Last night I fulfilled a long awaited desire: I finally got to see a Michael Nesmith concert.
As anyone in my general age group knows, Michael Nesmith was a member of The Monkees. He always had his own self-composed songs on The Monkees LPs, beginning with the very first one.
His solo career surprised anyone who was paying attention. His debut solo LP was The Wichita Train Whistle Sings. His next three LPs consist of one of the greatest musical trilogies ever put down on to vinyl: Magnetic South, Loose Salute and Nevada Fighter, released as being by Michael Nesmith & The First National Band.
The playing of Nesmith’s pedal steel player, O. J. “Red” Rhodes was nothing short of phenomenal. Michael later produced a Red Rhodes solo LP which is one of my favorite records of all time, Velvet Hammer in a Cowboy Band. Rhodes, in his own way, reminds me of Jimi Hendrix in that in his instrumental passages it feels as if he is not just playing a lead but also taking you on a journey through an aural landscape.
The subsequent Nesmith albums are all of very high quality, each also containing glimpses of Michael’s well-developed sense of humor.
Michael had a few hits from his solo LPs in the United States (i.e., “Joanne”, “Silver Moon”, “Nevada Fighter”, “Rio”) but in the UK he was treated as a musical god.
The problem here was that Michael Nesmith still had the Monkees stigma. It was difficult for so-called serious music critics to take Nesmith seriously because he had been in The Monkees (The Monkees continue to get snubbed every year by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They are rumored to be blackballed each year by Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner).
Because it was discovered that on their early LPs, The Monkees did not play their own instruments. Their backing was provided by session musicians, most notably the group of players known as The Wrecking Crew. This was the amazing combination of players put together by Phil Spector to create his famous Wall of Sound.
The music press and the public were outraged. How dare these four guys pretend to be a group?
What the public didn’t know or realize was that almost none of their favorite bands played on the backing tracks for their own recordings. Members of The Wrecking Crew backed up The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Beach Boys..hell, almost any group that set foot into an L. A. studio to record a single or an album. This didn’t only occur here. The situation was identical in the UK. Most of the members of British bands in the 1960s did not play on their backing tracks. Instead, it was drummers like Bobby Graham and session guitarists like Big Jim Sullivan and Jimmy Page (pre-Led Zeppelin, of course). That was Bobby drumming for Dave Clark; it was Jimmy playing the lead on The Beatles’ “And This Bird Can Sing” and Bernard Purdie drumming for The Beatles on their first recordings. That was Eric Clapton‘s guitar gently weeping — not George Harrison‘s.
Fearing a similar backlash, the other groups kept this a secret and distanced themselves from any association whatsoever with The Monkees, even though members of The Monkees had very graciously helped out many of these bands (like Buffalo Springfield, whose Stephen Stills was almost a Monkee). The way The Monkees were treated by the groups they had helped was pretty disgusting.
So, the other day I was reading the Los Angeles Times and came across a short article on Michael Nesmith’s upcoming show at The Canyon club in Agoura, CA (about a 45 minute drive from my home). I bought a standing room only ticket (the tickets with seats were already sold out).
Michael was in fine form. He performed for two hours with a solid backing band. At age 70 Mike looks as if he might be Pete Townshend‘s long lost wise and friendly brother. Nesmith surprised me by setting the scene for each song with a short story about the people who were the subject of each song and their situation at the time. The little vignettes were quite visual in nature as well as illuminating.
He pretty much covered his entire career, beginning with a Monkees song (“Papa Gene’s Blues” from their first LP) and performing a song (or two or three) from most of his solo albums. He also played his first cover hit. It wasn’t Mike covering someone else’s song; it was a song Nesmith wrote that became Linda Ronstadt‘s first hit with The Stone Poneys: “Different Drum”.
I was hoping to run into my pal, Monkees expert Andrew Sandoval, in hopes of getting backstage to get a couple of things signed (including that Red Rhodes LP that Michael produced), but that didn’t happen. I did, however, run into ace publicist Jeff Walker and his lovely photographer wife Kim, who was busy snapping away while Michael sang. Jeff got me that Animal Planet Dragons poster gig and was close to Nesmith in the 1970s.
Michael Nesmith could still hit the sweet falsettos of “Joanne”. He came off as a truly sensitive artist, wise, gentle and funny, and a real gentleman. That show was the second venue of his national tour, so if you get a chance, by all means see him.
(The most famous) Michael Nesmith Trivia: His mom invented Liquid Paper (aka White-Out). He also was awarded the very first Grammy ever given for Best Music Video. Nesmith produced the movie Repo Man and the music video for the Michael Jackson single “The Way You Make Me Feel”. Michael’s song “Mary Mary” was recorded by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.