Q&A: Michael Nesmith on His Recommitment to the Monkees
People have a lot of misconceptions about Michael Nesmith. They think he resents being known as the Monkee in the green wool hat. They think he’s a recluse. They think he had some sort of feud with Davy Jones, and they think he retired from music a long, long time ago.
Some of these misconceptions thrive because he does so few interviews. But as he prepares for his second straight Monkees tour (kicking off July 15th in Port Chester, New York), Nesmith called in to Rolling Stone to talk about his newfound commitment to the group, the possibility of a new Monkees album, his pivotal role in the creation of MTV and to set the record straight about his relationship with Davy Jones.
A lot of times when I see your name in print, they describe you as “reclusive.”
[Laughs] First off, I’m not sure that’s accurate. I’m not reclusive in the least. But second, I don’t really know. The press used to – not that you would know this – but do you think the press is used to having their calls answered any time they make them? Why would they think I was reclusive? Do you have any idea?
Well, for all those years people only saw three Monkees onstage. You were nowhere to be seen. I think people sort of extrapolated from there and assumed you were this reclusive figure.
I’m not the least bit reclusive. I love being with people, and I love society and I love civilization and all the accoutrements. I think we’re all here for each other. I don’t mind if they think of me like that – “they” being the press and the media – but I don’t feel that way. I don’t know it anyplace in my thinking.
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You’re also called a “country rock pioneer,” but I know you don’t like that label either.
I’m not even sure what “country rock” is. There’s sub-genre after sub-genre of rap and hip-hop music, and then there’s sub-genre after sub-genre of punk rock music. It goes on ad infinitum. So I think the lines aren’t very clear. But even if they were clearer, I still don’t know exactly what they mean. I played what I thought of as country music at the time. Not country music in the country-western sense of Patsy Cline and Hank Williams, but certainly the kind of country music that I played in the First National Band I thought of as country music.
But it has to be flattering that your solo work is considered influential.
Well, I appreciate that, yes. Flattering is probably not the right word. But it’s gratifying, certainly.
In the past year you’re gone on a solo tour, a Monkees tour, and now another Monkees tour is coming. What brought you back to the stage after being gone for so long?
Well, the reason I’m keeping on with it is because it’s fun. I had a great time on my solo tour. I had a great time on the Monkees tour. And the reason I hadn’t done it before is because I was busy with other things. But I’m not so busy now. Also, I don’t have the same distractions that I once did.
There was also a confluence of natural events where it was easy to jump in and start up. Micky [Dolenz] and Peter [Tork] were not the only ones asking to see if I wanted to go out and play again. A bunch of musicians that I had played with over the years – Nashville cats and guys from San Francisco – said they wanted to go play.
It started slowly, in the U.K., and messing around at the Henry Miller Library. The more I did it, the more I liked it – the more fun it was. I don’t know how long it’ll last or how long I can continue to do business, but for right now I’m having a great time, and I’m looking forward to the Monkees summer tour. I’m doing a Nez fall tour. I’m just loading my calendar up and having a great time.
I feel like the Monkees tours are more appreciated now than they’ve ever been. Do you feel that way too?
Actually I don’t know. Why do you think that?
I think people were dismissive in the Sixties because it started as a TV show and they were marketed to children, but as the years have gone by that baggage is gone and people realize just how many great songs you guys created – and not just the obvious big hits. There’s somewhat of a critical consensus that the material was overlooked for too long.
Well, you’re right about us having a contextual burden. I don’t know what grew up around the Monkees, but there was a real pushback. That’s better off left to the academics than to me.
The Monkees are a product of television, and television is where its impact happened, and the records followed along. I’m proud of the records and happy to have been part of the records. It was clearly as good a team making records as you could put together at the time, so as time has gone, on the quality of the work has come more into light than the context of the times it was made. I don’t know, though. That’s just me wild-guessing. I’m just throwing up balls here.
A lot of people assumed you resented being seen as an ex-Monkee, but that doesn’t seem to be the case at all.
No, quite the contrary. It was a nice part of the resume. It was a fun for me, and a great time of my life. I mean, where do you want be in the Sixties except the middle of rock & roll, hanging out with the scene? London was an absolute blast, and so was L.A. back then. There was so much going on back then.
You briefly rejoined the Monkees for an album and tour in 1997, but you quit after only a few dates in England. What happened there?
It was just a divergence of paths more than anything else. Micky, Peter and Davy just had their sails blowing in different ways than me.
Did you talk much to the guys in the past decade, or stay close with them in any way?
What do you mean by “close?” We’re lifelong friends. I’ve known these guys for 45 years, or whatever it’s been. We talk regularly. It’s infrequent, but regularly.
Are you surprised there’s so much interest in seeing you guys after all this time?
I think we all have a lot to learn about that. Look at the guys who’ve been around all this time, playing at stadiums and stuff. We were always more television than anything else. If you look at the start of the television age, which was 1950, there was still enough TVs to count. Then in 1966, when the show came on the air, we had an audience that had never not known television. It had a huge effect inside that medium in a way that’s very hard to understand and measure.
I’m from a different time, before television. I listened to radio, but as it matured through the years it locked into a place in people’s childhood and people’s thinking. But I’m not enough of a researcher to give you any sort of solid answer. I certainly don’t understand the sociology of it. I don’t know. Did you see the show the last time around?
What do you think?
I had a blast at the Beacon Theater show. There was so much energy in the crowd.
Yeah. That’s why I want to go do it again. It was so much fun. The people that come, they bring their expectations, and we give them exactly what they want, so that’s perfect. I don’t know what they’re bringing in the door, but I’m happy to see them.
I think a big part of the excitement is just seeing you perform, because it’s been so long.
Seeing me in that context. I’ve been seeable for a long time. It was just that no one was looking where I was.
Are you still going to present the songs in chronological order like you did on the last tour?
Pretty much. We’re taking out a few things and putting in a few things, but the set list will be awfully close. We’re gonna tweak the video a bit. We found some funnier footage, and we’re probably gonna take out one or two pieces of the Head thing so it’s not quite so long. We are also planning to add an acoustic section with just acoustic guitar and vocals.
Can you explain the early role you took in creating MTV?
Well, I had done a music video. I didn’t know what I was doing since this was a music video before there were music videos. That’s hard for people to understand. It’s like five year-olds that don’t know about life before iPads. But long before music videos, you still needed to promote records, so I made a promotional film for one of my records called Rio. After that there was a very natural train of thought – “Well, what do I do with this thing?”
I said to people, “It’s a promotional film. They play it on state television in Europe.” People would look at me like I was a bug and I’d say, “I just made it for that. I don’t know what it is.” But then as it became obvious that it was an art form, more people started make them after seeing Rio. They started making them spontaneously and I kept thinking, “Where do you play this? What would I do with this?” The answer was that I simply needed to complete the equation. “Radio is to records as television is to video.” Then it was like, “Of course!” and thus MTV was born. I just took that idea and put together some programs and sent it over to Warner Bros. and so forth. Next thing you know, there it was.
What do you think of the current MTV?
Well, it’s nothing like what we put together back then, so I really don’t know. I don’t watch it. Is it any good?
Ummm . . . Most of it is reality programming about pregnant teenagers and whatnot.
[Laughs] Oh. No. I don’t . . . That wasn’t what we were doing back then. It was all music and music video-based.
Are you thinking about taking the Monkees to Europe and doing more dates with them after this summer leg in America?
I’m certainly not opposed to it. I don’t have any notion that there’s even a market for it. It would depend on how the three of us felt. But I’m not opposed to it. It would be fun. It’s fun playing those songs with those guys in this kind of show. I would enjoy it. I’d also enjoy going over there solo. My solo career has always been very, very different from the Monkees experience. I know we’re in a global time, so I certainly think about it that way. There’s no resistance from me.
How’s your eyesight?
Oh, it’s good now. I can see perfect.
Nice. I read that you had problems.
Problems! Yeah, I’d say I had a problem. It’s called blindness! I was blind. I couldn’t see.
It was just cataracts. I had let it go for years. I knew it was coming. I sat there for two or three years and it just got worse and worse and worse. By the time I did the Marfa show, I couldn’t see at all. The whole world turned into a Monet painting, which sounds like fun – but after a while being indistinct is no good. And then I was legally blind. I couldn’t see, so I had to do something. It was a quick fix, and it was great.
I spoke with Micky Dolenz a few months ago, and he’s interested in making a new Monkees album. Are you open to that?
Sure. It’s a weird time for the music business, and particularly a weird time for us. I don’t even know what a song is these days. I mean, it doesn’t look like a pop song of the Sixties. It doesn’t look like a pop song of the Seventies. And so it would be hard to understand what to do and how to play it and how to put together the team to produce that sort of stuff.
At my solo shows I’ve got, almost, and I might start carrying one, a DJ. We’re doing a lot of stuff that we do with Ableton Live, and we do it with a lot of syncs and samples and stuff that fit with the songs, and then I do them cinematically. And I think that something like that could be a lot of fun to do with the guys. But I don’t know whether we’d ever go back on film or anything. So that component being gone is odd for me. That’s such a big part of who we are.
Right. But you are open to the idea of a new album at some point?
I’m always open. I would not say “no” without giving it a good look.
Some fans are under the impression that you didn’t get along well with Davy Jones, and you didn’t participate in the recent Monkees reunions because of issues you had with him. Is that true at all, or just Internet garbage?
That’s just garbage. No. That doesn’t have anything to do with anything other than just scheduling and times and so on and so forth. No, we had . . . We were fine. We could . . . We worked together for years and years, just fine.
He’d occasionally say things in the press that weren’t very kind about you . . .
Well, maybe he did and maybe he didn’t. You know what I’m saying? So unless he said it to you, which he may have . . .
No. I never spoke to him.
I don’t know. I mean . . . people start to spin out these speculative issues. They make them into more than they are, and they ask you questions that they think are salient or to a point, and I’m always surprised. It’s like, “Where do you get this stuff? You just obviously don’t have a clue.” I mean, I can see how people can build a case for almost anything they want to be true. In science, it’s called a “confirmation bias.”
They just figure, “Well, they don’t get along, therefore . . . ” And it’s like, “Well, wait a minute. Who said we didn’t get along? We get along fine.”
I guess there’s just so much misinformation out there.
Yeah. I don’t understand. It’s information that people act on as well.
But in terms of what I can tell you, David and I didn’t have any problems. We worked together just fine. And you know, the three of us get together for a big hug before we go onstage. So did the four of us, as long as David was there. We’d all stand and huddle, give each other a hug. We had a little chant, and we’d go onstage.
We were not brothers or especially close, but we were good, solid, professional workers and companions, and it was a harmonious workspace. And it was an arduous and difficult production, and we had to do things that were hard to do, but we got along just fine.
Do you see yourself doing this for a while longer, or is your time as an active Monkee coming to an end?
Well, I’m clearly in my endgame. I mean, we’re not talking about deciding to do something else. We’re talking about dying. [Laughs] So I don’t know. Who knows where that is? That’s somewhere . . . that door is coming up. I can’t make it out on the horizon just yet. But at a certain point it’s going to be time for me to say, “Eh, I think I’ll lay down.”
But no plans to do that anytime soon?
Not right now. Right now I’m gonna get some pizza.