Singer, composer, heart throb, pioneer – all are accurate descriptions of Robert Michael Nesmith. Most easily identified by his trademark bluish wool hat with pompom, Nesmith fashioned a diversified career within music and also in film.
Michael Nesmith was born on December 30, 1942 in Houston, Texas. His parents had divorced when he was only 3 years old and he and his mother Bette moved to Dallas. Nesmith attended Thomas Jefferson High School, where he performed in musicals and in the school’s choir.
Michael’s mother, Bette Nesmith, was a legal secretary in Houston, Texas. Due to her hobby of painting, she came up with the idea and invented Liquid Paper typing correction fluid and made an enormous fortune overnight. He inherited half his mother’s $50 million estate from the sale of Liquid Paper; the rest finances a private think tank.
Michael spent fourteen months in the U.S. Air Force where he tipped over a general’s airplane while cleaning it.
After his tour of duty, Nesmith was given a guitar as a Christmas present from his mother and stepfather. Learning as he went, he played solo and in a series of working bands, performing folk, country, and occasionally rock and roll. His verse poems became the basis for song lyrics, and after moving to Los Angeles with his first wife and friend John London, he signed a publishing deal for his songs. Nesmith’s “Mary, Mary” was recorded by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, while “Different Drum” and “Some of Shelly’s Blues” were recorded by Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys. “Pretty Little Princess,” written in 1965, was recorded by Frankie Laine and released as a single in 1968 on ABC Records. Later, “Some of Shelly’s Blues” and “Propinquity (I’ve Just Begun to Care)” were made popular by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on their 1970 album Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy.
Nesmith was a self-described “failure” growing up. “I just didn’t do anything,” he said in his famous 1965 screen test for _The Monkees (1966)_ ; he expanded on this in a 1968 Australian radio interview by noting, “I was just starving and writing music.” He got work as a session guitarist up and down the East Coast before moving to Los Angeles with his wife Phyllis Barbour in 1965. He managed to get a record contract with Colpix Records and released several 45s as well as appearing on ‘Lloyd Thaxton’s’ syndicated teen dance show.
He had actually been “labelmates” with Davy Jones earlier, as both were signed to the Colpix Records label, though they’d apparently never met. His first professional recording (under the pseudonym “Michael Blessing”) was a folk music single entitled “What Seems To Be the Problem, Officer? While Jones had released a modestly successful LP and single by 1965, Nesmith’s two singles hadn’t gotten far past the promotional stage. The Colpix label (belonging to Columbia Pictures, and controlled by Screen Gems) was dissolved in 1966, to make way for the new Colgems label–with The Monkees as its centerpiece.
Michael published several songs through different companies before signing his contracts for The Monkees. Since he was already signed to Screen Gems as a songwriter, the company next bought up Nesmith’s earlier publishing, so his songs could be used for the Monkees
He arrived for his first interview for The Monkees wearing a wool cap, to keep the hair out of his eyes while driving his motorcycle around town (Nesmith also carried a bag of laundry, to be done at a nearby laundromat on his way home). Producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider remembered him as “Wool Hat”; they wanted to name his Monkees character that, but Nesmith refused.
In describing his famous wool hat”It had a life of its own. I used to take it off and put it in a little house, feed it . . . ”
When Nesmith won the role for The Monkees (1966) he was the first of all involved to see where the show and the music would go. Nesmith produced tracks for The Monkees even before TV series filming began; he has said “about a hundred” tracks were made by himself, Micky, Peter, and Davy in the first half of 1966, and among the songs recorded was his composition “The Girl I Knew Somewhere.”
The Gretsch guitar company built a one-off natural finish 12-string electric guitar for Nesmith when he was performing with The Monkees (Gretsch had a promotional deal with the group). He earlier played a customized Gretsch twelve-string, which had originally been a six-string model. Nesmith used this guitar for his appearances on the television series, as well as The Monkees’ live appearances in 1966 and 1967. Beginning in 1968, Nesmith used a white 6-string Gibson SG for his live appearances with The Monkees. He would use that guitar in their motion picture Head for the live version of “Circle Sky,” and also for the final original Monkees tour in 1969 with Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz. In a post on his Facebook page in 2011, Nesmith reported that both guitars were stolen in the early 1970s.
The hiring of Don Kirshner quashed this group gestation, but Nesmith continued to produce tracks for the group, usually with Micky Dolenz providing co-lead or harmony vocals; the trademark of Nesmith’s 1966-produced tracks was the stellar deep bass work of Robert West.
Being the leader of the group by virtue of having the strongest musical vision and polish, Nesmith challenged the controlling powers, culminating in the famous “That could have been your head!” near-brawl with Columbia executives in late 1966-early 1967 that left a wall torn open.
The Monkees succeeded in ousting supervisor Don Kirshner and took control of their records and song choices, but they worked as a four-man group on only one album, 1967’s Headquarters. The band never overcame the credibility problems they faced when word spread that they had not played on their first records; Nesmith instigated this when he called the band’s first non-studio press conference and called More of The Monkees “probably the worst record in the history of the world”. However, their singles and albums continued to sell well, until the disastrous release of Head, filmed with much assistance from Frank Zappa.
The Monkees went off the air in 1968, the same year as their only feature film, Head, premiered to poor reviews and box office results. Tork soon left the group, but Nesmith and the others made one more album together as the Monkees. Nesmith took a controlling involvement in the group’s albums, but given the strong egos of each member, and breakage was inevitable. Nesmith finally left in 1970.
Nesmith’s last contractual Monkees commitment was a commercial for Kool-Aid and Nerf balls, in April 1970 (fittingly, the spot ends with Nesmith frowning and saying, “Enerf’s enerf!”). With the band’s fortunes continuing to fall, Nesmith asked to be released from his contract, and had to pay a default: “I had three years left… at $150,000 a year,” which he had to pay back. He continued to feel the financial bite for years afterwards, until his inheritance from his mother’s Liquid Paper fortune in 1980 eased those concerns. In a 1980 interview with Playboy he said of that time, “I had to start telling little tales to the tax man while they were putting tags on the furniture.” While Nesmith had continued to produce his compositions with the Monkees, he withheld many of the songs from the final Monkees albums, only to release them on his post-Monkees solo records.
Michael & Ringo
In the 1960’s, Michael enjoyed his fame and struck up friendships with fellow musicians in the U.S. and abroad.Interestingly, he attended the famous orchestral session for “A Day In The Life” by John Lennon..
He joined longtime bassist friend John London and pedal steel ace ‘Orville “Red” Rhodes’ for The First National Band, a group that pioneered the mixture of country music with rock-&-roll. The song “Joanne” off of their first album, “Magnetic South”, became a big hit. Though the FNB broke after three albums, Nesmith and Rhodes kept on going with the Second National Band. Their records were critical successes, but unfortunately were not big hits.
Nesmith then invented and sold the concept 24 hour music television to Time Warner. He produced a proof of concept called “Pop Clips” which Time-Warner aired on the Nickelodeon channel as a test. It was an instant success. From there was developed the MTV network.
He also branched into TV and film production, with such works as Elephant Parts (1981), Timerider (1983), Repo Man (1984), Square Dance and Tapeheads, as well as several TV specials.
As to why he didn’t rejoin The Monkees when Peter Tork, Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones re-formed the group, c. 1986 “It would be kind of like Ronald Reagan making another movie.”
Nesmith continued to make records on a sporadic basis, 13 solo albums in total. He reunited with Red Rhodes in 1992 and a Latin-flavored masterpiece called “Tropical Campfires”. He was nominated for a Grammy for his 1994 album “The Garden”. – He reunited with the Monkees in 1996 for the “Justus” album. In 1997 he wrote and directed an ABC television Monkees special. In 1998 St. Martins Press published his first novel, “The Long Sandy Hair of Neftoon Zamora”. In 2005 he finished his second novel, “The America Gene”. He also started a small video game development company called Zoomo Productions, based in Monterey, California.
An opportunistic lookalike from the U.S. cashed in on his similarity to Nesmith by appearing on talk shows and doing interviews in Australia during the 1980s. The scam was successful, the lookalike being far enough from America to avoid detection as a fraud (which is less likely in the U.S., where the real Nesmith has made many media and show-business acquaintances). An entertaining interviewee, the impersonator’s charade was not discovered until after he had vanished from the public eye. The imposter, Barry Faulkner, who had pulled various fraudulent scams for 40 years, was finally apprehended and sent to jail in 2009.
In 2012, Nesmith briefly toured Europe prior to re-joining The Monkees for their tours of the United States. Intermixing the Monkees concerts, Nesmith also launched solo tours of the U.S. Unlike his 1992 U.S. tour, which predominantly featured music from his RCA recordings, Nesmith stated his 2013 tour featured songs that he considers “thematic, chronological and most often requested by fans”.
Michael was married (and divorced) three times and has four children.
Michael recently was quoted as saying, “I’m clearly in my endgame. I mean, we’re not talking about deciding to do something else. We’re talking about dying. [Laughs] So I don’t know. Who knows where that is? That’s somewhere . . . that door is coming up. I can’t make it out on the horizon just yet. But at a certain point it’s going to be time for me to say, “Eh, I think I’ll lay down.”