So, today, June 22 2018, I had been planning to drive to New Haven and then take a train into Manhattan with a couple of friends to attend The Monkees Present Mike Nesmith and Micky Dolenz at the Beacon Theater. From clips and reviews I'd seen, we were in for a Monkees concert experience unlike any other. No frills, just a minimal stage set with a top notch band and Nesmith and Dolenz at center stage singing and playing their guitars. Hearing two of my all time fave Cosmic American Nez songs--"Auntie's Municipal Court" and "St. Matthew" --played live for the first time was bound to be a peak live experience for me. Hanging with friends and enjoying the City before and after the show were on the agenda too. And then, yesterday late afternoon I had just parked in downtown Northampton to meet my wife and daughter when I casually looked at my phone. Oh. No. Nez was sick and the four remaining shows were postponed. Before any emotion could set in, I first contacted the folks I was going with and the friend I'd be staying with to make sure they knew. Then I went to meet the ladies in the cafe and stayed focused on family time. But on the drive home, shock, concern, sadness and disappointment were competing for front and center in my mind, soothed by my 3 year old daughter's perfect backseat a capella performance of the Irish folk tune "I'll Tell Me Ma", a song that HER Ma has been singing to her since she was a couple weeks old. Last night my wife kindly listened as I processed the info and my feelings before falling asleep, knowing that the next day was not going to be the June 22 I had been planning for the previous three months.
So today I woke up, acknowledged the void that now faced me, took the daughter to daycare, felt a little weird about having a day off with no plans, no longer felt disappointed but did feel that I and all of Michael Nesmith's fans should be sending him love and healing vibes. Since I have this free day ahead of me, and since I can't seem to not have it still be reserved for Nez's music, I thought I'd write a piece going over the best of the recently released (digitally only) never-heard-before tracks dating back to his first six post-Monkees albums for RCA records. At first this was going to be a podcast, since I do so like letting people hear what I'm talking about. But this is a bit easier just writing along with Spotify links.
A few weeks ago, I (and, I assume, a few others like me), experienced both the highs and lows of being a fan of the music of Michael Nesmith. He'd just started a tour with Micky Dolenz that's unlike any previous Monkees-iteration--in production, set list, and, of course, in the pairing of Nez and Dolenz, who, despite always having had (in my opinion) the most natural chemistry of any combo of Monkees, be it singing or acting, had never been paired up without Jones and/or Tork adding their spotlight-loving qualities to the mix, making the Mike and Micky combo simply a wonderful side dish that had to be savored. But now those two had their own tour and it seemed to be going quite well, according to reviews and judging from YouTube clips
There was also a great new interview with Nez in Billboard, discussing past, present and future goings on, and his relatively new found (or rediscovered) candor when it comes to discussing things like drugs and personal beliefs is in full effect.
But then...despite his belief in the Infinite nature of thought, Nesmith's mass appeal is once again proving to be quite finite indeed, which has been a source of frustration for me for quite some time! Stay with me here. Anyone who has followed this blog and podcast knows that I've spent a good amount of creative energy trying to plant seeds that would result in the work of Michael Nesmith--at least from his most musically fertile period of 1965-1975--being embraced and celebrated just as much as that of his more celebrated peers from the same golden period of singer/songwriters and fusions of folk/pop/country/rock etc. So, while I'm ecstatic that these rarities have been freed from the archives, it's a drag that I had to learn about their release third hand.
Over the decades folks like Andrew Sandoval, John Tobler and Iain Lee have done all they can to try and present the Golden Age of Nez as something that any music geek worth their salt would do well to acknowledge, become familiar with, fall in love with and tell all their friends about. Sandoval (especially) through decades of wonderfully produced re-issues; Tobler with the ZigZag Concert box; and Lee with the recent 1975 BBC concert and upcoming FNB Redux Live at the Troubadour 2018 (I was there!). There's been lots of new feature stories, interviews, both print and podcast, in Mojo, Uncut, Rolling Stone, Goldmine....and yet.....our beloved Nez has yet to take his rightful place among his peers. Why? When I interviewed former First National Band drummer (and founder, if we're to be honest) John Ware a few years ago, just prior to the Second Coming of Nez (which began shortly after the death of Davy Jones), he described a complex and often maddening (to those who wanted him to attain the status and popularity he deserved) combination of conflicting traits that continually held back Nez: healthy ego paired with low self-esteem (common among creative types); distrust of others' opinions and decisions; a sense of entitlement, while feeling he didn't really want what he felt he was entitled to; deserting problematic situations and flying on to the next thing, instead of fixing what was broken, and so on. Nez himself has owned up to some of these tendencies in his recent memoir as well as recent interviews.
An easier answer might also be: he just stopped caring about getting his due props as a singer/songwriter. Maybe?
There's a low-generation audio recording of an interview with Nesmith from 1975 which was conducted perhaps by John Tobler of Zig Zag magazine, prior to Nez's wonderful two-set concert at Drury Lane Theater in West London. It's a rough listen, fidelity wise, but if you make it through, you'll hear a rare instance of a great journalist who is also a big fan and admirer, challenging Nez as to why he does things they way he does. Trying to get at why such a brilliant talent chooses to have no agent or manager, why he risks alienating fans with his philosophical between-song raps, why he stubbornly stays on the sidelines as a cult figure while his peers are living like rock royalty. His answers, while acknowledging that it was more or less true, are typically evasive to anyone who didn't know the spiritual path he was on--and he even pointedly denies that anything he's saying has anything to do with religion/spiritualality. Compare this to the previous year's ZigZag interview, which is equally inightful-yet-evasive, but more in an amusingly stoner way, and you know that the Nez mind was (and still is) always looking out at the Infinite but in reporting back, things often get lost in translation.
I made this point on this blog years ago, but I'll make it again: Major artists and visionaries like Dylan, Springsteen and Neil Young all had sympathetic managers early in their careers that they listened to. Those managers were the connection between the artist and audience and helped one to understand the other, even at the most challenging phases, and form a lifetime relationship between artist and audience through good and bad times.
When those guys open and release their archives, the news gets picked up by the Associated Press and lavish box sets appear in store windows around the holidays.
But such treatment is not afforded our Nez.
Last week, Sony released about 90 minutes worth of never-heard-before outtakes/alternate takes etc across six Expanded Edition (digital only) reissues of the first six post-Monkees releases by Michael Nesmith, which RCA released between 1970-73. The unreleased tracks, when taken all together (which is what I did, downloading just the new bonus tracks and listening as a whole), it's a wonderful, eye-opening, ear-perking, mind-expanding collection of previously unheard material by a guy at the height of his creative powers but the nadir of his popularity, and really not doing anything to help his cause. So where does that karmic path lead an artist?
Not in a much-hyped box set, that's for sure. Nope, there was not a goddamn peep about these releases. Not from Sony, and not from anyone associated with Nez, which would be one thing if he was living silent and secluded and wasn't doing three separate tours this year and giving lots of interviews.
So, it's up to folks like me to write a detailed review of these wonderful and wacky tracks, recorded during a rare period where Nez was simply a singer/songwriter/recording artist/record producer. Not an actor, video producer, author...He was at this point purely dedicated to music, releasing six albums in three years. So let's explore these archival gems...and spread the word!
From Magnetic South (1970)
1) Magnolia Simms--The first of several rearrangements of previously-released Monkees-era songs. "Why?", one has to wonder. I imagine these were songs he felt were wasted on Monkees albums that were largely being bought by 11 year-olds who had no interest in Mike's weird, challenging songs. If so, he had a valid point--and he couldn't have predicted that 50 years later he'd be singing "Tapioca Tundra" to ecstatic Monkees concert goers (more on "Tundra" later..).
So....we all love outtakes with false starts, right? This starts with two immediate breakdowns: in the first, Nez comes in late and in the second one, Red Rhodes flubs a note. But, Monkees Geeks will smile at Nez responding with the same "Ring Around the Rosie" lick on his guitar that he would do during his and Micky's "Mary Mary" schtick on the Summer 1967 tour. Anyway, third time's a charm, and then John London/Kuehne and John Ware fall right in like the REALLY GODDAMN GREAT rhythm section they were. Really and truly,
No vocals on this, or any of the new Magnetic South outtakes (there are vocals on "Smoke, Smoke, Smoke that Cigarette", but that bonus track has been available for years), though you can hear Nez guiding them a bit during the pauses.
Another obvious reason they didn't release a new version of "Magnolia Simms": Nez had a brand new song with similar chords and melody, but a more sophisticated lyrics and over all structure and feel called "Joanne". So that settles that!
And listen near the end where Red plays a simple pedal steel passage that would become a big part of "Joanne".
2) Hollywood--So now we have three versions of "Hollywood", which I'll liken to motor vehicles.
---There's the 1968 Nashville Sessions with the banjo and fiddle, which evokes a bumpy ride in a 1940's pickup truck, as the country boy goes back home, tired of all them city slickers.
---Then there's the original Magnetic South version with the long trippy instrumental section. This is a Peter Fonda in Easy Rider type, with all sorts of reasons to get out of the city. The drugs he took back in the gas station bathroom kick in about 3 minutes in.
--AND NOW, what is this hyper speed take? I'll say four guys in a wood paneled stationwagon, hootin' and hollerin' and going way too fast toward Bakersfield. Again: listen to that fucking band! On fire.
3) Born to Love You--Don't worry, vocal tracks are coming up after this one! This is a wonderful song, but I never enjoyed the Ranch Stash version. Too stiff, vocals too dry...or something. This one swings more and is prettier in general. Again Red plays a lick that he'd later recycle for a later tune (I'm drawing a blank on which..maybe "Continuing" from Ranch Stash..). The song was written by Cindy Walker, the legendary songwriter who got her start when she asked her father to stop the family car outside Bing Crosby's house so she could pitch him a song. You may know "Blue Canadian Rockies" by The Byrds, "You Don't Know Me", by Ray Charles and "Dream Baby" by Roy Orbison. She wrote all of those too. And like a thousand more.
From Loose Salute (1970):
4) Different Drum--this is very cool to hear, but would this have reclaimed the author's song back from the smash hit Stone Poneys version? I don't think so. In my opinion, the two-man version on And the Hits Just Keep On Comin' is better on a few different levels. When I first heard this I wondered if they'd planned to put horns on it, since the accents and stabs in the solo feel more Big Band Swing than Texas Swing. They could've got the guys that played on "Hello, Lady". Could've been like this Sir Douglas Quintet song from the same year.
5) Dedicated Friend--a 7 minute freak out version. I kind of really love it, and it completely works in a "tripping in a honky tonk"/Doug Sahm type way, but maybe even trippier. (And hey- Nez and Doug Sahm: did their paths ever cross? I know Nez has said that he liked The Monkees' "Salesman" because it had a Sir Douglas vibe..Gotta research...) Anyway, a fade out by 3:45 and this version would have made the final album in my world. The rest is "had to have been there" weed and cheap beer (at least) infused fun, not meant to be heard beyond studio walls. I mean, you know the organist is all done when he's quoting "Baby Elephant Walk" and "Jingle Bells".
6) Tengo Amore--I guess this song was meant to be taken at the brisk tempo they released, because, despite this having some absolutely beautiful moments, the band as a whole can't seem to settle in to this relaxed feel. It sort of previews "You Are My One" when played at this tempo. Glad he kept this overall vibe for that, two years later. And they did the right thing by pepping this up a whole bunch. Still, have a listen! If you haven't thought this by now, by the end of this listening experience you'll wonder why there aren't streets and towns and distant galaxies named after Red Rhodes.
7) Loose Salute Radio Spots--and here, I guess is the self-defeating, self-sabotaging, yet undeniably cheeky and funny side of Nez that John Ware says had a lot to do with the failure and premature end of the First National Band. What was the motivation here? It's witty, rebellious and cool, but it's telling jokes on a sinking ship instead of trying to save yourself and your shipmates. RCA punished him with the lame-o spots for his next album (which I'm not including on this list).
From Nevada Fighter (1971)
8) Tapioca Tundra: Ware and London quit a couple days in, so these are probably all with Ron Tutt on drums, Glenn D. Hardin on piano, Max Bennett or Jo Osborne on bass and James Burton or Al Casey on guitar. This is a very groovy, swagger-y take on the psychedelic classic from The Monkees' 1968 album The Birds, The Bees and The Monkees, but not necessarily an improvement. The dobro (that's Red!) is there, so I'm going to guess this is the same session that produced his cover of Derek and the Dominoes' "I Looked Away". Tutt is, as always, keeping a nice groove but seems to get a spastic kick drum foot part way in. Perhaps a side-effect from being in Elvis' band at this time.
From Tantamount to Treason (1972)
Oh, the Second National Band. Once again, Nez puts together a great band and doesn't let it reach its full potential. I believe they were no longer a band by the time their one album came out. I've written elsewhere about this band/album and I so wish that they had promoted the crap out of this album and toured it. FNB was as tight and rocking as can be, but SNB had a very different sounding rhythm section that could get loose and jam a bit. Nez definitely enjoyed stretching out, even if his own guitar vocabulary wasn't that expansive. He'd hold down the rhythm, but seldom stray from the root chord during the jams. However, this looser rhythm section really complemented and brought out an even higher level of psychedelic pedal steel by Red Rhodes. I recommend giving this whole album a spin. But for now, here are the best of the bonus tracks. Get ready....
9) Six Days on the Road--whaaat? Didn't The Flying Burrito Brothers and Gram & Emmylou and New Riders of the Purple Sage (with Jerry Garcia on pedal steel!) already do pretty good versions of this pill-poppin' truck drivin' classic within the last year or two? Yes, but NOT LIKE THIS! My first impression was that this was a bit of a stoner drag, but then I suddenly thought "Little Feat". Right? That groove! Nez also made his own chord progression. Had they added a couple funky horns...(and hey: I've twice now suggested horns. This is just the producer/arranger in me. I really am not a big fan of adding horns. But when I hear them in my head, I'll say so).
10) Circle Sky--Whaaat? (Ok I'll stop saying that). But seriously. This is really quite cool indeed. It works amazingly as an early 70's half time hard rocker. Who knew? A friend of mine noted that the guitar tone at the top is nearly identical to the Justus version....
11) Listen to the Band--Wait a second. Do you think MAYBE the Second National Band were considering touring and were working up live arrangements of Monkees songs for a 1972 rock and roll audience? That would've been groovy! So here's a stomping arrangement, where Nez turns his Black Beauty Les Paul up and BASHES those chords in the chorus. Then there's a nice little jam in the middle that leads to the end. Yet ANOTHER iteration of LTTB on the books.
12) You Are My One--Minus the sung verses, this is a brisker run through of the looooong instrumental of this cosmic cowboy classic. The middle part of the released version sounds to me like it could easily be an outtake from Grateful Dead's 1973 LP Wake of the Flood, with drummer Jack Ranelli playing loosey goosey stoner jazz rock. On this, he's playing a bossa nova, getting looser as it goes on, but still keeping it all together. Red is navigating the Milky Way here. Nez's rhythm guitar talents are on display here as well.
FROM AND THE HITS JUST KEEP ON COMING (1972)
In their released form, Nez's two albums from 1972 are like night and day. Tantamount is full band, loose and stoner-y, half original, half covers. And the Hits.. is just Nez and Red, playing concise versions of all originals. In this great 1974 interview Nez describes the sessions for And the Hits.. as he and Red just whacked out of their gourds or something like that. But I'd found that odd, because it comes across as a fairly sober sounding album. But now these bonus tracks have been released and, yes, I can hear what he was talking about. At the same time, both of these songs reference trading in darkness for light, so obviously, something is on Nez's mind....
13) Roll With the Flow--Ha! Woo! Listen how much fun they're having! I LOVE this version. Unhinged! Party! Someone found the box of percussion! Nez has admitted as much, but goddamn this song could've been a huge hit had he recorded it with a (Second National?) band.
14) Keep On--the released album version gives off a much more serious-minded vibe than this. But this one is cooler and while I have pointed out how Nez the rhythm guitar player always plays it straight, I gotta say, this track shows his strength on the guitar. That is some hyper speed picking with a lot of cool little tricks thrown in. Sort of McGuinn-ish Nez is in the zone, playing up a storm! And maybe a bit wired? I dunno. He does sound a bit hoarse and stuffed up. But I have no reason to guess that other than it was 1972. Just reminds me a bit of (that guy again) McGuinn's early 70's vocals, but not as extreme. Could be a simple cold.
From PRETTY MUCH YOUR AVERAGE RANCH STASH (1973)
If you've ever read the liner notes to this album, one can easily see that Nez is on the edge of a major change. He's not sure what it is, but knows it's not what he'd been doing, which was releasing album after album of quality work that no one was buying. But this album was one final attempt at joining the early 70's rock world. I love parts of this album, but don't dig it as a whole. The band he put together is top notch, but I dunno. He doesn't sound fully engaged or something. And this bonus track may hold the key as to why....
15) Marie's Theme--OMG! Was he already working on The Prison at this point? Or was this a stand-alone song which sparked the idea for The Prison concept? Either way, had I heard this during the Ranch Stash sessions, I would have freaked out when he said it wasn't going to be on the album. Imagine hearing this by itself, no idea of anything called "The Prison" or anything he was mulling around. I'd have said "Nez, this is one of the most wonderful songs you've ever written. This is one of the most wonderful songs anyone's written in the last decade. This is better than anything Dylan has done in five albums. I have no idea what that tag line means, but if the listener is high, he or she will give it a good long think.". Anyway...
This all begs the question, will they ever for real release the original mix of The Prison? It's so damn good. It's a psychedelic classic that wasn't allowed to be thus because Nez was already beyond psychedelics and onto the next phase of this spiritual path when it was released, and presented it as High Art and everyone in 1975 rolled their eyes and popped another 'lude. Anyway...dig the hell out of this. And dig how he begins it with the acoustic 12 string lick that he plays on the end of "Some of Shelly's Blues" (on Ranch Stash).
GET WELL SOONER THAN SOON, NEZ!