Thursday, 21 February 2019
It is with a sad heart that we tell you the AAA has lost another of its key members, as guitarist, bassist, pianist, banjo-ist, actor and all-round nice guy Peter Tork has left us, joining Davy in that great Circle Sky up there full of musicians jamming and swapping stories. There are hundreds if not thousands of stories going round social media about what an under-rated talent he was, what a musician Peter could be, what a great actor he was. Most of all though people have been passing on stories about what a wonderfully warm, kind and gentle soul he was. I am too sad to start a proper obituary from scratch but wanted to do something - as all the Monkees biographies are ready for the forthcoming Alan's Album Archives book 'Every Step Of The Way' it seemed easiest to just post that and let Peter's incredible life speak for itself, with five key Peter Tork moments added at the bottom. Rest in Peace dear Peter - and oh how we will miss you!
Poor Peter was clearly the most nervous Monkee at the audition tapes for the series. Where Mike is all false confidence, Micky is nervous energy and Davy is pure charm, Peter is natural throughout, never quite in control of his body and yet still naturally funny with every move he makes. In a way his appearance at the auditions was the unlikeliest of the four. Though an accomplished musician, with the longest pedigree of making music of any of the four, his usual crowd consisted of a handful of folk-lovers, a few supportive peers and the staff down at his local folk club. He'd certainly never played for two Hollywood producers before and, like Mike, he really really needed this job. Born in Columbia, Washington (though oddly many Monkee fanzines made out he was born in New York City), Peter was the son of an economics professor at Connecticut University. Though given more support in his musical ambitions than Mike or Davy were, Peter was being groomed for a very different sort of life - he was classically trained in several instruments including the piano (which is where he first fell in love with his favourite composer Bach, see  ‘Two Part Invention In F Major’), the guitar, the bass and the banjo, all of which Peter will go on to play with The Monkees. Peter's parents were pleased at his progress - but not the direction he intended to take it, with Peter leaving college to become part of the growing folk club scene and moving to Greenwich Village (where, to calm parental fears, he stayed with his beloved Grandma - well loved by fans who used to write to her as Peter's proudest relative who ran his fanclub for him for a time).
There were, of course, many dozens if not hundreds of young Americans all doing the same thing, so musical jobs were few and far between - most of the money Peter made in his pre-Monkee days were from washing dishes rather than performing. However those that did hear Peter play realised what a talent he had; particularly his peers. One of Peter's closest friends in the mid-1960s was Stephen Stills, a singer-songwriter who'd also got into music through the folk scene and the pair finally met after weeks of the one being mistaken for the other, both men having similar shaggy blonde hair and more often than not a guitar slung over their backs while washing dishes for a living. It was Stills who heard about the Monkees audition after reading the advert and he got through to near the end of the auditions. With his own recordings behind him as part of folk troupe 'The Au Go Go Singers' plus a bit of acting experience at high school and an even bigger collection of songs ready to record than Nesmith, Stills was clearly the sort of youth the Monkees advert was intended to attract. However sticking points (take your pick from the following reasons given down the years, of which all or none may have been true - Stills' balding hair and bad teeth, the fact he was already tied to a different publishing company or his adamant refusal that he would be playing on the records come what may) meant he was reluctantly turned down. 'Gee, if only there was somebody like you with better hair and no publishing deal they'd be a shoo-in' Bert and Bob said to him candidly one day. 'Well, I've got a friend whose always being mistaken for me named Peter and he has none of those problems - I'll see if he's interested' was Stephen's friendly gesture. Peter was exactly what the Monkees production team was looking for, perfect for their missing fourth 'quiet and dumb' character, even though Peter - like his professor father - was in truth well read and highly intelligent (Peter was the Monkee who varied most from his ‘character’ in real life, but that wasn’t considered a problem back in 1966; it was only an acting part after all). Peter was arguably the most naturally funny Monkee of the four, with a string of witty quips and funny faces that often found their way into the scripts (Micky too, though he was usually more in character than person where he was unusually shy and uncomfortable as himself - as the 'minute shorts' testify).
However The Monkees wasn't always what Peter had been looking for. While Davy shone, Micky put up with and Mike tried to change the idea of The Monkees being backed by session musicians, Tork (having first agreed to shorten his birth name of 'Thorkelson') was the most reluctant to have other people pay ‘his’ music - and as the least commercial sounding of the four, also the least used. Don Kirshner didn't like his voice for the band's pop records, which sounded like exactly like what it was - a folk voice, built for Greenwich Village and hardened after several years' worth of performances there. Peter never quite knew what he was singing up to, recalling years later turning up happily to the first Monkee session with a guitar, only to be told his input wouldn't be needed and multiple guitar players had been hired to play 'his' part. With less to do than the others in the TV series too (though Peter, like Micky, is one of only two Monkees to appear in all fifty-eight episodes he's often the one kidnapped/left behind/hypnotised midway through the episodes and though even I'm not enough of an anorak to add up every line each Monkees spoke I'm willing to bet he had a lot less to say than the others). In a way the 'Peter' for the series was written around the character he 'put on' in his surviving screen tests, painfully shy and letting his guitar do most of the talking. Being given the daft novelty song 'Your Auntie Grizelda' as his first big musical debut must also have rankled with someone who'd been putting his own songs together since his teenage years (many of the songs Peter released with The Monkees are older works, with Tork taking more time over his songs than his colleagues, especially Mike, with ‘Can You Dig It?’ , for example, taking eight years to create).
For Peter the greatest Monkee moment wasn't the huge-selling money-making singles or the Emmy-award winning TV series but the moment when, in March 1967, The Monkees were 'allowed' to make their own music for the first time. 'Headquarters' was the perfect environment for the young instrumentalist who always longed to be in a ‘real’ band, who at last got something decent to sing (his vocal on the second half of 'Shades Of Grey' is amongst the best work any of The Monkees ever did), something decent to play (the album is full of Peter's groovy piano, banjo, bass and guitar skills as Tork filled in whatever gaps was needed in the sound) and wrote something more than a little decent of his own (the excellent 'For Pete's Sake', sensibly chosen for the music that played over the closing credits on the TV show's second season). Memorable performances include the piano part on 'Daydream Believer', the funky bass on 'Pleasant Valley Sunday' and the French Horn part on 'Shades Of Grey' (not played by but certainly notated by Peter, using his classical skills at last) - and a banjo part on George Harrison's 'Wonderwall' soundtrack, recorded during The Monkees' tour of Britain in mid-1967 (the bits of the record not recorded in India in case you hadn't guessed; sadly while Peter's playing is heard in the film it's not on the soundtrack album). The Monkees recorded fourth album 'Pisces, Aquarius' in a similar vein but minus Micky's drumming (with Peter scoring a second passionate released vocal, this time opposite Micky on 'Words') and without Peter's songs. When the TV series ended in 1968 and The Monkees were encouraged to produce their own sessions, it seemed as if Peter would get another big break and across 1968 Peter spent more time in the studio than any of the others. However a great big bunch of his promising compositions were left on the cutting room floor, with his only contribution to fifth album 'Birds, Bees and Monkees' being a short piano part and appearing on the cover. Peter was fed-up, angry that the band had gone back to using session men after winning their hard-won 'revolution' and became the first Monkee to quit, handing in his notice when his contract came up for renewal at the end of 1968. His twin leaving presents was the 'Head' film project (which saw the release of Peter's second and third song for The Monkees - despite the soundtrack album only containing seven actual 'songs' to begin with!) and the TV special 'Thirty Three and a Third' broadcast in Easter 1969. Peter's last moment as a Monkee is playing a brief snatch of his beloved Bach before a mammoth monkeynuts twenty minute performance of 'Mike's 'Listen To The Band' - with The Monkees a 'real' band performing live at last - and the sarcastic over-credit performance of 'California, Here It Comes' as he bids the band goodbye. Suddenly, after a whirlwind two and a half years filled with colour and noise and recordings and rehearsals and filming dates, there was nothing to fill the void. Peter was alone.
Well, nearly nothing and Peter wasn’t quite alone. One of Peter's last and most infamous songs for The Monkees was 'Lady's Baby' about Peter's longterm girlfriend Karen and their son Justin. Peter, a practicing hippie, didn't just keep to one girlfriend though and still spent time with Reine Stewart, who was a promising drummer and one of the 'extras' seen in the 'Thirty -Three' TV special. The pair naturally formed a band named 'Release' but the moniker was optimistic as, with The Monkees' name now mud, no record company wanted to 'release' anything by the least profiled ex-Monkee. The band recorded demos (which have never been heard but do exist according to Peter) and came close to being hired as the backing band for another girlfriend, Judy Mayhan, who did win a recording contract of her own. Peter had stayed closer to Bert and Bob than the other band members - he had been the only Monkee to show up for work on the first day of shooting 'Head' when the others went on 'strike' - and was invited to submit a song to the soundtrack of their sequel 'Easy Rider'; alas this never happened either. With most of his Monkee money spent on parties and friends in need, Peter couldn't finance his new band anymore and tried to make it as a solo act. He formed his own production team ‘The Breakthrough Influence Company’, and though they did influence people (one of Peter's talent spotting trips saw him try to promote future Little Feat star Lowell George, while Peter also helped manage Micky's 1971 'comeback' single 'Easy On You'), the company never did breakthrough and Peter was left nearly bankrupt, forced to sell his house (the partying capital of Laurel Canyon across the second half of the 1960s) just as Reine fell pregnant. David Crosby, who was now working with Stephen Stills, gave the couple his basement to help out (where the pair no doubt they moaned about Stills long into the night!) - later getting a downpayment on his famous boat The Mayan in return - but without the protective series of managers and assistants to keep the Monkees happy and no income, Peter was in trouble.
Things went from bad to worse when Peter was busted for drugs and spent three months inside a state prison in Oklahoma - though Peter had been smoking light drugs since before The Monkees he literally couldn't get arrested then (half of Greeenwich Village would have been inside) and his Monkee power had protected him till now. Moving to Fairfax, California, on release Peter started singing in the local Fairfax Street Choir and played guitar in a blues band named Osceola. Having parted with Reine and their daughter Hallie, Peter married second wife Barbara Iannoli in 1975 and the couple had a son, Ivan, later that year. It was a chance to begin again and Peter became a family man, teaching at a school in Santa Monica for three years (primarily music but also maths, history, French and social sciences, while Peter also filled in as a basketball coach when the PE teacher was away). Peter reunited with Micky and Davy for the fanclub reunion single 'Christmas Is My Time Of Year' at the end of 1976, but the reunion was a little too soon for public sympathy and barely anyone noticed it. However it did put Peter back in music circles again and though it took another four years he found himself invited to submit some demos for the major record label Sire in 1980. For Peter's big break he hired a local band he'd met named Cottonmouth and recorded six songs, two new tracks (including 'Since You Went Away' a cover song he associated with the split with Reine, later re-recorded for 'Pool It!' in 1986) and two Monkee covers sung in a folky style 'Pleasant Valley Sunday' and 'Shades Of Grey'. Alas Sire president of the time Seymour Stein (later immortalised in song by fellow AAA band Belle and Sebastian) decided not to make a full album with him. Peter was however rescued by television, becoming a regular on 'The Uncle Floyd Show' long before the programme was famous and becoming a routine 'funnyman' (Davy was also later a guest on the show). This led to the release of a long-awaited single in 1981, a re-recording of Monkees B-side 'Steppin' Stone' with his band of friends credited as 'The New Monk' (a title though up 'without ease/Es'? Yeah? Geddit? Alright then, please yourself...) Peter also became a regular on television, including a memorable David Letterman appearance where a date with Peter is auctioned off to the audience - and won by a Monkee-adoring granny!
Peter was an eager participant in the early Monkee reunions, singing backing vocals on 1986 comeback 'That Was Then, This Is Now', contributing one new song and one old one to 1987 album 'Pool It!' and two new songs to 1996 reunion 'JustUs'. In between tours Peter also formed his own band who play mainly cover songs from the 1950s, the memorably named 'Shoe Suede Blues'. Another band, 'The Dashboard Saints', became the house band of a pizza place in Guerneville, California (perhaps after Peter, Davy and Micky agreed to appear with Ringo in an advert for 'Pizza Hut' in 1986 celebrating their long awaited 'reunion', with a bit of a lineup mix up along the way). Finally in 1994 Peter released his one and only solo album (to date) titled 'Stranger Things Have Happened', over a quarter century after leaving The Monkees - in truth fewer stranger things have happened in Monkeedom than Peter finally being ‘allowed’ to make a whole CD. This record is also the only solo Monkee solo record to date to feature the other Monkees, with both Micky and Mike guesting on some songs. Peter also teamed up with guitarist James Lee Stanley for a popular two-man show. The 1990s was a particular source of happiness for Peter. He got married for a third time, to Tammy Sustek in 1998 and had a third child, Erica Marie, around the same period and after two Monkee reunion tours finally had some spare money in the bank. He was also 'promoted' to 'musical director' of the Monkees' touring band in 2002, a role he'd long called for and which saw him add several rare songs to the setlists once again. Peter even took up his acting work again, with a semi-regular role as the father of one of the 'Boy Meet's World's character's friends and a cameo as himself bidding at an auction for The Monkeemobile in piloting comedy 'Wings' (which is so awful it deserved to crash). Peter also became a writer, of sorts, hired as the official 'agony aunt' (agony aunt Grizelda?) of the webzine 'Daily Panic'. Alas all these welcome returns were put on hold when Peter was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, adenoid cystic carcinoma (the saliva glands), which kept fighting back until Peter was given the all clear after six months of surgery. Peter was open about his progress throughout and helped create a charity for the rare illness that raised lots of money through concerned Monkeefans. Peter was, thankfully, well enough to reunite with Micky and Davy for a tour that lasted from 2011 until Davy's sad death in February 2012. Peter has also continued to tour alongside Micky and Mike in the Monkees' 2012-2014 return but decided not to tour with the others in 2016-2017. His last recording turned out to be a strangely traditional Christmas Carol 'Angels We Have Heard On High', accompanied by his beloved banjo.
We worried at the time that the missed tour could have been through ill health, but predictably Peter kept such fears to himself - equally there has long been insider knowledge in The Monkees camp of a stalker situation that made Peter's public life difficult. Peter's family have not yet revealed what he died of - though many in the media have naturally seized on that cancer diagnosis of a decade ago. Peter had, alas, only just celebrated his 77th birthday just over a week ago - taken from us far too sign. He remained, though a kind loving and giving figure until the very end, with so many tales today of the nuggets of philosophy and wisdom he used to pass on to fans. The musician's musician in The Monkees, talented writer and multi-instrumentalist and naturally funny chap Peter proved to be a highly canny choice by the Monkee creators from their audition process and the band might have been better yet had Peter been allowed to have a greater input into the albums (although there might well have been a few Bach harpsichord pieces and banjo medleys along the way!) We will forever miss that warm cheeky grin, those mischievous eyes and that big heart we love so much. Alas the clock in the sky is pounding away and there is still so much to say, but we can't keep the porpoise waiting. Goodbye, dear Peter, goodbye.
Our AAA pick of the five best Peter Tork moments:
5) Lady's Baby ('Missing Links' 1987): Peter was as real as they come. While his Monkee colleagues were taking the time as 'producers' of their own material to act out their fantasies (micky doing rock, Mike doing country and Davy being a songwriter) Peter was telling the world that he was in love and - shockingly for 1968 teenybopper standards - his girlfriend already had a child. 'Lady's Baby' took longer to make than any other Monkee record, with over a hundred takes putting guests Buddy Miles and old pal Stephen Stills through their paces while Peter at last got to sing his sweet lyric about feeling contented at last. 'Running never was much fun' he sighs, 'all it did was bring me down' - it isn't The Monkees fame or stardom he was after, but this feeling of love and security. That's the real 'baby' Justin on the track, the engineers at Colgems scurrying across the floor on their hands and knees to try and catch his baby talk into the microphone.
4) 'Long Title: Do I have To Do This All Over Again?' ('Head', 1968): By the end of 1968 Peter's contract was up and he was already on his way out the door. Though it was intended as his farewell message, the screaming rocker 'Long Title' feels like it: Peter is tired of having to repeat himself, revealing the monotony of the record business as he figures that there is more to life than a reco5rd deal. Stephen Stills again guests with the two old friends jamming on some intense guitar-bass interplay alongside Dewey Martin on drums, Stills' bandmate in Buffalo Springfield. One of the angriest yet catchiest riffs in rock and roll is perfectly cast for this glorious burst of tightly controlled noise and mayhem. Though Monkee creators Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider were often guilty of overlooking Peter's work even they saw how perfect this cynical put-down of the music business was for Monkee motion picture Head, which did much the same but to the record business.
3) 'Can You Dig It?' (Head, 1968): While Micky sang the lead on this song for the film and record, fans have long treasured bootlegs and since the 1990s an official recording of Peter's vocal on his own song. A philosophical tale, this track started life in high school as a riff without a name before finally coming together in 1968 with a Buddhist parable about acceptance. 'Those who know it use it, those who scorn it die, but to say that you can dig it is to make your soul to fly' is Peter's take on Buddhism and living in the moment. Once more the song ends with a tremendous band jam that takes the usual Monkee sidemen and pushes them like never before, with a stunning guitar attack that just keeps going and going, a cycle of neverending change.
2) For Pete's Sake ('Headquarters' 1967): Peter's first Monkee song is one he wrote almost without trying, throwing around words with his flatmate Joey Richards about his take on the hippie culture until realising he had a lyric he could set to music. The resulting song, about how 'we were born to love another and what we've got to be is free' is Peter's life outlook in a nutshell, a Monkee-like take on The Who's 'My Generation' that's less cynical more peaceful. Unsure of what to call it, Peter ended up using his name in the title, longing for peace for his sake - ands for his friends. The Monkees producers, realising that the band's theme tune was getting stale, got Micky to sing it for the closing credits of the band's second TV season where it is perfect for the more militant political band The Monkees were fast becoming.
1) Shades Of Grey ('Headquarters' 1967): Peter often had the image of a poor vocalist; what was probably nearer the truth is that he had a particular range in a band who vocally could do almost anything (and that's just Micky!) This song may not be his but it is right up his alley, warm and emotional with the folky flavour he favoured so much. Unsure about using his voice on record, but aware The Monkees had the right to do what they liked on record, Davy got to sing the first verse of this beautiful song and its his best singing too until Peter takes over for the second half. Peter re-arranged this song almost completely from the cute but silly 'Will O'Bees' original into something much darker, dropping the key to make Davy sing low, adding a haunting piano refrain Peter also plays on the record and even transcribing the French Horn part for the musician to play, a trick Peter learnt in music college. It is one of the most powerful and gorgeous moments in The Monkee canon. Like so many other great moments, we have Peter to thank for it. As under-rated as he was, as passed over as he frequently might be, as ignored as he could be, Peter was The Monkees' dark horse and the show wouldn't have been as funny while the music wouldn't maybe have been quite as deep without him. How we miss him already!