Monkee business

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FOR MICHAEL NESMITH, IT'S been a long, strange trip.

Today this millionaire Renaissance man is as active as ever, despite the fact that his new album, Rays, is released a full 15 years after his last. In that time, however, he has written a novel, The Long Sandy Hair of Neftoon Zamora, participated in a Monkees reunion - something most assumed he would never do - and chaired his yearly Council on Ideas, at which some of the greatest modern thinkers converge upon his ranch to discuss the leading issues of the day. Reinforcing his belief that the web is fast becoming the most prevalent way to purchase music, Rays is currently only available from iTunes, although it will soon be available in music shops.

"For years stores were the first point of purchase, after radio introduced the music," he says. "That's all changed. Radio is shrinking as a sampling window, and many others are opening that spread the music further and faster. Acquisition of the music is quickest via the internet, then by online ordering, and finally the stores can make available the hard copy with its pictures and package and whatnot. Everyone still has their place, but the hierarchy has shifted. I am just following that."

As it is, Rays is a surprising work, a mostly instrumental set of mutant new-age soundscapes - which should come as a surprise to those more familiar with Nesmith's wonderful if underrated 1970s albums. There Nesmith honed the fusion of country and rock which he began on earlier Monkees albums, predating similar efforts by the Byrds and Gram Parsons. He rarely gets the credit he deserves.

"Yes, but ideas like the emergence of a genre are tended by dozens of midwives. I was just one of many," he says modestly, a trait not often associated with the younger, more bullish Nesmith. The passing years have clearly brought about a good deal of perspective and reconciliation in this thoughtful, white-haired 63-year-old, a far cry, both physically and temperamentally, from the lanky, waspish firebrand of the 1960s who once punched a hole in a wall, inches from Screen-Gems magnate Don Kirshner's head, after the latter refused to let the Monkees play their own instruments. (Nesmith's revolt proved successful, and the band went on to make the best music of their career under their own auspices).

Although vilified at the time, the Monkees are today credited with creating some of the most delicious pop of the 1960s, something Nesmith is justifiably proud of. But for many years, as he carved out a critically lauded if commercially underwhelming solo career, he appeared loathe to discuss those times, often acting, bizarrely, as if they had never actually happened. But today he is more sanguine about the pre-fab four.

"The Monkees occupy a nice lower pasture in the fields of my mind," he says. "The 1960s hold many good memories for me: the Beatles, Hendrix [who famously supported the Monkees on tour in 1967], politics, a changing world. But they're memories, and really only seem to be small images on distant horizons, paths long travelled and left behind."

In the late 1970s Nesmith - whose company Pacific Arts Audio produced cult movies such as Alex Cox's Repo Man among others - put together 56 half-hour top-40 shows called Popclips. He ultimately sold the format to Warners, who swiftly rebranded it as MTV. An achievement to be proud of? "I don't know," he shrugs. "I remember well the creation of MTV, how the idea occurred to me, very simply, and how it began slowly to create its own space. I had seen media of a smaller size at work in the Monkees, but nothing to compare with the scope of MTV. I am happy I moved on and didn't stay with MTV because I wouldn't have enjoyed that huge corporate environment. However, none of that detracts from the feeling of satisfaction at having been a part of it."

He went on to win a Grammy for his pioneering comedy and music-TV special Elephant Park and produced shorts for Saturday Night Live. He's not yet finished with the music video, however, something he'd like to see transcend its television boundaries. "The big screen, with big sound, is a great place to put many things besides screenplays, like music with moving pictures. I doubt that many of the early music videos would hold up here, but it's conceivable that a film-maker familiar with cinema imperative could make something that would, and create something very popular. Music video is a potent art form, but it's still adolescent. I expect it will grow up into something more profound."

Nesmith is working on another novel, The American Gene, and is considering an autobiography of sorts in graphic-novel form. Rays, however, looks set to be his last tangible album release. "Albums are relics of another age," he claims. "I'll likely release songs as I do them. I imagine a consumer could wait until several were released, then put them together and call them an album, but that's a different story."

Where this peripatetic trip will lead him, one can only wonder, but for Michael Nesmith the straight road will never be an option.

• Rays is on