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My Favorite Monkee: An Appreciation of Michael Nesmith [Part II]

8 July 2006

[Continued from Part I]

If you would have asked me when I was in high-school or college about what kind of music I liked, I may very well have said, “oh, anything but country!” I guess it shouldn’t be so surprising when I hear so many 18-25 year olds today say the same thing when I ask them the same question. Of course, I have to laugh to myself a little, while looking at MySpace profiles, to see that many of these self-proclaimed haters of country music list quite a few musicians who have used country stylizings, or who list country musicians among their biggest influences. Still, I resist the temptation to say “come back to me in 10 years, and tell me if you still feel the same way,” because I know that some will always hate country, but I also understand that young adult need to hate country (not that every young adult needs to) from first hand experience.

In my first hand experience, I know that MICHAEL NESMITH had a lot to do with easing the transition from what DAVID BERMAN calls the roped off amusement park called ‘Rock World,’ toward a wider appreciation of ‘roots music’ and country in particular, just as GRAHAM PARSONS, GENE CLARK, RAY CHARLES, THE GRATEFUL DEAD, BOB DYLAN, or maybe (just maybe) the ‘alt country’ movement have for others. The overlapping accordion-like space between ‘rock’ and ‘country’ (to say nothing of R&B) is historically very complex. If in the 1950s they had split into separate genres, by the early 1970s they were coming back together. So you had musicians who got put on the ‘rock’ side of things ‘going country,’ but you also had musicians who were associated with country appeal to rock audiences (e.g.,KRIS KRISTOFFERSON and the ‘outlaw movement’).

Since I’m more concerned here with those who, like me, grew up on the ‘rock’ side of things and who came to make exceptions for, and eventually embrace, country artists, I’m less interested in the kind of conversion experiences such as Cash’s American Recordings, in which an established country act crossed over to music more on the ‘rock’ side of things (although Cash is always a special case, since in many ways he preceded the rock/country split, and always embraced a wider range of humanity than most musicians are able, or willing, to do), but while many of the ‘counter-cultural’ rock or folk acts listed above helped many overcome their initial resistance to country music, and while I’m a fan of Parsons and THE FLYING BURRITO BROTHERS, the posthumous lionization of his myth and music (especially by the ‘alt country’ crowd) tends to distort history by downplaying others. Though people may debate whether Nesmith is Parsons’ equal, at the very least he, along with Gene Clark (whose voice is at times very similar to Nesmith’s) deserves to be put on this list.

When Nesmith finally left THE MONKEES, and released, in 1970, Magnetic South, his first album with THE FIRST NATIONAL BAND, he was able to score a hit with the pedal-steel drenched “Joanne” (in which he even shows himself to be an adequate yodeler). While “Joanne” may have been a hit due to name recognition, for no other top-40 pop or country hits followed in its wake, it’s still an amazing song in its own right (and it’s not even necessarily the best song on the album). I remember hearing it on an adult contemporary station as a kid in the 1970s, and how part of its haunting power was, yes, due to the fact that he was an ex-Monkee. I’m pretty sure my first reaction was one of horror (maybe similar to the horror fans of the loveable moptops felt when they first saw a bearded JOHN LENNON in a bed or a bag with YOKO ONO, even though the specific cultural trappings were different).

What happened to this guy? He sounds so old, so sad, so distant. It didn’t feel like a put on, but was at least as extreme a reinvention as Dylan’s around the time. Nontheleless, I was hooked; I felt like a kid timidly contemplating the unfamiliar deep end of a swimming pool. There’s something going on here (but I didn’t know what it was). It’s not psychedelia, but, damn, it’s far out. It’s a challenge. Not at all ‘easy listening’ to my ears, it demanded something from me, yet it’s really kind of modest. It doesn’t bite. Well, maybe it does, but there’s nothing really to be afraid of (a few years later I discovered LEONARD COHEN’s, “Suzanne,” and though I love Cohen, if forced to choose between these two haunting songs, I’d still choose “Joanne”).

My appetite was whetted enough to procure Nesmith’s first five solo albums (luckily, the college station manager was happy enough to part with them to make way for the CMJ bands he preferred to push on the DJs). Listening to them (for all their unevenness), I could hear more clearly the continuity between Nesmith’s solo music and his Monkees songs. He even re-recorded a few of them, as well as songs he wrote earlier, like “Different Drum”). It lessened the initial shock of “Joanne” and got me thinking of the similar roots of country and rock which had been obscured by the ‘culture wars.’ I’m sure other forces were at work aside from Nesmith, but I have to give him a lot of credit for getting me to rethink these genre distinctions (The Monkees weren’t even ‘rock’ as it became defined after 1967, but more ‘pop’ or even ‘pap’), and not just because of the external circumstances involved. Many of these songs stand up very well on repeated listening.

Nesmith may not have been the lead guitarist Graham Parsons was, or have the same fragile glowing feminine-heroin intensity, and yes Nesmith may over-use the same middle eight on some of his songs, but his song writing is well above average, and his lyrical sensibility filled with pointed expressions of pathos and wisdom that definitely ticked the mind as much it fed the heart. He has his excesses to be sure, but at his best a flare for melody and hooks, and he put a great band together. He didn’t really seem to even try to be successful commercially with these albums. He didn’t need to, not only because of the Monkee money and the fortune he reportedly inherited from his inventor mother (and thus never had to lower himself to the Monkees’ reunion tours). Perhaps Nesmith’s integrity is why he’s not given as much credit as Parsons, Clark, or other genre benders such as JOHN PRINE or TOWNES VAN ZANDT, but take a listen to him alongside, say, JOE SOUTH, who has also been a largely private fascination of mine for years.

I was pleasantly surprised when I found that NICK TANGBORN released a Joe South tribute album on his Jackpine Social Club label last summer (on the heals of his successful Kristofferson tribute), and maybe a Nesmith tribute album, if not already in the works, is not too far off. I know that Rhino released a compilation from his solo material a few years back, and even back in the mid 1980s, RUN DMC covered “Mary, Mary,” but even though Nesmith’s Monkee songs (such as “You Just Might Be The One” or “The Girl That I Knew Somewhere”) are on the cusp of being accepted as pop classics (along with “Different Drum,” which I’m told STEPHEN MALKMUS has recently covered in concert), an album consisting of strictly Nesmith’s lesser-known solo work might be even more fascinating.