BRIAN BRENNAN: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS
According to the gossip of the day, the Monkees couldn’t play their own instruments. They were a band made to order for American television: Artificially manufactured to appeal to teenagers who had flocked to see the Beatles’s movies A Hard Day’s Night and Help! Michael Nesmith lent credence to the non-playing rumours in 1967 when he called a press conference in New York to declare that this ersatz TV band – in which he mimed playing guitar – was just a bunch of singing actors backed by uncredited studio musicians. “We’re being passed off as something we aren’t.”
Nesmith repeated his assertion when I interviewed him in 1979. “We were no more a rock ’n’ roll band than Raymond Burr is crippled or Marcus Welby is an MD,” he said. “The fact that people ever wanted us to be an actual rock ’n’ roll band seems very bizarre to me. It’s like asking Marcus Welby to check for symptoms”
Nesmith, known as “Wool Hat” in the television series, was the withdrawn, introspective, George Harrison type in The Monkees. It ran on the NBC network between 1966 and 68 and later in Saturday morning re-runs. The other stars were singer Davy Jones, drummer Micky Dolenz, and bassist Peter Tork.
Nesmith told me he had to make the public statement in 1967 because the Monkees were being booked to tour as a band even though anonymous studio musicians had done all the instrumental work on their first recordings. “The whole thing was getting out of hand,” he said. “It was all illusion, all mirrors. We just did the vocals.”
He did acknowledge, however, that he and Tork could actually play their instruments. He had sung in the folk clubs of Los Angeles while Tork had been part of the Greenwich Village scene before they were hired as actors to star in the TV series. And by the time the Monkees eventually did hit the road as a performing group, Dolenz had practised enough on drums to do a credible job on stage. Touring became a necessity for them, Nesmith said, after songs featured on the TV show, including “Last Train to Clarksville,” “I’m a Believer” and “Daydream Believer,” became million-selling hits.
The hit records were an unexpected and lucrative byproduct of the TV show. The musical talents of the four stars had never been taken into account when they were picked to do the show. The California producers had decided after auditioning The Lovin’ Spoonful that an already established band likely wouldn’t have the right blend of personalities for a successful TV series. So the producers looked instead for actors who could light up the screen with their magnetism and comedic talents. In the process, they rejected some top musicians including Stephen Stills of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, who was turned down because of his bad teeth.
Nesmith, who was 36 when I talked to him, said he now looked back on that part of his life in much the same way he thought about his high school years. “It’s part of the past, kind of distant,” he said. “I have some good memories and some bad memories. But mostly I don’t think about it very much.”
Among the good memories was his recollection that the television show worked well from a filming techniques standpoint. “The standard of the show at that time was very high,” he said. “It was an excellent cinematic piece.” Nesmith had a particular interest in the visuals because by the mid-1970s he saw video discs – then in their infancy – as playing a key role in the music industry of the future.
“It will be a communications revolution the magnitude of which we can only suspect,” he told me. “It will be the same kind of revolution that took place when silent movies went to sound. Radio is to records as television will be to video.”
I asked him about bad memories from his Monkees experience. “Poor money management,” he replied. Nesmith estimated he made about $1.5 million from the television series and related recordings, most of which he had spent by the time he left the group in 1970. “The money was intense and short-lived,” he said. “I made quite a bit of money and I spent quite a bit of money. It had to do with the contrast of the wealth. When you’re used to making $50 a week and you find a cheque for $182,521.17 sitting in your mailbox, it’s very easy to mismanage. You upgrade your standard of living without being aware of the tax implications. You find yourself spending the money rather than using it. I had to teach myself how to deal with that kind of money.”
He said he left the group to pursue his own solo music projects and start a garage-based mail-order independent record label that eventually expanded into a multimedia company, Pacific Arts Corporation, which had separate divisions for audio and video recordings, and also had a technical books division.
Nesmith focussed on the video division because it opened up new possibilities for how people interacted with their television sets. “Being able to control what you see on the screen causes a profound change in the thinking of the American people,” he said. “Because ever since the inception of television, it has been a passive relationship.”
Nesmith’s pioneering work with video brought him the first Grammy ever awarded for a music video, in 1982. The hour-long production, Elephant Parts, featured five promotional videos for Nesmith’s songs. “I didn’t know what I was doing since this was a music video before there were music videos,” Nesmith told Rolling Stone magazine. “Long before music videos, you still needed to promote records, so I made these promotional videos for my records.” He later marketed his concept to a cable channel, which developed what ultimately became the MTV music-video network.
Videos continued to figure prominently in Nesmith’s creative work through the 1990s and into the 21st century. Additionally, he dabbled in movie producing and novel writing and, whenever time permitted, went on reunion tours with The Monkees. “The reason I’m keeping on with the touring is because it’s fun,” he told Rolling Stone magazine. “We’re lifelong friends. I’ve known these guys for 45 years, or whatever it’s been.”
At last report, in May 2014 when he was 71, Nesmith was attending a Monkees’ convention in New York, playing the old hits, and autographing Monkees’ merchandise for a new generation of fans.
© Brian Brennan 2014
Brian Brennan is an award-winning Irish journalist and author who has lived and worked in Canada since 1966. Trained at University College Dublin, Vancouver’s Langara College, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut, he spent 25 years as a staff writer and columnist at the Calgary Herald, writing on such topics as politics, medicine, theatre and social history. Since leaving the Herald in 1999, he has freelanced for magazines and newspapers across North America, including The New York Times and The Globe and Mail. Among his awards are the inaugural Dave Greber Freelance Writers Award, the Hollobon Award for medical reporting and two Western Magazine Awards. His 10 published titles include several about the social history of Canada. His latest is an autobiography, Leaving Dublin: Writing My Way from Ireland to Canada.
Visit him at his blog, http://brianbrennan.ca/blog/Brian Brennan also plays jazz piano, for fun and profit.
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