Mike Nesmith died on December 12, 2021. A musical friend told me that this was National Sound Check Day. One Two, One Two. I’m sure he would have liked that. He was on stage only recently, doing a final show with Micky Dolenz after having a quadruple bypass.
I first loved Mike Nesmith as the tall, introverted guy in The Monkees, wearing a woollen beanie in the California sunshine. It was a long time before I realised that he’d written one of my favourite songs, Different Drum, which introduced Linda Ronstadt to the world.
Among many other achievements, Nesmith was one of the founders of MTV, a producer of the sprawling Ken Burns documentary on the Civil War, and the son of the woman who invented Tippex or Liquid Paper. So Mum was creative as well. She was annoyed that she had to retype things from scratch and her first attempts to invent that product started in the kitchen blender.
Mike Nesmith’s passing has made me think about mistakes and creativity, because I am also watching the Beatles documentary series edited by Peter Jackson and I’ve been mesmerised as they almost casually create the music for the album that will become Let It Be.
What songs to choose? Paul says that they could always go back and look at the hundreds of songs they wrote after school when they were younger. Hundreds of songs. Hundreds of experiments. Thousands of hours of practice at working together.
We can watch as a song like Let It Be, surely one of the most beautiful songs ever written, takes shape from a lump of clay into a masterpiece. We can hear Get Back being formed as people move around the studio, read the papers, chat, and fetch drinks. The players continue to play. And then it hits you; it’s called ‘play’ for a reason. They experiment. They take their time.
Mike Nesmith watched The Beatles as they created the song A Day in the Life. He had flown to London, with some ‘Monkee money’ as he called it, to be near the Beatles. At the time, The Monkees was a worldwide hit show on TV. John Lennon told him that he never missed an episode, and that they reminded him of the comic genius of the Marx Brothers.
What was it like to watch the Beatles create that song? Nesmith wrote, “Like a hurricane, the centre was not stormy or tumultuous. It was exciting, but it was calm, and to an extent peaceful. The confidence of the art permeated the atmosphere. (It was) serene—and really, really fun.
Then I discovered the reason for this [calm}. During that time in one of our longer, more reflective, talks I realized that John was not aware of who the Beatles were. Of course he could not be. He was clueless in this regard. He had never seen or experienced them. In the strange paradox of fame, none of the Beatles ever saw the Beatles the way we did. Certainly not the way I did. I loved them beyond my ability to express it. As the years passed and I met more and more exceptional people sitting in the centre of their own hurricane I saw they all shared this same sensibility. None of them could actually know the force of their own work”.
There are some simple truths about creativity that permeate this Beatles series and the words of Mike Nesmith.
Pressure is not helpful. Being overwhelmed by your own sense of self is not conducive to being free to create. People need to play in order to create. They need to be silly, to make mistakes, to talk freely and challenge each other. Imagine, yes imagine, if John and Paul had written hundreds of songs and then concluded that they would never get anywhere?
Why are children so creative? Because they don’t care. They don’t mind the mess and like Paul and John, they’re happy to waste the paper. They haven’t (yet) learned to feel ashamed of being wrong and of falling over. And children do fall over. They climb out of trees and sometimes fall out. You never met the adult who said, ‘I tried standing up and walking once, but l kept falling over. You just have to realise, it’s not for you’. But we meet plenty of adults who have learned to stop trying so many other things. We meet people who are overwhelmed and intimidated before they ever put one foot on the path to their goal. Talent matters – it matters greatly, but persistence just has to be there.
Vale Mike Nesmith. You led an interesting and productive life. If you ever fell down, you got up again. And may we all travel to the beat of that drum.