(Micky and Mike: The Final Concert)

Looking back on it now, a little over half a century after the fact, I suppose it does seem a little.. well, okay, silly.

But at the time it made perfect sense to a seven-year-old boy hoping to get even the quickest glimpse of one of my childhood heroes. Because that’s the way a seven-year-old boy’s mind works.

Or, at least, it was the way this seven-year-old boy’s mind worked. Given that I was rarely if ever accompanied by any of my buddies from the neighborhood, maybe I was the weird one after all…

Let me set the scene for you:

It was the summer of 1970. I had just recently completed the first grade - successfully, I might add - and while I was spending quite a bit of time most days hanging out in front of the General Foods coupon distribution center that was located in a building one street over and about two blocks up from the house I grew up in.

Seems a strange place for a seven-year-old to hang out, I’ll grant you. But I had my reasons

You see, in September 1969 the CBS television network began airing reruns of the TV series The Monkees as part of its regular Saturday morning lineup. It aired on WBBM-TV in Chicago at 11 a.m. Central Standard Time, right after The Archie Comedy Hour and immediately before Wacky Races. (Don’t ask me why I remember that; I couldn’t tell you even if I wanted to. If pressed I’d have to think hard about what I had for dinner last night, but I can remember my Saturday morning viewing habits from 1969 like it was yesterday. The human mind is hard to understand sometimes…)

I was already a fan of the Monkees’ music, having heard it played on the radio as far back as I could remember. I can remember sitting in the backseat of my parents’ old Volkswagen bus, singing along at the top of my lungs to “I’m A Believer” and “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” If my parents minded they never said so; sometimes Mom would even sing along, too. 

I think I may have also been vaguely aware of the Monkees’ TV show at that age, but don’t hold me to that. I was three years old when it debuted on NBC in 1966 - the same year as Batman and Star Trek and The Green Hornet and other shows I remember watching at that age while sitting on my daddy’s knee, but those other shows had apparently so captured my imagination that a program about a fictional rock-and-roll band didn’t quite register the way those masked crimefighters and spaceships did.

Three years later, however, the Monkees - both the band and the show - had my undivided attention every Saturday morning, and I quickly became a fan. It was fast-paced and funny - almost like a cartoon come to life, especially to a kid who was already watching both the Archie cartoons and the animated version of the Beatles over on ABC - and it didn’t take long for me to notice that the four zany characters at the center of the show reminded me a lot of both those Beatles cartoons and the Marx Brothers movies my father was just starting to introduce me to.

I noticed something else watching those Saturday morning reruns. One of the sponsors of the CBS rebroadcasts was General Foods - whose stable of products at the time included Kool-Aid, which advertised heavily on the show. One set of commercials teamed the Monkees with another of my childhood heroes, Bugs Bunny. Another set featured the Monkees hawking items you could receive free in the mail - such as a toy hand buzzer and the original version of the Nerf ball - simply by sending in 15 Kool-Aid package tops.

Those were the ads that really caught my attention, because the address that flashed across the screen was a P.O. box located right there in my home town of Bradley, Illinois. 

My father was a letter carrier for the Bradley Post Office, and when I asked he told me about how a fellow from General Foods stopped by every day to pick up thousands of envelopes stuffed with Kool-Aid package tops and brought them back to his office, which was located within walking distance of our house. One evening while the family was taking a walk Dad even showed me where that distribution center was located; that discovery was almost as big a deal as discovering that the Batcave was under my house...

And so, using that same unique brand of  juvenile logic that made one of my buddies at school believe he could impress some of the girls in our class simply by hanging upside from a tree limb like a reject from a Tarzan movie, I somehow got it into my head that maybe I might run into one of the Monkees when they stopped by to see how many Kool-Aid tops were coming in.

It never once occurred to me that this wasn’t something any of the Monkees would have done to begin with. It also never occurred to Tom Despain that if he hung upside down from that thin little branch for too long, the branch would eventually break and he’d land on his head...

The Monkee I most wanted to meet was Michael Nesmith. Sure, I liked all four members of the group, but to me Michael was the cool Monkee and the one I most wanted to emulate: down-to-earth yet intellectual, witty yet earnest, a gifted wordsmith with a twinkle in his eye and a Texas drawl that reminded me so much of the way some of my Oklahoma relatives talked when we went for a visit. 

To actually be held in the same regard was never anything more than wishful thinking on my part, I know. The man so many fans came to know as Papa Pez was COOL. And I… well, I wasn’t. But years later I discovered that Nesmith and I did have at least one actual thing in common: We both attended technical school at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas, during our Air Force careers. 

It’s not much, but it’s something...

As a character on a TV show Nesmith became one of my great heroes, right there alongside Adam West’s Batman and Leonard Nimoy’s Mr. Spock and Van Williams’ Green Hornet. As a performer he and his bandmates quickly earned a place of honor in my personal musical pantheon, standing right at the top alongside Johnny Cash and the Kingston Trio. (Later I would learn that Kingston Trio member John Stewart has composed one of the Monkees’ biggest hits, “Daydream Believer,” forever cementing these two groups together in my mind.)

A few years after CBS stopped airing The Monkees, my father - knowing of my love of the Monkees in general and Michael Nesmith in particular - bought me a couple of Nesmith’s later RCA recordings with his First National Band on cassette tapes. Suddenly I had an all-new appreciation for the man’s talents, and from that moment on I followed his career with great interest and enthusisam. 

As a fan I reveled in the fact that the Monkee in the wool hat proved himself to to be one of the music industry's true visionaries. Because of him, the Monkees were turning out "country-rock" songs before the Byrds, the Eagles, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band or any of the others. He played a large part in introducing the world to the likes of Linda Ronstadt (whose first hit was the Nesmith-penned "Different Drum") and Michael Martin Murphy (who wrote or co-wrote several of the Monkees' best songs). Later Nesmith took some of the lessons he learned during the filming of the Monkees' TV series and became a pioneer in the music video industry, practically inventing MTV and earning the first-ever video Grammy for his 1981 production Elephant Parts - an hour-long collection of comedy skits and music videos that included what I still considered to be one of his most enchanting solo songs, a tune entitled “Light.”

I fell in love with Nesmith’s work as a novelist, and his The Long Sandy Hair Of Neftoon Zamora and The America Gene remain two of my all-time favorite reads. 

I watched him make a name for himself in Hollywood, writing and/or producing such minor classics as Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann and Repo Man

I bought each new music album, with Infinite Rider on the Big Dogma and tropical campfires... each holding especially important places in my collection and in my heart. (And yes, there are stories behind that statement… someday, perhaps, I’ll share them.) 

But most of all, naturally, I was particularly pleased whenever he would reunite with his fellow Monkees for a new album or concert tour. Nesmith earned something of an unfair reputation over the years for being “anti-Monkees,” for supposedly harboring ill feelings towards his bandmates and having nothing good to say about his experiences as a Monkee. Part of it stemmed from the fact that he only seldom took part in various reunion projects over the years; part of it stemmed from his readily acknowledged resentment toward the project’s music supervisor, Don Kirschner, and the role Nesmith played in ousting Kirschner and moving the Monkees as a recording act onto a path that he and the others found - at least for a while - considerably more satisfying from a creative point of view.

But the truth of the matter - as he said himself many times over the years - was that, despite the occasional creative differences and clashes of egos - Nesmith enjoyed being a Monkee. He really did. He said so himself in an online message to some fans a number of years ago, and I for one see no reason to doubt his sincerity:

“As for me, I had a great time. It was hard work but fun work. I look back on those times like you might look back on your own early years… I really liked the shows and the whole idea of theВ thing. And I really liked the other guys... still do.”

He went on to remark that “I have always been proud” of his experience as a member of the Monkees. A lot of people did not seem to believe him, but the proof was there for the naysayers to see all along. 

His first post-Monkees album - 1970’s Magnetic South, by Michael Nesmith and the First National Band - to fellow Monkees Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones and Peter Tork. He recorded several of his songs with the Monkees on various solo albums, and rarely failed to include at least one or two of them in his concern performances. He made a surprise guest appearance in a special Christmas video the other Monkees made for MTV in 1986. He was the driving force behind the Monkees’ 1996 reunion album Justus - Dolenz thanked him for it in the liner notes - and directed a TV special that served as both a promotional film for the record and a sequel of sorts to the TV series. 

And for anyone who may have continued to harbor any doubts on the subject, Nesmith proved once and for all his love for the Monkees and their fans when he happily joined his surviving bandmates for new tours following the death of Jones in 2012, and again after Tork's passing in 2019.

The most recent tour - a series of concerts with Dolenz dubbed “The Monkees Present The Mike and Micky Show” - had ended just this past November. The final concert took place Nov. 14 at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles - the same venue where Nesmith surprised fans by rejoining the other Monkees on stage for the first time in years in 1986.

A photo taken by a fan at the end of the Nov. 14 show, showing Mike and Micky after the final song in a loving embrace like the brothers they had been for over half a century, began circulating on the internet almost immediately. A wonderful picture of a beautiful moment. Many fans had expressed concerns about Nez’s health throughout the course of that tour. Understandable, given his age and the fact that he had undergone heart surgery a few years earlier - not to mention the ever-present lingering fears wrought by COVID-19. But by all accounts Nez gave it all he had and seemed to draw renewed strength at each new show.

And then, just a few weeks later - a mere 20 days before what would have been his 79th birthday - Michael Nesmith died. I don’t mind admitting that I shed a few tears when I heard the news.

And for some reason, I suddenly remembered those zany Kool-Aid commercials and hanging out in front of the local General Foods office, hoping to sneak a glimpse of the cool one in the wool hat…

I never got the chance to meet Michael, the way I did other childhood heroes like Adam West and Van Williams and Bob Shane of the Kingston Trio. But I feel like I’ve known him all my life; his work had just that kind of impact on me. His music - with the Monkees, with the First National Band and the Second National Band and the Wichita Train Whistle, as a solo performer - was and is an important part of the soundtrack of my life. His work as an actor has made me laugh, made me think and, on one occasion, made me cry. His writings have been a source of much joy and, at times, contemplation.

Simply put, my life would have been much poorer indeed had Michael Nesmith not showed up on the Columbia Pictures lot that day to audition for a role in a TV series about a struggling rock and roll band. The first step in a journey that I feel fortunate to have been a part of, even from a distance.

As tributes go I suppose this one has gotten a little too long-winded. I guess if I had to condense my feelings down into a single sentence, the title of one of his First National Band songs probably sums it up best: 

“Thanx For The Ride.”

(Copyright © 2021 by John A. Small)