December marked the passing of Robert Michael Nesmith and Robert Warren Dale Shakespeare — two musicians whose names, I’m pretty sure, will be unfamiliar to most readers. I never met either man, but both had, upon reflection, pretty profound impacts on my life.
Nesmith is best known as the tall, wool-cap wearing guitarist of The Monkees, the 1960s bubble-gum pop group. Four actors were hired for the gig, each one to fit a type: Nesmith was the quiet thoughtful guy. They were to play the role of musicians in a TV show that would re-create each week the manic insanity of the Beatles’ movie “A Hard Day’s Night.” The joke may have been on the producers. While the four were actors, they were also real musicians who quickly tired of being the public face of a manufactured band that had no say over their material.
They soon staged a coup, kicked out the musical mercenaries — some of the top studio talent in LA — and started writing, performing and producing their own songs. Despite starting out with more sales than the Beatles at their launch, The Monkees flamed out after two years and Nesmith moved on to more challenging projects.
He quickly formed another group, the First National Band, which while short lived, is credited with creating the country-rock sound that the Eagles used to fill stadiums and establish an image of blue-jean hedonism that remains the standard. (Nesmith probably didn’t worry too much about the financial success: His mother invented Liquid Paper, a correction fluid for typewritten copy that became a staple of office life in the pre-computer era. She left him a $25 million inheritance.)
Nesmith is also credited with pretty much inventing the music video. There is a hilarious backstage MTV interview with Nesmith when he reunited with The Monkees for the first time in 20 years, joining the band for the encore after a 1986 performance. The interviewer is seemingly incredulous that he didn’t join the band for the entire tour, and that he turned his back on the chance to go onstage every night. He pointed out that he had a (very successful) business to run and couldn’t just drop everything for a 100-date tour, no matter how many screaming fans. His attitude — that fame and adoring crowds aren’t everything — is utterly foreign to the interviewer and she seems a bit flummoxed. As I think about it, it’s also pretty alien to our current culture.
The really funny part comes when she asked him about his business, a video production company called Pacific Arts Corporation. It is often credited with inventing the music video genre — in other words, it pretty much spawned the entire industry within which she worked. In response to her question, Nesmith says, with a tone of bemusement, “ask your bosses.”
I didn’t identify with Nesmith: He was the guitarist (I play drums), he was tall (I’m not) and he wore a wool cap. But he was part of the group, and that is what he and the rest of The Monkees gave me: a powerful desire to be part of a band. I loved music before I heard The Monkees but they were the first group that I encountered — watching them on TV — and I wanted in on that action. It wasn’t the fame, the money or the “chicks” (I wasn’t even 10 then), but I craved the feeling of being on the inside as the rest of the world looked on. I didn’t have to be in front — being in the back had its own attractions — but I wanted to be part of the group.
The camaraderie was always a big part of the attraction when I played music. I founded bands, joined groups that cycled through drummers, and was a hired gun for specific gigs, but the most important thing for me, regardless of the music — and I played just about every genre — was the degree to which I felt like I was part of the group. Watching The Monkees helped crystallize that desire and showed me what it meant to be part of something bigger than just me making noise, no matter how therapeutic it was to bang on the drums.
Robbie Shakespeare showed up in my life a decade later. He was a Jamaican bass player who teamed up with drummer Lowell “Sly” Dunbar to form Sly and Robbie, a rhythm duo that helped make reggae accessible to the world and transformed that genre in the process.
After the two men met in 1972 they were inseparable — and indefatigable. Shakespeare once estimated that they had taken part in 200,000 recordings in one role or another, from musicians to producers. Their collaborations ranged from Bob Dylan to Peter Tosh. They are perhaps best known for their work with Grace Jones as disco raised its ugly head, but their rhythms defied easy categorization and they backed performers like Joe Cocker, Carly Simon and even Yoko Ono.
Sly and Robbie opened my ears to the possibilities in blending musical forms and styles. I had long been a fan of reggae, but it was, for me, a separate genre. Their ability to go into any studio and turn out something recognizable — you can tell when they are playing without even seeing their names — and simultaneously new was jaw-dropping. They had played with the hardest of the “hard rockers” in Jamaica, yet they could then go into a studio with Mick Jagger or Madonna and fuse their island-honed chops with the lead singers’ more traditional rock ‘n’ roll inclinations. As one critic explained. “Their whole career has been geared toward creating new stuff, what no one else had done before.”
I saw Sly and Robbie a couple of times when they backed Black Uhuru, the group that they produced and whose 1983 album “Anthem” won them a Grammy. Dunbar had long been an inspiration, but I didn’t appreciate the power of the partnership between drummer and bass player until I saw them perform. Good drummers are one thing, good bassists another; put them together as a single unit like those two, however, and it’s new musical territory.
I spent a lot of time trying to find my partner but it never happened. But they gave me a sense of what was possible — and the fact that it remained beyond my reach may have been one of the frustrations that prompted me, like Nesmith, to move on from music.
I apologize to readers who have stuck with this contribution to this point: I don’t have any profound insights, just a thank-you to two musicians who had an impact on my life that went well beyond the rhythms and the melodies. Funny, how music can do that.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019). His musical ambitions remain unfulfilled.
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