Goodbye Papa Nez – the world is better because of what you achieved.
Mike Nesmith has left us. Predictably, newspaper headlines all made reference to the fact that he was a founder member of The Monkees, but Nesmith deserves to be remembered for so much more. He was a pioneer of Country Rock and Americana, a talented singer-songwriter whose songs were recorded by many, he’s also credited with creating the modern music video and having the original idea that led to the creation of MTV, he was a music producer and a film producer and, through his Pacific Arts company, he promoted a range of innovative creative projects. Mike Nesmith was a true Renaissance man, and that’s how we should remember him.
Robert Michael Nesmith was born in Houston, Texas. His parents were divorced when he was four years old and he was raised by his mother, Bette, a secretary and devout member of the Christian Scientists, a movement that Mike Nesmith would have a complex relationship with for much of his life. Bette would, of course, become the creator of typewriting correction fluid, Liquid Paper, which made her very wealthy and that wealth would help to buy Mike Nesmith out of his Monkees’ contract and fund his creative career and many philanthropic interests.
In his late teens, after a tour of duty in the Air Force, Nesmith took a forces scholarship and attended San Antonio College, where he started a musical partnership with John London that would endure for many years (London was the original bass player in the post-Monkees First National Band). They won a series of local talent competitions before relocating to L.A. where Nesmith established himself as a singer/songwriter and performing musician around the L.A scene, before he got the role in The Monkees TV series. Before joining The Monkees, in 1965, he already had a publishing deal with Randy Sparks and almost immediately offered one of his songs for inclusion in the TV series. The show producers turned it down saying that “it wasn’t a Monkees song”, so he licensed it to a then-unknown singer who, with her band The Stone Poneys, took ‘Different Drum’ into the Top 20 of the Billboard charts, launching the career of Linda Ronstadt. In fact, Nesmith had already placed songs with a number of recording artists, as well as having released records himself, his first recording coming out in 1963 on the Highness label, and it always rankled with him that The Monkees were dismissed as a bunch of actors pretending to be musicians. Both Nesmith and Peter Tork were established musicians and, while Dolenz and Jones were, principally, actors they were no strangers to the recording business either. From the start, Nesmith and the show’s producers had a difficult relationship. He would always be the one pushing for more musical involvement for the band themselves. In the end, his persistence paid off and he did provide a number of songs for the band, including ‘You Just May Be the One’, ‘Mary Mary’ and ‘Listen to the Band’. He was behind the successful ousting of their controlling supervisor, Don Kirshner, but he continued to be frustrated by the restrictions placed on the band as musicians, and in 1970, he quit The Monkees, having to buy himself out of the final three years of his contract, a situation that caused him considerable financial hardship until his inheritance came through.
Immediately following his departure from The Monkees, Nesmith formed the First National Band and started recording for RCA Victor as a solo artist. These early albums from Nesmith and his band are now considered to have been well ahead of their time and are pioneering country/rock recordings. It’s interesting to speculate on how The Monkees might have developed had Nesmith been given a free rein. Many of the songs that appeared on the first two National Band albums were written while he was a Monkee and with a view to being used in the band, but were held back because of the show’s producers’ lack of support for Nesmith’s songs. Interesting to think that The Monkees could’ve been in the vanguard of country/rock!
It was with the First National Band that Nesmith started his musical partnership with pedal steel player Orville “Red” Rhodes, a partnership that would continue until Rhodes died in 1995. Nesmith would also go into music production around this time, producing for, among others, British artists Iain Matthews and Bert Jansch. He also started his multi-media production company, Pacific Arts, in the late 70s, and it was through this that he produced his promotional clip for the song ‘Rio’, which is credited as being the first intentional music video, designed purely to promote the song. He would also produce music videos for other artists, such as Lionel Richie’s ‘All Night Long’ and Michael Jackson’s ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’. His ‘Rio’ promo clip lead to Nesmith developing the TV show “PopClips”, for the Nickelodeon channel, and it’s this show that is credited as being the inspiration for MTV – something that Nesmith was invited to participate in but he declined the offer!
In fact, Mike Nesmith is almost a Zelig figure for the Arts throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s. He and his Pacific Arts company can be linked with so many interesting and innovative projects, from producing films like ‘Repo Man’ and ‘Tapeheads’ to pioneering the home video market and launching Videoranch 3D, one of the earliest online performing platforms. Through the Gihon Foundation, launched with some of the money he inherited, Nesmith also pursued a number of philanthropic projects throughout his life.
Nesmith always continued to write and record his songs, frequently touring as a solo artist or with a small band and, while not the most enthusiastic of retro artists, he would, occasionally, perform with The Monkees at some of their reunion concerts. He also recently resurrected a version of his First National Band for touring purposes. Most recently, and with considerable success, he and Mickey Dolenz had been out on what was titled The Monkees Farewell Tour, completed only a few months before his death. Mike Nesmith had a quadruple heart bypass operation in 2018 and his health was known to be poor, but he still completed a grueling tour schedule and went out like the professional musician he has always been. Michael Nesmith died of heart failure on the 10th December 2021, a couple of weeks short of his 79th birthday.
It’s likely that Nesmith will continue to be, primarily, linked with his brief time as a member of The Monkees, but the Americana community should remember him as an important musician and artist who did much to establish an early country/rock identity. It’s worth going back and re-visiting not just those first post-Monkees albums for RCA but the wider canon of Nesmith’s songwriting and listening to songs made successful by The Monkees themselves, but also by acts like The Butterfield Blues Band and the Nitty Gritty DIrt Band, among others. As a friend of mine commented recently; Mike Nesmith might have started out as a Monkee, but he definitely evolved.