I was in the middle of a meeting on Friday when a text message popped up on my screen: “I’m sorry to be the bearer of this news” with a link to Rolling Stone’s announcement that The Monkees’ Mike Nesmith had died at the age of 78. My gut flopped. Months prior, a friend and I, during a bocce match, had talked about how despite his health, he had gone back on tour and speculated if this was his final push. Two weeks prior to the announcement, I had spent a solid workday singing the praises of The Monkees to my boss — their music, their television show, their movie, their innovations, their network. It didn’t take much for me to dip into a lecture about the value of The Monkees. While Nesmith was only a quarter of the act, his impact was clear as somebody always looking to push boundaries, reconsider how to rework practices, and adapt.
It felt somewhat ironic for the music publication to make it a centerpiece for their day or for other publications to follow suit. The Monkees had been given so much shit for so many years for being made for television, which while true enough, flattened the narrative. “The Monkees are fake,” but they didn’t feel fake when I was blaring “Last Train to Clarksville” on my boom box, pretending I was saying farewell to those I loved (it’s unclear whether I was on the train or on the platform). This was the mid-90s. The Monkees had renewed popularity with the 30th anniversary of their television show which produced albums, specials, and a tour. My mother relived her nostalgia with a cd of greatest hits that I promptly stole so that I could wiggle, twist, and do the pony to “I’m a Believer.” Years later, when we lived with my grandparents I discovered the television show via replays on Screen Gems. I had become accustomed to smash cuts and absurdity from reruns of Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, but most of the television shows I was watching in the late 90s and early aughts had moved back into rooting into reality (barring, maybe, Ally McBeal’s dancing baby). But what also marked The Monkees as different, even at the time, was that their forays into absurd sketches was not brought upon by magic powers, but just the flexibility of form itself. They moved back and forth in time and space, because they could. Film was made to bend reality.
I was enamored, particularly with the green-capped Nesmith, whose soft eyes and shy sensibility made my adolescent heart flutter. The thing about The Monkees, the band within the diegesis of the show, was that they were not successful, and, upon reflection, could be considered prototypes for millennial ennui. Every attempt to gain access into the industry was thwarted. They were frequently exploited and picked on. They were grown men with little to no responsibilities who did not conform to conventional expectations. They were not bound for office work. They shirked the status quo. They chased girls, but inevitably ended up in domestic partnership with each other. They worked at their music, but didn’t seem to be chasing paper. Each would inevitably come into a scrap that would be solved by the collective power of the group.
Nesmith was labeled the cerebral one of the group, the one who spoke less but said more. He was instrumental to the group, but even within the confines of the show, an outsider. This no doubt resonated with me as a preteen, always questioning my sense of belonging and wanting to be part of the crowd but also distinguished from it. On their self-titled first album, that tension is present. There’s already a bit of twang throughout the album, a bit surprising for the LA-centric band, though in keeping with the blues-influenced rock music the television show was trying to capitalize on, but Nesmith’s “Papa Gene’s Blues” is something else. I loathe the word authentic, but it feels less artificially twangy. It feels less like trying to capture the vibe of somebody else and more like trying to build upon something, to include yourself into the conversation. And perhaps, this is my chosen narrative, my means of remembering Nesmith as somebody who recognized he was part of something artificial, but not somebody who would hand over their autonomy for the sake of the product.
Nesmith wasn’t the exception as I think all The Monkees exhibited rebellious tendencies. His devotion, however, to country music after leaving the band, seems to support my narrative of art over commercial viability. While the music is not “challenging” in the ways in which we might associate with punk, it definitely wasn’t something my mom, a Monkees fan, was really running to gobble up. You can see how the songs made with The Monkees that appeared on Magnetic South would be cut from the band’s albums. It is not a flirtation with the sound as much as a complete consumption into the oeuvre. And while it might not have been made for the teenagers who flocked to Monkees concerts, we can also assume that the cool alt-country kids were also dubious of the teenybopper.
In his book, Infinite Tuesday, Nesmith writes:
The paradox was that in the middle of innovation and invention, the Monkees were a transparent concoction, a copy carefully attached to the innovators of the time only by the homage of imitation, unoriginal by every account. There was no effort to hide this artificiality, because it was a feature, not a fault. It was meant to function as a parade flag, not the parade itself. The surprise came when something so obviously created from whole cloth became an existential fact, a reality unto itself, and then created a venomous and righteous backlash that tore the flag away from the parade marshal and set it on fire.
Nesmith was continually straddling the line of insider/outsider status. Central to the success of The Monkees, but a bit resentful that it meant compromising vision. And then to finally have the freedom to make the music he wanted, but always be drawn back to the legacy of The Monkees, used as a point of difference and often derision. This is the plight of popular culture — of making art within a commercial space despite that nearly all of art operates within commercial spaces. But that “serious” art is somewhat respectable. That there are rules ordained for how to determine serious work from flippant. And joy, pleasure, is rarely a part of the configuration. Infinite Tuesday is riddled with fascinating connections and friendships with Douglas Adams, Timothy Leary, and John Lennon. To think of all the work and collaboration that could have been, had industry and fandom allowed for such fluidity between artifice and authenticity. He made great work throughout his career regardless of the specter of The Monkees hanging over him, and eventually, The Monkees would be reevaluated and canonized as a great work.
In talking about listening to Sgt. Pepper sessions with John Lennon, he was struck by the fact that Lennon “had no clue about who he was in the context of the Beatles. He had never seen the Beatles play. [Nesmith] had. Jimi had never seen the Jimi Hendrix Experience; John Lennon had never seen the Beatles. They were forever barred from knowing them.” The irony is that Nesmith, too, doesn’t recognize himself as part of this context, though as the book continues, there is an appreciation for the opportunities and innovations made by the group and himself to music. But he still has the humility of somebody who doesn’t quite understand why anybody is interested in this little band from his youth.
There’s a certain pang that comes with celebrity deaths. They are simultaneously present and not, occupying space in our brains and memories, but our inability to witness their bodies slowly fade has made us forget their corporeality. Celebrities are bound to die, but their lingering presence makes it seem nearly impossible to remember the inevitability until it happens. I think when we do these sort of “in memoriam”s, there is an inclination to talk about accomplishments and impact — and there’s definitely room and space to roll out Nesmith’s foray into music videos, country rock, and streaming performances. But more importantly, I want to remember the joy. The joy brought by his music from ages 12 to 36. He died weeks after his final tour, which he started already in frail condition. According to his manager, by the end, he started to see the music from outside of himself, through the fandom. Regardless of whether this is another aspect of artifice, a beautifully romantic ending of an artist, a person, recognizing their importance and significance, upon their final moments, it’s the parade flag and drumbeat I’m willing to follow. •