A Journey With Michael Nesmith: 1942 – 2021

Michael Nesmith has passed away on December 10th, 2021 at the age of 78, just a few weeks short of his birthday on December 30th which he shared with fellow Monkee, the late Davy Jones. I’ve been a fan of the Monkees for 55 years, and I’ve been rewarded by the incredible music and art I’ve been exposed to during those years by the four individuals, especially Papa Nez.

Michael Nesmith pre-Monkees TV Debut
The Monkees: Peter Tork, Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith

When I began watching the Monkees television show after I discovered it in 1967, I loved the series which was like watching The Beatles every week on a regular basis, except with a different foursome of comic musicians. Each member stood out: Micky Dolenz was the wild, crazy one. Peter Tork was the sweet and naive goofy one. Davy Jones was the cute, Paul McCartney type heartthrob. And Mike, the one in the green wool hat, well he was Mike, the group leader, the cool one with the laconic, sly sense of humor. As much as I liked the other three, there was something special about Nesmith. You couldn’t quite put your finger on it, but you just couldn’t take your eyes off him. When he entered a scene he captured your full attention. There was just a mystique about him.

This wasn’t just true about the television show. This carried over into the group’s recordings. As good as some of the other songs might have been, Nesmith’s tracks immediately stood out. They were well written and had an edge to them that demanded further attention. They weren’t frivolous Pop tunes, they were songs that carried a bit more weight and maturity than a typical 1960’s Pop song. And they sounded different than the other songs that shared the albums. The songs had a distinct Country flavor to them that made them sound much more unique. Even the songs he didn’t write benefited from his touch.

 

 

Circle Sky from the movie ‘Head’

 

The Cincinnati Story

After the whole Monkee trip ended, Nesmith continued onward on a path of his own making. His solo recordings, starting with the First National Band albums, saw Papa Nez following his muse, branding his songs with the Country tinge first heard in his Monkees recordings, but with the help of musical partner Red Rhodes, the songs went into a whole other stratosphere. The imagery the songs evoked were much more cosmic and other worldly, it’s no wonder that he earned the nickname of the ‘Cosmic Cowboy’. His records may not have been as big sellers as artists like Gram Parsons, The Byrds or the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band who played in a similar style, but they were just as creative, if not more-so.

As a growing artist, Nesmith was not content to remain in one style for long. He continued to push himself forward with unusual concepts like ‘The Prison’, a book with a soundtrack, that saw his writing style become much more visual in execution. This naturally led to the next step in Nez’s artistic evolution, a new way to visually present musical ideas, the Music Video. Where there had been ‘promotional films’ issued by artists to help sell their records, Nesmith’s approach with his video ‘Rio’ was much more cinematic, presenting the music in a non-linear visual style, at times with a story that wasn’t a virtual representation of the song lyrics, but carried their own storyline apart from the actual song.

Continuing to move forward with these concepts, Nesmith produced the long form video ‘Elephant Parts’ which combined his music with his unique sense of humor, winning a Grammy Award in the brand new category of Music Video, becoming the first music artist to win in the field. Nesmith branched out and became a movie producer for films like ‘Time Rider’, and the acclaimed ‘Repo Man’ and ‘Tape Heads’. He later became a published author of fiction and most recently with his autobiography ‘Infinite Tuesday’.

Michael Nesmith with first Grammy Award for Music Video

I followed Michael Nesmith through all these phases of his career, and I was rewarded by the exposure of the art that he was creating. From the Monkees television series, the records, the movie ‘Head’, the ’33 & 1/3 Revolution per Monkee’ tv special, his solo music career and his entry into the field of Music Video, each was a stepping stone where he kept going forward and rarely if ever looked back.

Elephant Parts, 1981

While I had seen and met Davy, Micky and Peter at concerts from 1976 into the 1980’s, I didn’t meet Nesmith until 1981 when he launched ‘Elephant Parts’ at a special party event at Tavern on the Green in New York City. I was invited to the event through my friend, animation expert Jerry Beck. Finally meeting the man, we shook hands and I told him how much I admire his work and that I wished him great success with his new video venture. He smiled and humbly thanked me. I was immediately struck by the full attention he gave, paying total attention to me as I spoke, his eyes kind and friendly. Whatever nervousness I may have had before, Nesmith wiped it away with his gentle demeanor. To this day, the memory of that first meeting has stuck with me.

I fortunately had other occasions in meeting Nez. In 1986 when the incredible Monkees 20th anniversary tour had ended it’s successful run, I was able to attending the taping of MTV Christmas Video that would feature all four Monkees, Nez disguised as Santa Claus as the big surprise ending of the video. I had already made friends with Davy Jones and Peter Tork and they both said hello to me when I entered the studio. It was Peter who introduced me to Mike who was all decked out in the Santa suit and makeup. As on our first meeting, Nez was friendly and he gave me his full attention as we spoke. All four Monkees signed the latest copy of Maggie McManus’s Monkee Business Fanzine that I brought with me which had a cover illustration featuring all four of them. When the taping had finished to reveal the big surprise of Nesmith as Santa Claus, I was able to have pictures taken with Davy Jones and Michael Nesmith whose eyebrows were still white from the Santa makeup.

Fred Velez with Michael Nesmith at the taping the 1986 The Monkees MTV Christmas Video.

The next time our paths crossed was in 1989 when the Monkees were going to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which would be proceeded by a concert at the Universal Amphitheater with all four members, Nesmith’s first fully rehearsed Monkees concert since 1968. (He had made a surprise guest appearance when Micky, Davy and Peter played the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles in 1986).

A Monkees convention took place the weekend of the events. Having never seen any of the 1967 concerts, seeing all four Monkees sharing the same stage together allowed me to cross off this major event from my bucket list. When Mike came on stage the entire theatre broke out in major shrieks of excitement from the fans which raised the roof. There was not a dry eye in the house as tears of joy were shed by the time the show ended.

There was even more excitement the following day when the Monkees were to receive their star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in a special ceremony held in front of the Vogue Theatre where the movie ‘Head’ premiered in 1968. Helen Pantuso, who spearheaded the campaign for the Monkees to receive their star, called on me to help with fan security. Inside the Vogue Theatre the Monkees were finishing up a press conference prior to the ceremony when Helen brought me in. Peter saw me first and then Davy and they both said hi. Peter then introduced me to Nesmith, telling him that I was major booster of the group. As in our previous meetings Nez was friendly and attentive as we spoke. As we were speaking, our mutual friend photographer Michael G. Bush who was taking pictures of the group, politely told me that I was in the shot. I quickly apologized and started to move away when I felt someone tug at my elbow. It was Peter Tork who was pulling me back into the group and said “Fred, you’re IN the picture!!!” So I had a photo taken with myself and all four Monkees as well as musician Lawrence Haley who was part of the Monkees backup band. In the picture it looks like I’m thinking “I can’t believe that I’m in this picture!!!”. The photo is a treasured piece of my Monkees collection, and I’ll always thank the kindness of Peter Tork for helping to make it happen.

Fred Velez with the Monkees and Lawrence Haley, Vogue Theatre 1989.

I’ve had other occasions where I met Nesmith, including a solo concert he performed at the Lone Star Cafe in New York City during the promotional tour of his album ‘Tropical Campfires’. Seeing Nez in a solo show was another check off my bucket list, as he performed from his classic catalog as well as selections from his new album. After the show there was an informal meet & greet where Mike said hello to the fans. I had another opportunity to speak with him and he was just as friendly and attentive as he was at our previous meetings. As we talked I told him that my favorite Monkees song that he wrote was ‘While I Cry’ and I said that I hope he would one day consider performing it live in concert. He gave me a small smile and thanked me and said that he’d think about it.

Fred Velez and Linda Walsh with The Monkees, Beacon Theatre 2011.

The years passed. The Monkees with Davy Jones went on a major tour in 2011 which was one of the best tours they had done in years. I caught them at the Beacon Theatre in New York City and was able to attend the after show meet & greet and had a picture taken with Peter, Davy and Micky along with my future wife Linda. Sadly, it turned out to be the last picture of me and Davy together as he passed away from a heart attack on February 29th, 2012. The devastation of that loss was somewhat alleviated by the joy of finding out that Micky and Peter would be joined by Michael Nesmith for a tour to celebrate the Monkees ‘Headquarters’ album. The tour was in the planning stages with Davy before his untimely passing. Linda and I attended two of the shows on that tour, which became both a celebration of the Monkees and the life of Davy Jones.

In 2013 Michael Nesmith embarked on his first solo tour in years with his ‘Movies of the Mind’ shows. Me and Linda attended the tour stop at Town Hall in New York City, and I was also able to score tickets for the after show meet & greet with Nez. Nesmith and his band gave incredible renditions of his classic songs, which were accompanied by stories that gave a visual flair to the numbers. I was surprised to learn later that Elvis Costello was also in attendance at the show. After the performance, everyone who had meet and greet tickets lined up as we waited for Nez. He finally appeared and met each fan, autographing Monkees and solo items, giving each fan time to talk with him. Finally it was mine and Linda’s turn as we stepped up and Nesmith smiled and shook our hands and signed our items, which included a ‘Elephant Parts’ DVD, a cd box set of Nesmith’s Pacific Arts catalog, and for our friend musician Gary Owen, the cover of his ‘The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees’ album that had already been signed by Davy, Peter and Micky and just needed Mike’s signature. As on previous occasions, Nez gave his full attention to us as we spoke to him. I mentioned that the last time we saw each other that I had suggested if he would please consider performing ‘While I Cry’ live as it was my favorite Monkees song of his. He again smiled and seem to say “we’ll see”.

Fred Velez with Michael Nesmith, Town Hall in New York City 2013

In 2014, Linda and I attended the Monkees Convention being run by Jodi Ritzen and Phyliss Paganucci, a year after the successful Davy Jones Memorial Convention that was also co-produced by Charles Rosenay who had co-produced some of the 1980’s Monkees Conventions along with Maggie McManus and Ed Reilly. 2014 saw the publication of my first book ‘A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You: The Monkees From A Fan’s Perspective’, and I brought along copies of my book which sold out by the end of the weekend. This years’ convention had as special guests Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith in his first full convention appearance since his brief appearance at the 1989 Hollywood Monkees Convention. Nesmith was not only appearing as a guest, he would also be performing one of his ‘Movies of the Mind’ shows at the convention. I saved three books to give signed copies to each member of the attending Monkees. At a special breakfast, I was in the company of fans and the families of the individual Monkees. I gave my inscribed copies to Micky and Peter who graciously accepted them. I was pleased to see the members of Micky’s family looking at the book and passing it amongst themselves.

Michael Nesmith was seated with his family at their table, saying hello to fans who dropped by, playing with a little baby one fan brought along. I waited till a more opportune moment when Nez was free and finally came up to say hello, saying what a pleasure it was to see him again. He thanked me and I offered him the copy of my book as my gift to him and asked him how I should address the inscription, as Mike, Michael or Nez? He smiled and said “Nez would be fine”, and I signed it that way. We had a couple of more minutes before he needed to leave and I again addressed our previous conversations about ‘While I Cry’ and that I hoped one day he would consider performing it. He smiled and thanked me for liking the song and gave me a “we’ll see” look. Later that night he performed his ‘Movies of the Mind’ show which knocked out everyone who attended. Nez was surprised and pleased by the incredible crowd response, grinning so wide you could see him glow from the other side of the room. Many in the audience who had never seen a solo Nesmith show before became instant converts. It was one of the best solo Michael Nesmith concerts that I ever had the pleasure of attending.

Over the years Nesmith did a few more Monkees tours with Micky and Peter as well as some solo shows. He sat out most of the 2016 50th Anniversary Monkees tour, making a special Skype appearance at the New York Town Hall concert performing ‘Papa Gene’s Blues’.

Nez did commit himself to perform live at the September Monkees Pantages Theatre concert in Hollywood. Linda and I quickly got tickets for this show and made hotel arrangements to stay in Hollywood for the weekend of the concert. Peter Tork, who had been diagnosed with throat cancer, was unable to do the two shows prior to the Pantages concert, and Nesmith stood in for him on those dates.

There was a buzz of excitement the night of the Pantages concert. Fans came from all around the world for this major event. As Linda and I entered the theatre we saw old friends like Monkees friend and actress Valerie Kairys Venet, and I was surprised and pleased to see Marty Ross of the New Monkees was there for the show too.

Fred Velez with Marty Ross of the New Monkees at the Pantages Theatre, 2016.

The concert was fantastic, with a mixture of the classic Monkees songs plus selections from the 2016 album ‘Good Times!’, the first album of new Monkees material since the 1996 ‘Justus’ album, the last album with Davy Jones. The songs from the new album that went over the best were the beautifully haunting ‘Me and Magdalena’ written by Ben Gibbard and ‘Birth Of An Accidental Hipster’ written by Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller.

Towards the end of the show, Michael Nesmith took the stage alone with his guitar as he spoke his introduction to the song ‘Tapioca Tundra’, explaining that the inspiration for it was the first concert the Monkees performed in Hawaii in 1966 when with the wild fan adulation, all four members strangely felt the presence of another person sharing the stage with them. After that concert Mike asked the others if they too had felt that presence and Peter said that he thought he knew what it was. Mike pressed him and Peter answered “that was The Monkees”. Nez agreed with the assessment, acknowledging that with the group and the audience together, that they were all collectively ‘The Monkees’, which were expressed in the lyrics, “it can not be a part of me, but now it’s part of you”.

The entire show was emotional for the group and the fans attending, especially later when it sadly became the final Monkees concert Michael, Micky and Peter would perform together before Peter Tork succumbed to his cancer on February 21st, 2019.

Nesmith and Dolenz would tour together in 2018 as ‘The Mike and Micky Show’ with Michael planning another solo tour with his First National Band Redux band, having already performed a special show at the Troubadour Club in Los Angeles earlier that year.

The ‘Mike & Micky’ tour was at the mid-way point when it was reported that Nesmith was ill and the rest of the tour was cancelled to be rescheduled as Mike had to go for a triple bypass. After an amazingly short recovery period, Nez was again on the road for his First National Band Redux tour. The man’s stamina was incredible as he was in good spirits and fine voice for the shows. We saw the show in New York and we were astounded by how strong Nez was.

Later in the year the new dates for the Mike and Micky Show were announced and Linda and I were able to obtain reasonably priced VIP tickets for the pre-show rehearsal at the Beacon Theatre in New York in March 2019. The informality was illuminating as the band went through several numbers, including a couple that they performed only at the rehearsal. The main concert itself had a sad bittersweetness to it as it took place just several weeks after the passing of Peter Tork. Peter was acknowledged in a special video of him performing the classic standard ‘Till Then’ on acoustic guitar. It was a moving tribute and received an emotional ovation.

The main show contain a great selection of classic Monkees tunes, many of them penned by Nesmith with rarities like ‘St. Matthew’ and ‘Auntie’s Municipal Court’ thrown into the mix. Further tributes to the missing Monkees Peter and Davy included ‘For Pete’s Sake’, ‘A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You’ and the emotionally charge ‘Daydream Believer’. The show concluded with Nesmith on stage alone starting an a cappella version of ‘Listen To The Band’ which segued into a full band rendition and ending with the group’s biggest hit ‘I’m A Believer’.

The ‘Mike and Micky Show’ was to continue with new dates into 2020. And then the Covid 19 pandemic happened with many events canceled throughout the remainder of the year. The concerts were rescheduled for late 2021 with additional dates added. These shows were going to be different as it was announced that this would be the Monkees Farewell tour. When the early dates of the tour began, while Micky was in good form, there were concerns for the health of Michael Nesmith. He appeared very fragile and unsteady during the early shows, not playing guitar and sitting on a stool for the majority of the show. His voice was a little shaky with him speak-singing for most of the show. Even with the strong support of Micky and the rest of the band, it was hard to ignore Nez’s condition. As the tour progressed, it appear the Mike was getting stronger and more engaged from the emotional energy being given off by the fans. He sang a little more strongly and seemed to feed off the love coming from the audience. As with the tour previous many Monkees classics were performed, several of them written by Nez.

Linda and I attended the October 22nd show in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. We saw many familiar faces like Jodi Ritzen, Scott Erickson and Micky’s wife Donna. By this time I had written my second book ‘A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You 2: The Monkees From International Fan Perspectives’. I had brought along three signed copies for Micky, Mike and their manager and Monkees archivist and author Andrew Sandoval. Security were able to get my books backstage and Andrew contacted me afterwards to assure me that he, Mike and Micky had gotten the books.

The show soon began and everyone cheered as Micky and Mike entered from separate sides of the stage. Micky looked great and energized. Nesmith however looked a bit frail and walked steadily to his chair. He smiled and waved to the fans and thanked them for coming. As they performed the opening number of Nez’s ‘Good Clean Fun’, Mike spoke/sang the song as Micky sang to keep the tempo up. Despite early concerns, Nesmith’s spirit seemed to rise as he fed off the love generated by the fans. At times his vocals were a bit shaky, and other times his voice was as strong as it had been just a few years earlier. He waved and clowned with Micky on stage to the delight of the audience. When a song associated with Micky was being performed, Nez would duck into the wings on his side of the stage to rest before coming back.

After the intermission came the part of the show I was waiting for as I learned about the set list prior to the show. Nesmith haltingly explained the song he was about to sing and how it expressed sentiments felt by many. Then Mike began to sing ‘While I Cry’ from the 1969 Monkees ‘Instant Replay’ album, the song I had been waiting for years to hear him perform. While the vocals were shaky at times, Nez’s emotions reflected those in the lyrics, as the audience sat silently listening. The band played beautifully and with Micky’s sister Coco, sang lovely backup vocals. As the song came to its emotional conclusion with Mike tearfully singing the last lines, there was not a dry eye in the house. When the song ended I along with the rest of the audience gave Nesmith a well deserved standing ovation, which pleasantly surprised Mike who graciously thanked the fans as Micky came forward and gave Nez a big hug.

There were many highlights in the show, with Mike beaming at the enthusiastic response from the audience. The show came to an end with ‘I’m A Believer’ with Micky, Mike, Coco and the rest of the band bowing to a standing ovation from the fans. Micky and Mike soon exited to separate sides of the stage, with every eye on Nesmith as he disappeared into the wings.

Micky Dolenz and Michael Nesmith, Greek Theatre November 14, 2021

A few weeks later the tour would end at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles on November 14th, the official last stop on the tour. It was fitting that the tour would conclude on the historic stage that all four Monkees reunited on in 1986. Mike and Micky were to perform on a couple of makeup shows that had to be rescheduled plus a cruise show co-headlining with The Beach Boys in 2022.

Sadly, barely three weeks after that final show at the Greek, Michael Nesmith passed away from natural causes.

Following the man’s career for nearly 55 years, we are blessed by the music and art Nez gave to the world. Words are inadequate for everything I feel about his passing. His loss is as devastating as those of Davy Jones, Peter Tork and earlier Elvis Presley, John Lennon and George Harrison. For many fans, they all had the impact of a death in the family.

It’s been a long journey, and we should feel privileged that in a small way, we were able to tag along on Michael Nesmith’s journey.

Thanx for the ride, Nez.

Fred Velez, 2021.

Fred Velez is the author of the books ‘A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You: The Monkees From A Fan’s Perspective’ and ‘A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You 2: The Monkees From International Fan Perspectives’.

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