Songwriter and guitarist, cultural visionary and godfather of the music video… oh, and a member of a little ol’ band called The Monkees: currently in the middle of a U.S. tour, the legendary artist was interviewed by our resident Nez freak.
BY MIKE SHANLEY
For a guy who just turned 70 a few months ago, Mike Nesmith still has a youthful glow as he makes his way onstage, decked out in a black suit and armed with a 12-string acoustic guitar. Long gone are his sideburns — and to be honest, most of the hair in general. And one other thing is in short supply during his first solo tour in two decades: little more than a passing reference to his tenure in the Monkees.
Granted, he’s opening the set with “Papa Gene’s Blues,” which appeared on the band’s self-titled debut. That uptempo country shuffle featured guitarist James Burton adding some punchy lead guitar lines after Nesmith’s command, “Play, magic fingers.” Although he has the excellent Chris Scruggs (grandson of Lester) doing some impressive guitar and pedal steel work in his current band, keyboardist Boh Cooper takes a more sedate solo in a version that moves much slower than the original. And while Nesmith announces “Blues” as one of the first songs he ever wrote, he makes no mention of the “band” that made it famous.
In the grand scheme of things, Nesmith’s tenure in the Monkees represents three years out of a 50-year career. So, while it would be nice to hear “Circle Sky” (from the band’s unappreciated Head soundtrack) or “Sunny Girlfriend,” he took care of that last fall, when he finally embarked on a brief reunion tour with surviving Monkees Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork. Now is the time to focus on his solo albums (more than a dozen), including some solid country rock with the First National Band. The current set runs the gamut from “Joanne” (with a falsetto that proves that his voice is still is fine form even if he occasionally talk-sings through other songs) and “Different Drum” to “Rio” (the easy-going calypso with the groundbreaking video) to “Grand Ennui,” which rocks so hard that Scruggs broke a string during his solo.
In Pittsburgh, the early portion of the set almost feels a bit like a Pink Floyd performance, with a reliance on slow tempos and the pervasive swell of Cooper’s keyboards. Paul Leim’s electric drums leave a little something to be desired. Nesmith reads from the iPad attached to his microphone stand, setting the scene for each song, (since the “songs play like little movies”), usually involving a man and woman in or on their way out of love.
Yet while the set-up might have wear thin, Nesmith and his four bandmates gain momentum as the set proceeds, climaxing with the encore of the First National Band’s “Thanx for the Ride.” Not only is this one of the best-written songs of the evening, it features a technological trick that adds to the performance: the late Red Rhodes’ pedal steel solo from the original recording was played in time, along with the band.
Nesmith handled interviews via email in the weeks leading up to the tour. In keeping with the focus of the tour, he willingly spoke at length about his whole career, and was less elaborate when asked about the Monkees.
BLURT: When was the last time you did a tour (aside from the tour you did last fall with Micky and Peter)?
NESMITH: ’92 was the last real tour, I think.
Your lyrics often have an almost philosophical bend to them that’s unique for rock or country music. (Song titles like “Propinquity”; lyrics like “Imagination’s empty/it’s bereft of what’s in store” [“More Than We Imagine”]) What inspires that? Have you read a lot of philosophy? Is it metaphorical?
Words and music run through my head most of the time — very nice to have them — and most of the time I just listen and write down what seems salient and new to me. Songs are also a great way for me to express affection, so I try to understand and use the feelings as they arise. This sometimes makes for sweetness, sometimes for thoughtfulness, and sometimes silliness. I never know. I just follow the songs along.
Was music always something you wanted to pursue full-time, or did it just happen while you were doing something else?
The former. From the first time I heard music I have never heard anything else. So it is the informing element of all thought for me — even literature, prose and narrative sing a silent song to me as I read them. Same for speeches, conversation and the sounds of nature — it is one continuous symphony. It also makes for great dreams :).
Who were your early inspirations? What was it about their music that you really liked?
Oddly diverse: Prez Prado and Bo Diddley, Henry Mancini and Jimmy Reed, Jimmie Rodgers and Marlene Dietrich, and on it goes, one great musical mind after the other. Absolutely all over the place. No rhyme or reason. No end to it. No final arbiter.
The website allmusic.com stated that you did some session work for Stax/Volt. What was that like? Who did you play for?
That is lore based in half-truth. I visited Stax once and jammed a little with the band. Nothing more.
Has country music always been a big part of the music you wanted to play? I heard one of the singles by Michael Blessing [Nesmith’s pre-Monkees stage name] — “The New Recruit” — which seemed to be more of a folk/protest song. And I know you were checking out bands like the Modern Folk Quartet back in the ‘60s.
I like country music, especially the blues nature of it and later the rock element. But I don’t see the lines of genre. I never know one from the other until I am way off in the margins. Sometimes I will start with your “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and end up with Tito Puente. Don’t ask me how I got there. But it’s always a “top-down/tune-up” trip.
By the time you started doing albums with the First National Band, there were other groups playing “country rock.” Did you feel sort of an allegiance with Gram Parsons’ solo work or the Byrds?
No, I hadn’t met them and hadn’t really heard them. I was up to my neck in Monkees and FNB was the first step out of that. So John Ware and Red [Rhodes] and John London and I locked ourselves away and learned all these songs that had been laying around. I had no notion of country rock. See above.
What did you think when Dylan did Nashville Skyline?
Didn’t hear too much of it. Johnny Cash played it for me the one time I listened all the way through and he loved it.
How much touring did you do either by yourself or with the First National Band in the ‘70s? What was it like? Was it a feeling like “now I get to show what I’m really about”? What were the audiences like?
FNB was tough. Lots of ridicule and outright laughter at us as we played. It was hard traveling. No approbation—quite the reverse. Taught me a lot.
Do you keep up with current people playing country or country-rock? It seems like it’s come full circle in a way because there are bands affiliated with underground rock that are inspired by mellower music from the ‘70s. Do you follow this at all?
See above. I can’t tell country rock from Pink. And I can’t tell Pink from Bollywood—except they all sound different and I love all of it.
How often do you get a chance to write new songs?
I write a little every day, and the music plays in my head non-stop.
Do you have plans for a new album on the horizon?
Always, although there is probably no such thing as an album anymore and likely never will be again.
There’s a whole other side of your career – with your work in video, executive production of films and as an author – which doesn’t always get recognized. How did all that come together? Are you the type of person who always has a number of ideas in your mind at once?
Yes. The directions of thought are infinite—as far as I can see whichever way I look. Sometimes an excursion down these avenues are just like a walk in the park — to relax and enjoy the surroundings—sometimes they turn into a music video or Elephant Parts or MTV. Right now all roads seem to intersect through the net and beyond.
How did the tour with Micky and Peter come together?
We decided to do it.
What made it feel like this was the time?
Feels like the end game —a resolution of sorts—and feels like it makes people happy. Does me.
Do you have any stipulations about doing it (ex: songs you wouldn’t do, onstage shtick)?
No— just a standard of excellence.
How were rehearsals like? Extensive? Just like riding a bike?
Arduous and long—getting back up the curve. Lots of fun.
Do you think that, with those shows, you’re able to say, “I’ve done a Monkees set. That’s it.” Or is the door open for future possibilities with them?
How much did those performances make you decide to mount this tour?
Not at all. Before the Monkees concerts I did a UK tour that sold out and caused promoters and agents here to offer to put together a solo US tour.
One review mentioned that this was the first time “Daily Nightly” had ever been performed live. When you worked it up for the shows, did you try to recreate the feel of the original or just focus on the composition itself? Did it bring back feelings of the mood on the Sunset Strip?
No, Mick and I were just fooling around and it was fun to play and funny to do. So it was in the show.
Speaking of the mood of that era, how did you feel about Lyndon Johnson when he was president? Did the fact that he was from Texas have any impact on how you viewed him?
I was very unhappy about the Viet Nam war. It was a real conflict for me because I felt a lot of compassion and sorrow for the fighters. I lost a close friend there. One day he was sending letters and cheery, the next he was gone when his chopper was shot down. I blamed LBJ for the continuance of that war — but this was before I came to understand that politicians have almost nothing to say about anything. They are like leaves on a raging river. I have released LBJ and the others.
Is there anything about your music or your career that you’d like to add, or anything you don’t get asked about that you’d like to mention?
No – it’s a moving picture. Changes all the time.
Nesmith’s American tour concludes this week in Alexandria, VA. Tour dates at his official website.