After 20 years, The Monkees have a brand new album, Good Times, coming out. So, I thought I would dig back into my archives for a conversation I had way back in 2003 with Michael Nesmith. It remains, to this day, one of the most unique chats I’ve ever had. I think I almost kept up with it.
From the vaults, I present to you my chat with Michael Nesmith… I hope you dig it…
If you were to just skirt the surface, Michael Nesmith is known for being one quarter of The Monkees (he’s the one who’s not Micky, Davy, or Peter - aka “the one in the green wool cap”).
Ah, but delving deeper reveals that Nesmith (”Nez” to his fans) is more than a Monkee - he’s an entrepreneur with an enviable solo career, having produced films (Repo Man, Tapeheads, Time Rider), pioneered the home video market (Elephant Parts), and - yes, it’s true - even created MTV.
I recently had the chance to speak with Nez in what amounted to a mental jam session, riffing on the power of the internet and art and the new economy.
You can learn more about Nez’s online ventures at his official website, www.Videoranch.com.
KEN PLUME: I really appreciate you doing the interview.
MICHAEL NESMITH: Interviews are usually a follow-up, like a press junket or a publicity junket, or something like that, and I’m not doing any of that right now. I don’t have any axes to grind.
PLUME: I’ve been wanting to do this for years …
NESMITH: I read an interview that you did with Terry Gilliam. It was good work. You know, Victoria and I were talking this morning, or maybe it was last night, that the dot com bubble was a market bubble, and the dot com bust, or the dot bomb, was a marke” bust. It wasn’t an industry related thing. I think there was only 20% - I’m just speculating here, but I think it’s reasonable to think - that was industry related. What Greenspan called “unwarranted enthusiasm” or “over-exuberance,” something like that, some measured phrase, but the rest of the Internet has a real, industrial base. Once the smoke of the market crash clears off, you know, the Internet will pick back up and go. Take a look at what’s happening to some of the big companies like eBay and Yahoo, the publicly traded stocks. You know, they’re all coming back up off the mat now.
PLUME: I think the beauty of the Internet was that the ideas were solid.
NESMITH: The ideas are solid, the industry’s solid, the technology’s solid, the only thing that went wrong was the market.
PLUME: I knew the end was nigh when we started seeing commercials for the stock market on TV.
NESMITH: That’s right. You know what that is? It’s the capital equivalent of media guys interviewing media guys about what happens in the media. It’s the snake eating its tail - it’s circular and so it doesn’t have any depth, any knowledge base. There’s no data there. Larry King interviewing another talk show host is a true piece of unusual…
PLUME: …”So, Charlie Rose, how do you do what you do?”…
NESMITH: …Exactly … that’s the perfect example of it. So that was all that was going on, it was just this circular market logic.
PLUME: It was market inbreeding.
NESMITH: That’s right, and finally the snake eats its tail until it gets to the end of the body, and there it is looking at itself in the face, saying, “Oh, wait a minute. I didn’t really have anything for dinner.” But you know, Yahoo’s making a lot of money and eBay’s making a lot of money and there’s half a dozen companies out there that are very solid and doing very well, and they’re going to continue to do it. I think one of the big businesses - since we’re talking about it from capital…I’m not talking about spiritually or artistically, but just from a big business standpoint - is subscriber-based, magazine-type, image-driven, or non-text based content.
PLUME: Multimedia content?
NESMITH: Kind of multimedia. Multimedia scares me off, because of [Marshall] McLuhan’s concept. His definition of media I think is so important. When you say “multimedia”, it’s like, “Wait a minute. We’re not really understanding media.” No pun intended. Did you ever read that book?
PLUME: No, I haven’t, but it’s been recommended to me.
NESMITH: You’ve got to read that book.
PLUME: What would be better terminology? Multi-faceted presentation?
NESMITH: Well, there’s got to be better nomenclature than we’ve got. That might do it… multi-faceted means different planes of reflection, so I don’t know. That might do it.
PLUME: How much of the industry is still limping along because of the existence of buzz words?
NESMITH: Well, of course, buzz words and clichés - those are stock in trade. There’s nothing wrong with them. And, I don’t know,- I understand the spirit of your remark, but I don’t know if “limping along” is exactly right. It’s important to be precise about words, because of the thought value of them. They frame and shape so much of the way we understand things. A big problem with the Internet, is that people don’t really take the time to see what’s going on there, and they make these snap, knee-jerk judgments. But it’s such a juggernaut, that I don’t think anyone really has taken the time to be very thoughtful and careful and precise in the way they’re defining the different elements. You know, we’re in this text-based mode right now. We’re past the false dawn, and now we’re in this text-based mode, and the text-based mode, of course, is what will have to settle off to one side, because the image… what are we going to call it? It’s not multimedia, it’s not multi-faceted, it’s - I don’t know. You coin something. You’re the journalist.
PLUME: You’re the artist.
NESMITH: Yeah, that’s right. I’m the writer, right? I get to think of that. I coined a word the other day, but I forgot what it was. It was a good one. I remember thinking, “Oh, I can use …” Oh, I know what it was. It came to me in a dream. It was sharman. Pronounced like the toilet paper … Sharman is a made up word which means to encounter a victorious, hostile force.
PLUME: Almost the barbarians at the gates?
NESMITH: Yeah, except it’s what the Iraqi people are going through right now. They have encountered a victorious, hostile force - but, you know, there they still are. There their culture is, there their history is, they’re not going anywhere. So, whatever the hostile force might impose upon them - they are in the midst of their own sharman - at a certain point they will emerge from that.
PLUME: So, time and precedent is on their side.
NESMITH: I think so. Anyway, there’s a coined word. There is no dictionary word sharman… I mean, there’s Charmin bathroom tissue, but that doesn’t mean to encounter a victorious, hostile force.
PLUME: I was exploring Video Ranch (http://www.videoranch.com) a good deal, and I know in the past you’ve talked about how media is affecting artists, and how artists operate within the new media and the new medium of the Internet in distribution and what’s happening with copyrights now. Also how the music industry and now the movie industry are running scared when it comes to …
NESMITH: Intellectual property implication?
PLUME: Right. It’s interesting to see how you’ve tackled it through Video Ranch, by making the MP3s available, by allowing the consumer to mix and match and make their own CDs, and putting a good deal of control in the hands of the consumer - while funneling your creative works and making them available. What was the development effort that you went through in deciding which path you would go down?
NESMITH: That’s a hard question to answer precisely. It’s a good question, deserves a good answer, but it might take a minute to really develop it out. There’s a certain logic to systems, and that logic is fairly self-evident. It’s very straight-forward, usually. It might take a little research, it might take a little bit of industry to prize it out, but at the end of the day, it’s there to be seen. In the way that the Internet - the Internet’s not fully formed, but there is a contact between the culture, and whatever we’re calling the Internet right now, which is this kind of *potential*. It’s not really formed yet but, you know, in the old high school science class, the rock sitting on the shelf has potential because it can fall - it’s the same way with the Internet. It has this potential. It’s not really doing it yet, but it’s about to. And this *potential* cultural interface has a certain logic to it, and that logic says, “Well, the people who access the Internet are going to do certain things in this conduit.” It’s just going to happen that way, and so it’s important to figure out what it is they’re going to do. It’s clear that people are going to download media files, and they’re going to talk to each other, and they’re going to exchange information and knowledge and so forth. So this “system logic” is basically what you bounce off of. You say, “Okay, well, this is the way it’s going, so let’s go that way.” It’s the way the river flows. It’s the Tao. It’s very simple.
With Video Ranch, it was: “People are going to download, and I know people don’t want to steal from me, because people don’t want to steal from each other”. The only people who steal are thieves, and that’s a very small percentage of civilization. Most people want to have some way to make the economic transaction valid. They want to return the favor, if you will… return the benefit and reciprocate… so how do I set that up? So, you know, you just dig around the technology and you come up with: “Okay, they can download the file. What kind of file should it be?” MP3s are a good file, because they’re high quality and you can get really close to the master, at least in this stage of the development technology. And should you make them available, what kind of cost? When you sell them with the kind of an agreement that they won’t give them away, or that they understand that they’re just buying it for their use and they shouldn’t resell them, or give them to other people, and you create a place where they can go and get those things, then, you know, there’s this notion that allows people to create their own collection of songs. So, it rewrites what a song is. They may only want 10 seconds of something, or they may only want this particular song, or they want this group of songs. They may want it in whatever order they want it, and things like the length and the sequence and the order - all of those things - just change completely because of the media. It becomes much more user-controlled. So you say, “Well, then *let* the consumer control it.” It becomes a consumer event. Let them do it. So you facilitate that with a computer, and none of it is particularly complex or difficult to figure out. It’s all just embedded in this “system logic”. Does that make sense?
PLUME: It makes perfect sense. When you talk about the idea of theft, and the rise of Napster, do you think a large part of that was fueled not so much that people were thinking, “This is a criminal act,” but by the convenience and the availability? In the early days of Napster, stuff that hadn’t been released on CD, or rarities that had never been heard of, were suddenly available. The great thing about Video Ranch is that everything is available there. Your entire output is available to the consumer there, so they’re not having to go and search it out. The quality, the convenience, and the availability is all wrapped up in one. Do you see a move for artists in that direction?
NESMITH: You switched up on me… you started talking about theft, and you ended up here. Let’s go back to the first part …
PLUME: The old journalist bait and switch.
NESMITH: Answering the first part of your question … People don’t intend to steal. Only thieves steal. Like I say, there just aren’t that many thieves, they’re just a very small percentage. They get the news, they get all the press and so forth, but there are more honest people and more good people than there are thieves and bad people. It’s just always been that way. When something comes along like Napster, or something comes along about big file sharers, whatever it is, it facilitates a legitimate desire. The legitimate desire was the one you just outlined, which is access to a broader category and broader catalogues - a broader resource that enables you to fulfill a desire for these things. It’s not that you don’t want to pay for it, but in the file sharing programs you don’t have any way to pay for it. When something like Listen.com or Pressplay - these new music services - come along and say, “Here, you can have the same access to the giant pool of music as Napster has, and here’s a way to pay for it,” people do that. That, of course, is starting to happen. Yes, Video Ranch is right in the pocket there, and that is a key component.
Now answering the second part of your question - “availability” is a key component of the system logic. The Internet provides the access to resources, so it’s incumbent upon the people who control those resources to make sure that the economic engine stays intact. We’re moving from… let me see how I say this… there is a “scarcity” sense, a “scarcity” principal, to economics that has been there from the beginning of the economic idea, that says there’s only so much to go around - and what will happen is, in the closed system called the market, a certain level of efficiency. We’ll seek this efficiency, and the energy of the system, the ecology of the system, will seek this efficiency. These efficiencies are found in the following phenomena, etc. Well, all of it, of course, stemmed from the finite sense of the market. Wealth, in terms of dollars and so forth, could be counted up, because dollars were finite. It doesn’t make any difference how many dollars you have - at a certain point you only have dollars. You start with finite, you end with finite. So the limited economic systems said, “All right. What we have to do is we have to come up with a market efficiency, a market economy, that redistributes - or distributes - the wealth in an efficient and fair and just way. So, political systems and so forth were built on this. This was important, because it was a key component to civilization and order of society and so forth. It was a way that you could go out and make a living. It provided opportunities to do a lot of things. Obviously susceptible to abuse, but nonetheless, it was an important component of the way civilization developed over the last couple of thousand years.
Well, now we have hit something new. We’re shifting from the “scarcity” of resource to the “abundance” of resource - an “abundance” economy. We’re moving from the finite resource to the infinite - and the infinite resource, of course, is knowledge. We understand it as knowledge, back down into these files, back down to what’s imbedded in a simple music file. It’s a knowledge-based kind of economy.
PLUME: As you’ve said before, it’s not like clay pots, because there’s only so many clay pots to go around.
NESMITH: That’s correct. It’s ideas. So, now what we’re doing is we’re redistributing — or we’re distributing - ideas. That’s the new economy. That’s what people mean when they talk about the new economy. That’s what people are talking about when they’re talking about this new economic model. It is not an economy that is a direct linear extrapolation of the old economies of the finite, scarcity-based economies. It is a new paradigm. Remember that old phrase from the 90s? “The new paradigm”?
PLUME: Oh, yes.
NESMITH: Well, it is. It truly is. It is a way of thinking about knowledge as value, that we haven’t had before. So, the trick now is to make sure that the systems - and especially the logic of the systems - all match up to the new knowledge-based, “abundance” economy in a way that people are getting the data that they want. We lamented over the years about the disparity between the rich and the poor. We say, “Well, some people have a lot of money, and some people don’t have any money, and the people that have money get richer and the people who don’t have money get poorer. There are all these repressive and oppressive and tyrannical elements in market economies that are abused, so it keeps this big class system in place and so forth.” Well, over the years the market economy started to smooth out, and you see less and less of those giant spikes - but it was nothing compared to the disparity between people who know and people who don’t know - people who are naïve and ignorant and people who are sophisticated and intelligent.
PLUME: You can’t earn more I.Q.
NESMITH: Exactly. So, what you have to have is access to information. You have to have access to ideas. The Internet is facilitating that access to ideas. That’s why it’s so powerful. And as it has, it has moved off of text-based - which is a very restrictive kind of delivery - and more into image-based, and more into motion-based, and lord knows what else… you and I are just talking right now, but in 25 years, the way that data’s going to flow back and forth, we don’t quite understand yet.
NESMITH: Kinetic-based, right. Those systems are being built, and all you do with something like a website, like Video Ranch, is just put it up. You say, “Okay, let’s take all these elements that you and I just talked about, put them in place and say, okay, people can have total access to my entire output of information, of data. That is, music and videos and, you know, the aesthetic that I bring forward as an artist. And let’s create the transaction so that knowledge can be exchanged on a fair basis.” That’s pretty simple to do, and that’s all that has to happen now, as the rest of the media comes online. That’s one of the reasons I’m not too worried about the intellectual property. People recognize intellectual property the same way they recognize real estate. People understand what property is. But the understanding doesn’t go to the old English property laws - it’s a new kind of property, and so the understanding uses new control surfaces. It uses a new way of defining the property. “Okay, that’s your idea, and I’ll pay you for your idea, and now I get to use the idea.” That’s a terrific transaction, because by me giving you the idea, or you giving me the idea, neither one of us loses anything. We both gain something from it. It is a remarkable kind of model, and a remarkable kind of economy, because it’s abundance based. You’re not taking from one side and giving to the other. It is mutually beneficial.
PLUME: How do you latch-key the new economy? It isn’t like your clay pots that you can lock up in a room, and as you said it’s a resource that’s limited to the supply that you have…
NESMITH: You don’t latch-key it. There is no key.
PLUME: So, essentially it’s a trust issue, is what it comes down to.
NESMITH: No, I think the answer lies deep, buried in the word “reciprocity”. What you want is a creation of a way for you to give to me and me to give to you.
PLUME: So it’s a barter system, if you boil it down.
NESMITH: If you boil it down - but be careful of that again, because barter carries the baggage of history with it, and it means I’ll give you a chicken for those bricks - and that’s not exactly what reciprocity means… although all economy is barter on some level. So, yes, it is a barter system.
PLUME: Chicken for a song.
NESMITH: If you’d like.
PLUME: Who’s to say that someone couldn’t pay $20 to get a mixed-disc of your tracks, and those tracks are up on Kazaa with the same quality that you’re offering for a fee, but is now free because this person has made them available on the file sharing network?
NESMITH: Well, nothing, except - as the transaction-base clarifies - Kazaa will have less and less value, because there’s more value in reciprocity than there is in one-way transactions. The guy that goes around thinking, “Oh boy, I got something for free,” is living in a dream. Nature abhors a vacuum. And, on an economic basis, business is not going to allow an unbalanced transaction. Not just business, but the system of life is reciprocal. A transaction won’t stand if it’s not reciprocal - reciprocity enforces itself within every transaction, so you never get away with just getting something and running off with it. The system will correct itself over a period of time, and what you’ll find, as kind of a demonstration of this, is that the pay services will become perceptively more valuable to a consumer than the free services. I can’t tell you exactly why, or what the elements of that will be. We’re at a point right now where this is difficult stuff to understand, because it’s abstract and it’s more spiritual than it is …
NESMITH: Tangible? Well, spirit is very tangible, but it is not thought of that way in general use. It’s perceived more as a thought. But, as these transactions become more generally useful, and you see more and more systems pop up that say, “Look, I will facilitate your desire to get this, if you will give me something for it,” and what you give for it is something that enriches you by your process of giving it, then you have a tangible system that beats out the other one. Does that make sense?
PLUME: Oh, yes.
NESMITH: There’s no free lunch. Remember that old adage? There’s just no free lunch. So when somebody says, “Okay, I’m going to get this for free,” you’re not getting it for free. There is a cost embedded in it, and it’s like the guy that thinks, “Oh, good, I got myself a new car. I stole one off of the lot.” Well, the cost for that is not just being in danger of going to jail. There’s a deep, embedded cost to the person that steals the car, that they don’t realize, that they will ultimately pay.
PLUME: It’s interesting, when you’re looking at the distribution of artistic layers and how the consumer sees it, I know a lot of people who will download stuff are the same people that will turn around and buy the same CD at the store if the price is reasonable, and buy the movie when it comes out on DVD.
NESMITH: That’s right. The present industry’s notion about latch-key - you know, “We’ve got to lock this stuff up” - won’t work. The Internet does not support keys in the conventional sense. It does support a type of key - what it doesn’t support is a tollgate. An arbitrary tollgate. If you put a toll on a road that is inconsistent with the value you get for using the road, it’s not very long before somebody builds a road around the tollgate. Pretty soon, nobody goes through your tollgate anymore. So the solution is a function of matching the use of the value of the road to the cost of the toll - otherwise, somebody builds a road around it. What happens with the Internet is, it’s just real easy to build roads around these tollgates. People come in and say, “I want to put a conventional tollgate that used to happen on the old CD around this music.” That tollgate no longer gives you access to the same levels of value that it used to, when it represented the distribution of the goods, represented bringing the goods closer to you through stores where you could go get it, and so forth, because none of those things are valuable anymore. The music is immediately there - you don’t have to do go to the store and get it. The economic structure of that old tollgate, which went to the distribution of hard goods, is not the same as a tollgate that you set up for the distribution of knowledge-based goods. You do set a new tollgate up, but it’s not the old one. That’s why I’m very wary of words like latch-key, and I’m even using a word that I don’t like, which is the tollgate. But there is a new type of portal, some other sort of way that the goods are transacted for, and a different kind of economic engine that is in place, that gets everybody paid - but it just doesn’t look like the old economic models, because it’s not “scarcity” based. It’s “abundance” based, not based on finite units. It’s based on the infinite exchange of reciprocally enhancing ideas.
PLUME: Do you think the industry over thinks the problems? An “I can’t see the forest for the trees?” sort of thing? The most brilliant example of this was the millions of dollars that were poured into this new encryption technology on CDs to make them unreadable by a computer, and it was defeated by a black magic marker…
NESMITH: Right. I don’t know that they over think it, but they certainly do linear think it. Typically what happens - and has as long as I’ve been watching it - is somebody drags an idea from the past that worked in an old set of logics that they try to apply to the new one. And it doesn’t work. That, historically, does not work. They are trying to do that again. So, they spend millions and millions of dollars trying to bring the old models forward into the new systems. That doesn’t work. Why they do that, I don’t know. I mean, again, so often people don’t understand that they’ve got to change some basic ideas about the way they’re paid and what the currency is, what the denomination of the currency is, that they’re paid in. When they say “Wait, I only think in dollars, fives, tens and twenties,” well, maybe they need to think in some other way.
PLUME: Which isn’t the industry’s strong suit.
NESMITH: Well, it’s not industry’s strong suit. Linear thinking typifies a highly developed industry. It typifies a highly developed system, a complex system. It starts to get these patterns built into it somehow. I’m not sure how that happens, but certainly… You take a look at dinosaurs - a very complex system there - yet it could not handle something that came along to destroy them. I have a feeling that dinosaurs never realized that evolving into birds was their way out.
PLUME: So, it’s sort of these legacy thought processes that are embedded?
NESMITH: You could call them thought processes. They’re more like belief systems… that’s not good either. Thought processes will work, but they’re not legacies - they’re highly evolved. They’re fully adapted. You say, “We made it this far by doing this and this and this. We’ll make it over to here by doing the same thing.”
PLUME: So, it’s like trying to break instinctual thinking?
NESMITH: Yes, in a way. And it’s successful thinking. “Here we are, we’re a giant company, we’ve done really well because we’ve done all this and we’ll just do it again and we’ll do really well at it.” Well, every once and a while you hit one of these things that we’ve hit, which is the shift from the mechanical age into the information age, or as McLuhan calls it, “The electric age”… and I think Bucky called it the electric age as well… They all said, “Look, we’re going to have a massive shift that’s going to take all of our old systems and throw them in a cocked hat. You’re going to have to take a look at rethinking how you grandfather the systems that do work, because if you try to bring them forward in a way that you think they’re going to work based on the way they used to work in the old system, they’re not going to work that way. People are just going to run around you, and the new system will just grow up around you, and you will find yourself off in the weeds.” Of course, that’s terrifying, so nobody wants to hear that. But, stated in a more positive way, it is to say, “Look, there is a more efficient and more beneficial ecology of information emerging.” We can see this, as we examine the system of logic in these things. It’s not complex yet, it’s very straight ahead, but it is very radically different.
PLUME: So there’s a reticence to accept something so radically different, even though it’s right in front of their face…
NESMITH: Yeah. That reticence seems to evolve itself from these complex organizations, like big industry. What I mean by that is that reticence is not there in the nascent or infant or early stages. The reticence evolves itself from something that’s more fully grown. The trouble with people who labor under the beliefs of old age, as opposed to the advantage of people who labor under the beliefs of young age…
PLUME: … is it cultural or is it intellectual?
NESMITH: I don’t know, I think it’s all of those things. I think it’s social, and cultural, and intellectual. The important thing is just to understand the evolution of logic, and the logic of a system. You know, you talk about reticence being carried forward, because it’s …
NESMITH: …instinctual. And I don’t think it is instinctual. I think it’s evolutionary, and as Stephen Gould used to point out, “Look, evolution doesn’t necessarily mean you’re progressing.” Doesn’t mean the system is getting better, it just means that it’s changing and adapting to the landscape. So that’s what I’m saying - the reticence to accept the paradigm shift is evolutionary, and that it is most prevalent in large scale, complex systems that have evolved over a long period of time. There’s nothing particularly difficult to understand about this, but there’s a kind of invisibility to it. You know, you don’t see the reticence when you’re in the middle of one of those complex, big, highly evolved systems. You know, in a big, highly evolved system in the present day - one of the things that clearly has emerged is a compression of time, and as time is compressed, things are evolving in matters of hours that used to take matters of decades. Things are evolving in matters of years that used to take matters of eons.
PLUME: As you said in answer to a similar question, and in quoting Einstein, everything’s relative to the observer, as to how fast things are moving…
PLUME: How would you compare where you are as an artist, and where you are as far as observing the industry, in regards to this sort of distribution system?
NESMITH: Well, it looks pretty natural to me. I mean, it looks like it’s about what one would expect. I can remember the shift from central controlled broadcasting to the advent of the home video. When people were able to essentially time-shift their watching patterns and bring things home to watch them, and there appeared such a thing as pre-recorded video.
PLUME: Which the industry fought.
NESMITH: Bitterly. Because it didn’t understand it. Of course, now DVD can represent more income than the box office - and typically does.
PLUME: It has saved many a film.
NESMITH: Many, yeah. It’s a wonderful new medium, where a lot of people release only to DVD because of that power. The same thing happened then - there was a resistance to this shift. I think that that was a more direct linear movement in the marketplace going from the central controlled, kind of “ticket distribution” that was controlled by the big motion picture distributors, into the consumer controlled event of the home video that said, “I’ll go buy this and play it when I want, or rent it and play it when I want.” Kind of wresting it out of studios control. There was something more directly linear in that evolution than there is in this evolution from home video into the Internet. Like I say, the Internet represents this abundance based, infinite resource.
PLUME: Do you think it’s also because it comprises so many different types of communication and media?
NESMITH: That, too. Yeah, that too. There you really got at it, because it is not so much about the content right now. The content is just unimaginably huge, and so yes, it does - I’m jumping four steps ahead. Let me back up a little bit and respond directly to what you’re saying. Yes, it is because there is so much more and different media, and it makes it more complex and more difficult to adapt to. However, the fact that there is more content does not really go to the central issue - and this is why McLuhan is so important. McLuhan was the guy who said, more or less, divorce content from the media, from the carrier, and you have made a very important distinction - because the content doesn’t create the social, and economic, or political change The carrier does. Hence his very famous phrase, “The medium is the message.” He was saying it is not what the railroad carries into the town that makes the difference, it’s the fact that a railroad exists. That’s where we are right now. It’s not the fact that the Internet carries intellectual property, and it has a plethora of intellectual property. It’s the fact that the Internet exists - that is the central change. The existence of that Internet says, “Okay, everything changes here,” and we’ve got to understand the inherent thing that’s inside the Internet that makes it so powerful is simply its existence.
PLUME: In developing what would become Elephant Parts, and especially the distribution system …
NESMITH: …you’re talking about video?…
PLUME: …video… and addressing that medium in a way that hadn’t been addressed up to that point, as far as a reasonably priced, pre-recorded entertainment that hadn’t originally aired on TV, and hadn’t originally been seen in theaters - what were the difficulties that you encountered in mounting that addressal of a new paradigm?
NESMITH: Well, the main one was that nobody knew what Elephant Parts was, so nobody could name it, nobody could call it what it was. Nobody said, “Oh, that’s a… ” It didn’t fit into any economic structure. That was the biggest problem. People would say, “Well, what is this? What do I do with this?” I remember I had this party to introduce it to my friends, basically, and the press. I invited a lot of people that I had known over the years and people in different areas of business, so there were a lot of attorneys there, and there were a lot of studio people there, and there were a lot of musician friends, some rock & roll stars, and movie stars, and so forth. One of the movie stars was Jack Nicholson. Jack’s been a friend for a while, and he came up to me - and, you know, Elephant Parts was playing - and he looked at me and he said, “What is this, Nez?” Jack is extremely bright, and in that one question, he just distilled the whole thing. I didn’t have an answer for him. “You know, Jack, it’s just… it’s Elephant Parts. I can’t tell you. I just went off and did it.” Another guy that saw [the video for] “Rio” in Elephant Parts, before it had become embedded in Elephant Parts, he got very, very excited. He’s one of the richest men in America, and he says, “Oh, this is a whole new thing!” He saw in the music video, which was the same thing that I saw - essentially MTV - which was a whole new landscape, a whole new way of exchanging information. Nobody was able to say, “Oh, this is what this is and this is what this will become and this is how this will work and this is how you sell it.” Typically, I have never been able to predefine any of those things as an artist. What you do as an artist is, you grab hold of the basic arms of the jungle gym and you go out and you just climb up and down it. You don’t think about the parabola or the arc you’re describing or where you’re going to ultimately end up, you’re just kind of crawling around, seeing what’s out there.
PLUME: At what point in your career would you say that these ideas really gelled? Is there any one thing that happened to you that really caused them to gel?
NESMITH: No, they just continued to emerge and it happens. The one thing that has become more and more clear to me - we’re all on pretty much the same track. In other words, it’s not like, “I do this, and somebody else doesn’t do this.” This all, more or less, happens to us. As we’ve talked about, there’s a resistance - especially in complex organizations - to these new media, but it doesn’t mean they are not emerging. Resistance is just resistance. So it kind of “happens” to everybody, as near as I can see, and it’s “happened” to me. You grow along like everybody else grows along. People have said to me, “Who was your musical influence?” Or, “Where do your musical influences come from?” And my standard answer, which is the true answer, is that they came from this guy playing the organ in the window of a music store next to the Country Club Pharmacy in Dallas in the ’50s. I think he played “Tico, Tico”, and things like that, on this big Wurlitzer or B3, or something. And the reason for it is not because there was any great musical revolution there, it was that, “Wow, look, you can do something else with your thinking besides throw a touchdown pass. One can do that. That’s an interesting way to use your thinking.” We all have to use our thinking in one way or the other, and some ways of using our thinking are really inspiring. There are people who use their thinking to race cars. People use their thinking to build rockets to the moon. It’s all just a use of your thinking.
PLUME: Talking about that early influence, would you say there were other paths that you had considered at that early stage, or was music what you had completely focused on at that point?
NESMITH: Well, I’m talking about I’m 8 years old, 9 years old - so, no.
PLUME: But that’s formative, to some extent, as far as what path you’re going to go down. It is a domino effect in many regards, in plotting a certain course - even if unintentionally.
NESMITH: Well, I wasn’t aware of any crossroads or branches at that particular point. I think that there’s been - certainly, over the years there’s been the opportunity to make choices, but the choice is always more or less informed by this desire to maintain the integrity of the spiritual sense. You don’t have to be an artist to do this, and that’s why I was always comfortable in business, and I was comfortable in a lot of different things. What happens is that from time to time, as these left turns come up, they have a kind of a compelling element to them. Music was clearly the most compelling thing in my life. I’m surrounded by it. I love it. The first time I heard it, the first time I knew that you could use your thinking to create music, and the first time I realized what music did to my thinking, I was just swept up in it. It has pushed me along every single endeavor. So, even when I take the path to go be a CEO for a month, or a CEO for a day- music is still there. It’s an extremely important part of what I am.
PLUME: Were there any detours along the way that threatened to throw you off? I mean, you had a stint in the Air Force…
NESMITH: But those aren’t detours - those are just paths, you know? It all developed as it did, and now it’s all just knowledge, memories. Once the basic, governing principles and ideas are in place - and they’re in place with all of us, so there’s no talent to any of this, or extra-special skill. This is just sort of what we all have beating deep in our hearts. Then, the different twists and paths, the marriages, the good relationships, the bad relationships, the businesses you try, the things that fail and things that succeed - all that stuff just is stuff. You know, just sort of blows through, and you keep coming back to that central road.
PLUME: Is music an impulse that you can ever set aside? I know going back, I was looking at some old interviews, around 2000 I believe, and you seemed pretty content with not ever recording again, or playing.
NESMITH: Well, I’m not playing now. I’m not performing now. What I do now is listen to music all day long. Listening is very nourishing to me. I might go back to perform, I might make another record. I’ve got a record half finished. My problem is, I don’t quite know what a record is anymore. I don’t quite know how to describe it. Don’t know how to define it yet, so I’m just letting it gestate, and grow and see if maybe I’ll get a better sense of what a record is. But I never feel like I have to hang on to the music. I don’t expect that the music will go away, anymore than ideas will go away. It just seems permanent and fixed and, well, they are. Ideas are the only thing I can point to that are permanent and fixed. That’s the way it is with anybody - that’s a central truth, for me and for anybody I’ve ever run into. The whole time you and I have been talking, all we’ve been doing is thinking.
PLUME: Well, you’re doing most of it - I’m just trying to keep up.
NESMITH: No, that’s not true. I understand - but, you know, you get my point.
PLUME: Oh, I definitely do. It also seems, to a large extent - in looking over the course of your career - you’re not someone who took kindly to staying in a rut or playing into a prepackaged version of yourself… or expectations, I should say. You didn’t take kindly to anyone’s expectations of what you should be doing or which direction you should go. Even when you struck out on your solo career, or when you were in The Monkees - or the many failed reunions of The Monkees since then. Many people would say, “Well, why didn’t you go and do the reunion tour in ‘86,” or “Why’d you drop out of the reunion tour in ‘97?” Or “Why this type of country-rock music after The Monkees?” Is it something that you actively fought against, or is it just that that’s where the path took you and a sense of “Whatever your preconceptions are, they aren’t mine…” ?
NESMITH: It’s the latter. It’s absolutely the latter. Well, “absolutely”… maybe not, but certainly for the most part, that’s what it is. There is a journey that we’re all on, and I’m on it. Where it rolls, it rolls.
PLUME: Do you actively fight against being placed in a box?
NESMITH: No, you don’t have to fight against being placed in a box any more than the number two has to fight against being the number three. I mean, two is not going to be the number three, ever.
PLUME: When you talk about these reunion tours that everyone tries to put together forever, and the old joke would always be, “You’ll never get Mike.” Was it just a matter of that’s not where your head was at? Even the ‘97 tour, where you dropped out, what, halfway through? What were the thought processes behind those decisions?
NESMITH: It’s a question that could go to every event in my life. “Why did you decide to go to Nashville to record? Why did you decide to go to New York for the 200th anniversary of the United States? Why did…” These things have a reality of the moment - not in any fatalistic or predetermined sense, but there is a certain logic to events that pushes you along a certain path. You go along the path that feels the most true, and most according to the principles that are guiding you, and that’s the way the decisions are made. You try to do that… I try to do that as consistently as possible. You don’t always do it exactly right. I think that there are times when you can do better than others, but once that’s done, that’s done and you move on. You take each new opportunity as it arises. But, to go back and analyze and say, “Oh, I did this because of that, or that because of this” - first of all, you can’t come up with any final answers, and second, the only answer that is decent, the only answer that is close to the right one, is, “Because it seemed like the right thing to do at the time.”
PLUME: But, there’s a sense that you’re not one that’s easily pushed down a path that you don’t want to go down…
NESMITH: A large area of thought goes to self-determination and self-will, and what’s doing the pushing, and who is this person you’re talking about that would say, “No,” to something. Clearly, we all make decisions. Clearly, we all have these choices that we make. You make them when you decide the person to interview, you make them when you decide to write. Making decisions has never been a struggle for me. It’s not always been happy, but the unhappiness or the uncomfortable times I do not count as substantial, so they fade away. And what is substantial, what’s left, is the good. That’s where it all sort of settles in, I think.
PLUME: What would you say were the most uncomfortable times you’ve had in your career?
NESMITH: Well, again, that’s the same question of, “Why did you make this choice?” or, “Why did you make that choice?” I don’t think about those things. I mean, it’s not that I remember them, and I pushed them out of my mind, like some sort of denial or repression. It’s just that I don’t think about them. I don’t know. I can’t remember.
PLUME: How would you define a comfortable time?
NESMITH: The best time, of course, is the presence of just a general good. You know - health, wealth, wisdom, freedom, friendship, activity, joy - those are things that are present when I’m feeling good. Those are things that are present when the right choices get made. You feel really good about that, there’s a real peace to it, that I identify and can turn towards, and say, “This feels right.” What I mean by right is that, “This feels like it’s beneficial in all those ways I listed.” And the effect is that it happens to be beautiful. It happens to be harmonious and concordant and mellifluous and sonorous and all the things we identify with really lovely music. That’s one of the reasons music is so inspiring to me. This “good” also happens to be the better part of painting, the better part of motion pictures, better parts of the arts in general. It’s also the better part of well-run businesses, well-run societies, beautiful relationships, a wonderfully functioning mechanical system, a beautifully functioning computer system - all those things contain within it those elements. When you see them, you say, “Ah! There you go. There’s life working at its best. Which is the only way life works.”
PLUME: So, anything from a song to a sunset.
NESMITH: Okay. I’ll give you that. A song, to a sunset, to science.
PLUME: I know you’re working on a screenplay and have a couple of movies gestating…
NESMITH: Well, I just finished a novel, and I’m back kind of noodling on the screenplays. You know, screenplays are tough. But yeah, I’m working on some of those. Like I say, I am making music, I’m just not sure what kind of music it is or where it’s going. I’m still at it. I just don’t know which one’s going to hit the ground in a full, upright position yet.
PLUME: Is it because the ideas are there but the delivery system isn’t?
NESMITH: A little bit, yeah. You know, you have to get all that buttoned-up and make sure that it manifests itself in a way that’s clear and understandable and useful, rather than being utterly arcane and abstruse.
PLUME: You definitely know you have fans out there, waiting with bated breath for anything that you might kick out.
NESMITH: Well, I don’t know that, but I suspect it. I am grateful for it, for sure.
PLUME: When it comes to the movies, what’s the difference getting a movie and moving forward now, compared to how it was with the films that you did in the ’80s?
NESMITH: You know, I don’t know. I haven’t been out in the marketplace in a while. I’m thinking about going back into it. I’ve got some things set up over the next couple of months just to go and see. But I have no idea what the specific way to a solution is anymore. It’s mysterious to me. So, I’ll go out, stick my toe back in the river, and see which way it’s flowing.
PLUME: Is the desire there to self-produce again?
NESMITH: Well, yeah, some very small way. I don’t quite know which way this will take me, but I’m feeling as if there might be some activity along those lines. But maybe not … You have to wait until it lands on all fours.
PLUME: Is it a matter of the project not being ready, or you’re not ready for the project to move beyond the point where it’s sitting?
NESMITH: I think it’s a mixture of both. I don’t quite know.
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