Troubled father of alt country struggled to reconcile Monkees-mocked past.
Memoriam: Michael Nesmith 1942 – 2021
Like many of my best adventures, my friendship with Michael Nesmith began courtesy of SXSW co-founder Louis Black. Black summons a few of his pals to join him for Neil Young’s Bridge School Benefit Concert Weekend south of San Francisco in 2010. All Access Passes are assured and we’ll be guests of Young’s manager, Elliot Roberts.
It will eventually lead to me to convincing the one time Monkee to come to Toronto to jam with The Sadies.
Black loves connecting people and soon Nesmith, filmmaker Ron Mann, alt-comic Tom Tomorrow creator Dan Perkins and I are all assembling in northern California, first with a stay at a posh-rustic lodge before heading to Nesmith’s nearby home in Carmel. Eventually settling in for a few days at a hotel in Sunnyvale a few miles from the Shoreline Amphitheatre, the site of Young’s annual fundraiser. Artists joining Young this weekend include Pearl Jam, Elton John and a reunion of Buffalo Springfield, a band that includes old friends of Nesmith.
In the days before we head to the concert, I’m surprised by how much the mocking of the Monkees haunts Nesmith. He seems to have little sense of how highly regarded he is for his solo work, seen by many — including me — as the father of alt-country.
Nez is freshly out of a long-term relationship and the rawness of that wound lingers at the edges of our time together . A techno-pioneer, Nesmith was one of the first to use music videos as an art form with his Grammy-winning Elephant Parts. His gal left him for someone she met in Videoranch, a virtual world that Nesmith created. She literally left Nez for someone whom she first met as an avatar in a world of Nesmith’s invention.
An engaging and soft speaker, Nesmith is filled with remarkable stories: His tales of escaping Monkees-mania to John Lennon’s Swinging ‘60s London house while The Beatles were recording Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band among the best.
Nesmith was challenged by his Monkees success then, and it haunts him now as we speak.
“I was running weekly Jam Nights at the Troubadour before The Monkees,” Nesmith tells me, recalling glory days in Los Angeles with exasperation and articulating his serious-musician bonafides before his “big break” changed everything.
He struggled to be taken seriously as a musician then, and he continues to wrestle with his perception on this night. Black and I will spend much of the weekend reassuring Nesmith of his status as one of the revered fathers of Alt-country — and not just the guy in the hat on the TV show.
While hanging with Lennon in London after the first season of The Monkees, the Beatle would come home each night after recording with the band and play Nesmith rough tracks from Sgt. Pepper. He was both inspired by what he was hearing but also tormented by the musicality that seemed unavailable to him.
Lennon would eventually play Nesmith an audio tape he had recorded of Jimi Hendrix performing at a London club. When fellow Monkee Micky Dolenz, also in town, coincidentally sees Hendrix play, the two new fans will convince the rest of the band to book The Jimi Hendrix Experience as the opening act for The Monkees’ first big tour in one of the greatest mismatched bills in history.
Nesmith, still marvelling at Hendrix’s skill, describes going out for the Experience’s sound check, standing in front of a speaker and feeling the power of the music physically move him.
“I knew we might be in trouble,” he recalls.
Nesmith later hosts us at his luxurious home in a posh, heavily treed and gated community near Carmel. It’s an impeccably kept place with a good wine collection and a second building housing a recording studio.
Two small signs on a filing cabinet in an entranceway to the studio warn “No Mike” and “No Monkees Jokes”; a framed BMI certificate celebrating “two million plays” on radio of his biggest non-Monkees hit, Different Drum, hangs on the wall.
It’s Black’s birthday and Nesmith announces he has a gift for him. Nez beautifully sings and plays for Black — and us — his classic track, Some of Shelly’s Blues, while we sit in awe. His playing is magnificent and his voice true and full of soul and feeling.
But Nesmith has abandoned playing live, and we all will spend much of the weekend convincing him to play again.
The next day, at lunch before we head off to Sunnyvale, Nesmith continues to lament his place in the musical lexicon, convinced he’s seen as “a joke” by many.
As Black and I continue to compliment, cajole and encourage Nez to start playing live again, he finally says, “Okay, but how would I do it? I’d have to find a band, my songs are complicated, it would all take so much just to get started.”
I get a brainwave and feign a trip to the washroom. I call my pal, Sadies’ bass player Sean Dean: “I know this sounds crazy, but I’m here with Michael Nesmith, and he needs a band. You guys are alt country masters — any chance you know some of his stuff?”
“We love him,” Dean declares. “Travis (Good) and Dallas (Good) know all his stuff.” He then lists off esoteric tracks by Nez and it’s clear they’re the band for the job.
“We’ll make it happen,” I assure him. When I return to the table and share my ruse, Black, who also knows The Sadies, confirms to Nesmith they’re the right band. The Sadies recorded the soundtrack for one of Mann’s films and he also backs the idea.
“Come to Toronto. These guys have made a career jamming with other cool artists — and they love your stuff.”
Nesmith remains skeptical that anybody knows his music but comes around to the plan.
“What?” I ask.
“I’ll come to Toronto next week and jam with those guys.”
Alrighty. Another call, this time to Jim Cuddy, and Blue Rodeo’s Toronto studio is booked for the weekend.
Our group decides to get to the concert in separate cars. Nesmith and I pair up and he drives me the two hours to the gig in his substantial SUV.
We talk the whole way — well, mostly I listen as he shares details of the various massive farms we pass and the crops they grow. He’s one of those guys who knows cool historical details. And he spends a lot of time proudly telling me the unlikely story of his single mom’s incredible entrepreneurial move.
My own mother had to be a resilient single parent for tough parts of her life, so we bond over our pride for our mothers. Nesmith’s mom, an under-appreciated secretary at a time of grinding corporate misogyny (unlike now?) had invented Liquid Paper and transformed their cash-strapped lives into a multimillionaire existence — all before The Monkees.
Mom understood how little authority secretaries actually had,” he explains as lettuce-packed fields roll by. “She knew the price point had to be under two bucks because secretaries weren’t authorized to spend more than that.
“And she thought it should be packaged in something familiar so, Liquid Paper came in easy-to-use bottles that looked like nail polish.”
Mom’s entrepreneurial bug clearly bit Nesmith, who’s post-Monkees projects included movie production, “ inventing music videos and MTV”, a wildly successful digital projects company called Pacific Arts, which created the ill-fated avatar love nest, Videoranch, among other things.
Arriving at Shoreline we take our seats after forcing Rambling Jack Eliott to ramble a few seats over – he’s in our spots. Nesmith drinks in the show like a thirsty man with his first sips of water. He’s on his feet applauding when Leon Russell takes the stage.
After set after dazzling set, we coax Nez to make the cruise backstage. It’s a big room, ringed with doors bearing the names of a cavalcade of true stars, including Pearl Jam, Elvis Costello and Elton John. John’s door is closed, but the room glitters as each celebrity backstage seems to spot another that they are dying to see. Jeff Bridges is everybody’s pal and Buffalo Springfield members Stephen Stills and Richie Furay are engaged in enthusiastic conversation. I almost shove Nez in their direction assuming these fellow Laurel Canyon Lords would be natural pals. But Nez enters the room hesitantly — he hasn’t been in a setting like this in a while.
Stills spots Nez, cracks a welcoming smile and immediately walks towards us, arm outstretched, Furay following with equal enthusiasm. Like releasing a raft onto a raging river, Nesmith is engulfed in a wash of well-wishers, almost instantly back in the fold that has clearly been awaiting his return.
(Fun fact, Stills also auditioned for The Monkees, trying to nab the spot Nesmith eventually got.)
Pleasantries and emails are exchanged and promises to reconnect are made, the confidence pours into Nez like water into a jug.
Nesmith heads home the next day, but I stick around for day two of Bridge Concert, this time using my pass to park side stage for much of the show. A highlight is watching Young playing with his pals in Pearl Jam. As the ensemble roars though a track, Young turns his back to the audience and he takes turns tossing the stink eye at various band members to get them to take up his unspoken cues — a rare, revealing moment, watching Young as bandleader, non-verbally conducting a group of pros.
I’ll see Nesmith in a band leader role days later in Toronto – but I’ll have to get him through customs first.
Of course, I sign up for airport pickup the next week feeling good that The Sadies are committed for the weekend and Blue Rodeo has kindly supplied their east Toronto studio.
My cell rings as I fly up the highway to Pearson.
“They won’t let me in.”
It’s Nesmith, sounding flustered.
“Customs, the Mounties.” And he starts dropping names and numbers of regulations he may be in violation of.
“Too good to be true,” rages through my head as my mind begins processing scenarios of what could have been.
“I’ll call our lawyers,” I promise and, two hours, later Nez is spat out of the system and onto the sidewalk in front of terminal 1.
“They’ve released me to you,” he announces as he hops into my car, his safari jacket, slip-on loafers and smart-casual look suggesting he could have stepped off a flight from Florida rather than California.
“They kept my passport,” he says as he explains his confusing situation. He was never convicted of anything, but once when coming into Canada in the ’60s, Nesmith mouthed off at Customs. When asked if he smoked cannabis, he wise-assed replied “Every day.” This response remained on his file and put a target on him. (Historical note folks — cannabis used to be illegal, wild eh?)
This border bummer will ultimately sour Nesmith on coming back to Canada and serve as a roadblock to further work with The Sadies.
I drop Nesmith at his hotel and we agree to meet at Blue Rodeo’s Woodshed Studio the next day.
I become somewhat obsessed by this point — the dreamlike unreality of what’s happening combined with the many roadblocks, all surmounted, has unleashed adrenaline-fuelled compulsion that sees me adopt some kind of “producer” role in the proceedings.
Dallas Good of the Sadies tells me years later that, when they arrived at the studio on the first day, “Right off the top, we came in and you pulled me aside and said, ‘Why the fuck aren’t you guys wearing suits?’”
Apparently, I wanted the band to show up in their trademark western-styled Nudie suits — not exactly the kind of clothes you’d want to wear for a couple of days of intense time in the studio. I was in full “make it happen” mode.
“I dunno,” was Good’s response. “I got kind of defensive and it haunted me ever since.”
I think neither one of us wanted to “pinch ourselves” and wake from what felt like a dream. I felt Nesmith’s commitment was very tenuous, and I didn’t want anything to make him feel disrespected or give up on this project.
“We were in one of the best recording studios I am aware of,” Good recalls. “And we didn’t turn on a mic. But the truth is, I didn’t want to jinx it, to rattle him.
“Let’s keep this non-committal, it’s not about us. It’s not about a bootleg we’re going to release in five years, it’s the first day of a long-term relationship.
“Now, I’m kicking myself. I don’t even have a pic of us all hanging out together.”
I barely recorded or took pictures throughout my time with Nesmith. Like Good, I didn’t want to do anything to “call out” the remarkable events that were taking place. I just wanted to keep it moving.
Initially, Nesmith has a bit of a “show me” vibe directed at the musicians I brought him. But very quickly, Nesmith moves from begrudging participant to full on bandleader: demanding repeated attempts at songs and never shy about delivering a stern look, quiet disapproval or a demand for “one more time.”
“He seemed indifferent about the whole thing up until we ran the first few songs, and then he took charge,” says Good. “He came up here knowing there was a chance it might be a drag. It was really amazing how into it he was.
“It wasn’t just a pleasant jam; we were rehearsing for sure. We would run a song four or five times in a row. It was never, politely, ‘This one’s not working’ and move on. He saw something in it and he wanted to carry on until he got it right.
‘Do you know this song?’ he’d say, and of course we did though, in some cases, we didn’t and we actually sat down and learned the song on the spot, not with the aid of records. He’d run it once and we’d back him on it.”
As Nesmith and The Sadies moved through his repertoire, Nez would call out a new song and expect them to play it. Often, rather than sing the lead, he’d ask The Sadies to take it.
Sometimes they didn’t know the words.
Once, sensing the ever-feared brick wall being hit when Nesmith calls out a song that stumps The Sadies, I pull out my iPad, find the lyrics on the web and pop up in front of Dallas, words in hand, so they can carry on.
The studio door opens and Jim Cuddy and his wife, actor Rena Polley, come in to survey the scene.
The band and Nesmith have been working on Silver Moon, a track from Nez’s First National Band. After pleasantries are very briefly exchanged, Nesmith indicates it’s time to get back to the song — he’s singing lead now and it’s mesmerizing.
“Silver Moon,” Good recalls. “He was performing it for Jim and Rena and you, it wasn’t just a run through. I thought, ‘Holy shit, we’re getting a concert here right now.’”
After a solid eight-hour rehearsal session followed by dinner on the Danforth, I say goodbye with no intention of crowding the session the next day. I am, reluctantly, relinquishing my imagined “executive producer” role for tomorrow and will leave the musicians to their work.
Nesmith runs them just as hard the next day, and when they finally say goodbye, the plan is to work together in California “sometime soon.”
“Boys, we’ll do it in California, whenever you want,” were among Nesmith’s last words to the band, border hassles ensuring he wouldn’t be back to Canada any time soon.
“It just kind of drifted away, that we were going to work together. It never went away,” says Good.
Nesmith does return to playing again — with California musicians — after the Toronto Sadies Sessions. He eventually starts doing Monkees gigs.
“He started working with Micky and Peter (Tork) again,” says Good. “I’m not going to feel weird about that one.”
Nesmith had told me he’d never play with The Monkees while Davy Jones was alive, passionately explaining, “I can’t stand that guy.”
Good’s last word on the sessions?
“There weren’t as many joint breaks as usual — too riveting.”
RIP Michael Nesmith.