Peter Tork: An Underrated 60s Icon
by DJ Ola
This is a little column I’ve been asked to do documenting my musical journey of how I ended up DJing on the cool cult internet station Radio 23. I hope to enthrall you with my personal take on sex, drugs and Rock N Roll, the best materials for a great tale.
Before The Beatles clocked my musical radar, my first introduction to pop, rock and psychedelia was The Monkees. I’m forever grateful that I wasn’t of the generation of children that grew up thinking The Spice Girls or N’SYNC were cutting edge tunesmiths. I could take up a whole book on The Monkees story itself, but I shall control myself and leave that for further installments!
The Monkees were created to capture a children’s audience, it’s producers looking for the charm and success of The Beatles. The Beatles were beyond their simple syrupy pop stage, they were evolving their sound to a darker and more mature territory. The Monkees stepped in to fill the void with zany antics and banal plots set to some of the best pop songwriter’s music available. Four very cute and cuddly guys in a ‘mock’ rock group combined with what some say were the first music videos. Incorporated into a weekly sit-com format, this formula was an instant success. However, they were not an uncomplicated manufactured band like today’s toy boy bands, dancing around in super sync like well trained circus animals with no interests besides being a celebrity. They were highly talented and creative individuals that gradually became a real band; they wrote their own tunes and played their own instruments. They fought to get their own music played over corporate interests and won. When they tired of the insipid plots, they also attempted to alter the show. The network wasn’t keen on an experimental psychedelic and adult orientated Monkees, so instead of continuing the charade and churning out repetitive dross, they quit.
They went on to do a cult classic film with Jack Nicholson, Head. The movie is a surreal romp through the artifice of their ‘manufactured’ experience. It’s absolutely brilliant and a fine example of alternative ‘drug out’ 60’s cinema with some of The Monkees best music. Unfortunately, the audience at the time did not share my enthusiasm and the film was a flop. The Monkees teeny audience didn’t get it and the ‘heads’ that would have, avoided it, slating them as a plastic act.
The Monkees disappeared off the charts and the phenomena ended.
Yet in the land of perpetual reruns, nothing dies. So like a phoenix from the flames, The Monkees came to life again in the 1970’s with constant syndication.
It’s 1976 and I’m in a playground and with a group of girls. The important topic on offer was who was your favourite Monkee?
Almost everyone exclaimed Davy Jones and swooned at the mere thought of him. All those twinkling eye effects and excessively duff love songs worked on seducing their little minds. It had no effect on me; I was after a man of substance. When my turn came, I proudly declared Peter to be the one.
They all turned on me with derision.
“How could you? He cries like a baby!”
At that moment, I realized I would never fit in because I wasn’t a sheep. I stood my ground and lost the popularity contest.
Now it’s many years later and I have a different set of female friends who like The Monkees. Again, I’m the odd one out because they all think that Mike is the talented hotty. While I don’t dispute Mike’s street cred, I’ll stand by my Monkee, Peter is the man!
Peter Tork is an underrated 60’s icon and should be the thinking woman’s crumpet! Peter lived the rock story as a Greek myth. He came from total obscurity to overnight success in the 60’s, and lost it all in the 70’S. After more than two years of the show, six albums, a movie, a television special, and tours across America and abroad, Tork had had enough and quit the group, striking out on his own with a group called "Release". This new band did not make recordings (making its name quite ironic), and did not achieve success. Peter also discovered the pitfalls of being an ex-Monkee; Dick Clark rejected him for a multi-artist package tour on the grounds that he had no new material to perform, and the hip rock intelligentsia he had been a part of back in his Village days generally snubbed him now.. Outside of contributing banjo to George Harrison’s soundtrack to the film Wonderwalll, Tork worked only sporadically in music.
Generous to a fault, Peter gave money lavishly to friends, would-be friends, hangers-on, and sundry causes during his Monkees heyday, with the result being that by the early 1970s, he was virtually bankrupt. Then came a period outside of the limelight and a battle with drink and drugs, a journey through a metaphorical desert, the final outcome saw him master his addictions by the early 80’s.
Fame found him again with The Monkees revival tour in 86- two albums and several tours followed until The Monkees disbanded for good.
As of 2006, Peter Tork is releasing albums and touring with his recently formed band Shoe Suede Blues.
As an internet DJ, I had the opportunity to see for myself if this man was as great as his myth!
Ola: Before you joined The Monkees it’s a well established fact you were a musician. Were you classically trained?
Peter Tork: Yes, but for only about five years, and in a small town, so it wasn’t all that deep. I did take French horn for two years in high school and college as well, and took a year of classical music theory.
Ola: Is it true you were a musician doing the coffee house circuit in Greenwich Village, New York pre- Monkees, where many a respectable folkie and right on protest singer made their name?
PT: Yeah, it was what was called a basket passing scene: we’d do a 15 minute set, pass the basket, and wait 45 minutes to go on again. The only anecdote that I can attest to personally was that one day a bunch of my friends came up to me and said, “There’s a new kid in town looks just like you.” Three days later Stephen (Stills) came up to me, and we instantly knew who the other was. I said, “You’re the kid who looks like me,” and he said, “You’re the kid I’m supposed to look like.” And we shook hands and laughed. We were later in a group together with one John Hopkins, now deceased, for a few months.
Ola: The story where Stephen Stills went for The Monkees audition and didn’t get it cause he was to ugly and he recommended you, who looked like him but had better teeth and hair is established Monkee lore. Later when you lost your house etc I read that either Stills or David Crosby used you and then just forgot about you when it went to crisis phase. Is this true? Crosby Stills and Nash went on to great acclaim and The Monkees were considered ‘Bubblegum’ at the time. Looks to me like Stephen Stills was going for the ‘Bubblegum’ thing, maybe he just didn’t have what it took?
PT: Stephen was by no means ugly. He recommended me on account of he looked like me, only his hair and teeth were deemed non-telegenic. He was a pretty cute guy, and I think you’ll get a lot of agreement on the point. Stop with the dissing of Stephen (Stills) and David Crosby. Neither one of them ever used and discarded me. Quite the contrary, David loaned me his house for about a year, and Stephen never abused my generosity one bit! Stephen may well have taken The Monkees gig if it’d been offered him, but he was a fabulous musician, as everyone knows, and may not have been able to stand the Bubblegum... Neither one of those two ever spoke ill of The Monkees to my knowledge.
Ola: Was it true you paired up with Janis Joplin? If this is true was it during your fame or pre Monkees?
PT: Janis and I were friends before The Monkees, when Big Brother and The Holding Company came through Huntington Beach where I was working at The Golden Bear. Later, after The Monkees became famous, we ran across each other at the Monterey Pop Festival, and then, by chance, at a movie. It was always good to see her whenever the occasion arose, though neither of us made too much of a thing about getting together. I was also friends with the other band members, particularly David Getz, the drummer, and to a lesser extent with the rest of them. As to “pairing up,” if you mean romantically, no.
Ola: What fascinates me so about your story is you had it all, fame success and money and within a few short years you had a ‘massive fall from grace.’ It’s been written that you truly believed in the ‘Hippie Ideal’. How far did that extend in practice and contribute to the loss of your fortune?
PT: I don’t know about a massive fall from grace. The public acclaim is most certainly not grace, and the real grace that I did fall from was a function of my addictive behaviour, which for the moment at least is behind me, and I have been returned to grace, as far as I’m concerned. Whether I believe in the ‘Hippie ideal’ depends on your definition. I will tell you that I absolutely believe in community cooperation as opposed to top-down, autocratic rule, and I believe that no single dogma contains the truth, at least in the literal sense. As to my fortune, well, it left because I wasn’t ready for it.
Ola: Headquarters was the last album that was done as a proper band with the four of you performing and producing it yourselves. Did that upset you at the time? What was your artistic vision for The Monkees?
PT: It was the last album until 1997, when Justus came out, which was even more only the four of us... After Headquarters we made two more albums together in one form or another. Mike and I played on Pleasant Valley Sunday and on Daydream Believer. Micky didn’t want to go back and try to repeat what had been for him a blast of inspiration. Davy had precious little to do on the rhythm instruments, and begged off, ‘cause his arm was sore and he was bored. Who could blame him? What difficulties I had were entirely in my own head, and I do not feel remotely like that today. My artistic idea for The Monkees, to the extent that it wasn’t accomplished, is only that we do more recording, more television, and maybe a few good movies.
Ola: You left The Monkees shortly after Head and I read that you lost quite a bit of money getting out of the contract. It’s been stated that you were having a nervous breakdown at the time, is this true? What were the circumstances that led to this if so?
PT: I did not lose any money getting out of a contract. I simply didn’t get renewed after I asked to be released. Simple as that. Nervous breakdown? The worst thing that ever happened to me like that happened about 10 years later when my addictive behaviours took me to my bottom.
Ola: After you left The Monkees and lost your house did you spiral into drug addiction? Were you involved in heroin? Was it also true you were arrested for drug possession?
PT: Spiral... hmm... you do have a way with words. Nothing ever happened to me that wasn’t necessary for me at the time, including my addictions. I had $3 dollars worth of Hashish on me when I came back across the border from Mexico on a day trip from El Paso, Texas. The American Feds put me in a facility for medium-time offenders, though I wasn’t sentenced. I was released after 90 days, and after a period of probation my record was wiped, and I’m now legally able to say I was never convicted of any felony.
Ola: During this time, is it true you were having tough times, washing dishes etc? Somebody messaged me on MySpace from a punk band in LA and claimed that you were his Social Studies teacher in high school. Were you teaching as an occupation?
PT: Washing dishes was not tough and yes, I taught secondary level school for three years in L.A, social studies, music, French and math. I was the baseball coach one year.
Ola: When did things turn around for you? Was it the first Monkees revival in the 80’s or before?
PT: If you’re talking financially, I became much more comfortable after the reunion tours in the 80’s. If you believe it took money to turn my life around, then you’re not paying attention.
Ola: Was it true that on the first big Monkees tour in the 80’s you took a wage instead of commission, cause you thought it wouldn’t do that well as a tour, and it turned out to be a massive success and you guys lost millions?
PT: ...everything you’re talking about seems to be about how awful or how fabulous life is depending on the money! Money can’t buy happiness. It’s true that poverty makes it a ton harder to be happy, but beyond sufficiency, no amount of money makes any difference whatsoever. I did take a salary instead of a commission, but it wasn’t because I didn’t think the tour would do well, it was because I didn’t know how to negotiate. That’s all.
Ola: A lot of musicians from the 60’s tended to take a lot of drugs or do things to excess and then become born again Christians or Republicans. They get old and conservative. When you compare your radical youthful ideas with your present mindset how much have they altered? For example, are you pro the current war etc?
PT: ....Bush is the worst president in the oldest living memory on earth. You’d have to go back to the dreary days of Chester Arthur and Harrison...to get anybody nearly as bad. He has single handily destroyed the value of America in the world, and done it in a way that will make it very difficult to recoup. It may be the end of the American century, and the end of America’s use to the world as a beacon. We used to stand for fair play, honouring our own standards and no offensive wars. Bush has done away with all of it.
Ola: Your current band, Peter Tork and Shoe Suede Blues did a reworking of For Pete’s Sake, the closing theme tune to The Monkees second series, which I have featured on my show. It’s great! You completely change it from a pop track to an easy listening jazz lounger. What makes it particularly interesting is that you do the vocals in this halting falsetto. It’s slightly off, but it totally works because of it. Do you wish The Monkees had made better use of your vocal capabilities? They always made you sing in a lower register.
PT: As a matter of fact, I feel that I sing best in the lower registers. In ‘For Pete’s Sake’ I sang high because the way I wrote the song, it doesn’t work except in a couple of keys because of how it fits on the guitar. So I kind of had to go for high.
Ola: What are you or the band doing next?
PT: We have tentative plans to come to the UK. In two formats, one a Monkees song book band (which I fully expect to enjoy immensely), and a pure blues band (which I fully expect to enjoy even more). Check with petertork.com, or the Peter Tork and Shoe Suede Blues page at http://www.myspace.com/petertorkandshoesuedeblues for locations.
Ola: A lot of the other Monkees have biographies of their lives. Do you have one? If not, is there one in the pipelines? Your story is by far the most intriguing and complex, it deserves to be published!
PT: Thank you. I don’t have any plans to write my autobiography. Maybe someday.
A hero is one who journeys through dark lands, suffers, fails or loses his or her way before reaching the promised Grail of enlightenment. Peter has lived a life filled with experimentation in substances, lifestyles and musical creation. If he did go to some extremes, it hasn’t frightened him into conservative thoughts or materialism. He has no regrets or bitterness and refuses to engage in negative thoughts towards anyone. It’s marvelous to see a 60’s icon retaining depth, and engaged in an artistic vision. I can wear my Peter Tork badge with pride!
You can check out Ola’s Kool Kitchen on Radio 23 at http://feeds.feedburner.com/koolkitchen