The Monkees vied with the Beatles for my first rock ‘n’ roll affections, although both groups were long gone by the time I got hysterical over I’m A Believer and “Twist and Shout” as an 8-year-old.
That was in the mid-’70s, when former Monkee Michael Nesmith was coincidentally all over my local radio station with his easy-listening solo tune Rio. When he released Cruisin’ three years later, my playmates and I ogled the rollerskating gals in the weird video clip, and giggled as he sang “gay.”
For some reason, Nesmith was big in New Zealand and Australia – where he cracked the top-10 on multiple occasions – but nowhere else. America largely ignored his solo endeavors, perhaps because of the phony stigma attached to his old made-for-TV band. I never gave it too much thought. The Monkees were an audio experience since I did not catch the reruns of their screwball sitcom on New Zealand’s sole television channel. Great songs aside, they were also more of a gateway to other bands and songwriters, an occasional guilty piece of nostalgia.
Fast-forward to late-1994. I had been in America for two years, and the Monkees’ nine albums were about to be reissued with bonus tracks by Rhino Records. The archival specialist was also working on the home-video release of all 58 episodes of The Monkees TV show and their psychedelic feature film Head. I thought it would be a great story and arranged to interview Nesmith since he seemed like the most interesting Monkee. Besides being an early practitioner of country rock, and therefore somewhat to blame for the Eagles, he helped pave the way for MTV – which might also count as a strike against him.
I had met Nesmith’s former bandmate, Peter Tork, at a random music-industry luncheon a year or so earlier and we’d gotten into a heated political argument. Tork was a socialist and I wasn’t. When I told Nesmith about the encounter, he recalled that they used to while away the time on set – possibly dressed as French Legionnaires? Or as matadors? Or in nightdresses? – engaging in philosophical debates about the notion of individualism, pitting avowed free-marketer Ayn Rand against Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas.
“Peter is much more of the mind that your individualism should be dedicated to the whole of society, and I’m much more of the mind of the rugged individualist who follows his own conscience independent of the conventions of the times,” Nesmith said. “Peter is at heart an academic. He’s always been a standard East Coast kinda liberal upper class college-educated person.”
Tork was the first to leave the Monkees, at the end of 1968, and Nesmith followed a year later. That left Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz to carry on the name for one final album before calling it a day in 1970. The band – mostly sans Nesmith – reunited in various permutations throughout the years.
At the time of our interview, Nesmith hadn’t played onstage with the Monkees since a guest appearance in 1989. He wasn’t opposed to a reunion, though he didn’t need the money. His mother invented Liquid Paper and sold her company to Gillette for about $47.5 million in cash (that’s $134 million in 2013 money) just before she died in 1980. Nesmith was her only child.
Rather, he was busy with his own ventures. He told me how he had formed his own production company in 1974, Pacific Arts, as a vehicle for his prolific solo recordings. Besides his hourlong “video-record” Elephant Parts, the inaugural winner of the Grammy category for Video of the Year in 1982, Pacific Arts produced cult films such as Tapeheads and Repo Man. It also distributed home videos of popular public-television shows like Masterpiece Theatre and Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary series. He told me he was working on an adaptation of A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with the book’s author, Douglas Adams, and was hoping to direct a film based on his own script about a woman’s relationship with her dead father. Pacific Arts employed about two dozen people and enjoyed high profit margins on annual revenues of less than $10 million, he said. Nesmith planned to take it public in a couple of years.
That’s what he said. In fact, his company was collapsing and he faced personal ruin. Pacific Arts suffered severe cash flow problems because of hefty start-up costs and high royalties it had promised to the Public Broadcasting Service and several major independent producers, including Burns and Children’s Television Workshop. They terminated their deals with Pacific Arts in late 1993, and sued for about $5 million in the hope that Nesmith would be forced to live up to a personal guarantee. But PBS had played dirty along the way. Nesmith countersued the government-subsidized broadcaster, claiming fraud and negligence. The cases went to trial in early 1999, and Nesmith took the stand to plead poverty. A jury awarded him almost $47 million, although the amount was later reduced in a confidential settlement.
For all his business worries – which somehow completely escaped me at the time – Nesmith looked completely at ease during our chat. I interrupted a romantic breakfast with his future third wife, Victoria, when I was shown into his West Los Angeles office. He was 51, bearded, and just as sophisticated and urbane as I had imagined. He was also cool enough to refer to himself by his nickname, Nez, when he paged an underling.
We talked at length initially about the Council of Ideas, a powwow of pointy-heads that he hosted every two years at his Santa Fe ranch. Beginning in 1990, Nesmith had gathered a handful of eminences to identify a thorny problem of global significance and propose some solutions. The whole thing was funded by the Gihon Foundation, which his mother set up in 1977. (As of 2013, Gihon’s new focus seemed to be on producing live performances for free consumption by the public.) The Wall Street Journal had published a big front-page column about it a few months before we spoke, and Nesmith was relieved that the writer hadn’t trivialized the council’s work by focusing on his pop-star infamy.
Nesmith and his mother, a divorcée who worked as a bank secretary in Dallas while perfecting her correction fluid on the side, had been very close, speaking to each other several times a day every day, the Journal said. “I was very grateful for my mother,” he told me. “She was a very strong and very intelligent woman. I’m an egalitarian and the notion of women being repressed is abhorrent to me, so we connected very strongly when the women’s liberation movement hit in the early ’70s.”
NOTE: But wait! There’s more! This is an excerpt from my gossipy rock bio Strange Days: The Adventures of a Grumpy Rock ‘n’ Roll Journalist in Los Angeles, available here. For more info, go to strangedaysbook.com
Copyright © 1994 and 2013 by Dean Goodman. PLEASE DO NOT CUT AND PASTE THE WHOLE THING