Rolling with the flow of Monkee business

May 2017 Rolling with the flow of Monkee business

By Ian Ravendale

The story of Michael Nesmith’s November 1975 one and only UK tour

“How do you want the stage lights?”
“Just turn them on.”
“Light? Bright? Dark? Flashing?”
“No. Lights on.”
“Bright? You want them bright?”
“Just on.”

The pair playing out this Morecambe and Wise routine are Michael Nesmith and his UK agent Paul Fenn, backstage on November 22, 1975, at the University of Essex in Colchester, the second date of a short tour the former Monkee is undertaking.

Ask Michael why he’s so imprecise and you get, naturally enough, an imprecise answer.

“It’s the nature of things. It never is anything less than precise. But it occurs as being very imprecise. The absolutely perfectly precise paralogical answer to: ‘How do you want the lights?’ is ‘On!’
Got it.

It’s Nesmith’s first-ever British tour, although The Monkees appeared in the UK at the height of ‘Monkee Mania’, playing five shows with Lulu as support to a total of 50,000 people from 30 June 30 to July 2, 1967, at Wembley’s Empire Pool. Headquarters, the quartet’s third album (and the first where they famously played their own instruments ) was Top 5 in the UK and US album charts.

Nesmith had left The Monkees in 1970 and built himself a cult following, particularly in Britain, thanks to the release of a series of well-received country-rock albums and the support of both Radio 1’s John Peel and Zig Zag magazine.

Much more low-key than The Monkees’ Wembley Pool residency, Nesmith’s 1975 tour came about after his one-off concert at London’s Victoria Place on March 6, 1975 sold out.

When a date became available at the Theatre Royal, in London’s Drury Lane, became available in late November, promoter John Curd offered it to Michael and asked Paul Fenn at the Asgard Agency if he’d like to set up a university and college tour to go alongside. The former Mr Wool Hat agreed to the jaunt as he wanted to come over anyway to set up a distribution deal for his new album-book hybrid The Prison and welcomed the opportunity for some in-person promotion.

Nesmith played six shows between November 21 and 30, 1975. The bigger Drury Lane gig with a one-off band, and five by himself in the provinces, where in addition to Colchester he played Sheffield, Brighton, Nottingham and Belfast, still at this point deeply caught up in The Troubles conflict.

“Everybody was very upset about me playing Belfast,” admits Michael. “A certain amount of fear for my safety: I began to have a certain amount of fear myself when I got there! The magnitude of the struggle is certainly big. You can’t be in a situation like that without it having some affect on you, although I couldn’t say exactly what.”

“The audience was very warm and seemed to be responding to what I was doing. There was a man on before me singing traditional Irish folk ballads and he was also well received. Some nice things were happening.”

The five college venues were told to make sure a PA was supplied. These generally turned out to be the support acts’ with whoever was around doing the mixing – not a particularly demanding task as only two channels were needed – one each for Nesmith’s guitar and vocals.

Michael disagrees that this laissez-faire attitude left him ‘at the mercy of the elements’ .”I never feel at the mercy of anything! That’s because there’s a fundamental, basic trust that it’s going to work out! For that to occur,
you’ve got to eliminate the over-riding fear of death which prevails in most people’s thoughts.”

Fear of death?

“That’s right. Fear of death, as in ‘Maybe the sound system won’t work’. It all boils down to the same thing: ‘Somebody is going to destroy me’.”

Nesmith would arrive at his solo gigs just an hour or so before he’s due to go on, and brushes aside the obvious question of what would have happen if the PA hadn’t materialised. “It didn’t happen so that’s a meaningless question!”

And to that there is no answer.

Nesmith in concert in the 1970s was like nobody else. He would self-consciously amble on stage, as if the real star of the show hadn’t turned up yet and he’d been asked to play a few numbers until the actual main attraction arrives.

He twiddles with mikes and his guitar, and after a while, meanders into Joanne, the American million seller that he wrote about a doomed relationship that his chum Jack Nicholson had become embroiled in.

“Well, I’ve done my hit!” he quips in Sheffield. “What can I do now? I could play it seven more times for you!”

What Michael actually does is a dozen or so songs from his early 1970s RCA albums recorded with The First and Second National Bands. More well-known numbers like Silver Moon and Some Of Shelley’s Blues would be in every set, but a lot of the other songs varied according to his mood – or – even as the audience shout out. On this tour the show concluded with a selection from the soon-to-be-released The Prison, preceded by a précis of the story.

During these solo concerts, Michael Nesmith talked almost as much as he sang. Whether about primal sound or prisons or rolling with the flow or missing the train, he always gave gig-goers plenty to mull over on the journey home.

Sunday afternoon, November 30. While most people are falling asleep over roast beef, Michael Nesmith and his one-off band are on stage at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, rehearsing for their show that evening.

The musicians playing with Nesmith are long-time Fairport Convention rhythm section drummer Dave Mattacks and bass player Dave Pegg, guitarist Steve Leach, ex of King Harvest of Dancing In The Moonlight fame, and a Stateside buddy of Michael’s who just happened to be in the UK. Leach has more recently re-invented himself as ‘Seasick Steve’. Over on stage right, all on its lonesome, is Red Rhodes’ pedal steel guitar, all £68,000 of it – according to Nesmith, anyway. A major part of the Nesmith sound, Rhodes (who died in 1995 at 64) had flown in on Saturday morning and spent the evening on the booze with a couple of journalists.

Red shows up halfway through the rehearsal and explains what’s up. “I took some sleeping pills for the plane journey over and reacted badly to them. All my face was puffed up. I feel 100% better now. Only half my face is puffed up!”

Unlike Rhodes and Leach, the Fairport Daves were less familiar with Michael’s material. Had they gone out and listened to the records before coming along?

Pegg: “No….”

Mattacks: “He didn’t want us to do that.”

Pegg: “He just wanted us to sit around and attempt to work them out! We had a rehearsal yesterday and this one.”
Mattacks: “It’s not really enough! We wanted more but Michael wants it – inverted commas – ‘loose’, and ‘loose’ he’s going to get! There’s been very little direction given to us. More, ‘I want you to play how you react to the songs, as opposed to, ‘I want you to play this fill and this lick!’

While Nesmith and band are being loose and reacting to each other, Katherine, the – then – Mrs Nesmith (they divorced in 1988 ) is running around and generally
making sure things are going smoothly. She’s a lot more precise than hubby and perhaps served as the interpreter of Michael’s more esoteric deliberations.

“I’ve been making sure the lighting looks good and that there are no flaws before the concert, so that it goes smoothly. I leave the music making to the musicians!”

The PA and road crew were supplied by the band Man. Says Katherine: “They’re working with the people we hired to do the recording and making sure their equipment is compatible with ours. Everything seems to be going very smoothly.”

When the show kicked off a couple of hours later, Michael introduced the individual members of the band before launching into the music. Pegg glanced at his bits of paper a couple of times and Mattacks took no chances on drums, while Rhodes and Leach were more assured and confidently related to Michael’s plugged-in acoustic, without feeling the need to interact too much with each other. Overall everything worked pretty well, considering the musicians had less than a full day’s rehearsal.

After an hour of band, and an interval, Nesmith returned on his own and played a few songs from his last-but-one RCA album, the wryly named And The Hits Just Keep On Comin’, alongside most of The Prison. At this point, Michael didn’t do encores, which most of the audience knew, so after the final number they quickly filtered out into the night, pleased to have seen something that they thought they’d never see: Michael Nesmith performing in the UK with a band.

Nesmith seemed happy with the way things had gone, in contrast to how he’d felt about some of the college dates: “They’ve been very gruelling. It’s been very difficult to maintain a certain rapport, a certain communication. There’s a distance that doesn’t allow it.”

According to Michael, this distance wasn’t because some of the college audiences weren’t familiar with his songs:

“Familiarity doesn’t come with knowing the material. Familiarity comes with the willingness to accept new ideas.”
Lights on.