Michael Nesmith, guitarist, singer, songwriter and most musically accomplished of The Monkees – obituary

Michael Nesmith c. 1967 - Michael Ochs Archives
Michael Nesmith c. 1967 - Michael Ochs Archives

Mike Nesmith, who has died aged 78, was the woolly-hatted guitarist in the 1960s American pop group the Monkees; he later struggled with a solo musical career before inheriting a multi-million dollar fortune from his mother.

Of the 437 hopefuls to audition for “four insane boys, aged 17-21” in 1965, Nesmith was picked along with a former child television star, Mickey Dolenz; a singer and guitarist, Peter Tork; and a diminutive young actor from Manchester, Davy Jones, who had played Ena Sharples’s grandson in Coronation Street.

Strictly speaking, at 22, Nesmith, characterised as the quietest and most serious of the four, was a touch too old, as was Tork, the most sensitive, while Dolenz, the funny one, was 20 and Jones, the cutest, was the youngest at 19, but the Monkees — the first pop group to be specifically manufactured for television – seemed to appeal to the producers’ target audience of young teenagers, especially girls.

Promoted by the Screen Gems production company, the squeaky-clean group was fashioned to recreate the huge success of the Beatles and the zany vibe portrayed in their debut feature film A Hard Day’s Night (1964). Derided by some as “the Pre-Fab Four”, the Monkees were billed on BBC1 on Saturday evenings, but their show’s prime-time spot did not meet with universal approval. “See it once and you’ve seen it all,” grumbled The Sunday Telegraph’s Philip Purser.

The Monkees had a hit with their debut single Last Train To Clarksville, but Nesmith was unhappy with the choice of the follow-up, I’m A Believer, written by the up-and-coming Neil Diamond. “I’m a songwriter,” Nesmith complained, “and that’s no hit.” In the event, it shot to No 1 on both sides of the Atlantic, topping the UK chart for four weeks in early 1967.

Nesmith, the most accomplished musician of the four, led the others in countering criticism that they did not play the instruments they toted on television, and the group

\ insisted on making their own records. They had a handful of further Top 20 hits including Pleasant Valley Sunday and Daydream Believer, written by the likes of Gerry Goffin, Carole King and other writers on Screen Gems’ roster, before the show was pulled in 1968, the group having sold an estimated 100 million discs.

The break-up was unpleasant and expensive, Nesmith blaming “a lot of internecine warfare” and “just weird wrongdoing”. Earnings he thought he was owed were wiped out after Peter Tork’s solo album ran over budget, and the Screen Gems producers demanded that the others foot the six-figure bill. Nesmith bought his way out of the group by forfeiting future royalties amounting to $160,000.

He went on to reinvent himself as a solo artist, and reluctantly rejoined the group for a couple of years for “reunion” tours. The other three Monkees toured Britain in 2011 without him, although he was teasingly namechecked. If the audience didn’t sing along, Micky Dolenz announced early at their gig in Liverpool, they would be forced into a Nesmith lookalike competition. “A fate worse than death,” muttered Peter Tork.

Nesmith with the Monkees in 1967: Peter Tork at the piano next to Davy Jones, and Mickey Dolenz - Michael Ochs Archives
Nesmith with the Monkees in 1967: Peter Tork at the piano next to Davy Jones, and Mickey Dolenz - Michael Ochs Archives

Nesmith was scheduled to undertake a solo British tour in 2014 but pulled out, citing “recent snags” and “privacy issues”.

Robert Michael Nesmith was born on December 30 1942 in Houston, Texas. His parents divorced when he was four, and his mother Bette took him to Dallas, where she took a series of office jobs before becoming secretary to the chairman of a Texas bank. An incompetent typist, in 1955, after evenings experimenting in her kitchen food blender, she invented a typewriter correction fluid called Liquid Paper, an early version of Tipp-ex.

Meanwhile Michael enrolled at the Thomas Jefferson High School, joined the choir and the drama club, but in 1960 enlisted in the US Air Force. Stationed in Oklahoma, he received an honourable discharge in 1962.

Still only 19, Nesmith attended San Antonio College, playing folk music and writing songs (one, Different Drum, would be successfully recorded by Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys). Moving to Los Angeles, he heard about auditions for a new television series featuring a pop group and was cast as the guitarist in the green woolly hat. Unlike the other three Monkees, he already had a wide musical range as an instrumentalist, singer, songwriter and performer.

The Monkees TV show in 1966 - NBC
The Monkees TV show in 1966 - NBC

As a group, the Monkees were forbidden to play their own instruments on their early records, although the producers eventually relented. After the break-up, Nesmith became a country-rock artist and formed the First National Band, with whom he had a US Top 40 hit, Joanne (1970).

But within a few years he was in low water. In 1973, having bought himself out of the Monkees, he sent his butler and limo driver back to England and admitted he was broke.

In the mid-1970s, Nesmith launched his multimedia company Pacific Arts, releasing records, cassettes and, in 1981, “video records”. In 1983 he produced the video for the Lionel Richie single All Night Long.

His company eventually closed after an acrimonious contract dispute with PBS over home video licensing rights which escalated into a lawsuit. Although a jury awarded Nesmith and his company almost $49 million in damages, PBS appealed the ruling, eventually paying a confidential amount to Nesmith and Pacific Arts before the appeal reached court.

This was not his first reversal of fortune. In 1979 Nesmith’s mother sold her Liquid Paper Corporation to Gillette for $48 million, and when she died of a stroke the following year, aged 56, Nesmith inherited half her estate. When his by then middle-aged former Monkees compadres reunited in London for a UK tour in March 1989, Nesmith stayed at home.

Nesmith in London, 1970 - Michael Putland/Getty Images
Nesmith in London, 1970 - Michael Putland/Getty Images

In 1997 he relented and, with the other three Monkees, briefly toured Britain in what was the last appearance of all four performing together (Davy Jones died in 2012). “The impression that Monkees mania has not gripped the British public was reinforced by the fact that… the arena was barely half-full,” the Telegraph reported from Newcastle upon Tyne. The taciturn Nesmith took a solo turn with “a couple of jangly country tunes”.

He was a notable exponent of the 12-string guitar, performing on a custom-built Gretsch electric during his years with the Monkees and various 12-string acoustic models thereafter. His autobiography, Infinite Tuesday: An Autobiographical Riff, appeared in 2017.

Peter Tork died in 2019 and the following year Nesmith toured the US with Mickey Dolenz playing mostly Monkees hits.

Michael Nesmith was married three times, firstly, in 1964, to Phyllis Barbour, whom he met at San Antonio College. They had two sons and a daughter before divorcing in 1972. In 1976, he married Kathryn Bild, and thirdly, in 2000, Victoria Kennedy, but these marriages, too, ended in divorce. Nesmith also had a son, born in 1968 to Nurit Wilde, whom he met while working on The Monkees television show.

Michael Nesmith, born December 30 1942, died December 10 2021