Interview: Michael Nesmith

Michael Nesmith is best known for his time in The Monkees, a group whose music and television show offered a fun, zany, and sanitized take on the emerging youth culture in the 1960’s. Although the television show lasted only two years, it has remained popular and influential to the present day. The music was also hugely successful, with four of The Monkees’ albums and three of their singles hitting Number 1 in the U.S. charts.

Before The Monkees, Nesmith had written a number of songs including “Different Drum”, which was a hit for Linda Ronstadt. When The Monkees dissolved, he helped to shape the emerging country rock genre, starting with the 1970 album Magnetic South credited to Michael Nesmith & The First National Band. He continued in the country rock vein for a series of acclaimed albums in the 1970’s.

Nesmith later founded the Pacific Arts video production company, which released Repo Man and other movies, and he produced music videos including “All Night Long” for Lionel Richie and “The Way You Make Me Feel” for Michael Jackson.

This interview was for a preview article for for Nesmith’s 10/2/19 performance at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara. It was done by phone on 9/10/19.

Jeff Moehlis: What can people look forward to at your upcoming show?

Michael Nesmith: [laughs] Well, getting out of the house for a while. Getting away from the kids [both laugh]. All the perks that you get from being married and going out and getting away for an evening.

I think if they like this kind of music, they’re going to have a great time, because it’s very unusual, and it’s very distinct, but it satisfies all the pop music markers it has to hit. So maybe you’ll enjoy that.

One of the reasons that I made this music was because when I grew up I was listening to music that was popular music – popular on the radio in Texas. There were a lot of people that didn’t like the country element that was in the music in Texas during the time I was growing up. So I’ve never launched a dinner conversation about, “Who here likes country music?” Because that would just clear the table. But if I have an opportunity to engage people, and they say, “Oh, I do”, and I get to say “Why?”, then the conversation turns kind of interesting, because typically smart people will know what they’re listening to and why, and what they’re getting from it.

JM: Your solo album Magnetic South is now hailed as a milestone in country rock. What inspired you to go in that direction? Was it just that love of country music when you were growing up?

MN: I think that’s the best answer, and the biggest answer. You know, it was ingrained in my from my childhood in Texas. But when I learned how to play, I realized how deep the trough was here, and how good and available the talents were, both in writing and playing, that could do this kind of music, this kind of music being sort of a combination between Latin and country. When I play it, it holds up really well. The crowds really like it, and it’s a big hit. So that’s what I expect everybody’s going to run into when they come down to see the show.

JM: I understand that you helped to run the hootenannies at The Troubadour. What are your memories of The Troubadour? Were people like Linda Ronstadt hanging out there?

MN: Well, we were all hanging out there. That was the hang. So yeah, she was there, and Joni [Mitchell] was there. There were some great women down there singing, with great voices. Sorry that I can’t remember their names. A lot of them came and went with one or two songs recorded. But with Linda, the record had just taken off, and so it was real easy to include her into what seemed to be developing as a pantheon for this country rock stuff.

JM: One of the songs that you wrote was “Mary Mary”, which the Paul Butterfield Blues Band recorded before The Monkees did. What did you think of their version of that song, and was that cool to have people like Linda Ronstadt and Paul Butterfield recording your music?

MN: Well, as a songwriter of course that’s the holy grail. You want really good songwriters and really good singers doing your material. So it was very rewarding to me, and I felt like I was in the right place. I liked the way Paul Butterfield did it, almost as much as I did Run-DMC, which is my unabashedly favorite rendition of the song. I think they did a great job of it.

A song like that, everybody has to bring something of their own to the song, and build it into the song when they sing it, and leave it behind. It reminds me the most of the old folk music, where somebody would sit down and say, “Did you hear that song that they were doing at the such-and-such? It’s an old train wreck song.” And then they play it for you, and now you know it, and now you an put it in your set, and so forth. That was back in the 60’s when songs were traded like that. You know, you just played it for somebody, taught it to them, wrote down a set of lyrics, and left it behind. Nashville has those all the time. They’re called “guitar pulls”. You go over to somebody’s house and you sit there, and you have one guitar and you pass it around. It’s a lot of fun, especially when you’re playing with people who are really good.

JM: I’m a big fan of Jimi Hendrix, and there was the tour that had him opening for The Monkees, at least for a short time. The conventional wisdom is that that wasn’t the best fit, but I bet it was cool to see him!

MN: [laughs] You’re right, it wasn’t the best fit. But I think you and I would get different answers from that crowd than we think if we asked them the direct question, “What do you think of Hendrix opening for The Monkees?” Or Hendrix being partnered with The Monkees, for that matter. I think in every instance the answer would be, “It was great. It was so great and such a surprise to see Hendrix with them.”

JM: I think it’s cool that on the TV show there was a skit that you did with Frank Zappa. What was it like interacting with him back then?

MN: [laughs] I think it was probably like interacting with him close to the end of his life. He didn’t seem to change much throughout the time that I knew him. He had a very strong and palpable musical sense, and I think he liked some of the music that I was playing. I don’t know how he felt about pop music. I think it offended his non-commercial sensibilities. But it may not have. I never asked him that question directly.

JM: You also had a notable career doing films and videos. Can you tell me a bit about how the cult film Repo Man came together?

MN: Alex [Cox] had been bumping around trying to get Repo Man made, and he asked me through a mutual friend if I would read the script, and I said “Sure”. So I did, and then he asked, “Can me and my compatriots come in and talk to you about the way we see it done,” and I said “Sure”. So they did.

As people got into the music that was coming from the country side of this pocket of music in LA, there was curiosity, there was interest. It was like, “Wow, what is that?” And it was like, “That’s the music for Repo Man, and Repo Man is the music for LA.” In any case, the movie has been well-received, and the music better than any of it.

JM: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?

MN: The first piece of advice is to learn to read and write music. You don’t have to do it very well, but you do need to do it enough so that you can demonstrate you understand what makes the music music, when it’s written down. And that’s a really important piece of the performance puzzle. You’ve got to know how it plays, and who’s going to play it, and then you can start to arrange back to those elements of performance, and it comes out well.


One comment for “Interview: Michael Nesmith”

  1. Mike Nesmith.. you are one smart dude and I love you! Loved you in the Monkees and everything you’ve done after that ! Very talented and creative! Your songs were some of my favorites of the Monkees songs.. I really enjoyed that country sound in sweet young thing …and so many others! Your writing, guitar playing and singing voice …just really do.something for me and all your fans! Great stuff!!! up Mike !!

    Posted by Susan steinman | September 29, 2019, 11:12 am

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