Bucks Burnett's Namedropper: How I Got the Minus 5 to Record My Song About the Monkees

Bucks Burnett isn't a journalist. He's a namedropper. He may not have met every one of his music idols, but he's met 90 percent of them. And he's here to tell you all about it, however he sees fit, in his monthly music column, Namedropper.

Personally, this story might begin for me in 1985 when I lived with Small Faces bassist Ronnie Lane in Houston. Creatively, it started, I think, in 1997, when I worked at Pagan Rhythms, the CD-only store where Condom Sense now stands, north of Lovers Lane on Greenville Avenue. But it all led, like so many other junctures in my life, to meeting one of my musical heroes, the Monkees' Michael Nesmith. Except this time I'd written a song about him, which was recorded by the Minus 5, and Nesmith had actually heard it.

Even more unlikely, he liked it.

Historically, this story might go back as far as Bitches Brew by Miles Davis, released in 1970. On Bitches Brew, Davis had a song called “John McLaughlin," named for the legendary jazz guitarist who actually played on the record. In that same era, he also recorded a song called “Willie Nelson.” David Bowie wrote a song called “Andy Warhol,” as well. Point being, it’s fun to write songs about your heroes.

So it was in 1997 at Pagan Rhythms that I picked up a promo CD by the Minus 5, out of curiosity, and played it, and looked at the speakers in giddy disbelief as a song somehow worked the names of all four Small Faces into the lyrics (“Popsycle Shoppe”). Inspired by the hero worship, I was reminded of those homages from my heroes like Davis and Bowie. Later that night at home, I wrote the band a fan letter in care of Hollywood Records.

About a month later, I got a letter back from band leader Scott MacCaughey. I had told him about being Ronnie Lane’s butler, after he had moved to Texas to help care for the multiple sclerosis that ultimately led to his death in 1997 at the age of 51. MacCaughey and I bonded on that point, as he wrote me a long letter about traveling to England to see Ronnie play live with his post-Faces band Slim Chance. A few years later I finally met Scott when the Minus 5 played at Rubber Gloves in Denton, with Peter Buck on bass. Scott had been in REM for a few years at that point, and drafted Peter into the M5.
Eventually, I would be inspired to follow MacCaughey's lead, but instead of paying tribute to the Small Faces I chose the Monkees. See, in 1977 while working at Peaches Records in Dallas, I vividly remember a coworker telling me I should listen to The Prison, a Michael Nesmith album housed in a nice box with a book, with the LP serving as a soundtrack to the book. I was not yet a Monkees fan, but The Prison made a Nesmith fan of me, quickly. It’s still my favorite recording of his career.

In 2012, I wrote a very long and abstract 17-verse poem called “Michael Nesmith” and sent it out to the friends and musicians I email lyrics to. Much to my shock, MacCaughey emailed me and asked if he could set it to music. Two years later, it came out on the limited-edition vinyl Record Store Day release Scott the Hoople in the Dungeon of Horror, a five-LP collection of all-new songs — a feat unequaled by any rock band to this day. It was only in print for one day.

"[The] poem struck me immediately as the kind of lunacy that should be supported," says MacCaughey, of writing the song. "I thought: 'This is insane — 16 verses insane. The only proper absurdist reaction would be to make it longer.' So I added 50 percent more, tweaked and contorted, and then the music came in a flash flood. I recorded all the instruments in first takes."

Later that same year, on October 30, 2014, Nesmith paid a visit to Dallas — and I knew I just had to meet him. I’ve made it my business since I was a teenager to meet all of my heroes, and I’ve met most of them. Dylan, Warhol, Talking Heads. But meeting Nesmith was hugely unlikely, and stupendous beyond description. With a little help from some friends I Houdini’d my way into his ultra private $250 a person Conversation Party after his solo show at The Kessler, without a wristband or ticket.

My friend Randy Reeves had kindly given me an oil painting by Ana Lee Hufaker, thinking it might serve as a key of sorts to get me backstage into the exclusive party. It worked, and when I gave Michael the painting, he was shocked to learn that his first music teacher in Dallas was also a painter. He stared at the painting in disbelief, as I stared at him in disbelief. We chatted for about 15 minutes, and it was like a beautiful dream that still plays in my head.

Unfortunately, I forgot to tell him about how The Prison had been my gateway to his music, and to the Monkees'. I forgot to tell him a lot of things, which tends to happen when you've got 10 minutes to visit with a hero for the only time in your life. But I did remember to ask him the most important question: Had he heard the song "Michael Nesmith"?
“Yes, I have,” he said, smiling. “What do you think about it?” I asked. “Well, I really like it,” he answered, “but I wonder why they named the song after me.” “Well, Michael, I wrote most of the lyrics, and the Minus 5 put it to music, and we really just wanted to write songs named after all four Monkees."

Nesmith considered that fact for a moment. “Okay," he asked, "but what is the Nesmith song actually about? It doesn’t seem biographical.” “It’s about nine minutes long,” I said, dryly. He laughed.

Duly inspired by the creation of "Michael Nesmith," MacCaughey and Buck and I are also recording material together for our new band the Rock Stars, which also features Chris and Tina from Talking Heads on drums and bass. So far all of the songs being recorded by the Rock Stars are about our heroes, and one of them, "Twenty Giant David Bowies," features Alejandro Escovedo on guitar, who played with Ronnie Lane at one point. Talk about coming full circle.

Meanwhile, the material from the Scott the Hoople box set is slowly being rereleased as individual Minus 5 albums, and on August 19, Yeproc Records will release the latest M5 album, Of Monkees and Men, which includes all four songs we wrote about the Monkees. The album will coincide with the Monkees' current 50th anniversary tour, and the band has even plugged it on their official Facebook page, which is a great honor.

It’s going to be a great day when I soon hold a copy of Of Monkees And Men in my hands. The cover is a great homage to 16 magazine, and even has my name on it. It’s zany! Life is zany. I feel like I’m living out a lost episode of The Monkees TV series. It all makes sense if you drop some acid and think about it.

THE MONKEES perform on Friday, August 11, at The Bomb Factory, 2713 Canton St., Free.
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Bucks Burnett