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Michael Nesmith - An Obituary

Michael Nesmith – Musician, songwriter

Born December 30 1942; died December 10, 2021 


Michael Nesmith, who has died aged 78, was a guitarist and songwriter who will forever be remembered for The Monkees (1966-1968), the surreal sitcom that featured Nesmith as part of a manufactured band that became a genuine pop sensation. Post Monkees, Nesmith released several albums of under-the-radar country rock as Michael Nesmith & The First National Band. He was a key player too in the development of the music video, and, in 1982, received the first Grammy given to video for his hour-long show, Elephant Parts (1981). 


It was The Monkees, however, that first showcased Nesmith’s musical talent for a mass audience. Inspired by the success of The Beatles’ film, A Hard Day’s Night. The Monkees put Nesmith together with Mickey Dolenz, Davy Jones and Peter Tork for a series of madcap adventures punctuated by songs penned by some of the Brill Building song factory’s greatest pop hit makers. Hits included I’m a Believer, Last Train to Clarksville, Pleasant Valley Sunday, Daydream Believer and A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You.


Nesmith was already performing his own songs in Los Angeles folk clubs by the time he auditioned for The Monkees, carrying his laundry and sporting the wool hat that became his trademark. His laidback approach and dry humour appealed to producer Bert Schneider and director Bob Rafelson, and he got the gig. 


Nesmith later led a rebellion over musical control, punching a hole in the wall of music supervisor Don Kirshner’s office. Songs by Nesmith appearing in the show included Mary, Mary, Sweet Young Thing, and You Just Might be the One. These were written in a credible country rock style, with Nesmith wielding his big twelve-string Gretsch guitar while chaos reigned around him. 


Other key Monkees moments for Nesmith included a brief pre-credit goof-off with Frank Zappa. During the ‘interview’, the pair dressed as each other, with Zappa sporting Nesmith’s hat, while Nesmith wore a wig, false facial hair and prosthetic nose. The sequence culminated in the duo ‘playing’ a hot rod as they stripped it down. 


The show’s flirtation with counter-cultural mores culminated with Head (1968), a psychedelic big screen indulgence that seemed to make the quartet’s rebellion its entire point. If, wondered many, there was one. A TV special, 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee (1969) climaxed with a wigged-out version of Nesmith’s song, Listen to the Band.


Nesmith & The First National Band scored a minor hit with Joanne, from their album, Magnetic South (1970), though his solo records never received the attention they deserved. In 1977, he was asked by his record label to make a promo film for his song, Rio, take from his album, From a Radio Engine to a Proton Wing. Instead of filming a performance, a more impressionistic montage of images was put together. With nowhere to show this and similar films, Nesmith and director William Dear set up a show called PopClips for the recently founded Nickleodeon channel. This predated MTV by two years.


Nesmith also executive produced films such as Alex Cox’s off-beat sci-fi crime caper, Repo Man (1984), and music videos including Lionel Richie’s All Night Long (1983), directed by Monkees co-creator Bob Rafelson. While initially keeping his distance from Monkees reunions, Nesmith returned to the fold for Justus (1996), the first album by the band’s full quartet in more than a quarter of a century.


Robert Michael Nesmith was born in Houston, Texas to Warren and Bette (nee McMurray) Nesmith. His parents divorced shortly after his father returned from action in World War Two, and Nesmith moved with his mother to Dallas, where he grew up. His mother later became wealthy after inventing Liquid Paper, running the company that produced it before selling it to Gillette in 1979 for $47.5 million. Nesmith inherited half of her estate.


After high school, in 1960 Nesmith joined the United States Air Force, before requesting an early discharge two years later. By this time he had been given a guitar as a Christmas gift from his mother and stepfather, and began playing in earnest after enrolling at San Antonio College. He and his first wife, Phyllis Barbour, moved to Los Angeles, where he hit the folk clubs. An early song by Nesmith was Different Drum, later a hit for Linda Ronstadt, and also covered in 1990 by Glasgow indie rock band, The Pastels.


After eight albums with The Monkees, over the next five decades, Nesmith made fourteen of his own. The last of these was The Ocean (2015), the final part of a trilogy released at twenty-year intervals. This began with The Prison (1974), which was presented as the soundtrack to an accompanying 48-page book. The Garden (1994) and The Ocean followed.


Nesmith wrote two novels, The Long Sandy Hair of Neftoon Zamora (1998), and The America Gene (2005). Following the passing of Jones in 2012, he reunited with Dolenz and Tork for a fiftieth anniversary Monkees album, Good Times! (2016). A Christmas album followed two years later. In 2019, Nesmith went out with a new iteration of The First National Band. Tork died the same year. In November of this year, Nesmith and Dolenz reunited for The Monkees Present: The Mike and Micky Show. With Nesmith noticeably frail, it was an emotional full stop on the life of one of the most under-rated songwriters of his generation.


He is survived by four children, Christian, Jonathan, and Jessica, to his first wife, Phyllis Barbour; and a son, Jason, to Nurit Wilde. He was married twice more, to Kathryn Bild from 1976, and to Victoria Kennedy from 2000 to 2011.

The Herald, December 14th 2021




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