BY JOSH PELTA-HELLER Among YouTube’s vast assortment of Monkees videos is a 20-minute reel of black-and-white screen tests: the 1965 auditions of the four fresh-faced fellas who were ultimately cast for the immensely popular hit series featuring the madcap shenanigans of a hustling young American pop band struggling to succeed in sunny Southern California. The latter half of the video is a cut of scripted studio shorts, with Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Peter Tork and Mike Nesmith trying a couple test-roles on for size, juxtaposed with a couple other final-cut casualties that make it immediately obvious why the four of them were ultimately selected from among the hundreds of candidates. The first half of the reel features their original interviews, and offers a little more individual insight into their personalities. All four are natural foils for the talent scouts behind the camera, who come off as stiff by contrast. Groomed for theater, Jones delivers an endearing, postured performance that already feels blocked for the stage. Dolenz and Tork are both quick wits as well, and both wield acoustic guitars as props, with Tork coming off as the more nervously awkward of the two.
Mike Nesmith’s screen test, however, stands out in a different way. All four of the young stars were magnetic on camera, but Nesmith’s test has an edge that’s two parts intellectual-introspective and one part punk-swagger. If The Monkees were conceived as the oft-touted “American answer to the Beatles” — with Nesmith’s role die-cast in the image of George Harrison’s “dark horse” mythos — then it becomes clear why the industry execs who engineered the Monkees’ success chose Nesmith for the task. For as much as he was responsible for contributing to their on-screen charm and personality, and a seemingly outsized share of their songwriting, his frustrations and unequivocal criticisms of the project would later help to catalyze its disintegration too.
In the intervening half century, “Nez” has been credited with a truly startling number of visionary accomplishments — everything from conceiving music television long before MTV was around, to being a groundbreaking force for shaping the sound of early country-rock. Raised in Houston and Dallas, Nez brought a little twang flavor to the Monkees’ catalog, parlaying his songcraft in 1970 to the First National Band, who appear at Phoenixville’s Colonial Theater tomorrow night. It’ll mark his return to the area since enduring a serious health scare back in June, in advance of an appearance at The Keswick alongside Dolenz. Nesmith ended up checking into a local hospital that night instead, and canceling the remaining east-coast dates shortly thereafter when he learned of the sobering gravity of his situation.
“I’m doing okay!,” affirms Nesmith, when asked early in this phone interview about his recovery from a recent health scare. It’s 10 AM on the central California coast, where the singer lives, and there’s crunching. “Excuse me for eating in your ear — I’m having a piece of toast.” Asked for a recap, Nez broke it down: “They call it congestive heart failure. And so the fix for it was a quintuple bypass surgery. Both of which are sort of dire,” he explained, with a laugh to lighten the mood. “All I knew was that as I was slowly fading from consciousness, the little team of doctors were saying, ‘you’re gonna have to have this bypass, or you’re gonna die. So those are your choices.’ And I said well I choose to have the bypass!” laughing again, “that was an easy choice, basically because nobody would tell me what happened after I died.”
DISCUSSED: Monkees bizness, dope, Country Rock, Monty Python, Spock, Timothy Leary, Blake Shelton, Paul McCartney’s birthday party, Brill Building, The Stones, Ernest Tubb, Don Kirshner, The Flying Nun, Pink Floyd, Neil Diamond, Led Zeppelin, Hank Williams and congestive heart failure.
PHAWKER: It’s been 50 years since The Monkees “broke up” after the show was canceled afterjust two seasons. You were a bit notorious in ‘68 in terms of voicing your frustrations with the project and how it was managed, ultimately making waves at a press conference when you said journalists were right to call The Monkees “fake.” That said, many other rock bands at the time — like The Beach Boys and The Byrds — had studio musicians play on their records — how did you understand or interpret the contrast between a “real” band vs. what you thought of The Monkees, at that point?
MIKE NESMITH: Well I was hired into a project that I thought I understood, which was to come and be a member of a band that was on television. And that sort of is what happened. [laughs] But what really was going on was that the television machine was grinding again, and they were building another television sitcom for its times. We were on for a couple of years and so, all of the standard operating models for building a television show that lasts decades and decades were in play. And there were certain things that had to suffer because of that level of production. It was very hard to do the shot, very hard to find the music, and there was a huge pushback from the contemporaries at the time, who said “this is not a real band,” to which I replied, “I’ll say! It’s a television show!” And the fact that you would go away from it as a band like any other band is a mistake. It’s an error in judgement. It’s a television show. And it you think about it, it’s a good television show! It’s got comedians and I mean, at the time — with no pun intended — the holy grail of televised comedy for me was Monty Python. And “The Monkees,” they — “they” being the writers, and the people who got together to make the show — had Python as kind of a holy grail, too. They were saying we want something funny like this, we want it to ride on the backs of the music, and we can do that! We can make the music, we can create the band, we can create the stories and all that — and for me that’s all fair. You know, that was part of what you do as an actor and as an artist and so forth. So, I was fine with it. It wasn’t until there was this huge pushback, that was so surprising to me, that I began to do double-duty in investigating, you know, why are people so upset about the fact that these records are recorded, and not made by the fictional band that lives on television? That’s not a real band, the real band hasn’t even come to life yet.
And I was very gratified when the real band did come to life! It happened on the edge of a stage, I think we might’ve been in Seattle or someplace on the west coast. I was walking on stage, and a reporter, perhaps — somebody with a need and a right to know — came up and said, “so, I understand The Monkees are not a real band, and that you guys can’t play. So what are you gonna do for this show?” And I said well that’s nonsense. I mean you see me standing here with my guitar slung over my shoulder, and the costumes to go and play in the band on the stage — if I can’t play and the other guys can’t play, what are we gonna do? [laughs] I’m gonna just stand up there and bring in the adoration? It was to deliver the music on some level. I mean, as a group itself, Davy, Micky, Mike and Peter were really like a garage band. And as a garage band we acquitted ourselves particularly well, and the television show fit right into that. Because the television show was about a band that was a garage band that was trying to make it!
So in some strange way, lines crossed — not lines of war, but lines of confusion about a conceptual base — so people lined up on either side of those lines. “Oh, that’s not a real show,” you know, “Sally Field can’t really fly.” I think Micky started using [Leonard] Nimoy as a paradigm. And you know, you can kinda pick anything you want to outta television, television’s kinda like the Sunday funnies: some of it’s really really good, and some of it’s not so much. And I felt in terms of where “The Monkees” fit, we were pretty good! It was a pretty good show, you know. But as we know, the people that it resonated with were young. So the place it landed, the soil it was potted in, were the 8- and 9-year-olds. I don’t think the producers ever thought that the show would skew that young. I certainly never did. But then I never thought about it! I thought, well, I’m just being hired to play a part and play music and so forth, and I’ve got the chance of a lifetime — I shouldn’t do anything to screw this up!
PHAWKER: You left the group in ‘68, and among your primary complaints was that The Monkees’ management often prevented you from playing your own music, or even entertaining the idea that your original work should be included on the Monkees’ records or issued as singles. Still, around that time The Monkees’ popularity was at a fever pitch, and you as individual artists maybe had started to have the cachet and the leverage to have been able to push more to hoist your own flags on that battle, and in fact with songs like “Tapioca Tundra” and “Shorty Blackwell,” you did start to do that. So, why leave then, I wonder, right when you were able to execute your own vision more often?
MIKE NESMITH: Well, first of all, I think a lot of what you’re saying there is assumptions, and it’s apocryphal. We never really got into a position where we were controlling anything. What we had, at the time — I wrote about this, in my book — was “the Queen’s veto”: all we could do was blow up the ship that we were on, you know what I mean, it wasn’t like we were skilled sailors, we were just along for the ride, so to blow up the boat woulda been stupid. And we did not do that. If you read deep — and if it’s of any interest people can read deep — about, you know, what were the internal dramas and how were they handled, and so forth, and you see pretty quickly, no, we didn’t do anything. Micky sang the songs they asked him to sing, and I submitted the songs that I had written, and was not surprised that they were rejected. And I never got onto a place where I thought to myself, I wanna grab control of this phenomenon and provide the music for it, and the creative direction and everything. All those things came along later, as part of — I guess it was publicity, of some kind — or some sort of reportage to give the four of us a bad name and give the producers at the Brill Building a good name. The guy who was in charge of the music, Don Kirshner, continued to point to himself as a reference standard for what constituted a hit record, and he said “I can identify a hit from miles away, and I know when they happen.” And he took a lot of credit for what happened with The Monkees, and he for some reason felt constrained to continue to prove that. But that was never on my agenda, my agenda was to make music, and to play who would ask me.
PHAWKER: Well I guess what I’m asking is, some of the stuff that you wrote was, well, different. “The Girl That I Knew Somewhere” was sort of “poppy,” but Don Kirshner didn’t see it as a hit and chose “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” instead. But you wrote “Tapioca Tundra,” “Listen To The Band” — some really great Monkees songs that sort of pushed boundaries and didn’t align with the type of music Neil Diamond or Boyce and Hart or the Brill Building guys were writing for you, in terms of what they considered to be polished pop. But you were still allowed to have it on the record, they did publish it as “Monkees’” music.
MIKE NESMITH: Right, right. Well, there was a couple of constraints there. The first was just getting the product to flow, getting the music to flow, getting creative ideas to flow, into this very crowded arena, this very crowded space which included the television show, included the movie, included the live performances — everything that happened with a big band was actually happening with this television show! And nobody had any idea how to manage this. And what I was doing was, I was submitting the songs that I wrote. I had a conversation with them — this is also a little bit in the book — of saying, well I’ve got these songs, what do I do? And they said well, submit ‘em through the channel, you can’t let anybody hear ‘em before Kirshner hears ‘em. And you have to have his approval and everybody else’s approval, and then if you pass all the bars, it’ll end up on the record! And that was really the only door I had open. So I just did it, I would go in and make a demo, and the more popular I got with the other three guys and with the producers, they started to say well this is good music, we can put this out, we’ll put this on the show, this is great.
And that developed into a brawl between the Kirshner and Brill-Building people, and — I don’t know what you call the west coast branch of that but, whatever it was — and they were quarreling all the time! About who gets the money, and who gets the credit, and who goes to the awards, etc etc. It was a mess. So I parked my car over to the side, and I said well I’m gonna wait til this blows over. Because it’s gonna blow over in a couple of years, and I’ll be able to pick up where I left off. And that’s what I’ve done, basically.
PHAWKER: Well right but, in terms of “being a Monkee,” you parked your car for almost 20 years, there, until 1986 I think was the time that you came back into that. In the years since then there have been several reunion tours and projects. You’re a wealthy guy, at this point, it can’t be the money that keeps bringing you back into it. You have so many other interests as well, including the style of music that you like to play. In light of the frustrations that you’d voiced back then, what would you say does keep drawing you back into it time and again with the other guys?
MIKE NESMITH: Well I like popular music, and I like the way Micky sings. And it was a nice and somewhat shallow pool to wade in. And it was available to me — I had access to it in a way that few people get access. And when somebody said we’d like to put this on the next Monkees record, there was nothing to compel me to say no, what I said was sure, go ahead! And they did! And sometimes they would come in and say can you change this, but mostly the only change was, well can you put Micky’s or Davy’s voice on it, and then we can use it. That was what happened.
But none of that was a signal that somehow there was a Monkees resurgence that had captured my creative interests, and made me want to write songs like “Tapioca Tundra.” Although ironically as you and I are talking, “Tapioca Tundra” as a song that I had written for The Monkees, at a time when we were out on the road, and so, you know, I was still writing songs with the idea that The Monkees were a big part of my life, but not with an idea that, you know, I was gonna become a pop tunesmith like Neil Diamond or whoever the other guys were.
PHAWKER: Right. I’d done an interview with Micky actually a few years ago during which he said he sort of saw The Monkees as two bands: the fictional band singing music by professional songwriters that you were originally conceived to be, and the band that you ultimately were with more influence from each of the four of you. Do you share that?
MIKE NESMITH: [considered pause] Um . . . well, there’s probably not enough meat on those bones for me to agree to it. I don’t think there was a morph of the television show into a real band. I think that’s a little nuts. You know, that doesn’t happen in real life. I mean Gepetto can pray to a fairy all he wants to have his little wooden boy come to life, but it only happens in a fairy tale. [laughs] It doesn’t happen in real life. And what was actually happening to us in real life is that we had the high value of recognition, we had the high value of worldwide distribution, the high value of really good record producers and writers and so forth — all of those things were converging, and were there to launch whatever The Monkees wanted to do. And “The Monkees” consisted of hundreds of people, you know. And that was more fun, because there was a certain cachet that started to come to us — people said hey these guys aren’t bad, we have to accept what television had brought us in the form of “The Monkees.” And so when that started to happen, Micky’s attitude softened. And mine didn’t really much change — I was just happy to have the opportunity to play. And so we were underway, under those sails, we just did not have an appearance on some national television show, because we already had that, as an object set — we weren’t trying to get there, we were there! But it wasn’t the same thing as what was happening in television or live television at the time, it was a television sitcom! So, that kept people just bouncing from one leg to the other trying to figure out, well, where is the equilibrium here. And I don’t know if anybody ever figured that out. I think Micky made a lotta comfort, a lotta peace with the songs that he sang — and of course he makes a lotta money off of those songs, so you know he’s compelled to do that — whereas the others of us were not.
PHAWKER: I wonder if you happen to recall this — Micky brought this up as well — I guess there had been a night in the Sixties when you’d played a show in Philly, and then afterwards went out to Pat’s or Geno’s to get cheesesteaks? He’d said that you’d gone straight from the venue, and so were still wearing the full psychedelic stage regalia. Do you remember doing that?
MIKE NESMITH: [thinks] . . . No? [laughs] . . .
PHAWKER: Haha, right — I’m asking about it because, he’d mentioned that psychedelia was still considered countercultural at the time, especially on the east coast, and that no one was wearing anything like that, even in the late Sixties, in Philadelphia, so people were sort of ogling . . .
MIKE NESMITH: . . . well that sounds right! [laughs] I don’t recall that incident. I’m trying to conjure up Pat’s steakhouse — well is it a steakhouse? What is it?
PHAWKER: Yeah, it’s sort of an outdoor pavilion . . .
MIKE NESMITH: Oh, ok. No, I don’t recall that incident.
PHAWKER: Well, I’m curious because I imagine that you especially, having come from Houston as you did, with your background — were you ever sort of at odds with “psychedelia” that you were asked to be a part of, in The Monkees, or do you feel as though you fully embraced it?
MIKE NESMITH: Oh I think I fully embraced it. I became aware of it in the early Sixties, when acid was being thrown around, and the world of psychedelics, and hallucinogens — and all the things that started to shape the culture of the world to come — fascinated me. I loved the intellectual pursuits, I love the artistic pursuits. It wasn’t fueled by the music; the psychedelic element more or less fueled the music. And people would take that and run with it. But aside from being fascinated with the psychedelics, and following the various gurus of that movement, I didn’t really, you know, jump into that as a way of life. I thought, you know this is fascinating, this is gonna change the culture, and change the way we think and change the way we building governments, change a lotta stuff. And I’m happy to see that i’m right, and also sad to see that it didn’t quite build the stuff I thought it would build. But my experience with The Monkees [compared to] the other three guys was profoundly different. And so you know, I would watch them get kinda swept up in the, “let’s go to Paul McCartney’s birthday party,” when you know, I don’t know Paul. [laughs] I would not go to his party except as you know, some sort of decoration. Not that I dislike him, I just don’t know him! Micky knows him pretty well. So he would go to the party. And so, there were striations along those lines, you know, the cultural lines, and we each followed our own way. Now my way was — what can I say — it was a southern, rock ‘n roll, delta blues origins, wrapped around a kind of odd way of thinking and playing that had its roots in folk musics of the time.
PHAWKER: I want to get into that too, but before we leave the subject of psychedelia, one more question — what do you think about The Monkees’ movie Head, looking back on it now from the vantage point of 2018?
MIKE NESMITH: Well I think it’s a pretty good movie. It’s informed so much by, you know, the psychedelics. And unless you were a party to that group, or a member of that group — of people who liked to smoke dope and go to the movies — it bypassed you. And the fact that it was about this cultural phenomenon — or at least a cultural presence — of a television show, with The Monkees on it, you just weren’t all that interested. So, the movie didn’t resonate, it didn’t really go anywhere for those kinds of people. And I think that really devastated [writer and director] Bob Rafelson and [Monkees’ producer] Bert Schneider and [writer] Jack Nicholson, ‘cause I think they really wanted to make an artifact that would be part of the consumables of that culture.
PHAWKER: Were you guys under the influence of psychedelics while you were actually making the film?
MIKE NESMITH: No, I was a grass-smoker, a weed guy, but not to some [great] extent. I smoke a lot more now that it’s legal in California — and I don’t smoke, I vape, anyway. And so I was always on the perimeter of the drugs except just recreationally.
PHAWKER: Getting back into your background and the folk and country music you came from — I’m curious about comments you’d made in interviews about how The Monkees’ management at the time had sort of intimated that twang and country influence in your music made you sound “stupid.” At that point I guess “Rocky Raccoon” and “Don’t Pass Me By” weren’t out quite yet, but The Beatles had done “Act Naturally” and “What Goes On,” there were many Elvis and Stones’ successes that were heavily country influenced — I’m wondering why in your estimation record industry execs were still sort of suspicious of the validity or commercial value of country music at that point?
MIKE NESMITH: Well you know, that’s a doctoral thesis. In order to parse all the various elements of that into one cohesive view of the cultural landscape at the time, it would take maybe years to put together and to give some sort of clear, concise expression.
PHAWKER: Right, if I can rephrase, in other words the record company guys must have at that point had enough proof-of-concept with other immensely popular bands by then that The Beatles or Elvis or The Stones were able to write and record a bit in that genre. So why were they against your country influence sort of infusing The Monkees’ work?
MIKE NESMITH: Well I think it had to do with the politics of the time. You know, we were dealing with Watergate and Nixon, and a whole bunch of stuff at the time, and it didn’t look that much different than the Trump times we live in now. The culture and the government ha divided along these political lines that said if you are on the liberal mind, and backed a social caste of government, then you belong to the Left, you belong to the dope-smokers, and that’s where we’ll find your leaders. And the people who are Nixon and the Bushes and the hard right of its time, had its own expression, in the form of politics. And the political lines that divided the writers at the Brill Building, divided the writers at the Screen Gems building. It may have been, for the guys like The Beatles and the people who purveyed that, as it came more and more online and you ended up with the hats and satin jackets. But the guys back east said oh no, we can’t do this. Were I saw that happen from time to time was, there was a reaction to anything that seemed to cross the line of a very young viewer. So we had the constraints of some of the care of the young, you don’t ruin, you know.
PHAWKER: Do you listen to modern country music, does any of it appeal to you, and why not, if it doesn’t?
MIKE NESMITH: Well, modern country music — I don’t know what you mean by that. Do you mean Blake Shelton and stuff like that?
MIKE NESMITH: No. No I don’t. It’s pretty good, I don’t mind it. And Nashville players are really good, and I don’t mind listening to records that they make, and so forth. But if I can say it, you know, I think the songs leave a lot to be desired, in terms of you know, touching a funny bone or touching some cultural step where you can say, this is real, this happens. It’s more about pickup trucks and cowboy hats and short shorts, and guys with some sort of a right-wing agenda. [laughs]
PHAWKER: What do you think happened between Ernie Tubb and Hank Williams and now, how do you think it morphed into what it’s become now, and lost that sort of genuine element?
MIKE NESMITH: Well I don’t know that it’s lost a genuine element . . . well, I’ll give that to you, I think it has lost a genuine element, if you look back at the genuine element — as I do — being the Hank WIlliams and Johnny Cash, and the lions of those times, as they were setting out what was to become the Ryman Auditorium and Louisiana Hayride and all that stuff that was part of the early landscape of country music. I don’t think that what’s happening now in country music bears any resemblance to that, nor can they point to it as an origin. That original country music has now drifted into the realm of the traditional, and you hear it more in bluegrass than any place else, and it’s more played out on a lawn on a sunny day having fruit jars full of iced tea. It’s a different cultural dynamic, political dynamic, now, than it was when it first came out. When it first came out, it really echoed the times — you know, mama in her house dress doing the laundry in a tub, and dad off to work with his lunchbox and his mine light. Those were really the cultural bedrock. And those are the people that listened to Jimmy Rodgers and Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb and Hank Snow, and all those big guys in the early goin’s. See when Merle [Haggard] and some of those guys started singing “Okie From Muskogee” and this other stuff, and it was directly pointed to “you’re in with us if you smoke dope; you’re not if you don’t,” there was a big split, down that divide. And people said, “well I don’t smoke dope. I like the music, but I’m not gonna listen to it if you’re gonna sing about it,” that’s where I think you saw a big split. Because somebody somewhere said, “well wait a minute, Merle Haggard just sold four million of ‘Okie From Muskogee’ because of its politics! Let’s do something about the Marines and the Special Forces and stuff, let’s grind this conservative axe.” And it came in there, I think of it as — oh, every word that comes to mind is too strong — but I think of it as a pollutant, by the time it turned into corporate America doing corporate songs about the Left Wing. We don’t have anything like that right now, thank god, but, you know we might sooner rather than later, [laughs] I don’t know where it’s all going.
PHAWKER: You’ve spoke about your latest project, Michael Nesmith & The First National Band Redux, being some of your proudest work to date. Can you talk a bit about how that came together, and where some of the inspiration for the newest songs that you’ve written had come from?
MIKE NESMITH: Well I can try. I mean we’re opening up a box of boxes, so it’s a strange thing. I really saw something buried deeply in the dynamics of country music that had to do with child-rearing and had to do with church-going and had to do with working hard 9-to-5 jobs — those sorts of things — that was left unsung. It was left without a voice, which is the voice of the spiritual thinker, the spiritual man. And so, I thought well I’ll do that, I’ll just sing songs about that. [laughs] It’s making me laugh, ‘cause I think back, I realize it’s not the first time that I decided to go off on some crackerjack hunt that [laughing] just really wasn’t gonna get me anything except some golden paper that they said was a new Mercedes. But I really came to love the sort of simple and bedrock philosophies of nascent spiritualism that was most visible to me — probably because of my upbringing — in my family and in my friends and you know, the culture I grew up in. So I wrote songs about it. And that’s what The First National Band is. I was sorry, when we first starting playing, that we didn’t get any traction. [laughs] What I mean by that is nobody came to the shows. But you know, I don’t know why that was, the shows are really good! And they’re first-call players, and I’m proud of the material, and it just has something going on with it. Psychedelics is a small part of it, these days — it’s not that it’s not a part of it, but that song has been sung, so we kinda leave that alone. The songs that I sing now are different, and it goes to this Right-Left split. You know, there are certain things that are okay to do from the Left, and some that are okay to do from the Right. I’m really careful when I’m walkin’ along those wires.
PHAWKER: In terms of the Redux, and what you’re doing now, vs. what you were doing with First National in the early Seventies, I’m curious about why you elected to bring back that project vs. start a new one or something like that, you know what I mean?
MIKE NESMITH: I do, well because by this time, the First National Band had gotten some miles on it. You know, I would sit around and I would play them myself, and enjoy myself, and the next thing you know, other people were playing the songs. Not a lot, but some of the people. And I would get some of the people saying, you know, “I love that song,” or “I loved this other song that you did,” and you know, people would say “are you guys gonna play ‘Listen To The Band?’” Because, you know, it’s kind of identified with The Monkees. But we are! Or we might, I should say. Because it’s part of the legacy of The First National Band. And so, since that was already there, it was like, you know, you got three-quarters of the ingredients of a really good-tasting pie, so you know, just cut a few more apples and you’re already home.
PHAWKER: Right. Well, one more question for you — I saw another interview with Micky recently where he commented on how overall The Monkees had been a really positive thing for him, and said he’d been the only member who “never quit The Monkees.” I know that from your point of view and reflect on how the original Monkees project had disintegrated — you’d butted heads with Kirshner, you’d had your issues with the pretenses of being a sort of test-tube band. But looking back, do you feel the characterization that history has of you being the most critical or too critical of those guys at the time is accurate, or in your view were just-enough critical?
MIKE NESMITH: Well, this is Monday-morning quarterback — unlike Mick, I don’t feel like I never quit the band, I feel like I never joined it. And so, it lived in a different place for me. For Mick, it was the center of his life. I mean if you wanted to go to a good party, go over to Mick’s house! Somebody’s gonna be over there, he’s got fifteen people for dinner, and you can get yourself a sandwich, play some music, and he was right in the center of the whole pop thing of the Sixties. And he was having a great time. I felt frankly that I hadn’t been strong enough in trying to explain what I saw as this phenomenon, the television show coming to life. Of course, we’re now living with that phenomenon: the television has come to life! And now you have to figure out, well what do you do with it?! [laughs] And I think a lot of the producers of The Monkees would’ve had the same dilemma! And I did too. And as I look back on it — and my reputation as being more than a gadfly, but you know, less than a blood-crazed killer — I was sad that I hadn’t taken stronger positions I thought those guys in New York were missing one opportunity after another. But I was driven by the commercialism of it. I wasn’t thinking, we’re missing this opportunity to write on the walls of the cathedrals of our times, I was just thinking — you know, there’s more to be said here if you’ll just listen to Dylan, or if you’ll listen to some of the Lennon-McCartney songs, and if you’ll just listen to this music that’s coming out — you know that classic rock that happened during the late Sixties and early Seventies, where you were having Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, those are called classic rock for a reason: they’re classics! In any way you wanna define the term. So, I listen to people these days, and I say what kind of music do you like, and they say “well we really like classic rock!” And I know exactly what they’re talking about. Because those songs, and that music that was coming out at that time was classic! It was built around classic — well nobody used this term at the time — but classic memes and classic behaviors. Well I had all that already in the National Band! I had those songs, I knew what the costume was, what the design key was — and so by the time I decided to revisit it, there was a line of people outside of the theater, saying “oh we’re so glad you decided to come back in here and do this again. There’s also no doubt that it’s got a left-leaning thing, it’s not a non-political space. It’s also not, you know, rubbing anybody’s nose in their politics — it’s not about that, it’s not about the collision between the Right and the Left — it’s about the way the different approaches to life establishes itself in romance and in home-building and business-building and all the other stuff that goes on in regular society.
PHAWKER: Are you trying to draw a distinction between classic rock, and what you think of The Monkees? I mean certainly The Monkees are classic — do you think of the as more, “classic pop,” or some other genre that didn’t define classic rock, is that what you mean?
MIKE NESMITH: Well without raising my voice, let me say The Monkees were not a band! [laughs] The Monkees were a television show! And as a television show — I mean if you read The Politics of Ecstasy, [Timothy] Leary goes into it a little bit, and he says you know these guys were subversive! They were in there, and they were taking the opportunity when they could to ad lib and just cause trouble, among the people that we knew were raping the planet and exploiting, and all that sort of thing. And that was going on with The Monkees, and it goes on now! It’s been a part of my experience ever since I’ve been associated with The Monkees, this hard political line between the Right and Left. And in case there’s confusion, with people that are listening to this: The Monkees are on the Left! [laughs] And I don’t know what part of the place where everybody eats is on the Right. I mean you know, it’s a hard distinction to make, but that’s the best I can do.