Through the telling of this rollicking, rolling tale – should that be rockin’ rollin’ tale? – of the never-ending challenges of this Monkee’s journey through life, his exploration of who he is, and how life works, I realized that here was no doubt the most intelligent and interesting of the four happy-go-lucky struggling wild guys. Not only do I see how he inherited and learned much of his mother’s entrepreneurial flare and spirituality – this is the woman, Bette, who worked as an office secretary and became a multimillionaire through her invention of Liquid Paper correction fluid (and who practiced Christian Science) – but he was forever curious and riding on the edge of the waves of technology, pop culture, philosophy and religion, as well as having hung out with some of the most interesting and diverse group of people in the last 50 years. (The book starts with him talking, for instance, about friends Douglas Adams – “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” – and Timothy Leary.)
So it instantly became a kind of personal quest for me as well to read this book quickly and almost without break to understand my own “connection” with my favourite Monkee and the significance in my own life. Back to that weird tale I mention at the start: Although as an adult I liked to think of myself has having some kind of originality and individuality distinct from any identity as a “target audience” of Hollywood, in reading this book I also understand just how much we are all tied to our society and culture without realizing it. I was the exact perfect age as a Monkee fan. I may have seen the famous Beatles performance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964 that changed our culture – Nesmith reveals that Davy Jones, another future Monkee had actually been performing on the same show in a Broadway revue – but I was too young for The Beatles. I was the perfect target audience for The Monkees, however, and they not only aimed the show at me, but they hit a bull’s eye.
So much a fan of The Monkees was I at this time – at approximately 8, 9 and 10 years old – that I took up playing the guitar, I bought a ventriloquist’s dummy to adorn my bedroom the way they had one, I would eventually learn to ride the unicycle as they did (with fake unicycles), I bought the paisley double-breasted shirts and stovepipe pants, and the cherry on the cake was when I asked my seamstress mother if she could make for me a Mike Nesmith woollen hat and hairpiece.My mother obliged with the same woollen hat and a hairpiece that looked as close as possible to Mike’s real cap and hair as could be, with the dipping, overhanging bang on the front left eyebrow. The only thing she could not apparently provide were his long and thick sideburns. For that, I insisted several times when going to see a barber, the the hair in the place on my hair where sideburns would grow only many years later, remain untouched, uncut. So it was that I ended up with long hair going down my face in front of my ears, where everywhere else it was relatively short. They were fake sideburns, but it was the best I could do.
I only mention this entire, long winded description of the extent of my fan adoration – I also bought the music magazines, by the way, like Crawdaddy – in order to point out that only 10 years after The Monkees began and I was an 18-year-old performer of music, unicycling, ventriloquism and juggling (I actually took the whole Monkees thing further than they did, taking it seriously) I ended up meeting a man who instantly upon learning of my performing talents, hired me for his circus. I had just the skills and talents he needed. Maybe I also had the youthful wackiness as well. It was the first step in my three year foray into show business that preceded my seismic shift toward writing and later journalism (before I returned to performing – as an amateur – in recent years).
This man, I would soon learn, was the very same man who had in a previous lifetime and another country worked in the music business in LA, and had sent a couple of his friends to an audition for a new television show he had learned about that was looking for young guys to play the roles of struggling musicians in a band. Those friends were Mike Nesmith and Stephen Stills, and the show was The Monkees. Stills was not taken due, the tale goes, to bad teeth. The man who sent them, and hired me years later, was Barry Friedman, later known as Frazier Mohawk.
“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,” Nesmith writes in Infinite Tuesday about Barry Friedman sending him to the audition that would change his life. “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?” When Barry said, “You should go try out for this,” I saw that latticework, that star field, and a distant star twinkling through the mind’s eye. I didn’t understand it or know where it would lead, but I felt I knew it now that I saw it. Over the years I learned to listen to people like Barry Friedman, who were always around, looking in a different direction than I was, seeing things I didn’t see, like the Monkees audition ad.”
It was also part of that same lattice that set up this situation where the man who sent Nesmith to audition for the role of Monkee, which in turn led me to developing all those crazy weird Monkee talents, also became the same man who saw me with all those crazy weird Monkee talents 10 years later and wanted me in his circus, Puck’s Canadian Travelling Circus.
Mike Nesmith Rio Video of 1977
As I read through this fabulously literate autobiography, I realized how close to the center of other things that influenced my life Nesmith became throughout his own: He was one of the main people behind the creation of the phenomenon of the “music video,” when he made his first music video in 1977, called Rio, and from that he went on to being one of the main impetuses behind the creation of MTV, and he later had a vision for virtual reality over the internet that never quite made its mark, but could have.
Along the way, he inherited a sizeable fortune from his mother after her early death in 1980, and used that to go on to produce an interesting, influential, cult classic film, called “Repo Man.” He has been at the edges of so many of the popular, epoch-changing movements of the last 50 years, and always ahead of the curve. He was even ahead of the curve with music, when he began to set up a country music label on the west coast for Jac Holzman, the founder of Elektra Records.
As it turned out, that venture went a little off the rails when Holzman sold Elektra before the new country label was up and running. Interestingly, Holzman was also one of the key figures for that same Barry Friedman/Frazier Mohawk, as the circus entrepreneur had produced records for Elektra, and started up the ill-fated music-making Paxton Lodge project in Northern California. (Holzman hoped the label, called Countryside, would fare better than the former.)
Curious today to see why I had overlooked this connection between Holzman and Nesmith in the past, I looked to see if there are any references to Nesmith in Holzman’s book “Follow the Music” and found a gem:
“He was so much more intelligent than the cute ersatz simian image – witty, articulate, and deeply concerned about how hard it was to get anything going on records in the early Seventies,” wrote Holzman, painting a perfect portrait of the man we find in the pages of “Infinite Tuesday.”
The three things I take away from this book the most are: Nesmith’s personal, expressive and unique writing style – we can hear his voice in every sentence -, the history of a man who was at once at the center and the periphery of the music business, Silicon Valley and pop culture over the last 50 years, but above all, the story of one man’s lifelong trials, which are at once unique to him as well as something that we can all learn from.
The most fascinating element of this story was that last one: Here we have a man who had extremely early success in television, with fame, recognition as a celebrity, and who came from a family that had no privilege in the beginning, except that of his mother’s uniqueness. He encountered immediate success despite having not developed either his career skills or his understanding of himself as a human being or of life in general.
That recipe led, naturally, to difficult periods of struggle once he was torn from the TV show that had branded him for life but offered very little other than celebrity. He writes about his financial and spiritual journeys and struggles, and shows that despite celebrity, it is not easy for anyone to create or succeed at new endeavours. His film ideas, his music videos, his music itself, so many of his projects were rejected many times before they would later prove to be ahead of their time, and occasionally even financial successes after he persists despite the obstacles from the establishment.
He has also led a nearly lifelong struggle to find his spiritual grounding – much of which he eventually found, like his mother, in Christian Science – and he went through several marriages seeking a personal stability as well. While there is never a sense of self-pity, the book does end on a note that suggests that the battle continues. And, by the way, isn’t that how it is for all of us?
He concludes the penultimate chapter with these words: “Considered in the range of human sufferings, mine were trivial, but the answer to my cries for relief was perfectly aligned to my need. That was not quite all of it. There was a closer component of this struggle that had revealed itself, which I could now appreciate and see as part of the new direction of my life as the panorama of it unfolded: It was a simple truth that came from a deep wellspring. Often, at times closest to total collapse, we are conformed to a fitness to receive.”