monkee, hasn’t been forgotten, he’ll always have his place in musical history as the woolly hatted member of TVs attempt to cash in on the popularity of loveable, mop-top boy bands during the 1960s. But how many people will remember, or even knew, that he was an accomplished musician, a very fine songwriter, a successful producer and at the forefront of the country-rock movement?

Born Robert Michael Nesmith in Houston, Texas, in 1942, he was an only child and his parents split up when he was four. He was raised by his mother, Bette Nesmith Graham, a secretary at Texas Bank and Trust and a staunch Christian Scientist; though she was a single parent, hard work and a small legacy meant that Mike Nesmith was able to grow up in a reasonably creative environment, with his interest in poetry, music and drama happily indulged. When he was thirteen years old his mother invented what came to be known as Liquid Paper, a typing correction fluid. It would make her very wealthy and allow Nesmith to buy himself out of his Monkees contract some years later.

He left High School without graduating and, at the age of 18, enrolled in the US Air Force, where he stayed for two years before being honourably discharged. He’d gained his GED (General Educational Development certificate – the forces equivalent of a High School Diploma) so was able to enter college in San Antonio and it was here that he started to sing and perform, before moving on to L.A. and establishing himself on the local Folk scene. He was already writing notable songs by this time and had signed a publishing deal before he auditioned for his role in The Monkees. That audition took place in the October of 1965 and that year also saw the first cover recordings of some of his songs, the most famous of which is ‘Different Drum’, originally recorded by The Greenbriar Boys but which would later (1967) give Linda Ronstadt, then working with the Stone Poneys, her first hit single, rising to number 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. That particular song, which would go on to be covered by a variety of acts, including The Jayhawks, The Lemonheads, P.P Arnold, Carrie Underwood and many others, was originally offered to the producers of “The Monkees” for inclusion in the series – they turned it down. This refusal to recognise the genuine musical talent of band members would be at the heart of Nesmith’s later decision to quit the series.

Nesmith became a cast member of “The Monkees” for the duration of its television run but became increasingly frustrated by the lack of creative input allowed to the band itself – they were seen as cast members only, despite the clear musical talent of at least two of the four and the fact that producers Screen Gems had already optioned Nesmith’s songs for use in the show. The album “Headquarters” is the only one worked on collectively by all four members of the band and it clearly indicates that there was a creative well to be tapped when they worked together. The over-indulgent film “Head”, which has since become a cult classic, was the start of the decline in the band’s popularity and, in 1970, Nesmith asked to be released from his contract. That contract had three years yet to run and it’s rumoured to have cost him $150,000 for each of those years – an indication of how desperate he was to be released from creative restraint.

Nesmith created the First National Band in the year before he left “The Monkees”, teaming up with long time friends John Ware and John London. Nesmith also insisted on the inclusion of pedal steel player Orville ‘Red’ Rhodes – Rhodes would continue to work on all Nesmith’s projects until his death in 1995.

Nesmith released three albums with The First National Band – “Magnetic South” (1970), “Loose Salute” (1970) and “Nevada Fighter” (1971). He was clearly relishing his escape from the creative straightjacket that had been applied during his time with “The Monkees” and was on a roll. Singles released from these albums performed reasonably well, with ‘Joanne’ and ‘Silver Moon’ (from “Magnetic South” and “Loose Salute” respectively) doing particularly well and both making the Billboard Top 100.

It’s these three albums that really go to the heart of Nesmith’s work as a creative songwriter and a major influence on the Country Rock and Americana movements. Songs from these albums would be covered by the likes of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, George Jones, Nat Stuckey, Linda Ronstadt and Earl Scruggs among others, with Allmusic saying of “Magnetic South” in their review, “Mixing a country sound with a rocker’s instincts and blending airy thoughts on the nature of life and love with iconography of life in the West that brought together the old and the new, Michael Nesmith revelled in contradictions on Magnetic South, making them sound as comfortable as well-worn cowboy boots and as fun as a Saturday night barn dance. It’s a minor masterpiece of country-rock, and while the Eagles may have sold more records, Nesmith yodels a hell of a lot better than any of them.”

It looked like Nesmith was getting the critical and commercial appreciation he wanted, there was still a lot of resistance from some fans to seeing him move on from the Monkees but his songwriting was being appreciated and, in the First National Band, he had a group around him that really seemed to understand his music. And then it imploded. For no real reason that anyone has ever been able to fathom, Nesmith dissolved The First National Band and emerges a year later with The Second National Band and the album “Tantamount to Treason Vol I” (there were never any subsequent volumes). The only remaining member from the first band is Rhodes and Nesmith drafted in Michael Cohen on keyboards and synthesiser, Jack Ranelli, a big band jazz drummer, and bassist Johnny Meeks. The album still has its moments, most notably in the covers of ‘Bonaparte’s Retreat’ and Lee & Duffy’s ‘She Thinks I still Care’ but the Nesmith originals on the album are not among his best and the album didn’t do well either critically or commercially. Next up was “And the Hits Just Keep On Comin”, featuring just Nesmith himself on acoustic guitar and vocals plus Rhodes on Peddle Steel. It’s another decent album, finally recording his own version of ‘Different Drum’ and it also includes the excellent ‘Harmony Constant’. The final album in what is generally recognised as Nesmith’s country rock period is 1973’s “Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash”, it was also his last recording for RCA. Nesmith was backed on this album by the house band at Countryside, a subsidiary of Elektra Records set up for Nesmith projects by fan and then Elektra boss Jac Holzman. It was a good band but you can’t help but feel that these subsequent three albums would all have been improved if Nesmith had kept the First National Band together throughout this period.

There’s a feeling that Nesmith became desperate to be accepted for his musical talents and that “The Monkees” TV show has a lot to answer for in denying him the acceptance, as an artist, that he craved. Accepting the TV role can be looked back on as an unfortunate decision which, at the time, seemed like a major opportunity but which threw a shadow over his career for much of his life to date. It’s as if the show robbed him of his ability to focus on his musical career. He’d made such inroads into the country rock movement and some really solid musical contributions with those First National Band albums but he let it slip away in a series of poor decisions over subsequent recordings.

As his focus on his own recordings dropped away he turned to ever more ambitious projects in an attempt to find recognition of his considerable talents. Through Countryside he produced albums for a number of artists, including Iain Matthews “Valley Hi” and Bert Jansch’s “L.A. Turnaround” but the label folded when Holzman left Elektra and was replaced by David Geffen, who had little interest in supporting the ambitions of a had been Monkee!

Nesmith then formed his multi-media company, Pacific Arts, which would lead to his development of what he referred to as “video records”. It was the “video record” for his next big hit, the Latin pop creation ‘Rio’ that would see him become a major music video producer, producing the likes of Lionel Richie’s ‘All Night Long’ and Michael Jackson’s ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ and sowing the seeds of what would become one of the most important developments in twentieth-century popular music – MTV! Off the back of his music video production work Nesmith developed a programme for Nickelodeon called “Pop Clips”. The programme was, eventually, sold to the Time Warner/Amex consortium who would go on to develop the “Pop Clips” concept into the cable channel that became MTV.

Nesmith is a fascinating character. His scattergun approach to the arts and the harnessing of his talents has seen him find success as a songwriter, an actor, a musician, a music producer, a video producer, a film producer (“Repo Man” and others), and a developer of TV programmes. He’s won a Grammy Award (the first-ever Grammy for a long-form music video) and he’s made and lost fortunes – and then made them again. He’s been a friend to Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon and Douglas Adams, among others. He is a fascinating, if more than a little enigmatic, character. For years he refused to be part of most Monkees reunion tours and yet now, when there’s only two of them left, he’s back out on the road as part of the Mike and Mickey Tour. He has also re-vamped The First National Band, touring to some acclaim in 2019 – though poor health meant some of the dates had to be re-scheduled.

If you’ve been intrigued by this article and want to know more about the strange life and times of one Michael Nesmith, I would seriously recommend his autobiography, “Infinite Tuesday; An Autobiographical Riff”. It offers some fascinating insights into an artist and musician who deserves to be remembered for so much more than being a member of a prefabricated TV Band.

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