Michael Nesmith has died. You feel like a part of you has disappeared when a voice that has been at the back of your head for as long as you can remember just goes. Nesmith was the droll guy with the woolly hat in The Monkees’ TV show, which those of my age watched religiously and repeatedly. It was some years after that I started to pick up the music he made after leaving The Monkees, country rock music without a hint of sham about it. His songs were played regularly on Radio Caroline in the mid-70s, and I fell for their wholly individual sound.
The song were tuneful, wry, wistful, immediately recognisable yet with a strangeness that sometimes veered into the experimental, even while keeping hold of that tune. They had this private feel to them that kept the listener at a distance even while inviting them in. If you like what you hear, they seemed to say, then that’s fine. But if you don’t, it makes no difference.
The songs were seldom successful, except when other people sang them (Linda Ronstadt, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band). Nesmith’s finest album, And the Hits Just Keep on Comin’, is a fabulously sarcastic comment on his lack of success after leaving the Monkees (Nesmith struggled financially until gaining an inheritance at the end of the 70s from his mother, who had made a fortune inventing liquid paper).
Nesmith make great, overlooked music, for The Monkees, then with his First and Second National Bands (country rock outfits), then solo, before moving into video production and other businesses. He wrote some peculiar fiction (including a booklet designed to be read alongside a album of music, The Prison: A Book with a Soundtrack, a bizarre misfire). He produced Repo Man, one of the great off-kilter films of the 1980s. He came up with the idea that turned into the MTV video station. He declined to take part in some Monkees reunion tours, then joined others.
And I have kept listening. Sometimes the experience is a frustrating one. Nesmith could be too laidback too often. His post-hippyish ‘roll with the flow’ philosophy doesn’t have that much to recommend it. Yet there are enough times where the sound of the tuneful subversive comes to the fore, an entirely individual voice. In memoriam, here are eleven favourites, to delight those who know and perhaps intrigue those who don’t.
Throughout the albums that The Monkees produced, there were these odd countryfied songs that didn’t sound like anything else that anyone else was producing, let alone what you expect among the teen pop that the band was there to produce (or have someone produce for them). Nesmith wrote them, making his mark even on their first album with the kooky, catchy ‘Papa Gene’s Blues’.
The Monkees were denounced at the time as a manufactured band, a cynical US copy of the model shown by The Beatles on A Hard Day’s Night and Help! In reality, as things progressed they had far more influence over their music than many other artists in their position, which included some remarkable experiments with music form. Nesmith’s ‘Writing Wrongs’, from the album The Birds, the Bees and the Monkees is a case in point. It sounds like a song produced without any preconception of what a song had to be.
A jangling delight from The Monkees’ finest album, Pisces, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., again from the pen of the woolly-hatted one, showing his narrative skills and warm voice to their best advantage.
Head is The Monkees’ to-hell-with-it, career-wrecking 1968 feature film, which is both thoroughly annoying and one of the great American movies of the 60s. It just doesn’t care. It does care about the music, however, with Nesmith contributing this exuberant rocker with an irresistible riff. The shame is that it’s all too short.
Not a Nesmith composition, but this magnificent number from his 1970 album with the First National Band, Magnetic South, manages to combine the laidback with the epic, the ironic with the entirely sincere.
‘Silver Moon’ – that’s the song that I remember from those Radio Caroline days. It paints such a feeling of optimism in spite of everything. “Looking over maps of memories for the road…”
A lilting waltz from his 1971 album with the First National Band, Nevada Fighter. The kind of song that floats above, lingers for a time, then floats away again, wherever.
Tantamount to Treason vol. 1, released in 1972, was one of the reason the hits stopped comin’. Its oddness baffled both the Monkee nostalgists and the country rock fans. ‘You Are My One’ is a case in point. There’s a song there, but it’s so quiet, so determined not to be the song you want it to be. It drifts along in its own world, not yours.
And the Hits Just Keep on Comin’ is the album to listen to if you consider nothing else among Nesmith’s work. It is his most beguiling yet most defiant record. There are just the two musicians, Nesmith and pedal steel star Red Rhodes, yet they conjure up such a richness of sound. The famous track is ‘Different Drum’, but ‘Harmony Constant’ best sums up the man and his style.
1973’s Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash matches its predecessor for sarcasm when its comes to titles, and has some of his most pleasing music. ‘Some of Shelly’s Blues’ is best-known number, but ‘Release’ has such an easy charm about it. As with the best of his music, it lifts the heart, just a little.
‘Rio’, a minor hit in 1979, is in some ways the perfect Michael Nesmith song. It creates a mood that sounds relaxed and carefree, yet has this otherworldliness about it. It’s not exactly unsettling but leaves the listener puzzling over where exactly this song is taking us, much as the singer contemplates just where he might be.
And I think I will travel to Rio
Using the music for flight,
There’s nothing I know of in Rio,
But it’s something to do with the night.
It’s only a whimsical notion
To fly down to Rio tonight,
And I probably won’t fly down to Rio,
But then again, I just might.