Ed Heffelfinger Teams Up with Former Monkee Michael Nesmith
● By Jon Lewis
Story by Jon Lewis
Photos by Henry Diltz and courtesy of Michael Nesmith
THE BEATLES' triumphant appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” already had young Ed Heffelfinger primed for a life in rock ‘n’ roll, even though a guitar just didn’t fit right in his hands. When The Monkees took network TV by storm a few years later, Heffelfinger had his true calling: the combination of music and video.
“I was the perfect demographic for ‘The Monkees’ when they appeared,” the former Redding resident says, referring back to the TV show that aired from 1966 to 1968. Michael Nesmith, the wool cap-wearing guitarist in the made-for-TV band, was his favorite.
Heffelfinger, a newly minted teenager at the time, became an avid reader of “Tiger Beat” magazine, bought some love beads and even started sporting a wool cap like his TV hero.
Little did Heffelfinger know that, some 50 years later, he’d be working side-by-side with Nesmith and producing his latest record.
Both performer and producer followed winding roads that culminated in the November 2019 release of “Cosmic Partners – The McCabe’s Tapes” on the London-based 7A Records label. The 17 tracks come from a serendipitous recording of a 1973 concert at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica that features Nesmith and his longtime pedal steel player, Red Rhodes.
Heffelfinger, 67, never lost his childhood enthusiasm for music and video. At the ripe old age of 12, he had a radio show at Nova High School in Redding and by the time he turned 16 he was at the helm of fledgling public TV station KIXE’s first local production, “Experiment in Entertainment.” Heffelfinger recalls one program featured the Redding group Uncle Robert’s Magic Zap Juice Band, which counted among its members Rob Swendiman and Steve Gunner (who went on to play with Creedence Clearwater Revisited).
Heffelfinger’s family moved from Redding after his sophomore year at Shasta High School and Heffelfinger graduated from Folsom High School near Sacramento before enlisting in the Army, where he did some more TV work. The American Film Institute in Hollywood was next and Heffelfinger says he picked that film school because Nesmith served on its board of directors.
Returning to Redding, Heffelfinger signed on with Kit Clements to produce shows for Redding’s community access TV station and later launched his own production company, complete with a nonprofit arm (Austin Pickers) that had him working with artists throughout the west.
The studio fell victim to a rancorous divorce, but Heffelfinger stayed busy teaching video and photography classes at Shasta High. An opportunity to spend a year teaching cultural studies in China stretched into eight years before Heffelfinger returned in 2012 (retirement is mandatory at age 60 in China).
After rekindling a friendship with the actor Branscombe Richmond, Heffelfinger signed on to do some public relations work for “Roadies,” a Showtime TV series that included Richmond in the cast. That one-season assignment allowed Heffelfinger to rub elbows with two of his heroes, producer Cameron Crowe and director J.J. Abrams.
After settling his family into the Moss Landing home he inherited from his parents, Heffelfinger figured retirement was his next step. Fate had other plans, though.
A native of Texas, Nesmith started dabbling in music while attending San Antonio College and got a little more serious after moving to Los Angeles in the early 1960s. It was while hanging out at the Troubadour, a West Hollywood hangout for emerging rock, country and bluegrass artists, that Nesmith heard about auditions for “The Monkees.”
Legend has it that his nonchalant approach landed Nesmith the role of Mike. Unlike the other Monkees, Mike’s role required real-world musical talent, including the ability to write, sing, play guitar and perform.
“The Monkees,” which was inspired by the Beatles film “A Hard Day’s Night,” was a huge hit, with audience reaction reaching Beatlemania levels at times thanks to hits like “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” “Last Train to Clarksville” and “Daydream Believer.” It was also a tumultuous time as the band members, and Nesmith in particular, rebelled against their “prefab four” images and fought for artistic integrity.
As the series neared its end, Nesmith returned to his earlier roots and founded the First National Band, a group often described as the pioneers of country-rock music.
Also in the ’70s, Nesmith began trying his hand as a producer and developed a keen interest in combining music with video. When Island Records asked him to create a promotional video for his single “Rio,” he responded with a short film filled with fanciful images of women in fruit hats and Nesmith floating through space.
The concept of a music video had been born and Nesmith was off to the races. He envisioned a syndicated TV show dedicated to music videos, called it “PopClips” and ultimately sold the idea to Warner Bros. Television in 1981 and MTV was created. Fittingly, MTV rebroadcast “The Monkees’ series.
Nesmith, 77, pursued his varied interests, settled down and wrote an autobiography and continues to create at Videoranch, the studio he established near Monterey. Heffelfinger, who resides nearby, got word that he was looking for a videographer and the two connected last year.
For a kid from Redding, getting to work with a musical hero has been the latest in a string of million-dollar moments, Heffelfinger says. “By now I’m a billionaire.” •
Jon Lewis is a Redding-based writer with 37 years of experience. A longtime San Francisco Giants fan, his interests include golf, fishing and sharing stories about people, places and things. He can be reached at [email protected]