After the break-up of The Monkees, Nesmith continued his successful songwriting and performing career, first with the seminal country rock group The First National Band, with whom he had a top-40 hit "Joanne", and then as a solo artist.
Nesmith was born in Houston, Texas in 1942 He is an only child; his parents, Warren Audrey Nesmith and Bette Nesmith Graham, divorced when their son was four. He and his mother moved to Dallas to be closer to her parents, sister, aunts, and grandmother. Bette took temporary jobs ranging from clerical work to graphics design, and developed very good secretarial skills, including shorthand and, auspiciously, touch typing. When Nesmith was 13, his mother invented a typewriter correction fluid later known commercially as Liquid Paper. Over the next 25 years she built the Liquid Paper Corporation into a multimillion-dollar international company, which she finally sold to Gillette in 1979 for US$48 million. She died a few months later at age 56.
Nesmith was enrolled in the Dallas public school system in 1949, at the age of six. Describing himself as an indifferent student, he nevertheless participated in choral and drama activities during his years at Thomas Jefferson High School in Dallas. He also began to write verse poetry. When he was 15 he enrolled in the Dallas Theater Center teen program, where he was featured in several plays.
Without graduating from high school, Nesmith enlisted in the United States Air Force in 1960. He completed basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, was trained as an aircraft mechanic at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas, and then was permanently stationed at the Clinton-Sherman Air Force Base near Burns Flat, Oklahoma. While in the Air Force, Nesmith obtained a G.E.D. and was discharged under honorable conditions in 1962. He enrolled in San Antonio College, a community college, where he met John Kuehne (later to be known as John London) and began a musical collaboration. The duo won the first San Antonio College talent award, performing a mixture of standard folk songs and a few of Nesmith's original songs. He met another SAC student, Phyllis Ann Barbour, whom he later married.
While in college, Nesmith began to write more songs and poetry, and after he and Phyllis married in 1963, the two of them decided to move to Los Angeles so Nesmith could pursue his songwriting and singing career. At the time, Phyllis was pregnant with their first child, Christian DuVal. Nesmith began singing in folk clubs around Los Angeles and had one notable job as the "Hootmaster" for the Monday night hootenannies at The Troubadour, a West Hollywood night club that featured new artists. Here Nesmith met, socialized, and performed with many different members of the burgeoning new L.A. music scene. Randy Sparks from the New Christy Minstrels offered Nesmith a publishing deal for his songs, and it was while Nesmith was at this publishing house that Barry Friedman, also known as the Rev. Frazier Mohawk, brought the ad for The Monkees TV series auditions to Nesmith's attention. In October 1965, Nesmith landed the role as the wool hat-wearing, guitar player "Mike" in The Monkees TV series, which required real-life musical talent (writing, instrument playing, singing, recording, and performing in live concerts as part of The Monkees musical band). The Monkees television series aired from 1966 until 1968 and has developed a cult following over the years.
When The Monkees TV series ended in 1968, Nesmith enrolled part-time at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and studied American History and Music History. Michael and Phyllis's second son, Jonathan, was born in February 1968. Nesmith's third son, Jason, was born in August 1968 to Nurit Wilde, whom he met while working on The Monkees TV series. In 1969, Nesmith formed the group First National Band with Kuehne, John Ware, and Red Rhodes. Nesmith wrote most of the songs for the band, including a single titled "Joanne" that received some airplay and was a moderate chart hit for seven weeks during 1970, rising to number 21 on the Billboard Top 40. The First National Band has been credited with being among the pioneers of country-rock music.
Phyllis's third child, and Nesmith's fourth, daughter Jessica, was born in September 1970. Circa 1972, Nesmith started the record label Countryside Records with Jac Holzman, the founder of Elektra Records. Also, in 1972, Nesmith and Phyllis were divorced and he moved to Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. In 1974, Nesmith started Pacific Arts Records and released what he called "a book with a soundtrack," titled The Prison, as the company's first release. In 1976, he married Kathryn Bild. In 1988, following the ending of this second marriage, he returned to Los Angeles where he met Victoria Kennedy. They moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1992 and then returned to Carmel, California, in 2000. They were married in April 2000 in Monterey, California. They separated in 2011 and Kennedy filed for divorce.
After a tour of duty in the Air Force, Nesmith was given a guitar as a Christmas present from his mother and stepfather. Learning as he went, he played solo and in a series of working bands, performing folk, country, and occasionally rock and roll. His verse poems became the basis for song lyrics, and after moving to Los Angeles with Phyllis and friend John London, he signed a publishing deal for his songs. Nesmith's "Mary, Mary" was recorded by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, while "Different Drum" and "Some of Shelly's Blues" were recorded by Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys. "Pretty Little Princess," written in 1965, was recorded by Frankie Laine and released as a single in 1968 on ABC Records. Later, "Some of Shelly's Blues" and "Propinquity (I've Just Begun to Care)" were made popular by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on their 1970 album Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy.
Nesmith began his recording career in 1963 by releasing a single on the Highness label. He followed this in 1965 with a one-off single released on Edan Records followed by two more recorded singles; one was titled "The New Recruit" under the name "Michael Blessing," released on Colpix Records, coincidentally also the label of Davy Jones, though they did not meet until The Monkees formed.
From 1965 to early 1970, Nesmith was a member of the television pop-rock band The Monkees, created for the television situation comedy of the same name. According to his May 2015 interview on Gilbert Gottfried's podcast, someone showed him a copy of the famous press advertisement asking for "four insane boys" so he applied for the job. Nesmith won his role largely by appearing blasé when he auditioned. He wore a wool hat to keep his hair out of his eyes, riding his motorcycle to the audition. Producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider remembered "Wool Hat", and called Nesmith back.
Once he was cast, Screen Gems bought his songs so they could be used in the show. Many of the songs Nesmith wrote for The Monkees, such as "The Girl I Knew Somewhere," "Mary, Mary," and "Listen to the Band" became minor hits. One song he wrote, "You Just May Be the One," is in mixed meter, interspersing 5/4 bars into an otherwise 4/4 structure.
The Gretsch guitar company built a one-off natural finish 12-string electric guitar for Nesmith when he was performing with The Monkees (Gretsch had a promotional deal with the group). He earlier played a customized Gretsch twelve-string, which had originally been a six-string model. Nesmith used this guitar for his appearances on the television series, as well as The Monkees' live appearances in 1966 and 1967. Beginning in 1968, Nesmith used a white 6-string Gibson SG Custom for his live appearances with The Monkees. He would use that guitar in their motion picture Head for the live version of "Circle Sky," and also for the final original Monkees tour in 1969 with Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz. In a post on his Facebook page in 2011, Nesmith reported that both guitars were stolen in the early 1970s.
As with the other Monkees, Nesmith came to be frustrated by the manufactured image of the whole project. He was permitted to write and produce two songs per album and his music was frequently featured in episodes of the series. Nesmith was the most publicly vocal Monkee about the band's prefabricated image.
The Monkees succeeded in ousting supervisor Don Kirshner (with Nesmith punching a hole in a wall to make a point with Kirshner and attorney Herb Moelis) and took control of their records and song choices, but they worked as a four-man group on only one album, 1967's Headquarters. The band never overcame the credibility problems they faced when word spread that they had not played on their first records; Nesmith instigated this when he called the band's first non-studio press conference and called More of The Monkees "probably the worst record in the history of the world". However, their singles and albums continued to sell well, until the disastrous release of Head.
Nesmith's last contractual Monkees commitment was a commercial for Kool-Aid and Nerf balls, in April 1970 (fittingly, the spot ends with Nesmith frowning and saying, "Enerf's enerf!"). With the band's fortunes continuing to fall, Nesmith asked to be released from his contract, and had to pay a default: "I had three years left... at $150,000 a year," which he had to pay back. He continued to feel the financial bite for years afterwards, until his inheritance from his mother's Liquid Paper fortune in 1980 eased those concerns. In a 1980 interview with Playboy he said of that time, "I had to start telling little tales to the tax man while they were putting tags on the furniture." While Nesmith had continued to produce his compositions with the Monkees, he withheld many of the songs from the final Monkees albums, only to release them on his post-Monkees solo records.
Nesmith did not participate in the Monkees' 20th anniversary reunion. However, he did appear during an encore with the other three members at the Greek Theatre on September 7, 1986. In a 1987 interview for Nick Rocks, Nesmith stated, "When Peter called up and said 'we're going to go out, do you want to go?' I was booked. But, if you get to L.A ... I'll play."
Nesmith appeared again in 1989 with Dolenz, Tork, and Jones when the Monkees received a Hollywood Walk of Fame Star.
In 1995, Nesmith was again reunited with the Monkees to record their studio album (and first to feature all four since Head), titled Justus, released in 1996. He also wrote and directed a Monkees television special entitled Hey, Hey, It's the Monkees. To support the reunion, Nesmith, Jones, Dolenz, and Tork briefly toured the UK in 1997. The UK tour was the last appearance of all four Monkees performing together.
In 2012, 2013, and 2014, after Jones's death, Nesmith reunited with Dolenz and Tork to perform concerts throughout the United States. Backed with a 7-piece band that included Nesmith's son, Christian, the trio performed 27 songs from The Monkees discography ("Daydream Believer" was sung by the audience and played by the band). When asked why he had decided to return to the Monkees, Nesmith stated, "I never really left. It is a part of my youth that is always active in my thoughts and part of my overall work as an artist. It stays in a special place." Despite not touring with Dolenz and Tork for The Monkees' 50th anniversary reunion in 2016, Nesmith contributed vocally and instrumentally to the Monkees album Good Times!. Nesmith additionally contributed a song, "I Know What I Know" and was reportedly "thrilled" at the outcome of the album.
As he prepared for his exit from The Monkees in 1970, Nesmith was approached by John Ware of The Corvettes, a band that featured Nesmith's friend John London, who played on some of the earliest pre-Monkees Nesmith 45s as well as numerous Monkees sessions, and had 45s produced by Nesmith for the Dot label in 1969. Ware wanted Nesmith to put together a band. Nesmith said he would be interested only if noted pedal steel player Orville "Red" Rhodes was part of the project; Nesmith's musical partnership with Rhodes continued until Rhodes's death in 1995. The new band was christened Michael Nesmith and the First National Band and went on to record three albums for RCA Records in 1970.
Nesmith has been considered one of the pioneers of country rock. He also had moderate commercial success with the First National Band. Their second single, "Joanne," hit No. 21 on the Billboard chart and No. 17 on Cashbox, with the follow-up "Silver Moon" making No. 42 Billboard and No. 28 Cashbox. Two more singles charted ("Nevada Fighter" made No. 70 Billboard/No. 73 Cashbox, and "Propinquity" reached No. 95 Cashbox), and the first two LPs charted in the lower regions of the Billboard album chart. No clear answer has ever been given for the band's breakup.
Nesmith followed up with The Second National Band, a band that, besides Nesmith, consisted of Michael Cohen (keyboards and Moog), Johnny Meeks (bass), jazzer Jack Ranelli (drums), and Orville Rhodes (pedal steel), as well as an appearance by singer, musician, and songwriter José Feliciano on congas. The album, Tantamount to Treason Vol. 1, was a commercial and critical disaster. Nesmith then recorded And the Hits Just Keep on Comin', featuring only him on guitar and Red Rhodes on pedal steel.
Nesmith became more heavily involved in producing, working on Iain Matthews's album Valley Hi and Bert Jansch's L.A. Turnaround. Nesmith was given a label of his own, Countryside, through Elektra Records, as Elektra's Jac Holzman was a fan of Nesmith. It featured a number of artists produced by Nesmith, including Garland Frady and Red Rhodes. The staff band at Countryside also helped Nesmith on his next, and last, RCA album, Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash. Countryside folded when David Geffen replaced Holzman, as Countryside was unnecessary in Geffen's eyes.
In the mid-1970s, Nesmith briefly collaborated as a songwriter with Linda Hargrove, resulting in the tune "I've Never Loved Anyone More", a hit for Lynn Anderson and recorded by many others, as well as the songs "Winonah" and "If You Will Walk With Me," both of which were recorded by Hargrove. Of these songs, only "Winonah" was recorded by Nesmith himself. During this same period, Nesmith started his multimedia company Pacific Arts, which initially put out audio records, 8-tracks, and cassettes, followed in 1981 with "video records." Nesmith recorded a number of LPs for his label, and had a moderate worldwide hit in 1977 with his song "Rio," the single taken from the album From a Radio Engine to the Photon Wing. In 1983, Nesmith produced the music video for the Lionel Richie single "All Night Long". In 1987, he produced the music video for the Michael Jackson single "The Way You Make Me Feel".
During this time, Nesmith created a video-clip for "Rio" which helped spur Nesmith's creation of a television program called PopClips for the Nickelodeon cable network. In 1980, PopClips was sold to the Time Warner/Amex consortium. Time Warner/Amex developed PopClips into the MTV network.
Nesmith won the first-ever Grammy Award given for (Long-form) Music-Video in 1982, for his hour-long Elephant Parts and also had a short-lived series on NBC inspired by the video called Michael Nesmith in Television Parts. Television Parts included many other artists who were unknown at the time but went on to become major stars in their own right. Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling, Whoopi Goldberg, and Arsenio Hall all became well-known artists after their appearances on Nesmith's show. The concept of the show was to have comics render their stand-up routines into short comedy films much like the ones in Elephant Parts. Nesmith assembled writers Jack Handey, William Martin, John Levenstein, and Michael Kaplan, along with directors William Dear (who had directed Elephant Parts) and Alan Myerson, as well as producer Ward Sylvester to create the show. The half-hour show ran for eight episodes in the summer of 1985 on NBC Thursday nights in prime time.
Michael Nesmith formed the Pacific Arts Corporation, Inc. in 1974 to manage and develop media projects. Pacific Arts Video became a pioneer in the home video market, producing and distributing a wide variety of videotaped programs, although the company eventually ceased operations after an acrimonious contract dispute with PBS over home video licensing rights and payments for several series, including Ken Burns' The Civil War. The dispute escalated into a lawsuit that went to jury trial in Federal Court in Los Angeles. On February 3, 1999, a jury awarded Nesmith and his company Pacific Arts $48.875 million in compensatory and punitive damages, prompting his widely quoted comment, "It's like finding your grandmother stealing your stereo. You're happy to get your stereo back, but it's sad to find out your grandmother is a thief." PBS appealed the ruling, but the appeal never reached court and a settlement was reached, with the amount paid to Pacific Arts and Nesmith kept confidential.
Nesmith's current Pacific Arts project is Videoranch 3D, a virtual environment on the internet that hosts live performances at various virtual venues inside the Ranch. He performed live inside Videoranch 3D on May 25, 2009.
Nesmith was the executive producer for the films Repo Man, Tapeheads, and Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann, as well as his own solo recording and film projects.
In 1998, Nesmith published his first novel, The Long Sandy Hair of Neftoon Zamora. It was developed originally as an online project and was later published as a hard cover book by St Martin's Press. Nesmith's second novel The America Gene was released in July 2009 as an online download from Videoranch.com.
In the early 1980s, Nesmith teamed up with satirist P.J. O'Rourke to ride his vehicle Timerider in the annual Baja 1000 off-road race. This is chronicled in O'Rourke's 2009 book Driving Like Crazy.
During the 1990s, Nesmith, as Trustee and President of the Gihon foundation, hosted the Council on Ideas, a gathering of intellectuals from different fields who were asked to identify the most important issues of their day and publish the result. The Gihon ceased the program in 2000 and started a new Program for the Performing Arts. Nesmith also spent a decade as a board of trustees member, nominating member and vice-chair of the American Film Institute.
In 1992, Nesmith undertook a concert tour of North America to promote the CD release of his RCA solo albums (although he included the song "Rio", from the album From a Radio Engine to the Photon Wing). The concert tour ended at the Britt Festival in Oregon. A video and CD, both entitled Live at the Britt Festival were released capturing the 1992 concert.
Nesmith continues to record and release his own music. His last album, Rays, was released in 2006. In 2011, Nesmith returned to producing, working with blues singer/guitarist Carolyn Wonderland. Nesmith produced Wonderland's version of Robert Johnson's "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom" on her album Peace Meal. Wonderland married writer-comedian A. Whitney Brown on March 4, 2011, in a ceremony officiated by Nesmith.
In 2012, Nesmith briefly toured Europe prior to re-joining The Monkees for their tours of the United States. Intermixing the Monkees concerts, Nesmith also launched solo tours of the U.S. Unlike his 1992 U.S. tour, which predominantly featured music from his RCA recordings, Nesmith stated his 2013 tour featured songs that he considers "thematic, chronological and most often requested by fans". Chris Scruggs, grandson of Earl Scruggs, replaced the late Red Rhodes on the steel guitar. The tour was captured on a forthcoming live album, Movies Of The Mind.
In 2014, he guest-starred in Season 4, Episode 9 of the IFC comedy series "Portlandia" in the fictitious role of the father of the Mayor of Portland, Oregon.
Nesmith had a cameo appearance as a taxi driver in the Whoopi Goldberg film Burglar.
Nesmith had cameo appearances in his own films including Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann (Race Official), Repo Man (Rabbi), and Tapeheads (Water Man).
In a promotional video to support Pacific Arts's video release of Tapeheads, Nesmith was introduced with a voice-over making fun of his Monkees persona. The narration teases Nesmith, who approaches the camera to speak, poking fun at his "missing hat."
An opportunistic lookalike from the U.S. cashed in on his similarity to Nesmith by appearing on talk shows and doing interviews in Australia during the 1980s. The scam was successful, the lookalike being far enough from America to avoid detection as a fraud (which was more likely in the U.S., where the real Nesmith had made many media and show-business acquaintances). An entertaining interviewee, the impersonator's charade was not discovered until after he had vanished from the public eye. The imposter, Barry Faulkner, who had pulled various fraudulent scams for 40 years, was finally apprehended and sent to jail in 2009.
(n.b. books proper – not including The Prison
and The Garden
The Long Sandy Hair of Neftoon Zamora (1998)
The America Gene (2009)
Infinite Tuesday: An Autobiographical Riff (2017)
The Long Sandy Hair of Neftoon Zamora (2004) (with Nesmith reading the story)
Infinite Tuesday: An Autobiographical Riff (2017) (narrated by Nesmith)