The Upside of Goodbye

Considering how this blog got started and the recurring themes that have kept it going over the past 13 years, this is a hard one to write. :(

After hearing of Michael Nesmith’s passing last night, I spent much of today listening to the lovely McCabe’s Tapes and reminiscing about the two Nez shows I attended a couple years back, pre-pandemic. For whatever reason, I didn’t write about them at the time (or rather, I did, but never got around to actually posting about it), so figured I’d finish up and share the memories now in honor of one of my favorite underrated songwriters.

In January 2018 I saw Michael Nesmith and the First National Band (Redux) at The Rio in Santa Cruz. I went by myself, partially because no one in my extended circle shares the same fondness for pedal steel-infused cosmic Texas country rock, but mainly because my appreciation for Nez has always been more of a personal one. It’s one of those things you’re perfectly content to call your own; and in fact, you might even enjoy it more because you have it all to yourself. (See also: yearly re-watchings of You’ve Got Mail during the holiday season.)

Obligatory backstory: Late summer of 2008, in the empty weeks between drum corps ending and fall quarter at UCLA beginning, I spiraled deep into my first Nez obsession. Somehow, replaying the Monkees Greatest Hits CD turned into a full-blown obsession with the TV show (leading me to buy and rewatch both seasons ad nauseam and also to start this blog) which then turned into a never-ending Mike Nesmith side journey. Piece by downloaded piece, I loaded up my iPod with all the Nez solo albums I could find. I learned “Nine Times Blue” on the guitar and played it nonstop. While simultaneously worrying about the future and many other now-insignificant matters, I read and re-read the liner notes to And the Hits Just Keep On Coming and felt a little less angsty. In the years since, I think I’ve masked all this by telling people I’m a Monkees fan, but really ever since that summer in 2008 it’s been Nez all the way.

Anyway, even at age 30, I was expecting to be one of the youngest people at the Santa Cruz show, as per usual with these things, but to my surprise I happened to sit next to three teenage girls who had traveled all the way from Denver to be there, proof that there are bonafide Nez fangirls in every generation! They were so enthusiastic and excited, I couldn’t stop smiling while talking with them. It was like meeting a version of myself as a teenager, the version that posted unfiltered fanatical thoughts to LiveJournal and would’ve also traveled 1,200 miles just to see one of my favorite people in concert, if I could find someone to drive me. The teens struck up a conversation with the older couple behind us, and it turns out the man was a DJ at KPIG, who previously worked with Nez at Pacific Arts. In short, I felt like I was among a group of people who were all friends, and all of this even before the band walked onto the stage.

The show was a delight. Mike was so happy and goofy, which I’m sure was partly due to the fact that he was sharing the stage with his two sons and daughter-in-law, who seem like lovely people (his oldest son Christian especially got the crowd going). Nothing I love more than a family band! This was when I realized just how much I loved those First National Band albums I’d downloaded piecemeal a decade prior: song after song (“Calico Girlfriend”, “Dedicated Friend”, “Some of Shelly’s Blues”, “Nine Times Blue”) I sang along gleefully. Mike’s career spans eras and moods—1980s LA grooves, synth-forward sci-fi soundtracks, and tropical campfires to name a few—but I think 1970s rollicking roadtrip romps will always be my favorite.

I saw Nez & Fam again a year later at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, this time with my dad and a bunch of his friends who were in town for the festival. There in Golden Gate Park surrounded by a crowd full of boomers, I made my way to the front row to experience it all myself, singing out of tune to a meandering version of “Papa Gene’s Blues” and letting the pedal steel take me away.

Now that I think about it, this might’ve been the last live show I attended before everything shut down in 2020. I knew Mike’s health had wavered a bit in the past few years, so I was grateful to get to see him two times (three if you count the Monkees show) while he was touring and in good spirits. It seemed like he was doing well these last few months too, having just finished a tour with Micky. So, while I’m a bit shocked and saddened to hear of his passing, it’s nice to know he was playing music up until the end. To paraphrase “The Upside of Goodbye,” I’d like to think our dear Nez’s departure doesn’t leave us empty but instead with a fullness to lean on.

Thanx for everything, Nez. ❤️