Reflecting on Peter Tork's lasting imprint

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Peter Tork of the Monkees
Promotional portrait of the Monkees, circa early 1970s; from left, Davy Jones, Mickey Dolenz, Peter Tork, and Michael Nesmith. (NBC Television/Getty Images)

One of the reasons I turned out the way I did is attributable to Peter Tork. Maybe not him directly, but certainly to the Monkees. I vividly remember being four years old — not yet in kindergarten — and seeing Help!, A Hard Day's Night and re-runs of The Monkees TV show and thinking, "Being in a band looks fun. You hang out with your friends in a nice house, do fun stuff together, and play music. I'm in."

As a member of the Monkees — the TV Fab Four created in the wake of The Beatles success — Peter Tork was, in reality, given a role to play: he was the cute dimwit, innocent and sweet, and for a bassist, he seldom got to sing lead on the show or on the records (unlike the Beatles!). But along with Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork helped The Monkees achieve a bit more soul, a bit more cred, a bit more ambition.

Years later, we found out what was really going on in Monkeedom: how they fought for the right to play on their own records; how Tork came to the band through his freak-folk pal Stephen Stills' suggestion; how he was musically trained (banjo, bass, guitar, keys); and how seldom his songs made it to the Monkees' albums. I learned how he was the first to bail on the group, buying himself out of his contract after filming the band's film, Head, and their "33 1/3 Revolutions per Monkee" TV special at the end of 1968. It seemed that he was just starting to really explore his music right before he left the band; his contribution of the song "For Pete's Sake" (sung by Mickey Dolenz, though!) to their 1967 album Headquarters was a psych-pop highlight to their first self-produced album, and "Can You Dig It" and "Do I Have to Do This All Over Again?" from Head gave Tork the largest number of original Monkee songs on the soundtrack.

It was in college after I saw Head that I wanted to learn more about Peter Tork. I'd always slightly resembled him, and often felt like I related to him the most of the Monkees when I watched the show as a young child. I stumbled across the fact that we shared a birthday (Feb. 13), and I found a bootleg with more of his songs from that era. Why were the songs excluded? What happened to Peter Tork after the Monkees?

While Tork was part of the Laurel Canyon scene of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, of Joni Mitchell and Peter Fonda, he never really found the solo career he'd hoped for. By the mid-1970s, he'd served time for possession of hashish, had become a school teacher, and jammed in cover bands, but with the Monkees resurgence after MTV aired the show in 1986, he found himself with his former bandmates, able to tour the world and release new music again.

Finally in the '90s, he settled into a low-key, small-club touring ensemble, mixing solo songs with Monkees hits. I never went to see any of the shows — maybe I should have. But I prefer to remember him as that ever-smiling young man who managed to say so much with his expressions and gestures. Today I read a story that compared him to Harpo Marx, and it seems apt, as both conveyed a lot of emotions without speaking (or getting to sing their own songs). One of his best performances in the Monkee TV show was where Tork is seeking a job and is interviewed by a computer.

Watching it again, I'm laughing, remembering, giving thanks to an artist who maybe never got his full shot, but also managed to have the opportunity to capture the imagination of the world for a few years, and in so doing, added musicality, soul and dignity to an act that is still beloved and debated today, but what could have been an empty Hollywood concoction.

As Mike Nesmith wrote today, "I can only pray his songs reach the heights that can lift us and that our childhood lives forever — that special sparkle that was the Monkees. I will miss him — a brother in arms. Take flight my Brother."

External Links

The Monkees - official site

Peter Tork - official site

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2 Photos

  • Peter Tork of the Monkees
    American musician and actor Peter Tork of the popular music and television group the Monkees, late 1960s. (Jack Knox/Getty Images)
  • Peter Tork of the Monkees
    Peter Tork of The Monkees performs live on stage at Town Hall on June 1, 2016 in New York City. (Matthew Eisman/Getty Images)

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