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Mike Nesmith and the jazzy side of the Monkees

Mike Nesmith
Mike Nesmith
Mike Nesmith

Like many of you, I grew up on the Monkees … well, sort of.
In fact, I was too young to experience the pre-Fab Four’s ‘60s heyday. Instead, I was introduced to the band in the early ‘70s (when NBC was airing reruns of the once prime-time show on Saturday mornings) and then again as a teen later in the decade (when the series had gone into syndication).
Over the years, I came to appreciate its members’ abilities, even if much of their reputation stemmed not from their own artistry but that of top-flight songwriters, studio musicians and producers. The larger reality is that the entity known as the Monkees was responsible for some of the mid-‘60s’ most shimmering pop – “Daydream Believer,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” “A Little Bit Me,” A Little Bit You” and the like.
In addition, there’s no denying each members’ individual talents and contributions. Guitarist-vocalist Mike Nesmith – yes, it’s true, his mother invented Liquid Paper – brought a distinctive Texas swing thing to his songs, particularly such tracks as “What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round” and “You Just May Be the One.”
Nesmith makes his home these days in Carmel Valley and is set to perform May 1 at City Winery in Napa, May 3 at Center for the Arts in Grass Valley and May 4 at Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. The dates are part of his Movies of the Mind Tour which, Nesmith explained, “uses the songs I’ve recorded over the years, starting back when I was just a solo folk singer.”
Drummer Micky Dolenz – who I met and interviewed about 25 years ago – is simply one of rock’s truly underappreciated vocalists. Check out the pent-up anger of “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” – later covered by the Sex Pistols – and the wry wit of “Randy Scouse Git.” Bassist Peter Tork demonstrated a certain heavy-handed sincerity (“Shades of Gray”) to offset a wacky sense of humor. And then there’s the balladry of the late Davy Jones on such tracks as “Daydream Believer” and “I Wanna Be Free.”
The Monkees didn’t receive their critical props back in the day and that lack of appreciation persists. On the other hand, jazz artists have certainly demonstrated a willingness to embrace the best of the band’s songbook.
The series had barely ended its two-year run, for example, before Quincy Jones recorded the Monkees staples “I’m A Believer” and “She Hangs Out” for the “Cactus Flower” soundtrack. The year of the movie’s release, 1969, saw George Benson include “Last Train to Clarksville” on his “Shape of Things to Come” album. Cassandra Wilson has long done her version of that tune.
And the band itself was not beyond the occasional jazz touch. This is most notable in “Goin’ Down,” a Mose Allison-inspired ode with a decidedly jazz groove and some tasty Dolenz scatting.

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