For most of this year, the remaining Monkees have been on a 50th-anniversary tour, except for Michael Nesmith, who, according to Billboard, joined them onstage twice and once via Skype. A Sept. 16 show in Los Angeles, very close to the 50th anniversary of the debut of the Monkees TV series, marked his last performance with the band.
When he arrives on the stage of a Dallas theater on Saturday night, it won’t be about the Monkees. Well, it won’t be all about the Monkees. It will be about his career as a video pioneer, and the TV show was part of that. But there has been much more since. As he continued his solo music career after the show and the group came to its initial end, he has diversified, and much of that has to do with video — home video, short-form video, music videos.
Which is why the former Dallas resident will make a homecoming to receive the Video Association of Dallas’ Ernie Kovacs Award at 8 p.m. at the Kessler Theater in Oak Cliff. For the first time, the award presentation is a separate event from the Dallas Video Festival, which takes place Oct. 18-23. The Kovacs Award presentation will be accompanied by a screening of 1988’s Tapeheads, a comedy on which he was an executive producer.
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It’s not that big a leap from TV pioneer Kovacs’ often surreal humor to the ’60s shenanigans of the Monkees TV show, but Nesmith’s real connection goes beyond the show. In the mid-’70s, he founded Pacific Arts Corp., which was a pioneer in both home video and music video. In the late ’90s, he helped found Videoranch, a website where you can watch short films or live concert performances. In between, he came up with an idea that led to MTV.
“I started out to be a singer-songwriter, but I ended up on this television show, and that’s when I started watching how they made movies in the ’30s and the ’40s, because the stage that we were on was a legacy stage,” Nesmith says. “It was huge. It had cameras that were the size of refrigerators. They had 10K lights that were enormous. Everything was big and slow and kind of ponderous.”
That could be a problem on a show like The Monkees, which emphasized slapstick humor and fast pacing. But years before The Monkees, Nesmith says, Kovacs figured out ways to use that ponderous equipment to his advantage.
“When I looked at his old black-and-white work, I thought to myself, ‘This is what it’s supposed to do,’ Nesmith says. “You’re supposed to have fun with it and create these crazy images. You can tell stories in a completely different way. And what he did early, now that’s really what led to YouTube.”
On Videoranch, the Kovacs connection comes through the strongest. In one of the short films available on the site, a writer intent on jumping on the memoir trend begins documenting his life as it happens, much to the irritation of the woman in his life. In another, a young Jay Leno boasts about his ’55 Buick, a car so big that it takes nearly $2,000 to fill it up.
In 1977, working with director William Dear (who would go on to direct Harry and the Hendersons and other movies), Nesmith did a music video for a solo single, Rio. Although there were exceptions, music videos at the time usually featured bands lip-synching a performance, sometimes filmed by directors who didn’t understand that you shouldn’t keep the camera trained on the singer when the guitarist is playing a solo.
But Rio is different: It puts Nesmith in a variety of contexts, from beach scenes to a now very-low-budget-looking shot of him and his background singers flying through space to a classic-musical dance routine that goes awry in a way Kovacs would have appreciated. In 1979, he would release another video, Cruisin’, which uses Southern California locations to tell the story of street characters Lucy, Ramona and Sunset Sam.
“Those were actually both shot on film,” Nesmith says. “We didn’t have the video cameras we have now, and if we had, we wouldn’t have used film. When I go back, I’m sad, because film didn’t have the same resolution the newer cameras do. But it didn’t put a top on anything. It didn’t say, ‘OK, we’ve made it, this is it, this is the new art form, this is how you make music videos now.’ This was just a stop on the way, and we passed right through that on the way to what’s going on now.”
In I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, Nesmith says that he noticed that other artists were doing music videos (before the term was really invented), and came up with a concept for a show called PopClips, with videos introduced by comedians. The show is seen as a direct precursor to MTV. He also was executive producer of a 1981 special, Elephant Parts, a collection of music videos and sketches that, once again, have a Kovacs-style sense of humor.
“I was surprised at how fast this moved in my life,” Nesmith says. “I did the video in ’77, Rio, and right from there went into Elephant Parts, and right from Elephant Parts into MTV. Bang, bang, bang, bang. It’s still going on, but I don’t see that technological morphing as much as I did then, because now it’s all going on the Internet. That’s where the images are being traded. That’s where the images are being made.”
Ernie Kovacs Award
- Presented to Michael Nesmith
- 8 p.m. Saturday
- Kessler Theater, Dallas
- Tickets: $25-$35; Tapeheads screening an additional $10