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A Monkee’s Life: A lattice of coincidence and a strange phone call from Johnny Cash

Crown Archetype
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BOOK REVIEW: Infinite Tuesday: An Autobiographical Riff by Michael Nesmith (Crown Archetype) 2017

Days after reading Michael Nesmith’s unusual autobiography, Infinite Tuesday, I came away feeling – mixed about it all. I’m still digesting all of those words. All those ideas. All that Nishwash!

Firstly, I have been a very serious fan of Nesmith since discovering The Monkees TV show and their music over 30 years ago, amidst a revival, thanks to MTV and the 1960’s nostalgia that gripped the culture in the mid-1980’s.

While I liked Peter Tork, Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz quite a bit, I was always drawn to Nesmith’s quirky personality and deep creativity and talent. I identified a bit with him – a little stoic and uncertain in the midst of madcap situations, but willing to “roll with the flow,” as Nesmith would later sing about during his 1970’s-era country-rock period.

And yet reading Infinite Tuesday I was surprised by how little Nesmith discussed his fellow Monkees (will Peter Tork ever write his memoirs? Inquiring minds want to know!) and no mention of the Monkees reunions in the 80’s and onward. And no mention of Davy Jones’s death in 2012. It struck me as odd.

But then again, the book Nesmith gives us is not run of the mill in any way, shape or form. And knowing the Texas native’s absurd streak and general contrarian nature, I am not really surprised. And while I have read Randi L. Massingill’s controversial biography of Nesmith – the 2005 edition of Total Control – I was eager to hear “Papa Nez’s” side of the story. His story.

And what a story it is!

Infinite Tuesday starts off with Nesmith recalling a meeting with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams, a man who became a very close friend and remained so up until his death in 2001. Adams told Nesmith how his absurdist sense of humor (this, from the man who famously came up with the droll phrase “As pretty as an airport”) had developed and he shared with Nesmith a 1937 Paul Crum cartoon that had appeared in the British publication Punch, showing two hippos in a river and one of them simply says ‘I keep thinking its Tuesday.”

Tuesday, eh? One of those days of the week. A funny day. An absurd day. A punchline.

Adams absolutely loved the cartoon – as had a young Nesmith. And here the two friends shared this odd, 42”-ish synchronicity. In fact, Infinite Tuesday is full of odd synchronicities that baffle and fascinate Nesmith (and me, the reader – I mean, Nesmith appeared in an episode of Portlandia playing the obscenely wealthy father of the Portland mayor, played by Kyle MacLachlan, best known for his role as Agent Cooper in Twin Peaks! And in The Monkees, Nesmith runs for mayor in a terrific 1967 episode that highlighted political corruption! “Why, throwing people out of their homes is the American way!” In Nesmith’s life, the city of Portland, Oregon would play an important role in his spiritual life … I could go on …).

Nesmith was stunnedby Adams’s admission, writing: “The cartoon was a window into a playground where other people thought as we did, and it had become the dad reckon for both of us. It showed me that someone else shared my sense of humor and my sense of absurdity. Douglas said the same thing, and for both of us it was a world changer.

It’s that “Tuesday-loving hippo” strip that set the tone of Infinite Tuesday, where we learn about Nesmith’s upbringing in Dallas, with his hardworking secretary mom Bette McMurray – the woman who would make a fortune after inventing the corrective Liquid Paper. He also talks well of his kind "Uncle Chick," who helped out and gave young Michael some fatherly guidance.

Born in Houston in late 1942, Nesmith grew up with his single mother and a caring in Dallas where she was a secretary and young Michael was increasingly draw to music and girls and cars, not necessarily in that order.

It was a man’s world and Bette did her best to raise Michael the best way she could. Mother and son didn’t always see eye to eye (she was a devout Christian Scientist – and her son would accept those teachings later in life, before her death in 1980) and while Nesmith was certainly bright, he didn’t care to go to class and ultimately graduation and ended up in the Air Force for a stint.

But Los Angeles beckoned and it was time to leave San Antonio with a guitar, a sack of laundry and a pregnant wife, Phyllis. All this after having seen the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show (the same episode where future Monkee Davy Jones, who shared Nesmith’s birthday of Dec. 30th, appeared along with the cast of Oliver!) and decided to play guitar and write a song or three. After all, playing in Corpus Christi and having long hair had already led to Nesmith being confused with Beatle George Harrison!

It was written in the stars, or star fields, or something …

And stardom would come. Along with what he calls "Celebrity Psychosis" and the creeping creature called the "Hollywood Mind." And don't become a "Hamburger Movie Tycoon," whatever you do. Nesmith struggles with the instant fame and wants to keep his creativity intact, eventually getting the opportunity to record his Monkees songs the way he wants - but it would come with at a cost, even though he got to meet brilliant artists and musicians. See Jimi Hendrix and work with a young Jack Nicholson on Head. Nesmith was always drawn to these mind-blowing cats that were changing the culture. Remember, Nesmith essentially created what would become the music video, leading to MTV. The low points in the 1970's would lead to sunnier days in the go-go Reagan era, when Television Parts and Tapeheads were largely ignored but became cult faves.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. It’s here where I should mention that the sync aspects of this book really began to blow up. On page 20, Nesmith talks about being in L.A. in 1965 and being encouraged by a pal to try out for this new show being developed called The Monkees, loosely based on the Beatles’ A Hard Days’ Night film.

Nesmith writes: “There is a moment during certain interactions when one notices a reaction to one’s own action, a non-time moment, exponentially faster than the speed of light, which sets the stage for the future. It is an incidence and its unexpected coincidence, a strange lattice indeed, with no outline or any obvious organization. It is more like a neural net, or a star field, or the Internet. It is the moment of choice framed by the internal question ‘How do I react to a reaction?’”

Nesmith references the syncy “lattice of coincidence” as noted in that key scene in the 1984 film Repo Man, which Nesmith helped Alex Cox get filmed. This comes through again and again, through events, connections with certain people and decisions made, be it with his relationships with women, his spiritual development, which he shares with the reader in great detail.

I was particularly struck by a weird incident in where country singer Johnny Cash, who counted Nesmith as a friend, calls Nesmith at a random restaurant. The only thing is – the thing that baffles Nesmith to this very day – is that Cash had no idea where Nesmith was that day or that he would be in that restaurant at that moment. As Nesmith recounts, “I was dumbfounded (my assistant) , who seemed as puzzled as I was, and wondered aloud how he had gotten tem umber – or even known where I was. And what about the way the waiter said, ‘Johnny Cash is on the phone for you’ – as if the waiter was in the habit of taking my calls? It was the weirdest announcement of a phone call I’d ever had at a restaurant.

As someone who had a weird “Johnny Cash encounter” just last year at Sun Studio in Memphis, well, there’s just something “not of this world” about Cash that I find incredibly cool and amazing.

And then there was the eerie encounter - during his 1990's days living near Los Alamos, New Mexico (home of the secret Manhattan Project) - where he meets the "triggerman" of the H-bomb detonated at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. ("You've got a regular Manhattan Project going on over there," Jerry Seinfeld tells Kramer on TV as I type this!!! Nesmith would appreciate the synchronicity of that!) There is a strange undercurrent of nuclear power that threads its way through Nesmith's work. It's odd. 

Again, sadly, little is said of The Monkees beyond the 1969-70 time period. The 1986 revival is not mentioned (Nesmith was not involved, even though all those old records he appeared on had reappeared on the charts) and the 1996 Justus record, with Dolenz, Jones & Tork, is not mentioned, or last year’s Good Times! record, on which he appears.

His on-and-off again relationship with The Monkees phenomenon is well known. Perhaps its too painful for him to examine? And while he talks about his failed marriages, he says little about his children, perhaps to protect their privacy, which is understandable.

Of course he does talk about his struggles as a solo artist and trying to find where he fit in in an entertainment scene that was roundly rejecting the former Monkee, even though he had brilliant music to offer the listening public.

There is a sense of reflection and perhaps a tinge of regret in the latter half of the book. But there is also a lot of learning and a desire to better himself, even as he approaches old age, by embracing new ideas and technologies and acknowledging that friends may come and go but the universal glue called love keeps it all together at the quantum level. 

Hey, it was that understanding that helped a Monkee get in the door of John Lennon's house and into Abbey Road as they recorded Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band, which turns 50 years old in a few weeks. Hard to believe!

How time flies. Guess you just roll with the flow. Papa Nez certainly did.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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