Written by Probyn Gregory
What a year of loss. Julia woke me with the news that Michael “Papa Nez” Nesmith has left this Earth. Many of you know how huge the Monkees were (and are) to me. I was wildly fortunate enough to have spent some one-on-one time with each of them, but the one I was closest with was Nez, with his genteel demeanor, steel trap mind and questing inquisitive soul. My only consolation is that within the month, I had a long chat with him in his dressing room at their final show (where I was again lucky enough to be able to sit in– thanks Andrew Sandoval and Wayne Avers). That night he reiterated his interest in having me be a part of his First National Band redux, though I think we both knew that was never going to happen, partly because what he needed was someone who played violin and mandolin, instruments I do not excel at.
Being at the Greek Theater for that show was coming full Circle Sky for me because Sept. 7 1986 when Nez broke with then-recent tradition and joined the other three Monkees on stage, I had gotten wind this might happen and when the MC announced that there was “a very special guest this evening” and paused for effect, I stood up in the 9th row, turned and waved at the crowd, dressed as Mike, with green wool hat, double-row red shirt, pegleg jeans and Beatle boots. Probably the biggest applause I ever got. Earlier when I met the Monkees and got all their autographs (Billy Katz is now the owner of that fine document), Mike saw me from across the room and put his elbow over his face in (hopefully mock) agony, though we later had the first of our many chats, which ranged far and wide but almost always included Red Rhodes, the pedal steel player who was employed by Nez for many years.
Nez has (or had at any rate) an exhibit on him at the Country Music Hall of Fame, highlighting his 1968 visit to Nashville to record “Listen to the Band” and “Some of Shelly’s Blues”, which apparently inspired some of the session players to form the band Area Code 615. Even from the earliest days of the Monkees (think “Pape Gene’s Blues” on the 1st Monkees album), Nez was interested in merging country, pop and rock into a sound that became a major part of popular music for decades.
In the end, he leaves an enduring artistic legacy which includes forays into many areas– film and video production, acting, songwriting and performing, and others. His music will always be the main thing for me, greatly and poignantly informed by my friendship with him, for which I am so, so eternally grateful. There is no one song of his that to me sums up the wonderful endless Mandelbrot set that was Nez, but at his departure I I keep on hearing him quietly singing near the end of his version of Nilsson’s “Rainmaker”– rain rain, go away, come again another day.