Fandom Lenses

Life as viewed through silliness, Fandom as seen through Reality

“I have not sung this song”: Reviewing Infinite Tuesday by Michael Nesmith

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The Review:

Infinite Tuesday is the best and most compelling work of prose ever written by Michael Nesmith.

The Slightly Longer review…

2017-04-18 18.20.37The more I read Nez over the years, in songs or books or facebook updates, the more I noticed that the 10-dollar words seemed to crop up more often when discussing a vulnerable or tender subject. Neftoon Zamora, for instance, required me to keep another browser window open to a dictionary website. That 780 Verbal score I’d earned on the SAT a few years back and a vocabulary that inadvertently awed many of my peers didn’t protect me from having to look up at least three words every time he posted a new chapter. It seemed clear Nez was exploring tender spots of his psyche, especially in those earliest drafts that were somewhat dialed back in the final book, and the story read as though he might have felt more comfortable doing so with the protective armor of HTML experimentation and magical realism and baroquely florid descriptions of truck stops. (though seriously—I think of that passage every time we pull over on a road trip at a particularly glitzy travel plaza for gas and beef jerky.  The man nailed it. 😉 )

But 20 years later, I opened my kindle copy of Infinite Tuesday to find I only had to look up one word in the whole book. (“Sodality”, for the record) Either my vocabulary had gotten bigger, or one of my oldest role models, as the last few years had led me to suspect, was feeling a lot more comfortable in his skin. For all the talk of a non-linear series of “riffs” in the book’s preface, the book was pretty much the chronological story of his life, with only minor time jumps here and there in service of a particular theme, or occasionally to downplay the fact that he made no mention of any post-1969 Monkees activities, whether or not he was involved. (I would have been curious to read his side of the Justus story, but of course this is his telling of his life, viewed through his particular lens and with events of his choosing protected from our insatiable gaze). Some of it is familiar to those of you who have read Neftoon Zamora, and other anecdotes have previously been spotted in facebook updates or Gilbert Gottfried Interviews.

(Note to Zilchers: Yes, when I invoke Gilbert Gottfried I am referring to THAT ANECDOTE. My opinion from Zilch #34 is essentially unchanged, though I will now allow the very real possibility that both Nez AND Andrew Sandoval were telling the truth, and that Nez thought he was lying when he actually wasn’t–or rather that he made a ‘fact’ up out of whole cloth that turned out to be at least highly plausible based on available data, if not 100% provable. Something that ridiculously ironic almost has to be true. In any case, Nez owes Andrew a beer or something for having to talk down a bunch of more literally-minded fans who descended on his facebook page in a panic.)

However, much of the story of Infinite Tuesday is completely new, even to those of us who were following Videoranch decades before it was cool. I learned more about the secondary characters in his childhood, and his roundabout journey to Los Angeles. His few brutally frank and poignantly written words about his time with Phyllis spoke more eloquently than a long, detailed confession ever could. The Monkees were covered relatively briefly and dispassionately, but with the same bemused affection he’s exhibited toward that chapter of his life since 2012. His take on the “Palace Revolt” was a revealing missing piece of the puzzle that will reframe many fans’ understanding of those events, and his exquisitely understated retelling of the fist through the wall incident left me doubled over with laughter on my first reading until I was almost late for work. Learning of the Nez/Jack Nicholson “bromance” was a delight of course, but I actually was most taken in “The Monkees Chapter” by the insights Nez provided into Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider as they stood on the verge of a Hollywood revolution. (I also would have loved to have been on that rooftop with Nez and Johnny Cash, but I digress. 😉 )

Nez was not immune to the same Post-Monkees collapse that his bandmates endured, and his descriptions of crippling self-doubt alternating with the bravado of celebrity psychosis made me both ache for him and wish I could give him a solid knock upside the head—much the same impulse that I felt when reading Micky and Davy’s memoirs. However, Nez had a wonderful eye for talent even then, and his search for true artists and true thinkers led Nez to the relationships that in turn led him out of the abyss. I admire Bette Nesmith as much as I do her son (more, in some ways), and learning more about the joys and challenges of their relationship was one of the most fascinating parts of the book.

I knew the rough outline of Nez’s career from the 1980s onward, having been a fan for most of it, but he shared remarkable insights about both the art and the craft of show business, his stint as a “hamburger movie tycoon”, his part in the MTV story, and his strengths and weaknesses as a producer that led to both the heights of Repo Man and the depths of the PBS lawsuit. Some may see this section as a belated confession that his reputation as a “business genius” was overblown—I see it as proof of an artistic stubbornness that kept him from throwing up his hands in defeat and going into the family office supply business.

The closing chapters, that take the reader from the high desert of New Mexico in the 1990s to a letter on Christmas, 2012 contain some of the facts most widely known to his current fans, but provide new depths of insight on those events, both from what was said and was unsaid. I was perhaps touched most by this section of Nez’s story and the lessons he learned in that time, and having been in similar situations over the years, I understood some of what he was describing. I have a great deal to say about those years, but I think it’s best to stay silent about that part of the book, and let you read them for yourself. This isn’t a spoiler alert, per se, more a concern that my perspective will color yours, and I expect people will have a wide range of reactions to it.

Everyone reading this review should read Infinite Tuesday, whatever your opinions of Michael Nesmith as an artist, a businessman, or a human being.  You will learn new things, and I’ll bet your opinion of Nez will shift in a more balanced direction—whichever direction that is for you.

The exploration: Infinite Tuesday as a Fandom Lens

Michael Nesmith is not always the Monkee I like the most, respect the most or even understand the most, but despite (because of?) those truths, I’ve intuitively suspected for a long time that he was the most similar to me, to the point I was scarcely surprised when I was a 19 year old in the fall of 1996 reading the first draft of Neftoon Zamora in a computer lab in the University of Dundee the day after I discovered Justus, nodding emphatically with every word. I sat in the exotically chilly braes of the Scottish Lowlands, yet his precise, lyrical descriptions almost made me feel a trickle of sweat on my back from the oppressive heat found in the 200-odd mile corridor of I-35 that stretched from his hometown to mine. And as much as I love Micky’s ability to belt out a show tune and Peter’s way with a Blues shuffle, I connect to Nez’s solo work on a much deeper, more soulful level. I have since that day in Dundee when I fell down the Nesmithian Rabbit Hole, and the intervening 20 years have not changed that.

However, even in that identification of a kindred intellectual and artistic spirit rooted in the same soil, I saw there was an essential difference between Nez and me, one that has moderated in recent years, but still lingers even in certain passages of Infinite Tuesday. There are turns of his thought I find exquisitely true, others that are viscerally troubling. His perspective is crystal clear in one moment, and in another pockmarked with blind spots about things that seem like basic truths of the universe to me. There has rarely been a middle ground for me when exploring his work—I either think he’s one of the greatest minds of his generation or an utter moron, occasionally both within the span of a single verse. For 20 years I’ve wondered: Why did I have this lasting push-pull relationship with Nez’s ideas that was both deeply cerebral and almost viscerally passionate, and what did it imply about his mind—or mine? It was a riddle I tried to solve over the years by parsing every lyric, every status update. We’ve had the obligatory meet and greet experience, of course, but sometimes I wish I could sit down and chat with him over a chicken fried steak like a normal human being, hear the story of his life and his mind, and share mine in return in the unlikely event he was so deluded as to care. But aside from the fact such a thing is impossible in several senses, I’m not sure anything would be learned from it. Yes, we share the same love of language, seemingly many of the same anxieties, and the same roots in a flat, hot strip of liminal territory stretching from Dallas to Oklahoma City that was both and neither the west and the south, too urban to be quaint and too rural to be sophisticated. Yet, the paths that each of us followed seemingly couldn’t have been more different. In my more self-important moments, I even sort of thought of us as two sides of the same “Redneck Geek” coin. But why the contrasts between the high school dropout and the overachieving scholarship kid?  There were a dozen possible reasons from age to gender to celebrity to even our probable Hogwarts Houses, but none quite fit.

Midway through my first reading of Infinite Tuesday, a warp-speed binge during coffee breaks, lunch, and the time I should have been at the gym, something finally clicked after 20 years of slightly confused admiration of his solo work. I FINALLY grok the coin, and I grok why I’m on the other side of it from the image of Nez that I had manufactured over the years. Once I looked past the times and dates, red letter events, holes in the wall, lawsuits, conversations with gurus and self-recriminations, I saw that Infinite Tuesday is a story of Nez running away from one constricting world after another, until he time and time again crash landed in the world of the High Lonesome, and looked for peace and fellowship in the wreckage before repeating the cycle again. I don’t mean that in a pejorative or judgmental way—but the cycle emerges over and over from his narrative, more early on but continuing in some ways till quite recently.  It’s possible it was unintentional, but I think it was a deliberate theme, even if it wasn’t framed by a Nez Neologism like Celebrity Psychosis.  Restlessness, Runaway, Overconfidence, Crash, High Lonesome, New ‘band’, Triumph, Restlessness, Shampoo, Rinse, Repeat.

As for me? Not so much. I am a child of the High Lonesome even though the phrase only entered my personal argot a few days ago. (Since childhood I’ve called it the Black Box, for reasons too obvious to belabor here). I brought the lonesome with me as I came into the world, created blue and defective by a God I tried to appease for years before I gave up Theism as a bad job, at least for me. My birth and early surgeries spread the Lonesome to my unsuspecting parents. They became members of a terrifying Band no parent wants to join and no parents outside it can truly understand, except in clucks of pity and accidentally overheard murmurings of “there but for the grace of God…”. There’s only one band more fearsome than to be the parent of a seriously ill child, and to this day I still feel guilt over how frighteningly close I brought them to joining *that* one.  Dad’s autoimmune disorder a few years after I was “fixed” and the near-daily seizures it caused only built the wall higher around our family during the years it took for them to figure out what was going on. Adults can’t understand what my parents endured, and there is no healthy 10 year old who can comprehend a playmate who finds herself worrying about premature death instead of making friends.

But paradoxically the High Lonesome, when shared, became a loving family home in those years. We circled the wagons and built a fortress. As I grew, I reframed the lonesomeness as solitude, pinned posters on the walls, gradually found the bravery to give a few very select friends and lovers the keys to the black box that protected my heart from the world (and vice versa), and settled down in my teens to read Douglas Adams (before I knew he and Nez were friends) and Margaret Atwood, write floridly terrible fiction, and play around with the earliest incarnations of the internet. I would occasionally try to run, like I did to Dundee in my sophomore year of College, but even when I didn’t get my foot caught in the door, something would always eventually cycle me back to the place I started, albeit with new wisdom or insights. Maybe because I was more aware I carried the High Lonesome in my heart everywhere I went, and that I had learned the only way I would survive physically or intellectually would be to accept that truth, and find family, friends, and colleagues that understood and were not frightened by the Lonesome and whom I could hold on to when things got REALLY bad.

Or maybe I just suck as badly at metaphorical running as I do at the literal kind. 😉

In any case, as I grew into adulthood I discovered that I had an affinity for my fellow brothers and sisters of the High Lonesome, and that its walls could become more permeable than I realized if one could be vulnerable enough to reach out to others traveling in their own valleys of the shadow.  Also, I care less about the grandeur and originality of the palaces I can create in my mind than that those palaces might be a place of shelter and nourishment to others. When my borrowed lifetime comes to an end, I hope to find a small measure of peace that I earned my existence by leaving my campsite better than I found it. That’s why I’ve stayed in Oklahoma long past the time wiser people would leave. It’s why I have no interest in pursuing a tenure track faculty job with my PhD. It’s why, though I’m beginning to get a little bit of a reputation in the library world, I’m ambivalent about opportunities that might expose me to my field’s version of Celebrity Psychosis. My need to be of use is why I find deep, hilarious irony in how every plan to change the subject at Fandom Lenses was foiled by another damn Monkees tour—and it’s why I spend so much energy on Zilch even though I am far more than a Monkees fan. Having found myself back where I began my fandom life through a confluence of increasingly impossible twists of fate in 2012 and the years that followed, I haven’t run away from the unnervingly throwback turn my life has taken, though there were moments where I was tempted. I think I and others have been rewarded because I stayed. I embrace my fandom, try to learn from it, and cultivate Zilch Nation as a space where bands can form, just as a similar fandom space gave rise to a sisterhood that was strong enough to outlive death. There are good people in this dorky little pop culture cul-de-sac, and I can be of service. And so, I will stay and tend the gardens at Zilch Nation with Ken and the rest of our merry band of Podcasters. And to be clear, all this doesn’t make me “smarter” or “dumber” than Nez. Just different.

That said, there are other paths of my life where I am feeling the urge to move along. Strange forces I haven’t felt in years are gathering. After the PhD and all the bustle of the 50th anniversary came a fallow period this winter and early spring that straddled the line between rejuvenation and depression. After an early struggle I just rolled with it, not wanting to force the creative energy before its time (There are numerous things I disagree with Nez on when it comes to spirituality, but that ain’t one of them).  But those energies are rising. Circumstances are shifting in new directions for my husband Kevin and me, and I sense we are on the verge of a major change in our lives. Maybe, finally, it’s time to take a note from my role model with the mirror intellect and roll with the flow wherever it goes. Or maybe I’ve been doing that the whole time, and it simply took this long to reach this bend in the river.

Watch this space.

PS– I realized some other stuff about my current mindset that could use some tweaking after sitting with Infinite Tuesday for a few days, related to how much weight I give certain aspects of my history, and how much weight I let those aspects of my history put on my soul. In fact, reading this book might have pushed me over the edge of a paradigm shift I’ve been teetering on for the last month or so. However, I decided not to publish that part of my view through this lens, even though I have long cultivated a writing style on this blog that teeters on the boundary between radical vulnerability and self-indulgent oversharing. However, I have total control over how I (consciously) tell my story, and I can decide what parts of it I do and do not want to share with readers/listeners for any reason I choose, and other people’s opinions really don’t matter. That’s the cool thing about writing, after all.

P.P.S—Any parallels you think you see between the last sentences of my postscript and my take on Nez’s choice to leave parts of his story unsaid were quite deliberate. 😉

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