Michael Nesmith, the singer-songwriter whose work elevated the creative autonomy of the Monkees, died Friday at 78.
Nesmith had undergone quadruple-bypass heart surgery in recent years. His death was attributed to natural causes.
A statement from his family read, "With Infinite Love we announce that Michael Nesmith has passed away this morning in his home, surrounded by family, peacefully and of natural causes. We ask that you respect our privacy at this time and we thank you for the love and light that all of you have shown him and us.”
Born in Houston on December 30, 1942, Nesmith lived with his mother from age 4, when his parents split. He took up songwriting after an honorable discharge from the Air Force, then heard about an audition for a fictional band that would be the focus of a comedy series. He won the role of Mike on the Emmy-winning comedy series The Monkees (1966-1968), the "guy in the wool cap."
While the Monkees were totally manufactured, they became a real band in the eyes of millions of teenyboppers. The group scored four #1 studio albums in a row and had hit singles with "Last Train to Clarksville" (1966, #1), "I'm a Believer" (1966, #1), "A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You" (1967, #2), "Pleasant Valley Sunday" (1967, #3), "Daydream Believer" (1967, #1), "Valleri" (1968, #3) and others.
Nesmith's contributions included "The Girl I Knew Somewhere" (1967), "Mary, Mary" (1968), and "Listen to the Band" (1969). It was his musicality and force of personality that led to the band's members — Nesmith, Davy Jones, Peter Tork and Micky Dolenz — to rebel against their producer in 1967, leading to the boys singing the songs they wanted to sing.
Dolenz split from the group in 1970, owing hundreds of thousands of dollars for leaving early, and leaving him deeply in debt for a decade.
He went on to display his musical ingenuity with the First National Band, considered a foundational country rock act. He may have been first, but being first can come with heartache — the group was not successful compared to others in the same vein, notably the Eagles, though it scored the #21 hit "Joanne" (1970).
Nesmith experienced a creative renaissance beginning in 1980 after the loss of his mother, Liquid Paper creator Bette Nesmith Graham. The fortune he inherited allowed him to pay off his old Monkees debt and to invest in endeavors close to his heart, and his newfound wealth ensured attention from the marketplace. Among other projects, he financed the movies Repo Man (1984) and Tapeheads (1988).
In the realm of music, he released the groundbreaking short film Elephant Parts in 1981, made up of a series of music videos just as the medium was exploding courtesy of MTV. His L.A.-centric "Cruisin'" video, with its absurdist, risqué narrative about Lucy, Ramona and a mythical figure known as Sunset Sam, was a staple of the network in its infancy. Elephant Parts won Nesmith to first-ever Video of the Year Award at the Grammys. It also led to his 1985 summer TV series Michael Nesmith in Television Parts, which featured everyone from Jay Leno to Whoopi Goldberg to Arsenio Hall to Jerry Seinfeld to Taylor Negron.
One absolutely brilliant segment was Lois Bromfield's Sorority Girls from Hell, and I swear I haven't gotten dunh-DUNH-unh, dunh-DUNH-unh or wee-hoo-HAW-hoo out of my brain in 36 years:
When the Monkees reunited for a hit album and tours in the '80s, Nesmith was in and out of the band, but was there for the band's Justus album in 1996, and a very short 1997 tour of the U.K. — the last time all four Monkees worked together as a band.
In 2012, Nesmith rejoined the Monkees in the wake of singer Davy Jones' sudden death, and was a part of the 50th-anniversary album Good Times! in 2016. The surviving three members appeared onstage together for the last time in 2016.
Following Tork's 2019 death, Nesmith and Dolenz embarked upon a tour entitled "The Monkees Present: The Mike and Micky Show." Punctuated by cancellations and postponements due to COVID-19 restrictions, that tour ended less than a month ago, with Nesmith's final time as a Monkee onstage happening November 14, 2021.
Nesmith is survived by his four children.