Michael Nesmith (best known as the Monkee in the green wool hat) has largely stayed out of the limelight since the group split over forty years ago, though he released a series of acclaimed country-rock albums in the early 1970s and helped lay the groundwork for MTV in the early 1980s. His mother invented Liquid Paper, and left him the bulk of her massive fortune – giving him little incentive to join the Monkees on their many reunion tours. In 1996, however, he shocked fans by reuniting with the band for the album Justus and a brief European tour the next year. That was the last time he spent any real time with Davy Jones, but the singer’s death brought back a flood of memories and he agreed to speak with Rolling Stone through e-mail.
What’s your first memory of meeting Davy?
I think, not certainly, that I met him on the stage where we were doing the screen tests. He seemed confident and part of the proceedings, charming, outgoing.
It’s clear the producers cast each of you for different reasons. Why do you think they selected Davy? What did he bring to the group that was unique?
I think David was the first one selected and they built the show around him. English (all the rage), attractive, and a very accomplished singer and dancer, right off the Broadway stage from a hit musical. None of the other three of us had any of those chops.
Is there one anecdote that stands out in your mind that personifies Monkee-mania at its peak?
It was nonstop from the moment the show aired, so there was a constant hyper-interest in the group of us – the meter was maxxed and stayed that way for a couple of years. Once in Cleveland we strayed from our bodyguards into the plaza where a train station, or some public transport hub, was letting out thousands of fans for the concert we were on the way to give. They spotted David and the chase was on. We were like the rabbit – fleeing in blind panic. We saw a police car and jumped in the back seat, blip, blip, blip, blip, – squashed together shoulder to shoulder in our concert duds, and slammed the door just as the tsunami of pink arms closed over the car’s windows. We were relieved. The cops were freaked out. They drove us to the station and our guys picked us up and we did the show. But it was like that when the four of us were together, Davy in front – pandemonium. One missed step and we were running.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but the story tends to go that you (and to a slightly lesser extent Peter) got frustrated pretty early on with your lack of control over the Monkees music. Davy had a Broadway background and was pretty used to following orders. Did he share your frustrations at first? If not, explain how his views evolved to the point that he was eager to join your battle against Kirshner and the label.
You are not completely wrong, but “frustrated” is the wrong word. We were confused, especially me. But all of us shared the desire to play the songs we were singing. Everyone was accomplished – the notion I was the only musician is one of those rumors that got started and wont stop – but it was not true. Peter was a more accomplished player than I by an order of magnitude, Micky and Davy played and sang and danced and understood music. Micky had learned to play drums, and we were quite capable of playing the type of songs that were selected for the show. We were also kids with our own taste in music and were happier performing songs we liked – and/or wrote – than songs that were handed to us. It made for a better performance. It was more fun. That this became a bone of contention seemed strange to me, and I think to some extent to each of us – sort of “what’s the big deal – why wont you let us play the songs we are singing?” This confusion of course betrayed an ignorance of the powers that were and the struggle that was going on for control between the show’s producers in Hollywood and the New York-based publishing company owned by Screen Gems. The producers backed us and David went along. None of us could have fought the battles we did without the explicit support of the show’s producers.
Some have described the movie Head as “career suicide.” How did you feel about it at the time? Did you have concerns that it would alienate and confuse a huge segment of your audience? Looking back, was it a mistake?
Looking back it was inevitable. Don’t forget that by the time Head came out the Monkees were a pariah. There was no confusion about this. We were on the cosine of the line of approbation, from acceptance to rejection – the cause for this is another discussion not for here – and it was basically over. Head was a swan song. We wrote it with Jack and Bob – another story not for here – and we liked it. It was an authentic representation of a phenomenon we were a part of that was winding down. It was very far from suicide – even though it may have looked like that. There were some people in power, and not a few critics, who thought there was another decision that could have been made. But I believe the movie was an inevitability – there was no other movie to be made that would not have been ghastly under the circumstances.
In your estimation, why did the Monkees burn out so quickly? The whole thing ended after little more than two years.
That is a long discussion – and I can only offer one perspective of a complex pattern of events. The most I care to generalize at this point is to say there was a type of sibling suppression that was taking place unseen. The older sibling followed the Beatles and Stones and the sophistication of a burgeoning new world order – the younger siblings were still playing on the floor watching television. The older siblings sang and danced and shouted and pointed to a direction they assumed the Monkees were not part of and pushed the younger sibling into silence. The Monkees went into that closet. This is all retrospect, of course – important to focus on the premise that “no one thought the Monkees up.” The Monkees happened – the effect of a cause still unseen, and dare I say it, still at work and still overlooked as it applies to present day.
Do you think Davy enjoyed the experience of being a Monkee more than you did? If so, why?
I can only speculate. For me David was The Monkees. They were his band. We were his side men. He was the focal point of the romance, the lovely boy, innocent and approachable. Micky was his Bob Hope. In those two – like Hope and Crosby – was the heartbeat of the show.
The incident in which you punched a hole in a wall during a fight with Kirshner has been told so many times over the years it almost feels apocryphal. At the very least, the notion you were fighting about “Sugar Sugar” seems to have been debunked. What’s your memory of that incident? Did Davy ever convey a feeling to you were rocking the boat too much after scenes like that?
David continually admonished me to calm down and do what I was told. From day one. His advice to me was to approach the show like a job, do my best, and shut up, take the money, and go home. Micky the same. I had no idea what they were talking about at the time, or why. The hole in the wall had nothing to do with “Sugar Sugar.” It was the release of an angry reaction to a personal affront. The stories that circulate are as you say – apocryphal.
Do you have a favorite Davy Jones-sung Monkees song? If so, what makes it your favorite?
“Daydream Believer.” The sensibility of the song is [composer] John Stewart at his best, IMHO – it has a beautiful undercurrent of melancholy with a delightful frosting, no taste of bitterness. David’s cheery vocal leads us all in a great refrain of living on love alone.
What’s your fondest memory of your time with Davy?
He told great jokes. Very nicely developed sense of the absurd – Pythonesque – actually, Beyond the Fringe – but you get my point. We would rush to each other anytime we heard a new joke and tell it to each other and laugh like crazy. David had a wonderful laugh, infectious. He would double up, crouching over his knees, and laugh till he ran out of breath. Whether he told the joke or not. We both did.