In the future, when they talk about performers who did it all the way to the end, they may talk about Michael Nesmith, who died Friday of heart failure at 78. When he enthusiastically pushed to do a Monkees farewell tour this fall with his longtime compatriot Micky Dolenz, he probably had little idea that the end was so close at hand, but certainly he and others knew that the window was closing on how long he had to put himself out in front of fans for any extended trek. Monkees devotees who saw the first few shows on the tour reported some frailty, and yet he seemed to be getting a booster shot night after night, well before the tour ended in triumph at L.A.’s Greek just three and a half weeks ago. If anything involving a death could be said to have had something like a fairy-tale ending, this might’ve been it.
After Nesmith’s death was reported Friday morning, Variety spoke with Andrew Sandoval, who has taken on management duties for the Monkees and also Nesmith as a solo artist for the last decade. His official title with the group has been “producer,” which has been appropriate enough; he did co-produce the band’s studio comeback, “Good Times!,” five years ago, on top of putting together their touring and other duties. Sandoval, who might be as big a scholar of 1960s pop music as there is, is not your typical manager. He’s also been the group’s biggest fan since he discovered them in grade school in the 1970s, years after they’d initially broken up, and he was both their A&R man and an author of books about the band before becoming a crucial force in keeping the surviving members working together over the last decade. If every group had a personally and professionally invested booster like Sandoval, none of them might ever break up.
Sandoval shared his thoughts about the rapprochement that Nesmith had had with the Monkees’ fan base after seeming to not care about it so much about the old days and ways at various points in his career, and what a heartwarming reunion with the faithful this last swing through the U.S. was. He also spoke frankly about what some might see as Nesmith’s peculiarities — from his religiously based distaste for medical care to his perfectionism — and how these co-existed with the songwriting excellence and visionary qualities. Oh, and which Monkee was the wittiest? Sandoval has an opinion on that.
VARIETY: How are you feeling about Michael’s death at the moment? And was this a shock, or did everyone know it was coming? Everyone knew he was in fragile health in recent years, and yet it hasn’t been a month since the end of the Monkees’ tour — he was just in the spotlight, and doing well, at the Greek a few weeks ago.
SANDOVAL: Well, it’s not a total shock, because we anticipated that he would pass at some point, and he has been in the hospital this past week, although he had come home, as were his desires. He passed away at home with his family, in peace. He was raised as a Christian Scientist, and he only sought medical help when it was absolutely necessary or when it was something that he felt still worked with his philosophy.
He had gone on tour, as was his desire and request to me for the last two years. He wanted to wrap up things with the Monkees. He completed every date and did very well, and in fact got quite a bit stronger. He started out the tour where he could only perform sitting down, and then gradually got a cane and was standing up — and then for most of the shows, from about two or three weeks in, he was up for the entire duration of the show. So he gained a lot of strength from the audience and from performing. Lockdown had been tough on him, because he couldn’t go many places, and he had sort of atrophied. So there was a real renewal with the tour. And also, he got to reconnect with a lot of friends and his half-sister and family members and other people. It was a great celebration for him, to do what he had done in the past, and do it really well. His final show at the Greek Theatre was before 5,000 people, and it was joy. So it was a very successful tour. He really went out on top, as far as that’s concerned.
As a solo artist, he had played to his biggest crowd at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass (in San Francisco) in 2019, and he was going from highlight to highlight, as far as performing. And the Monkees’ “Good Times” album (their studio swan song, which went top 20 in 2016) — few other artists of his generation were having that kind of success … and critical success, finally, for the Monkees, where they had been lambasted for decades; they were finally accepted. He died knowing that they were beloved, and he finally embraced what they meant to so many other people. I think he finally got it.
His legacy and his music were being appreciated by more people in so many ways than he ever thought it would be, say, five or 10 years ago. So I’m at peace with that aspect of his life. I wish I had more time with him. I spent 30 years off and on working with him, and I’m going to miss him so much. I already miss him now. I mean, he was just hilarious to be around — just funny stuff, all the time. You think of the four Monkees and you think, well, who was the funniest guy? And really, in so many ways for me, he was, because his sense of humor was so left-of-center and just got right to the heart of me.
I remember seeing him do a Q&A with Micky ahead of an American Cinematheque screening of “Head” in Hollywood a couple of years ago, and it was shocking how comfortable he seemed to be embracing the legacy of the Monkees, after all those years in which people felt that, out of all the group members, he was the one where that was really not his thing.
He was really comfortable in the end. He told me in his living room just a few months ago, before the tour, he said, “You know, I finally really have come to accept the Monkees’ music. I really like it now.” And it was an amazing moment. I was showing him a reissue of the first Monkees album that had just come out on vinyl. And he was like, “This is really beautiful. The people who love this are really going to love this.” And he started to see it more through the eyes of his fans, of how they loved it. And that was bringing him a lot of joy at the end of his life. Their joy was coming back on him. He finally really felt that, and it lit him up, you know?
Is it possible to say what his specific infirmities were, or what his cause of death was?
He had serious heart issues and he had quadruple bypass surgery three years ago. We were on tour in 2018, and because of his Christian Scientist beliefs, he wasn’t going to see a doctor regularly, but I insisted he see a doctor several times. And the doctors who were looking at him didn’t have anything specific to say until we got to Pittsburgh, and then they said, “Look, if you go on stage, you might die tonight.” And so we pulled down the tour, and he went home. He said, “Well, I’m not going to get surgery here. If I’m going to die, I want to die in California.” He went home to California, and he thought about it for some time, and then got medical treatment that he was ready to do when he was ready to do it. I believe that he needed further help with his heart. Ultimately, he declined to go further with what may have been needed, if that (was even) possible. But I can’t say for sure what all of his decision-making was, to be honest with you.
You mentioned how difficult it was for him to come back from having been in isolation during COVID. There are a lot of us without his pre-existing health problems who felt like we got something knocked out of us from not being as active as before, so it’s easy to imagine how hard it would have been for him to go from zero to 70, going into the regimen a tour requires.
It was extraordinarily difficult. He didn’t show up for the first three days of pre-production rehearsals. He was fearful that he couldn’t make it — and we were all fearful whether we would get sick and die from COVID on this tour. But ultimately it was his desire to want to do it that pushed myself and Micky and the band and the crew to go through with it, because we knew we didn’t have that much time with him — that we couldn’t postpone it again. We had already postponed the tour from the year previous, and it just felt like: We’re going to lose the light here. We’re not going to have the time to do it. And he really pushed it through, wanting to be on tour and do as long a tour as we did, which was two and a half months.
No one got sick, and we made it through all the dates. And he went from not being able to walk a few steps to being able to come on and off stage with good ease. And the only reason why I went through the tour was: I visited him for several months prior to the tour and worked with him musically and listened to his voice, and I could hear that his voice was all there, and that when he sang his songs, it would be beautiful. And it was. So once we got down to the business of figuring out how best to help him get on and off stage, we were (up and) away. And after that time-out, moving more and more, he actually got better, not worse. That was heartening. The day that we were finishing the tour in Los Angeles, I looked at a video of him from rehearsal, and we couldn’t believe it was the same person, he had changed so much and was looking so much better.
So his death is a shock in that sense, because the tour work was really helping him. But, you know, we couldn’t be on tour perpetually. We had to end at some point, you know?
When the tour ended, there was still a cruise booked with some other artists from the era for next year that apparently would have been the final-final show, if all had continued to go well. When you ended the tour, was he in the kind of shape that you had faith that the cruise show could happen?
Yeah. A lot of people were quite cynical about the idea that we had added this cruise thing, because they had assumed the Greek Theatre was the last-ever date. But it was just the last date on our schedule. And this past week when he was ill, he continued to ask about doing other dates: “Well, are we going to do this?” Because we were going to do that (cruise) and do a few of the makeup dates, like Savannah, Georgia, a date that we got shut down on because the local municipality said you can’t have more than 500 people together, and we’d sold more than 500 tickets. So the idea of performing and being in front of people was keeping him alive, or giving him more reason, and so I felt no need to shut it down. I thought leaving it as an option was a positive thing, and when the offer came up for the cruise, he was quite excited about it, because he had never done anything like that and thought it would be kind of fun. So we put it on the schedule and hoped for the best. And unfortunately, things declined.
Were you feeling that the end was probably at hand, recently, based on what was happening that you knew of?
I was aware that he was quite ill the last several days, and I knew that he was going to be passing. But it’s only been this past week. It wasn’t a situation where I was aware that he was going to die during the tour or anything like that. We would not have gone through with what we did if we had felt that way.
But we did feel like we were playing out his ultimate desire to do things. And Micky was certainly supportive of him in wanting to be his partner and doing it. People that got to see the shows I think really, really got a lot out of it. It was a really intimate show. And in traditional Monkees fashion, they defied expectation. They did a unique set list. They didn’t just retread things. It was a complete overview of their catalog and their careers. And for the people who got to commune with them one last time, I think it’s going to be a beautiful memory.
Did you feel like this last tour was more for him, then, or more for the fans?
I think it was probably a mixture of both. Each night there was a song he was doing in the show called “While I Cry,” which was from one of their obscure albums, “Instant Replay,” and he would give a speech that varied every night. It was not a scripted speech, but it was about his relationship to the fans. And I kind of feel like he wanted to finally say that he got it — that he got why they liked it, whereas he didn’t always. And I kind of feel like it was more for him in that sense, that he got the opportunity to tell them that he knew and he cared about them, and that he liked the Monkees and he liked Monkees fans. And it was a really beautiful moment in the show.
But, in fact, he was also doing a lot more zany stuff that he wouldn’t normally do. He was really much more comedic, which was fascinating.
He did have an image as the most serious of the Monkees, in some ways, despite you thinking of him as possibly the funniest. He had that inventor image, among those who really followed him.
I think there’s a lot of his career that people missed — his innovations, and things that I picked up on just doing research over the years. He did the show “Pop Clips,” which ultimately became MTV, and sold the concept to Warner Communications, and that was one of his successes. He then became a producer of music videos, and produced music videos for Lionel Richie and all these other people. Had a prime-time television series on NBC, “Television Parts” (in 1985). Ran a thriving home-video thing. I found out he was also the first person to put a bar code on a record, because he was interested in how people got paid and doing inventory, and he felt that if all records had barcodes on them, you could easily scan in and out SKU numbers. Which is so contemporary, but this is something that he was thinking about in the 1970s. So he was a visionary. Any idea, there had to be a concept to drive it. There was no idea that was just simple — there was always some nuance.
That’s the innovator side. Is there anything you would say most marked him as a songwriter?
Yes. I think his sort of willful obscurity… So many of his finest songs, say, “Some of Shelly’s Blues,” which was covered by Linda Ronstadt and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the song title never appears in the song, because he didn’t want to do anything obvious, ever., so there was no chorus line that had that song title. “Tapioca Tundra,” which was a top 40 record for the Monkees, there’s no “tapioca tundra” mentioned in the lyrics. “Good Clean Fun,” another single for the Monkees, there’s no “good clean fun” in it. He became more idiosyncratic, but he was also a poet at heart and looked at lyrics in that way.
Melodically, he was inventive. And as far as his concept in mid-1968 that country and rock music should go together, and then going to Nashville to record and do things along the lines of what the Byrds were doing — I mean, he was on the leading edge of it. And I think he’s every bit as important as Gram Parsons and Rick Nelson and the Byrds as far as what he produced and what he was going for.
What did you find him to be like? What was your relationship like, and did it change along the way? Did you see him change as a person at all?
Yeah, he changed quite a bit. He became far more benign in the last few years of his life. And he used to say to me that that was a gift, both to him and to everybody else who dealt with him. [Laughs.] Because he was so concept-driven and such a perfectionist, it was ultimately very difficult to work with him, because the perfectionism wouldn’t just be left on the stage. It wouldn’t just be how a song is presented or how a song is performed, but how is the car being delivered to me? How is the shampoo and the conditioner in the hotel being left? Every detail to him was important. And if he saw details that were left undone, he would lose faith. So in the end, trust was an important part of our relationship, and I learned to do the things that would allow him to trust me so that we could get to the finish line together. That was a really important thing for me, and I learned a lot in the process.
He was a very intimidating person, and most people were incredibly intimidated by him because he would be quite quiet and not communicative. So I had to learn to just go directly and speak to him in a very direct fashion, which is why we got a lot done together. But many other people were put off immediately, and he could cut people to the quick quite easily with a few sharp words. I mean, he was never a physical person; it was always verbal. He was a master of vocabulary. So after you went to the dictionary to find out what he had actually said to you, you could learn quite a bit being around him. [Laughs.]
And in bringing him back into the Monkees in 2012, after he had been out of working with them from 1997 on, that was a big step for him to come back and really embrace that part of his career and reclaim it, which is what he did. I just thought it was brilliant. He did a great job this last nine years as a live performer, after being an executive and doing all these other things.
If there is such a thing as a good way to go out, headlining the Greek, in the last month of your life… maybe there could be no better way to go out than with an appreciative crowd in L.A. at a big venue.
Yeah, in their adopted hometown, and at the place where the four Monkees had reunited in 1986 for the first time since ‘68 or so. There’s a lot of landmark things about the Greek. So as far as the fitting cap to it, it was great.
But I’m kind of sad that… There is just never enough, really, you know? For me, there were other projects I still wished I could have done with him. Not necessarily taking him on some long trip across America again. [Laughs.] But it was a great time and a lot of bonding happened. We got to go through a lot of stuff. I had hoped he would write more songs. I had hoped he would complete some other projects he had talked about. There’s always those hopes. I didn’t think the time would run out so fast.
Probably all the fans who saw him play with Micky in recent years want to thank you for everything you did to reunite him with the broader base of fans, on top of those who always stuck with him and loved him throughout the years.
Well, thank you. I feel him knowing what we were all on about all these years — I mean, that was the success.