Talented ‘Monkees’ singer-writer-guitarist Mike Nesmith leaves formidable legacy after passing at age 78

When my wife and I moved to Florida from “up north” in 2000, I couldn’t locate my collection of vinyl “LPs,” so the array of titles heavy on Beatles, Beach Boys, Four Seasons and, yes, the Monkees, didn’t make the trip south.

I managed to save a couple of Monkees audiocassettes and later acquired a CD of “The Monkees Headquarters,” which I discovered had been the Number 1 album the group released.

Mike Nesmith in the mid-1960s. (Getty Images)

The diminishing presence of the jolly quartet that was melded together by NBC Television in the 1960s for a rollicking TV show became a sadder reality this past week when Michael Nesmith, the lanky Texan who wrote and performed many Monkees songs and was, in this writer’s mind, the most talented of the so-called “Pre-fab Four,” passed away at age 78.

He was preceded in death by Davy Jones, the diminutive Brit who was living a short distance from here in Martin County where he raised horses, and Peter Tork, an excellent musician whose talents were hardly ever emphasized on the TV series or on early Monkees recordings.

I remember Peter’s off-key rendition of “Your Auntie Grizelda” from “More of the Monkees” as a testament to his apparent dearth of musical talent. Turns out he was probably on par with Nesmith for tuneful acuity, and I was later told the Monkees’ eventual demise as a group was led by Peter’s defection.

Only Monkee Mickey Dolenz remains today – and I wish him Godspeed. May he long continue to embody the silly spirit and excellent musicality of a phenomenal foursome unlikely to ever be created again.

The Monkees, from left, Michael Nesmith, Mickey Dolenz and Peter Tork, perform at Mizner Park Amphitheater in Boca Raton in July 2013. (Photo by Dale King)

I never thought of myself as a Monkeephile. I thought they made great music – both early on, when they sang with studio musicians and only faked their use of instruments, and later, when they took over control of their productions. It was bold that the group fought to make their own music, play their own tunes and even write their own songs. Nesmith headed that effort.

Monkees songs were fine and listenable. “Last Train to Clarksville,” with its steam train-driven video and exceptional guitar riff, seemed to define the group early on. “I’m a Believer” was a nice contribution from contemporary performer Neil Diamond and “Daydream Believer” was offered by another musician who never got his due, John Stewart, the superb banjoist and singer known from his work with The Kingston Trio.

A slide displaying the album cover for “Monkees Headquarters” is shown on a screen during a concert at Mizner Park Amphitheater in Boca Raton in July 2013. (Photo by Dale King)

Nesmith’s tunes were unique with their rock-country flavor, and the number of his contributions increased during the Monkees’ history. He penned “Mary, Mary,” sung by Mickey, while he stepped into the lead vocal role on “Papa Gene’s Blues,” “You Told Me” and “You Just May Be the One.” Later came his storied tunes, “What am I Doing Hanging ‘Round,” “The Door into Summer” and “Listen to the Band.” 

A friend who knew I enjoyed Monkees’ tunes gave me a birthday present — two tickets to their 1986 concert at Foxboro Stadium. Mike wasn’t with them that year, and the stage where Mickey, Peter and Davy performed faced the 50-yard line. Our tickets were on the 10-yard line, so we watched much of the show on the Jumbotron.

Monkees member Peter Tork plays piano, center, in front of a screen showing a video of the late band member Davy Jones during a concert at Mizner Park Amphitheater in Boca Raton in July 2013. (Photo by Dale King)

Still, the Monkees were there, only 40 yards away, on tour to mark the 20th anniversary of their TV show.

The year 2012 was significant. The first Monkee to die, Davy Jones, passed, apparently of a heart attack, at his South Florida home where he raised thoroughbred horses, though his first love continued to be music. 

A year later, the remaining three Monkees went on a tour that brought them to the Mizner Park Amphitheater in Boca Raton for a performance in late July. Mike Nesmith stood at the far-left side of the stage, playing the famous blond-body Gretsch 12-string guitar that he used on the TV show. 

In fact, the guitar maker manufactured a product called the Gretsch PX-6123 Monkees Rock’N’Roll guitar in 1966 and 1967, based on the instrument Nesmith used on TV. Actually, he played several Gretsch guitars while filming the show.

On the amphitheater stage, Mike still stood tall, with the iconic blonde guitar across his body. The long sideburns that had been his television trademark were gone, as was the head of long, brown hair, replaced by a combed-back swath of white locks. There was no wool hat, which I always thought was a useless affectation devised by NBC.

His physical persona may have been altered, but his voice was unmistakably Michael Nesmith. I wrote in a review of that performance: 

This summer’s concert tour was billed as a tribute to Jones, and even attracted back Nesmith, who has been reluctant for the past 40-some years to rejoin his ex-band colleagues. At age 70, Nesmith proved he is a consummate performer. The night was filled with songs that the long, tall Texan either wrote, sang, or both.

Mike Nesmith, shown in a 2018 photo. (vintagerock.com)

Houston-born Robert Michael Nesmith passed away Dec. 10, barely a month after concluding a “farewell tour” that featured him and long-time bandmate Dolenz. Ironically, they have already been booked for one more performance aboard a cruise ship in 2022 that was to serve as their final gig together.

Mike’s demise not only divests the music world of his talent as a Monkee, but also as a member of the First National Band, his post-Monkee musical ensemble that performed such country-tinged tunes as “Joanne,” “Silver Moon” and “Rio.” 

He also founded a multimedia firm that became an outlet for music videos, leading to the creation of MTV.

The tall, quiet Monkee may be gone, but his legacy definitely continues.

Rest in peace, Nez.

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