Three months ago, Marcia and I attended our first live concert of the COVID era, traveling down to Phoenix to see Micky Dolenz and Mike Nesmith, of the Monkees, live onstage, fronting an outstanding band directed by Mike’s son, Christian. I wrote about that show at length and shared some photos here. Earlier this week, in my 30th Annual Best Albums Report, I cited the Dolenz Sings Nesmith album as my third best record of 2021, noting in that review that: “While I think Mike’s touring days are likely coming to an end, with him having wrestled with serious health issues in recent years, Micky’s voice remained a thing of wonder, so I will eagerly see him live again when I can, and eagerly look forward to his next record. There’s a bunch more great Nesmith songs out there, so I’m totally game for Dolenz Sings Nesmith 2.”
Sadly, my sense of Mike’s declining health was proven correct today when I learned that he had passed away peacefully, of natural causes, surrounded by his family, at the age of 78. His last concert with Micky was in mid-November, so he did one of the things that he loved to do pretty much right up until to the end, and even though he was frail when we last saw him, it felt good to see him earning such unmitigated love from his audience, and such respect and support from Dolenz. It also makes me most happy that we had the chance to see Nez a few years back in Chicago, playing a robust and joyous set of songs primarily culled from his influential First National Band days in the early ’70s. He’s never achieved the critical respect of the likes of Gram Parsons, nor the commercial success of The Eagles and their imitators, but there’s no doubt whatsoever that Michael Nesmith was one of the true, great and pure pioneers of the country-rock idiom, and that many, many modern artists working in Americana and related genres owe him a deep debt of gratitude.
His obituaries are likely going to focus on his time with The Monkees, and if that was all there was to his career, then he’d have left a fine mark on popular culture and music. But there’s a blessing and a curse embedded in that part of his history. The group was obviously assembled “artificially” for a Beatles-inspired wacky television show, and many of The Monkees’ hits were crafted using the best studio musicians of the day, as was the norm in American popular music at the time, e.g. nobody gives Brian Wilson any guff for Pet Sounds, even though many of the same studio pros who supported The Monkees in the studio play on that over-rated album. But somehow it was The Monkees who experienced a vicious backlash as representatives of standard industry practice, with Micky and Mike and Peter and Davy slagged with a harsh “Pre-Fab Four” tag, hinging on comparisons to the The Beatles, who almost always wrote and played their own songs.
Of course, pretty much anybody making music the late 1960s would have been found to pale in comparison with what John, Paul, George and Ringo did and pioneered in their heyday, so that was a truly unjust and hurtful line of attack. Especially since The Beatles actually loved The Monkees, personally and creatively. To his credit, Mike Nesmith drove the ensuing charge among The Monkees’ four members to assert their creative rights and capabilities as songwriters and players, and he placed more original songs onto their albums over the years than did any of his band-mates. Great songs, too, most of them. As was one of his earlier, Pre-Monkees songwriting masterpieces, “Different Drum,” which became a huge hit for Linda Ronstadt’s Stone Poneys, launching her career as a pop icon and titanic song interpreter.
Mike Nesmith was also a pioneer in the evolution of music videos (his PopClips show was the recognized direct precursor to MTV), was a film producer of note (most notably for Repo Man), served on the Board of Trustees of the American Film Institute, wrote and told fine stories on stage and in print, and produced and promoted other artists of note and interest. On a personal touch as a native Southerner with a mostly unshakeable accent, I always appreciated that he didn’t downplay or deny his Texas-bred roots and cadences. It pleases me to hear smart Southerners speak like smart Southerners, even if too many Northerners presume we’re stupid racists when we do so.
In the end, and despite all of the acrimony surrounding his time with The Monkees and the various machinations within and outside of the group’s core creative team, Nez remained proud enough of that body of work to want to play and sing the best bits of it live right up until his final days, even if it physically taxed him to do so. And that was right and just, as he should have been proud of that work, any critical chatter to the contrary notwithstanding. We play his Monkees songs and his First National Band songs (and Micky’s spectacular interpretations of the same) around our house all the time, happily and with open-eared and open-minded joy. He was talented and funny and smart and wonderful, and I’m sad and sorry that he’s flown away from us.
As a wee tribute, I offer one of my occasional “Five Songs You Need to Hear” lists below, focusing on Mike’s First National Band era, which many of you are less likely to have heard before than The Monkees’ classic nuggets. (In one case, I do offer a Monkees’ song given First National Band treatment, for the record). I highly recommend you explore his solo catalog further, and I hope you’ll also dust off any old Monkees albums you might have (or download some new bits and bytes versions) to be reminded of just how very good they were. Bless you, Nez. I really appreciated you.
“Nevada Fighter,” from Nevada Fighter (1971)
“Calico Girlfriend,” from Magnetic South (1970)
“Propinquity (I’ve Just Begun to Care),” from Nevada Fighter (1971)
“Listen to the Band,” from Loose Salute (1970)
“Grand Ennui,” from Nevada Fighter (1971)