What I Think is What I Am: Michael Nesmith’s Last Train
Words and photograph by Sascha Green
Saturday night, New York City. As the sun sets over what is arguably the greatest metropolis in the world, with hundreds if not thousands of events and things to do, something special is going down on the Upper West Side.
Two mammoth lines form on either side of the historic Beacon Theater, a venue that has hosted a myriad of beloved guests: Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Crosby, Stills & Nash to name a handful. Tonight, the lines that snake from around the corner converge under the brightly lit marquee. Its announcement beams across Broadway: The Monkees are here.
The marquee’s excitement for tonight’s headliners almost equals that of the visitors beneath it. They’ve come prepared in their Monkees garb: brightly colored T-shirts with the famous guitar logo (despite the chilled 40-degree nip in the air), buttons proclaiming their undying love for their favorite member, tablecloth ponchos, and of course, the green wool hats. With grins plastered across their faces, they gab spiritedly amongst each other as they wait for the doors to open.
“Do you think they’ll play Take a Giant Step?”
“I’m really hoping for Mary, Mary.”
It’s a prime teen scene ripped from a 1966 issue of Tiger Beat …except it’s 2019 and the crowd now ranges as young as 5 to 65 (generational divides be damned). Long after the original Monkee Mania had ended (not including its brief resurgence in the 1980s thanks to the still-new Music Television network), and the passing of two of its members, the Monkees are still a draw amongst the set of baby boomers that weren’t quite ready for the heavy existentialism of the Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows or the burgeoning psychedelic scene.
Five stories above the Beacon’s growing crowd of perpetual teens sits the object of their adolescent affections. A quick peek into the small dressing room of Michael Nesmith (to the general public and media, Nez to his friends and fans, but never “Mike”) would have the uninitiated hard-pressed to believe the man was once a teen idol and not a visiting guru of sorts. Dressed in comfortable loungewear, Nesmith somehow finds a way to sit that exudes confidence. He leans back on the sofa, his hands with interlocked fingers behind his head as he waxes philosophical about the aging process being fodder for great literature. He, with three of his employees—two of which sit at his feet for lack of chairs in this little room—create a scene reminiscent of a 1967 Maharishi lecture, complete with cosmic witticism and revelations (whether or not Nesmith plans on starting his own meditation retreat in the plains of Texas remains to be seen). He speaks with the flow of an old novel, unapologetically and heavily peppered with a vocabulary worthy of Merriam-Webster. He does not “dumb down” his speech for anyone present, nor does he repeat himself. One feels they must keep up with the verbiage or risk getting left behind in the conversation.
It would be an understatement to call Nesmith a bright mind, but it should come as no surprise to anyone paying attention over the past fifty-plus years. Before the Monkees had entered the cultural zeitgeist, a 22-year-old Michael Nesmith—holes in his blue jeans and a worn wool cap perched upon his head—strode onto the set of The Farmer’s Daughter for a screen test. Where most inexperienced actors would display visible signs of apprehension (see: the screen test of Peter Tork), Nesmith bursts through the door and immediately throws his dusty boot onto the dining room table, answering only the questions he chooses to answer:
Q: Why do you do this [music] business?
A: That’s just where it’s at.
Q: Do you think you’re a goof?
A: What I think is what I am. And I don’t think I’m a goof.
While one may hear these words as the irreverence typical of a young college-aged man, it becomes perspicuous Nesmith isn’t just spouting what he thinks sounds cool or mature, but rather a real conviction he possesses at an age where most agonize over what their convictions are. With his entire life ahead of him, Nesmith already knew exactly who—and what—he was. It was up to the rest of the world to figure it out for themselves. If anyone was looking for him to spoon-feed a direct answer, they were out of luck.
The Monkees’ television show provided a strained and filtered glance at the real Michael Nesmith. The writing offered a taste of his humor and resistance to authority, however it's the unscripted moments that offer a deeper look: whether it’s having to hold a garment in front of his bare chest due to his outright refusal to shave for the camera, or throwing his arms and walking off-screen at the start of a chaotic chase scene. It’s this same resistance to authority and direction that created a constant butting of the heads with music supervisor Don Kirschner. If walls could talk, the ones holding up the Beverly Hills Hotel would have a thing or two to say on the subject. Nesmith may have been a Monkee, but he refused to be a puppet.
Amid the conversation in the dressing room, in walks Alex Jules, the keyboardist in Nez and Micky’s backup band (and in Nez’s First National Band Redux). He takes one look at the employees on the floor and asks if they need something to sit on. The response is mixed but he disappears and heroically returns with two chairs. A brief labor as he and the employees attempt to fit the seating in the already-tight quarters. Once everyone is comfortably situated to their satisfaction, Nesmith shifts to the subject of higher education and Alex having attended New York University. His hand waves between Alex and his (Nesmith’s) assistant, who is busy making sure her employer’s iPad has enough battery life to last the upcoming two-hour performance. “Did you two know each other?”
They both shake their heads, mentioning they didn’t come into contact until Nesmith’s tour late last year with the First National Band. “And now you both ended up here,” Nesmith proudly muses at the coincidence before he abruptly changes the subject again, this time to a future endeavor. Nesmith pitches to Alex a seedling of an idea for a project he might consider growing (the details of which cannot be divulged here). The room is abuzz as people start kicking around suggestions like a lackadaisical writers’ table, to all of which Nez politely listens and cracks jokes rather than flat-out dismisses. The room erupts in uproarious laughter and seems more like a five-person party than a dressing room.
The party grows. Out of the darkness of the dimly lit hallway outside, a familiar face appears in the open doorway. Brian Williams, news anchor from MSNBC and avid Monkees fan since the age of 10, comes to offer his well-wishes to his childhood icon-turned-friend. Nesmith, an avid watcher of MSNBC, beams at the sight of the anchor and offers for him to sit and chat awhile. Another chair is brought into the room for Williams, and with the shortly thereafter addition of photographer Jill Krementz, the scene quickly goes from Maharishi to Marx Brothers. To make space for the new arrivals, everyone comically crowds further into the tiny room already bursting at the seams. One of the employees quietly quips, “make that three hard boiled eggs.”
It’s a maneuver, but Nesmith, Williams and Krementz manage to squeeze themselves out into the hall for an impromptu photoshoot with the two friends. With showtime looming closer, the employees take this moment to file out and give Nez time to ready himself for the gig.
Downstairs, the Beacon theater doors open to the delight of the throng. They begin to pour in under the watchful eyes of the Grecian goddesses flanked on either side of the stage, proudly promising “The Mike & Micky Show” in Headquarters type across the projection screen. As the visitors take their seats, there isn’t a straight face in the house. Their grins are stretched from ear to ear. They find their friends and confess to each other, “this is my third time seeing them live!”
“I first saw them at Forest Hills back in ’67…”
“This is my granddaughter. It’s her first Monkees show.”
The house lights begin to dim. The chatter is replaced by a collective gasp. Their show is starting. The stage is still empty when the theater erupts with applause, cheers and whistles. For a moment, it is once again 1966 and the entire audience has reverted back to their former teenaged selves. Here they come…
At 76 and 75 respectively, Nez and Micky can still manage to put on one hell of a show. A blistering rendition of Circle Sky, an underrated gem overlooked by those who looked down upon Monkees records as “kid stuff,” propels itself from Nesmith’s lungs: “It’s a very extraordinary scene to those who don’t understand…”
A very extraordinary scene, indeed. Middle-aged teenagers clap and sing along to their old favorites with a childlike wonder on their faces, only taking a moment to pause when the nostalgia train slows to a grinding halt at intermission. The house lights do not rise, and instead the stage lights fade to near blackness, save for the projection of Peter Tork, alone in a studio with his guitar and softly crooning (sometimes endearingly off-key) an old post-war tune. The theater falls eerily silent other than the echoing warble of the recently departed. Some dab their eyes with the collars of their t-shirt. It is a sobering moment; a stark reminder that their favorites, and they, are growing older. They’re not 13-years-old. They’re in their 40s, their 50s, their 60s. A woman in the eighth row, wool hat pulled over her graying hair, leans close to her husband and says in a hushed tone, “I suddenly feel old.” It’s not a pleasant reality to face for some, and a stark contrast to Nesmith’s earlier conversation with one of his employees:
“There are women down there that still think they have a chance with you,” she says, chuckling.
“A chance for what?!” Nesmith replies incredulously.
She suddenly turns bright pink. “Oh, you know,” she offers, stammering. “They want to go home with you.”
“And do WHAT?” he teases, knowing exactly what she means, but at 76 is well past the groupie scene. That was long in the past, and this is a man that prefers to look ahead.
Two days prior, this writer was sharing a cab with Nesmith—the driver of which seemingly unaware of the legend in his back seat—and asked how the tour was going so far.
“Very successful!” he boasted. “Sound is great, most of the shows are sold out. Everyone is getting their last chance at a Monkees show.” He adds the last part with a verbal wiping of the hands, closing but a chapter in a still-remarkable life. Not to say that he’s planning to retire to a tropical island somewhere (Rio, for example). There’s still a gleam in his eye, a spark that appeared when pitching the still-forming project idea to Alex, that gives hint that Nesmith is far from retirement. There’s something beautiful and comforting in that.
The second half of the show begins. The audience has wiped away their tears and shoved the unpleasant thoughts of aging and ultimate demise out of their heads. They’re here for fun, and Dolenz & Nesmith more than deliver. An acoustic version of Randy Scouse Git—missing the timpani though certainly not lacking—is followed by the inevitable retelling by Dolenz why the tune had to be released under “Alternate Title” in the UK. A story so charmingly oft-told the audience could repeat it along with him, inflections included: “Randy Scouse git roughly translates to ‘horny Liverpudlian putz!’”
As the show seemingly comes to an end, we get another glimpse of Nesmith’s resistance. The band (and Dolenz) leave the stage, saying their goodnights and waving goodbye. Nesmith does not follow suit. He stays on stage, joking to the audience, “where did everybody go?” and patiently waits for the band to return. Anyone having been to a concert before knows an encore is coming, so what’s the use in pretending to say goodbye?
Indeed, the band does return for two more songs: Listen to the Band and I’m a Believer (a glaring omission in the set until now) before saying goodnight for real.
The show is over. The visitors, high from jubilation, float out into the lobby to buy more T-shirts and souvenirs before going home. The air a jumble of words and excitement as they all speak at once. Their favorite song, how great Nesmith looked since his surgery last year, how impressed they are that Micky Dolenz can still keep up with the fast-paced patter tune Goin’ Down.
Upstairs, the party continues. Nesmith, back in his comfy loungewear relaxes once again—this time on a chair in the hall so he can have the room to stretch the long legs that carry his 6-foot-frame—while his assistant packs up and makes sure nothing is left behind. Jill Krementz and her ever-present camera document these last moments at the Beacon. The well-wishers from before now crowd around to bestow their congratulations, and to praise Nesmith and Micky for the great show they just performed. Nesmith, outwardly more comfortable and at ease with this more intimate audience, weaves a verbal tapestry of the experience and the tour in general. His small court hangs onto his every word. Though he is visibly exhausted from the past two hours, his presence among the crowd and the countless people coming and going is still a commanding one. When he speaks, the rest of the room, crowded as it is, falls quiet.
Rich Dart, the drummer, appears in the doorway to announce like a consigliere to the Godfather an old friend is in the lobby and wishes to say hello.
“Who is it?” Nesmith asks cautiously, sitting up in his chair. His arms fold in front of him. The guard is up.
“Janeane Garafalo,” Rich answers.
The Godfather’s eyebrows raise with recognition. “Oh!” The caution melts away. “Should I go downstairs?” he considers briefly before he’s reminded that the lobby is still very full. “In that case, send her up.”
A few moments later a slight Ms. Garafalo, shoulders tensed as she worries whether she’s intruding, almost tiptoes into the room. Behind her, leaning against the door frame waiting his turn to hold court with Don Nezleone is comedic writer Robert Smigel.
“Hi…” Garafalo begins carefully as she approaches. “We met a few years ago,” she reminds him. “I don’t know if you remember—”
“Of course I remember you!” Nesmith interrupts with reassuring exclamation. Her shoulders relax, her unease at intruding has given way to a relieved grin. She practically skips with new confidence into his extended arm as he brings her in for a quick embrace. The two get on like old friends. To watch them laughing and goofing around together is almost as entertaining as the concert itself.
The party continues until Nesmith decides it’s over. He asks his assistant if everything is ready for him to leave. It is. He says his goodbyes to his court and departs for his tour bus. Onto the last gigs before reaching the venue he most looks forward to: his home in sunny California.
Just before the end of this tour, Nesmith writes on his Facebook page: “I start to feel curmudgeonly more and more and less and less suited for singing pop songs --- clever and happy and fun to play as they are…I have a good time…[t]he shows are fun, the songs are good and fun to play…but I am expecting that will be it for me.”
That Nesmith even agreed to do this crop of shows billed as ‘The Monkees’ is nothing short of a miracle. Often the holdout when it came to endeavors regarding his old band [the legitimacy of calling it as such is better suited for another day], Nesmith does what he wants and only if it suits him to do so. To give the fans one last chance at seeing their favorites and hearing the songs performed live is more than generous on his part.
After more than half a century, are we any closer to figuring out who—or what—Michael Nesmith is? Are we able to put a label on someone who shows a clear contempt and discomfort with being categorized? Is he a philosopher, a reluctant idol, a visionary, a goof? He is all of these things and yet simultaneously none of them.
He is Michael Nesmith, and that’s all we need to know.