I've been a big fan of Michael Nesmith ever since I was a kid who watched "The Monkees" on TV.
When I was working as a producer for WPR's "To the Best of Our Knowledge," I tried several times to arrange an interview with Nesmith by reaching out to his website, Videoranch.
Unfortunately, he wasn't available. But things changed when he released his beautifully written memoir, "Infinite Tuesday: An Autobiographical Riff."
It was a dream come true to have the opportunity to talk to Nesmith because he is one of my creative heroes. Not only was he a member of the Monkees, he was one of the pioneers of country rock. He also made one of the first music videos ever and was the man behind one of the first TV shows, "Popclips."
There's that old saying, "You should never meet your heroes." My conversation with Nesmith proved that that was not necessarily the case. He was charming, generous, kind, and even asked me questions.
He was the executive producer for movies like "Tapeheads," "Repo Man," and "Timerider." Nesmith also wrote novels and won the first Grammy Award for Video of the Year. This was for his TV show "Elephant Parts," which combined comedy sketches and music videos.
When I discovered he died Friday at the age of 78, it hit me really hard. It was like losing a family member. He was the only member of the Monkees that I never did get to see live — but having an intimate conversation with him over the satellite line more than made up for it.
One of the parts of the interview that did not make the final cut was our conversation about the Monkees' 1968 feature film, "Head." I think it was one of the band's greatest achievements. That's an ironic thing to say because "Head" was a box office flop; it basically deconstructed and destroyed the Monkees' manufactured image. Jack Nicholson wrote the screenplay and the film was directed by Robert Rafelson, who went on to direct such films as "Five Easy Pieces" and "The King of Marvin Gardens."
I remember when I saw "Head" for the first time in my early 20s, it was like this really mind-ending experience along the lines of what I felt the first time I saw David Lynch's "Eraserhead." It was just so different and so surreal. I remember thinking, "Wow, this is redefining what a film can be."
Nesmith asked me if the film disappointed my expectations.
I told him that it didn't, partly because I was drawn to avant-garde literature and films. The opening scene was especially intriguing. A mayor and his entourage are standing on a bridge to participate in an opening ceremony for one of the largest suspension bridges in the world. He's about to cut the ribbon when Nesmith and band members Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones and Peter Tork burst through the ribbon as if they've just won a marathon. Various characters are chasing them. It is such a beautiful moment when Micky jumps off the bridge and we hear the majestic melody of Carole King and Gerry Goffin's song, "Porpoise Song" (theme from "Head").
"Well, that's good to hear because I loved it," Nesmith replied. "I loved making it. I had such a good time with Bob (Rafelson) and Jack (Nicholson), and it was the high point of my whole Monkees experience. And I think it lives on well beyond the television shows. The television shows have their place, but it lives on like the music lives on. It stands on its own three feet or 12 feet or whatever they are."
"It has a life that comes from literature. It has a life that comes from fiction. It has a life that comes from fantasy and the deep troves of making up stories and narrative. But it was telling a narrative, but the narrative that it was telling was very, very different than the one the television show was," he continued.
"Head" features some of the best music that the Monkees recorded. One of the highlights is Nesmith, Dolenz, Jones and Tork performing a live version of Nesmith's composition "Circle Sky." There's so much energy and rawness in that performance; it sounds like a prototype of punk rock.
What does Nesmith remember about filming that performance?
"Well, Bob (Rafelson) and to a degree, Jack (Nicholson) were really curious about how to stage it and how to make it have a beat inside the movie that was consistent with the other beats that they were creating," Nesmith said.
"So you had had something on the screen. You couldn't just wave the camera around like Ken Kesey had done on the bus further and expect something to come out of it," he explained. "So they wrote up this idea that the crowd came forward at the end of the performance and began to rip our clothes off, only to find out that beneath the clothes were dummies."
"For me, it was one of the most powerful moments in the movie because it's like, that's it. That's the real thing," Nesmith added. "What you're seeing there is what we did as a band that never intended to be a band."