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A Loose Salute to Michael Nesmith, the Coolest Monkee of Them All

He was a musical visionary who fought for the group to write its own songs, and helped to invent country-rock on a series of cult-classic solo LPs

Rob Sheffield pays tribute to the Monkees' late Michael Nesmith.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Good night, Papa Nez. The music world is mourning today for the late, great Michael Nesmith, and celebrating his long, weird, beautiful life. He died today at 78, just weeks after the Monkees’ final show on Nov. 14. He was the coolest Monkee, the rock star of the band, the tall, lanky Texan in the wool hat. Nobody did more to eroticize aviator shades and sideburns than Nez. But he was the band’s dedicated musician, writing a slew of cowboy-hippie classics: “Tapioca Tundra,” “Listen to the Band,” “Circle Sky,” “Auntie’s Municipal Court,” so many more. If you were lucky enough to see the Monkees in recent years, you know Nez never lost his power to light up the room with one of his wry smiles.

When Nesmith sang his lost Sixties classic “Propinquity” on his 2018 solo tour, he recalled the words of his wife when he first sang it for her: “You wrote a pretty song. Play it, love it, let it love you back.” That’s what Nez did his whole life — he put this music into the world, and let it love him back.

Nesmith was a music visionary who saw connections between pop, rock, folk, and country, at a time when everyone just expected him to play the role of a teen idol. He was the Monkee who fought for them to write their own songs and play their own instruments. But he also helped pioneer country-rock in the 1970s, with his First National Band. These albums flopped at the time, only to get rediscovered later. “Dare I say it became hipster music?” he asked Rolling Stone’s Andy Greene in 2018. “No. I don’t say that. But dare I say that it’s music whose time has come? I’m pretty confident in saying something like that. I never thought it would happen.”

Nez kept going right up to his final days. Even when he seemed to be in precarious health, he had that drive to keep making music. The Monkees’ farewell tour was a beauty, even though Nesmith was clearly pushing the limits. At the NYC show a few weeks ago, he looked frail, sometimes losing his focus, but still thriving on the music, the crowd, his old friend Micky Dolenz. The set began with “Good Clean Fun,” one of his countriest Monkees tunes, with the final payoff line, “I told you I’d come back, and here I am!” You couldn’t miss the way his face lit up with radiant joy as he sang that line — three times — and breathed in the audience’s delight. It was inspiring to witness.

He grew up in Texas, with a single mom who invented Liquid Paper. He became an L.A. folkie, hanging at hootenannies in clubs like the Troubadour. Then he signed on to join a sitcom about a fictional band — Dolenz and Davy Jones were the actors, Nesmith and Peter Tork were the music guys. But to everyone’s surprise, the Monkees blew up into one of the all-time-great American pop bands.

As he told Andy Greene in 2016, “People think it was amazing that four guys hired for a TV show could actually form a band, but I don’t see it that way. It’s not that amazing when you think of the tenor of the times. You put any four guys in a room in the 1960s and you had a band, all the way from the Grateful Dead to Buffalo Springfield. It isn’t that amazing that four people in a group would start singing and playing together, especially since they were hired to perform that as actors.”

The Monkees’ TV show ran only two seasons, but it’s their music that turned out to be permanent. Nesmith is the main reason why. He wrote so many of their greatest songs — “Listen to the Band” has to be the best Creedence song that isn’t actually by Creedence. (“Play the drum just a little bit louder/Tell me I can live without her” — what a line.) He defined their sound with his trademark 12-string Gretsch guitar and his rugged adult drawl, in tunes like “The Door Into Summer” and “What Am I Doing Hangin’ Round?”

The Monkees took control on their third album, 1967’s Headquarters, playing and singing every note on their own. Nez really stepped out as a writer, with classics like “Sunny Girlfriend,” “You Told Me,” and “You Just May Be the One.” That same year, Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys had a hit with his “Different Drum,” a jaded break-up song far removed from any kind of teen romance. (Key line: “We’ll both live a lot longer if you live without me.”) Nesmith was also hanging with the Beatles — he was there at Abbey Road the night they finished off “A Day in the Life.”

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band did his “Mary, Mary” on their 1966 psychedelic classic East West — at a time when Nesmith was still struggling to get his own songs on Monkees records. “Mary, Mary” became a strange touchstone in hip-hop history, as part of the early DJ sets by Afrika Bambaataa in the Bronx. As Bam said in David Toop’s 1984 classic book Rap Attack, “I’d throw on the Monkees’ ‘Mary Mary’ — just the beat part where they’d go ‘Mary, Mary, where are you going?’ — and they’d start going crazy. I’d say, ‘You just danced to the Monkees.’ They’d say, ‘You liar. I didn’t dance to no Monkees.’ I’d like to catch people who categorize records.” Run-DMC did a 1988 version. “I just loved their take on it,” Nesmith said. “They changed around the lyrics some, but I didn’t care. The song isn’t exactly deep.”

After the Monkees split, Nesmith began his eccentric solo career, with amiably zonked records that were years ahead of their time. He did what his kindred spirit Gram Parsons called “cosmic American music.” Nevada Fighter is the best of these cult faves, but Magnetic South, Loose Salute, and Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash aren’t far behind. He revived these tunes on his great 2018 tour, with a new version of the First National Band. He finally got to sing gems like “Dedicated Friend” and “Grand Ennui,” and “Calico Girlfriend” for fans who’d waited years to hear him sing them, just as he’d waited for the chance to do this right.

He had a sense of humor about his cult status, calling one of these albums And the Hits Just Keep Coming. But it was painful for him to see the country-rock sound take off without him. “I was heartbroken beyond speech,” he told Rolling Stone. “I couldn’t even utter the words ‘the Eagles’ and I loved Hotel California and I love the Eagles, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, all that stuff. That was right in my wheelhouse and I was agonized, Van Gogh–agonized, not to compare myself to him, but I wanted to cut something off because I was like, ‘Why is this happening?’ The Eagles now have the biggest-selling album of all time and mine is sitting in the closet of a closed record company?”

Nesmith kept behind the scenes in the 1980s, with his company Pacific Arts, investing in movies like Repo Man and Tapeheads. When MTV kicked off a Monkees revival in 1986, Nesmith sat it out, but he joined for the failed 1996 reunion album Justus. He wrote two novels and a 2017 memoir, Infinite Tuesday: An Autobiographical Riff.

But after Davy Jones died in 2012, Nesmith surprised everyone by rejoining Dolenz and Tork. As he told RS, “Now is the time.” They finally made the album fans were praying for in 2016: Good Times!, with the late producer Adam Schlesinger. “Me and Magdalena” is a career-capping duet with Dolenz, showing off his weathered voice. “It’s a heart-grabbing song, Tork told Rolling Stone. “I’ve never heard Michael be so emotionally available as a singer before.” He sat out the 50th-anniversary tour that summer, but for the NYC show, he joined Dolenz and Tork to sing “Papa Gene’s Blues” — via Skype. He also turned into a hardcore fan of vaporwave.

Micky Dolenz did a great tribute album this spring, Dolenz Sings Nesmith. He made it feel like a loose salute to a 55-year-friendship, a dialogue between two guys from different worlds who’d seen each other through through ups, downs, and dashikis. Micky cheerfully admitted that even now, when he sang “Tapioca Tundra,” he had no idea what it meant.

But for Nesmith, the song was simple: a love song to the audience. As he explained in 2016, “The Monkees were playing live by this time, and the lyric to this was inspired by that.” Nez, with his solo-folkie background, was stunned by the sight of 20,000 fans. “Every time we played, an extraordinary thing happened. The performance turned us into something we weren’t offstage, which was the Monkees. Peter calls it the ‘fifth thing.’ It was the audience. They were there to bring this thing into reality, to make actual what the television show had portrayed. It was really about them. The lyrics come from a post-concert realization of the reality that had just occurred, the Monkees coming to life as the audience. Maybe that’s a little metaphysical.”

You could sense that metaphysical spirit on the Monkees’ farewell tour. This was a man determined to sing every ounce of music he still had left in him. There was a poignant moment at the NYC show where he faded out in “Auntie’s Municipal Court,” so Dolenz stepped in to take over and sing the rest of the song — a discreet gesture that nonetheless spoke volumes about the brotherhood between these two. It was also a tribute to how this man was so deeply beloved. Hearing Nez sing “Listen to the Band,” for what everybody knew was the last time, was an unforgettable moment. Thanks to Michael Nesmith for a lifetime’s worth of these moments.

From Rolling Stone US