Michael Nesmith of the Monkees Dies at 78

Michael Nesmith, who attained TV and pop stardom in the Monkees and later became a prophetic figure on the Los Angeles country-rock scene and then a multimedia entrepreneur, died Friday of natural causes. He was 78.

Nesmith’s final show was less than a month ago, when he and the cohort who is now the Monkees’ only surviving member, Micky Dolenz, capped a farewell tour at L.A.’s Greek Theatre Nov. 14. The duo were booked for a cruise in early 2022 that was to have served as a truly final gig together.

Dolenz said in a statement: “I’m heartbroken. I’ve lost a dear friend and partner. I’m so grateful that we could spend the last couple of months together doing what we loved best – singing, laughing, and doing shtick. I’ll miss it all so much. Especially the shtick. Rest in peace, Nez. All my love, Micky.”

The group’s and Nesmith’s manager, Andrew Sandoval, also spoke out on social media.

“It is with deep sadness that I mark the passing of Michael Nesmith. We shared many travels and projects together over the course of 30 years, which culminated in a Monkees farewell tour that wrapped up only a few weeks ago,” said Sandoval. “That tour was a true blessing for so many. And in the end I know that Michael was at peace with his legacy which included songwriting, producing, acting, direction and so many innovative ideas and concepts. I am positive the brilliance he captured will resonate and offer the love and light towards which he always moved.”

Lanky and laconic, with his head crowned by a trademark wool watch cap, Nesmith served as singer and guitarist, and sometime songwriter, for the Monkees, the Beatles-styled quartet assembled for NBC’s hit 1966-68 musical comedy series.

During their brief reign as TV stars, the “Pre-Fab Four” actually outdid their British inspirations commercially. Their first two albums, “The Monkees” and “More of the Monkees,” were back-to-back No. 1 LPs, holding the top of the chart for 31 consecutive weeks in 1966-67. The group logged two more No. 1 collections by the end of 1967.

Their hit 45s included three No. 1 singles, “Last Train to Clarksville,” “I’m a Believer” and “Daydream Believer,” and three other top-five entries, all of which were propelled by weekly exposure on their network show.

Despite instantaneous and immense popularity and fame, Nesmith and his band mates, Dolenz, Davy Jones and Peter Tork, quickly chafed against the strictures of their label Colgems, which employed session musicians on the Monkees’ recordings and utilized compositions by such pro songsmiths as Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, Neil Diamond and Gerry Goffin and Carole King.

No one in the group was as vocal about his discontent than Nesmith, the most prolific writer in the band, whose popular deep cuts included such songs as “Mary, Mary,” “Papa Gene’s Blues,” “You Told Me” and “You Just May Be the One.”

Following the dismissal of the band’s music supervisor Don Kirshner, the Monkees had a greater say in the writing, playing, and production of their music. However, by late 1967 the formula of “The Monkees” had aged; after the show’s cancellation in early 1968 and the release of self-referential feature film “Head,” co-written by director Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson, the act unraveled in 1970 following a pair of flop LPs.

Nesmith rebounded by striking out into new genre territory. A trio of RCA albums with his First National Band – “Magnetic South” (1970), “Loose Salute” (1970) and “Nevada Fighter” (1971) – failed to score on the charts, but remain widely admired examples of the L.A. country-rock sound. He continued in a similar vein with successor unit the Second National Band.

He was more successful penning material for other artists. The Stone Poneys’ No. 13 hit “Different Drum” (1967) introduced Linda Ronstadt on the charts, while “Some of Shelly’s Blues” became a durable part of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s repertoire. He also co-wrote Lynn Anderson’s 1975 country hit “I’ve Never Loved Anyone More.”

During the early ‘70s, Nesmith was active as a producer (of such U.K. talents as Iain Matthews and Bert Jansch), and briefly helmed his own Elektra-distributed imprint, Countryside.

In 1974, Nesmith founded his multimedia firm, Pacific Arts Corp. Originally launched as an outlet for his music, it gradually broadened into the video realm. The company’s “PopClips” show, produced for the fledgling Nickelodeon network, provided the seed for MTV. Nesmith won the first-ever Grammy Award for music video with his 1982 collection “Elephant Parts.”

An important independent player as a label and distributor in the burgeoning home video market of the ‘80s, Pacific Arts branched into film production; Nesmith served as the executive producer of Alex Cox’s 1984 cult comedy “Repo Man” and co-producer of “Tapeheads” (1988).

During the early ‘90s, Pacific Arts distributed PBS’s home video titles, including Ken Burns’ documentary series “The Civil War.” But the relationship soured into an exchange of acrimonious lawsuits alleging contractual abuses. Nesmith’s firm eventually prevailed in a multi-million-dollar settlement. In later years, he busied himself with such projects as his online environment Videoranch.

Nesmith declined to rejoin Jones, Dolenz and Tork in a 1986 Monkees tour and the ’87 album “Pool It!” But in 1996-97 he participated in the group’s reunion album “Justus,” directed a TV special starring the band and appeared on a tour of the U.K.

Following Jones’ death in 2012, he undertook further touring and recording with Dolenz and Tork. In 2018, he performed a brief run of shows with a re-formed First National Band and a summer duo tour with Dolenz.

He was born Robert Michael Nesmith in Houston on Dec. 30, 1942. After his parents’ divorce when he was four, he moved with his mother to Dallas. Her secretarial work ultimately led to her development of a new product, the typewriter correction fluid Liquid Paper. (Following Bette Nesmith Graham’s death in 1980, Nesmith inherited half of her estate, estimated at more than $50 million.)

During his high school years, Nesmith focused on acting and music. After dropping out of high school, he served two years in the Air Force, where he acquired a GED. Following his discharge and some time in college in San Antonio, he relocated to Los Angeles, where he became active at the Troubadour’s open-mic nights. He recorded singles for several labels, including Colpix (as “Michael Blessing”).

Nesmith’s producer at the latter label, trumpeter Shorty Rogers, later recalled in the liner notes to the Monkees boxed set “Listen to the Band” that Nesmith scuffled until his big break arrived:

“He said, ‘Gee, you know, my wife and I are living in a car and we don’t have any gas.’ While we were [recording] this Buffy Sainte Marie tune the phone rang. It was Mike’s wife Phyllis. When he hung up, he turned around and said, ‘I got the job with the Monkees.’”

Series producers Rafelson and Bert Schneider envisioned “The Monkees” a
s a fast-moving romp shot and cut in the manner of Richard Lester’s Beatles features. The quartet also included British actor-musician Jones, known for his work as the Artful Dodger in the musical “Oliver!”; Dolenz, former child star of the TV show “Circus Boy”; and Tork, a Greenwich Village folk scene vet who was suggested for the job by his friend Stephen Stills, who had failed an audition.

The Monkees’ on-screen chemistry and tuneful repertoire made the act an immediate hit when the show premiered in September 1966. Despite their inexperience as a live unit, they quickly undertook successful tour dates.

But their dissatisfaction with being relegated to the roles of singing actor quickly boiled over into open warfare with Don Kirshner, who was finally dismissed from working on the series after a meeting at the Beverly Hills Hotel at which a furious Nesmith punched a hole in the wall.

The band’s greater creative leeway was reflected in the No. 1 album “Headquarters” (1967), but the LP spawned no hit singles. Its successors “Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.” (1968) and “The Birds, the Bees & the Monkees” (1968) reflected a balance of band originals (including Nesmith’s increasingly country-oriented songs) and outside compositions (which included their last No. 1 single, John Stewart’s “Daydream Believer.”

By the TV show’s demise in early 1968, the Monkees had become a decidedly unhip commodity; Nesmith recalled in the liner notes to a reissue of “Pisces,” “We were under siege…We were really getting beat up pretty good.” The group essentially conspired to demolish their teeny-bopper image with the feature “Head,” beginning a slow decline that ended with the No. 100 album “The Monkees Present” (1969).

Following the group’s implosion in 1969, Nesmith turned his full attention to country music. Though none of his albums with the First National Band rose higher than No. 143 on the national charts, and the 1970 single “Joanne” (No. 21) was the group’s lone 45 to make a chart impression, Nesmith’s work of the period is mentioned in the same breath as such pioneering country-rock acts as the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers.

Beginning with “The Prison,” his 1975 “book with a soundtrack,” Nesmith increasingly envisioned his releases on his Pacific Arts label in multimedia terms. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, he was increasingly focused on his home video ventures, and only became active as a solo artist with latter-day releases on his Rio Records imprint. He began issuing new material as MP3 downloads via his Videoranch site.

Nesmith issued a memoir, “Infinite Tuesday,” in 2017.

Divorced three times, he is survived by three sons and a daughter.

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