When Michael Nesmth took the stage at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, California, on August 18th, 1973, his life and his career were in a state of free fall. “I had just bought my way out of the Monkees,” he says. “I didn’t have a dime. I had a creepy house. I had to send my butler and limo driver back to England, he and his family, because I couldn’t afford to keep them. I was feeling really sorry for myself. It was pathetic. I was in the worst state of my mind and my life.”
Since leaving the Monkees four years earlier, he’d released five pioneering country-rock albums for RCA, but none of them charted higher than Number 143 on the Billboard 200. It was the end of his time on a major label and fears were beginning to creep in that he’d never be seen as anything but the Monkee in the green wool hat, a very uncool role to occupy in the era of Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and David Bowie.
But he did have an amazing catalog of recent songs like “Silver Moon,” “Joanne” and “Grand Ennui” that he played to the tiny audience at the guitar shop backed by pedal-steel legend Red Rhodes, bassist Colin Cameron, and drummer Danny Lane. In the audience that night was Nesmith fan Ron Marks, who recorded the show directly from the soundboard along with a couple of ambient microphones. The recording made its way to Nesmith a couple of years ago and it finally got a public release last month as Cosmic Partners: The McCabe’s Tapes.
We spoke to Nesmith about that incredible concert, the upcoming Monkees tour, the state of his health, and his newfound willingness to appear at nostalgia conventions around the country.
You said you had just “bought your way out of the Monkees” when you played at McCabe’s. What does that mean exactly?
Well, it goes to a lot of internecine warfare. It also goes to a lot of just weird wrongdoing. Basically, the royalties that were due to us were held up by the recording of Peter Tork’s “Lady’s Baby,” which he stayed in [the studio for] 24 hours a day for months and he wound up with a $200,000 or $300,000 recording bill. That had the net effect of wiping out everyone’s royalties, including mine.
When I went to [record executive] Lester Sill and went, “Les, I want to move on. The show is over. I don’t really feel much like going out as a Three-kee with Davy and Micky without Peter. Can you let me go? I want to go set up a new deal somewhere.” He said, “No. You have this six-figure bill for the recording that was done. You can’t leave until that is paid off.”
That was a terrible, terrible moment. I said, “I’ll buy you out for whatever you owe on my royalties.” Fortunately what he owed me on my royalties was plenty. This was 1968 or 1969. There was enough money in there, low six figures, that they said, “OK, we’ll take it and let you do whatever you want to do.” They did and I did and we did and that was it. Done. I went from being an international boy-band pop star to being out of work!
At the time of the McCabe’s show, I was lost musically, lost financially, lost professionally. I really didn’t know what to do. And my only friends were the musicians I was playing with. I was playing old-time folk songs, basically the songs I came out to L.A. with.
Red Rhodes was obviously one of those friends. One of the joys of this recording is to hear your interplay with him. He was truly amazing.
I’ll tell you what happened. I was at his house one day and he had this terrible cough. He told me he just couldn’t quit smoking cigarettes, so I pulled a joint out of my pocket and said, “Have you ever thought about trying this?” He goes, “Sometimes I do. I have 100 plants back here.” I go, “What?! Where?!” He opens up this door to a room that’s the size of of a small second bedroom and it’s floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall marijuana plants. He’s got about 100 of them with all the lights and the stuff. I said, “Red, that’s a lot of dope, man! You don’t smoke it? What do you do with it?” He goes, “Well, I sell it to the neighbors.” I said, “You sell it to the neighbors? Red, you gotta stop that shit or you’re going to go to jail instantly. This is not just a thing you do for friendly neighbors.”
He said, “Well, I don’t think I can play on it.” I said, “Oh, yeah, you can! You have to learn.” It was a conversation I had with a lot of big-deal musicians and partners as they were all learning to play under the influence of an altered mind. We began playing and he played what you now hear on the Cosmic Partners album. Whatever was in that day’s drug settled into some permanent place in his musical head and he started playing these unbelievable steel licks.
Did you even know somebody was taping the show that night?
I may not have because I might have a been high or I didn’t want to know it. It felt like something of a fall from grace since I didn’t have the big studio around me. All the accoutrements of power and prestige were gone. I was just another bum on the street trying to sell my songs. That’s OK for me. I’m wiling to live that life presuming I had the satisfaction of music, but the Monkees had reduced that to a very low level in my life. Monkees music wasn’t music I listened to; it was music I played. I listened to the Allman Brothers. It was a tormented time and the people that would come to see me at McCabe’s were very different than the people that came to see me before. Everything was in flux. I didn’t know what to play. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how to make it through there.
Moving to the present, are you thinking about playing more First National Band shows in the future?
It’s the best band I’ve played with, so that’s a start. It’s also people I love most in my professional history, so I love that. What better than to go out with a band of people you love to play music you love for people that love you? That sounds like a career.
So are you booking more?
I’d like to. If I was in the shape I was in back in McCabe’s, I’ll book it myself. Give me a call! Send me a check! But I’m very, very dialed-down now. I’m no longer having any notions of superstardom. The notions I have are of eternal peace and happiness, so I’m going to keep working through that. And the only place I’ve ever found that is in my music. When I play the music like I want to, suddenly everything lifts. I’m around people that I think are great and I’m around players I like and around beauty and loveliness. That’s what I want to do.
At the end of the Monkees tour last year you went on Facebook and wrote some pretty provocative things. “I am expecting that will be it for me,” you wrote. “I start to feel curmudgeonly more and more and less and less suited for singing pop songs.” Have you changed your mind about that?
No [laughs]. But I have tried to take the advice of people that care about me that said, “Don’t be such a crank” or “Don’t be such an asshole.”
That’s what made you agree to another Monkees tour in April?
There are no more Monkees, as you know. I’m going to go out with Mick and do the Mike and Micky duo. In that show, you get mostly Monkees hits. Mick will play some of his stuff and I’ll play some songs that people remember from me, but at the end of the day it’s a Monkees show. We have a good band that has it all worked out. They are all first call-session guys and Mick and I are in fine fiddle and fine form and fine voice and everything. So we’re having a good time and the audiences that come to have an evening of nostalgia and Monkees music played well have showed up at the right place at the right time.
The show is now billed as “The Monkees Featuring” as opposed to “The Monkees Present” like last year. But you’re saying it still isn’t the Monkees from your perspective?
Well, I don’t have anything to do with that. That may have to do with copyright ownership and so forth. But they can call it whatever they want. That’s fine with me.
In that Facebook message you also wrote, “Television Music was never my first pursuit.” That read to some people like you were putting down the Monkees music.
You can’t put down a jingle that makes four and a half million dollars in a weekend. I don’t know how you go around singing it. [Sings] “I like shampoo that’s made out of shells. I love this one a lot, a lot….” See how boring that is? I can’t do that. And music and songs that were made for commercials, they lose their way. You don’t know what to put into them. If it’s always “Happy Birthday” you’re right on the bullseye in the middle of the sweet spot and you can sing that all afternoon as long as the cake is coming. After that, it has to be more than cake and root beer. It has to be cake, root beer, hot dogs, and ice cream.
But these songs aren’t jingles and they aren’t “Happy Birthday.” They are great pop songs.
That’s right. I understand. Are you talking about my songs or Monkees songs?
I understand you, but you’ll have an argument in whatever bar you go to. Anyone who is in their thirties and is armed or carrying a weapon, we’re better off taking the advice to get out of there because it turns into a nasty fight real quick. “The Monkees were junk!” “No they weren’t — I lived on them, man. I was in the basement and when I was eight years old, I was home from school and I was down there with chocolate-chip cookies and watching The Monkees! I never missed an episode. I just love you guys so much. You can’t imagine what it means to me to meet you right now. And this is my wife and partner Cosmic Sally Friday.” That’s the way it goes. That is fine with me.
How have you enjoyed going to those nostalgia conventions recently where you sign autographs and take photos with fans? Are those fun days for you?
That, oddly enough, I love. And it is odd because I fought it for decades. “I’m not going to go and sign my autograph for $100.” A few people would ask the salient point of “Why not?” I thought, “That’s a hard question to answer. If someone wanted to give me $100 for my autograph, I suppose I’d do it.” And then the answer comes back from the promoter, “Well, I have about 4,000 people that want to do that.” I was like, “Hmm. Wait a minute.” And so I go and do it. The first time I did it I felt like a sellout. “I don’t think this is for me.” But that weekend I made six figures.
Wow is right! That sort of thing just doesn’t fall out of the sky every day. The fact it did sort of fall out of the sky made me think, “Why don’t I look at what is going on here? Look at the people. Look who supports this thing. This is not crazy people. This is people who are cherishing their childhood and having a good time with the nostalgia of it and don’t want to lose it. If you want to play a part in that, good on you, son.”
I told the promoter I would do the next one that he wanted to do, which was a year later. I went to that one and was hooked after that one. I met people there all the way from the basement of the local hospital to the pinnacle of the local realtor. They were so happy to see the old Monkees stuff and they were so happy to know me and they sort of knew my individual work. And they were all so supportive and so happy to have this back in their life. It was like they had found something.
I made a big chunk of money again and was like, “What’s supposedly wrong with this? I don’t know.” Someone said to me, “You are selling people their memories back to them.” My reply to that was, “No, I’m not. They are in here looking for their old memories so they can take them home with them.” It’s me saying, “Remember those days? Remember when you rushed home from school to get down the basement floor and watch The Monkees? Well, it’s still here. That music is still here. We play the same. We look the same. … Well, we don’t look the same. We’re a couple of old men, but we sound the same when we play this music and it nourishes us the way it nourishes you, so come and enjoy and bring your family and friends and siblings and everyone who thought you were stupid for liking the Monkees. Bring them to the show. They will change their mind.”
I see so many bands these days that are doing farewell tours…
Do you ever think about a Monkees farewell tour?
Well, I had that heart attack about three tours ago. I thought, “That was my farewell tour!” They took my heart out and put it through the washer and dryer and put it back in and it all works good again. I started thinking, “I’m healthy. I know how this music goes. I can play it well. I can sing it well. Go out there and do it.” And that’s what we do. We’re coming to your town. And I’m going to play as long as I can. And when I can’t, I won’t.
Have you thought about a European tour? You haven’t gone there as a Monkee in a long time.
No. You know what? There’s no traction for it. My people called those people and they say, “Who?” It’s like I don’t have a foundational base or anything. Until that comes my way, I’ll just sit here and noodle and dream dreams of Red Rhodes.
You were talking to the press in Australia a few months back and you said something about Peter Tork that surprised a lot of fans. You said, “I never liked Peter and Peter never liked me.” I’d never heard that before.
It was something that was known on the set [of the Monkees’ TV show]. They knew Pete and I went our own ways. This wasn’t a dislike of someone who had committed some infraction against me or some sort of crime. It was just, “Oh, this guy eats those little noodles and I don’t like ’em and I can’t eat with the guy.” It was kind of an off-putting thing. It was, “Oh, he likes to play paintball and I don’t like to play paintball.” So we never played paintball, but every once in a while we’d find ourselves in the same paintball park because we owned it, so we had to keep it clean and do all the stuff we had to do and we did do it.
We didn’t have too many civil words to say to each other, but we also didn’t fight all the time. We just didn’t say much. There wasn’t a lot to say. Peter would play me the songs that he thought were good and I didn’t. And I would play him the songs I thought were good and he wouldn’t. Then we just left it at that. Partners in silence.
Fans always thought it was you and Davy that didn’t get along.
Well, some people would say that one or both of us were fractious and just couldn’t get along with anybody. I’ll leave that somewhere on the doorstop or the threshold of the Davy and Mike friendship, but I don’t know … We were all friends on some level, very casual work-space partners. We enjoyed, to a degree, playing music. Sure, it was fun to go to the big shows where we were the big headliners.
When we were onstage, there was something that happened, a fifth member that sort of appeared supernaturally and cosmically that I’ve heard more than one person tell me about. “I was there. I was 16, I was 13, I was 11, and there were five people onstage.” You don’t know whether it was a roadie or who it was, but there was a presence of that fifth something. Pete said that to somebody once, I think to a New Age magazine and they said, “Oh, that was the Monkees.” I thought that was interesting. Maybe it was.
I’d love to see the First National Band back on the East Coast. Think that might happen at some point?
From your lips to God’s ears. I don’t know how to get back to the East Coast. I don’t know who to book with out there. The East Coast is kind of like the U.K. “Who? No, he’s not here right now.” “No, no, no. I am Michael Nesmith! I’m calling for work.” “Well, you got work for him? Is that what you’re saying? If he comes in, we’ll let you know.” It goes like that. It’s hard.
How are you feeling these days, health-wise?
I feel great. I feel a thousand percent. It’s really weird. It was shortly after the operation, about five months, and I was feeling the best I’d ever felt in my life. I could really breathe. Everything was really working. I felt like I’d gone through a car wash that fixed everything. I felt funny. People would say, “How are you feeling?” And I’d say, “Great!” I’d find myself stopping just before saying, “You really should have this done.” [Big laugh] I thought, “What an untoward remark this would be to make towards a stranger.” But for me, payday, hot dog! Really good stuff.