PETER TORK: A MONKEE SAVED BY THE BLUES
Byline Paul Freeman [Updated from 2006 Interview]
Hey, hey, hes far more than a Monkee. Singer/songwriter/ multi-instrumentalist Peter Tork has been making music for over 40 years. In or out of the spotlight, his songs have been well worth hearing.
We see a parallel today. George Bush prosecuted the Iraq war for personal reasons. It had nothing to do with the welfare of the country. Nothing! Its an entirely bogus war that hes got us all mired in and made us completely vulnerable to any real threat. I think he did it because he wanted to show his daddy. He wanted his daddy to be proud of him. The man threatened his daddy and wanted to take him out. And I believe, personally, thats the entire motive for the Iraq war. It certainly has not benefitted the country. The country is not better off now. And anybody who says, Well, we got rid of Saddam, has to ask, Is our country better off, because of it? And I cant see how anybody can honestly think that were better of now than we were before Iraq.
Anyway, to get back to the main point, The Monkees had no authority figure. It was young people having to get along on their own. That was the significant thing. That was the McLuhan-esque message. That was where the message came out of the medium. We made a point of that. We never said anything. But it was the producers decision - Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson - to not have an adult, a serious adult. In one show, there was a guy who could get us gigs. But we dropped his character.
Four youths managing without parental figures looming over them was indeed unique in that eras network TV. In every other situation comedy, up till that moment, there was an older authority figure. Young college students, teenage guys, all had a senior adult there. It was, Father knows best, you idiot! And My Three Stupid Sons. And always, always, always, young kids couldnt really handle life on their own. But in The Monkees, we had to. There was no authority, certainly none we could trust. All the adult figures were corrupt.
Maybe that youthful rebelliousness is one reason the show has appealed to subsequent generations. I think its an important factor, Tork says. Bert and Bob were very shrewd, very lucky and very connected. I think one of the things about The Monkees that makes it as good as it is, Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson were not moguls, sitting in their offices, chomping their cigars, trying to calculate what the kids would like. They were Beatle fans themselves. They wanted to be part of all this. And their show was an effort to join the moment, not to pander to it or to try to carve it up.
How many shows about 60s kids completely missed the point? And how many of them actually showed kids in the clothes that we were actually wearing in those days? Actually even including The Monkees. Our costume department didnt have a clue. Bert and Bobs idea was to have hacks at all of the major posts - photography, costume and so on, just because they knew that with a TV show designed the way it was, with all those flash cuts, they had to have people who could do the job quickly. So they got high-speed hacks to do a lot of things. And the result is, the show had some of the features of some of the previous 20 years of television and filmmaking, as well as the new 60s influences.
In the 60s, the only thing that equaled Monkeemanias intensity was Beatlemania. Concerts erupted in deafening screams.
The adoration overwhelmed Tork. I couldnt enjoy it. I didnt even understand it. I was frustrated, enraged. Youre enraged by things you dont understand, usually. I couldnt fathom it. When I finally got around to understanding what it was, towards the end of the phenomenon, when I came to grips with it, I saw that it was a function of civilized life. As a mass phenomenon, The Monkees served the repressed young women as an outlet for the repressions that Western civilization inevitably imposes.
With the massive success came a backlash. Elitists dismissively dubbed the band the pre-Fab Four. Nesmith publicly revealed that the band hadnt been playing on all of their own tracks. He launched a mutiny against tyrannical music supervisor Don Kirshner, insisting that The Monkees be allowed to play all their own instruments and have creative control over the material and sound.
The Monkees took a lot of flak, Tork said. It was actually Nesmiths fault. He blew the whistle on us. He said, Were fake! Tell everyone we are! Were fake, were fake, were fake! And everybody went, Okay, I guess so, if you say so. That was just Michael needing to be in charge so desperately that hes willing to destroy. Any relationship, you dont like the way its going, you can blow it out of the water and thus be in control. Had Michael kept his mouth shut, nobody would have paid too much attention. Once he did that, a huge furor rose up, that The Monkees were fake. We picked up a lot of disdain in the community, because we were perceived as not honest.
In fact, most 60s bands, including The Beach Boys and The Byrds, used top session musicians on recordings. Most bands in those days didnt write all their own material And who cared? The Byrds had the A-Team working for them, Larry Knechtel and Hal Blaine and Carole Kaye. Most of them had that. Most of them had other writers, though most of them did some of their own writing. The Stones first album was all covers. And nobody gave them flak for that.
On the third Monkees album, Headquarters, the group played and sang all parts themselves. And live, they delivered the goods.
Now that the furor has died down and the hate mongers have other people to harry, we can see the Monkees songbook for what it was, which is a fabulous one, one of the great songbooks of the 60s. I wouldnt stack it against the Beatles. But I would say that, for size, width and depth, its probably as good as any other from that era.
Too bad Emperor Wenner and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame dont seem to recognize that obvious fact. This despite such icons as Tom Petty, Michael Stipe and Bono all singing The Monkees praises.
There are certainly, obviously, way better songs than ours. I would not want us to go head-to-head against Steely Dan, in terms of quality of songs. Those guys know how to write and they had this fabulous new vocabulary. And I dont think we did anything as good as What A Fool Believes or a number of other things. We werent an R&B band and theres R&B songs where the performances are just outstanding. But a lot of our records do stand up quite well.
Songs like Pleasant Valley Sunday and Shades of Gray compare favorably with any of the eras best. Yes, a Carole King [and Gerry Goffin] song in the one case and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil wrote Shades of Gray, a straight-ahead, simple song, very well constructed. And I think we did the heck out of it. That was the third album, where we were doing our own performances. All I ever wanted to do was be the band on record. And we got to do exactly that on that album. And then we went into a kind of mixed mode after that. I was on keyboards or bass or occasionally guitar on any number of records after that. Thats me playing the piano on the opening to Daydream Believer. And playing piano on Pleasant Valley Sunday.
In 1968, after The Monkees wrapped their innovative TV series, which spawned dozens of timeless hit singles (penned by such great writers as Boyce & Hart, Goffin & King, Mann & Weil, Neil Diamond, Paul Williams, Harry Nilsson and The Monkees band members themselves), as well as the wildly psychedelic film Head (screenplay by Rafelson and Jack Nicholson), later a cult favorite, Tork left the group.
For a time, he had some ambivalence about his Monkee label. My feeling about The Monkees has swing both ways a couple of times each. At first, I wanted to get out from under. Then I kind of thought it was fun. Then I thought it was a corruption. And now Ive reached my present attitude, that it was, sociologically, at least on the level of television, important in its own way. And it was a lot of fun. And we got our message across without ever preaching it, which I think is critical.
Though Tork has made great music since the Monkees, it doesnt get as much attention. Im just bemused by it all. To tell you the truth, Im completely ignorant of how to structure a success in the years since then, in my own terms. All I know how to do is to keep on playing.
Recently Ive begun to learn the techniques of enrolling people, which I didnt know before. Enrolling enough people on your side who are willing to work to promote the music, to make it viable, to bring it to the audiences, to the attention of the public. Its one thing for me to play music for somebody and have them go, Gee, Pete, thats wonderful. Keep it up! And another thing for somebody to say, Thats really great, Peter. I know a guy who knows some publicists and people in the industry and let me go get them and bring them here.
And since I didnt know the techniques, I couldnt do it. But now I do. Its a race against time, whether Im going to enroll enough people to get a success or die first, he concludes with a laugh.
The resilient Tork survived a 2009 bout with Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma, a rare form of head and neck cancer. Today his voice sounds strong, sure and expressive, regardless of what type of material he tackles.
Performing with The Monkees is truly a joy. Those guys enliven my life. For sheer, pure, deep musical satisfaction, however, its Shoe Suede Blues.
Tork, now 71, who wrote or co-wrote such memorable Monkees tunes as For Petes Sake and Can You Dig It?, says, Im not remotely interested in nega-Monkee. This is just about being pro my music, whatever it might be.
For more information, visit www.petertork.com.