For Pete’s sake: In this generation with multifaceted Monkee Peter Tork
Peter Tork, the late multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, vocalist, and original member of ground-breaking ’60s band the Monkees, counted performing the compositions of Bach as a hobby. The most talented musician in the Monkees — proficient on bass, piano, organ, guitar, and even French horn — his chops were all over the group’s best two albums — Headquarters and its follow-up, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.
As a songwriter, the veteran artist contributed one of the greatest anthems of the flower power generation, the intense electric guitar-driven “For Pete’s Sake.” Admittedly not a great or prolific vocalist by any stretch of the imagination, Tork nevertheless left his imprint on the band with distinctive turns on songs like “Shades of Gray,” “Words,” the psychedelic guru-flavored “Can You Dig It,” the heavy acid rocker “Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again,” the ode to domestic bliss encapsulated in “Lady’s Baby,” and the gentle folk-rock of “Come on In,” perhaps his finest vocal.
The Monkees, saddled with the albatross of being TV’s first manufactured boy band, have always fought for critical acceptance ever since guitarist Michael Nesmith foolheartedly told the press that the band didn’t play on their first two albums — The Monkees and More of the Monkees. Critics used Nesmith’s admission as further ammunition in their disdain of the Monkees, and to this day, the band is criminally not part of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
When third album Headquarters was unleashed during the summer of 1967, the quartet wrestled control from bubblegum pop puppeteer Don Kirshner and became an honest to goodness, self-contained, tight recording unit. Tork contributed “For Pete’s Sake” along with the near-classical piano anchoring the exquisite “Shades of Gray.”
The cogs started falling off the wheel when Tork amicably left the Monkees in December 1968 immediately after the filming of their NBC special, 33 1/3 Revolutions per Monkee, citing exhaustion. Basically a condensed version of Head with too much emphasis placed on the guest artists, the 60-minute program was pitted against the Academy Awards and doomed from the get-go.
The Monkees’ cultural impact is indisputable. They outsold both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in the year of the landmark Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the overblown Their Satanic Majesties Request. Along with Rick Nelson and the Byrds, the Monkees embraced and propagated country music to pop audiences. Incidentally, Tork loaned former Byrd David Crosby the money to purchase his 74-foot wood boat the Mayan. The Monkees were the first major band to use a synthesizer, courtesy of Dolenz on “Daily Nightly.”
The Monkees’ eponymous television show won two Emmys during its two-year run. Their comedic, manic, non sequitur, and largely improvised humor was unique in a laugh-track required television landscape and admired by John Lennon. They often broke the fourth wall by speaking directly to the camera.
Jimi Hendrix was spotted by Dolenz at the Monterey Pop Festival and opened for the band on his first tour of the United States. Frank Zappa was given national exposure on their TV show and subsequently in Head. And lest we forget, Nesmith founded MTV. Punk rockers have covered [“I’m Not Your] Steppin’ Stone.” Country artists like Pam Tillis, the Grascals, and Jerry Reed count “Last Train to Clarksville” among their arsenal. Smash Mouth performed “I’m a Believer” on the ubiquitous Shrek soundtrack, a trivia item mentioned without fail anytime Dolenz commands a stage.
The shocking demise of Davy Jones precipitated by a massive heart attack in 2012 cast a temporary pall over the good press engendered by the previous summer’s An Evening with the Monkees: The 45th Anniversary Tour. Shortly before their 12th studio album Good Times! was dropped to widespread critical acclaim and a No. 14 ranking on Billboard — the group’s highest charting LP since The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees a staggering 48 years earlier — Dolenz and Tork embarked for Good Times: The 50th Anniversary Tour, accumulating 64 shows in North America and Australia through December 2016.
Ever the iconoclast, Nesmith popped up at five scattered dates, officially announcing that a September 16 booking at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles would serve as his last Monkees concert. But as has been proven time and time again in the land of Monkeemania, stranger things have happened — e.g. the “Different Drum” songwriter enthusiastically participating in three back to back Monkee tours from 2012–2014 — and indeed Nesmith reneged on his decision when he joined The Monkees Present: The Mike Nesmith & Micky Dolenz Show.
Besides a few interviews and meet and greets held at various Wizard World Comic Cons in the Midwest with Dolenz, Tork opted to lie low for much of 2017 and 2018 at his boyhood home in Mansfield, Connecticut, shared with devoted wife Pam Grapes. His other band, the blues-oriented combo Shoe Suede Blues, temporarily interrupted the sabbatical with the issue of Relax Your Mind, a Lead Belly tribute project long on Tork’s to-do list. The stark banjofied “Angels We Have Heard on High” was Tork’s sole contribution to the Monkees’ Good Times! follow-up album Christmas Party and stands as his final recording distributed four months before his death. Tork’s unusually Auto-tuned vocal on “Angels” may have disguised his deteriorating health. In 2009 Tork was diagnosed with a rare form of tongue cancer called Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma, succumbing to the disease 10 years later on February 21, 2019, just eight days after he turned 77 years old.
A relaxed, friendly, and erudite gentleman who didn’t take himself too seriously, Tork’s self-deprecation was readily apparent in our only interview conducted on Halloween 2011. Without electricity because of a snow-dumping Nor’easter, Tork honorably refused to postpone the 35-minute conversation plugging a Shoe Suede Blues gig at the Carolyn Harris Performing Arts Center in Adel, Georgia. As we began the Stratocaster-wielding musician warned, “Tell me what you want me to say, word for word please, so that I don’t have to think.” Later realizing that I was experiencing a bit of anxiety when he pronounced there was time for one final question, Tork’s encouragement saved the day — “Just take your time, think, and relax.”
The Peter Tork Interview
Were you comfortable when your Monkee band mates asked you to tackle bass?
Piano came first to me at age nine, and by age 13 came guitar. In the early 1960s what you did as a guitar player was play folk music. One of the ways you played it was to perform a thing called “Travis Picking.”
Merle Travis pretty much created that alternating thumb with syncopated finger picking on top, which meant you had to know the location of your bass notes. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom bom, boom bom, boom bom, boom — that kind of thing you knew if you were playing guitar.
As it happens, the bass guitar is the bottom four strings of an acoustic guitar dropped an octave. My fingers pretty much fell into place picking up a guitar, and it was essentially the easiest transition in the world for me.
I hardly even noticed I was picking up a different instrument. So yeah, it’s always been pretty interesting and easy. I’ve always enjoyed playing bass.
How did you become the first Monkee to play on the group’s self-titled debut album unleashed in October 1966?
There was a guitar section at that point — five guitar players. And I was like fourth out of the five guitars. I didn’t have a big contribution by any means. It was just actually Mike being nice to me.
Mike was in charge of his songs. There were four tracks produced by Michael on the first two albums, and I played guitar on three — “Papa Gene’s Blues,” “Sweet Young Thing,” and “Mary, Mary.”
No, I’ve never even bothered trying to listen and identify my guitar on any of those tracks. The only guitar playing you can really pick out is courtesy of James Burton and Glen Campbell. James’s playing always had that amazing high, high lonesome twang.
[Author’s Note: Nesmith produced five studio sessions for the Monkees in the summer of 1966, a year before the group took full production reigns on Headquarters. A considerable selection of tunes remained under wraps for years if not decades, including “I Won’t be the Same Without Her,” “So Goes Love,” “Of You,” “(I Prithee) Do Not Ask for Love”, and an early version of “You Just May be the One.” Tork is a guitar axeman on every one].
How did you meet George Harrison and become a participant on the Wonderwall Music soundtrack, which George produced and played on?
When I first met George, I was dating Mama Cass’s sister Leah Cohen, and she was staying at Cass’s. We heard George was coming over to visit Cass, so we looked at each other and Cass said, “Stay away!” We said, “Yeah, as if, not bloody likely!”
I had already been cast for The Monkees television show, but we hadn’t started production yet. So I got to say hi to him. Later on, when the Monkees played England in the summer of ’67, the Beatles had a party at a club, and we arranged to meet them.
George invited me and a member of our crew, “You and I” songwriter-TV show extra-studio musician Bill Chadwick, to go hang with him the next day. We went up to his place and spent the afternoon. We got to see Ringo again and came home after that.
I remember George asking me, “Why don’t you come back and play banjo on this session I’m producing in December?” I said, “I don’t have a banjo.” He said, “Well, Paul has one, so we’ll borrow his and restring it and give it back to him strung right-handed [laughs].
Anyway, I got to play Paul’s five-string banjo strung right-handed. Apparently I’m not on the soundtrack album. I’m told that if you see the movie, you’ll hear me providing a banjo-driven musical cue, although I haven’t seen the movie.
[Author’s Note: When casually mentioned that there are bootlegs floating around featuring more of the Wonderwall Music soundtrack with Tork’s banjo licks, he replied, “Oh wow, that’s interesting. I’ll have to talk to my favorite bootlegger and see what he has to say about that”].
Well, what is your stance on bootleg recordings?
I think they’re fine. I absolutely approve. Give me bootleggers. They’re filling a need. For example, if there are no recordings of the Monkees in Britain, a bootlegger can come up with an audience recording. Yes, give me that. I’ll pay you for that, sure thing. If I wanna hear that, and it isn’t available commercially, cut out the middle man. More power to the entrepreneurs.
What prompted Michael Nesmith to rejoin the Monkees in 1996 for the Justus album?
Mike had become boyfriend-girlfriend with this woman who listened to a cut of “Circle Sky” [penned by Nesmith, a significantly less dynamic studio version of “Circle Sky” appeared on the Head soundtrack in December 1968]. She listened and exclaimed, “Who is playing bass on that?” Michael said, “Well, Peter.” She quickly replied, “Well, who wrote the part?” And he responded, “Well, Peter.”
Soon he was sort of enjoying what we had done before. He thought, ‘God, these guys are pretty good.’ So he invited Micky and me, and we took over a rehearsal hall. The three of us banged away for a couple of hours, and danged if we didn’t sound just exactly the same as we did when we left off nearly 30 years previously.
And next thing we knew, Michael wanted to be back in the band for a little while. Michael is very much into, ‘What’s the best you can get right now?’ He is kind of aggressive about getting the best studio, the best equipment, and the best approach to sound.
So we produced and recorded the Justus album on tape and transferred it to digital afterwards in an effort to keep it as warm as possible. I’m not so interested in the sound per se. If we had made it all digital, I couldn’t have told the difference myself. All I know is I hear the energy of the band. What’s interesting is for us to play together and make a record as best we know how.
I played all the bass parts on Justus, Michael played all the guitar parts, Micky played all the drums, and Davy played tambourine and some acoustic guitar. If you hear keyboards or piano on a track, that’s me, too. I would play one instrument and then overdub the other.
There are a couple of things I would have done differently, but all in all, I think it stands up pretty well. So there’s the Justus album for you.
Mike joined us in the UK for our 30th anniversary tour in 1997. I enjoyed that tour very much; it was a good time. Nevertheless, Mike never said anything to me when he decided to leave the band after the ’97 European tour, and I still don’t know why he left.
How did you discover the Cook High School Marching Hornets in Adel, Georgia, were playing Monkees music during their football half-time shows?
It was actually the marching band’s director, John Newsome. He was just browsing the Internet and came across my website, PeterTork.com, and contacted my booking-publicity agent. John said, “Will Peter come down here?” My agent replied, “Yeah he would, but he really likes to bring Shoe Suede Blues.” So John quickly added, “We can find a place to put the band, too.”
I made a public appearance with the Hornets at their Friday night game and then Shoe Suede Blues played to a capacity crowd the next evening [November 5, 2011, Harris Performing Arts Center]. Seeing all the kids nodding their heads was an invigorating experience.
In 2008 we played my old high school alma mater, E.O. Smith High School, in Storrs, Connecticut. It was kind of a sock-hop thing, which was not too swift [laughs]. We love to play, and all we care about is somebody sittin’ still who might enjoy what we’re doing.
What was the origin of Shoe Suede Blues?
I like to think of it as kind of organic. Around 1997, after the Monkees reunited for Justus and a reunion tour, a couple of my friends and I were out in California talking.
One guy said, “My wife is in charge of the entertainment at a benefit dance. Let’s get together and play something.” So the five of us decided to go onstage. It was just a jam band really. You know, ‘Does everybody know this song? Yeah, let’s do that one.’
Then we had another opportunity to do some more benefits, all with different rotating personnel. Later we did three shows in a row, each one missing one of the three of us. And we still sounded good to ourselves. Then a friend of ours in D.C. said, “Why don’t you guys come over here and play a gig for this thing that I’m in charge of?” So we said, “Yeah, sure thing.”
All the time, we were looking at ourselves and thinking, ‘This is such great fun, and it just sounds so good to us.’ I don’t know how good it sounded to the outside world, but it was exciting for us to be there. And we kept on going.
I remember saying a funny name for a blues band would be Shoe Suede Blues. Anyway, I had something else to do, and when I returned, they said, “That’s the title of the band.” I went, “What are you talking about?” But they liked the name.
The original two other members, one at a time, left the arena. Every time there’s been a personnel change, I’ve said to the guys in the band, “Who do we know who can fill in that spot?” And we all come up with ideas.
The band’s spots tend to rotate, but it hasn’t been, ‘Okay, I’m gonna start a band now. You, you, and you. I’ll pay you if you’ll do this. Okay, sure, go.’ It was never a mechanical type thing. At least that’s the way it feels to me. If I’m lying to myself, I don’t wanna know.
Do you play any banjo onstage with Shoe Suede Blues?
I stick with guitar and keyboards. I’ll make arrangements for some piano and organ sounds on an electronic keyboard. Unless they have a piano and a B3, in which case we are golden. But that’s unlikely. Pianos are notoriously tough to mic, so I don’t think a real piano is in the offing.
We have another guitar player, a bassist, and a drummer. We don’t usually do the tunes that involve the banjo, and we haven’t rehearsed with the banjo.
There was one banjo song we did called “Bound to Lose” on Cambria Hotel  that I got from the Holy Modal Rounders. I play some banjo in my acoustic solo shows, but no, no banjo with Shoe Suede Blues. I hear the disappointment in your voice [laughs].
What is the distinction between your acoustic solo shows and Shoe Suede Blues?
Shoe Suede Blues is a blues-based band. We don’t play all blues; in fact I don’t even know if we play the majority as blues. We do about half a dozen Monkees songs. One of them we do very differently to put it into a blues bag.
Another is done a little differently. The other four are done dead straight right off the record, no arrangement differences — except I don’t sing as high as Micky did when he sang lead. We do one blues I wrote, a couple of obscure blues here and there, and some well-known blues by Muddy Waters and Albert King.
There’s one we perform called “Slender, Tender and Tall” from a guy named Louis Jordan, who was great — what you might call “proto R&B” — very bluesy, very R&B. I recommend listening to Jordan’s “Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens.” B.B. King popularized several tunes from Louis’s repertory such as “Caldonia.”
“Saved by the Blues” is one we do all the time. It was written by a guy named Michael Levine who doesn’t have anything to do with the blues, but by the time we finished recording it as the title cut of our second album in 2003, it was very bluesy.
There was a song by Junior Wells that the Blues Brothers covered [on Briefcase Full of Blues, 1978] called “Messin’ with the Kid.” It’s so infectious, we just have to do.
A small giant of the blues named Slim Harpo wrote a song called “I’m a King Bee,” which the Rolling Stones covered on their 1964 debut. We chose Harpo’s “Mailbox Blues” for our show.
My solo acoustic show is pretty different. It’s hard to do the blues solo — I’m not good at that country blues, Lightning Hopkins thing. I do a song or two in the blues vein, but mostly what I do comes from my folky, folk-pop bag.
I released my first and only solo, pure pop album in 1994 called Stranger Things Have Happened, and I do about four songs from that when it’s just me. Those are hardly bluesy at all, just a little bit. I’m much quirkier as a solo performer. It got great reviews, but I wish I’d been able to sell more. But it’s always wonderful to get good reviews.
Besides Shoe Suede Blues, what are some of your other solo and collaborative projects?
I’ve done a folk acoustic duo act with my friend James Lee Stanley, but we don’t do that much now. James produced Stranger Things, and since then, we have released Two Man Band , Once Again , A Beachwood Christmas , and Live / Backstage @ the Coffee Gallery .
The Christmas album was more of a various artists project. James’ sister, Pamala Stanley, is on it plus a few people he admired and worked with over the years, including legendary folk singer Tom Paxton. Pamala is a disco diva in her own world — she gets to go everywhere and do her own music.
What is your rationale of the perfect day?
Well gosh, I don’t know [laughs]. Wake up leisurely, do some stretches, coffee, check my email, read the news a little, breakfast, then play some piano. I enjoy playing Johann Sebastian Bach for a hobby, just to take my mind into different places.
If you’re asking me for a perfect day, I’m performing that night, which means I have vocal warm-ups to do. I should always do vocal warm-ups especially, but I make a particular point of it if I’m singing that night.
I usually take a nap and then amble over to the gig and play. Pack up and come home. Yawn and stretch and go to bed.
As to my hobbies, I do some recording at home in a little digital studio, which can be hardly counted as more than a hobby. I like to keep it that way. Gosh, I don’t have many hobbies.
I like a couple of TV shows, including Sherlock Holmes with Jeremy Brett. It’s a classic BBC show that ran for 10 years starting in 1984. The period is great, costumes, setting — everything is really glorious.
Brett is the greatest ever as far as I’m concerned. He’s the only actor who approached Sherlock Holmes’ true insanity [laughs]. He brings a brand of his own insanity to the part, which to me makes all kinds of sense.
Everybody else played Sherlock Holmes like he was this amazingly, deductively, smart, slightly arrogant guy. Remember, Sherlock Holmes shot cocaine when he was bored, and he kept his tobacco in a slipper nailed to the fireplace mantle. Played violin, and did experiments in chemistry to foul up his room.
He was bonkers [laughs]. Barely controlled insanity, like Dennis Hopper as a movie actor. Jack Nicholson is the same way. They managed to channel their barely controlled craziness — usually — into socially acceptable norms.
I got to meet them both while we were filming Head in 1968. They were pros on the set, and in Jack’s case, still are. You’d look at those guys and think, ‘If I said the wrong thing, they might blow.’
Is there a comedy that left an indelible impression on you as a youngster?
The Court Jester , a musical comedy starring Danny Kaye, was one I loved as a kid. It certainly stands up today. It’s just one of the greatest film comedies. My wife Pam saw that and said, “Ah, I see where you get all your stuff” [laughs]. She thinks all my comedic, goofy characters are all contained in that movie.
Combining a slow and fast tempo, Jo Mapes’s “Come on In” is a gentle Monkees tune that remained under lock and key until 1990’s Missing Links, Volume Two. It contains one of your best vocals.
Aha…I used to sing it in Greenwich Village back in my folkie days. Actually, I first heard a lady named Alix Dobkin performing the song while I was living there. It just sounded so much like the kinds of things that I wanted to sing about, so I had to eventually record it in 1968.
I have no idea why it wasn’t originally released. I just made these things and put them out there. Other people made the decisions, and I didn’t think much to fight for things. It’s a shortcoming of mine, and I have to work on that. I’m still working on that.
Exclusive Interview: Dubbed the resident Monkees genius, Michael Nesmith knew he wanted to play music while biding his time at San Antonio Community College. The son of the inventor of liquid paper, Papa Nez observed Monkee pandemonium a little too close for comfort, finding that his heart lay in songwriting. After composing Linda Ronstadt’s first hit, “Different Drum,” Nesmith vacated the band that made him a household name and ventured into the uncharted waters of country rock with the First National Band. The cosmically conscious musician surprised fans by rejoining the Monkees on the road in the twenty-tens and agreed to spend some time with this writer on his musical back-pages, Elvis Presley, some tunes worthy of rediscovery, and the unimagined joy of touring again. Visit “Still Rollin’ with the Flow: Twists and Turns with ‘Smart Monkee’ Michael Nesmith” for the juicy enchilada.
Exclusive Interview No. 2: In “A Piercing ‘Mommy and Daddy’ Heart-to-Heart Chat with Monkee Micky Dolenz,” the self-taught drummer who belted out the definitive version of “Last Train to Clarksville” waxes poetic on such intriguing subjects as the origin of his sense of humor, how his mother lovingly guided his career, a surprising fondness for country music demonstrated on his solo Remember album, his first musical instrument, an inability to write prolifically, his most underrated composition, the joys and pitfalls of touring, and whether he is an Elvis Presley fan.
Further Reading: “Had I focused on worry or resentment every time I had a setback, or on anger toward those I perceived were responsible for my woes, it seems clear to me now that I would have only gotten better at worry, resentment, and anger.” In a hybrid interview-review conducted with Bobby Hart, the songwriter examines his debut memoir, Psychedelic Bubble Gum: Boyce & Hart, The Monkees, and Turning Mayhem into Miracles and partnership with the late, effervescent Tommy Boyce. Responsible for an astonishing 25 contributions to the Monkees’ songography like the iconic “Last Train to Clarksville,” “(Theme From) The Monkees,” “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone”, “She,” “Words”, and “Valleri,” Boyce and Hart’s Monkees collaboration lit a chain reaction to a lucrative solo career on late ’60s pop-rock radio.
Exclusive Interview No. 3: When chanteuse Bobbie Gentry burst onto the pop music landscape during the trippy Summer of Love with the mysterious “Ode to Billie Joe”, usurping the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” from its number one perch, who could have imagined the massive success awaiting her? Gentry was an innovative lyricist who wove rural narratives together with ease and poignancy. “Billie Joe”, a brilliant Southern gothic tale sprinkled with controversial subject matter such as young love, a disapproving family, a baby born out of wedlock, and ultimate suicide, scratches the surface of her fascinating, albeit short-lived career. In “Bobbie Gentry Had the Most Gorgeous Legs Ever,” frequent Boyce and Hart string arranger Jimmie Haskell, fondly remembered by Bobby Hart as always being late to the sessions and possessing one of the earliest fax machines, examines his role in the singer’s climb to the spotlight and exactly why she abandoned the bright lights of fame for relative obscurity. Don’t miss it!
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