- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 23, 2006

It’s hardly a shock Michael Nesmith’s new album “Rays” could be found on ITunes months before its official street date next month.

The erstwhile Monkee has been a step or three ahead of his peers ever since he answered a Variety ad four decades ago seeking “4 insane boys” for a Beatles-inspired television series.

That audition lead to The Monkees, or should we say, “The Monkees,” a show which begat the first prepackaged boy band.

For Mr. Nesmith, the assignment would be one of many firsts. He would go on to create “Popclips” (a program that became the template for MTV), win the first video Grammy for his “Elephant Parts” collection, and head up the First National Band, which cranked out alt-country sounds before the term took on cultural relevance.

Enterprise and innovation, it seems, is in his genes. His mother, Bette Nesmith Graham, invented and patented Liquid Paper typewriter correction fluid. In 1979 she sold out to the Gillette Company for $47.5 million plus a royalty on every bottle sold until the year 2000 (pretty good timing, if you think about it).

Mr. Nesmith’s new album marks his first release since 1994’s “The Garden,” nominated for a best new age album Grammy.

“It took a while to come together,” Mr. Nesmith says. “I typically work quickly and work with other musicians … but I worked on my own.”

“Rays” blends instrumentals and gently sung rockers that tuck Mr. Nesmith’s twangy voice into the background.

“I didn’t want it to be lyric-driven or vocal-driven,” he says. “I always felt more of a writer than a singer. It’s not like I’m Tony Bennett or something.”

You won’t hear “Rays” on any major radio station, and MTV doesn’t take kindly to sixtysomething rockers not named McCartney.

Still, Mr. Nesmith is confident his music will be heard.

“Between [ITunes] and www.videoranch.com [Mr. Nesmith’s Web site] I’m able to get the records out to the people who want them,” he says, adding he pockets roughly 50 cents for every 99-cent ITunes song sold.

“My overhead is so small, I don’t need to sell millions of these to get right on going,” he says. “You put yourself in a place where the customer can come to you.”

One senses the tall Texan doesn’t lose much sleep over the notion “Rays” won’t come anywhere close to the sales of a Monkees album.

Mr. Nesmith went the independent route long before the downloading revolution.

“This is really the right time for striking out on your own,” says Mr. Nesmith, who left RCA in the late 1970s. “This is the age of the boutique. You can set up your own store in nearly any trade you’re in, especially in the arts.”

Mr. Nesmith began his musical life as Michael Blessing, a Texas singer-songwriter hoping to find work in California. He quickly ditched the pseudonym and found fame with The Monkees.

The rest is pop culture history.

The band raced through a skein of successful albums, earned the contempt of “serious” musicians everywhere for its manufactured sound, then slinked away from the public eye after its kiss-off feature film “Head.”

Mr. Nesmith has only dabbled in the sundry Monkees reunions since the band officially splintered in 1970, but he doesn’t harbor any regrets.

Before donning his ubiquitous wool hat, “I didn’t know anything about how a movie was made or a TV show got on the air,” says Mr. Nesmith, who would later produce “Repo Man,” a 1980s cult flick. “I just had a guitar and sang songs. To be next to really bright, creative people and production in all the aspects of the arts and media was absolutely fascinating.”

Mr. Nesmith doesn’t mourn the demise of the music video he played a part in creating. He says the format is giving way to a new showcase with a far lower entrance bar.

“I’m already seeing kids playing with video cameras and coming up with fascinating stuff. The music video thing may have been a false dawn,” says Mr. Nesmith, who often visits the Web site www.youtube.com, which features a variety of short video clips.

Contrasting the new-look videos to the one he made for his song “Rio” in the ‘70s, he says, “It’s just a few seconds long, some morsel. I find it really fascinating. People are going to start working that form.”

Mr. Nesmith embraces current technology as eagerly as he accepts his own advancing years.

“For me the process of growing older is getting better, expanding your reach, getting a wider area of interests,” he says. “I see things I’ve never seen before and I’m fascinated by them.”

Every passing year also means fewer people point to him and cry, “Monkee.”

“It doesn’t happen much anymore. [The show’s] been so long ago, sometime mid-20th century,” he says.

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