Things I knew about Mike Nesmith before reading this book: He was the best songwriter and most interesting persona in the Monkees. His mother invented Liquid Paper and made a fortune. He was one of the first musicians to play country-rock. And he invented MTV, making one of the first music videos to promote his song "Rio" and conceiving of a show devoted to such videos, a show he wanted to call Popclips.
First, a few personal remarks. The second album I owned was More of the Monkees (the first was Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow). I loved the "prefab four," but my nostalgia for them is not what makes me still listen to them today. The made-for-TV band, against all odds, made some great music. I also own every solo CD Nesmith ever made, even the obscure ones like The Wichita Train Whistle Sings. I think he is one of the most unappreciated songwriters in pop music. I love his songs from the Monkees albums, from "Sweet Young Thing" and "Papa Gene's Blues" to his ethereally beautiful "I Know What I Know" on their most recent album, Good Times. And I love his solo work, which I would put on a par with Stephen Stills' or Lou Reed's, to name two artists who started in a group and then made vital music afterward.
So, I came to his memoir Infinite Tuesday: An Autobiographical Riff (Crown Archetype, $28) with high hopes. I was not disappointed. Nesmith, as narrator of his own life, is engaging, intelligent, lyrical, and sincere. And it doesn't hurt that he has quite a story to tell.
Rather than a linear approach he imparts his narrative nonconsecutively, in well-thought-out vignettes and portraits. He name-drops Timothy Leary, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Jack Nicholson, and Johnny Cash, among others, but through all his tales runs a humility and genuineness that is disarming. And, even when he's not talking about the Monkees or his solo career or his movie star friends, the vignettes are still fascinating because of this honesty and because he's such a charming narrator. He's equally appealing talking about his mother, his friends, his study of Christian Science, his interest in quantum physics. He knows what's meat and what's fat, and the book is decidedly low-fat. And, eventually, it coalesces into a compelling chronicle, like a novel made from attractive mosaic shards.
If you're looking for dirt on Micky, Peter, and Davy, you won't find it here. Nesmith glosses over the Monkees years, mostly substituting self-deprecating feelings of otherness and disassociation for descriptions of on-set craziness or backstage peccadilloes. A reluctant TV star, he outlines some of the surrealistic events which created the show and, ultimately, led to its demise. He says "The creators of The Monkees may have thought they were creating a simple television property, a paean to the times, but what they were actually producing was Pinocchio. The show and all its parts and characters would come to life and begin to breathe and move and sing and play and write and think on their own. What had started as a copy of the 1960s became a fact of the 1960s. What had started as fanciful effect became casual fact."
Along the way, he experienced some dark times, some periods of self-doubt and instability. He chronicles these gloomy days with grace and wit. Behind the accomplished rock star and actor lies a vulnerable human being, open-hearted and seeking, and I appreciated the opportunity to walk in his shoes for a while.
And, much later, discussing how he came up with the concept which would become MTV, about which he is characteristically humble, he says "To American eyes the little film was a white elephant, a trinket, fascinating and entertaining but with no apparent application among current television outlets. In the U.S., the music video had been born an orphan, without a place to be played." That, as we know, changed, and a monster was birthed, a monster that would change how folks listened to or thought about rock music.
And, finally, here is a one sentence fractal that can serve as a sum-up for Nesmith's sometimes absurdist, sometimes moving, sometimes funny, always diverting autobiographical riffs, "I tiptoed through my inner world looking for the rules that governed, being careful not to damage the tulips."