As he pulls up to an unassuming building on Catalina Street in Sand City on a recent Wednesday morning, the man dressed in a khaki jacket, yellow shirt, jeans and tennis shoes and with a Starbucks coffee in hand looks like any other guy in the neighborhood.
That’s just the way Michael Nesmith likes it.
“Nez,” as the longtime Carmel Valley resident is affectionately known to fans, friends and followers, has packed several lifetimes into his seven decades on the planet.
Born in Dallas in 1942, Nez grew up as a music-loving loner, listening to Texas blues on the radio and thrilling when Bo Diddley came to a local dive called Louanne’s.
He headed out to Los Angeles when he was 20 with his pregnant girlfriend, Phyllis Barbour, and started emceeing and playing tunes at the Troubadour, a famous L.A. music spot. A friend told him about an audition for a new television show called The Monkees.
The brainchild of director Bob Rafelson (later to rise to fame with Five Easy Pieces and The Postman Always Rings Twice) and Bert Schneider, the son of a Hollywood mogul, the show was an effort to tap the tide of Beatlemania that was sweeping the planet after the Fab Four made their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. They recruited four actor/musicians who didn’t previously know each other and turned it into a real-life (though scripted) reality series of its time, about their struggles trying to make it as a band.
Nesmith was cast as “Mike,” a wool hat-wearing prankster who fit in well with fellow cast members Mickey Dolenz, Peter Tork and the (now-deceased) Davy Jones.
Debuting in 1965, The Monkees was an instant hit – but it was also an idea that outraged rock purists.
As Nesmith writes in his new memoir, Infinite Tuesday: An Autobiographical Riff: “The show angered Beatles fans in America, the tie-dyed rock and rollers, sending them into fits of dismissive repulsion. It also created a sub-generation gap, an echo of the larger one. This one was between older and younger siblings. If the 17-to-20-year-old Beatle fan and serious music lover loathed the Monkees as a cheap copy, the 9-to-12-year-old television baby thought they were a matter of fact. Their television set was coming to life… Older brothers and sisters might shout them down, but the preteens had their own reality, even if they couldn’t explain it.”
Shaking off The Monkees mantle wasn’t easy, but Nesmith’s restless spirit didn’t allow him to coast on early acclaim.
After the group broke up in 1968, Nez founded The First National Band, a pioneering country rock group that prefigured bands like The Byrds and The Eagles.
In the mid-’70s, he founded Pacific Arts, a company that put out his own records. As a side venture, it also bought the rights to many PBS offerings over decades, including Masterpiece Theater Ken Burns’ 1990 The Civil War, ultimately sparking a lengthy lawsuit. After winning a $47.5 million settlement in the lengthy case, which was resolved in 1996 with an out-of-court settlement in the appeals process, Nesmith was quoted by the BBC as saying: “It’s like finding your grandmother stealing your stereo. You’re happy to get your stereo back, but it’s sad to find out your grandmother is a thief.”
Nesmith also ventured into the movie business, producing the cult classic Repo Man as well as less successful efforts like Time Rider: The Adventure of Lyle Swan.
Lightning struck again when he was asked to create a music video for his hit single “Rio.” The first music video of its kind, it is widely credited as the genesis for what became MTV. It was shot down the street from his Videoranch facility in Sand City, which hosts live performances at virtual venues.
Nesmith’s dad left when he was 4, so he was raised by his entrepreneurial mother, Bette Nesmith Graham, who first moved to Carmel in the early ’60s and was the inventor of Liquid Paper, more widely known as white-out.
In his spare time, the singer-songwriter has written iconic tunes like “Different Drum,” famously covered by Linda Ronstadt, “Some of Shelly’s Blues,” performed by Ronstadt and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and the popular ballad “Joanne.”
Nez sat down with the Weekly at Videoranch for an interview about his life and book. One of many misconceptions about The Monkees that Nesmith wants to clear up: that he’s embarrassed or angry about his participation in the group that put him on the map. He’s moved on, as his rich resume shows, but it’s a part of his past, with no apologies.
Like a conversation with its author, reading Infinite Tuesday is a non-linear experience. “There are books that keep meticulous and well-researched timelines on their subject,” Nesmith writes in the preface. “This is not one of them… I am committed to the facts as I know them, but I am aware that I only remember them one way.”
Into this scene of 1960s LA, there came into view for me an awful and enormous force besides…
Weekly: What was your motivation for writing this book? Was it just a question of telling your story, or of seeking some answers by telling your story?
Nesmith: That’s the forever question. The answer is, I don’t know. I was compelled on some level to do it because I’d been involved in so many things that I wanted to transcribe. I felt like a scrivener, in some ways. I was involved with many important moments, from involvement with The Monkees and early television to MTV. But I wanted to tell my story from the point of view of history, specifically watching the counterculture create the cyberculture.
That was a very West Coast thing.
Easterners don’t get that. It’s [analogous] to the way in which, artistically, I was dabbling in deeper waters than I could swim. The way the various cyberculture people approached this, I don’t think they recognized exactly how big it would become, but I’d bet a donut that you could talk to six of them and five of them would tell you that they knew something was up that had been boiled in acid. I’m talking about Steve Jobs, all the way up to and including [Bill] Gates. None of these guys use anymore, but it was part of their childhood. There was something going that had deep cultural roots and changed the landscape.
People say to me, “You’re out there in Carmel, it must be so conservative.” But I find nothing there but a bastion of liberalism, I haven’t found the slightest traces of right-wing thought. Of course if you scratch the surface, you might find some Republicans, and there’s Mr. [Clint] Eastwood. But if you talk to him in any depth, he’s acitizen.
So the book was a way to tell your own story, and a larger story?
As an eyewitness to history. So in the future, someone who’s not a Monkees fan or who’s interested in something other than ’70s pop culture can pick this up and say, “Oh, I didn’t know this.” I was careful when I put down facts to be correct, I didn’t just riff. But I wanted to also communicate the idea of the [psychedelic and cyber] changes and let people know that this was going on here at the time – and, dare I say it, still is!
Cyber pioneers may approach it as engineers, not poets, but you see them working toward a similar end?
There is a gracelessness and artless part of what they do that really needs the poets. The [Los Angeles-based] artist Ed Ruscha is a friend of mine… When he came up here to the studio, he said, “You’ve really got something going on.” There’s something about this place that I share with a lot of artisans and artists, which is that you’re very much on your own. You don’t need a pack, you don’t need a posse. If you’re in a band, you might need other musicians from time to time, but apart from that you have your own drummer going. I’m talking about Carmel Valley from Robinson Canyon up through the Santa Lucia Preserve, through Cachagua and Tassajara and then up north, just south of Marina at Fort Ord.
So you felt that working here, surrounded by all this natural beauty, helped give you the space to create the video that led to MTV?
There are places where you can just set up a pot and it will grow. That’s what we did with the pot here at 361 Orange Ave. in Sand City, which is where we shot the first video for “Rio.”
Somehow I knew at the time it was a billion-dollar idea, but even so, I would never have dreamed it would end up turning full-on into MTV. [Former Island Records chief] Chris Blackwell triggered it. He said, “Can you make a promotional clip for us?” I said yes, not knowing exactly what a promotional clip was.
It didn’t have a film grammar. But because of what we were doing, a grammar gradually emerged. In hindsight, it was pretty important for what it set down foundationally for the development of the art.
I put it in [Infinite Tuesday] very carefully so it unfolded like a story, but not one of the reviewers have mentioned it. Their focus on the early Monkees stuff is understandable, but music videos were really born here in Sand City. It’s unbelievable – and nobody pays any attention to it.
As you recount in the book, early efforts to commercialize the videos for programming were unsuccessful, even though they were led by experienced media moguls like the late studio head Jerry Perenchio. You created PopClips for Nickelodeon, then it was sold to Time Warner/Amex, which ultimately turned it into MTV. When you saw that happening, weren’t you tempted to cash in with them?
It was turning into The Old Man and the Sea; the boat just wasn’t big enough for the fish. I realized I would have had to ride this all the way in. It would have required me to make a major decision about my life that I didn’t want to. I was involved in the early days of MTV, but I wasn’t drawn to it, it was much more about dealing with advertising people and television executives, and all that felt foreign to me.
Could you have copyrighted the idea?
I didn’t go down that path. I didn’t feel it was a proprietary idea. When “Rio” came together in the studio, it was so organic, it would have felt like trying to copyright an avocado – which of course you can do if you file a genetic patent!
The only reason for a patent is that you teach others how to use it – that’s the primary verb in a patent application. That’s one of the reasons I decided to patent the virtual venue element we do here at Videoranch. But the music video itself was so spontaneous, I just felt like a farmer who had put a seed in, or maybe Jack and the Beanstalk, and the next morning it reached the sky. I was thinking of it as a visual expression of “Rio,” not as a business.
Let’s go back to the early days of The Monkees. Way back when they were just getting started, it’s part of the folklore that you showed up at the audition in a wool hat, chewing gum, and greeted the director Bo Rafelson with “Hello, Ed,” in an apparent reference to Ed Sullivan. Then you rifled through the drawers in the furniture on set and gave him identical, expressionless takes when he asked you to play the “strong silent type” and then “a girl.” What gave you the confidence to get away with that? Were you high?
No, that was long before my hallucinogenic days. It was just a way to get rid of my nervousness by bouncing around on the set. I was just putting him on.
The Monkees, as a pre-fab group recruited for the show in the aftermath of the Beatles’ success with A Hard Day’s Night, came to symbolize fakery to many. How did it feel to have that kind of frame put around you?
It was more than a frame, it was an existential shift in the cosmos. It was all because of television. If The Monkees had just started as a band, it would have just been a band. There were a lot of nice elements; the songs were pretty good, Davy [Jones] was cute, it produced well. And Last Train To Clarksville, the first record we put out, was good. People liked it.
But when the TV show came online, there was a hidden element that nobody really understood, of television making its way into the culture. We’d seen some of that in the Nixon-Kennedy debates and the Kennedy funeral, and in the Beatles on Ed Sullivan in 1964. But nobody really understood what was going on, except perhaps Marshall McLuhan [who famously coined the phrase, “the medium is the message.”] I only see now, in retrospect, how television was creating its own reality. What The Monkees became is even more obscure and surreal, given the tenor of the times.
What’s your response to The Monkees haters?
There’s this idea that it was a fraud or a fake, that there was something not quite right about it. It was what it was, which was a TV show about a band trying to make it. The fact that that turned out to be real over time was even more confusing, because we had to then go out and play. When we went out on stage in front of 20,000 people, that was a real event!
The less astute or more shallow reviewers consigned it some easy assessment – it’s just some fake Beatles. But it wasn’t. It was a television show that came to life in live performances and finally culminated in the movie Head.
That was kind of a put-on, too, wasn’t it?
It wasn’t a put-on so much as an artistic examination of what was happening. I thought it was exceptional and insightful, even though it was also drug-addled.
It was even more experimental than A Hard Day’s Night. Yes, no doubt.
How did fellow musicians react to what you were doing?
There were times we’d be playing with other acts, who’d ridicule and insult us to our face, which was hard to deal with. But there’s a competitive, adolescent aspect to young bands, anyhow.
Didn’t John Lennon also have mixed feelings about the fame that came along with the music?
Yes, he shared that with me. He was frustrated when the Beatles got really big, because he lost the ability to hear himself play with all the screaming going on. He didn’t know why they were screaming, anymore than I did. He knew why intellectually, but he didn’t know where to park it. What’s this? What’s going on? Where’s the reciprocity?
With us, for the crowds who came to see us, it was the television show coming to life, which was amazing. Think of it as if there’s a TV show that’s announced that they have a cure for cancer, then a clinic opens that actually has a cure! You can’t even process that. I can’t, anyway.