Michael Nesmith just launched his first U.S. solo tour in 20 years, with a set list emphasizing his post-Monkees career through elegantly performed pop, cosmic cowboy blues and storytelling. At his recent show at the Canyon Club in Agoura Hills, California, Nesmith stood with a 12-string guitar and his four-piece band to link the songs of his four-decade career, both emotionally and thematically.
"It’s not really that long for me," Nesmith told Rolling Stone backstage of his long absence from the stage as a solo artist. "I just don’t go out in public, but I play with these guys."
During his nearly two-hour set, Nesmith said the songs "play out like little movies in my head," opening with "Papa Gene’s Blues," from the Monkees’ 1966 debut. He followed with early country-folk solo hits and later conceptual works (including 1974’s The Prison) before signing off with a one-song encore of "Thanx for the Ride," which included a sample of an eerie but exciting pedal steel solo by his late collaborator O.J. "Red" Rhodes.
Also backstage afterwards was fellow Monkee Micky Dolenz, smiling beneath a black cowboy hat. "I love his stuff. It’s just so beautiful – he’s a poet," Dolenz told Rolling Stone. "I think my next CD is going to be Dolenz Does Nesmith."
We caught up again with Nesmith, 70, by email to talk about the tour, his long career in music and film, and his ongoing role as a Monkee.
This is your first U.S. solo tour since 1992. Why did you stay away from touring as a solo artist for so long?
For me, touring takes a mindset that I wasn't in for many years. A couple of years ago I had an idea that I could see was only realizable on stage in a live performance. And with that thought came the idea that I would like to be out and performing again. So both of those roads led to where I am now.
You seemed to be enjoying yourself onstage.
I am particularly happy with this tour. The technology and tools make this show special and allow me to do things I have never done, so it is more fun by an order of magnitude than the shows that went before.
Though you haven’t toured in many years, you said after your Agoura performance that you actually work with these musicians all the time. What have you been working on?
I have been writing songs mostly and we have been acquainting ourselves with the tech of the times. There are more ways to make music now than ever and sounds and ideas that can be realized that were out of reach. So I have been marching up that learning curve – and writing to the new forms.
You opened your show with a Monkees song, "Papa Gene’s Blues."
It was one of the first songs I ever wrote and it has an idea at its core and a structure to the chords that spontaneously assembled in my mind. I also like the idea that it was acceptable to the producers of the Monkees show who were mainly interested in commercial hits. It was all a learning experience that taught me lessons I still use.
Storytelling was an important part of your performance. What inspired that?
Storytelling is an important idea for me and it is not limited to a narrative – for me a story only needs a point of view, and perhaps a point, in order to unfold the deeper meanings of events. Stories are expanded metaphors in a certain sense. I have never shared that sense of a story with an audience before. I was scared away from it because I didn't think people would be interested.
"Joanne" and "Silver Moon" got a particularly warm response from the crowd. What do those early solo songs mean to you now?
They are from a simpler time and have a primitive look and feel to me. I love them both and try to express them in larger and more expansive ways. They are complementary to each other so that is why I put them together side by side in the show and in the introductory vignette.
When you brought steel guitar and other country elements into your rock sound after the Monkees, did you feel like you were blazing a trail?
Very far from it. Those sounds were natural elements of music for me and did not belong to a genre – I was just writing songs that had good use of those elements, and Red was a gifted player who made the pedal steel fit right in to the songs I wrote. It never occurred to me that it was all that different. I still work with a steel player and am delighted at how well the instrument fits with the songs I write.
Your group then, the First National Band, is now recalled very fondly. What was the reaction like at the time?
The reaction at the time was awful. We were ridiculed and mocked – some of that may have been Monkees backlash from people who despised the Monkees and at that time – and maybe still – were in a majority. But I think there is something associated with the blues when it works its way into a more complex song that triggers a response more like confusion than a warm reception. Whatever it was, the rejection was hard to take, and it ultimately brought FNB to a halt. The records were not successful and the live shows were not subscribed so it became impossible to proceed. The songs of course live on and I was and am happy with them and satisfied with them.
Have perceptions of that music changed?
I am not sure that music is even around anymore. There is folk music and so forth and country has morphed into a kind of power pop – but the new music – the new sonics and the way music is incorporated into our lives is profoundly different. The music that finds its way forward always needs a solid spiritual foundation to be relevant, and in that way the presentations can conform to the songs and the songs to the presentations. In the end, music is a voice unique to the time and place and individual, so the perceptions of the past must change to accommodate it.
You closed your set with a sample from Red Rhodes, which brought an additional cosmic element to the night. What inspired you to bring him into your set?
That was a product of the technology – a "because we can" moment.
When you released Elephant Parts in 1981, you were a real pioneer by creating an album in a video format. What led you to match music and images so strongly?
It was natural like food and fire. Songs play in my mind as do scenes and pictures and they have a natural and easy synchronicity. The points I watch to see connect are spiritual – the thought value of a word and the thought value of a picture – when they match, it is harmonious and unavoidable.
In an interview a few years ago, you jokingly called yourself "the difficult Monkee who won't talk about his Monkee past." How do you really feel about your years as a Monkee in the context of your overall career?
I don't know whether I called myself that or was pointing out that others called me that, but my sense of the Monkees has stayed fairly consistent over the years. The Monkees belong to the people and the fans and not to me – and I don't think they ever can be a part of me in that way. I am forever grateful and happy for the association and feel it is positive and beneficial in my life. In the context of my overall career the Monkees experience is a substantial and welcome part of the puzzle.
Your songwriting and music career began before you became a part of the Monkees, and some of those songs were recorded successfully by others, including "Different Drum" by Linda Rondstadt. Where would your career have gone if you hadn’t been a Monkee?
I don't think it could have gone any other way – at some point all of this is a question mark.
Did your experience in the Monkees have any creative impact on what you later did as a solo artist?
It had a great affect on my understanding of craft and the availability of tools. It also gave me a good look at talented people I would never have known otherwise.
How was your experience returning to the Monkees for a full tour last year?
It was a blast – really fun – a lot of hard work – but the connection with the Monkees fans was salutary and happy.
What were your feelings on the road last year with the absence of Davy Jones?
It was different but not morbidly sad. We all know that these are the turns life takes and are the roads everyone walks at some point.
Micky Dolenz was backstage at your show. Will more Monkees tours or music be coming?
We are lifelong friends and our paths regularly cross – I am happy to perform again with M&P [Dolenz and Peter Tork].
This month, a film adaptation of "Veronica Mars" raised $4 million from fans through Kickstarter. If you’d had that option during your days as an independent producer of films like Repo Man and Tapeheads, would you have been tempted to use it?
Yes – Kickstarter is a wonderful idea and a near-perfect center of the new economics IMO.
How do you think crowdsource funding will change the future of indie film?
I am not a fan of UGC [User-Generated Content] – there is a level of craft that must be learned and a type of dedication to an art that takes a focus and sacrifice of other aims. UGC gives the impression that anyone can be Mozart, but this is obviously not true, so the question becomes "will crowdsourcing bring Mozart forward?" I don't have an answer for that. My intuition tells me no. The Mozarts among us create their own paths.
What are your plans after this tour is over?
Many roads are converging and new ones are appearing – stimulating new projects and ideas – songs music videos movies all fit. I see this new landscape as virtual and Net delivered revealing a new topography of thought. I will need to get some better shoes.
Remaining tour dates:
April 3rd, Boulder Theater, Boulder CO
April 5th, Fitzgerald Theater, St. Paul MN
April 6th, Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago
April 7th, The Magic Bag, Ferndale MI
April 9th, Carnegie Music Hall of Holmstead, Munhall PA
April 11th, Iron Horse, Northampton MA
April 12th, Union County Performing Arts Center, Rahway NJ
April 13th, Somerville Theater, Somerville MA
April 15th, World Café Live, Philadelphia
April 16th, Town Hall, New York
April 17th, Birchmere, Washington, D.C.