The Last Train To Chartsville

The two living members of The Monkees play their last ever dates this week in NZ. Ahead of this three-date tour of the so-called Mike & Micky show, Mike ‘the Nes’ Nesmith talks to GARY STEEL, who also explains just why The Monkees are so great.

The Monkees

Back in the late 1960s it was tantamount to treason* to admit to loving The Monkees. The downside of the hippy revolution was the seriousness with which fans appraised music. ‘Credibility’ was a word that was used a lot, a kind of predecessor to the bogus ‘authenticity’ that was so important to the roots rock movement of a few years later.

To attain this semi-mystical credibility, artists had to play very loud guitars, take a lot of mind-altering substances and write all their own songs. Woe-betide anyone who substituted their group members for session pro’s in the studio, or made ‘commercial’ (ie, sell-out) hits.

Mike & Micky

The Monkees failed on all counts: They were a manufactured group put together specifically for a TV programme about a fictional pop phenomenon, they sang other people’s songs and, in an eerie prequel to the Milli Vanilli scandal two decades later, they didn’t even play on their own records! (Or at least, the early ones, but at least they did sing).

They toured with Jimi Hendrix when his star was in the ascendant, and as you can imagine, the guitar colossus blew them off the stage. Thereafter, as a fan, if you had credibility you were into Hendrix, and if your taste sucked, you were a Monkees fan.

But the cred set, as always, failed to see the wood for the trees. The Monkees’ music may have lacked the transcendent firepower of Hendrix, but they set a template for smart pop that few – if any – have bettered.

“I got a tip for you, if you’re feeling a little low, have an open heart surgery it changes your life”

It’s easy to pick on The Monkees for their Beatles-derivative image, but the television show they were created for was ground-breaking and – in the context of very conservative corporate television – even subversive. It broke through the high culture/low culture divide and allowed the underground – in the shape of guest stars like Tim Buckley and Frank Zappa – to seep through.

The Monkees

As for their repertoire, it was superb and utilised the talents of many of the greatest songwriters of the era. If these songs are put back-to-back they run the risk of outshining the pre-psychedelic work of The Beatles, even: ‘Daydream Believer’ (John Stewart), ‘I’m A Believer’, ‘She’ (both Neil Diamond), ‘I’m Not Your Steppin’ Stone’, ‘Last Train To Clarkesville’, ‘Words’ (all by Boyce & Hart), ‘Mary, Mary’, ‘Tapioca Tundra’ (both Mike Nesmith), ‘Randy Scouse Git’ (Micky Dolenz), ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’ (Goffin/King), and many more cement the group’s place in pop, regardless of any other considerations.

And of course, there’s more to the story that meets the eye. Mike Nesmith was already a young singer-songwriter with huge potential when he was hired to play the character in the TV show, and after the show was cancelled the group were able to take control, play on their own records and utilise Nesmith’s talent.

Sure, the others started out mainly as actors but they rose to the occasion. And then there’s the film Head, which is much weirder than anything The Beatles ever did and remains an outsider masterpiece.

Mike & Micky

After The Monkees inevitably split in the late ‘60s, Mike Nesmith launched his own career and – Linda Ronstadt having had a hit with his song ‘Different Drum’ – spent a brief time in chartsville with songs like ‘Joanne’ and a run of beautiful if underrated country-influenced albums through the first half of the ‘70s.

Later, this remarkable individual was to virtually create MTV off the back of several of the most influential videos of the late ‘70s, ‘Rio’ and ‘Lucy & Ramona & Sunset Sam’, and was the creator of the ground-breaking satirical series, Elephant Parts.

“By this time my self-loathing is at an all time high, and my self-worth is at an all time low”

Nesmith was too busy to get involved in the inevitable Monkees reunions over the years – he did feature on several albums but didn’t participate in tours until 2014 – so, following the death of David Jones and the sad decline and very recent death of Peter Tork, the Mike & Micky tour is one more chance to give some ballast to those great Monkees songs while also performing rarely heard Nesmith originals.

A Monkees reunion

Next week’s gigs, however, nearly didn’t happen. Nesmith’s American tour with Mickey Dolenz late last year was interrupted by the need for a quadruple heart bypass, which of course completely derailed things for a few months. It was a surprise to me that ‘the Nes’ was hitting the road again so soon after major surgery, and I couldn’t help asking him about it.

“I go to the hotel and I cry myself to sleep, and say, ‘Why am I even in this business?'”

Nesmith is legendary for his quick wit and quirky sense of humour – try reading his very entertaining Facebook diary entries – and his response to my question is typically wry:

“People come up and say ‘how’re you feeling?’ and my only answer is ‘I feel GREAT, it’s like getting a whole new set of tyres.’ And I don’t want to talk about it anymore because I feel like the idiot who’s just walked up to you and says, ‘How’re you feeling? I got a tip for you, if you’re feeling a little low, have an open heart surgery it changes your life’. So I’m not doing that [laughs], but it was a piece of cake, the whole thing was a cakewalk, the doctors were smart and fast and one of ‘em was even funny, and so what can you ask for other than that?”

Mike Nesmith now

Unfortunately, however, a full eight out of our allotted 15-minute speed-dating interview was taken up with an unusual story ‘the Nes’ insisted on telling me about his last tour of New Zealand back in 1975, a reminiscence that’s sparked by my admission that as a Hamilton schoolboy I saw him perform his sublime The Prison concept album in Hamilton’s Founders Theatre to approximately 16 people.

It’s still one of my 10 best concert experiences ever. When Nesmith saw the stray bodies sitting in their allotted seats around the theatre he told us all to come up and sit in the front rows, and we were given a unique and spellbinding private performance of this slowly evolving, meandering philosophical work.

Nesmith’s 1974 masterpiece The Prison

Edited highlights of Nesmith’s story/response follow:

“That concert has a very special place in my mind. I roll it out at dinner parties from time to time. Oh, that’s not the way I tell it at all. I tell it that it was packed and there were six thousand people. [laughs].

“I’ll give you the story real quick. I stand up and [say], ‘Here I am in front of six thousand people who have just come to hear me by myself play the guitar and I’m terrified. I don’t know what to play. By this time I think all my songs are junk. By this time my self-loathing is at an all time high, and my self-worth is at an all time low, and I just can’t imagine why are all these people are here cheering and yelling for me to play my songs. So, I play the show, and the more I play it seems, you know, pretty well received, but when it’s over I just RUN off the stage and RUN out the back door, JUMP in the car and the car takes off for the next town, and I sit there going, ‘Oh my God, this is terrible, I embarrassed myself so badly’.

“And now I’m completely embarrassed because I started to say, ‘Oh, that was the worst show of my entire career'”

“So, I get to the next town, I have no idea what the next town would be but you know, it’s something like Dunedin… I don’t know what it is. It’s down there and… I go to the hotel and I cry myself to sleep, and say, ‘Why am I even in this business?’ Because that was such a horrible thing to put those people through making them sing those songs.

“I go to the venue the next day… at that point I didn’t carry take anybody with me, I just carried my guitar, walked on stage and play. And as I’m walking onstage, let’s say it’s still six thousand [laughs] and I walk onstage and I walk up to the microphone and this woman runs up to me, runs up on the stage and she’s left alone, nobody’s going to tell her to get off, and she says, ‘Do you mind if I just shake your hand?’ and I say, ‘No’ and she says, ‘I saw your show last night in Hamilton.’ I said, ‘Oh’. And now I’m completely embarrassed because I started to say, ‘Oh, that was the worst show of my entire career, and I’m a mature man I’ve had some good shows and that was the worst possible show’, but the angel said, ‘Bite your tongue, Nes’ and I said ‘Oh’ and I did, and she said ‘I don’t know what to say, it was the best show I have ever seen’. I was dumbstruck. And she said, ‘I live down in such and such’… no, ‘I live in Hamilton, and I drove up here to see this show tonight because I wanted to see that same show. Are you going to do the same songs?’ And I said, ‘Well, they’re the only ones I know’, and she said, ‘Well, it’s a fabulous show and I know these people are going to love it and I just have to tell you it’s probably the high point of all my concert going.’ And then she backs off the stage, doesn’t tell me her name, doesn’t tell me anything, disappears. And I think to myself, ‘Wow, shows you what you know Nes, you thought you’d laid this monster egg, and listen to that, she was very sincere that she loved the show’. So that’s a story I tell, it gets a show of raised champagne glasses and a few ‘Bravo, Nes!’ and then we’re off on another story. Okay, over to you Gary, it’s your show.”

The Mike & Micky Show

It’s hard to say whether this story is an elaborate dig at people like myself who claim to have been at wonderful but poorly attended gigs, or if it’s the mark of a deeply hurt artist. Clearly, Mike Nesmith’s poorly attended solo tour of NZ had a fairly profound impact on him, and not necessarily in a positive way, and might go some way to explaining why he soon after moved away from his music-only career and formed the Pacific Artists label, changing tactics with much catchier songs as he worked towards a more filmic approach to his art.

Nesmith confirms that The Prison won’t be on the agenda at the Mike & Micky show.

“I stopped doing that, it’s a bit long, you know. It’s getting a bit long in the tooth in terms of me. But the principal thing is that nobody asks for it anymore so I just leave it alone. Some of my very close friends say, ‘Come on, Nes’, but for the most part I leave it on the shelf and see where it goes.”

Nesmith’s improbably named album From A Radio Engine To A Photon Wing

I ask Nesmith why he’s doing this tour now, knowing that the guy, as a multi-millionaire (his Mum founded the Twink empire) doesn’t need to do it for cash.

Nesmith: “Um… I don’t know, it just seems like a good idea, and I love New Zealand, be fun to get back there, there’s a guy named Stewart MacPherson (promoter of his disastrous 1975 tour) who I quite liked and I haven’t seen him in 35 years, and there’s some cool mystical places and some cool pedestrian places, and prosaic places, so I’ll come back and dissolve that wave and so forth. And that’s the best reason I know of to go on tour.” Dissolve that wave? No, I don’t know what he means, either.

I wonder if there’s been some sort of reconciliation with his idea of how much he enjoys doing this material after all this time.

The Monkees

Nesmith: “Uh… well, not so much. I take your point, but what I’m interested in is the moments that the concerts take place in, and I like having a sense of that time-space and sharing that with like, 16 people (laughs) and that’s the motivation for me. I like the music quite a bit, I LOVE this band, they’re some of the best players I’ve ever worked with, and I’m surrounded by guys that keep my courage up and get out there, so that all seems fair enough. We’ll see what comes of it. I’ll just sit around and noodle on the guitar. If you want to listen good for you.”

Finally, I express surprise that now two out of four Monkees are gone that the two remaining members didn’t go down the hologram route, like the recent ‘Roy Orbison’ and ‘Frank Zappa’ tours.

“There’s some cool mystical places and some cool pedestrian places, and prosaic places (in NZ)”

“No, I’ve been around all those guys up in San Francisco back in the day when they were first developing what they called holograms, a lot different than the stuff now, but you know… it interests me to a certain degree. But it pulls out the filmmaker in me and I don’t really have much of a filmmaker that exists anymore. I think if I could come up with some programmes like I did when I was building MTV, that… there was a lot of fun there, dance and music and so forth, but these days I don’t know, I just don’t feel it anymore. I think there’s another medium coming that you and I don’t know anything about. It’ll just knock our socks off or blow our brains, and that’s where I’d like to work, where you think, ‘Wow, this is real.’

Soon after our interview, Nesmith announced on his Facebook page that this would be the last Monkees-oriented tour. “The shows are fun, the songs are good and fun to play, but things are a bit long of tooth now – not that that is a bad thing, but it’s a bit like trying to learn new dance steps.”

As for this week’s shows, Nesmith promises two hours-plus of Monkees hits and rarities, all backed up by a sterling session band.

 

The Mike & Micky Tour:

Christchurch – Saturday, June 8 – Isaac Theatre
Auckland – Sunday, June 9 – Great Hall
Wellington – Monday, June 10 – Michael Fowler

Book here: davidroywilliams.com

 

* Veiled reference to the name of Mike Nesmith’s fourth solo album, Tantamount To Treason (1972).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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