While discussing the upcoming The Monkees Present The Mike & Micky Show Tour, which kicks off June 1, Michael Nesmith opened up about a variety of topics. From his memoir to working with late pedal steel guitarist Red Rhodes to being told by an agent “you’ll never work in this town again,” here’s some of what Nesmith shared with Billboard.
What did writing your autobiography, Infinite Tuesday: An Autobiographical Riff, do for you?
There are some really homely metaphors that I could use, but it was a relief — kind of, finally. But I didn’t think of it as a history or as a biography or as a Monkees tome or any of those things. It was just something that I had noticed over the years that I was continually watching this continuous development of the counterculture.
And I’d been noting it and making notes of it. And I’ve been writing songs about it. And I had wanted to write a book about it and I’d written two or three paragraphs and then finally a couple of pages and a chapter and I sent it to an agent friend of mine who called up and said ‘I can get this published.’ And I said, ‘Well, go ahead. Nothing could make me happier.’
And he called a few days later and said, ‘We’ve got some offers. And I’ve got a hard offer from a guy at Random House and the procedures are that they will call you and talk to you about it. Their team will if you’re ready for it. And I said, ‘Yeah, I am. Completely ready for it. Been ready for it for 35, 40 years.’ And my editor was a gift from the stars. It is a guy named Kevin Doughten. He was very astute and very intelligent and he was the classic big deal, heavy-duty publishing editor. Always what I had thought of what he would be like.
He asked me one time to explain by what I meant by ‘infinite.’ It makes me laugh because it was a showstopper because I thought, ‘Do I really risk my entire facade of insanity by telling him what I think infinite means?’ But he was gentle and he said, ‘I want to make sure I understand what you’re saying.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m terrified of telling you because I think you’ll drop the deal.’ It was a huge deal for me to do it. And he said, ‘No, no, we’re committed to this. We love this book and we think it’s going to be great.’
It was at that time still called Listen to the Band. So I told him and he listened and he was quiet and studious. There was something that happened when I explained it to him that was like, ‘Oh, you really do have a point of view on this.’ So that was a relief to me. And I was grateful to have it as part of this whole experience because I was under the impression that he wanted to buy a Monkees book. And I guess he did in some way because that’s where it found its first traction.
You’ve been praised for your acting and comic timing in The Monkees. Did you consider acting again after the series ended?
Yeah. I would love to do it. I don’t know where it would land. The phone’s not ringing. I know Micky would like to do that. He gets offers all the time to go and play. There are offers for him to go and be semi-Micky. And I don’t think I can go and be semi-Mike.
What about a role? A complete role like what you played in The Monkees. You were kind of you in The Monkees but what if it was just a complete off-role, you playing a character. Would you do that?
Uh huh. I got offered one like that. And I thought the entire city of Hollywood was going to put a hit on me because I went down and got the job and they offered the job with a lot of money and I said ‘I don’t want to do this.’ And they got furious. And one of them actually, they said to me, a woman actually said – she was an agent – ‘you’ll never work in this town again.’
She actually used that phrase?
That phrase. And I did not laugh in her face except inside my own head I laughed in her face. But part of what I was doing with Elephant Parts (his pioneering collection of music videos and skits) was just exploring those aspects of my own actor-ness that I feel comfortable doing. I don’t mind playing the fool. I don’t mind being silly. I don’t mind being stupid. I’m a Monty Python aficionado, a fan who will follow them anywhere. My best buddy in the last 10 years of my life was Douglas Adams and he was tight with those guys. I got to meet all of them and got to hang out with them and spend weekends with them and realize that if I could be a part of that troupe, I would sign on for a decade. But I don’t know how to make that happen. I don’t know that anybody does. So I’ll just have to wait and see if phone or whatever new communication device will alert me that opportunity was there. It hasn’t come around and if it does, I’ll probably look at it like I did this last thing. The last night that I did was like 25 years ago. And I went down. And it was a… I wont use any names because I thought it was the worst of television. It was a sitcom in front of a live audience with set up jokes, set up gags. I just found it off-putting. But they thought I was sliced bread. And so when I told them “no, I don’t want to come play” they got very angry.
So in other words you had a deal and didn’t do it. You wouldn’t want to say what sitcom it was?
Oh, no. I’m underselling the fact that I felt like Hollywood had a hit on me because I was getting something like, ‘Are you out of your fucking mind? That’s the lead in a mature sitcom. They’re going to pay a fortune. You just ride it out for a couple of years and then it goes into reruns and you never work again.” And I thought, ‘God, that sounds horrible.’ But I didn’t say it to them. The only thing that keeps me going is the vibrancy of the arts. I remember I was working at the Dallas Theater Center as a kid, the main troupe was doing some rehearsals of The Lady’s Not For Burning. And I thought, ‘Man, that’s where I want to be. I want to be on a stage doing that stuff, saying those words, purveying those ideas.’ And I ended up in The Monkees. Well, on The Monkees I should say. So I don’t chase anymore.
I wanted to talk a little bit about Red Rhodes. What was it like playing with him? You describe it in the book and it was very apparent listening to him how fantastic he was live and on the records, too.
Well, what I’ll tell you is not in the book and you are free to use it. It’s anecdotal. I don’t have the truth of how this came to be. But it was part of the altered states that created the whole country rock First National Band ‘thing.’
And Red was really the captain of that ship. And having Red as the captain of that ship was like being on a spacecraft, an alien spacecraft maybe that was self-activating on some level. But the captain just wandered the halls. And Red was a very straight guy. He was a blue collar, hard drinking, hard driving, hard swearing guy. He was like a sailor. And when he would sit down at the instrument, there was a physical and perceptible visual transformation that happened to him. He looked… frankly at the risk of sounding completely insane, I apparently was only one that saw it. But everybody could hear it.
And there is something in the steel guitar where there’s no edges. It’s a boundless instrument. It is the instrument that plays out loud in a way that we can hear it the infinite notes and all the infinite ideas that circle around our head. So when he would start playing that stuff, everybody would stop and turn and look. Like, ‘Where is this coming from?’ Well, I’m going to tell you where it came from as far as I know. We were sitting around and lit up a cigarette. And I said, ‘Red, have you ever … how long have you been smoking?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know. All my life.’ I said, ‘Have you ever thought about stopping?’ He said, ‘I couldn’t stop.’
And I said, ‘Have you ever smoked grass?’ He said, ‘No, I don’t do drugs.’ I said, ‘Well, there’s a different feeling about grass and everything. If you ever want to smoke it, I’ve got some.’ He said, ‘OK, how about now?’ And I said, ‘All right.’ And we rolled a joint and he smoked it and that transformation that I report having physically seen suddenly became a palpable reality. There was something going on that I could now touch and hold but it wasn’t Red’s corpus. It wasn’t his physical identity. It was whatever he was wrapping around those notes that was so extraordinary, and I’d never heard it outside of Hendrix.
And so I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got to work with this guy somehow.’ And I was fortunate enough that Johnny Ware, who had signed on as the drummer, and John Kuehne, who signed on as the bass player, John London under the band name, were perfectly happy to go ask Red if he wanted to play with us. So I said, ‘Well, I don’t have the courage to do it. I’m too shy. If you can do it, let me know’ and Johnny called up a few hours later and said, ‘Yeah, Red’s in.’ So this was the offspring of him being part of the program and there I was I was feeding him grass. And he sort of… he didn’t like it. It burned his throat. And he said, ‘I don’t really like it. I like whatever it is I’m feeling. It’s kind of high. I understand what the fuss might be about, but I can’t do this. This hurts too bad.’
(And) I said, ‘Well, have you ever thought about an edible or some other way of ingesting it? And he was, ‘Edible?’ And I said, ‘Yeah. You just mix it with something you’ve heard of, a brownie, where the grass is mixed in there.’ He said, ‘Yeah, OK.’ So he made up a batch of brownies out of, you know, a Duncan Hines mix and we poured in a little bit of the grass. And he was going back to a closet and getting this grass. I went back to the closet and he had like 100 plants growing in the closet that were being stimulated by the grow lights. And I said, ‘Red, what is this about?’ He said, ‘I just sell it to the musicians who want to buy it.’ So he was sort of dealing on the side. He said, ‘But I don’t use it.’ And I said, ‘Is this what we’re going to use in the edibles?’ He said, ‘Yeah. You think it would work in peanut butter?’ ‘It’ll work in anything. You can ingest it in axle grease. I just don’t know how it will work.’ And he got a quart jar of JIF and came back out with a wooden spoon and he poured about a cup of dried, perfect cannabis leaves into it and mixed it all up. It was kind of an olive green, the color of a tank. And he was picking the spoon out of it like a lollipop and he’d lick kind of tentatively. But it wasn’t very long before he was taking giant bites off the spoon and eating. And the two of us got so high that we couldn’t play. We were laughing and carrying on.
So went into record Magnetic South, he was deep into that. Now I was not and neither was Johnny Ware and neither was Johnny London (Kuehne). But Red, he had really taken to it. It was like he had found his home. And when he was in this altered state, and I would say, ‘Take it Red,’ boy, we were in for a ride. You know, maybe it would be an eight-bar turnaround or a 16-bar turnaround, but typically it had more to do with an infinite turnaround. There was just no end in site once he started going and riffing on these little things. ‘Well, Red you gotta learn to control this. Learn to pull it in a little bit.’ We’d have those kind of conversations, but he was happy, happy, happy. And he loved doing it. And what he was bringing to the music was indescribable except unless you heard it on the records. So it was completely fulfilling for me and I just devoted myself to him. I said, ‘Well, I’m going to work with this guy for the rest of my natural life.’ Which is apparently what I did because he died before me.
But it was an extraordinary thing. And I realized what had happened. The songs that I’d been writing for many years prior to the First National Band had suddenly received a motivational force unlike any that I had imagined and became framed up within the very things that was in, rocking the boat of the counterculture coming out of the Leary-Alpert-Ken Kesey models and was part of what was creeping up the West Coast in the founding of these giant computer companies and the heavy Palo Alto intellectuals all the way from Stanford to the whatever that Catholic College is. And I didn’t realize it had caught fire like it had.
But inside the First National Band, we just played the songs I’d written and played it according to the venue we were at and then just every once in a while we’d stand back and light Red up and he would play and take us all to the stars, take us to the place that he hung out as a player. So that’s the best I can do in terms of giving you a rap about what Red brought to it. But the next step for anybody reading this is to go get the album or buy them from me or someplace if you can find them and listen — you’ll hear. It’s sweet, generous. And I’m looking forward to this new band FNB Redux because these guys have got the same thing. They’re not smokers or users like Red was. Everybody, except for me, everybody is straight arrow. But they got it. They come to it like a member of a church or something. That’s probably too heavy. But there’s something about it that motivates a musician’s life. And when you hear somebody take off like that and go sailing to the stars like Red did, you get in the presence of a Jimi Hendrix, it changes your life. Anyway, it changed mine.
You were at the Beatles “A Day in the Life” recording session. What was that experience like?
Over the years, people have actually said to me, ‘Oh, my God that must have been incredible. What was it like to be there?’ And it’s an unanswerable question. Because when you are there, I mean this goes a little philosophical, but when you’re there, you don’t have any idea you are there. I was talking to somebody… I’m a lifelong Christian Scientist. I practiced Christian Science all my life and I practice to the degree that I can, which is to say not very well. But it puts me in a space of using my thinking to correct problems, to move on a path I want to be on. Which is ultimate peace and harmony. And if on that path, I find these guys who agree to go on the journey, then I’ve learned over time to let them come on, see how they do. If they get pissy or fussy, they’ll move along on their own and you can say, ‘It’s time for you to move along.’
Red was the anchor, he was the anchor point of the whole thing. And I had a sense with the First National Band that it was a permanent and kind of eternal presence in my life but it was going to come and go. And the guys Johnny and John, that wasn’t what they wanted. They wanted to be out in the studio playing music, doing stuff. I think they thought that a lot of what I was doing with the First National Band was farting around. And Red was the only guy where I got traction for him to understand these metaphysical idea that were embedded in it and were able to play it. So that’s pretty much as far as I could get it to go. From here on out, it’s self-authoring. It’s self-authoring and it’s self-starting and it has a self-activation part that I don’t know how to turn on.
Where do the Beatles fit into that?
So when I met the Beatles I was looking for this craziness, but I didn’t know it. In other words, I couldn’t define it like I just defined it to you. When I saw Hendrix, I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s what I want to do.’ And there was the voice of reason saying, ‘Yeah, fat chance Nez.’ So I just abandoned that. I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s probably out of reach.’ And when I met the guys and went to the “Day in the Life” session and all that stuff, I realized as I’d write that this was all very normal to these people. The fact they were changing the world was nothing that was any different than all the other bands at the time, except they were just so crazy good. I don’t know who it was that said, ‘How can they be so good?’ And they had just practiced just for years and years and years. What I saw from them was them riding the crest of the wave of television and the need for a cultural center that people had at the time, and for an artistic center that people had at the time. I just got on that boat, too. I enjoyed my time with every one of them.