Think Diffident, Part II

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Aug 10, 2003, 5:09:59 PM8/10/03
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Conclusion of " Think Diffident" by Geoff Edgers, WIRED magazine.
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Bingo. That statement, Nesmith says, was two years ahead of the essay
by Sun chief scientist Bill Joy, who warned that technology untempered
by humanity could spell doom. (See "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us,"
Wired 8.04, page 238.) "The idea stated - that's all that has to
happen," Nez says. Toss a thought into the human pond, and even though
it sinks like a stone, it makes ripples that reach the shore.

But first, cocktails. The 2000 council participants and various alumni
- Nez flies in any veterans who wish to attend - gather in Santa Fe on
Friday night for a precouncil party, the calm before the brainstorm.
And what better place than the Inn of the Anasazi, with its sandstone
walls, four-poster beds, and toilet paper made of cedar pulp?

Nesmith rents out the two private back rooms that make up the Inn's
library. Scattered about in various stages of chatter are Mexican
physicist Ana Maria Cetto, known for work in theoretical physics
(council of '98); Todd Siler, MIT-bred artist/author/management guru
('96); and cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, daughter of
Margaret Mead ('96). There's also law professor and former Washington
Post writer Garrett Epps ('94). And from '92, Dallas Morning News
columnist Lee Cullum, bioinformatics researcher Stuart Kauffman,
Pulitzer Prize-winning writer N. Scott Momaday, and USA Today
columnist Walter Shapiro.

A few weeks ago, Nesmith described this cocktail party to me in
near-cosmic terms. In 1998, without the slightest nudge, he said, the
thinkers formed a "conversation circle" - a kind of mental hackey-sack
ring in which each person tossed an idea into the ether, another
picked it up, kicked it around, added a mutation, offered it back.

Maybe the room tonight is too cramped or the drinks are too strong.
But as the waiters pass through with trays of caviar and grilled
shrimp on sugarcane sticks, the scene looks suspiciously like a
cocktail party.

Gell-Mann and Karnow commiserate about McNamara, 'Nam, the press.
Gospel-rapper Giovanni mingles with Gihon investment manager Bruce
Tyson, who tells anyone who will listen that his wife is former Cheers
star Shelley Long. Law prof Bassiouni sits in a corner, beaming with
his wife.

Kauffman, a star at the Santa Fe Institute, an elite science and tech
research center, gets downright misty. "Scott, do you have any idea
how powerful a moment that was to me?" he asks Momaday, referring to a
line Momaday had uttered during the '92 council: "The highest human
purpose is always to reinvent and celebrate the sacred."

Karnow is less reverent. Why, he wonders, should the council be
closed-door? "This is not the president of the United States coming
out of a National Security Council meeting and issuing a communique,"
he says.

"Look," says journalist Shapiro, giving me his take on the councils.
"Nobody's going to read the Council on Ideas 2000 statement and say,
'You know, I've been running General Motors in an exploitative way in
the Third World. But now that I know that the Gihon Foundation is
concerned about the governing of multinational corporations, I'm going
to change my behavior.'

"What has happened here," he says, "is that a network has been
created."

Which pretty much follows the model of most global-issue confabs,
places where the cerebral set can forge connections - if not with the
common man they're supposed to be helping, then at least with one
another and various unemployed heads of state. Often as not, these
events feature former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, who's found
a second life as a globetrotting networker. In March, for example,
attendees of the Earth Charter meeting in Paris (sponsored by
Gorbachev) penned a blueprint for a better world. In November 1999,
Gorbachev addressed the State of the Planet Conference in New York. As
far back as 1995, the State of the World Forum in San Francisco
(sponsored by the Gorbachev Foundation) inspired San Francisco
Examiner columnist Rob Morse to remark that the city was now "drawing
a new class of tourists. Instead of Instamatics, they have Nobel
Prizes around their necks."

In New Mexico, there's no Gorby. (Nesmith won't divulge whether the
former president has ever been invited.) But there are local
luminaries, including Kauffman, whose Bios Group turned complexity
theory into a cash cow; Gell-Mann, who does "plectics" research at the
Santa Fe Institute; and Dave Weininger, whose company, Daylight
Chemical Information Systems, translates chemical data for computers.
(See "Greetings From Info Mesa," Wired 8.06, page 336.)

Anna Roosevelt, for her part, seeks out an
equally-famous-anthropologist-descendant-of-a-famous-person to talk
strategy. What should I do tomorrow? she asks Bateson. Any advice?

"How about making fun of white males sometimes, please?" someone asks
Karnow. So he tells a nostalgic story about Tammany Hall.

Grab a pen, Bateson tells her. Play secretary. If you want to take
control and keep the council on track, write down the skeleton that
becomes the draft. Plus, you can influence the final product. Carpe
Bic.

"Sex," says Nikki Giovanni, heaving the words like an Olympic
shot-putter, "is the new nigger."

The council is officially in session, and Roosevelt is clutching her
pen hard enough to make it bleed. Giovanni describes the killings of
gay college student Matthew Shepard, beaten, tied to a fence and left
to die, and black teenager Emmett Till, beaten and shot to death in
1950s Mississippi for talking to a white woman. Homophobia, she
explains, is the new excuse for the kind of violence historically
unleashed on blacks.

Her colleagues, for a moment, are too stunned to speak. But that won't
last long. Already this morning, Roosevelt has launched into a
breathless, 15-minute monologue that touched on human rights, pygmies,
and grandmothers. Gell-Mann jumped in with Islamic groups and female
genital mutilation. Bassiouni expounded on globalization. Karnow
discussed war, peace, poverty, and the relative stupidity of
Chicagoans (a touchy subject - Roosevelt and Bassiouni happen to live
there).

Giovanni wants to abolish death row and compares GOP presidential
candidate George W. Bush to Hitler. Later, she compares Republican
Senator Jesse Helms to Hitler.

Karnow interrupts. "Helms is no Hitler."

Giovanni: "Depends on which tree you're swinging from."

Karnow, disgusted: "Come on!"

Roosevelt is fraying. Karnow is annoying her with all his quips,
anecdotes, and Chicago-slagging. "Institutional racism is dead,"
Karnow declares at one point. He also tells the story of a young boy
in Vietnam who "knew everything" about computers. This inspires
Roosevelt to lament that a lot of Chicago kids haven't had the chance
to get computer-savvy.

"Vietnamese are smarter than Chicagoans," Karnow shrugs.

At which point, Giovanni jumps in. "I know you were trying to joke,"
she says, "but I'm compelled to say for whoever listens to this in
3000 that what you said was a terribly racist statement."

Karnow: "How about my saying the Vietnamese are smarter than
Brooklynites?"

Giovanni soon decides to shut down and stay mum: Nothing personal,
she's simply figured out that this group is like all the rest. People
only want to hear themselves talk. But Roosevelt keeps trying.

"If you're going to crack jokes," she tells Karnow, "how about making
fun of white males sometimes, please?"

So Karnow tells a nostalgic story about Tammany Hall, the
corrupt-to-the-core political machine. "Look at the services that
Tammany provided," he says. "The school system in New York City in the
'30s was magnificent!

"I asked my mother one time, 'How do you vote?'" Karnow continues.
"She said, 'I vote the way Irving tells me to vote.' I said, 'Who's
Irving?' She said, 'Irving's the precinct captain. When the garbage is
piled up on the sidewalk, do you think I'm going to call the
Department of Sanitation to take it away? I call Irving, it gets taken
away.'"

"That's precisely what's objectionable!" Bassiouni declares. "Your
mother, who has a connection with Irving, gets the service, and
so-and-so who has no connection doesn't?" And, yes, he says, there are
people who miss Stalin and Hitler, too. "That's the big joke in
Europe," Bassiouni cries. "Under Benito Mussolini, the trains ran on
time!"

To which Roosevelt replies: "Trains run on time now."

It's easy to forget how big Nesmith was in his prime: an international
pop star who was chums with John Lennon and whose image appeared on
T-shirts and lunch boxes. His lanky frame and semi-subversive
wisecracks made him the favorite Monkee of millions. He was a
guitar-playing kid who left Dallas for Los Angeles in 1964 and two
years later was in a band with record sales that rivaled the Beatles.


Nesmith had just released a pair of 45s under the name Michael
Blessing (which went nowhere) when he heard an ad for "four insane
boys, age 17 to 21." Nez topped the age limit, but beat out some 400
applicants, including Stephen Stills (rejected for bad teeth and
hair).

The concept was this: Four faux bandmates would play tunes provided by
songwriters like Tommy Boyce, Bobby Hart, Neil Diamond, and Carole
King. Crack studio musicians would record the music. Micky (a former
child actor), Davy (a former thespian), and Peter and Mike (the
musicians) would sing on their records, lip-sync on TV, and never play
their own instruments. To help prime the pop-hit pump, Monkees
creators Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson (who later directed Five Easy
Pieces) brought in uber-producer Don Kirshner, the head of Screen Gems
Music Publishing.

The concept rocked. The television show, which aired from 1966 to
1968, blended the frantic energy of A Hard Day's Night with Marx
Brothers wit, and earned an Emmy in its first year. In their heyday,
the Monkees sold 16 million albums.

But for Nesmith, who during this period penned the Linda Ronstadt hit
"Different Drum," letting other people write and play while the
Monkees mimed soon became unbearable. Even worse, in 1967, when the
Monkees were no longer prefab - the actual band was performing to
sellout crowds - Kirshner still refused to let the quartet do anything
more than sing on an album. Nesmith began to complain openly, and the
cover was blown: America's Fab Four were fakes.

The Monkees won artistic control of their third album, Headquarters,
but the golden days were over. And if Headquarters marked the start of
the band's commercial decline, the 1968 film Head, its first
feature-length movie, was the denouement.

Produced by Rafelson with help from Jack Nicholson, Head was a dark,
trippy box-office debacle in which the four heroes become, among many
things, flecks of dandruff sucked out of Victor Mature's hair by a
vacuum cleaner. It was the last train to quitsville. By 1969, the
Monkees' TV show was kaput, and Peter Tork had left the group. By
1970, the Monkees were no more.

The walls around him were self-imposed limits, Nez realized. He
produced a proto music-video show, sold it to Warner Bros., and MTV
was born.

Cut loose from the group, Nesmith did little but thrive. He formed the
First National Band (and later, the Second National Band). He wrote a
hit single, "Joanne," and with the 1970 albums Magnetic South and
Loose Salute helped to define, alongside Gram Parsons and the Byrds,
the genre of country rock.

"Mike Nesmith? Why the hell not?" Rolling Stone wrote, calling Loose
Salute "one of the hippest country rock albums in some time."

In the mid-'70s, Nesmith formed his own communications and record
company, Pacific Arts. He signed unknowns and let them keep their
master recordings - a practice unheard of in the record industry. He
treated his own recordings like chemistry experiments, darting from
acoustic country and New Wave to calypso and early rap. At the height
of arena rock, he put out an album with a 64-page short story that he
urged people to read while they listened. The Prison focused on Jason,
a young man who finds freedom only when he realizes that the walls
surrounding him are merely his self-imposed limits.

The Prison would remain Nesmith's guiding metaphor. Of course, after
inheriting his mother's fortune, he could afford to take risks. "The
dude has a kachillion billion dollars," says George Steele, vice
president of Pacific Arts from 1985 to 1995.

But Nez wanted to jump the curb more than buy the street. When a 1977
phone call came from his record company's European distributor (a new
cable channel in Europe was looking for film clips of rock songs; did
Nesmith have anything?), he didn't send in the standard promo clip of
his band lip-syncing against a white backdrop. He asked a friend, Bill
Dear, to direct a short film for his song "Rio." Inspired by the Fred
Astaire movies he loved, Nesmith crafted a seven-minute musical in
which he crooned in a tuxedo, flew through the sky with mambo girls on
his back, and slapsticked his way through a ballroom dance. The clip
drove "Rio" up the pop charts in England; it also convinced Nesmith to
produce Popclips, half-hour prototypes of Top 40 video shows, which
aired in 1979. Nesmith later sold the concept and the shows to Warner
Bros., and MTV was born.

Nesmith's next project was Elephant Parts, a mix of music videos and
Saturday Night Live-styled skits that in 1982 won the first Grammy for
best video. He produced a TV comedy show, Television Parts, that was
praised by critics but swiftly yanked. More successfully, he produced
movies: Repo Man, Tapeheads, Square Dance, and Timerider (the last of
which he also cowrote and scored).

And in 1990, Nez's Pacific Arts struck a deal with PBS to distribute
home videos of the network's most popular shows. Several years later,
the business began to look so promising that PBS tried to muscle
Pacific Arts out so it could grab the profits. A 1999 federal court
found PBS guilty of fraud and breach of contract, and awarded Nesmith
$47 million.

Life for his three former cohorts, meanwhile, was less dramatic.
Dolenz spent 12 years in London directing British television, music
videos, and a movie, and he played occasional small-town gigs. Jones
returned to the stage in Oliver! and Godspell, moved to Pennsylvania,
wrote a book, and joined a Teen Idols tour with Bobby Sherman and
Herman's Hermits' Peter Noone. Tork, the group's most versatile
musician, continued to play guitar, bass, banjo, and keyboards, and
also worked as a waiter and teacher. Over the decades, the
ex-bandmates sent Nesmith a steady stream of reunion offers, which,
aside from playing two concerts in the '80s, he always declined. Then
in 1996, Nesmith suddenly agreed to a tour, a new Monkees album
(Justus), and an ABC television special. He finished the UK portion of
the tour, but backed out before it reached the US.

This didn't do much for band member relations. Jones and Dolenz
refused my requests to talk about Nesmith. Tork called, still sounding
peeved.

"At the very best, it was impolite," says Tork, currently touring with
his band Shoe Suede Blues. "Mike has this idea about who he wants to
be and what he wants to do. He wants to be a serious thinker, to be
seen as somebody who is significant in the world of ideas."

"At some point," Tork figures, "he decided it wasn't a good idea to
act as if the Monkees was a wonderful thing - because it would trap
him. And I'll have to say this for him: There's nothing to prove to me
that he was wrong."

Mentioning the Monkees to him, in other words, is risky. But what
mortal, given the gift of several minutes of Nez access, can resist? I
wait for a calm moment when Nesmith is relatively alone (only three
people hover nearby, instead of the usual herd).

I choose my words carefully.

ME: How do you feel about being identified with the Monkees?

NESMITH: (Silence.) I don't understand the question.

ME: How do you feel about the way that you're identified with the
Monkees?

NESMITH: (Pause.) I sort of don't think about it all. People identify
me in all kinds of ways.

The brains cheated. The statement isn't a bold consensus on one
premier issue - it's a global laundry list. No one minds. Lunch is
served.

So much for timing. If eyes are the window to the soul, Ijust saw the
shutters slam shut.

A honey truck - Hollywood-speak for portable toilets - parks near the
entrance to Chez Nez. Valets with matching shirts and pants work the
gate. But the rent-a-cops canceled, the printer is broken, and there
are so many cars rolling in that Nesmith has to direct the overflow to
the side of a dirt road. He's not perturbed. It's Sunday afternoon,
and all will be OK.

When it's almost noon, Anna Roosevelt emerges from the foundation
building in a navy business suit, holding an iBook. The laptop belongs
to Gell-Mann: He took over as secretary that morning to type up the
position statement.

Two tents gleam in the sun - one is where the brains will announce
their position statement, and the other is where Los Angeles
chef-to-the-stars Celestino Drago has been flown in to prepare Maine
lobster and Piedmontese beef for lunch.

About 100 people fill the audience. Shortly after noon, the council
members step smartly out of the foundation building. They assemble in
Right Stuff style, a line of thinkers, each with his or her own
microphone. The crowd is handed stapled copies of the three-page
statement - one of the longest in council history - while Roosevelt
begins to read: "We are living in a time of accelerating
globalization, and not only in commerce, finance, and communications.
Moreover, we now have the ability to make very significant changes on
a global scale that ..."

Roosevelt proceeds through a scattershot discourse that grazes a wide
range of topics, from weapons of mass destruction ("a very serious
danger") to unpunished international violence ("without justice there
can be no peace") to democracy (encourage it) to social justice
(expand it) to environmental protections, education, health care,
protections for children, sustainable resource management, and a gill
net's catch of other challenges: "War and peace, extremes of poverty
and wealth, intolerance and tolerance, resource exploitation and
biological diversity, and crime and the rule of law."

The brains cheated. The statement isn't a bold consensus on one
premier issue. It's a global laundry list.

No one minds. The post-statement Q&A mainly features softballs. One by
one, the council members expound on the statement. Only Giovanni
remains silent. Until, that is, a local reporter presses her for a
comment.

"Sex," she declares, leaning toward the microphone, "is the new
nigger."

The crowd draws a collective breath. Giovanni tells the audience about
homophobic violence and the lynchings of yesteryear, laying out the
logic of her words. There are relieved "oh-yes-I-see" sighs. And then
... lunch is served.

Nesmith and Kennedy sit on the patio, happily watching their party
unfold. When it's over, he'll wonder whether the whole gathering was a
bit too lavish, too busy-busy, a little too full of itself. Oh well,
he decides, that's how things unfold. We can make changes as we go.

And then Nesmith spies Douglas Adams and Roosevelt in deep discussion
at a table. Like a kid sneaking into a second movie, he slides into
the tent to sit near them. The conversation is classically Gihonian:
Adams is talking of aquatic apes and the Danakil hypothesis, a theory
placing our ancestors in a watery environment off the coast of Africa.
Roosevelt doesn't buy it. She tells him how one could determine
whether a particular animal spent much time in the water. Look for an
exostosis, a bony growth on the outside of the ear developed from
diving, she says.

At the next table, Todd Siler gabs with physicist Ana Maria Ceto and
mentions Jacob Bronowski, the scientist host of the 1970s BBC series
The Ascent of Man. "I've always loved his wonderful statement that all
of science was the search for unity and hidden likenesses," he says.

Back in the council office, Giovanni hands Summers, the Gihon
Foundation staffer, a stack of signed poetry collections that the
foundation has purchased. They will be placed on shelves in the
hallway, where each council member's work remains under a framed
glossy photo. Assessing her experience here, Giovanni says that
there's a lot she found disappointing, from the "closed minds" of her
council colleagues to the gourmet lunch. The risotto was undercooked,
and don't get her started on the insensitivity of the tomato and
orange faux martini. "Some people are alcoholic," she says, referring
to a tablemate who was terrified of touching the "cocktail" until
someone assured him it was virgin.

Then Giovanni softens. She has a question. When she met Nesmith for
the first time, he summarized his history. Mother's success with
Liquid Paper. Her desire to use the money for good. Then he mentioned
his television show.

"Oh, my God," said Giovanni, unable to hold back. "You're a Monkee."

Now she looks at Summers. "Do you think," Giovanni asks, "he's angry
that I didn't know who he was?"

"No," Summers tells her. "I don't think he minded at all."
----------------------------------------------------------------------

Geoff Edgers (ged...@ix.netcom.com) , a staff reporter for The News &
Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, has written for Spin and Salon.


Copyright (C) The Conde Nast Publications Inc. All rights reserved.

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