Friday, April 17, 2009

(Not, Alas) a Monkee’s Nephew

Sometime last year I think it was, I had a dream that Michael Nesmith was my uncle. I don’t remember much about the specifics, or even if I managed to ask him the burning question, “How could you work with Davy Jones for three years without beating the crap out of him?” But I do remember that I was pretty sad to wake up and find that Uncle Nes wouldn’t be at Thanksgiving after all.

I’ve always liked the Monkees, and I firmly believe Micky Dolenz has one of the great rock and roll voices. But Nesmith was the one who made them feel substantial and not just a made for t.v. cartoon.  He was already an experienced songwriter before he was cast as a Monkee.  His song Mary, Mary appeared (somewhat uncomfortably) on the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s second album East-West even before the “Monkees” series debuted in September 1966, and in 1967 the Stone Poneys hit big with Different Drum another pre-Monkee Nesmith composition.  By picking an actual quirky tunesmith who was not a central casting teen idol type, the Monkees producers sowed the seeds for the group’s eventual rebellion against the use of outside songwriting and studio musicians. 

While existing in the heart of the Monkees teen-pop bubble, Nesmith was increasingly drawn to country styles.  In May 1968, as the Monkees show was winding down, he recorded a session in Nashville.  Most of these songs were not used on Monkees records, and some would be redone on his own albums in the early 70s.  I like these early versions, which exhibit some of the same generational tension between song and backing that Bob Dylan’s Nashville-era recordings do.  In contrast to his wry and laconic Monkee persona, a lot of Nesmith’s songs are wordy and conversational.  Check out Some of Shelly’s Blues and The Crippled Lion.  While the backings are pure 60s Nashville country (with the addition of harmonica on Shelly’s Blues) the songs themselves are, in typical Nesmith fashion, crammed full of words and chord changes.  In Shelly’s Blues Nesmith dishes out his brand of clear-eyed but syntactically jumbled advice, while The Crippled Lion is a humble and self-aware inwardly directed pep-talk.  The guy would really make a fine uncle.


  1. Mazz, another fine article that is quite illuminating on many levels.

    I was 6 years old when the family traveled 5+ hours from my rural NoCal home down to Marin County to visit the cousins. There I was introduced to KTVU 2 TV in San Francisco and their endless run of monster movies and first-run repeats, including The Monkees. It was really my first introduction to rock-n-roll to which I could relate on many levels and it stuck with me for that reason.

    Flash forward 9 years and my friend tells me he can teach me a little bass. The firs song I learned was Stepping Stone (it had a bass solo!). Around this time the new and schedule starved MTV starting repeating The Monkees episodes. I watched every single one again, and, like you, Mazz, became a believer in the innate skills of two of the pre-fab four: Mickey Dolenz and his lonesome voice, and; Mike Nesmith and his aloof demeanor and under-appreciated song-writing skills.

    These two highlighted songs, which are totally unknown to me, are very intriguing. As you note, Nesmith often tried to do too much with his songs. Be it cram in one line too many or take the song one bridge too far. But it is these idiosyncrasies that make his songs so interesting. Of the two songs, I think “Some of Shelly’s Blues” is the stronger. Good country pop (that probably didn’t need the harmonica).

    It’s funny, peeps like Gram Parsons and Chis Hillman get a ton of credit for inflecting country into their rock songs. Not a word for Nesmith whose songs were very country and published at least as early as those other two. Nesmith got into a Catch-22 w/ the Monkees. He wanted recognition. Got it. Despised it because it wasn’t the kind he wanted. Rebelled (unfairly I think) against it. Was respected for his song-writing skills by others but couldn’t make a transition to another band or as a solo act because of the Monkees stone around his neck. Musically he could have easily fit into the Flying Burrito Bros, The Byrds or Buffalo Springfield. But none of those bands could have him because of the bubble-gum press that would have followed and undermined their street cred. There for the grace of god goes Stephen Stills.

    For those who care to do so, I suggest you take another listen to the Monkees. At the very least they had a great singer, great songwriters (outside and inside the band), and wonderful production quality. Just skip every song that Davy Jones sings on.

  2. Thanks Morgan. I enjoyed your boyhood Monkees story. I wonder if we were able to appreciate them more from the vantage point of the 70s and 80s, where their strengths (and weaknesses) were more recognizable in retrospect, as opposed to the 60s when it would have been harder to see through the "pre-fab 4" baggage.

    You make some good points about Nesmith's post-Monkees struggles. He has gotten recognition for being something of a pioneer in the pre-MTV music video field (probably a dubious distinction) but most people aren't aware of his First National Band and solo records.

  3. For a bit in the 80's he was producing some pretty interesting movies. The cult film, Repo Man, with Emilio Estevez and Harry Dean Stanton and a film called Tape Heads which gave John Cusack and Tim Robbins their starts, both stand out in my memory.

    Alas, the Monkees ended up playing the instruments on their albums more than the Beach Boys did during that same period. Yes, they were an inorganic creation of television studio and music producers, but, yes, it was ultimately a pretty strong creation. If viewed through the window of "quality of the product" alone, the Monkees hold up quite well. Add in the many self-penned numbers the 4 Monkees ended up writing and it is even better: Going Down, For Pete's Sake, Randy Scouse Git, The Girl I Knew From Somewhere, Mary Mary are all very, very good.