In their 1966-68 heyday, the Monkees were both mega-stars and sniffed at. They starred in a TV show inspired by The Beatles, aimed at kiddies and teenyboppers, singing hit songs they didn’t write. “The Prefab Four” was one dismissive nickname.
And though the personalities of Peter, Davy, Micky and Mike were indeed brought together by an ad and cast as “a band,” a crucial moment of The Monkees’ real-life story was when Mike Nesmith, who was a singer-songwriter before he joined the group, got tired of the band not being allowed any creative input on its own albums.
Proven hitmaker Don Kirshner (“The Man With the Golden Ear!”) had been calling all the shots, but at an important 1967 meeting between Kirshner, lawyers and the Monkees, a fed up Nesmith punched a wall and said, “That could have been your face, %$*&@!” Meeting adjourned. Soon the Monkees had control over their musical destiny.
“[Nesmith was] always his own guy, never following trends — for better or worse,” said Brian Marchese, a Valley’s Monkees historian and a guy who knows how to put a big show together: After an exuberant tribute concert for Jerry Garcia earlier this year, Marchese has lined up a Nesmith tribute to celebrate the artist’s 70th birthday and his body of work.
Local musicians will perform “Nez” tunes from the Monkees years and his solo career, at the Elevens in Northampton Sunday at 7 p.m.
The participants include Philip Price (Winterpills), Ray Mason, Lord Russ, Rick Murnane, Stephen Desaulniers (Scud Mountain Boys, Ray Mason Band), Lesa Bezo, Henning Ohlenbusch, Jonathan Caws-Elwitt, Matt Silberstein, Tony Westcott, Jeff Steblea (Fiesta Brava), Jason Bourgeois, Annie Regan and Eric Cunha.
Drummer Marchese is bringing along some of the musicians from the Garcia tribute to join him in the Nesmith house band, including Bruce Mandaro on guitar and multi-instrumentalist Josh Sitron (the Brooklyn-based composer of the “Dora the Explorer,” who moved to the Valley last year) on keyboards, banjo and trumpet. (This columnist and longtime fan, whose mom’s non-snooty record collection had room for both The Beatles and The Monkees, will play bass.)
One of the musicians is Eric Cunha, whose band Alottle has performed sets of Monkees songs on three occasions. He got into The Monkees before he knew who The Beatles were, watching reruns of their TV show in the e_SSRq80s, when MTV launched the then-forgotten band into the video age and created a second wave of Monkeemania.
“Micky’s the best singer, but Mike’s my favorite,” Cunha said. “His solo work after the Monkees, some of it I can best describe as country-rock with a Frank Zappa-like glaze. His lyrics are pretty out there ... as C&W-leaning as the material can be, there’s lots of quirky charm and psychedelic moments.”
Nesmith had an ability to be both playful and deep, earthy and spacey, and much of his early-’70s material mixes twangy pedal steel and a funky rhythm section for an immediately recognizable sound. Only “Joanne” was a top 40 hit, but other songs like “Mama Nantucket,” a Western boogie with a catchy yodeling chorus, and “Grand Ennui,” a very Band-like homespun rocker, are just as winning.
Nesmith never stayed in one musical place for long. “Different Drum” (famously covered by Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys) is classic folk-rock written in 1965. “Rio” is a dreamy easy-listening samba from the Yacht Rock e_SSRq70s. “Cruisin’ ” is a recited new-wave fable about Lucy, Ramona and Sunset Sam. “Tapioca Tundra” weirdly gallops with one foot in a psychedelic freak-out and the other in a Latin bag. “Mary Mary,” eventually a groovy Monkees bubblegum number, was first a serious, hypnotic blues workout in the hands of the Butterfield Blues Band.
Nesmith’s stylistic breadth was as complex as his personality and drive — a serious businessman with a silly streak, he’s credited with having the original idea for MTV years before it existed, was a pioneer in home video, produced such cult classic movies as “Repo Man” and “Tapeheads,” and wrote two novels. But it’s the music that Marchese and friends will be celebrating at the Elevens.
“His songs bring a unique vocabulary and outer-space quality to country-and-western music,” said Jason Mazzotta, who earlier this year held a special showing of the Monkees’ cult-classic film “Head” at Flywheel (dedicated fans of all ages filled nearly every folding chair in the room) and mere weeks ago saw The Monkees themselves play a live show in New York. Davy Jones passed away in February, so the group’s personality had changed, with Nesmith the unspoken director respectfully letting the songs have the spotlight.
Mazzotta couldn’t have been happier.
“I feel Michael Nesmith is one of the great unsung American musical heroes,” he said, one of many local musicians who will be doing their part to get the unsung a little more sung.