A Brief History of Michael Nesmith, the Man I Once Loved



Ed. note: Michael Nesmith played a long-sold-out show at Franklin Theatre last night. See contributor Edd Hurt's preview feature here, and follow below for contributor and lifelong Nesmith fan Abby White's two cents.

As a child of the '80s, I’m sure I’m not alone in designating a member of The Monkees as my first love. After all, if you tuned in to MTV or Nickelodeon in the mid-'80s, when the kid-friendly network aired the show daily, you probably watched the antics of the Pre-Fab Four on more than one occasion. You probably know the theme song by heart, and it is now likely stuck in your head for the rest of the day. (You’re welcome.)

But while most girls went for the seemingly innocuous, cute little Davy, I preferred the tall drink of water in the green hat, Mr. Michael Nesmith. He seemed kind of moody, maybe a little complicated, like he wasn’t entirely in on this schtick of pretending to be in a cuddly little band. He played a guitar, not a silly tambourine. Hot! He had a Southern drawl and an impressive set of sideburns. Double hot! And I figured that — unlike Davy — he was probably taller than me. Because these are the things you worry about when you’re choosing your ideal man at the age of 7. In fact, I think I can safely blame him for my propensity to chase tall, dark, complicated men with guitars. Thanks, Papa Nez.

I’d watch The Monkees on TV as frequently as my parents would allow, subsequently dreaming of riding away on a white unicorn to a humongous castle with my man Mike. So when my parents surprised my sister and me with tickets to see The Monkees live, I was as thrilled as a tapioca tundra. (Twenty-five years later, I still have no idea what the hell that means. If one you could explain it to me, I’d be forever grateful.)

As we drove to the venue, I could barely contain my excitement. I mean, I was 7, I was always excited, but this was a whole new level. The only concert I’d seen at this point in my life was my dad … and Raffi. My dad was pretty good, but Raffi was lost on me. (Since then, I’ve decided to mark The Monkees as my first “real” concert since family members don’t count, and Raffi should never count.)

When the show started, I could barely make out the stage from row YY or wherever we were in the monstrous outdoor venue (Poplar Creek in the Chicago suburbs, in case you’re wondering). There might have been an opening band, but they’ve long been filed away in that part of my brain where I store underwhelming opening bands, destined to remain in memoria obscura for all eternity. When The Monkees finally came onstage, I was ready to have my young mind blown. I squinted at the tiny figures, prancing out to a hero’s welcome.

“Who are those guys?” I asked. These dudes onstage looked like extras from Full House. Where were the cute boys from my TV show?

I’m sure my parents tried to explain over the roar of shrieking Baby Boomers and their children that the ‘60s are long gone, baby, and this is what the aftermath looks — and sounds — like. Mullets, tanorexia and a lot of synthesizers. Worst of all, I couldn’t see Mike! Where was he?

If you know anything about The Monkees, you know that Nesmith did not participate in that particular tour. You also know that Mr. Nesmith has had a strained and tenuous relationship with The Monkees throughout the years — pre-Monkees, I should point out, Nesmith was working the L.A. folk circuit, pursuing a somewhat more serious music career. But in late 1965, Nesmith signed a deal with the devil — or rather, Hollywood production team Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider — to be “the guitar player” in The Monkees. That kind of stuff will kill your street cred fairly quickly.

But in 1986, I did not know this. Shit, I didn’t even know that the television show I was watching all the time was 20 years old. But, in my defense, this album did not come out until 1987:


Had I seen that odd little pool party earlier, I probably would have figured out that my cute young men were now The Old Monkees On the Block, and that Nesmith was out. Probably. Seven-year-olds have short attention spans.

So, back to Poplar Creek, the place where dreams go to die, visions of unicorns and castles and knights in green wool hats are forever laid to rest. As all of this sunk in, my little heart sank down to my sparkly Keds shoes. I was a daydream believer no more. Mike was MIA, and these old guys onstage sounded like shit. It would only get worse the following year, when I discovered that the man in that funny video for “Got My Mind Set on You” was the same Beatle I was in love with. Crap, he was old, too?

While some obsessions — My Little Pony, Magic Rocks, bedazzled Keds — stayed in childhood, my love for The Monkees only grew stronger with time. In high school I discovered the mind-trip known as Head, the delightfully bizarre movie starring The Monkees, co-produced by Jack Nicholson and featuring cameos from Frank Zappa and Annette Funicello. (Head was even more delightfully bizarre with pot, naturally.)

While Head is noteworthy for signaling a sea change for the rapidly disintegrating band at the time, much like Sgt. Pepper's alerted the world that The Beatles were growing out their moptops and getting weird, I mainly mention it in this instance as an excuse to include this incredible photo:


Also during high school, when kids stopped buying cassette tapes and started buying “compact discs,” I purchased a Monkees box set, immediately drawn to the tunes penned and/or sung by Nesmith. He really was the Magnetic South, that man, pulling me back again and again. I found the one record store in Peoria, Ill., that carried his post-Monkees work, such as that of the incredible First National Band.

I also got my hands on what is still the weirdest DVDs I own, Nesmith’s Grammy-winning Elephant Parts, a mélange of music videos and comedy vignettes released in 1981 that still makes me fall out of my chair laughing. Despite the Grammy, I might be the exception to the rule, as I’ve shown this DVD to a wide range of folks, and it’s repeatedly earned me the status of The Person Who Is Never Allowed To Choose the Movie Again.

(Side note: I may or may not have taught myself the choreography to a brief dance sequence in the last video, and after about 18 drinks, I will probably perform it for you. If you ever hung out late-night at The Basement in 2005, you may have witnessed such a performance by me and my friend Ashley. Sorry.)

Fast-forward to present day, and my love for Papa Nez and the rest of those Monkees is steadfast. So when I heard that Nesmith, who rarely plays live, would kick off his spring 2013 tour with an appearance at Franklin Theatre, you can bet this girl was dusting off her compact discs in preparation.

When Nez took the stage at the beautifully restored Franklin Theatre last night, I knew what to expect this time. I’m 34, people, and he is 70. And while I wouldn’t say he’s looking as good as, say, 70-year-old Paul McCartney or 69-year-old Mick Jagger, he’s faring pretty well. Those awesome sideburns are long gone (sad), and that beautiful dark hair is now stark white (double sad). But it’s not like I was trying to go home with him or anything, I’m no Monkees groupie. I was here for the music, and a close propinquity to the man was enough for me.

He started with a good ol’ Monkees chestnut, “Papa Gene’s Blues” before announcing that he’d be playing songs from the past 50 (!) years for the rest of the night. He remarked that songs exist like “little movies” in his head, which totally makes sense if you watch Elephant Parts (which you should, by the way). Each song was preceded with a detailed narrative, but instead of explaining the song, Nesmith talked about the characters in the song, setting the stage and familiarizing you with their personalities and their situations before he played it. The whole thing felt like a weird little off-Broadway play, with incredible local sideman (and frontman in his own right) Chris Scruggs as Nesmith’s right hand man. It was magical.

While he was a bit heavy on some of the deep cuts from his career, he’s Michael Nesmith, and he can do what he wants. This girl would have rather heard “Sweet Young Thing,” “Love Is Only Sleeping” or — one of the best heartbreak songs ever — “While I Cry,” but beggars can’t be choosers, and we only have three Monkees left (R.I.P. Davy Jones). We’ll take what we can get.

So, we’re all old now, and I may have not be living in a castle with Mr. Nesmith and a unicorn parked in the garage, but listening to his music somehow makes you feel forever young, so you should try it.

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