Rock and Roll Book Club: Michael Nesmith's 'Infinite Tuesday'

Michael Nesmith's 'Infinite Tuesday.'
Michael Nesmith's 'Infinite Tuesday.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

In the annals of stories about '60s idealists struggling through the end of the century, they don't get much more piquant than the saga of Mike Nesmith. In the mid-1980s, the former Monkee and music video pioneer took up with a fashion model 24 years his junior. In the '90s, he built Videoranch, a "virtual world" intended to help "establish spirituality, humanity, and the fundamental sciences and arts of a sustainable culture." His wife logged in, met someone, and left Nesmith for her new internet crush. She notified him by way of a note left on her computer.

Nesmith was always the reluctant Monkee, the one who chafed against the idea that they were cast as purely a virtual band — although, as he acknowledges (with a hint of self-justification) in his new book Infinite Tuesday, the virtuality was not a bug but a feature, part of the band's absurd appeal. Nesmith wrote some songs for the band and helped make the case that they should tour as an actual live act, ultimately even making a real record.

There are plenty of other reasons to think that a Nesmith memoir should be worth reading. He hung out with the likes of Jack Nicholson and Douglas Adams, and he went on to make perhaps his most significant contribution to music history in the 1970s and '80s. With ambitions to elevate the art of music video clips, he created a show called PopClips intended to imitate the radio experience on television. In 1980, Time Warner bought the show and developed it into MTV. In 1982, Nesmith won the first Grammy even given for Video of the Year.

Look out before you dive into Infinite Tuesday, though. It comes advertised as "an autobiographical riff," and that's not false modesty. Its 306 pages are only roughly chronological, and despite the presence of colorful monkeys on the cover, Nesmith doesn't have too much to say about the Monkees.

Here's what he has a lot to say about: personal enlightenment. He's an avid Christian Scientist, and he's done a lot of thinking about his own relationship to the cosmos. Some of that thinking, of course, has been done under the influence. I've visited the Christian Science Center in Boston several times, and I can't believe I never saw anything about the time Nesmith dropped acid and read Mary Baker Eddy's Science and Health for hours, "continuously amazed to be reading something that conveyed the same clarity and powerful insight I was experiencing."

Here's an example of what you'll find a lot of in Infinite Tuesday.

I was introduced to the important distinction between the real and the unreal, between belief and fact. Imagination was held distinct from belief, and belief distinct from fact. Truth was real and eternal. Error was unreal and temporal.

Finally, the assembled foundation stones unfolded the sustaining Infinite. The Infinite was revealed to me as continuous unified existence. The word all became inclusive of everything that existed, and all was infinite. Every moment was pregnant with infinite possibilities.

Emphasis Nesmith's.

The book does provide fodder for future biographers, if it comes to that. Nesmith discusses at length his relationship with his mother, who raised him alone (with the support of family) after she and his father split early on. "Throughout Bette's life," he writes, "I was as close to her as you might think a young single mother and son could be."

Still, he writes, "I felt like a nuisance who was along for the ride" with a woman who became deeply involved in Christian Science study after a kidney failure miraculously healed itself and she saw the light. She became a wealthy woman after she invented Liquid Paper, but that fascinating biographical fact is something Nesmith refers to only in passing — because hey, man, it's just a riff.

For all the book's frustrations, there are nuggets to be mined by those who are interested in Nesmith's life and times. He writes about the Monkees touring with opener Jimi Hendrix, who ended up flipping the crowd off and leaving the tour after one too many shouts of "We want Davy!"

He writes about hanging out with Jack Nicholson, who — sitting by a pool built with TV riches — shamelessly declares that he'll never appear on the box because "Cinema is art. Television is furniture."

He writes about calling Victor Mature to ask if he'd star in the Monkees' trippy film Head. "Yeah, right," the producers audibly jeered while Mature was on the phone. "Bulls--t, baby! You are so full of s--t! There's nobody on the phone!" Somehow, Mature still let himself be talked into it.

He writes about creating the comedy show Television Parts with Garry Shandling, and about producing Repo Man. He writes about developing the conviction that music videos could be a ratings winner, despite conventional wisdom like that espoused by a TV programmer: "Music will never work on television, and I will tell you why. If you put me against Barbra Streisand's new album and a TV special in prime time, I can beat that show with a third-time rerun of a 1940s movie on my little local station that sells used cars."

For all the interesting episodes in Nesmith's life, though, he's just not all that compelling as the voice describing them. Take, for example, his description of hanging out with John Lennon. "John and I found a shared sandbox of wordplay where we could waltz among the verbs and nouns, puns abounding and riffs a-popping. Convivial as it was, it became apparent that he and I had only momentarily and superficially connected, caught for several delightful extra whirls circling the roundabout intersection of two orthogonal streets."

The book's title is inspired by a 1930s cartoon that Nesmith was delighted to discover he and Adams both admired. Two hippos are lounging in a pond, and one says to the other, "I keep thinking it's Tuesday."

For Nesmith, learning that he and a beloved humorist both liked that cartoon was...well, it was really something. "At every conjunction of this colligation," he writes about his own book, "thre is a resounding and deep laugh to be had. There is recognition. It's the laugh of the shared cosmic moment when we see it."

Indeed, reading Infinite Tuesday is like being stuck in a moment you can't get out of.

Related Stories


comments powered by Disqus