Monkees singer-songwriter, media visionary and San Antonio native Mike Nesmith dead at 78

click to enlarge San Antonio native Mike Nesmith (second from left) got a taste of fame with the Monkees but went on to a litany of other artistic pursuits. - Photo via Wikimedia Commons / NBC Television
Photo via Wikimedia Commons / NBC Television
San Antonio native Mike Nesmith (second from left) got a taste of fame with the Monkees but went on to a litany of other artistic pursuits.
NOTE: This story has been corrected to add the proper spelling of musician's John Kuehne name.

Mike Nesmith, a San Antonio native and member of '60s pop group the Monkees, has died at age 78, according to media reports.
Nesmith's creative career spanned decades and genres. Though primarily known for his role in The Monkees TV show, Nesmith was an all-around visionary who fronted one of the first country-rock groups, founded the precursor to MTV and produced '80s cult films Repo Man and Tapeheads. Together with Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams, he also conceptualized and created one of the first explorations of virtual reality.

Nesmith got his start in the entertainment business as a folk singer who performed during the mid-'60s at Sam Kinsey's legendary Alamo City venue the Teen Canteen. As a student at San Antonio College, Nesmith won the school's first talent competition with fellow musician John Kuehne  Encouraged by his reception, Nesmith moved to LA, where he took up a residency at the famed Troubadour before being cast in The Monkees, a television show created around a producer-assembled band.

Though many music fans disparaged the Monkees as a manufactured pop act, Nesmith in particular fought Don Kirschner, the show's producer, to allow the group to sing and play their own songs. One particularly tense meeting reportedly ended with Nesmith punching a hole in Kirschner's wall.  

By 1967, the band achieved its sought-after autonomy and recorded its celebrated Headquarters album. "Different Drum," one of Nesmith's songs rejected by the show's producer, later became a No. 1 hit for Linda Rondstadt and the Stone Ponies.   

Once the Monkees' fame became too stifling, however, the group sought to dismantle its image. The result was Head, the legendary and trippy 1968 film flop written by a pre-fame Jack Nicholson. 

In a 1985 interview with Film Comment, Nicholson revealed that he'd written the script  "based on the theories of Marshall McLuhan." The film's self-referential absurdity alienated the Monkees' fan base, and it only recouped $16,111 of its $790,000 budget.

After the Monkees, Nesmith formed the First National Band with fellow SAC alum Kuehne — a country-rock fusion group that was a few years ahead of its time. The band's albums Loose Salute, Tantamount to Treason, Magnetic South and Divided Fighter, showed Nesmith at the peak of his powers, aided by the stellar pedal-steel mastery of bandmate Red Rhodes.

Nesmith couldn't shake the Monkees tag, however, and the band dispersed after a mere three years.  

“I was heartbroken beyond speech,” Nesmith told Rolling Sone in 2018. “I couldn’t even utter the words ‘the Eagles,’ and I loved Hotel California and I love the Eagles, the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, all that stuff. That was right in my wheelhouse, and I was agonized, Van Gogh-agonized, not to compare myself to him, but I wanted to cut something off, because I was like, ‘Why is this happening?’ The Eagles now have the biggest-selling album of all time and mine is sitting in the closet of a closed record company?”

Nesmith went on form his own sub-label at Elektra Records, where he produced albums including legendary folk guitarist Bert Jansch's acclaimed LA Turnaround.  

Nesmith also made a considerable impact in the world of film and media. In 1974, he formed Pacific Arts, one of the first companies that sold home movies. 

Later, the he developed the precursor to MTV, originally called PopClips. PopClips, which debuted on cable channel Nickelodeon, was the first program entirely based around music videos. Eventually, Nesmith sold PopClips to TimeWarner, who rebranded it as MTV, and the rest is history.

Apparently, entrepreneurial vision ran in Nesmith's family. His mother Betty invented Liquid Paper when he was a teenager and sold the company in 1980 for $50 million.

With money inherited from the sale, Mike Nesmith produced two indelible cult classics of '80s cinema — Repo Man and Tapeheads. More recently, he formed VideoRanch VR, one of the companies to explore the world of virtual reality.

Nesmith is reported to have died of natural causes.

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