Monkeeing Around with Culture

Review: 'Infinite Tuesday' by Michael Nesmith

Michael Nesmith circa 1968 / Getty Images
• August 5, 2017 5:00 am


Michael Nesmith knows one big thing. He doesn't understand why it's true, and he has only a shaky sense of the consequences that flow from what he knows. But in his recent memoir, Infinite Tuesday, the former member of the Monkees at least sees clearly the fact that, somehow, he matters. Michael Nesmith is a genuine thing, an authentic place-marker, in the cultural history of his time.

Which is what makes him a place-marker in our time, as well. Infinite Tuesday is filled with enough of Nesmith's self-importance, his self-image as a significant musician and songwriter, that readers will be tempted to think him wrong about his strange capacity to be remembered. But the fact remains that he is remembered, and what should have been a brief flash of his stardom continues to shine some 50 years on, like the light of a supernova eons after the star's death.

The question, of course, is why we should remember the Monkees at all. Who can recall, say, his contemporary Peter Lucia? After all, Lucia belonged to a group, Tommy James and the Shondells, which had 14 Top 40 hits, including two Number Ones, from 1966 to 1970.

Partly, of course, we remember the Monkees because they did better than Tommy James and the Shondells. From 1966 to 1968, they sold more than 75 million records—outselling even the Beatles in 1967. Even more, we remember the Monkees because they appeared on a television program for those three years, filling half an hour on NBC with antics modeled after the Beatles' Hard Days Night.

Despite all the howls from critics convinced the Monkees were a manufactured falsity, the television program was often fairly good, judged by the standards of mid-1960s television. The music, too, was better than expected. Except for a handful of bubblegum hits, there may never have been a more deliberately manufactured recording than "I'm a Believer." It was sung, after all, by a TV pseudo-group—who used Wrecking Crew studio musicians to record a paint-by-numbers Brill Building-style song by Neil Diamond. And yet, somehow, in the midst of all that cynicism, the recording is almost magical—miles better than it had any right to be.

Still, the main reason that one might read Michael Nesmith's memoir, 50 years past his prime, touches only a little, almost incidentally, on the music and the television performances. It derives instead from the nation's curious settling on the pop culture of the 1960s and 1970s as a base for shared knowledge.

Perhaps that seems an exaggeration. But consider this: On August 3, the Washington Post ran a column decrying the drift of the Kennedy Center—written, just to give the piece a little more of an imprimatur, by Philip Kennicott, the Post's official art and architecture critic. Where the Kennedy Center once promoted symphonies, operas, and classic theater productions, the D.C. institution now "abandons the arts for pop culture," Kennicott fumed. And he pointed out that this year's Kennedy Center honorees included "television producer Norman Lear, singer-songwriter Gloria Estefan, music mogul Lionel Richie and hip-hop star LL Cool J," all of whom have innumerable other sources of popular praise. What need have we of the Kennedy Center, when its gold medals are just late imitations of the Grammys, Oscars, and Emmys?

As it happens, two days before, the political reporter Amber Phillips wrote in that same Washington Post an analysis of Arizona senator Jeff Flake's new book, a tirade against Donald Trump. "Flake routinely catalogs Trump alongside evil and danger," she explained. "At one point, he compares the Republican Party trying to make peace with this president to a German scholar who sold his soul to the devil."

What Flake had written was "Faustian bargain," of course. I can't decide whether Phillips gave her gloss because she herself had to look up the meaning of what she considered an obscure phrase, or whether she merely thought that readers of the Washington Post wouldn't know the meaning of the image from Goethe's Faust. CNN political editor Chris Cillizza didn't think he needed to explain the phrase to his readers. Nor did many others who quoted it—although none of them managed to note that Flake had actually misused the expression, turning it into a redundancy. "If this was our Faustian bargain, then it was not worth it," the outraged Republican senator said of his party's acceptance of Trump, missing what's built into the phrase: the fact that selling one's soul is never supposed to be "worth it." (For those, like Flake, a little distant from the biblical foundations of Western literature, Mark 8:36 is the text Goethe had in mind.)

In other words, we live in a time when even the Kennedy Center can't bring itself to concentrate on classical music and the high performance arts of Western civilization. We live in a time in which even the Washington Post can't allow a reference to the Faust legend that has inspired so much literature. The process, in both instances, probably begins with a fear of being accused of elitism and snobbery, the greatest of sins in a democracy. But the fear is allowed to rule when we notice that references to Wagner's Ring cycle or Goethe's Faust simply aren't as well known as "Hey, hey, we're the Monkees." Or "Oh, what can it mean / to a daydream believer and a homecoming queen?"

Michael Nesmith's memoir is somewhat sour. (Is there anyone in America who doesn't already know that his mother invented Liquid Paper? Or that he wrote "Different Drum," the first hit for Linda Ronstadt? Yes, possibly, among those too young to remember a time when reporters wrote on 1970s typewriters their stories about Linda Ronstadt's dating the young governor of California, Jerry Brown—too young, in other words, to remember when Jerry Brown was a young governor, instead of an old governor on a revivification kick.)

But Nesmith's Infinite Tuesday joins with the bifurcated views of the Washington Post to force on us all the question of culture. Shared reference is the definition of cultural identity, and America, like every other nation, is defined by what its citizens know in common. But is the key here what gets known, or the fact of its being known?

The old middlebrow knowledge, the aspirations to culture of the middle class as late as the early 1960s, can be discerned in everything from the leather-bound sets of Great Books to the classical themes that made up the background music to Bugs Bunny cartoons. We had a kind of consensus that the high arts, what the Kennedy Center used to celebrate, were the goal of cultural knowledge. And as that consensus died, the music of the Monkees became part of what took its place. The pop songs of the 1960s merged with the movies of the 1970s to fill the vacuum. And regardless of its quality it became the new shared knowledge.

Sometimes that quality was quite high, but it isn't Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven, and old episodes of I Dream of Jeannie are not Faust. If the key to culture is the greatness of the shared references, then we have no culture in America anymore. If the key is that something is genuinely shared, then we do have culture. We have the Monkees.

Published under: Book reviews