Profile: Talking with Monkees' Michael Nesmith - the Monkee who didn't want to Monkee around

 

Michael Nesmith has always been the Monkee who didn't want to Monkee around.
 
He was a promising L.A. folk musician before debuting in 1966 as the smart Monkee who could play guitar. In 1970, two years after "The Monkees" was off the air, he was ready to revert to some semblance of reality.
 
When Rhino started releasing the Monkees on CD in 1994, he addressed the long-held belief that the Monkees were not a real band.
 
"Of course it wasn't a real band," he said. "There is no Wizard of Oz; Judy Garland was not really Dorothy; and the Monkees were a make-believe band."
 
Nesmith rarely took part in Monkees reunions for a few reasons. Yes, his mother did invent Liquid Paper. So he didn't have the financial incentive of the other guys. But beyond that, he slid back into his own music career in 1970 while raising a family and becoming a music-video pioneer with the Nickelodeon program "PopClips" and the Grammy-winning long-form video "Elephant Parts," issued by his media production company Pacific Arts Video. He also executive-produced "Repo Man" and produced "Tapeheads."
 
Nesmith passed on the Monkees' reunion tour in '86 and only returned for an album and U.K. tour in '96-'97. Last year he surprised everyone by doing a brief tour with Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork several months after the death of boyish singer Davy Jones.
 
"We had been talking about a tour before Davy died and we just kept on talking," he said in an email interview. "Davy's passing brought us together for the various memorials we all attended and after a few weeks we thought this might be a good time to go ahead with the tour we had started discussing and to bring Davy's memory with us. The reception was fantastic and it was a tremendous amount of fun."
 
Now, suddenly, at 70, you can't keep him off the stage. He's back on tour, this time with his solo band.
 
"This just felt like the right time," he said. "Not much more to it than that, although I had a great time on a short sold-out solo tour of the U.K. and that made me more receptive to the offers here."
 
If it's "Last Train to Clarksville," "I'm a Believer" and other Monkees hits you want, stay away. He has narrowed the Monkees catalog down to one song, "Papa Gene's Blues," from the band's self-titled debut album.
 
"It was one of the first songs I wrote and it started its life as a popular song from the Monkees TV show," he said. "I learned a lot writing it and learned a lot about the life of a song -- and I remember it fondly as part of the Monkees repertoire."
 
While the screaming kids knew him as the one with the wool hat and the sideburns, music geeks and historians respect Nesmith as an early comer to country-rock for having rolled out The First National Band in 1970.
 
Noting that folk and blues had been swept up in pop music during the British Invasion of the mid-'60s, he explained that "maybe it was a yearning for those roots that had been passed over by the times that propelled country-rock into a genre of its own. It was always hard for me to tell the music apart according to genre. The peers of mine that started working in the form after I did seemed more aware of it than I was -- it was just the music I had played since I began and I didn't see it as too different from other music."
 
Commercially, Nesmith had a hard time being recognized as anything other than a Monkee. He had writing credits on two of the Monkees' hits -- "The Girl I Knew Somewhere" and "Tapioca Tundra" -- but he's a one-hit wonder as a solo artist, having only charted with "Joanne" in 1970. Unfazed, he continued to record through the '70s and released two more albums in the '90s. His last work was the largely instrumental "Rays" in 2006.
 
All told, he has released a dozen solo albums, with 1992's "Tropical Campfires" being the one he plays the most.
 
"It has a nice clear center and point of view -- simple, direct, beautifully played -- and it happens to be mixed in surround sound. The one I listen to least is 'Tantamount to Treason,' although it is probably one of my best," he says of the psychedelic-tinged 1972 album made with The Second National Band.
 
None of the songs from "Tantamount to Treason" turn up on his tour set lists. He says narrowing his career down to 15 songs "was great fun, a real exercise in solving a creative problem. I was putting together a show for this tour so I wanted it to be the same from concert to concert while sustaining the interest of the band and myself as we performed. I think it has come out well. It is hard to execute but really rewarding. We are always a little giddy when we come off stage having accomplished it."
 
(Contact Scott Mervis at smervis@post-gazette.com.)
 
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)
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