Papa Nes Blues - Celebrating the Music of Michael Nesmith

Papa Nes Blues - Celebrating the Music of Michael Nesmith

By Tim Sendra

Feb. 2, 2022

Michael Nesmith was a Monkee, a great comedian, a country rock pioneer, an ornery cuss, and a deep thinker; he also wrote and sang songs that pass the test of time with flying colors. In the wake of his death, there were loads of tributes, probably the most moving was from his friend and bandmate Micky Dolenz.

There were the usual obits that talked about Mike's tenure as a Monkee. About his fierce individualism, his hand in developing Cosmic American Music, the part he played in getting MTV off the ground, and that damn green hat. Not enough of them talked about the music, so we're here to pay tribute to him as a songwriter, a singer, and a guitar player. Rounding up people to talk about their love of Nesmith and his songs wasn't hard -- keeping people to short blurbs was. As you'll see, Mike's music meant (and will always mean) a lot to those lucky enough to fall under their spell. I know his songs resonate with me as much as any songs by anyone from any time. As I grew out of my Micky worship, I realized that the best Monkees songs, those that weren't just brilliant blasts of gooey bubblegum, were the odd little ones that seemed to exist out of the pop mainstream in a space where all kinds of music collided and the words were just a little deeper than the usual moon-June stuff. One common thread that runs through the tributes here is the impact daily reruns of The Monkees had on young musicians. Seeing those three goofballs (and one guy who seemed to hilariously hold everything in disdain) have the time of their lives playing songs sparked something in viewers, and listeners, that lasted a lifetime. It's tough to say goodbye to someone so beloved and influential, but thanks to the music he left behind, we never have to.

Kicking things off is one of the proud inheritors of the psychedelic country rock mantle, Brent Rademaker. As a member of Beachwood Sparks, he helped make albums that tipped joyously over into the psychedelic side of the equation. Many of their songs sound like they could be late-period Monkees album tracks, especially on their classic self-titled 2001 debut. His more recent group GospelbeacH lean more towards the kind of rambling country rock Nesmith made in the '70s. Brent's pick is "You Just May Be the One," two minutes of pop perfection from Headquarters.

As a carefree six-year-old I took this song very seriously and as a fully grown folk rock freak, part-time songwriter with a terminal case of Byrds fever, I still do. I must've developed a love for the hollow-bodied 12 electric string jangle by watching The Monkees' reruns. The episode where Peter (my fave) falls hopelessly in love and his rival suitor is a straight dude in a suit and brother and I had long hair and wore colorful groovy clothes so there was lots to relate to, but also lots to learn. I always assumed Nesmith had written this one himself even after I grew old enough to understand the detractors who accused them of being "manufactured" -- sure that's true, but that doesn't mean that they weren't real. Michael Nesmith not only had an influential stocking cap (as seen for the last 50 years on the heads of many young hip groups) but his influence on country rock from his own records to being "hootmaster" at the historically important Monday nights at the Troubadour is not lost on me as a member of West Coast country/folk rock harmony group who also shared a big house in Los Angeles!

That custom-built Gretsch 12 string was the first one that I can recall seeing and "You Just May Be The One," while lyrically over my head as a little kid, definitely created a feeling in my heart. The chord structure and feel, not to mention the production and presentation, have stayed with me always. The power of a single song to alter the course of just one life, if not millions, is well on display here. How proud he must've felt to have one of his songs used in that deep well of songwriters that the Monkees producers went to time and again. I'm so grateful to have seen him play at the Troubadour in 2019 it was perfect…a national treasure.
— Brent Rademaker, Beachwood Sparks/GospelbeacH

We're super stoked to have Marshall Crenshaw on board. If you aren't hip to his recordings, stop what you are doing right away and check out "Cynical Girl" or "Calling Out for Love (At Crying Time)" or "Starless Summer Sky." If you are in the know, you'll have some idea why we're so excited to hear his thoughts! He picked something a little different, the Monkees' "Pleasant Valley Sunday," a near-perfect song that features Nes on guitar.

It's not a Mike Nesmith tune, but he's prominent on the record, playing the signature guitar riff throughout. I love The Monkees -- a misunderstood and underrated Rock act if ever... Most fans know about how they broke away from Don Kirshner in '67-68, formed their own record production team with Chip Douglas, etc. If you've heard Carole King's demo of "Pleasant Valley Sunday,' you hear how the group completely made the song their own and raised it to a higher level (even though her demo itself is great). And you have to give it up for Peter Tork's piano playing. — Marshall Crenshaw

Singer/songwriter Amy Rigby made a big splash with her 1996 solo debut Diary of a Mod Housewife, knocking people out with a blend of '60s-inspired rock, country, and pop. She never looked back after that, crafting a strong CV of albums full of witty observations and real-life emotion. Her most recent projects include writing her memoirs (Girl to City: A Memoir) and releasing an archival collection of early songs titled A One Way Ticket to My Life. Her pick is "Rio", a surprise hit from Nesmith's 1977 album From a Radio Engine to a Photon Wing.

When I was seven years old, I fell in love with the Monkees on TV, declaring myself a member of the Wool Hat Club. Like the other three guys in the group, Michael Nesmith was cute and funny and talented, but nerdy girls could tell our Mike needed that hat to keep his overactive brain warm. He didn't seem to want adulation or success, except on his own terms, so it was easy to forget how large a shadow that bobble cap cast as the decades tumbled by. When his cerebral party track "Rio" popped up in a mix this past summer, it was like spotting a one-time crush across the room and thinking "Good God, why didn't I work harder to get to know him? He's…a genius!" With cowpoke parallels to Marvin Gaye's "Got To Give It Up" (released the same year, 1977) "Rio"'s groove is built on a bass track and circular chord progression that works its way down and around only to lift the listener onto an ever higher plane of escape, where the reluctant sybarite talks himself into letting go while a crowd simmers in the wings, urging him to take that flight. The accompanying video Nesmith made for "Rio" was very nearly the first music video, and his wacky charms are on full display. If an ability to laugh at yourself was an essential life skill I sensed from those early Monkees shows, this guy wasn't just a fine musician, he was a damned sage I wish I'd had the sense to follow more closely. Seeing him on the final Monkees tour this past year was life-changing in a retroactive sense, validating choices I'd made at his behest all those years ago to "Listen To The Band." — Amy Rigby

Glenn Donaldson of the Reds, Pinks & Purples is a big Nesmith fan, which is clear from the way he balances gleaming pop hooks with impossibly tender, sometimes oblique lyrics. The band has released quite a few breathtaking albums over the past couple of years. Their newest, Summer at Land's End, just came out and it's another gut punch destined to hit deep in the feels, while the melodies linger like a warm breeze. His pick is one of Mike's signature tunes, "Listen to the Band."

Besides being a hit songwriter and affecting vocalist, Nesmith probably helped push the "pre-fab four" into something more subversive and along the way blessed us with flashes of psychedelic exploitation brilliance. Case in point, this fried version of "Listen to the Band" from their NBC TV special 33 1/3 Revolutions per Monkee, which starts off with Peter Tork proving he is legit by ripping some CPE Bach on a Hohner Clavinet. This segues into a raw version of Nesmith's proto-country rock tune with Dolenz taking up a slack groove on the drums. Even non-musician Davy Jones is clearly rocking the tambourine. This arresting moment of real live music morphs into a full-on freakout with tape effects with the Buddy Miles Express guesting, wild percussion crashing, and gyrating hipsters entering the fray. — Glenn Donaldson, the Reds, Pinks & Purples

Steve Stanley is an archivist, producer, and label owner whose Now Sounds imprint has released a ton of great reissues. Last year, they made fans of the Beau Brummels very, very happy by putting out a giant box set that collected all their '60s recordings in a beautiful package. His pick for a favorite Nesmith track is the Monkees' "The Girl I Knew Somewhere."

An exhilarating folk-rock anthem and an electrified hymn. The foundation of a chiming guitar, a percussive harpsichord, and a pulsating bass supports the once-in-a-generation voice of Micky Dolenz. From the pen of Michael Nesmith, "The Girl I Knew Somewhere" tells the tale of a man crippled by his own fear of failure, originating from a woman he can no longer even clearly recall, rendering him unable to love. Or... is he sarcastically speaking to the same person, refusing to be burned by her again? Regardless, it was such a sublime launchpad for the Monkees' self-contained Headquarters period — it would allegedly be one of the first songs they would record primarily themselves —, this three minutes of perfection was criminally relegated to the B-side of the single that got Don Kirshner dismissed ("A Little Bit You, A Little Bit Me"). (Did the Beverly Hills Hotel save that door that Nesmith lunged his fist through?) As a kid growing up in 1970s Oklahoma City, they were my first favorite band. I was hooked from the moment I first saw a repeat of their show on my black-and-white TG&Y set. Listening to this recording now — a month after Nesmith's passing — makes the loss even harder to accept. — Steve Stanley, Now Sounds Records

Slick soul crooner, soft rock balladeer, snazzy mod, jangling folk rocker, Bart Davenport has worn many hats during his long career in music. We here at AllMusic have doled out many stars to his albums, giving special consideration to his near-perfect classic rock homage Game Preserve from 2003. He has a new album coming out real soon called Episodes and the early returns have it pegged as one of his best, a lovely detour into baroque '60s jangle pop balladry. His choice of a favorite Nesmith song is one I find myself singing endlessly throughout the day as I'm doing dishes or dusting, the timeless "What Am I Doing Hangin' 'Round?"

I got into the Monkees watching reruns on weekdays just after school. At six years old I didn't quite understand what reruns were and initially assumed The Monkees were a current band (this was around 1976-77). The adults had to explain to me these episodes had originally aired ten years earlier. I trace my '60s obsession to this. It seemed to me I'd been born too late because the world inside the TV set looked a lot more fun whenever the Monkees, the Munsters, Bewitched, or Gilligan's Island were on. That world appeared shinier, more stylish, and more innocent. Davy Jones was my childhood fave, probably because he seemed the most like a kid himself. Michael Nesmith looked like a grownup, maybe a bit like my dad with those sideburns. I didn't pick up on his dry, straight-faced humor until later. But all four Monkees were early role models. Some adults would say they "didn't really play their instruments," said they were a "fake" band. I refused to believe this. The Monkees (along with The Beatles) made me want to be a musician when I grew up.

Nes grew on me of course and he's now my fave. The tune I always come back to, the one that brings me back to those afternoons glued to the TV is "What Am I Doing Hangin' Round?" Nesmith takes the lead vocal on this and I always assumed he'd written it. Turns out the song was written at Nes' request by friend and labelmate Michael Martin Murphey (who later penned the soft rock hit "Wildfire"). Nevertheless, the song was written specifically for Nesmith who sang it with all the heart and soul of the true Texan gentleman that he was. As a kid, I hadn't heard Marty Robbins and I didn't understand the song's "south of the border romance" theme. I just knew Mike had a train he should have been on. The Monkees were always getting into trouble, often trapped by villains and having to escape some ridiculous situation. So the quandary depicted in the chorus made sense. Still, some part of my six-year-old mind heard the existential question: "what am I doin' hangin round?" There's a sense of nostalgic longing conveyed by a perfect combination of lyric, melody, and chord change. It was through songs like this that I learned how the heart yearned for places far away.
— Bart Davenport

After a spell playing bass for the Go-Betweens during their prime mid-80s era, Robert Vickers moved into PR, working with Jetset Records in the '90s, then starting his own company Proxy Media. He's repped loads of cool records and works closely with Tapete Records, a German company with a roster of artists who have definitely absorbed the teachings of Papa Nes somewhere along the way (like Robert Forster and the Jazz Butcher.) Robert's pick is "Some of Shelley's Blues," a song written for the Monkees, but somehow never released by them.

I've always thought of "Some of Shelly's Blues" as the younger sibling of "Different Drum", I suppose because it's the lesser known of the two Mike Nesmith songs that Linda Ronstadt recorded with her band The Stone Poneys in the late '60s. The Monkees did record "Some of Shelly's Blues" in 1968, but it never made it on to an album which seems inexplicable. Nesmith himself recorded it a few years later on a solo album, but despite its stately tone and his lovely vocal I prefer two other versions: The Stone Poneys and from 1970, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. The song itself is brilliantly simple, just two parts, a sort of combination verse/chorus and a bridge that occurs twice in the song. The hook is not a melodic phrase with a repeated lyric but instead two notes that are used at the beginning of the verse/chorus and then at the end of each line all with different lyrics, lower at the end of each stanza than at the beginning. As the song progresses, you find yourself waiting for those notes with increasing anticipation and then pleasure at their arrival with their various lyrics. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's bass player cleverly echoes that in the rollicking country rock outro of their version. I do like that version, but ultimately I have to go back to the Stony Poneys, who remove most of the genre accouterments and allow it to be what it wants to be, a great pop song. Ronstadt's gorgeous crying vocal makes every word sound like a desperate plea made not with despair, but with logic. And containing the best advice ever given in a pop song... "you settle down and stay with the girl who loves you". Thanks, Mike. — Robert Vickers, the Go-Betweens/Proxy Media

Seeing the Chris Richards name on the sleeve of a record means you're in for some top-notch pop with chiming guitars, huge hooks, and tenderness to spare. The songwriting collective he's part of, the Legal Matters, released the lovely Chapter Three in early 2021, and it was one of the best pure power pop albums of the year. He's fully qualified to opine on Nesmith's music and his pick is "Nine Times Blue," another song Mike demoed for the Monkees that didn't see the light of day until Rhino unearthed it in the '90s.

This is one of my all-time favorite Mike Nesmith songs. First off, it's a great song and I've also been intrigued by the song's journey from composition to record. Mike had written this song in 1967 around the sessions for Headquarters, the Monkees' true evolution record where they took the reins of writing and performing back solely as a band. "Nine Times Blue" is one of those songs that pretty much writes itself – and has all the feels of a perfect Gene Clark tune. But Mike apparently felt that it just wasn't the right time for it and shelved it for a few years until the release of Mike Nesmith and the First National Band first record – 1970's Magnetic South -- where it's on display in its full Burbank twang glory. — Chris Richards, The Legal Matters

As the editor of AllMusic, Zac Johnson is responsible for green-lighting this project so it only seemed right to bring him in. Especially since he was the bass player in Porchsleeper, a very fine country rock band that played and recorded in Ann Arbor during the early 2000s. His pick is the title track from Nesmith and his First National Band's third album.

I grew up listening to the Monkees (a Micky guy, but my dad always liked Mike best), and as a Help!-era Beatles fan I dug deep into the reruns when they aired (constantly) on MTV. I only really became aware of Michael Nesmith and the First National Band after I exhausted the Gram Parsons and Byrds catalog and now I find myself more likely to turn to his '70s country-rock stuff than dust off the Monkees LPs. "Nevada Fighter" is a track I never get tired of. A weirdly droning and chooglin' anthem with a pouch-of-bees guitar mumble and somebody just hammering on the piano like a percussion instrument. The lyrics tell a lonely western tale of abandoned hope and forced obsolescence but are delivered like a shouting cyclone. It showcases Nesmith's storytelling and imagery with an unflappable drive and a passionate punch, and is just one of a hundred of his songs that share the same vibe and energy. — Zac Johnson

John Andrew Fredrick is an artist, writer, and leader of the Black Watch, a long running band that started in the '80s and is still going strong today. Their most recent album, 2020's Brilliant Failures, was released by the A Turntable Friend labels and shows that the band, and Fredricks, haven't begun to run out of ideas. His pick is the rollicking jam "Mary, Mary," a song famously covered by the Butterfield Blues Band and much later, sampled by Run-D.M.C.

Was Nes one of the patron saints of those of us songwriters who do our level best to stay as far away from political discourse as possible? Possibly. Certainly we pop kids of the a-go-go sixties rated the Monkees highly -- not quite as high as we did the Beatles of course, but still. Not so very long ago -- because it'd been many years and miles since I revisited their catalog -- I pulled out all my old vinyl and got stuck in; and "Mary, Mary" stuck out in the same way that it did all those years ago. The persona's yearning to learn (about a girl -- where she's going, where she's been, will she ever let him take her somewhere?) holds sway here. And of course, many romance songs kind of celebrate the histrionic, the cod-sincere sense that life's not worth living if the object of one's affection isn't in it, as it were. That's "Mary, Mary." Plus those immemorial maracas. Undeniable! Those "make" so many sixties songs! And make one shake oneself -- like we did in fourth grade on rare rainy days in Santa Barbara when Mrs.Teacherlady let us whack onto the classroom drill press of a record player our copies of More of the Monkees or Headquarters. All this, plus the fact that my beloved My Bloody Valentine used to cover this song in their early Creation days. Having heard just the other day that Lilys were going to do some shows on the west coast, I wrote to Kurt (old friend, big Monkees fan) to request that he do a Nesmith song. I think covers are for pots and pans and bedsheets, but sometimes they're as fun as a barrel full. Haha. — John Andrew Fredrick, the Black Watch

As if you aren't already exhausted... here are my top five Nesmith tracks not already mentioned:

From the early days of the Monkees, "Papa Genes Blues" is a sprightly fusion of folk rock, country, samba, and pop that still sounds completely fresh 100 years later. Nobody else was making music like this at the time...

Mike wrote the beautiful ballad "Propinquity (I've Just Begun to Care)" before he joined the Monkees. They demoed it during the Head sessions, but didn't really fit the mood of the movie, especially since there were no segments set on horseback, so it was shelved. Too bad, because it's a tear-inducing love song that someone like Merle Haggard could have had a timeless hit with if he had covered it. Nes did finally issue it on a solo album in 1971 and it's a nice version. The Monkees demo is the one that cuts the deepest though.

Mike didn't write "Love is Only Sleeping" but this song from Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. -- my vote for best Monkees album -- is a stunning example of what a great vocalist he was. The harmonies with Micky … next stop goosebump city! It's also a fine example of his guitar playing and a track that rivals any of the psychedelic sounds coming out of the U.K. in 1967.

One from Mike's solo career, "Joanne" is a very pretty ballad with some fantastic yodeling. The melody is timeless, the performance sugar-sweet, and words are typically challenging. Mike never takes the easy way out lyrically and his best songs, like this, mix brains and beauty perfectly.

"Sunny Girlfriend" is two and a half minutes of giddy pop from Headquarters that could put a smile on a statue. So much jangle, amazing harmonies from two of my favorite singers ever (Mike and Micky) and the song of a band trying to figure out how to play; it's Hollywood garage folk at its finest and I could listen to it on a loop most days. (Except for the days when I want the guitar riff from "Circle Sky" to come in and clean out the cobwebs.)