Most people know Michael Nesmith from his time with the pop group “The Monkees” but that only comprised a small part of his career. Michael has been in the music and video business for 50 years as a singer, songwriter, videographer, producer, writer and internet innovator. He is credited with inventing the “concept” music video and the long form comedy/music format which influenced and directly led to the creation of MTV Music Television. In addition to being a member of “The Monkees,” “The Nez” as he is known to his fans was also in First National Band, and for the majority of his career, a solo artist and performer. He stopped by the SiriusXM studios this week studios to talk about his most recent live tour which he just wrapped. Excerpts from the interview appear below.
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Ron Bennington: Michael welcome to the show, how are you my friend?
Michael Nesmith: Good, good, how are you?
Ron Bennington: You’re bringing back songs from all different parts of your career?
Michael Nesmith: Well, not all of them but from all different parts, years, it goes back fifty years.
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Ron Bennington: What first got you into music, was it certain performers, or…
Michael Nesmith: I don’t know, I think it’s just one of those things that I was born with, it goes off in my head, and the first time I saw live music I was transfixed, I saw this guy playing a Conn Organ in a music store, and I think he was playing Frenesi or Tico Tico, one of those and I couldn’t take my eyes off him, I thought how is that guy doing that? What is that guy, how is that guy doing with his thinking that I’m not doing with mine. I want to do that with my thinking. And from there I just climbed, I mean I took a lot of wrong turns, but I climbed up the music ladder.
Ron Bennington: But you almost feel like it’s out of your control, either it’s something that you’re drawn to, or you’re not.
Michael Nesmith: Well, not exactly. I take your point but no, I think we all have natural music in us. Everybody has a sense of their own music and it was just my own natural music. I think if it lights up like that, is unique. You know, there’s a guy I know he’s a very good guy and he says ‘I can’t sing” and I say “John, anybody can sing. Everybody can sing. You may not sing well and you may not sing like somebody that you admire sings, but you can sing.” So music I think is built in, I think it’s hardwired in some primitive level. But, how it comes out and how it gets expressed is probably the logic of circumstance and events and it all falls together like that.
Ron Bennington: Because it’s always extraordinary to me that some people can play and can’t necessarily write and some people can write and you’ll hear oh, but they don’t have a singer’s gift or [they’re not a] great player. It’s always stunning to me where people that struggle singing that are some of the best songwriters that we’ve ever had.
Michael Nesmith: Cole Porter.
Ron Bennington: Yeah, Cole Porter.
Michael Nesmith: Cole Porter’s piano had a lever on it so he could switch keys because he couldn’t play anything but C. (laughs) He had a piano capo.
Ron Bennington: I’ve seen Burt Bacharach and like well, it sounds interesting as Burt Bacharach, but certainly not on the same level as the people who he gave his songs to, you know.
Michael Nesmith: That’s right, yeah
Ron Bennington: But for you, is it a certain type of music? I think that you come from like a folk background, right?
Michael Nesmith: Well, that was geographical what I was immersed in – folk and country and blues and so forth. I was raised in Texas and I stayed there until I was 20, 21 and then I headed out west. But up until that point I was steeped in country blues and country western and all that stuff. But then there was this really odd marginal influence that had to do with Tico Tico and Frenesi and these kind of strange things. I can remember the first time I heard a Mancini record, I thought “Wow, this is what they must play in Valhalla.” And I was never drawn to classical music much so I don’t know if that’s in the water or what. But by the time I got out of there and bounced in, I got into the whole Hollywood television scene, my sense of music had started to expand and it went on from there. I started chasing the light around. In the 60’s the capital of the world was London so the minute I got any money, I ran over there. Jumped in the pool with those guys. And I’ve been, so every step takes me a little farther out from the country “thing” I’ve never been sure how to define it.
Ron Bennington: But never has there been a time where you’re thinking you were on the wrong path with music, it’s just all feels the same connection you’ve had your whole life.
Michael Nesmith: No, I’ve never, as long as the skies are singing, I’m singing along with them.
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Michael Nesmith: Well, no it was more sequential than that. Here’s a timeline. Nielson started doing the ratings for television in 1950, 1960 Kennedy Nixon debates, November ‘63 Kennedy’s assassinated, February ‘64 this is 5 months later, the Beatles appear on Ed Sullivan, television is 16 years old. That gives you an idea. 1966 the Monkees appear on television, we shoot the pilot in 1965. So the Byrds and those guys were subsequent to that. They came rolling out in the late 60’s – ‘68, ‘69, ‘70, when I rolled out the First National Band.
Ron Bennington: So you think really, bringing up that TV was working the same time through, could we have the Beatles explode without Sullivan? Would they have just exploded as a musical act or do we really need TV?
Michael Nesmith: Well they had already done that in Europe by that time. My recollection of it – cause I saw them on Ed Sullivan – my recollection of it was that they came after, they were on the cover of Newsweek, and if you bored down to the extent that you could in those times, you realized they were HUGE outside the United States. And people were orbiting around them. There was something happening during that time, it was a magical time, and the design was changing, architecture was changing, clothing was changing, fashion was changing. And the Beatles were at the center of it. The Beatles and the Stones and “those guys”, you know kind of the rock priesthood that we think of when we think back to the sixties. And they, when they came over, they had gravitas. They had the respect, they had the music under their belts. But when they appeared on Ed Sullivan, 74 million people saw them. And there only 150 million people or so in the United States!
Ron Bennington: So, half the people in the country saw them, and probably half of those people decided my life has changed because of this, I’m going to be somewhere that I wasn’t going yesterday.
Michael Nesmith: Well it changed my life for certain, my girlfriend and wife-to-be and I saw it at a friend’s house, we would watch – television watching in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s was like sitting around a fire. So we all watched this and I couldn’t sit still, I mean I was so entranced with the way they looked and the way they sang and the way they played and just the whole thing. And I realized when they were singing that they were feeding back to me my own legacy, not mine, I’m talking about the American Experience. And so that was great, I didn’t mind that at all. And I really loved what they were spinning, how they were doing it. And they were clever and they were funny and they were sophisticated and there was nothing like a young guy that’s mature and has a certain confidence to him and they all did, and so it was a tectonic shift at some fundamental level. For personal reasons, it seemed to seep in, the people that I knew, it seemed to seep into what we were already doing. I sang Beatles songs on my Monkees interview to demonstrate my musical, I didn’t sing folk songs, and yet Dylan was a huge influence on my sense of music. So, it was an odd time, but it was a really cool time. Things were not – nothing had predicted it, it was unprecedented it, and it was quite a ride.
Ron Bennington: Yeah, and you’re talking about the Beatles being at the center of it, but you were too. I mean, you got the full ride of that kind of exposure and everything coming from each and every direction.
Michael Nesmith: (chuckles) Well, from some degree, I mean I got strapped in the machine if that’s what you mean? Nobody gave me a helmet though, so I got beat up pretty good.
Ron Bennington: Well, I mean you got the best of it and the worst of it, right?
Michael Nesmith: The minute I got a dime, I took Phyliss and got on a plane and said “let’s go and meet John” because well, for obvious reasons, and we did and we did. And when I got in the center of that, I realized “oh wait a minute, this is not bizarre-ly, this is not an anomaly, this is a natural emergence of something really, really cool. And so it didn’t feel like it was odd, or “oh I’m sitting at the base of a nuclear explosion”, it felt like I was watching something grow. You know, like the lawn (laughs) and it was very natural, and very easy-going and there was a calm confidence to it and I liked that, quite a bit. Conversely, the machine which was television, the American television thing and the whole Golden Age of Hollywood was kind of rolling to a halt, was very self-conscious and really concerned with it’s image and the way it looked, and the way it marketed, and the way it did certain things and so forth. It was not an organic thing going on here at all. It was two different things. So the ride that I took was on the lawn mower and htose guys were over playing in the gardens.
Ron Bennington: And yet you’re there for it. Not everybody got that experience to be able…
Michael Nesmith: Yeah, that was just universal good fortune. It was great, I was so lucky.
Ron Bennington: But, just to be around that creativity, at the time, I know you guys had played with Hendrix and Dylan was around and there’s so much great stuff that isn’t regimented. It’s not all coming out of the same place, it seems like it’s coming from all different parts of the creative spectrums.
Michael Nesmith: You know, we the Monkees, were really not a part of it, we were full on television, 16 year old television, adolescent television, that’s where it fit. And the hard reality of it was that nobody had a clue what television was, McCluhan’s were doing some writing about it, kind of showed the way on certain levels and everybody opined about it, they knew it was a huge cash cow, money was rolling in that door like no one had ever seen before. But in terms of what it meant as a media, it was completely unformed, un-understood. So we were marginalized in the extreme, and then at a certain point as anyone who was there can remember, we turned into pariah. It turned into being reviled and despised and so forth, because somehow it was supposed that the machine had manufactured and sold something that wasn’t legit. Nobody understood at that point that the machine can’t manufacture or sell anything. All you have to do is look at the current state of television you can see that. If somebody can do that, can call that shot, they would. But there ain’t no Babe Ruth in the media business. Nobody’s pointing that way.
Ron Bennington: So all they can do is capture, squeeze…
Michael Nesmith: …and hope for the best
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Ron Bennington: And then you stayed with the visuals for so long getting a lot of credit for inventing early videos and even MTV. How did they all come about?
Michael Nesmith: Well, it was – that was much more of the organic part of my creative life and my artistic experience. It was, music and images had always been just naturally coexisting. They were partners like food and fire, they sort of went together. So music always conjured an image and images always conjured music and when I heard, when I hear things in language and rhythms and so forth, there’s some sort of composite sense of there being all of the arts expressed in that. And when I was, when I started off with the First National Band, I didn’t quite know how to express that. It was decorative. I had a suit of lights, I wore that, I wore rhinestones, we painted ourself this and that but there wasn’t really that sense of artistry and there was no real visual connected with it. The music was pretty good and I was writing cinematically, it felt cinematic with the writing, but that was a function with the words, and the way the words wer eput together to form the songs and etcetera, etcetera. And it wasn’t for about – and I tried a book with a soundtrack, where you read a book and the music plays the soundtrack to the movie that plays in your mind. Not all that complex.
But by the time rolled around 1976, I went into the Nashville studios and worked with some guys there. There were some new songs that I had written and there was session cats were David Briggs, and Larry London and Kenny Buttrey I think played drums and I did a song called Rio. And Rio was part of a musical diptic, it was part of Rio and Casablanca Moonlight. There was two songs, and I think combined, they were about 15 minutes long which was just a non-starter. Rio by itself was seven minutes long which was also a non-starter for radio play. So again, I had built something that was never going to get heard, never going to get played. But yet, Chris Blackwell, who ran Island Records at the time, loved the record and he was my foreign distributor. And he said “you know, over here we have these music shows and when people can’t come over, they send a film of themselves performing the song. If you’ll do that, I think that Rio could be a hit over here” (over here being England and Europe). I said “sure I can do that”. But when he said make a film of it and I heard make a film of it, we were worlds apart. And I had an idea in my mind that had been formed by these early sense of collection of anthologies and images in films and the way the metaphors interlinked and it was very different from just narrative film and just standing and singing and playing guitar. So I went forward and did what I thought was what he wanted. And by the time I got it over to England it was this promotional clip, he had convened all of his promotional men, and it came at the end of 4 or 5 different people standing and singing and Rio came on and everyone stood up and cheered! And I thought “oh, this is fantastic.”
Now there is a side bar to this, because as I was working on it, it was very hard to work on, I also sensed again something was emerging here, something was coming out of this, that it was not random, it was not an accident, that it was principled and it had some sort of basis that I could continue to work at. So I was really focused on that. The fact that the promotion guys loved it was validation and it was really helpful to send me, but I went back to say “okay, can I do this again?” and me and Bill Dear and the guy who was the director of it and my wife at the time Kathryn was, they said “well, let’s try it, let’s see if it will work.” I had some other songs that I had written, I was writing all the time, writing songs all the time – that had images in my head so we went forward to see if we could employ the same principles that we had used with Rio and sure enough we could. And we did our first one called Cruisin’ and did 3 or 4 more others and now I had 5, and then I had a stack of comedy bits and stuff from just fooling around and Elephant Parts was born, which is this long form video that I did. And from Elephant Parts and from Rio, I came into New York and I called up the guys at Warner Brothers and said “take a look at this” and they went “whoa, let’s do that!” Now that’s a really short story of it, but that’s kind of how it happened.
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Ron Bennington: But the weird thing is, as you see this, a lot of people think of the muse as oh, this thing that just happens at the time, but this is this long-time just scratch at an itch that you don’t even know where it is before you can finally get this piece by piece to put together and then everybody is saying “oh I see there’s a new art form” But it’s just scrapping it together year by year. So what keeps that drive happening? How do you keep heading off into darkness when you’re not even sure why.
Michael Nesmith: Well, that’s a great question. It’s the same thing, it would be the same thing if I was a cook, or if I was in livery, or if I was building furniture or any number of professions. Whatever keeps you interested seems, to me, to be the direction you want to look. Then you start there and as it begins to open up for you, it either burns you and sends you off in a different direction, or it unfolds for you and a nice direction for you to go in. And it becomes easier and easier and easier to walk down that because you learn the early signs of getting burned. And you think, okay wait a minute ….. I don’t need to learn by experience, I want to learn by example. I want to find somebody who knows how to do this and go follow them.
Ron Bennington: And that’s what everybody had behind you. Does that bother you when people go “Oh look, Nesmith has been working on that, that’s what we’ll do now.”
Michael Nesmith: No, not in the least. I understand that completely because I do the same thing, I’m constantly looking for masters of the form and people who know what they’re doing.
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Ron Bennington: You’re a fascinating guy, you really are, and I think the interesting thing is no matter whatever over the course of a lifetime that you can look at, like here’s the highs and here’s the lows, it’s when it all starts to be put together now that you’re going out to do that, that you get a better idea of this is what this has been about all this time.
Michael Nesmith: Yeah and that’s one of the reasons I went back out on the road, you know, I haven’t been out since ‘92 and I have these great musician friends that I play with, and when I say great, I mean just absolute top five all world players. And you can imagine how much fun it is to make music in an ensemble like that, and when I take my own songs in there and they’re so supportive and they’re so helpful and they add so much to it. And so when that goes into a live situation, a live venue like we’re out doing now, there’s a whole other level that starts to work that I find nourishing. I’m just having, uh learning so much by this live experience now and of course, we’re in another shift. This internet thing is non-trivial.
Ron Bennington: And you’re just paying as much attention to that as where you were years ago.
Michael Nesmith: Oh yeah, 100%, I mean I’ve got VR3D, Videoranch.com going, I mean I’m into the internet up to my eyeballs. All of my, every direction of thought seems to have an intersection at some point through the internet.
Ron Bennington: Michael Nesmith thank you so much. I’ll see you next time coming through.
Michael Nesmith: Good, good, will do
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You can learn more about Ron Bennington’s two interview shows, Unmasked and Ron Bennington Interviews atRonBenningtonInterviews.com.