Until I started this essay last night, I was having a hard time getting genuinely excited for this show. This was worrisome. He was and is among my favorite singer/songwriters etc. But to tell the truth, for the last two weeks, I've been on a huge Beach Boys binge. Really. As in, Nothing. But. Beach. Boys.
Now, I've liked the Beach Boys forever, but I'm diving deeper and obsessively reading forums and articles and blogs. I've adopted a few new favorite Beach Boys songs, like "Celebrate the News", "Steamboat" and "How She Boogalooed It".
It's all been very satisfying and educational and has made me very happy, but I wonder if part of it is a defense mechanism so that I don't get too excited for the Nesmith show. Could be.
Prior to the announcement of this tour, like around the New Year, I went through a week or two of obsessing over the two 1975 Nesmith UK bootleg shows that are findable online. They're great, and led me to also seek out and fall in love with the original 1975 mix of The Prison, which, in my opinion, is a much more enjoyable listen than Nesmith's 1990 remix of it. Perhaps in 1990, the Roland drum machine and 70's production were embarrassing to Nez, but I think now, they'd be seen as pretty darn cool--much cooler than the shimmery New Age gloss he replaced it with.
I've had the idea for this essay for a couple weeks now, but just in the last couple days have I encountered things that lit the fire under me:
1) Compiling a personal "Best of" culled from Nez's UK shows in 1974 and 1975. I used my bootleg version of the ZigZag Concert, to keep the sound quality consistent and bootleggy. So much good stuff, however, Nesmith, as he's wont to do, talks A LOT, veering between funny and bizarre, friendly and lecture-y, self-important and self depricating, singing wonderfully and playing some nice solo acoustic guitar. It got me to thinking how, through all this talking, it seems like Nesmith REALLY wants everyone to be on his level--which at that time was all about universal love, but on a clear-headed level--not a idealistic, naive level. Also, stuff like awareness and cosmic consciousness. Anyway...
2) The other thing that motivated me was hearing this new 9+ minute song by The Minus Five. Wow. I'll leave it at that. Give it a listen.
I have a draft of a much farther-reaching Nesmith essay that I started, but it was going nowhere, covered ground I've already covered, and besides, I wasn't feeling it--until I got to the part of the essay that concerns perhaps the most mysterious album of Nesmith's career:
"It rocks, it socks, it soothes, and it erases the tension of modern rock country's frenetic ennui."
--Rolling Stone Magazine review of Tantamount to Treason, December 23, 1971.
"The one I (album) listen to least is 'Tantamount to Treason,' although it is probably one of my best."
--Michael Nesmith, from an interview in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, April 9, 2013.
A brief timeline, for context:
1969: Nez quits the Monkees after 3 years.
1970: Forms the First National Band with pedal steel guitarist Red Rhodes, bassist John London and drummer John Ware. Those three had been Linda Ronstadt's backing band (along with Bernie Leadon) the year before. FNB release three albums in very short order:
July 1970: Magnetic South
November 1970: Loose Salute (the best, in my opinion. everyone should own this one.)
May 1971: Nevada Fighter.
All in all, 22 Nesmith-penned songs and a handful of cover songs. "Joanne" and "Silver Moon" were moderate hits, but the albums sold very poorly.
The FNB broke up during the recording of Nevada Fighter, and Nez got James Burton, Glen Hardin and Ronnie Tutt (all from Elvis' band) to fill in. Not bad.
So, then came The Second National Band's debut album, Tantamount to Treason, Vol 1.
(there was never a volume II).
This album is often glossed over in Nez's career overviews, if mentioned at all. It's sometimes referred to as "odd", "misguided", "meandering", "weak" etc. This is usually a sign that the writer hasn't actually spent any time listening to the album. Because it's none of those things.
I think that this album might be one of the few times that Nesmith released something that sounds perfect for the time in which it was released. Perhaps this was conscious, so that he'd finally start selling some records and be accepted by the serious rock fans of the day.
If this was the tactic, it didn't work. Or perhaps he was already in the middle of recording, and thus, more excited about, his next album, out the same year, And The Hits Just Keep On Comin', which is the polar opposite of Tantamount (just acoustic guitar and Red Rhodes on pedal steel), and which contains songs Nez has kept in his live rotation ever since. Whereas, except for some "by request" versions of "Wax Minute" in 1974-75, Nez seems to have chosen to not even regard any of Tantamount as worth mentioning. A shame. I think "In the Afternoon" would be mesmerizing live.
(Funny, one song on And the Hits... that I never could get with was "The Candidate", until I realized that musically, it's the one musical bridge between his two 1972 albums. Now I dig it a lot. "The Candidate" seems to have come from the same musical pod--as in peas and as in aliens-- as "In the Afternoon". Anyway...)
I've read that RCA hated Tantamount to Treason, and thus didn't hype it (boy were they dumb to not hype it) It was strike four. against Nez. It also seems as though Nez didn't tour behind the album. Oh, man...if that band took the Tantamount sound on the road...woulda been something.
Anyway, Tantamount sold as poorly as his last three albums, so, Nez ironically titled the next album And the Hits Just Keep On Comin'.
How to describe Tantamount to Treason? Well, it seems to be the first time Nez decided to "let it all hang out" on a record. He's having fun. Or maybe he was miserable and was "forcing the mirth", or whatever he warns his audience not to do during one of his between-song lectures at the 1974 Zig Zag concert. Miserable? Nez? Why? Well, let's count the possible ways: 1) Three strong albums in 18 months had not sold 2) the good reviews in such rags as Rolling Stone didn't endear him to the hip demographic--or any demographic 3) The First National Band broke up 4) his marriage to Phyllis came to an end, and 5) according to this article, he was arrested for weed in Colorado.
Here's a picture taken around the time of Tantamount (I think). At least, it kind of sums up the vibe of the album:
By the way, the only other Nez album that seems to reflect a desire to get out of his head and have mindless fun is 1979's Infinite Rider on the Big Dogma ("all I wanna do is dance and have a good time.."). But that seems to be more of a Malibu disco and blow vibe, though I have no way of knowing what Nez was up to behind the scenes in those days.
Where was I? Oh yes. What does Tantamount sound like? I'll take you song by song, but on the whole, well, it sounds like 1972. 1972 seems to be when "the 60's" ended. 1972 seemed to be the breaking point for those teetering on whether to let their freak flag fly or not, even if just for a moment. A prime example being Neil Diamond's unhinged Hot August Night. It was perhaps the last year for many of the 60's rockers where the balance between work and play was in check, and the drugs still worked for bands like The Rolling Stones and The Grateful Dead, both of whom had new songs coming out of every pore and membrane that drugs couldn't get into. The Beach Boys suddenly had two South African guys in their band (Ricky Fataar and Blondie Chapman, invited into the band by Carl Wilson), contributing more, musically and vocally, than some of the original members and getting the band into some serious grooves that sounded nothing like The Beach Boys. Neil Young was entering a dark and creative phase. CSN had long since peaked and splintered. Lou Reed had been rescued and redefined by Bowie. The Kinks were reinvented as theater glam rock. Weird, transitional times.
There's a recording of Nez appearing live on KPFK, Los Angeles in 1972 doing a solo "Joanne" and he sounds rather loose and care-free (read: a tad high?) especially compared to his serious, deep between song patter in 1974-75. As I've said before, this album, to me, reeks of weed. I even think that the beer recipe on the back is to distract from this fact ("Ain't nothing illegal here! Just good ol' suds!"). But the music inside smells sweeter than barley and hops.
|Nesmith live in1972|
So, why is this album so unique? Well, for starters:
--who are these dudes in the band (besides mainstay Red Rhodes on the pedal steel)? Where did they come from? Where did they go? Keyboardist Michael Cohen plays like Thelonious Monk meets Little Richard meets Keith Emerson. Drummer Jack Ranelli (hey, another Italian drummer!) is the loosest, grooviest drummer Nesmith ever played with. Polar opposite of the atomic clock of John Ware.
--Jose Feliciano on congas? But. I. Don't. Understand.
--the cover features sewage and junk floating in water that has apparently risen almost as high as the Statue of Liberty. In the background, rainbows outline some mountains, and a rather stoned looking drawing of Nez looks at us from the top center.
--the back cover features Nesmith's recipe for beer.
Now, the songs.
The album kicks off with Nez's heaviest riff ever and a lusty, un-Nez-like lyric about a "Mama Rocker" who's "pickin' up the music and passin' out the favors". I wonder if this is about Marianne Faithfull, who Nez once described as the "rock and roll mama of all time" and said he unabashedly flirted with her at the Beatles "A Day in the Life" recording session? Besides the heavy riff, the music is a heavy Chuck Berry-esque 12 bar boogie with a great distorted pedal steel solo. Nez still wasn't a guitar solo guy at this point, and in fact, there is a solo section that is just his electric rhythm guitar, bass and drums. To my ears, it sounds a lot like Keith Richards circa Exile. I love Nez' rhythm guitar playing. Check it out.
Next comes "Lazy Lady", which introduces a theme that Nesmith returns to a few times in his next couple albums--I believe it's the dissolution of his marriage. Or a "subject/object trip" as he describes in the ZigZag Concert. See also: "Tomorrow and Me", "The Upside of Goodbye", "Release" and "Continuing". All five seem to be Nesmith consoling himself and the woman in question. Trying to put a happy and brave face through the turmoil. Composition-wise, it's sort of a half-realized song, in my opinion. Good verses, but then the pedal steel break seems to recycle that of "Thanks For the Ride". It's the only song that could have been on any of the FNB albums--except for the fact that there's a trippy Moog fading in and out, and Nez' acoustic is drenched in echo.
Also worth noting is that the title is never sung in this song. However, "Mama Rocker" DOES mention the "Lazy Lady" TWICE. Hot damn.
Then, another anomoly in the Nez canon: "You Are My One". The lyrics? Look no further than the title and repeat about 20 times. Halfway through, insert a jam on Nez's cool four-chord progression (sort of the stoned cousin of "Calico Girlfriend") with some trippy pedal steel and some loose-ass drumming, and you wouldn't be blamed if you thought this was an outtake from the first Jerry Garcia solo record (also from 1972) or The Dead's Wake of the Flood from 1973. Then there's the "Shhh/Peaceful"/"Riders on the Storm"-esque electric piano... It's perfect driving-with-windows-down-on-a-perfect-summer-day music. Preferably with a mountain somewhere in the near or far distance.
The first side ends with yet another oddity: "In the Afternoon" paints a vividly dusty picture of a tired ranch hand at the end of his sweaty workday. It's wordy (your average ranch hand doesn't use words like "domicile"), it's trippy, it's expansive, it's got a two-songs-in-one structure (in a way, it's like Carl Wilson's "The Trader"--slightly awkward, but works beautifully in the end) and by the end of the bridge, Nez is singing at the very top of his range. In some ways, it might be the seed of The Prison. If I had to guess, I'd say it's a metaphor for Nesmith's post-Monkees life:
"Turn and dig your heels in the road/Don't be bound or trapped by the old/Take from the past what you need/To Give to the new life you lead.." See what I mean? Fuck the Monkees, fuck the critics, learn from your mistakes and keep on keepin' on (which he reminds himself on his next album).
In the Afternoon
Side Two is made up of all non-Nez-penned songs. It starts with the one song I always skip, but I will listen to now, to refresh my memory: "Highway 99 With Melange", written by keyboardist Cohen.
The beginning is cool, and Nez seems to be revisiting the "cut and paste" method of the beginning of the Monkees' HEAD soundtrack. There are snippits of other cuts from this album fading in and out before the song starts with an early Little Feat type groove. But it doesn't stay there long. Nesmith talk/sings a story about wanting to get with his best friend's lady while riding in a broken down car up Highway 99. The music is willfully messed up--speeding up, slowing down, skipping beats, adding beats... I've given the song a few chances, and I just can't do it anymore. Too "kitchen sink". Sorry, guys.
Next comes what might be the best song on the album--"Wax Minute", written by semi-obscure Canadian singer songwriter, Richard Stekol. You wouldn't be blamed if you thought it was a Nez song, with its break-up theme and non pop-song words. The band absolutely gels on this one. Cohen and Red Rhodes exchange solos that start melodic and descend into insanity. Nesmith's vocal delivery is one of his best on record. The way the song fades when it seems Nesmith hasn't finished what he's singing is a bit odd but lets the listener down gently. Jose Feliciano's congas are awesome on this. You will dance to this one and you will enjoy it.
"Bonaparte's Retreat" is an old fiddle tune from the late 1800's which was turned into a country standard after Pee Wee King's hit version in 1950. It was covered by Glen Campbell and Willie Nelson among others. However, only Nesmith's version features a free form jam in the middle. It's pretty neat. The beginning is jarring, though. I think the mastering on this album is a bit off--at least on the CD version. "Wax Minute" always seems too soft and "Bonaparte's Retreat" seems too loud. Or maybe it's too loud because I turn it up during "Wax Minute".
Hey, you know Bill Chadwick, right? Look at your Monkees records and you might see his name.
He tried out for The Monkees but didn't make it. He hung around, became Micky's stand-in (see why in the photo below) and ended up writing or co-writing (and sometimes playing/singing on) songs like "Zor and Zam", "French Song" and "You and I". Nesmith tapped him for a great song called "Talking to the Wall", which is next on side two. In fact, in 1969, Nez produced Chadwick's version of this song for a single that is now extremely hard to find. I'd love to hear it. I said, I'D LOVE TO HEAR IT. Excellent song, but I feel a bit sheepish when it comes on because I realized (too late) that I kind of ripped off the opening riff for one of my songs. Still, it's a spooky little downer of a song with a great pedal steel solo and nifty 12-string electric work by Nez.
|Nez with Bill Chadwick on the set of The Monkees.|
At the end of this trip comes a very sedated, 3 am-sounding treatment of George Jones' "She Thinks I Still Care". Best version of this song by anyone? Yes. I will say it loud and proud. From Nez's opening guitar riff to his most impassioned singing on record to the solo section where...the....tempo....drags....
In any case. Yes. Excellent way to end the album. All the west coast country rockers should have bowed down to Nez after hearing this one. Fuck them.
She Thinks I Still Care
Some semi-coherent, kitchen sink closing remarks--
It's impossible to guess what path Michael Nesmith's career would have taken had he not been cast as one of The Monkees. We know that live performance has never been his natural thing, and that he was one of many young songwriters in LA in 1966, and had achieved some success. So, perhaps he would have been a faceless songwriter whose name would be recognizable only by those who care about writing credits. Perhaps he would have been a Byrd. Perhaps he would have become a hotshot young producer.
Amazingly, these are all things he did to varying degrees even WHILE he was a Monkee (yes, he was a Byrd for one gig in 1968. See THIS post). But he would have been able to do so without any stigma of having been a TV star, a Teen Magazine fixture, and have spent much time on the top of the charts.
Nesmith tried to be underground in an environment in which such a thing would be impossible. So he rebelled, giving his songs incongruous titles, having Frank Zappa on the Monkees, putting very uncommercial songs on Monkees albums, and looking pretty unhappy in most Monkees pictures.
He figured out pretty quickly that his career had been hijacked. That he, this multitalented, proud, ambitious Texan, had been used and spat out, left to spend his last year as a Monkee playing to dwindling crowds, while the albums that were featuring more of his innovative country-psych were barely scraping the top 50. And no matter how he tried, how much he tried to distance himself from the pack o' Monkees, he wasn't being featured in the underground press alongside the other young innovators in pop and rock.
As far as I can tell, Nesmith never blamed the Monkees for his lack of solo success. There does seem to be some quirks in his character that didn't allow him to achieve all that he deserved (as a singer songwriter. Of course, he's achieved quite a bit in quite a lot of fields. Thus, it's hard to define the guy). Perhaps it's ADD--one source has him taking Ritalin during the Monkee years (when it was a pretty new drug).
Of course, this is all my usual arm chair psychology, but damned if I haven't thought about this a bunch.
I think that, as independent-minded as folks like Bob Dylan or Neil Young seem, they did have their extremely hands-on managers carefully guiding their image and disappearing when the cameras and microphones arrived.
After The Monkees, Nesmith was probably so shell shocked from all that had happened over the last 36 months, that he wanted no one telling him how to sound, what to wear, who to appeal to...
And this seems to have continued to the present (though I think only recently is he accepting his fans' love and understanding why they--we--love what we love).
Possibly, it would have been great if, after The Monkees, Nesmith had a symbiotic relationship with a manager, like Neil Young and Elliot Roberts, or Springsteen and Landau, who could have artfully explained Nesmith to the music world.
Instead, he made seven wonderful records in five years, each selling close to nothing, while he played a series of questionable gigs that did little to expand his fan base.
As "defiant" and strong-willed as Nesmith seems to have been, he also seems to have developed a few defense mechanisms to keep his pride in check. Nez knows how awesome he is, and it must hurt to be derided again and again. He played a gig with The Byrds, and was heckled. The First National Band played a festival with the Flying Burrito Brothers and were laughed at by the fucking band (who, live, couldn't play their way out of a paper bag).
But he pressed on, with a confusing persona that mixed a slightly "I'm smarter than you" attitude with an uncontrollable urge to lapse into self-depricating humor. The Monkees experience left him with an intense need to explain himself and define himself to whoever would listen. But then, turn people off with arrogance, and then try and get them back with humor and then take a left turn to somewhere no one expected, or was willing to follow him to.
And all he needed was to shut up and play his music. Because from 1970 to 1975, Michael Nesmith was not a film maker or an author or a virtual reality innovator--he was just a singer/songwriter with an arsenal of great songs (and sometimes a record producer). Unfortunately, he had The Monkees on his back, and all the mixed messages he gave off were just the result of having survived that experience and being hell bent on leaving it in the past.
One possible reason why I think some folks don't "get" Nez is the lack of passion in his voice. He almost always seems above-it-all. He's not curled up in a narcotic or hungover ball with a microphone hanging over him. Nesmith sings his own lyrics in either a detatched croon or a slightly lecture-y way, which is underscored by his use of unlikely (for pop lyrics) words. Gram Parsons could make folks cry singing "Rubber Ducky". But Nez singing his own sad songs still sounds like him reading from a text as opposed to spilling his guts.
There's a snippet of conversation on that mini movie that comes with Bert Janch's 1974 album L.A. Turnaround, produced by Nez, in which Jansch is heard saying something about squeezing so many syllables into a measure--we don't know the context of this statement, but, given that Nez is sitting across from him, I wonder if Bert is critiquing his producer's songwriting.
If anything, I'd like to think that Jansch is referring to the verse in "The Upside of Goodbye" (from And the Hits Just Keep On Comin') that goes:
So the bitterness that usually set in was effectively undone by the girl's uncommon grace
And the thrust of the experience was the enrichening and lively sense
She gave to my life and to it's pace
This is how you can tell a non-English major. More is not more.
In any case, hearing Nez sing about love lost is not as moving as hearing, say, Leonard Cohen or Jackson Browne or Gram Parsons or Neil Young. In fact, the most emotional Nez sounds on any song I can think of is on the cover of "She Thinks I Still Care".
This is related to another reason why perhaps Nesmith wasn't championed as a leader among 70's singer/songwriters: his defiant, proud, always-ready-with-a-joke, but-dropping-intellectual-concepts-that-he-knows-are-over-everyone's-heads tendencies just didn't jibe with the sensitive, sincere, pour your guts out, confessional vibe of 70's singer songwriter music.
This photo (from the inside of And the Hits Just Keep On Comin') sort of exemplifies Nesmith's hard-to-understand-ness in the 70's.
Now, this picture is hilarious, right? But it's also weird, creepy and disturbing. There are a few levels to it. It reminds me how Nez ends one of his 1975 shows by saying "Thanks, I've enjoyed it on a few levels". He wants everyone to know he's a complex, thinking man and possibly too smart for this rock business. But as soon as you think that, he'll tell a joke and accentuate his Texas accent. Nobody wants to be reminded how smart the person they're listening to is. You want to just know it and learn from it.
Damn. I really didn't want to start getting all critical. Especially over music that came out the same year I did. I guess I just want to show that I totally understand why some people who love other great music just can't get into Nez. At the same time, I can't understand why they can't.
I've tried for so long to get friends, girlfriends and musician friends into Nesmith's music. I've made so many mixes to state my case. "Yeah, he was a Monkee, but he hated it and punched a wall and was responsible for them becoming a real band". "He is just as responsible for country rock as Gram Parsons". "He released 6 excellent albums in three years following the Monkees".
But there's always a roadblock. Nez is unpredictable. Peter Tork referred to him as a "contrary bastard".
Nesmith himself wrote "You and I travel to the beat of a different drum". It's a song to a woman, but it could easily be to his fan base. In other words, "I'm not gonna be the rock star you want me to be".
More to the point, on 1992's Tropical Campfires, Nesmith wrote a song called called "I Am Not That", in which he lists dozens of things that he is not and ends each chorus by saying that he's not even singing this song. He's refused to be pigeonholed and thus, we've gotten things like a New Age album in 1994 (Grammy-nominated The Garden) and a drum machine/synth/flashy guitar album in 2005 (Rays). I've tried and failed to enjoy these albums and I'm OK with that. Yes, it'd be nice if Nez had a grip on why people love him and followed that road--perhaps a Rick Ruben-style production on a Hits Just Keep On Coming vol 2 (I'm sure that will never happen).
This ambivalent feeling of Nezhead-dom is exactly what the Minus Five song is about. We love him and know that he's awesome, but goddamn, he's done some stuff that makes it hard to explain to others why you love him so much. And you know what, that in itself is awesome.