(This will be crossposted to my blog and Goodreads — apologies to those who read my blog via the Goodreads feed and will thus see it twice)
Michael Nesmith’s “autobiographical riff” is one of the most revealing, heartfelt, books I’ve read in a long time, certainly in the field of musical autobiography.
It’s difficult for me to review this in a way that will work for other potential readers, because the main impression I got from this book is a feeling of compassion, and an immense empathy for a man whose brain seems to work, on some fundamental level, the same way I do. Obviously there’s no way to know if that would apply to any other given reader, but it certainly applied to me.
The book is not a conventional autobiography. One can certainly glean from it the broad outlines of the same life story that applies to pretty much every musician of Nez’s generation — surprise success at too young an age causes Our Protagonist to act like a complete arse towards his wife, friends, and family, a second marriage ends in a mid-life crisis. Popular hit records give way to critically-acclaimed non-hits, which in turn give way to critically-panned conceptual works. A single minor surprise hit record long after that’s stopped being the norm for his career. A spiritual awakening causes him to become profoundly religious in a non-traditional manner. Becoming a businessman/philanthropist/activist takes up more time and energy than music, and he gets very excited about new technologies.
In these broad outlines, Nez’s life as he tells it is not very different from those of, say, Graham Nash or Mike Love, to name two contemporaries whose autobiographies I’ve read relatively recently.
But this book is not really about the facts of his life. He talks about his time in the Monkees, but barely mentions the other three members (as in three or four mentions of their names, total, usually in passing). You’ll discover the names of his dogs, but not of his children. No mention at all is made of any of his post-1980 music (except The River), and there’s little discussion of nuts-and-bolts musical stuff even before that. *HUGE* swathes of his career go unmentioned altogether, and if you want to find out about, say, his songwriting process, you won’t get that either.
What you *will* get is a huge amount of insight into his thought processes, and into the kind of person he is. And while I certainly wouldn’t want to distance-diagnose someone, a lot of it resonates with my own neuroatypicalities.
In particular, Nez’s thinking seems to be very much that of someone who has artistic intuitions but *about systems*. Almost all his thinking seems to be in the borderlands between cybernetics and creative art where much of my own mental life is spent. He talks in particular about an uncle explaining to him when he was very young how an engine works:
“As Chick talked, pointing out and explaining various parts of the engine, I began to see that an engine was a system of ideas. Each part of this simple system revealed more of the operating principle that governed the whole, and each part was in a ready state in that definite system.”
And this seems to be how Nez’s mind works all the time — an almost Platonist way of seeing the world in some ways, looking at physical systems and seeing the parts not as physical objects but as ideas. It’s no wonder that when he had his own mid-life turn to faith, he ended up at the Christian Scientist faith his mother had brought him up in (albeit a version of Christian Science heavily influenced by both Hindu mysticism and the psychedelic quantum mysticism of Timothy Leary).
The other very obvious thing about this book is that Nez is an autodidact, with all that that entails, including an insecurity that comes across in dropping as many cultural references as possible (the very first sentence of the book talks about his favourite Fellini film, and the epigraphs at the start of each chapter come from people like Marshall McLuhan, Erwin Schrodinger, and David Foster Wallace.
This insecurity comes out in other ways, as well. While the book is centred on Nez, he makes it very, very clear that most of his achievements have been as part of “bands” — by which he means sometimes actual bands like the Monkees or the First National Band, and sometimes what Vonnegut would call a karass (one gets the feeling that Nez regards the Monkees themselves as being, to use Vonnegut’s terms, a granfalloon — the real “band” he talks about there consists of Rafelson and Schneider). Much of the good things in Nez’s life, he attributes to decisions made by these “bands”, while pretty much every failure seems to come from him alone — in Nez’s telling, for example, it was Rafelson and Schneider who wanted him to write, and wanted the Monkees to be a real band, and he went along with them primarily out of loyalty to them.
The autodidact insecurity comes out in other ways, too. Throughout the book, Nez is befriending men who he sees as mentor figures. If I were going to do a pop-Freudian thing I’d talk about how this reflects on his relationship with his single mother, and them being replacement father figures, but I don’t think thats it. Other than an uncle and his Christian Science teacher, most of these people seem to be truly remarkable ones — Leary, Douglas Adams, Jack Nicholson, John Lennon, Murray Gell-Mann, Jimi Hendrix — precisely the kind of people one would choose, if given the opportunities Nesmith has had.
But in all these cases, Nez makes it clear that however strong the friendship was (in some cases apparently very strong friendships, in other cases acquaintance only), it meant far more to him that these clever, brilliant, people were spending time with him than his friendship did to them. These people changed his life, and he’s utterly adoring of them even as he recognises that the adoration is not necessarily reciprocated.
In fact one story recurs over and over, especially in the early chapters of the book — Nez is talking to someone he wants to impress (John Lennon, a girlfriend, Terry Jones and Douglas Adams…), they say something (usually a joke), he gets the wrong end of the stick by missing an obvious social cue, and the other person (usually) laughs and forgives him, for which Nesmith is grateful.
Yeah. I’ve been there. A lot.
On the sentence level, Nez is a much better writer (and he did write this himself, rather than the usual practice of getting a ghostwriter in) than most of his contemporaries. He talks a lot early on in the book about being fascinated by language, by rhythm and assonance (the uncle who taught him about engines is also used early in the book as an example of the ways different expletives can have different effects when spoken), and he has a clear fascination with language. Occasionally his love of a particular word or phrase is allowed to get a little too far — a bit of “kill your darlings” could possibly have helped — but it’s a remarkably *readable* book.
One other notable thing about this book — other than his mother (and even there he says far more good than bad) and the people in charge of PBS who tried to bankrupt him, I don’t think Nez says a bad or unkind word about *anyone* other than himself. Where relationships and friendships break down and he is to blame, he says so. When he doesn’t take the blame, he says nothing or very little, concentrating on the good things about the relationship. There’s none of the score-settling and rehashing of arguments in here that one normally gets in rock autobiographies, and that’s entirely to Nez’s credit.
It’s always difficult to judge a person from the way they present themselves in an autobiography, but the picture Nez paints of himself here certainly makes me empathise with him a lot more than I did. Prior to reading this, Nez was my favourite Monkee, and an artist for whom I had the greatest respect, but I got the impression that he was a fairly unpleasant person. After reading this, I think he may have behaved unpleasantly in the past, but I have a much greater understanding of the forces that caused that behaviour, and of the ways in which he has worked to change it.
This isn’t a perfect book by any means, but it’s an essential one for anyone who wants to understand Nez.
One thing I would point out, though, is that this may be a book that’s better to buy in ebook than hardback, as the production quality of my hardback copy is fairly shoddy — uneven page trims which make page-turning very difficult, and large splodges of ink on some pages, which are quite inexcusable given the cost premium one pays for a hardback book.
This blog post was brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?