Mike Nesmith, the genius musician, songwriter, filmmaker, and pop-culture innovator best known as the dry-witted, wooly-hatted guitarist/co-frontman of the 1960s’ zeitgeist-capturing TV band the Monkees, has died at age 78. The news comes less than a month after he and his bandmate Micky Dolenz wrapped the Monkees’ farewell tour with an emotional performance at Los Angeles’s Greek Theatre on Nov. 1, during which Nesmith broke into tears several times.
“With Infinite Love we announce that Michael Nesmith has passed away this morning in his home, surrounded by family, peacefully and of natural causes,” Nesmith’s family said in a statement. “We ask that you respect our privacy at this time and we thank you for the love and light that all of you have shown him and us.”
The Monkees’ and Nesmith’s manager, Andrew Sandoval, also posted on social media: “It is with deep sadness that I mark the passing of Michael Nesmith. We shared many travels and projects together over the course of 30 years, which culminated in a Monkees farewell tour that wrapped up only a few weeks ago. That tour was a true blessing for so many. And in the end I know that Michael was at peace with his legacy which included songwriting, producing, acting, direction, and so many innovative ideas and concepts. I am positive the brilliance he captured will resonate and offer the love and light towards which he always moved.”
Nesmith was 25 years old when The Monkees premiered on NBC in 1966. Although it ran for only two seasons, it became an instant smash, winning two Emmy Awards, shifting 35 million in record sales, and earning the group five top 10 albums (four of which went to No. 1) and six top 10 hits. However, critical respect eluded the band at first (and they still have never even been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame). The Monkees were often unfairly dismissed as a “Prefab Four” studio creation or boy band, and the powers-that-be behind The Monkees television series famously did not allow the group to play to play on their first two albums. However, Nesmith — born Robert Michael Nesmith in Houston, Texas, on Dec. 30, 1942 — came to The Monkees with a serious musical background.
Nesmith’s pre-Monkees songwriting credits included Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys’ “Different Drum,” and he was the Monkees’ most prolific songwriter, penning classics like “Mary, Mary,” “Papa Gene’s Blues,” “You Told Me,” “You Just May Be the One,” “Listen to the Band,” “Sweet Young Thing,” and “The Girl I Knew Somewhere.” Led by Nesmith, the Monkees wrested eventually creative control for their breakthrough third album, 1967’s Headquarters, and they began touring internationally, even bringing out Tim Buckley and Jimi Hendrix out as their opening acts on some dates. After The Monkees went off the air in 1968, the band continued to eschew their teeny-bopper image with their bizarre and ahead-of-its-time feature film, Head. However, while that adventurous project helped usher in the New Hollywood age of cinema and even kickstarted the career of a young Jack Nicholson, who wrote the script, it largely confused and alienated the Monkees’ fanbase.
Nesmith distanced himself from the Monkees’ legacy after their dissolution, forming the seminal country-rock outfit First National Band and scoring a top 40 hit with “Joanne” in 1970. In the ‘80s, he once again made music television history, when a program he created for Nickelodeon, PopClips, was sold to the Time Warner and developed into MTV. His collection of video shorts, Elephant Parts, won the first-ever Grammy in the Music Video category in 1981, and in 1984 he served as an executive producer of the punk/cult film Repo Man.
Ironically, it was MTV that sparked the first Monkees reunion: After the then five-year-old cable network ran a Monkees marathon, in 1986, the band was introduced to a whole new generation, and band members Davy Jones, Peter Tork, and Dolenz embarked on a massive reunion tour. Although Nesmith sat out those shows, save for one surprise appearance at L.A.’s Greek, he became amenable to sporadic reunions in the ensuing years. The Monkees’ 1996 album Justus featured his return to the recording lineup, and in 1997 he wrote and directed ABC’s one-hour comedy special Hey, Hey, It's the Monkees, which marked the last time that all four original Monkees appeared together on TV. The Monkees’ 50th anniversary comeback LP, 2016’s Good Times! (which featured contributions from Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, XTC’s Andy Partridge, Oasis’s Noel Gallagher, Paul Weller, and the album’s producer, Adam Schlesinger), was promoted by another successful reunion tour led by Dolenz and Tork, with Nesmith joining for occasional dates.
Nesmith is the third Monkees member to pass away, following Jones’s death in 2012 and Tork’s in 2019. Nesmith underwent quadruple-bypass heart surgery and was hospitalized for more than a month in 2018, but he later resumed touring with Dolenz as “The Mike & Micky Show” and then teamed with Dolenz for a final Monkees concert trek this year. Coinciding with that tour, Dolenz paid tribute with the album Micky Dolenz Sings Nesmith, on which he reimagined a range of songs from the Nesmith catalog, including “Different Drum,” the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band-popularized “Propinquity (I’ve Just Begun to Care),” and Monkees deep cuts like “Carlisle Wheeling” and “Tapioca Tundra.” The album was produced by Nesmith’s son, Christian.
Dolenz paid tribute to Nesmith with the following statement: "I’m heartbroken. I’ve lost a dear friend and partner. I’m so grateful that we could spend the last couple of months together doing what we loved best — singing, laughing, and doing shtick. I’ll miss it all so much. Especially the shtick. Rest in peace, Nez. All my love, Mick."
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