Michael Nesmith has done far more than just Monkee around. Famed as one-quarter of the legendary television/music/live performance project in the late 1960s, Nesmith shared highlights of his unusual life in a new memoir, Infinite Tuesday. In it, he talks of his high-flying days in the Monkees, personal and financial struggles following their dissolution, and the shocking mysterious illness that nearly left him paralyzed.
The Monkees were designed as television’s answer to the Beatles, and their instant success soon brought them into upper echelon of fame alongside the real Fab Four. Nesmith stuck up a friendship with John Lennon, staying at his house in the London suburb of Weybridge, and even attending sessions for the Beatles’ landmark 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
He also hung out other music legends, including Johnny Cash and Jimi Hendrix, but his real kinship was with a struggling actor by the name of Jack Nicholson.
“I met Jack through Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, the producers of The Monkees,” he writes. “We became friends and steady companions right away. Jack was still bombing around the streets of LA in his yellow VW convertible looking for work as an actor-writer-director, and he was good company.”
The pair quickly became inseparable. “When Jack came on the scene of The Monkees’ TV production, he was not yet famous and was one of the few people I met who seemed self-aware and grounded. At the same time his demeanor and sense of humor was exceptional and like catnip for me. I thought he was the coolest guy, and since this was long before the term bromance entered the US lexicon, some people in my crowd of friends thought my fascination with him was beyond the pale.”
Nicholson would co-write the band’s 1968 feature film, Head, which inadvertently served as the band’s undoing. Produced amid a haze of drugs, the rambling non sequitur storyline alienated their teenybopper fanbase and infuriated critics. It was a massive commercial failure, and the Monkees disintegrated soon after.
“[After] the end of the TV show and the unsuccessful release of Head, I was left to fly on my own, and things of the most mundane type took horrifying turns,” he writes of this troubling time. “The IRS, which I had ignored for several years, showed up with a huge bill for unpaid taxes and started seizing property.” The government would ultimately leave him “essentially penniless.”
But it would get worse. Songs he recorded with his new group failed to sell, his decade-long marriage to college sweetheart Phyllis imploded, and he “ran off” with the wife of a close friend. He sunk what little money he had into constructing a country music studio for a record company, but the plans ultimately yielded nothing.
“I found myself in free-fall,” he writes. “Every seam in the sack of my life started to split and all the contents started leaking out. My affair with my friend’s wife became even more horrible to me, but I didn’t know how to retreat….I had no opportunities as an actor, a player, a singer, a songwriter, or a producer.”
Nesmith spent most of the ’70s trying to piece together his post-Monkees life by following a series of gurus and experimenting with the psychedelic, LSD. “Once I took it I could see how different life looked,” he says of the experience. He tripped only a handful of times (“Enough to get a good feel for the drug.”) describing the sensation as “pleasant” but ultimately unfulfilling. “The message was, ‘You don’t need drugs to reach this space,'” he admits.
He would ultimately find renewed purpose by drawing on his Monkees past and filming an imaginative promotional video for his 1979 song, “Rio.” Intrigued by this new “music video” concept, he set about laying the groundwork for the network that would become MTV.
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His mother, the inventor of Liquid Paper (a.k.a. white out) left Nesmith a multi-million dollar inheritance upon her death in 1980, putting an end to any money worries. Still, the loss devastated him, and the sudden wealth left him confused. Nesmith described the windfall as “like a cross between a tsunami and a Category 5 hurricane” and recalls phone calls from friends offering an awkward mix of condolences and congratulations.
He would spend the next few decades exploring the nascent home video market, writing two novels, and producing films, including the sci-fi comedy Repo Man. But Nesmith endured more tragedy in 2007 when an unidentified illness left him unable to walk. “I was essentially helpless, a captive in my home,” he says. Visits to a variety of specialists were not helpful, in his eyes: “Each doctor I went to had diagnoses that were variations of the same story. While they did not think it was fatal in the near term, because they didn’t really know what it was, they thought it might be incurable.”
He began to embrace the Christian Science faith, which he had been exposed to since his youth and it appeared to succeed where modern medicine had failed. “I spent hours daily in painless study and prayer and contemplation. Slowly I saw some normalcy return, and as I got my movement back in my hand, I was able to get up and move around.”
While something a miracle, Nesmith takes a fairly level-headed approach to the recovery. “I felt confident it wasn’t supernatural in any sense, just natural good taking care of her own, replacing the beliefs of a mortal with the facts and forces of the supremely natural world.”
Infinite Tuesday is on sale April 18.