With all due respect to Gram Parsons and Bob Dylan, the real shitkickin’ granddaddy of country rock was a Hollywood star, and a Monkee. It happened a full year before Parsons introduced Merle Haggard and the Louvin Brothers to the hippies with the International Submarine Band’s Safe At Home and The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo. And it happened a full two years before Dylan emerged as the country squire on Nashville Skyline. Mike Nesmith was the granddaddy’s name, and his music is now all but forgotten in the ongoing hipster backlash against the Prefab Four. It shouldn’t be.
I am no hipster, but I am as guilty of the backlash as anyone. I was a young adolescent in 1966 and 1967 and 1968, the time when The Monkees were omnipresent on television, on collectible cards, and on lunchboxes, and outselling The Beatles at the music stores. But even then I hated the goofy slapstick of the television show, found the hits (particularly the Davy Jones ersatz Broadway tunes) cloying and saccharinely sweet, and proudly disdained the efforts of four band members who couldn’t even play their instruments. I was in a band, and I couldn’t really play my instrument either, but I wasn’t getting rich by pretending I could. I thought The Monkees were everything that was wrong with commercial music, and I was smug in my own thirteen-year-old version of aesthetic superiority and anti-capitalist sentiment. Up against the wall, motherfucker. Now I need to go study for my algebra test.
To state the obvious, I didn’t buy any steeeeenking Monkees albums. So I missed out on all the album tracks that, four decades down the line, convince me that I was wrong. The recently released deluxe reissues of two 1967 albums – Headquarters and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. – have been nothing short of revelatory for me. The third and fourth albums from the band, respectively, they show The Monkees asserting creative control over their careers. Having recently sacked their Svengali-like promoter and manager Don Kirshner, the band set out, by God, to play their own instruments, write their own songs, and make music on their own terms. And they did. And although Jones still has his cloying ballads, and half the tracks still sound disposable, one shining fact emerges: Mike Nesmith was the real shitkickin’ deal. Long before the hipsters claimed the hallowed ground as their own, Mike Nesmith was writing great country rock tunes.
I knew several of these songs – “What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round?,” “Nine Times Blue,” “You Just May Be the One” – from Nesmith’s later stint as leader of the First National Band. There’s no question about the country-rock imprimatur of that band. But the FNB albums dated from the early 1970s, well after the seminal contributions of Parsons and Dylan. What I didn’t know is that Nesmith had recorded equally twangy versions of the songs with The Monkees, and that those songs predate the generally acknowledged pioneers of the genre. Listening now, forty years after the fact, it’s amazing how well they hold up. And it’s amazing how little critical acclaim they’ve received. So I’ll do my small part to set the record straight. I’m still not a big fan of The Monkees, and Davy Jones still strikes me as the template for cuddly, utterly innocuous pinups from David Cassady to Donny Osmond to Justin Timberlake . But give credit where it’s due. Mike Nesmith singlehandedly changed rock ‘n roll music. And he did it while he was a member of The Monkees. Who could have imagined such a thing? Certainly not my smug, thirteen-year-old hipster self.