Nobody’s Monkee: Michael Nesmith on Repo Man, Corporate Pressure and Creative Control
Michael Nesmith in 1988.
Michael Nesmith and I are chatting on the phone, and I’m being greedy with his time. But what you realize when reviewing the former Dallasite’s career is how influential his efforts have been to the oozy creative goop of subculture. From those hook-heavy Monkees tunes, to his work in music videos, television and films like Tapeheads and Repo Man, Nesmith’s mischievous nature and artful drive helped take unlikely projects in new directions.
He’ll be back in Dallas on Saturday, Oct. 1, to accept the Ernie Kovacs award from Dallas Video Fest at The Kessler. That’s also where you can catch a repertory screening of his 1988 film Tapeheads. But right now, I want to know why he took a chance on director Alex Cox, how he transitioned from music to film and if his mother’s Dallas-based Liquid Paper empire was responsible for one of punk’s best cinematic soundtracks.
He obliges, because regardless of how long Nesmith has lived in California, there’s still a strong pour of Southern gentleman in him.
In the mid-'70s, Nesmith’s career started really getting interesting — and that time he was driving it.
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A decade had passed since he’d walked away from the Monkees, a role he “tumbled backwards into and had to drag [himself] out of.” He spent the time that followed exploring his talents and interests, carving out an artful life that belonged entirely to him.
While he was making a promotional clip for his single “Rio,” he accidentally wandered into new territory. By laying video over the music track, he wound up with something unexpected.
“We hadn’t seen anything like it,” says Nesmith. “The narrative driver of the image flipped over from the picture to the sound. They became dance partners, but they reversed roles. Much to our surprise the images all made sense.”
He’d made a music video, or at least that’s what we call it now.
Back in ’76, neither the label Island Records or Nesmith himself knew exactly how to explain the thing, but people flipped for it. Nesmith was hooked. And soon he started making more of 'em. Within a few years he’d be awarded the first-ever Music Video Grammy for his visual album, Elephant Parts.
Around that time is when everything cracked open: Nesmith began working in television, paving the way for an MTV generation. He got the Liquid Paper inheritance. The world of film was there to explore — he just needed the right project.
In his book X Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker, director Alex Cox talks about Repo Man and how it almost didn’t happen. Cox sent out 200 scripts, each with a four-page comic strip he’d drawn to establish a visual tone, and this teaser paragraph:
"Repo Man is an action adventure comedy about an 18-year-old 'punk' hoodwinked into working for a seedy repossession company, and thrust headlong into an intrigue involving flying saucer cultists, fast cars, exotic women, ruthless intelligence agents and a wayward nuclear scientist…"
Of the 200 sent out, Cox, who was barely out of UCLA, got 199 rejections, the exception being the one publicity kit that landed in Nesmith’s hands. That one made a connection: It was special.
After meeting the team, Nesmith didn’t just help a little, he signed on as executive producer.
“I just fell crazy in love with these guys. I thought they were so smart and they were funny and they were way off the meter. Way off the side,” Nesmith recalls. “And Alex was particularly inspiring to me; he was very edgy and very in-your-face. He’s a big guy, he was about 6-foot-4, and thin as a rail, and I thought, ‘This guy is going to be able to do this: I’m going to have to figure out how to enable him in the way that can get the most of the film.’”
So he went all in. And if you think about it, Nesmith gifted Cox the career-starting experience that he never had. He let the filmmaker keep it weird with full creative control. He let the punk soundtrack take over, even if it didn’t align with his own musical tastes. And rather than letting finances cloud their path, Nesmith hustled and sold the thing to Universal. He even used his Liquid Paper inheritance to cover the upfront expense — all for an unknown filmmaker holding a senior thesis script.
It was a gamble that paid off, financially and creatively, for all involved.
“Repo Man was sort of my beginning of learning how to do a movie and the ending of my learning how to do a movie,” says Nesmith. He’d go on to make a couple more — like the irreverent music video homage film Tapeheads, which screens Saturday at The Kessler, post-award ceremony. But Nesmith wasn’t cut out to deal with the industry full-time. He has a poet’s disposition, and being on the business end of film left him “in tatters.”
“It’s a tight-wire across the Grand Canyon every time you walk it,” he says, reflecting back on those Hollywood days. “If I was in Truffaut’s France I might still be making films — but I wasn’t, and I’m not."
Nesmith just tackled another milestone, a book called Infinite Tuesday that looks at the generational shift from counter culture to cyber culture. Random House has its release scheduled for 2017. And because he’s Michael Nesmith, he’s also planning to explore its subject matter across multiple formats, including a musical solo project and a full-fledged documentary.
And if all that weren’t enough, he just played one final reunion gig with the Monkees, saying farewell nearly 50 years after the show’s original air date.
“It was the chance to step off that boat in a real genteel and non-injurious way and just say, ‘Sayonara!’ And leave it in the hands of the audience who created it.”
With so many doors opening and closing, you have to wonder what Nesmith will do next and if he’s ever going to slow down. “You’ll have to ask me again in another year,” he jokes. Until then, we’ll just try and keep up with him Saturday night, as he orbits back through the city he once called home.
Spend an evening with Michael Nesmith on Saturday, Oct. 1, at The Kessler (1230 W. Davis St.). Doors are at 7 p.m. The event starts at 8 p.m., with the film to follow. Awards tickets start at $25. The screening is $10. Visit videofest.org.
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