In Advance of His Upcoming Concert at the Kent Stage, Michael Nesmith Reflects on the Monkees Legacy

click to enlarge In Advance of His Upcoming Concert at the Kent Stage, Michael Nesmith Reflects on the Monkees Legacy
Ed Heffelfinger
Best known as a member of the Monkees, singer-guitarist Michael Nesmith also fronted the First National Band, a country rock group that included musicians from Nashville. Nesmith, who just played in town over the summer with fellow Monkee Micky Dolenz, returns to Northeast Ohio next week to perform with the reunited First National Band. They come to the Kent Stage on Saturday, Sept. 15. Nesmith's sons, Christian and Jonathan, are among the members of the new First National Band lineup.

In a recent phone interview from his Los Angeles home, Nesmith spoke about the Monkees legacy and his affinity for the First National Band.

You’ve had a busy year that included a few dates with Micky Dolenz. What was that tour like?
There was 100 percent quality to it that I don’t get a lot. You go in and you think, “I hope this works out.” It worked out on a level of magnitude that I had never dreamed. That’s how it was with Mick. I love him as a man and a human being. I always got on with him very well. Our ability to go out and work together was a step of progress in that developing relationship. I don’t want to sound snarky or weird, but it gave us a chance to work outside the Monkees in a way that we have never been able to do. The Monkees have great songs, and Micky is a great performer of those songs. I like to play them and horse around on stage. There’s a thing that happened when the two of us got together inside the Monkees enclave that was a lot of fun. There was a lot of horse play going on in terms of living fast and hard and having fun with girls and booze and all the stuff that would happen when you’re a 20-year-old attractive boy band member. That wasn’t where I felt the bond with Mick. We appreciated the science part of the whole thing. He did the mad scientist thing in his basement, and I did Christian scientist in the sky. That’s pretty far gone, but it’s true. We shared those things. Mickey’s mother taught him metaphysics. I was inundated with metaphysic when I was growing up. I was trying to reconcile the Monkees into that manner of thinking. Mickey was a partner in that. I’m sorry I fell over [from heart failure] on stage, but that was just an interlude. We’ll see where it goes from here. It’s been fun. I’m back at it. We have a couple of shows that we have to make up because I got sick. The show that was coming together when I came apart was really outstanding. I thought to myself, “If I saw this show, I would love it.”

You used to hang out at the Troubadour in West Hollywood back in the ’60s. What was the scene like back then?
I’ve never seen anybody capture it or give it its due. It was sui generis. There were nightclubs left over from the folk boom of the early ’60s. They weren’t the same. They were espresso and deep conversation kind of rooms, and the singer in the corner was never the focus of it. I curated who was playing, and I realized there was this treasure trove of talent that no one was paying attention to. Jim McGuinn came in one night and he had his 12-string. At that point, he was Jim and not Roger. He played a Beatles set and he got booed. I thought, “How can it be that one of the preeminent players of our time can play Beatles songs and sing them well and was getting booed. How can that be? He played a short set because I think it upset him. From that point of departure, there was a way that the people who played the Troubadour got harder and harder and more and more rock 'n’ roll and more expressive. If that’s what you wanted to hear, you have to go to the Troubadour.

When you landed the role as Mike in The Monkees, did you have some sense that the show would be a hit?
Television is dark magic. I mean that in precise terms. That’s hyperbole on one level, but on another level, it’s dark magic. Something is going on there that makes these anomalies like Trump, for example. I’m not addressing the politics, but I’m talking about how you can have this take over of a personality like that. That only happens in television. When I saw The Monkees, I thought, “This is a missed opportunity.” I thought about the music you could do. Imagine if instead of the Brill Building, it was Roger and the Byrds and Dylan doing our writing. Dylan gave us a couple of songs to sing. I always scratch my head and wonder if he was shining me on. As time has gone on, I realized he was being very candid. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a place in his heart for it. What television was creating with The Monkees was a continuation of what it was creating with all the sit-coms of the ’60s and ’70s. There was something else going on beyond what we saw on the screen.

I think the Monkees played here in Cleveland with Jimi Hendrix as the opener. What do you remember about that show?
I do remember something about the Cleveland show. I didn’t know if he was still playing with. He walked off stage at Forest Hills [in New York], and that was the last show he played with us. Cleveland was the great chase around the city with the police and the fans and Monkees. We had come down in the elevator and as a prank, I pushed the wrong floor and it opened into a wide open hallway of teenagers. They took one look and said, “Can this be real?” When they saw the twinkle in Davy [Jones’s] eye, they screamed and came running. If you’ve ever seen 50 or 100 teenage girls running and screaming at something, you could see what World War III might be like. It’s terrifying beyond description. We took off running, but we were caught in the bowels of this hotel. I was running for open portals. I thought we were screwed. They didn’t want souvenirs. They were going to tear us apart. We ran outside and I saw a patrol car sitting parked. You can write up that they were having donuts and coffee, but I don’t think they were. I grabbed the back door. The police turned around like, “Who the hell are you?” We were all in costume, all the way to the green hats and the red velvet suits. I said, “We’re the Monkees. We have a show to play.” They took us back to the police station, and we were sitting in there and the police were atwitter. People were getting their autographs. Peter [Tork] had turned white as a ghost and was in some blind state of panic. I saddled up to him and asked if he was okay. I assumed he was reacting to the chase. He said, “I’m holding, and I have enough to put me away.” In one of my lesser moments, I thought it was best to move next to somebody besides Peter. Whether Hendrix was part of that, I couldn’t tell you.

Over the years, the Monkees embarked on various reunion tours. What has it been like to be a part of the group’s 50-year legacy?
It’s like asking me how do you like living on the street that you lived on all your life. It’s an impossible question to answer. I don’t know. It’s turned into something that’s just continuously there. If it wasn’t such high value and plenty of room to fart around, which is what Kurt Vonnegut instructed us to do, it wouldn’t have been so fun and valuable. It was fun and it is fun. It’s weird being a part of it when you’re 65 or 75, but it still has a quality to it that I think has enriched my life.

Do you think the band belongs in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?
Well, the direct answer is no. If you read my book, you realize that I go to some length to unpack the notion that the Monkees were a TV show. Something created this thing from the general cultural community and consciousness. It was permanent and deep. I don’t know who to describe it but there were thousands of 8- and 9-year-olds watching the Monkees in secret and nursing a broken heart over the fact that they wanted Davy [Jones] to be their boyfriend. There was this mixture of this strange fatuous reality of puppy love that just persisted. There’s substance there. I don’t know what that substance is. I just know that it’s there.

Talk about what you have planned for the current tour?
I’m coming in with the National Band tour. That First National Band is worth a complete article if not a book about how it came together. I thought I had lost them when they came out in the late '60s and early '70s and immediately went into oblivion. I took it out to play and after the first set of seven or eight shows, it just vanished. We couldn’t sell any tickets. For some reason, the world turned and came back around and poked its nose in the tent and said, “What do you guys have going on?” I showed them, and we played, and the reception was so great that we had to go play it live.

Michael Nesmith and the First National Band, 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 15, the Kent Stage, 175 E. Main St., Kent, 330-677-5005. Tickets: $52-$150,
Like this story?
SCENE Supporters make it possible to tell the Cleveland stories you won’t find elsewhere.
Become a supporter today.

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
Scroll to read more Music News articles

Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.