Being the member of the Monkees dubbed “the Smart One” was not an unqualified blessing for Michael Nesmith, who has died aged 78 of heart failure. As the songwriterly intellectual of the hugely successful 1960s pop group, he was deeply frustrated by the shallowness of teen idoldom.
Throughout the run of the Monkees’ 1966–68 television series, he agitated for a larger role in the writing and playing of their music – which was largely made by more skilled session players and writers – while agonising over the very nature of pop bands. To hear him tell it, he had thought he was signing up to be a musician in a real group, only to find himself an actor playing one. It threw the introspective Texan, whose visual trademarks were a woollen hat and muttonchop sideburns, into a spin.
“What constitutes a critical path for a band? What defines the band? What makes it turn into a band?” he asked an interviewer – questions that probably never troubled his more phlegmatic co-Monkees, Davy Jones, Peter Tork and Micky Dolenz. Receiving no satisfactory answers, in 1970 Nesmith bought himself out of the remaining three years of his contract and plunged into a solo career that showed him to be not just the smart Monkee but the prescient one.
Nesmith was in the vanguard of two major cultural developments, country-rock and the music video, and also turned out to have an eye for groundbreaking media projects. There was the 1977 album, From a Radio Engine to the Photon Wing, whose songs were written as mini-film scripts – predating the idea of the “visual album” by decades – while The Prison (1975), a novel with a companion “soundtrack” album, was an early example of a multimedia release.
He was also farsighted enough to buy the master tapes of his solo albums from RCA Records, allowing him to profit when he reissued them through his own company.
Later he was among the first to buy up licences to various films and TV series, profitably releasing them as home videos. Along the way he established the Council on Ideas, a brains trust that convened biannually to discuss the problems of the day, from overpopulation to lack of respect for cultural diversity. Eventually he even made peace with his Monkee past, occasionally joining the others on tours and new albums from 1996 onward.
Born in Houston, Texas, he was the only child of Warren Nesmith, an automobile parts clerk, and Bette (nee McMurray). His father was serving overseas during the second world war when Michael was born, and his parents divorced soon after Warren returned. Bette and son moved to Dallas, where Michael had a “dirt poor, just miserable” childhood, with his mother struggling to make ends meet as a bank secretary.
He was in his early teens when she created a correction fluid that painted over typing errors – the first of its type – and began selling it to other secretaries. She paid Michael $1 an hour to bottle it in their garage, but the business quickly outgrew her expectations. By the time she was bought out by Gillette for $47.5m in 1979, her product, known as Liquid Paper, was selling 25m bottles a year. At her death in 1980, Michael inherited half her fortune.
The money came in handy. He had paid $450,000 to break his Monkees contract, and immediately afterwards had founded a well-reviewed but commercially unsuccessful country group, the First National Band (the name was a play on First National Bank, a characteristically sardonic bit of humour). There was more expenditure in 1974, when he set up Pacific Arts Productions, a multi-tentacled outfit that distributed videos, financed films (including the culty Repo Man and Tapeheads) and released Nesmith’s music.
The title of his 1972 solo album, And the Hits Just Keep on Comin’, told its own story: his record company at the time was jostling him to make poppier material, but Nesmith carried on as he was, producing just one minor hit single, 1970’s lamentful Joanne, after which he never reached the Top 40 again.
A career in the arts had been his only aim since his days at Thomas Jefferson high school in Dallas, where he was an indifferent student but never missed choir or drama classes. In his final year he left to join the US Air Force, and when he was discharged after 14 unhappy months, moved to San Antonio to attend college, where he met his future wife, Phyllis Barbour.
Inspired by both Bob Dylan and Texas’s country and western radio stations, he was writing songs by then, and also playing them at small gigs, Phyllis occasionally singing with him. His first single, Wanderin’/ Well, Well, Well, released on a San Antonio label around 1963, was raw, Woody Guthrie-esque folk, but he saw his future in the hipper music scene of Los Angeles, and moved there in 1964.
Another single, The New Recruit, recorded as “Michael Blessing”, did nothing much, but while working as “hootmaster” – master of ceremonies – at the Troubadour club, he did a set of his own songs one night (including Different Drum, later a hit for Linda Ronstadt) and was offered a publishing deal. His career was sidetracked, though, when his publisher’s assistant urged him to audition for a television pilot about a wacky rock band.
Nesmith’s sarcastic screen test was singular enough to get him a job he was not even sure he wanted: though many Monkees songs are now considered classics, he did not like the music, and, despite managing to get a couple of his own songs on to every album, he chafed at being forced to operate within the group’s manufactured parameters. In 1967, arguing with the musical supervisor Don Kirshner about not being allowed to play on their records, he punched a hole through the wall of a hotel room. The following year, to distract himself from “this [Monkees] monster”, he released his first solo album, the all-instrumental oddity The Wichita Train Whistle Sings.
His departure from the Monkees was quickly followed by the launch of The First National Band, a circle of country-loving musician friends who moved to the forefront of what became country rock. For decades, however, Nesmith’s boyband past kept them from receiving the same recognition as fellow travellers Gram Parsons and the Byrds. Later in the 70s he made an early music video, for the song Rio.
Intrigued by the potential of adding a visual storyline to a song, he then developed a video series called PopClips. It ran for 56 episodes on the Nickelodeon channel, and was the forerunner of MTV. Nesmith went on to make an hour-long comedy-and-music clip, Elephant Parts, that won a Grammy award in the new best video category in 1982.
Nesmith matured into a magisterial, philosophical figure – “Nesmith aims to express the Infinite,” proclaimed his Facebook page – who was known to fans as Papa Nez. In later life he wrote two novels and issued a memoir, Infinite Tuesday (2017), which barely mentioned the Monkees. He continued to tour regularly; in 2018, while on the road as a duo with Dolenz, he suffered heart failure and underwent a quadruple bypass. Eight months later, seemingly unscathed, he was back on tour with his own group. He was performing as recently as last month with Dolenz, on a Monkees “farewell tour”.
Nesmith’s marriage to Phyllis, with whom he had three children, ended in divorce in 1975. He was married to Kathryn Bild from 1976 until 1988, and to Victoria Kennedy between 2000 and 2011; both of those marriages also ended in divorce. He is survived by his children from his first marriage, Christian, Jonathan and Jessica; by a son, Jason, with the photographer Nurit Wilde, and two grandchildren.
• Robert Michael Nesmith, musician, born 30 December 1942; died 10 December 2021