Not only did Elvis Presley not write his own music, but the guitar he swung provocatively during his performances, he seldom played. Neither fact tarnished his reputation.
Marlon Brando didn't write The Godfather, nor did Francis Ford Coppola. They don't seem to have suffered from those factors.
And yet, the Monkees could never shake the label of "the group that didn't write their own lyrics and didn't play their own music."
Apples and oranges? Maybe. But in truth, they did write and play their own music after their television show came to an end. But simple chronology held them to a much higher standard: they had followed the Beatles—virtuoso songwriters and performers.
And so in the late 1960s, while the Monkees were still neophytes, musical snobs had already written their narratives.
Yesterday Michael Nesmith died. Some called him the cerebral Monkee or the quiet Monkee. I call him another great musician who left us.
Nesmith was more than some performer from 50 years ago. His fingerprint can be found on a great deal of music over that time span—as producer, writer, and arranger. Early on, he was responsible for Linda Ronstadts' first hit as that country-rock genre was first becoming popular. It was Nesmith's kind of music, but the Monkees broke up just as the so-called L.A. sound became the rage—without Nesmith. The seventies were the time of the Eagles and the Flying Burrito Brothers—it was the kind of music that Nesmith loved—but again, chronology left him out in the cold.
He kept at it, and in 1977 he wrote and recorded a song called "Rio," a light, frivolous but catchy piece. He was asked to promote it by coming up with a short video—maybe 30 seconds. He agreed, but when he started compiling it, he began piecing together disparate elements and playing with the suddenly popular video cameras. The result was six minutes of what many consider the first commercial music video, though there was no such term in 1977. MTV was still four years away.
This morning I listened again to Tropical Campfires, his 1992 album. It's quite an achievement for someone who "isn't a musician." (He was the arranger, writer, and producer for that CD—he was also the guitarist.) And though no music is for all musical tastes, I have never heard a better version of the Cole Porter standard, "In the Still of the Night," than Nesmith's. Yes, that Cole Porter.
Michael Nesmith's passing will not garner the universal sadness of many of his predecessors over these past few years—we have lost giants—but the work of someone like Nesmith, who dedicated his entire life to music, should not be dismissed because it doesn't fit someone's narrow definition of what musicianship is, or what greatness is.
I don't play his music every day, but his (and yes, some Monkees songs) occupy my playlists. It's just good stuff.
I suppose I enjoyed knowing that he was still at his craft—still making music. I'll miss that.