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Circle Sky

Chief 'Head' Michael Nesmith

By Raoul Hernandez, Fri., Feb. 18, 2011

The Monkees' Circle Sky sequence from <i>Head</i>: (l-r) Michael Nesmith, Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork
The Monkees' "Circle Sky" sequence from Head: (l-r) Michael Nesmith, Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork

Missed shows haunt you forever, especially when opportunity stood on your doorstep with Lammes Candies and a floral arrangement.

Reasons for taking a pass fade with time, but just as often their hindsight illogic fuses to that unseized moment now frozen in your life soundtrack. "Next time ..." makes for lousy consolation if mañana never comes.

Graduate school seemed quite reasonable as far as the excuses of 1991-92 go. Nine months of a Marines-like charge through an academic polishing regime trumped all as a life investment. Nirvana and Michael Nesmith would just have to wait.

Kurt Cobain and company came back around ("next time, really ..."), but Nesmith never did. A newspaper advance of the latter occasion – at the Last Day Saloon in San Francisco on Feb. 8, 1992 – reports the sold-out bar as part of Nesmith's first concert trek in 15 years. My bootleg of the gig is no consolation.

"Silver Moon" sets a luxurious mood, its soaring country-rock here converted for the canals of Venice. "Harmony Constant," familiar in its lulling pensiveness, conjures pure romance. Nesmith's album that year, Tropical Campfires – his first new material in more than a decade – maintains just such mojo, country & western ceding its "C" to Caribbean. As the pooling sensuousness of "Moon Over the Rio Grande" fades to applause, Nesmith buys the band time before "Begin the Beguine."

"That's very nice," he says. "Thanks very much. You wonder sometimes, you know, whether you've still got your fastball."

Set-closer "Rio" does for its destination what only Portuguese might otherwise accomplish. For an encore, a solo Nesmith tenders his evergreen for Linda Ronstadt's Stone Poneys from many, many moons ago, "Different Drum."

Next ... time?

Head

Spliced 'n' diced by Jack Nicholson and Michael Nesmith – according to the latter in the film's new audio commentary – but credited on the original record as a Monkees production, 1968's Head soundtrack bottles a psychedelic relic. Chop together big-screen Beatles mockumentaries A Hard Day's Night, Help!, and especially Magical Mystery Tour; polarize the celluloid with some liquid sunshine; then let the era's social, musical, and chemical cauldron come to a rolling boil. Head trip.

"Opening Ceremony" warps the voice recognition software of late-1960s LPs, from the Rolling Stones' Their Satanic Majesties Request to the Beatles' White Album. This is, after all, the cracked psyche of pop-biblical times. Sampling and looping its movie, Head digitizes a mixtape more than 40 years before our new-millennial Dark Night of the Soul. Danger Mouse on LSD.

Up cues a vintage 7-inch, birthed by the medium's midwives: Carole King and Gerry Goffin. Their underwater daydream, "Porpoise Song," airs the distinctly goodwill tenor of one – as God booms in the film – George Michael Dolenz.

My, my, the clock in the sky is pounding away – there's so much to say.

A face, a voice, an overdub has no choice, and it cannot rejoice.

Davy Jones' impish croon helms the chorus:

But the porpoise is laughing good-bye, good-bye.

Good-bye, good-bye, good-bye ...

Peaking at No. 62, which is to say not at all, the water world of "Porpoise Song" today ripples as idyllic as Lady Bird Lake. Same goes, more or less, for the sonic tomfoolery that follows it, "Ditty Diego – War Chant" clamoring all four Monkees as a (none) too-happy chorus calling out commercialism in the name of artistic identity:

Hey, hey, we are the Monkees

You know we love to please

A manufactured image

With no philosophies

The climax stirs pure Country Joe & the Fish a year before Woodstock:

Give me a "W"

Give me an "A"

Give me an "R"

Then, onto the steel wheel of the cosmic jukebox drops the main attraction. A ladder of descending guitar riffs ratchets "Circle Sky" to life, its author grunting in convocational punctuation as if gut-punched. Michael Nesmith's cattleman cry jostles this wagon train into propulsive rhythm, Bo Diddley's maracas' spawn proving as outlaw as on "Jumping Jack Flash." The big-sky shaker rattles and rolls, its bridge riding melodic high country. For 2:30, "Circle Sky" sounds a Southwestern call to arms. Yippeee kai yaaay, mother trucker.

Papa Nez at Austin Studios, 2010
Papa Nez at Austin Studios, 2010
Photo by John Anderson

Micky Dolenz-sung snake charmer "Can You Dig It" and flower-powered "As We Go Along," whose credits include guitarists Neil Young, Ry Cooder, and Danny Kortchmar, plus co-composer Carole King and rock & roll's master arranger Jack Nitzsche, then Davy Jones' dandy "Daddy's Song," commissioned from Harry Nilsson, sprout up like poppies in the fertile aftermath of "Circle Sky."

Head capper "Long Title: Do I Have To Do This All Over Again" forgives any hippie-dippy missteps, the Peter Tork tune electrified by Buffalo Springfield's Dewey Martin and Stephen Stills, the latter who, when passed over for the Monkees, recommended the rave-up's singer-songwriter.

Can You Dig It

Acknowledging Don Kirshner's death last month, Michael Nesmith posted: "Sad to learn of the passing of my old adversary Don Kirshner. He was a formidable foe and I send my condolences and sympathy to his family and his many friends.

"Donny, wherever you are – I want you to know I put my fist thru the wall just for dramatic effect. Apparently it worked. It is all behind us now, and we wrote what we wrote. Rest in Peace."

They inked music history starting in 1966, when Kirshner began producing the musical component of a new television series, The Monkees. Kirshner, whose initial collaborator changed his name to Bobby Darin when "Splish Splash" hit, assembled a hothouse of composers starring Goffin & King, Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil, and Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart, as well as Neil Sedaka, Neil Diamond, and Doc Pomus. The offices were a block from pop's songwriting headquarters, the Brill Building.

Over the next two years, the half-hour NBC sitcom swung from the tops of the Nielsen ratings, often crowning its Monday night time slot. "The Prefab Four," meanwhile – Micky, Davy, Michael, and Peter – sang the first four Monkees platters to No. 1. After millions of records sold and two Emmys won, the enterprise was taking on water when Jack Nicholson materialized.

"Before we started writing the film, Jack and I went to Ojai [Calif.] and there was this grand meeting with the Monkees," recalls one of the program's two creators, Bob Rafelson, in a documentary on the Criterion Collection's holiday DVD box America Lost and Found: The BBS Story. "And quite frankly there was a bit of acid involved, and Jack saw the movie in his mind as being structured like an acid trip."

Head, scripted by Rafelson and Nicholson and directed by the former, began filming in February 1968, and, unbeknownst to all parties, The Monkees episode that aired the next month became the show's swan song. Rafelson and his partners planned Head as the lead-in to BBS Productions' Dennis Hopper directorial debut, Easy Rider. Rafelson and Nicholson then made the even better Five Easy Pieces. All seven films in America Lost and Found bristle like Rafelson himself, whether it's Peter Bogdanovich's north Texas sexual noir, The Last Picture Show, Henry Jaglom's gauzy bow that same year, 1971's A Safe Place, or Rafelson's Atlantic City knockout, The King of Marvin Gardens.

"I felt that there was one thing missing from the Monkees' mythology," continues Rafelson. "First of all, they hadn't made a movie – completing all forms of media. Second of all, there's a truth that hasn't been told, and that's the truth of the accusations about the Monkees not singing their own songs – all the so-called 'adult assault' on their sensibility.

"So I thought I should make a movie about that. In other words, expose the Monkees and my own relationship to [the band] as truthfully as I possibly could, although in a very abstract manner."

Compounding The Monkees' non sequitur slapstick, and taking place in Victor Mature's hair – parading Phil Spector, Toni Basil, Green Bay Packers Hall of Famer Ray Nitschke, heavyweight felon Sonny Liston, and even admirer Frank Zappa – Head confounds.

"I wish I could attribute the failure of the picture to the fact that it was ahead of its time," concludes its director. "That might have accounted for it in some fashion. It's also quite possible that it's not a very good movie, or, if it isn't a good movie, it isn't a conventional enough movie for anybody to come out of it and say what it's about."

Do I Have To Do This All Over Again

Among a Congressional Library's worth of bonus features, all four Monkees at the microphone commenting on Head, available only in America Lost and Found, yuks up the most enjoyable supplement of this intrinsic film series. Potential for their 85 minutes of wry insight as a spoken-word double CD nestles in the band's bottomless catalog, excavated like no other by Rhino Records and overflowing with the finest songsmiths and sessionistas Hollywood could buy. Two Head-cerpts:

Peter Tork: And we begin with the "Porpoise Song," which was released on Colgems, and died. The record went straight to the bottom, with a bullet – with an anvil [laughs]. Went to the bottom with an anvil, as did the movie. As we know.

Davy Jones: Even though some people would say, "Oh my goodness. It's pretty suicidal," maybe that was the whole theme of the movie: We were kind of destroying an image that we had created. Much the same as the Beatles going off to India and being involved with a higher source, you know, and higher energy.

Michael Nesmith: The overall notion was, you know, let's kill the critter before it gets any further. Let's get it back in the box and kill it. And that's what they did .... I don't recall the four of us contributing much. I mean by that time we were pariah. Not only as an entity – the Monkees as an entity had gone completely wrong in the social fabric of the times – but also individually. We had emerged as these four little preening monsters, who if they could have really killed us, they would have [laughs]. But at least they could do us in cinematically, and I don't really blame them. I think I would have probably done the same thing. I go back over those moments, and I'm just mortified at some of the lunacy that was going on there. ...

Concerning Head's live "Circle Sky" sequence:

Nesmith: To me it's a very interesting piece of footage. By that time, we had actually coalesced into a band. We could play – well. And what you hear on the film is that. When you look at the footage you're watching the Monkees in concert. And that's probably the only three minutes of us really playing in concert ever. Because all of the way 'til then, we were just fighting our way along, 'cause we were a garage band at that point, except we were filling up these stadiums. So it was hard. We couldn't hear, and nobody wanted to rehearse, so it was very, very tough. We were hiding a lot behind the event and the screens and all the stuff that went along with it. But with "Circle Sky," we had to do it over and over and over and over live and filming. And I think somebody, maybe Bob, said: "No, this has gotta be live. It's got to be the real thing." So that's what happened. And we were good enough to play exactly what you heard. Now, in the annals of rock does "Circle Sky" belong in the pantheon? It's just a crash/burn rock & roll song informed by its time.

Micky Dolenz: I love playing drums on ["Circle Sky"] better than almost any other song. It just rocks. It's such a great tune. And I gotta tell you, Mike Nesmith, "Circle Sky": You listen to some of the new stuff coming out of Nashville – that electro-rock stuff. Mike Nesmith was doing this stuff 40 years ago.

Papa Gene's Blues

Dec. 18, 2010, four days after the release of America Lost and Found: The BBS Story, Michael Nesmith performed a 55-minute solo set at Austin Studios. Rather than DVD promotion or even marking Rhino Handmade's 3-CD Head set two months earlier, the 68-year-old Houston native played green-screen host to a World Wide Web in front of an intimate on-site gathering. "Papa Gene's Blues," Nesmith's first song on the first Monkees album, rang all 12 strings of his acoustic guitar first. "Papa Nez" then did a short surprise set in January at the Continental Club.

Video Ranch (www.videoranch.com) had already camped out at the local film facilities during South by Southwest, broadcasting interactive live sets for virtual consumption. As acts from here and far entertained avatar audiences onscreen, the venture's inventor sat in a mobile facility outside tweaking computer code. Nesmith was freshly inducted into the Texas Film Hall of Fame during the 2010 SXSW Film Festival, the self-proclaimed high school dropout's acceptance speech as rousing as Buddy Holly himself.

Grammy recipient of the first Video of the Year award in 1981, who had the year previous sold his blueprint for a cable music channel to MTV, Nesmith followed in the patented footsteps of his mother, Bette Nesmith Graham, who invented Liquid Paper at their kitchen table in Dallas in 1951. San Antonio's Lackland Air Force Base (not 12th grade) later gave way to the Alamo City's community college as a launching pad for the lanky young musician, who headed west to Los Angeles in 1963. The fateful casting ad for The Monkees sought "four insane boys."

Fifty-eight episodes later, "Circle Sky" proved a setting sun for Nesmith. The outtakes and rarities CD in the Head box pivots on the guitarist leading the Monkees through a miniset of his "You Just May Be the One," "Sunny Girlfriend," "You Told Me," and "Circle Sky" at the shoot for Head.

"I was moving on by that time," he says on Head. "I was ready to go make country-rock music. Head was the end of it for me."

Nesmith's "Listen to the Band," cut by the Monkees the summer of Head in Nashville, titles not only Rhino's initial 1991 box set of the band, it also brands a five-star swath of Papa Nez hits from his 1970s country-rock tenure on RCA Records. "Joanne," "Some of Shelly's Blues," "I've Just Begun to Care (Propinquity)," "Calico Girlfriend," and "Silver Moon," all stripped and polished by him at Austin Studios, demonstrate his inherent honky-tonk "Harmony Constant," the closer that day. Gram Parsons, Roger McGuinn & Chris Hillman – the Eagles: All owe a debt to the boot-scooting Texan on TV. "Papa Gene's Blues" still puts Michael Nesmith best:

I have no more than I did before,

But now I've got all that I need.

For I love you and I know you love me.

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