Less than one month ago, on November 14, Michael Nesmith and Micky Dolenz brought their final tour as The Monkees to a close on the stage of Los Angeles' Greek Theater. The show opened with Nesmith's "Good Clean Fun," released in 1969 on The Monkees Present. The wistful reflection builds to a sweetly triumphant proclamation which the duo delivered with relish:
Well, the plane is finally down/And the engines stopped their sound
And I look in the crowd and there you stand
And the gap that once was time
Is forever closed behind
I told you I'd come back and here I am!
The audience responded wildly, and the two men basked in the deserved waves of applause and cheers. After all, The Monkees' music and the songs of Michael Nesmith have long closed the gap of time, bringing listeners back to cherished moments with powerful immediacy. This morning, Michael died peacefully at the age of 78. The Second Disc mourns the loss of this true American original, an artist who always fearlessly traveled to the beat of a different drum.
Though prodigiously talented as a composer, lyricist, guitarist, singer, author, and multimedia visionary, Michael Nesmith never took his fame for granted. As the Texas native told me in an interview for the release earlier this year of Second Disc Records and Real Gone Music's Different Drum: The Lost RCA Victor Recordings, "Through the sixties, I was an international pop star of indeterminate magnitude. I knew where I was when I was in that whole thing." But crucially, he also knew where he was going: "And so, I wondered about the music, kind of put it up against the stuff [I was writing] and I realized, as the transition was made, just how good the Brill Building guys were." After all, as a member of The Monkees, Nesmith had been recipient of songs that would stand the test of time by such writers as Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Neil Diamond, Neil Sedaka and Carole Bayer Sager, and Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. But Michael saw the potential to say more in his own music. "They wrote really well," he ruminated. "I'm just sorry about the ideas they chose to write about. At the end of the day, they were journeymen. They were first class, class A, first-call guys, and those songs will live forever in the halls of time...and especially the Monkees ones. We were blessed with that stuff."
From The Monkees' very first album, we were also blessed with the songs of Michael Nesmith: fiercely individualistic, inherently musical, often impressionistic, and endlessly fascinating. Think "Different Drum," "Joanne," "You Just May Be the One," "Tapioca Tundra," "Mary, Mary," "Papa Gene's Blues," or "Listen to the Band." As a solo artist and singer-songwriter, Nez was among the first to pioneer a psychedelic country sound fusing traditional instrumentation with a youthful sensibility. RCA label veterans such as Chet Atkins and Felton Jarvis were impressed by how he pushed the envelope of the country-and-western sound with elements of rock, jazz, pop, and even Latin music. "They were unequivocally supportive," he told me. "I was in the catbird sat. They treated me like royalty which I did not deserve according to where I was in the scheme of things. But I'm so grateful that they did."
Outside of The Monkees, Nesmith released fifteen eclectic albums (both solo and with the First and Second National Bands) and six live ones, wrote novels and the memoir Infinite Tuesday, and won the first-ever Grammy Award for the music video format in which he'd broke new ground. His television show PopClips paved the way for the birth of MTV. Yet throughout our conversations for the Different Drum release, I was constantly taken aback by Nesmith's genuine modesty and eagerness to credit others for their key roles in his accomplishments. "I realized early on that Red was the magic carpet," Nez offered about his longtime friend and cosmic partner, Orville "Red" Rhodes. "I arranged the production and recording [of the First National Band's debut album, Magnetic South] and as we began to put it together, I began to realize this guy is on another level...It was a new look at a way of expressing the same notes." Even when promoting the First National Band albums for RCA, he humorously used his radio spots to advertise others' albums not on the label. The label chiefs were "nonplussed," he recalled, "if you don't forget the part of nonplussed that has this kind of blank look. They had no idea. I said, 'Look, it's clear that these little things in the back are just hellos across the water. They don't really mean much more than a Post-It note. So why wouldn't I use my Post-It notes to address my crowd of attention-givers and tell them about other stuff and some of the things I was listening to? That I really enjoyed."
That generosity of spirit was evident to anyone who knew Michael Nesmith. As we worked on Different Drum, I was touched by his kindness, patience, and good humor as he answered each and every question I had. When the album reached the Billboard Current Album Sales chart on its first week of release, it gave Nez his first chart entry since 1979. Knowing that he took such joy in the success of this collection of songs he'd recorded roughly 50 years ago proved to be one of the greatest rewards of my professional life. The smile on his face in the above Instagram post will remain with me forever. Thank you, Michael, for your gifts of music and friendship.
In his beautiful, frank ballad "While I Cry," the narrator acknowledges what he's gained in a relationship filled with ups and downs. But one verse is particularly apt today:
Thoughts keep turning round in my mind
Now I see reason and rhyme.
Time spent with you has brought me something
And I've lost nothing if you are that kind.
Michael Nesmith was that kind - talented, funny, giving - and also that kind. Time spent with him, and his music, has indeed brought us all something. Don't take my word for it: listen to the band.