Michael Nesmith's Infinite Tuesday riffs on Monkees and metaphysics

The lucidly funny memoir ranges from "celebrity psychosis" to pioneering inventions and friendships with legends

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      Along with a few other neat turns of phrase, “easy speed” is the shorthand Michael Nesmith uses in the book Infinite Tuesday to describe a state of fluid and soaring creativity. He recalls seeing “easy speed” in action—where else?—while hanging with the Beatles around the time his friend John Lennon was asking the then Monkee for an opinion on a Sgt. Pepper acetate. Some 50 years later, Nesmith appears to bring his own easy speed to a delicious 300-page “autobiographical riff”, in which the musician-songwriter-entrepreneur-inventor-thinker winds through various achievements and failures while exploring, often with stunning clarity, his lifelong metaphysical bent. Funny, lucid, profound; make no mistake, Michael Nesmith can write.

      “That’s great to hear, thank you so much,” says the man himself, reached at his office in Sand City, California. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

      Once we both finish laughing—the Straight’s conversation with the author amounts to a gregarious 45-minute stand-alone riff of its own—Nesmith eagerly admits that the speed, in reality, was anything but easy. Especially when Infinite Tuesday delves into subjects that elude simple expression, whether it’s the epiphanies Nesmith received under class instruction as a Christian Scientist or the more atom-splitting implications contained in the music of Jimi Hendrix (another old friend). 

      “It was agonizing. Yeah. It really was,” he says, with a sigh. “It was not the ecstasy part, it was the agony part, and it was so tough because these things are ineffable. They’re not ineffable for no reason. They’re ineffable because you can’t express them in words.”

      Nesmith does nonetheless find the words, over and over again. When focused on more material matters, the book pits the author’s often spectacular triumphs (“…I clearly and definitely remember where I was and what I was doing when I invented MTV,” he deadpans) with an array of less fabulous moments. Recalling the infidelities, the painful business ventures, the “celebrity psychosis” that gripped him as a Monkee, Nesmith subjects himself at times to undue, if wry, self-laceration.

      “When I see stupid happen, it makes me laugh, and especially if I own it,” he explains. “So it’s not so much kicking myself in the shin as it is a face palm. There’s this mirth that overarches life, if you let it, that’s beneficial. It’s like a kind older sibling, or a good friend that says, ‘Do you really wanna wear that?’ And then you look in the mirror and you think, ‘Oh no, I really don’t.’”

      At the same time, Infinite Tuesday will more than satisfy anyone looking for some inside dope on the Mike Nesmith who helped pioneer country rock or bring Repo Man into the world, among other highly influential, if less celebrated, endeavours. Nesmith was awarded a patent for streaming video technology, and much of Infinite Tuesday chronicles “the way the counterculture turned into the cyberculture”. Monkees obsessives are naturally given plenty to feast on, especially when it comes to the 1968 feature film Head, maligned at the time, now considered to be a wildly advanced deconstruction of the whole Monkees phenomenon.

      “I might have read it and didn’t understand what she was talking about, but I remember a lot of moaning and crying and gnashing of teeth about the Pauline Kael review of Head,” is how Nesmith remembers the “excoriating” notice in the New Yorker at the time. She’s not around to defend her position, but Ms. Kael was wrong. Nesmith insists that producers Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson (who directed Head before moving on to era-defining hits like Five Easy Pieces) were dead serious and utterly successful in their intent to do psycho-surgery on their audience.

      “It was an attempt to do harm. I knew that these guys, Bert and Bob, were up to no good. And I don’t mind it being in the public record,” he says. “But the thing that I did love about it was the way that it recovered, the way it redeemed itself. It had something in it that was never gonna die, that wacko absurdity, and it remains compartmentalized. You open the silo that Head lives in and there’s no other movie in there.”

      The film’s initial failure would torpedo his friendship with its screenwriter, the not-yet-famous Jack Nicholson (“I was sad to lose Jack as a friend because, you know, we laughed hard when we were together”), but the warmest current in Infinite Tuesday resolves around Nesmith’s relationships with the likes of Lennon and Hendrix, or—as a cyber-head and consummate ideas man—pals like Timothy Leary and Douglas Adams. “They stay ever present, and I’ve not lost even the slightest shade or scent of them,” he remarks, softly. It’s through a somewhat mind-boggling synchronicity that Nesmith and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author bonded, and it gives the book its title. You’ll have to read it to find out how, exactly, but given the cosmic proclivities and inside-out humour they shared, it’s no surprise that Adams hovers over the book like a benevolent sentinel.

      “Douglas just had a natural sense of the absurdity of every physical law that exists, so he could riff on that,” Nesmith says. “The second margarita in, you knew you were in for a good evening.”

      Hey hey, Nesmith’s riffs go down pretty easy too.