Core member of the Monkees. Country-rock maverick. Music Video pioneer. Entrepreneur. Texas-born singer/songwriter/guitarist Michael Nesmith has worn many hats throughout his career, wool or otherwise. Infinite Tuesday, Nesmith’s new autobiography, unravels in its own typically idiosyncratic style, pivotal moments in his life unreeling like random snapshots in the artist’s head and imagination.
A deep thinker, Nesmith lends considerable insight to his life journey, charting the struggles and triumphs with a rare honesty and depth. We caught up with Nesmith, who shared stories about life in and out of the Monkees, hanging out with The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, songwriting and much more.
Rock Cellar: In the early ’60s, you were MC of the Monday night hootenanies at The Troubadour in Hollywood. What did your glean from that experience?
Michael Nesmith: Gosh, well, I’m not sure. I think the answer is I don’t know. (laughs) So that’s our point of departure. (laughs) But if I go back and reminisce, everything sort of swirled together at that point for me. I was nourished by being in the community and just having people who were playing all the time and writing songs and so forth. I didn’t actually understand that the same thing was going on globally. We tend to kind of get caught up in ourselves.
The Troubadour was the center of the little world that I was in and that little world was full of all of these new ideas from folk music to country blues.
Then of course in ’64 when The Beatles hit, I remember when Jim McGuinn came in and played a set of Beatles songs on his 12-string and he got booed, I remember how jarring that was.
I felt this was a strange and contrary crowd, either that or they have a very strong sense of (laughs) what’s okay and what’s not. It’s not the same thing I shared because of the artistry.
Jim is a consummate artist and he played the songs beautifully and of course they’re beautiful songs so I couldn’t imagine why somebody stood against that. What I took away form that I don’t really know but it was something that happened, where that fits into the neurology a developing artist I couldn’t really tell you.
Michael, the lyrics for your songs going back to the beginning of your career like “Some of Shelly’s Blues,” “Different Drum,” “Nine Times Blue,” and “Propinquity” had a poetic nature.
What inspired you to stretch the form?
Michael Nesmith: Well, I don’t know that I did it consciously. I think it had as much to do with not knowing quite what to do with where I was. So I would find myself writing lyrics that just filled the spaces of the music as much as anything and trusting that the lyrics were coming from some unknown place that would deliver a message I might not even understand as I wrote it.
But that was enough; you jump on that horse and ride it until you get the sense that it wants to turn and then you get off it (laughs) and wait until another horse comes along.
As a songwriter, in your book you cite initially writing songs that were “wild grabs for the brass ring of popularity,” when do you feel you truly began to find your own artistic voice?
Michael Nesmith: Well, I don’t know that I have. I think I’m still sort of struggling along and looking for that sense of confidence. There’s always this sort of nagging insecurity of some type that makes me feel like I need to do something to vindicate or validate or somehow make it all make sense. Now, what’s happened in the midst of all that is that I’ve learned to be more quiet and more still in my own thinking and just say, “No, just let this roll and see where it’s gonna play, it’s gonna roll up on some distant shore that you may not be able to see from here but cast the pebble.”
And that happened pretty early on because I didn’t have much of a choice. If you go around enough times and you miss the brass ring enough times, you think (laughs), “Okay, well, fuck this. Now let’s do something else.”
Was the batch of songs you would play at The Troubadour to great acclaim–“Different Drum,” “Papa Gene’s Blues,” “Nine Times Blue” and “Propinquity”– were they songs that you felt resonated more as an authentic expression of who you are? Was it tough to get that place?
Michael Nesmith: Well, one of the things I hoped to do with the book is to ground this early artistic development in the search for a way to make a living, a way to take care of yourself, a way to buy groceries. So I was just looking for a ways to write a song that other people enjoyed listening to. I wasn’t too much worried about the subject matter of it as much as I was about the communication of it and its ability to convey the ideas, which became easier over time. But at the very beginning I didn’t even know what the ideas were. Propinquity was as big as word for me then. I just didn’t know what to do. I just thought, “well, here’s a song about nearness. What do you have to say about nearness?”
So was this batch of songs the first ones that you felt connected you to an audience?
Michael Nesmith: Yeah. After I got off that first road trip, that was my year in Hamburg. After I got off of that I had this little portfolio of maybe six or eight songs and I got four or five of them in shape to sing. But I didn’t have any measurement about what was gonna make it work because everything was spinning so fast. I’d just come off of a road trip where I was mistaken for George Harrison in Texas. I have no idea how something like that could have happened so I was spinning. I just didn’t have any idea which way to turn and what I would do would be to grab hold of a spiritual idea by the tail and see where it went and follow it rather than push it.
As a seeker, what is the source of your ambition?
Michael Nesmith: I don’t know…survival? I’m reading Marianne Faithfull’s book, Memories, Dreams and Reflections. I ran into her when I was in London at the Beatles’ “Day In The Life” sessions and to my way of thinking she was the perfect rock momma. She was the one and I thought she was terrific so when I saw this book I wanted to read it and see what’s been going on with her. I always kept her distant in my mind because she had such an extraordinary effect on me. I was really electrified by her. When I met her, all I said was, “Hello, how are you, nice to see you” and that was it (laughs) and she walked off with Mick (Jagger) as many did. So in this book what happened to me when I picked it up and started reading it, there was something in the way she wrote that was like “Luncheon of the Boating Party” that Renoir painted.
I look at that and think if I could be any place in the world thinking anything I wanted to think I’d like to be in that painting. That’s where I wanna be. It’s maybe Renoir’s masterpiece but certainly one of our masterpieces. When Marianne Faithfull writes and especially when she writes about London in the ‘60s, her writing evokes that very same place in my thinking that is evoked when I look at that painting. That’s the same spiritual place; they’re identical, it feels the same way you think the same thoughts. You have the same feeling. It’s physiological in my case. I feel it in the center of my stomach just below my lungs. It’s a physical thing. It’s warm, it feels great, it’s happiness. It’s those kinds of things.
And that’s been where I find the spiritual sense that drives me. When I feel that space come along and when I see it and understand it and it doesn’t necessarily come from giddy happiness. It can come from melancholia. It can come from sadness.
In your book, you speak about a state you deem “the High Lonesome,” “buried within the life of all mortals is one resounding and echoing heartbreak after another,” how has that driven you and fueled your work creatively and personal path?
Michael Nesmith: Well, it’s ever-present. It’s one of the cards we’re dealt with, mortality. It’s sorrow and it’s sadness and it’s longing. You want things to be okay. A lot of times the only release you have with something like that is to sing. To get to that place where you had the idea of the idea that the devil has no access to the singing man.
The Monkees were assembled by Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider so while you were initially a “manufactured” band. You called it “a transparent concoction,” Pinocchio became a real boy. Judging by early tapes, the group sounded like a primitive but enthusiastic garage band. From a musical standpoint, did the band work for you on that level?
Michael Nesmith: Well, the answer is yes but one needs to carefully parse it. Parse it being the fake boy turning into the real boy. First of all, that didn’t actually happen, that was a story and as far as we know it hasn’t happened. We’ve seen some beautiful sculptures but nothing ever came to life and walked around the woods with us. So it doesn’t actually happens except if you go back and slowly unroll the fabric that was The Monkees and you go back to its origins, which is (Bob) Rafelson thinking it up, according to Rafelson. And you have the writers writing it up and it becoming a television show and getting itself in the seat of this power that the Beatles had used and The Stones had used.
There was a moment where the four of us as the principal cast members had to look at each other where the millions of people were pushing for us to perform. We had to be careful not to conflate performance with vivification. It’s not coming to life, you’re just performing. And to perform the music took an element of sincerity and reality that makes me comfortable saying at that moment The Monkees came to life.
When we walked out on stage in Hawaii for our first show after we’d rehearsed it and put it together, that crowd lit up like the hometown Christmas tree and the roar of reciprocation from the roar of our barely audible amps completed the cycle. Something actually happened there. It wasn’t a coming to life but it was a coming into view. That I think is one of the things that many rock critics of the times, music critics, didn’t understand. They didn’t get it and they were much more comfortable as many members of the rumor press are in ginning up a story that would be…I’m not sure of the exact word.
But it’s not disturbing in any criminal sense but it is controversial. So this controversy was ginned up and just followed The Monkees all along and still does. It’s gonna take some people who really understand what I’m trying to get at is…Pinocchio didn’t come to life. There was really life there and that’s the way all life has to happen. You’ve got to start with life in order to end with life. For that to be there at that moment was missed by a lot of people except of course (laughs), the seven to ten-year-olds who said, “Look, the TV came to life!” (laughs) Of course it did, what else could it do?
Your song, “Tapioca Tundra” is your take on the Monkees experience?
Michael Nesmith: Yeah, it’s all in there. The song has an arc. The songs’ origins were coming away from a performance, walking across a soccer or football pitch and heading toward the limos and looking at this crowd fading in the background. By that time it was just a mass of white light and color and noise in the distance. There was no individual that popped out of it. Then when the song came to mind, that this is part of them, it’s not part of me. Then I knew at that moment I’d just written the beginning and end of that story. So when I sang “Tapioca Tundra” for the last time with The Monkees at our show at Pantages Theater in Los Angeles last October, that was the close of it. And yes, you’re right, it was about that but it was all written in the beginning moment. The story of the song was complete when I wrote it the first time. Does that make sense?
Brill Building writers like Gerry Goffin/Carole King, Neil Diamond and Neil Sedaka wrote for The Monkees. You co-wrote “Sweet Young Thing” with Gerry and Carole, did you glean anything from that collaboration that colored your work for the Monkees?
Michael Nesmith: Well, I didn’t have much contact with those kind of writers; I had more contact with Carole than anyone. But not intimate and not very deep. I wasn’t connected with the Brill Building people at all outside of that. The main difference between the Brill Building writers and me and David (Jones) and Micky and Peter was motivation. We would have been motivated to write differently than they were for the show. But I never really consciously wrote for the show.
You’ve expressed your inability as a songwriter to tap into the pop song ethos needed for Monkees songs, but I disagree, “The Girl I Knew Somewhere” is a perfect distillation of that style.
Michael Nesmith: You’re right. “The Girl I Knew Somewhere” does have a pop sensibility to it but I didn’t think of it as, “oh, this will be perfect for The Monkees. I was writing about this kind of ephemeral moment, which is not exactly deja vu but I think I know this guy. But that’s all I was writing a song about. Again, it’s just a little spiritual flame that burns like nearness.
When the Monkees took matters in their own hands with the Headquarters, you created your own artistic statement that is celebrated by fans and critics. Does that record work for you?
Michael Nesmith: Yeah, that record works for me. I didn’t feel like we needed to prove anything. By that time we had. We’d been on the road, we were playing what we played and the way we played it and for better or worse there we were as the band that we were and are. So when we went into the studio, that’s the band that recorded. I loved the banjo on the beginning of the opening cut, “You Told Me” and I loved the way that The Monkees performed as a band.
It sounded very much like the garage band that we were. I loved all that stuff; that was really satisfying. But I don’t think it was part of the pop music landscape. It was just a very personal kind of garage band statement in a garage saying, “this is the way we play what do you think of this?” Seen in retrospect I think it stands up and acquits itself very well.
You visited a Beatles’ session for “A Day In the Life.” Share your memories from that session.
Michael Nesmith: Well, being in the studio for that one session was a faint glimmer of The Boating Party. It was the best and the brightest and quite a collection of people; it was thrilling. I was an observer and clearly more people thought I was involved and was inside than didn’t. But to me I was very much on the outside looking in. I didn’t have access to what those guys were doing.
How did you wind up staying at John Lennon’s home?
Michael Nesmith: When I got money, I went to London specifically just to get into the middle of the art scene there. London was the center of the world in the ‘60s and I wanted to meet the players and the artisans. And you start with The Beatles. And I started with Lennon. So I got his address from the guy that was doing security for me and sent John a telegram. I figured that was the only way it was gonna pop up out of his fan mail and just said, “I’d love to see you” and then he called my hotel a few hours later.
He said, “You and your wife should come out and stay with us; there’s no need for you to stay at a hotel. He unfolded me into the scene with no questions asked. “Yeah, come on.” Because to him, I supposed, we never talked about this in so many words, we kind of talked around it, his television had come to life as well. Part of his television just called him up and said, “Can I come over and play?”(laughs) So it was very nice and very civil. Just your standard, sit and talk and smoke a little dope and play some music, just exactly what you would expect it to be. And then when word got out that I was at John’s house, Paul and Ringo came over and various members of the rock hierarchy and royalty came by. Then we all went out to dinner. It developed from there, just exactly the way you would expect a normal friendship to grow.
There’s a wonderful snapshot in the book of Jimi Hendrix playing what appears to be your Monkees Gretsch electric guitar on a bed while you sit at his feet. Fill us in on the back story behind that image.
Michael Nesmith: Well, I suppose there was a sense from everybody in the art center of London in the ‘60s that it was really the place. The Beatles were the center of it, the Stones were in it and everybody who was beautiful and young and a little high were part of the whole thing because they assumed, this is it. It wasn’t until they all turned and saw Hendrix that they realized, oh wait a minute, this is it.
We were not it. This is it. He was doing things that were so advanced and so outside the reach of that they were all doing that it brought everybody to a stop. And of course it changed the musical world.
Everybody began to start to play like him, everybody started to dress like him. He was the guy. But being around for that and making friends with him and having it be a part of my life was the thing I carried away from it. The rest of the world carried away the music that he left behind, which to this day as you and I talk, I listen to these sonic beds of the new Sia record and I realize, this was Hendrix.
You took LSD several times in the ’70s, how did that experience affect your way of thinking?
Michael Nesmith: Oh, I think I think it affected it the same way it affected Cary Grant. (laughs) When Cary took it he was very candid and said, “Everybody’s got to take this.”
But then so did Tim Leary (laughs) and so did Ken Kesey and all these guys (laughs) and so the establishment thought, uh oh, this is evil and stopped it. Have you ever taken it?
Michael Nesmith: Yeah, it’s a life-changer. It just completely rearranges one’s priorities and one’s sensibilities. For me it opened up a window into spirituality and into the substance of all things that I had not experienced before. I think I may have experienced to some degree maybe cognitively and maybe intellectually but never to the degree like this. Then I was talking to somebody who had taken a stack of it who said that one of the things that kept coming back toward the end of their experimentation was you don’t really need to take this in order to feel this way. And that’s what happened to me.
The drug delivered that package, which was, you don’t need the drug to gain access to this space. It doesn’t pull you in and make you serve the drug, it says you may have the drug serve you to the degree you want it but you don’t need it. So it was liberating. Everybody that I’ve talked to that really has the acid gleam in their eye has the same story.
Do you wish you had taken it earlier?
Michael Nesmith: Yeah. I wish I had understood it before I had gone to London. Everybody had a little acid when they got there. But apropos of that, I think we dragged a whole bunch of it over there with us because Owsley stopped by the airport and dropped off a suitcase full. (laughs). I think the roadies took it; I never knew what happened to it. I only had one little purple pill that I never took in London. I do wish I had access to some of the psychedelics and some of the hallucinogenics especially as they faded into history. I don’t use drugs of any kind now and that’s been for decades. I think what acid did was it completely eliminated my interest in intoxicants.
The Monkees’ last studio album, Good Times, featured “Birth Of An Accidental Hipster,” which recalls the creative spirit and invention of the band’s Head phase and is in my books, the best Monkees song in 40 years.
Michael Nesmith: That album was curated by Adam Schlesinger and John Hughes at Rhino and Andrew Sandoval and just got handed to us as all the albums in the past had been handed to us. And so Micky and Peter and I just sort of stared at each other (laughs) and went, “Okay, here we go…” When I heard “Hipster” I thought, “this could turn into something” but Mick and I had an opportunity to sing. When Davy was alive, Micky and Davy did all of the singing. There was no opportunity for Mick and I to explore our composite but now there was. So I said, “You know Mick, you and I should sing this.” Mick said, “I don’t know how we’d do it and put it all together.”
So I called my son, Christian, and said, “I want to sing this song with Mick. Do you think you’ve got the skill set to help us put it together but not be in the studio at the same time? Can we do this on the absolutely outside of the whole Schlesinger, Hughes, Sandoval nexus? Let’s not use the studio they’re using, let’s do it in your bedroom.” And he said, “Yeah, I can do that.” He’s an exceptional engineer and he’s an exceptional player. He said, “Yeah, you guys just come in at different times and we’ll put it all together.” There’s a chord, a screech chord that goes through the song that most people will miss and you won’t really know that it’s there. But it’s primal and it’s a great idea that he had that sits in the center of the record. It’s a heavy metal chord that Micky and I sing. We’re just singing, (imitates chord) “Waaah…” If you listen for it, you can hear it. Micky and I were able to do that song completely outside of the realm of that record and kind of on our own much the same way that we had done Headquarters. We just said, “Now we can play so let’s go play.”
What’s the last song you heard where you said, “I wish I wrote that”?
Michael Nesmith: I don’t know, I think all the new stuff I’m hearing is so good. I just mentioned the Sia record, which is a year and a half old now. I love her work and I love her songs. But they’re just real pop stuff. I don’t mean to denigrate it at all; it’s just nothing I feel like I need to have written. Sia wrote it and I’m nourished by it.
Lastly, I know you love dogs, speak about your deep connection with them.
Michael Nesmith: Well, as you might know, the book is dedicated to all of my dogs. I put that at the bottom of the page why that’s there is it’s because dogs are faithful companions and that’s a rare animal.