By Des Cowley
Infinite Tuesday: An Autobiographical Riff – By Michael Nesmith (Crown Publishing)
Let’s face it, the Monkees were never going to garner the credibility of the acts they were meant to emulate, in particular the Beatles. The original television show, which drew directly on the mayhem of A Hard Day’s Night, charted the madcap adventures of four unsuccessful musicians. In reality, they were ostracised from the recording studio. Their songs were telephoned in from the Brill Building in New York and elsewhere, and recorded mostly by LA session musicians. For this, Nesmith tells us, he received a $480 weekly pay check, which was probably not bad considering. Then there were the other perks: fame, adulation, and girls throwing themselves on the bonnet of his car.
When Nesmith and the band began demanding the right to play on their own records, it must have seemed, to the television moguls pulling the strings, like they’d unleashed Frankenstein’s monster. But it turned out that Nesmith could write songs, just as the Monkees could also pull off a passable likeness of being a real band, and pretty soon their records and live performances were bringing in more cash than the TV show. When the series was axed in 1968, the Monkees limped on for another few years, before Nesmith pulled the plug.
I suspect that, for many of us, Nesmith’s name is indisputably linked to two facts: he was the tall, talented one in the Monkees, and his mother invented Liquid Paper. You’d be forgiven, therefore, for thinking this autobiographical riff would devote some serious space to these Mount Rushmore-like events in his life. Sadly, in the case of the first, you’d be wrong.
While he provides a brief precis on the original television series, mostly about his dissatisfaction thereof, he barely deigns to mention fellow band members Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, and Peter Tork. This almost screeching absence continues unabated throughout, with zero reference to subsequent band reformations, tours, recordings, or even the death of Jones in 2012.
Of course, unlike the others, Nesmith didn’t really need the cynical cash that presumably rolled in with reunion gigs, after all his mother left him some $25 million upon her death in 1980. Did I mention she invented Liquid Paper?
But it’s not all grim tidings. Nesmith provides a wide-eyed, if somewhat limited, snapshot of the sixties: meetings with Hendrix and Lennon, riding choppers in Laurel Canyon with Peter Fonda, hanging out with Jack Nicholson and Bob Rafelson (who would go on to direct Jack in the classic film Five Easy Pieces). It was Rafelson who directed the Monkees’ effectual suicide note, the 1968 psychedelic film Head.
And what are we to make of those confused times today, upon reading that Hendrix was slotted in as opening act for the Monkees’ 1967 American tour? To his credit, Jimi decamped part way when his god-like genius was greeted with cries of ‘We want Davy’.
Post-Monkees, Nesmith has had a somewhat chequered career. His book, in many ways, recounts his spiritual journey – involving many twists and turns – toward being a better man.
His adherence to Christian Science, a belief system inherited from his mother, is thankfully not overly laboured, though his accounts of his various failed business ventures can make for long-winded reading. He pioneered the music video series Popclips a few years before MTV came along and revolutionized the industry. He bought up licences for old documentaries, then found himself sued by corporation PBS when it turned out they were worth something.
His comedy video series failed miserably – the lowest rating show on television – but he later watched as those involved – including Gary Shandling and Jerry Seinfeld – drew upon the idea for their own successful shows.
He experimented with VR3D a few years before the internet and gaming transformed the digital landscape. While his ideas always appeared to be ahead of the curve ball – his brilliant video clip for ‘Rio’ being one such – the reality was he’d mostly been steering a financially leaking boat. His greatest success came with backing Alex Cox’s cult film Repo Man – healthy cheques from that one have been arriving in his mail box ever since.
Ironically, it may have been Nesmith’s modesty – or self-doubt – that prevented him giving over more pages to his own, far from negligible, musical achievements. His book would benefited from a more fulsome account of his work with the First National Band, his role as producer for the Countryside label, or his wealth of later recordings.
Given that genuine Monkees devotees must be counted a diminishing demographic, I found myself wondering who in fact Nesmith’s book was really aimed at. As I read the final paragraph, I admit to finding myself none the wiser.