Preview: Never a daydream believer, ex-Monkee Michael Nesmith enjoys solo tour
April 8, 2013 8:00 AM
If you expect to hear Michael Nesmith sing "Last Train to Clarksville" or "I'm a Believer" when he performs at the Carnegie Library Music Hall of Homestead, you'll be disappointed.
By Scott Mervis Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Michael Nesmith has always been the Monkee who didn't want to Monkee around.
He was a promising LA folk musician before debuting in 1966 as the smart Monkee who could play guitar. In 1970, two years after "The Monkees" was off the air, he was ready to revert to some semblance of reality.
When Rhino started releasing The Monkees on CD in 1994, he addressed the long-held belief that The Monkees were not a real band.
"Of course it wasn't a real band," he said. "There is no Wizard of Oz; Judy Garland was not really Dorothy; and the Monkees were a make-believe band."
Where: Carnegie Library Music Hall of Homestead, Munhall.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Tickets: $25-$45; 412-368-5225.
Mr. Nesmith, who brings his band to Carnegie Library Music Hall on Tuesday, rarely took part in Monkees reunions for a few different reasons. Yes, his mother did invent Liquid Paper. So he didn't have the financial incentive of the other guys. But beyond that, he slid back into his own music career in 1970 while raising a family and becoming a music video pioneer with the Nickelodeon program "PopClips" and the Grammy-winning long-form video "Elephant Parts," issued by his media production company Pacific Arts Video. He also executive produced "Repo Man" and produced "Tapeheads."
Mr. Nesmith passed on the Monkees 20th reunion tour in '86 and only returned for an album and UK tour in '96-'97. Last year he surprised everyone by doing a brief tour with Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork several months after the death of boyish singer Davy Jones.
"We had been talking about a tour before Davy died and we just kept on talking," he said in an email interview. "Davy's passing brought us together for the various memorials we all attended and after a few weeks we thought this might be a good time to go ahead with the tour we had started discussing and to bring Davy's memory with us. The reception was fantastic and it was a tremendous amount of fun."
Now, suddenly, at 70, you can't keep him off the stage. He's back on tour this time with his solo band.
"This just felt like the right time," he said. "Not much more to it than that although I had a great time on a short sold-out solo tour of the U.K. and that made me more receptive to the offers here."
If it's "Last Train to Clarksville," "I'm a Believer" and other Monkees hits you want, stay away. He has narrowed the Monkees catalog down to one song, "Papa Gene's Blues," from the band's self-titled debut album.
"It was one of the first songs I wrote and it started its life as a popular song from the Monkees TV show," he said. "I learned a lot writing it and learned a lot about the life of a song -- and I remember it fondly as part of the Monkees repertoire."
While the screaming kids knew him as the one with the wool hat and the sideburns, music geeks and historians respect Mr. Nesmith as an early comer to country-rock for having rolled out The First National Band in 1970.
Noting that folk and blues had been swept up in pop music during the British Invasion of the mid-'60s, he explained that "maybe it was a yearning for those roots that had been passed over by the times that propelled country rock into a genre of its own. It was always hard for me to tell the music apart according to genre. The peers of mine that started working in the form after I did seemed more aware of it than I was -- it was just the music I had played since I began and I didn't see it as too different from other music."
Commercially, Mr. Nesmith had a hard time being recognized as anything other than a Monkee. He had writing credits on two of the Monkees' dozen hits -- "The Girl I Knew Somewhere" and "Tapioca Tundra" -- but he's a one-hit wonder as a solo artist, having only charted with "Joanne" in 1970. Unfazed, he continued to record through the '70s and released two more albums in the '90s. His last work was the largely instrumental "Rays" in 2006.
Asked whether he became more accepted as a solo artist as the '70s wore on, he said, "If by 'accepted' you mean that more people 'understood' my music or understood it better, no. The people who enjoyed the solo work always had a solid sense of what the songs and music were about. There was little increase in sales or the number of fans, but the fans that had come to it on their own seemed to enjoy the music on their own terms -- which turned out to be my terms as well. That fan base has grown very slowly over time, but it has been consistent and committed -- to my everlasting gratitude."
All told, he has released a dozen solo albums, with 1992's "Tropical Campfires" being the one he plays the most.
"It has a nice clear center and point of view -- simple, direct, beautifully played -- and it happens to be mixed in surround sound. The one I listen to least is 'Tantamount to Treason' although it is probably one of my best," he says of the psychedelic-tinged 1972 album made with The Second National Band. "The album takes some work to appreciate and understand and I personally hear the struggles of making it -- so it sits on the shelf un-played more than the others. My favorite work -- the one I enjoy the most -- is the prison."
None of the songs from "Tantamount to Treason" turn up on the tour set lists. He says narrowing his career down to 15 songs "was great fun, a real exercise in solving a creative problem. I was putting together a show for this tour so I wanted it to be the same from concert to concert while sustaining the interest of the band and myself as we performed. I think it has come out well. It is hard to execute but really rewarding. We are always a little giddy when we come off stage having accomplished it."
Having been an early pioneer with music video, now he enters a culture where anything goes and fans make their own concerts videos to upload to YouTube. You wouldn't expect him to be a fan of that.
"I like it very much," he noted. "The whole shift in the distribution of music reminds me of the shift that happened with The Monkees -- TV was still a teenager when The Monkees came on -- and the net is the best place to find and share music that has come along since. I support the idea of putting up the concerts on YouTube. There is a level of support there that is very organic, I think, and it is for the best. How the economics will finally work out is still a mystery, but I believe it is soon to be solved."