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Music / Michael Nesmith

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Monkee. Songwriter. Innovator. Hans Gruber lookalike.

Robert Michael Nesmith (December 30, 1942 - December 10, 2021) was an American Singer-Songwriter, producer, writer, and actor. Perhaps best remembered as a wool hat-wearing Texan Monkee, "Papa Nez" had quite the storied and innovative career. From helping codify early country rock to basically inventing MTV and music videos with his Grammy award-winning "visual album" Elephant Parts, Nesmith's influence cannot be underestimated. Oh, and his mum invented liquid paper.

Enlisting in the Air Force at 18, Nesmith took up the guitar while in the service and became involved in the Texas folk music scene after his discharge. After releasing a self-financed 1963 single ("Wanderin'") he decided to try his luck in California, forming the folk-rock trio Mike, John and Bill with two of his old Texas buddies (John London and Bill Sleeper) in the wake of The Beatles' success, and later releasing two solo singles for the Colpix label under the name Michael Blessing in 1965.

After seeing the famous "MADNESS!" ad in Variety, he successfully auditioned for The Monkees.note  Alongside the massive success of The Monkees, Nesmith also began to make a name for himself as a songwriter, with the ultra-hip Paul Butterfield Blues Band recording "Mary, Mary", and Linda Ronstadt having her breakthrough hit as the lead singer of the Stone Poneys with "Different Drum".

As a Monkee, Nesmith had always brought a country sensibility to his vocal spots, and composed a fair few songs that juxtaposed country music with other genres in hitherto unheard ways. But he often struggled to get attention for his music in the Monkee setting, and his growing frustration over the downward spiral their career was taking led Michael to negotiate a release from his contract in February of 1970. Around that time he formed The First National Band (with the aforementioned John London on bass, plus John Ware on drums, and Red Rhodes on steel guitar), one of the first country rock groups, continuing his odyssey of off-kilter country musings. Having built good relationships with the executives at RCA Records, which had distributed the Monkees label Colgems, Nesmith moved to RCA, and debuted with the First National Band's trilogy of albums, which produced two decent-sized hit singles ("Joanne" and "Silver Moon"). Eventually London and Ware split, marking the end of the FNB, but Nesmith and Rhodes continued on in various other configurations, perfecting their progressive country sound, then edging towards pop and rock, with social commentary becoming an increasingly bigger factor in Nesmith's lyrics. After RCA dropped him he formed his own label and production company, Pacific Arts, and revisited the mix of music and video that The Monkees had pioneered. Bolstered by an imaginative early Music Video, his 1977 song "Rio" became a surprise international hit.

In the late '70s, Nesmith began creating small musical segments for Saturday Night Live. This eventually led to the creation of a larger-scale project in Elephant Parts, and... the rest, as they say, is history: In 1980, he was approached by Warner Communications to create a music video TV show for the new channel Nickelodeon. Nesmith developed PopClips, which was hosted by a pre-fame Howie Mandel and was a progenitor of MTV, launched by Warner in 1981. While Nesmith had no direct involvement with the actual creation of MTV itself, and turned down a job with the network just before its launch, the channel would not have happened without him. His subsequent career saw him release the odd album, create a virtual online concert stage, partake in several Monkees reunions, and continually speculate about possible future technologies, many of which have not only seen the light of day, but have also become household items.

In 1998 he added "published author" to his résumé, with the novel The Long, Sandy Hair of Neftoon Zamora. He published a second novel, The American Gene, in 2009, and released a memoir, Infinite Tuesday: An Autobiographical Riff, in 2017.

He passed away of heart failure in 2021, just a few weeks shy of his 79th birthday.

Studio Discography:

  • 1968 - The Wichita Train Whistle Sings (an all-Instrumental album)
  • 1970 - Magnetic South (with The First National Band)
  • 1970 - Loose Salute (with The First National Band)
  • 1971 - Nevada Fighter (with The First National Band)
  • 1972 - Tantamount to Treason, Vol. 1 (with The Second National Band)
  • 1972 - And the Hits Just Keep on Comin'
  • 1973 - Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash
  • 1975 - The Prison - A Book With a Soundtrack
  • 1977 - From a Radio Engine to the Photon Wing
  • 1979 - Infinite Rider on the Big Dogma
  • 1992 - ...Tropical Campfires...
  • 1994 - The Garden
  • 2000 - Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann
  • 2006 - Rays
  • 2015 - The Ocean
  • 2016 - Around the Sun

Live Discography:

  • 1978 - Live at The Palais
  • 1980 - The Michael Nesmith Radio Special
  • 1999 - Live at the Britt Festival
  • 2010 - The Amazing ZigZag Concert
  • 2014 - Movies of the Mind
  • 2018 - The First National Band Redux: Live at The Troubador

Tropes associated with Michael Nesmith:

  • Aborted Arc: You'll notice there is no Tantamount to Treason, Vol. 2 in the discography listing, nor any further albums with the Second National Band (or a Third or Fourth National Band, for that matter).
  • Almighty Mom: Bette Nesmith gave birth to her only son when she was 18, raised him alone at a time when single parenting carried a big social stigma (especially in Texas), invented Liquid Paper then set up the company out of her house, then out of a shed in her backyard, until it became a multi-million dollar business. She was also active in helping women get ahead in the business world, and when she sold Liquid Paper to Gillette in 1979, she used the money to set up some charitable trust funds. Who knows what else she might have accomplished if she hadn't suffered a fatal stroke at age 56.
  • Anti-Love Song: Heard throughout his discography.
  • Arc Words: "Lady" shows up in quite a few song lyrics and even some titles ("Lady of the Valley", "Hello Lady", "Lazy Lady", "Lady Love").
  • Art Shift: The Music Video for "Rio" starts out on videotape, then shifts to film, then ends on tape again.
  • Berserk Button: Don freakin' Kirshner. His releasing More of The Monkees without even consulting the band totally pissed Nesmith off. How much? At a party celebrating the album's success at the Beverly Hills Hotel, a heated exchange between Kirshner, Kirshner's lawyer and Nesmith ended with Michael punching a hole in the wall Andy Bernard-style, then saying "That could've been your face, motherfucker!" Tellingly, Kirshner was dismissed from the project and Nesmith got to produce sessions himself not long after. Another big Berserk Button for Nesmith around this time was Jeff Barry, who Kirshner enlisted to produce More of The Monkees. Nesmith and Barry got into a big fight early in the sessions after Nesmith tried to give Barry some pointers on mixing songs for the TV broadcasts, only to have Barry mockingly dismiss him as a Know-Nothing Know-It-All. Nesmith wanted nothing to do with Barry after that, and Barry has made it clear in interviews that he has no love lost for Nesmith either.
  • Born Lucky: The narrator of "Grand Ennui".
  • The Cameo: Having been a guest at the orchestral overdub session for The Beatles' "A Day in the Life" (along with several members of The Rolling Stones, Donovan and Marianne Faithfull), Michael appears a few times in the video, which was largely filmed at the session, including a shot of him casually chatting with John Lennon.
  • Cloudcuckoolander:
    • Yeah, no other mind could birth the insanity that is Elephant Parts. Also, his Facebook profile regularly featured messages ostensibly written by his dog, Dale. In fact, he eventually deleted most of his Facebook postings, including Dale's, because why the hell not? Dedicated friends of Nez usually copied his posts for posterity.
    • To take just one example from Elephant Parts, the song "Cruisin'" aka "Lucy and Ramona and Sunset Sam" wouldn't sound out of place on a Frank Zappa album.
    • Television Parts is important in Cloudcuckooland history for having first exposed Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey to a network television audience (using the exact same format that Saturday Night Live would later make famous).
  • Concept Album: The Prison - A Book With a Soundtrack, released with a book intended to be read while listening to the record. Infinite Rider on the Big Dogma is also full of commentary on popular culture of the '70s.
  • Concept Video: Ah, Mr. Nesmith, what would the anatomy of music video tropes be like today without your guiding hand? Elephant Parts, for one, has got a trunk full of 'em.
  • Cool Horse: The Beauty from "Horserace", beats the Magnum Force by a mile.
  • Cover Version:
    • Three Nashville standards were recorded for each installment of his trilogy with the First National Band: "The One Rose (That's Left in My Heart)", "I Fall to Pieces", and "Tumbling Tumbleweeds". He continued the theme on Tantamount to Treason by closing the album with "She Thinks I Still Care".
    • Nevada Fighter, Tantamount to Treason and Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash all have side twos/second halves made up entirely of non-Nesmith compositions.
    • His version of "I Looked Away" is notable because it was recorded only a few weeks after Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs was released.
    • "Talking to the Wall" on Tantamount to Treason was originally an obscure 1969 single by Bill Chadwick, who also wrote it, but since it was produced by Nesmith, he'd already had a history with the song.note 
  • Creator Cameo:
    • Appears as a race official in Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann, and his song "Dance" is briefly heard when someone's messing around with Swann's bike... this serves as a plot point as it alerts the bandits to the presence of Swann's "riding machine".
    • Makes an appearance as a "Water Man" in Tapeheads, for which he served as producer.
  • Credits Gag: Tantamount to Treason: Volume One splits up the musician credits and sprinkles them throughout the liner notes. In a classic Cloudcuckoolander moment, the liner notes are a recipe for (apparently quite potent) home-made beer.
  • Darker and Edgier: The Prison - A Book With a Soundtrack.
  • Deadpan Snarker: He played this role on The Monkees TV show, but also Truth in Television. Witness his comments after a jury awarded him several million dollars in a breach-of-contract lawsuit against PBS:
    "It's like catching your grandmother stealing your stereo. You're glad to get your stereo back, but you're sad to find out that Grandma's a thief."
    • He had some good one-liners for people who heckled him about The Monkees at the early First National Band shows, responding to requests for "Last Train to Clarksville" and "I'm a Believer" by saying "I don't play those songs anymore, I play music now," and also asking the audience to be gentle on him because he'd hadn't played for an audience of people over the age of 13 before.
  • Early-Bird Cameo: Back when Nesmith was still in Texas, local rocker Denny Ezba recorded his song "I'll Go Somewhere and Cry" and Michael contributed some whistling to the song, which was a fairly big local hit in San Antonio.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness:
    • His early Texas efforts were very basic folk-country numbers. His Mike, John & Bill songs are Beatles-style pop as filtered through folk and country ("How Can You Kiss Me" in particular is a bit of a riff on "I Feel Fine"). His two "Michael Blessing" singles are all over the place, with the specter of Bob Dylan hovering over them. "The New Recruit" is a sarcastic Protest Song sung in a hick voice, its B-Side "A Journey With Michael Blessing" is a Proto Punk Instrumental, the followup Cover Version of Buffy Sainte-Marie's "Until It's Time for You to Go" is a sensitive, orchestrated ballad with Nesmith singing in a credible crooning voice reminiscent of his later work on "Don't Call on Me", while its B-Side "What Seems to be the Trouble, Officer?" is a goofy Dylan-style talking blues number.
    • One of the earliest known appearances of his fan nickname was on the back cover of Nevada Fighter... spelled "Papa Nes". Just don't have the same zing, y'know?
  • Epic Rocking: "The Back Porch and a Fruit Jar Full of Iced Tea", a two-part medley clocking in at nearly eight and a half minutes.
  • Fading into the Next Song: "The One Rose" into "Beyond the Blue Horizon" (Magnetic South), "Texas Morning" into "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" (Nevada Fighter), "Rio" into "Casablanca Moonlight" (From a Radio Engine to the Photon Wing).
  • Fake Radio Show Album: The Michael Nesmith Radio Special, which intersperses cultural and social commentary with cuts from his album Infinite Rider on the Big Dogma.
  • Genre Mashup:
    • His 1968 album The Wichita Train Whistle Sings is not only all-instrumental, but an oddball mix of big band, soft rock and country.
    • Tantamount to Treason, Vol. 1 is probably the only "prog country" album in existence. It's been specifically described as sounding like Pink Floyd trying to do Country Music.
  • Greatest Hits Album: A few, but most famously a two-parter which split his discography up to 1989 into The Newer Stuff and The Older Stuff.
  • Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: All the songs on Infinite Rider on the Big Dogma have one-word titles, plus more descriptive parenthetical subtitles.
  • Idiosyncratic Cover Art: His trilogy with the First National Band. Each features some sort of picture motif in a circular frame, surrounded by one of the colours of the United States flag: Magnetic (blue) features the American bald eagle; Salute (red) features a war veteran (and a rat) making a salute; and Fighter (white) another bald eagle (in profile this time).
  • Instrumentals: He recorded an album of instrumentals, The Wichita Train Whistle Sings, while still a Monkee. Subsequently, his solo career had a few here and there.
  • Insufferable Genius: At his worst.
  • In the Style of: His pre-Monkees song "What Seems to Be the Trouble, Officer?" is a pastiche of Bob Dylan's debut album, complete with vocal impression and a guitar riff that's Suspiciously Similar to "Baby Let Me Follow You Down".
  • It's Not You, It's Me: He's claimed that "Different Drum" was the first hit song based on this trope.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: "Different Drum".
    "Well, I feel pretty sure that you'll find a man / who'll take a lot more than I ever could or can / And you'll settle down with him, and I know / that you'll be happy"
  • Kaiju: The pleasantly understated opening of Elephant Parts features a seemingly innocuous performance of his 1970 hit single with the First National Band... umm, "Rodan"? Uh oh, there goes Nezilla destroying Tokyo again...
  • Large Ham: A kind of understated, restrained kind, but when he goes all out... oh boy! Live at The Palais, in particular, features gloriously hammy performances of "Roll With the Flow", "Grand Ennui", and "Nadine (Is It You)".
  • Live Album: Live at The Palais, Live at the Britt Festival, The Amazing Zig Zag Concert and Movies of the Mind.
  • Looped Lyrics: "You Are My One" on Tantamount To Treason, Vol. 1 is just "you are my one" (x3)/"you are mine" repeated a few times.
  • Lounge Lizard: A running gag in Elephant Parts is one who interprets song lyrics rather literally.
    "You must remember this..." [Forgets how the rest of the song goes]
  • Miniscule Rocking: "The First National Rag", which closes the first side of Magnetic South. At twenty-one seconds (and credited to Ensemble Dark Horse Red Rhodes), it admonishes listeners to flip the record after the upcoming "intermission."
  • Mood Whiplash: "The Candidate" off And The Hits Just Keep On Comin' is a strange, dissonant rumination over the fleeting world of politics... and it opens the second side.
  • Multilingual Song: "Tengo Amore" features a Spanish verse, then the same verse translated into English.
  • Music Video: There had been plenty of precursors, including the standalone song sequences on The Monkees, but when Chris Blackwell of Island Records asked Nesmith to make a promo film for "Rio" in 1977, he elected to forego the route of simply performing the song on camera, and spent an unheard-of-at-the-time $25,000 on an imaginative short film full of whimsical imagery, which became an international hit. In hindsight, "Rio" is viewed as the moment that "promo films" or "popclips" turned into "music videos". And his frustration at not having an American outlet to show "Rio" led Nesmith to kick off the brainstorming that eventually led to MTV.
  • New Sound Album: The 1976 release of From a Radio Engine to a Photon Wing (in case the name didn't clue you in) marked a transition to a new style of unconventional pop with some minimal country influences. Reached full flower with Infinite Rider, with sort of a proto-sophistipop sound throughout and focus on themes such as consumer culture and... well... factions.
  • Non-Appearing Title: More often than not, the name of the game as far as his songs are concerned.
  • Non-Indicative Name: And the Hits Just Keep on Comin'. Probably intended as a Sarcastic Title, since he was well into Acclaimed Flop territory at that point in his career. Ironically, one of the songs on the album - his own version of "Different Drum" - was a hit... for Linda Ronstadt, that is.
  • Odd Friendship: In Infinite Tuesday he discusses how at various times he was close with John Lennon, Jack Nicholson, Timothy Leary, Douglas Adams, and Murray Gell-Mann.
  • One-Woman Song: "Joanne", "Winonah".
  • Pep-Talk Song: "Keep On", "Release".
  • Pop-Star Composer: For Timerider, albeit being his own (co)creation.
  • Rearrange the Song: His '70s albums included re-recordings of several songs originally recorded as Monkees tracks (though most had not been previously released as such)...
    • "Calico Girlfriend", "Nine Times Blue", "Little Red Rider", "The Crippled Lion", and "Hollywood" on Magnetic South.
    • "Conversations" (aka "Carlisle Wheeling") and "Listen to the Band" on Loose Salute.
    • "Propinquity (I've Just Begun To Care)" on Nevada Fighter.
    • "Some Of Shelly's Blues" on Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash.
    • "Circle Sky" was remade for The Monkees' lamentable 1996 reunion album, Justus. Nez also did his own version of "Different Drum" on And the Hits Just Keep on Comin'.
    • During the Magnetic South sessions he did a backing track for "Magnolia Simms", switching it from a Genre Throwback of The Roaring '20s to a midtempo country tune, but he never recorded any vocals for it and tossed it aside (the backing track got released many decades later on a special edition of the album).
    • The Instrumental versions of his Monkees songs on The Wichita Train Whistle Sings all take some liberties with the original arrangements, to accommodate the dozens of musicians used on each song. But the wildest rearrangement is undoubtedly "You Just May Be the One" getting turned into a jaunty march, done up in full military band style (perhaps a nod to his Air Force days).
  • Record Producer: Notably, one of the first instances of The Monkees' wresting control from their "puppet master" Don Kirshner was Nesmith becoming producer. This, of course, was under the stipulation that he would not be performing in any sessions he produced.
  • Real Men Love Jesus: "Dedicated Friend".
    "Has anybody here seen GEE-SUSS? / He is gone from where I laid him down..."
  • Religion Rant Song: The "didactic minister" verse of "Roll With the Flow" fits into Type 3.
  • Royalties Heir: As noted previously, his mother patented the ever-so-slightly ubiquitous invention Liquid Paper (correction fluid), qualifying Nesmith for official "filthy rich" status. He could've probably lived the easy life, but it was not to be. A Self-Made Man—or Monkee, if you will—would be his fate.
  • Rule of Three: His album trilogy, natch. What's more, each album cover bears one of the three colours of the American flag, and each includes one classic country cover.
  • Running Gag: Elephant Parts is made of 'em. The pirate alphabet, the aforementioned Lounge Lizard, fake home shopping commercials...
    "We [performed outlandish experiment X]... Just to prove a point!"
  • Self-Backing Vocalist: Throughout his later Monkees material and his early solo albums; easy to catch because of his unique phrasing.
  • Self-Empowerment Anthem: "Roll With the Flow".
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Oh hell yes. Where others would write "While thinking stuff over", Nez would come up with stuff like "While lightly perusing my state of affairs."
    "I was once criticized for writing a song with the word 'impelled' in it. C'mon, man! What he didn't know was that I have written songs with words like 'bereft', 'preclude' and 'prism'". note 
  • Shout-Out: Linda Ronstadt, Marie Osmond (who's described as looking like Ronstadt "with fifty extra teeth") and Bonnie Raitt all get mentioned by first name in "Capsule".
  • Siamese Triplet Songs: The first three songs on Magnetic South ("Calico Girlfriend", "Nine Times Blue", "Little Red Rider") segue into one another.
  • Signature Headgear: His famous wool cap, of course. He also had an array of cowboy hats.
  • Single Stanza Song: "Beyond The Blue Horizon".
  • Solo Side Project: The Wichita Train Whistle Sings was released while Nesmith was still a member of The Monkees.
  • Space Western: Could be used to describe Nesmith's particular flavour of country rock at its most trippy, but Radio Engine particularly gives off this vibe, what with the back cover depicting Nez as a cross between a cowboy, an astronaut, and one of those robot street performers.
  • Spiritual Successor: The Garden is this to The Prison - A Book With A Soundtrack, being referred to as a sort of companion piece.
  • Stage Name: At the behest of Colpix Records, who didn't think Nesmith was a memorable name, he briefly changed his name to Michael Blessing (a surname he picked out of the phone book) on the eve of joining The Monkees. As mentioned in an interview segment on the Monkees TV show, he also briefly played around with changing his name to Lauren St. David.
  • Studio Chatter: Fitting in with the informal feel of his country albums, Nez is prone to tell Red Rhodes to "play [his] magic steel" or words to that effect, whenever a solo section approaches.
  • Subliminal Advertising: Ranch Stash has a "buy this record" message hidden in Nez's ear, giving off this vibe.
  • Take This Job and Shove It: "Bye, Bye, Bye". Might even be autobiographical.
    "And then I cabled my folks / I said call my boss / And you can tell him / Where I left thee truck / And then I went out and stocked up / On enchiladas and beer"
  • Three Chords and the Truth: And the Hits Just Keep on Comin' consists of precious little else than Nez and his guitar, long-time compatriot Red Rhodes on pedal steel, standard country chords and the truth.
  • Time Capsule: The song "Capsule" is one in audio form. Intended to be opened "a hundred years from now" ("now" being 1978), it paints a rather bleak picture of late '70s consumer society.
    "...We all kept pluggin' like a salmon up thee stream... some of us were dancing, but some us were screaming, but we tried; oh, how we tried."
  • Trope Codifier: As touched upon in the intro there, Nesmith pretty much invented modern music video, expanding on the concept of "promotional videos" that had been around for decades.
  • Verbal Tic: Had a notable habit of pronouncing "the" as "thee". Have you noticed yet?
    • He also more often than not pronounced "a" as a long-A.
  • Word Salad Lyrics: Oh man, when Nez got weird he got really weird. Just... makes no sense, man.
  • Word Salad Title: Elephant Parts, anyone?
  • Xtreme Kool Letterz: "Thanx for the Ride".


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