Monkees singer-songwriter Michael Nesmith dead at 78

December 10, 2021
Monkees singer-songwriter Michael Nesmith dead at 78
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Michael Nesmith, the singer-songwriter, author, actor-director and entrepreneur who will likely be best remembered as the wool-hatted, guitar-strumming member of the made-for-television rock band The Monkees, has died at 78. 

Nesmith, who had undergone quadruple bypass surgery in 2018, died at home Friday of natural causes, his family said in a statement.

Nesmith was a struggling singer-songwriter in September 1966 when The Monkees television debut turned him and fellow band members Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork and David Jones into overnight rock stars. 

After the group broke up in 1970, Nesmith moved on to a long and creative career, not only as a musician but as a writer, producer and director of films, author of several books, head of a media arts company and creator of a music video format that led to the creation of MTV.

Nesmith was running “hoot nights” at the popular West Hollywood nightclub the Troubadour when he saw a trade publication ad seeking “four insane boys” to play rock musicians in a band modelled after the Beatles. 

The Monkees perform onstage in an episode of their self-titled TV show in the late 1960s. From left, Davy Jones, Peter Tork, Mickey Dolenz on drums, and Nesmith. (NBC Television/Getty Images)

The show featured the comical misadventures of a quartet that tooled around Los Angeles in a tricked-out Pontiac GTO called the MonkeeMobile and, when they weren’t chasing girls, pursued music stardom.

Each episode rolled out two or three new Monkees songs, six of which became Top 10 Billboard hits during the show’s two-year run. Three others, I’m a BelieverDaydream Believer and Last Train to Clarksville, reached No. 1.

Jones, with his British accent and boyish good looks, was the group’s cute lead singer. Dolenz became the wacky drummer, although he had to learn to play the drums as the show went along. Tork, a folk-rock musician, portrayed the comically clueless bass player. Nesmith, with his twangy Texas accent and the wool hat he’d worn to his audition, became the serious but naive lead guitarist. 

A prankster by nature, he’d arrived at the audition carrying a guitar and bag of dirty laundry he said he planned to wash immediately afterward. With a harmonica around his neck, he stormed into a casting office, banging the door loudly. After pausing to gaze at a painting as if it were a mirror, he sat down and immediately put his feet up on a desk.

He got the job.

But he rebelled almost immediately when producers told him they were going to call his character “Wool Hat.” He demanded they use his real name, as they did with the other actors.

It would be the first of many confrontations Nesmith would have with producers during a tumultuous two-year run in which The Monkees won the 1967 Emmy for best comedy series.

Nesmith poses backstage during Stagecoach: California’s Country Music Festival on April 27, 2014, in Indio, Calif. (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Nesmith and Tork, the group’s two most accomplished musicians, railed against the program’s refusal to allow them to play their own instruments at recording sessions. But when Nesmith revealed that fact to reporters, music critics quickly turned on The Monkees, dismissing the show as a fraud and the band as the “Prefab Four,” a mocking reference to the Beatles’ nickname, Fab Four. 

Nesmith, meanwhile, had written several songs he hoped to debut on the show, but almost all were dismissed by music producer Don Kirshner, as sounding too country. 

Among them was Different Drum, which Linda Ronstadt recorded in 1967 for her first hit single, validating to Nesmith his opinion that Kirshner —hailed by the pop music industry as the “man with the golden ear” — didn’t know what he was talking about.

Things came to a head when all four Monkees demanded they take control of the music. They were warned they would be sued for breach of contract.

At that, Nesmith rose from his seat and smashed his fist through a wall, telling Kirshner it could have been his face.

From left, Tork, Dolenz and Nesmith attend SiriusXM’s ‘Town Hall with the Monkees’ on May 16, 2016 in Nashville, Tenn. (Rick Diamond/Getty Images)

For years Nesmith would refuse to confirm or deny the incident, even as the other three gleefully recounted it to reporters. In his 2017 memoir, Infinite Tuesday, he did acknowledge it, saying he’d lost his temper when he felt his integrity was being questioned.

“It was an absurd moment in so many ways,” he wrote.

It did give the Monkees control over their music, however, beginning with the group’s third album, Headquarters

Breakup, reformation

After the show concluded in 1968 the band embarked on a lengthy concert tour where members sang many of their own songs and played their own instruments before crowds of adoring fans. Jimi Hendrix was sometimes their opening act.

Following the band’s breakup Nesmith rarely rejoined the others for reunion tours, leading many to believe he disliked the band and the show, something he steadfastly denied. 

“I really enjoyed being in the show. I really enjoyed working with Davy and Micky and Peter,” he told Australian Musician magazine in 2019. 

For the Monkees’ 30th anniversary he induced the others to reunite to record a new album, Justus, for which all four composed the songs and played the instruments. He also rejoined the others for a brief tour and wrote and directed their 1997 TV reunion film, Hey, Hey, It’s the Monkees.

In 1999 he prevailed in a bitter courtroom battle with the Public Broadcasting System over royalties from a home-video deal his media company, Pacific Arts, had struck with PBS. A federal jury awarded him $48 million US, concluding the popular purveyor of children’s shows and documentaries had defrauded him.

Nesmith, showing he hadn’t lost his Monkees sense of humour, said afterward: “It’s like catching your grandmother stealing your stereo. You’re glad to get your stereo back, but you’re sad to find out that Grandma’s a thief.”

Both sides agreed on an undisclosed settlement and Nesmith founded another company, Videoranch.

After Jones died in 2012 Nesmith began to rejoin the Monkees more frequently, their concerts now earning glowing reviews from critics. He attributed that to most of the group’s original critics having died or retired.

Following Tork’s death in 2019, Nesmith and Dolenz took on the name The Monkees Mike & Micky.

Robert Michael Nesmith was born Dec. 30, 1942, in Houston, Texas, the only child of Warren and Bette Nesmith.

His parents divorced when he was four and his mother often worked two jobs, as a secretary and painter, to support her son and herself. It was that latter job that inspired her to whip up a typewriter correction fluid called Liquid Paper in her kitchen blender. By the mid-1970s it had made her a fortune, which she eventually left to her son and to nonprofit foundations she endowed to promote women in business and the arts. 

Her son, who was married and divorced three times, is survived by four children, Christian, Jason, Jessica and Jonathan.



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