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Hall of Fame honors Nesmith, who's always ahead of his time

Joe Gross
jgross@statesman.com

Michael Nesmith is receiving the Warren Skaaren Lifetime Achievement Award at the 10th annual Texas Film Hall of Fame Awards tonight . This is an award for, as one might imagine, lifetime contribution to movie and film culture.

But in Nesmith's case, it might as well be an award for Most Unlikely Career Arc and Ability to Possibly See the Future.

Even setting aside his recording career with the Monkees and after and his role producing such iconic movies as "Repo Man," it's a kind of amazing how much Nesmith did before a whole lot of people thought it seemed like a good idea.

He learned all about entrepreneurship when his mother invented what became Liquid Paper when Nesmith was 13 and built it up into a multimillion-dollar company.

Music on television? He did that twice, once with the Monkees, then again when he invented cable TV show Pop Clips for Nickelodeon, which was sold to Time Warner/Amex and became MTV.

Home video? Yeah, he was there, too, with the pioneering distribution company Pacific Arts Video in the 1970s.

Exclusive live music performances viewable in a virtual world? He's working on that now with the company Videoranch 3D.

Wearing a watch cap year-round the way he did on the Monkees? Oh, yes.

That wasn't an act. He wore it to the audition to keep his hair out of his eyes, and the producers — legendary Bert Schneider and future directing legend Bob Rafelson — kept it in the show.

"I'm wearing one right now," Nesmith says from his studio in California.

Though Nesmith has long been associated with California, he has serious Texas roots. "I'm a fifth-generation Texan," Nesmith said. "My mother was divorced when I was a toddler, and I had a remarkable support system of brilliant aunts and uncles." It was the sort of environment that made him easy with new ideas and different ways of thinking.

Nesmith didn't start playing music until he was about 19. "I was coming out of the Air Force and was very drawn to music." He headed to Los Angeles to make it and auditioned for the Monkees, sort of on a lark.

Working on the Monkees exposed Nesmith to all sides of filmmaking, but it was production that interested him the most.

"I never thought of myself as a director and writer. Those guys are really long-ball hitters," Nesmith said. "But I enjoyed bringing all the different parts together and watching them work."

In the mid-1970s, a few years after Nesmith had gone solo and cut a couple of records, he was introduced to something that was common in Europe, but not in the United States. It would change his life. Then it would eventually change everyone else's life.

"I remember talking to executives outside of the U.S. who said, 'You have this single "Rio." Over here we make little films to go with the record, and national and state TV stations play them. It's especially helpful to artists who can't tour. Are you interested?'\u2009"

Like Liquid Paper, like the Monkees, here was an opportunity to innovate.

"The idea of me just standing with my guitar and singing didn't seem right," Nesmith said.

He and the director came up with some images, disparate stuff, him dancing with a woman, beaches, outer space. "The director said, 'I don't understand the narrative.' I said, 'I don't either, but let's put them together and see what happens.'\u2009"

Now, Nesmith is quick to say he believes in narrative: "In most filmmaking, continuity is preserved at all costs. The storyline is king, as it should be."

But once they took the images down to the editing bay and started cutting them together \u2026 bingo.

"It really was something magic," Nesmith said. "It kind of happened with the Monkees, with Disney, with Busby Berkeley. The film grammar was expressing itself with music in a way that was very natural, as if to say, 'Yes, that is the way that it was supposed to work.'

"Then I thought, 'Gee, I wonder if this is science or if we lucked into it?'\u2009"

This is something Nesmith believes in — innovation grounded in something real, something solid. Most of the technological and cultural innovations Nesmith has been involved in, from music videos to the home video market, he describes as applied science combined with a little bit of vision.

"There was no home video business when I got into it. It was, at most, recycled movies," Nesmith says. "But video was the new grammar, it was how people communicate with each other. When I started 'Pop Clips,' I knew it was going to be very strange for a while. There just weren't that many videos."

That is, perhaps, Nesmith's best talent — watching, observing, processing, noticing when the time is right for something. This is what happened when he read Alex Cox's script for "Repo Man," the cult 1984 science-fiction movie set in Southern California's hardcore punk scene. Nesmith was executive producer on the project.

"I was impressed by the intensity of (Cox's) intelligence," Nesmith said. "He was just hip and fun and genuinely funny. I was just following along."

These days, his baby is Videoranch 3D, an Internet-based space with exclusive live performances at various virtual venues, sort of like Second Life with James McMurtry playing. There isn't anything else quite like it around, which is familiar territory for Nesmith.

"It's another long lonely road," Nesmith laughs. "But you know an idea is good when there is something that feels so natural about it. You get swept along with it, but it's very solid. So there's comfort there."

jgross@statesman.com; 912-5926

The Texas Film Hall of Fame Awards