Monkees Co-Founder Michael Nesmith Dead at 78
"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 members said today in an official 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."
His heart issues date back a few years. The Monkees postponed a string of tour dates in 2018, after Nesmith was rushed to the doctor while experiencing what he described as "agonizing" shortness of breath. "When we got to Lake Tahoe and then the high altitude of Denver," Nesmith later told Rolling Stone, "I couldn't get out of bed and I couldn't breathe.”
Nesmith was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, requiring quadruple bypass heart surgery. He spent six days in the ICU, but eventually returned to music.
It had been a journey of many twists and turns. As a member of the Monkees, Nesmith rose to fame singing and playing the songs of others as part of a Beatles-styled group assembled for a late-'60s hit NBC comedy series. But he was always destined for more, even if the television and studio suits – and especially the Monkees iron-fisted manager Don Kirshner – couldn't see it yet.
Nesmith arrived with a 1965 demo titled "Different Drum," hoping the Monkees would record the track. But they initially had little say over what they recorded, and instead saw a 1967 version by the Stone Poneys hurtle a then-unknown singer named Linda Ronstadt to stardom: "Different Drum" went to No. 13 on the Billboard chart.
"He played it for [producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider] and they said, 'Oh, that's nice but it's not a Monkees song.'" bandmate Micky Dolenz told Rock Cellar in 2021. "And Nez said, 'Wait a minute, I am one of the Monkees.' And they said, 'Yeah, yeah, that’s fine. Thank you but no thank you. It's not a Monkees song."
Listen to Michael Nesmith Perform 'Different Drum'
Nesmith would eventually break free from the Monkees' made-for-TV beginnings to become a musical pioneer in his own right with the First National Band, but only after leading an internal rebellion to wrest creative control from Kirshner. They emerged from those battles with 1967's Headquarters, the first Monkees album created by the band themselves.
"We were kids with our own taste in music and were happier performing songs we liked – and/or wrote – than songs that were handed to us," Nesmith told Rolling Stone in 2012. "It made for a better performance; it was more fun. That this became a bone of contention seemed strange to me, and I think to some extent to each of us – sort of 'What’s the big deal? Why wont you let us play the songs we are singing?'"
Nesmith went on to compose some of the Monkees' well-loved material, including favorites like “Listen to the Band,” “Mary, Mary,” “The Girl I Knew Somewhere” and “Circle Sky,” before becoming a groundbreaking figure in country rock. He officially ended his tenure with the Monkees during an April 1970 commercial for Kool-Aid and Nerf balls. Fittingly, Nesmith signed off by saying "Enerf's enerf!"
At that point, the band had released four albums since the Monkees' television show limped off the air in 1968 – including the soundtrack for Head, which found the group making the leap to theaters. Yet they continued to be defined by the program's paper-thin characterizations – and that was particularly difficult for Nesmith, who still boasted much higher musical aspirations.
"We all were very tired, and the show was starting to repeat itself," Nesmith told the Arizona Republic in 2018. "Things like The Monkees show have a specific lifetime, and when it's through, it is through – left for history to assess. It does not, however, ever die."
He'd actually begun work on five of the songs on the First National Band's debut, titled Magnetic South, while still with the Monkees – including "Hollywood," which he demoed for Headquarters. First National Band bassist John London played on some earlier Monkees songs, and had appeared as an extra on their TV show; pedal-steel guitarist Red Rhodes sat in on the Monkees' "Steam Engine," among other tracks.
But the First National Band boldly expanded upon occasional rootsy fare like "Sunny Girlfriend" from 1968's Head. Playing with a lineup made complete by drummer John Ware, Nesmith quickly caught the eye of fellow genre-bender Gram Parsons. Soon, the First National Band were opening for Parsons' newly formed Flying Burrito Brothers.
At first, they didn't even know what to call it. "I had no notion of country rock as a possible genre, although we used the phrase among ourselves as First National Band members," Nesmith told Goldmine in 2013. "This was more to frame up and focus a feeling of playing. We weren't conscious of this being innovative. It was fun to play like that, and there was plenty to say with it, and we enjoyed listening to it, to each other."
Listen to the First National Band Perform 'Joanne
Unfortunately, he couldn't will this new musical concept past the long shadow of the Monkees. The First National Band's debut single, "Joanne," showed real promise, reaching No. 21 in the U.S. Unfortunately, Magnetic South didn't follow it up on the Billboard chart, getting to only No. 143. The First National Band broke up before groups like the Flying Burrito Brothers, Eagles and the Byrds took the emerging country-rock sound to the mainstream.
Stung, Nesmith began to distance himself from music. But he remained a trailblazer even when only partially engaged, setting new standards in music video. Of course, The Monkees show created something of a template for MTV decades before the network debuted. But Nesmith filmed one of the earliest high-concept music videos for his late '70s song "Rio," then later claimed the first-ever video of the year Grammy in 1982 for a collection of clips called Elephant Parts.
He steadfastly declined to participate in the Monkees' early reunions – including their high-profile 20th-anniversary tour, appearing only for a single encore in 1986 at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. Instead, Nesmith leveraged an inheritance from his mother, Liquid Paper inventor Bette Nesmith Graham, to fund several subsequent business ventures – including movies like Tapeheads and Repo Man.
Lured back to the Monkees for 1996's Justus, Nesmith clearly intended to stay away again. Then bandmate Davy Jones died in 2012. Nesmith briefly joined the others on the road, then took part in sessions for 2016's well-regarded Good Times! reunion album.
As with Justus, he elected not to tour behind the project. Then another death in the Monkees family, Peter Tork in 2019, once again changed Nesmith's mind – this time, for good. He began regularly joining Dolenz for celebrated duo dates. They had only recently completed a Monkees farewell tour.
PR head Jason Elzy of Rhino Records, the Monkees' record label, confirmed Nesmith's cause of death.
"I'm heartbroken. I've lost a dear friend and partner," Dolenz said in an official statement. "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."