Monday, December 13, 2021

He Was The One With The Hat

As a rule, I don't usually do "In Memoriam" posts for famous people who've just died, for the simple reason there are so damn many of them. Honestly, I'd be doing three or four a week and that's just if I limited myself to people I like!

Back when I used to get all my news the old-fashioned way, listening to the radio, watching the television or reading the newspapers, I only got to hear about the really famous people who died. Time was, to get a death note in mainstream news, you'd need to be sufficiently famous that even a high court judge in a comedy sketch would recognize your name. 

These days, it's astonishing who gets called out. I've heard comics artists and singers in punk bands eulogized in BBC news bulletins. News editors in their forties and fifties bring their own sets of preferences and prejudices to production meetings. The establishment's not what it was.

It's been a few years since I got any of my news that way. These days, I don't listen to or watch any broadcast media at all. My interface with the world comes through a selected news feed that includes only entertainment and music sources. I watch via streaming services and listen via digital stations and absolutely none of them include any form of news bulletins whatsoever.

And yet I hear about more famous people dying in a day than I used to get to know about in a week or maybe even a month. All of the sources I follow are death-obsessed. It seems like every few days I hear about someone getting shot, although often as not it's the first time I ever did hear of them.

Interspersed with the killings are the self-inflicted, alcohol, drug and lifestyle deaths of all the middle-aged, or sometimes not even that, rockers who turned out not to be as immortal as their role models (Hi Keith! Hi Iggy!) Sprinkle in a few disturbing suicides. Fame or what passes for it takes a toll on those who maybe were too good for this world but certainly weren't strong enough for what it loaded onto them.

Anyone that skips those traps still has age or ill-health to swallow them down. No-one, as Jim Morrison said, gets out alive. I think it was Jim. Sounds like the sort of thing he would have said, anyway. I never really got Jim Morrison.

Faced with the daily death toll in my feeds, five famous fatalities before breakfast some days, mostly I just shrug it off. Another day, another celebrity down. After all, it isn't like we really know these people, is it? I could probably make a case for actors or musicians being more "our friends" than corporations - it is at least feasible you could meet and talk to them, they aren't notional constructs, or not entirely - but mostly all the relationship is on one side only, ours.

Still counts, though, doesn't it? You'll have spent more time with some of these people than you ever did with your actual friends. Listened to their voices, watched them move, studied the expressions on their faces, shared their emotions, let them into yours. Sometimes they've spent so much time in your home they might as well be living there.

The strange thing about singers or actors or writers or musicians you only really know through their work is, when they die, they're still as much there as they ever were. You can watch the movies, play the records, read the books and it's just the same. Except when it isn't.

I don't know why sometimes it isn't. It famously wasn't with Bowie. Even now, years after, I hear people catch themselves as they talk about him, not quite believing he's dead. Elvis, of course, never died. He's 86 now, so he'll have slowed down some but you know he's still out there, somewhere.

Yeah, no he's not. He's gone, alright, along with John Lennon and this year Charlie Watts. "No Elvis Beatles or the Rolling Stones" as Joe Strummer said. Him too, of course. All gone.

I guess the difference is whether you think there was more yet to come. With Bowie that was certainly the case. With Mike Nesmith, who's death started me down this morbid path, I guess there wasn't, really, although he was still on stage, playing the hits alongside Mickey Dolenz as recently as this autumn.

Dolenz is the last Monkee standing. There's that joke about the Beatles dying in the wrong order but it doesn't work for the Monkees. It didn't work for the Beatles, either, but at least you could rank the Fab Four, one way or another. The Monkees were more of a gestalt.

Nesmith, though, probably had the chops, if any of them did. He'd been a reasonably respected singer-songwriter-performer on the folk circuit before he auditioned for a place in the anti-Beatles. He wrote songs for other artists, most famously Linda Rondstadt, who recorded the sublime, definitive version of Nesmith's composition Different Drum with her band the Stone Poneys.

He went on to have a long and varied career, releasing a number of solo albums, having solo hits, producing movies including the cult classic Repo Man and inventing MTV. And a whole load of other stuff. He did a lot.

And yet every obit is going to focus on the five years he spent wearing a wool watch cap, looking alternately glum and bemused as Davy Jones, Peter Tork and Micky Dolenz mugged, capered and gurned around him. Nesmith was always the adult in the room, as far as the Monkees did adulthood, which wasn't far at all.

I grew up with the Monkees. As a child, I watched them on TV, where they were slotted in as children's programming, then I watched them again in the '80s, when they returned along with every other show from the fifties and sixties that hadn't been wiped as television rediscovered itself. 

At Christmas I would always be given a slew of annuals, those slim, hardback go-tos of the harried aunt and uncle. I loved comics so anything that had strips was fine by me. The Monkees annual had strips. In the twenty-oughts I cleared out most of my sprawling collection of annuals but I kept my Monkees books. 

They're in the house, somewhere, right now. Couldn't tell you exactly where but I could put my hands on the vinyl albums if I had to. I played those a ton during the punk days, when it was on-message to claim you liked the Monkees better than the Beatles, which I did and do. 

In college, the band I was in played "I'm A Believer". Another band in the same college played "Stepping Stone". I wish I could say it had been the other way around but it wasn't. 

However you cut it, the Monkees have been in my life forever but I'd be making it up if I said I thought about them much or at all. These things only occur to you when someone dies, don't they? I thought about it a little when Davy Jones died just under a decade ago and a bit more when Peter Tork followed him just a couple of years back.

Peter Tork was my favorite Monkee as a child. I'd guess he was most small kids' favorite. He was the oldest but the most childlike of them all, in the face of some fierce competition.

Neither he nor Jones really represented the band's formidable musical legacy, though, for all that Tork always considered himself a serious musician and indeed had the most impressive musical pedigree of any of them. Tork was pals with Stephen Stills and David Crosby and Dolenz gave the music business his best shot but it was Mike Nesmith who ended up with the musical profile and the songwriting credits to back it up.

And yet it isn't Nesmith's songs we remember or not so well as the rest. They're quite difficult. I spent a couple of hours yesterday going through the covers of Monkees' numbers for this post and picking anything Nesmith wrote was tough. There are covers aplenty of the big hits but as anyone who's taken the time to listen to some Monkees albums all the way through must know, away from the hits there was a lot of psychedelia and strangeness and Nesmith may have been at the heart of that. 

Even later, when he was writing country-tinged rock for his solo project, the First National Band, most of what he came up with was surprisingly uncoverable. Or at least few people tried and those who did, so far as I can tell, didn't make much of a fist of it.

I've done my best to pick out a few of the better versions but I'm not sure all of them do Woolhat any favors. Maybe it's best to let him sing for himself. He pretty much did what he wanted the whole of his life as far as I can tell.

Probably that's the best epitaph any of us can hope for.

Song credits:

 "Joanne" - The Breeders (Kim Deal)

"Daily, Nightly" - Bryan Mcune

"My Share of the Sidewalk" - P. K. Limited

"Different Drum" - The Lemonheads

"Calico Girlfriend" - Circe Link

"Mary, Mary" - RunDMC

"The Girl I Knew Somewhere" - The Monkees


  1. I always felt bad for Nesmith whenever I watched The Monkees; he was the one who tried the hardest to be "normal" and was surrounded by the others, for whom "normal" was a relative thing. I could relate to Michael.

    I personally liked Listen to the Band, but that's just me.

    1. I just watched him in a couple of clips and it's really obvious how he's supposed to be the grown-up. He even wears a suit and tie sometimes. I never really noticed it as a child. I don't believe any of them got to choose their stereotypes - they just got assigned them.

      The weirdest thing I read while researching this post, though, was that Nesmith supposedly auditioned for the role of Arthur Fonzarelli in happy days. Dolenz defintely did, he's said so in interviews, but the Nesmith audition seems like it could be a myth, although it's on IMDB and Wikipedia. Imagine Mike Nesmith as the Fonz. You can't, can you?

    2. It's not just you. I quite liked that one as well.

  2. Wow, hadn't heard this. I haven't thought much about The Monkees since some awful camp sci-fi movie (Mega Python vs. Gatoroid) kept talking about a "singing monkey" that was going to make an appearance and it turned out to be Dolenz. Sheesh that was 2011.

    I do have "The Monkee Music Box" CD set in my visual line of sight right now, though. If only I had a CD player...

    1. Mickey Dolenz has absolutely no shame whatsoever. I think that's well-established.

      I was trying to remember if I have any Monkees CDs. I think I have a Best Of but I haven't seen it for a very long time. I have a CD player attached to this PC though, so if I found I could play it. Why I'd want to when I could just click on a streaming site and have everything they ever recorded is another question...

  3. When I was young I watched the show, listened to the music, had the lunchbox and the Corgi Monkeemobile car. I haven't seen the show since the 70, I broke the thermos in the lunchbox when playing "lunchbox bowling" at recess, and lost the car somewhere, but I still have a bunch of their songs on my phone.

    I think you're right about their roles. As a small child I was always drawn to Tork, who was certainly cast as the most child-like in the show, but aspired to be Mike, who was the most adult of the group in the room.

    And, of the four, I have been most vaguely aware of what he has been up to since the "pre-fab four" had their run back in the day. Also, no discussion of him is complete without mentioning the fact that his mother invented "Liquid Paper" correction fluid. That wasn't his doing, but it is a bit of trivia that has stuck to him forever.

    1. I covet that Monkeemobile! I was going to mention the Liquid Paper fortune in the context of how his wealth might have supported his seeming ability to follow whatever project took his fancy, but then I checked into a bit and found his mother didn't sell out (for $48m) until the late 70s, which was well after both the Monkees and the First National Band. She die very soon after, though, but without digging further than I care to, I have no clue if he inherited the whole fortune or part of it or none of it. It would explain the "Executive Producer" role he had on a number of movies in the '80s, though.

  4. Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. has long been my favorite Monkees album for no particular reason I can think of. It will feel very strange to watch bits of the TV show and know most of those incredibly funny people are now dead.

    1. I really need to get all of the albums or at least listen to them. I have a couple of the originals and at least two compilations but not that one. I nearly bought it a bunch of times when I used to go through vinyl bins. Great cover. I'm listening to The Door Into Summer on YouTube as I type this - what a bunch of hippies !!

    2. Ha. And that's my favorite song on the album.
      Then again, someone once asked "If you could bring any person back for one meal to talk to them, who would you pick?" and called me a hippie for picking Jim Henson. I suppose I am, at heart.

  5. My wife is a huge Monkees fan and has seen them live several times in the last decade, including one of their last appearances with all four original members. This news hit her hard, just like the last couple of times.

    I've seen them live twice, but never all four together. Great musicians and great people; Mike will be missed.

    1. I don't believe they ever played anywhere close to me or I'd probably have gone to see them, at least back when I used to go to gigs I would. Too late now, sadly, although it seems as though just about every gig they ever played is on YouTube, so it's all still there in a way.


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