Cruisin’ with Papa Nez: Ex-Monkee man Michael Nesmith was one of the “Fathers of Music Video”

By on August 15, 2019

If anyone deserves to get a Father’s Day card for being one of the “Fathers of Music Video” it’s Michael Nesmith, known as “Papa Nez” to his fans.

His 1981 video album Elephant Parts — released by his Carmel, California-based Pacific Arts company — contained a few of the first music videos, which Nesmith believed was the future of the music business.

We found two of his videos — “Rio” and “Cruisin'” — in this 1992 syndication-era episode of “Night Flight,” now streaming on Night Flight Plus.

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In addition to being one-fourth of the Monkees in the late ’60s, Nesmith had been one of the Nudie-suited pioneers of country rock in the early ’70s, achieving moderate commercial success with the First National Band.

Working on projects like the Monkees’ 1968 counterculture film Head had likely inspired Nesmith with all kinds of wild ideas about how to treats songs as a visual experience.

By the late ’70s, he was devoting his time towards the creation of “PopClips,” a music video TV show (produced by Elektra Records honcho Jac Holzman) that aired on Nickelodeon in late 1980 and early ’81.

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Elephant Parts, however, was always intended to be sold directly to consumers for home viewing on VHS and Beta tape formats.

The title came from the old parable from India about the three blind men who touch an elephant, each of them describing what the animal looks like based upon the body part they’re touching.

Papa Nez believed the music video art form was just as varied as the lesson learned from the parable, meaning music videos could be different things to different people, depending on who was creating them.

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Nearly everything found in Elephant Parts was filmed in a former mechanic’s garage in Monterey, CA.

All total, the video album contained five of Nesmith’s “illustrated songs” connected by interstitial comedy bits and pieces with titles like “Elvis Drugs” and “Rock and Roll Hospital” (where people suffering from “Bee Gees disease” are treated).

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“Rio” had been a single from Nesmith’s 1976 album From A Radio Engine To The Photon Wing.

The video features Papa Nez dancing up a storm and relaxin’ with a trio of women in a tropical beach setting, including a Carmen Miranda-inspired gal wearing fruit on her head.

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“Cruisin'” (a.k.a. “Lucy and Ramona and their brother Sunset Sam”) had been a single Nesmith’s 1980 album Infinite Rider on the Big Dogma.

The video featured Hulk Hogan-lookalike wrestler “Steve Strong” (Stephen Cepello) and Monterey-based comedian “Chicago” Steve Barkley, along with a couple of roller skatin’ cuties on Hollywood Boulevard.

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Read more about Papa Nez’s Elephant Parts below.

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Michael Nesmith realized if he could sell all 25,000 retail copies of Elephant Parts for $60 apiece (the going-rate for movie video cassettes), he’d recoup his total investment of $400,000.

He didn’t need the money, really, as he’d just inherited a fortune after his 56-year old mother Bette Nesmith Graham died in 1980. She’d invented “Liquid Paper” typewriter collection fluid and turned it into a multi-million dollar international company, selling it for $48 million in 1979.

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Nesmith spent a huge amount of time and effort on marketing and promoting Elephant Parts, launching a massive publicity campaign, including a giant billboard on the Sunset Strip, near Tower Records, who were selling copies at their front counter (retail outlets didn’t have shelf space devoted to music videos for purchase because they hadn’t existed).

In 1982, Nesmith’s Elephant Parts was the third best-selling Laserdisc (right behind Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind).

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There were two premiere parties — one in New York City, at Tavern on the Green, and one in Beverly Hills, at Le Bistro.

There was also a huge media blitz in 1981 — Nesmith even appeared on Late Night with David Letterman — and the music videos were shown repeatedly on “Night Flight” show and MTV (both had launched in ’81) and on programs airing on HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, ON-TV and SelecTV.

They also showed up in Playboy’s video magazine (be sure to check out the Playboy Channel’s NSFW Hot Rocks, streaming on Night Flight Plus).

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At the Grammy Awards in 1982, the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences gave Nesmith the very first “Video of the Year” award — later replaced by Best Video, Short Form and Best Video Album — for making quality “video cassettes of discs in any format created specifically for the home video market.”

In his acceptance speech, all Papa Nez said was: “Thank you. The music-only phenomenon is now history.”

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One of Nesmith’s next projects was executive producing Alex Cox‘s 1984 sci-fi comedy midnight movie, Repo Man, which became a cult hit.

in the summer of 1985, the NBC network aired “Michael Nesmith in Television Parts,”  a half-hour TV show that featured comedy sketches, commercial parodies, and general silliness.

Lots of famous comedians appeared on Nesmith’s show — Martin Mull, Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Garry Shandling, dozens more — but the series ended up only lasting for five episodes before it was cancelled.

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You can watch Elephant Parts and Television Parts at Michael Nesmith’s Videoranch channel on Youtube. You can probably still buy copies of both on DVD, VHS, Laserdisc or whatever home video format you prefer.

Night Flight’s 1992 special — which also features some of the other “Fathers of Music Video,” including Devo (“Peek A Boo,” “Beautiful World,” and “Dr. Detroit”); David Bowie (“Fashion” and “Ashes to Ashes”); Talking Heads (“Once in a Lifetime,” “Burning Down the House,” and “This Must Be The Place”); and Todd Rundgren‘s “Utopia” video, directed by Woody Wilson — is streaming on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.