Many people think it's easy to be a pop star. Fame. Fortune. Candy and treats. A stream of partners willing and eager to make flesh your libidinous flights of fancy. Adulation and acclaim. None of it earned, of course, not in the judging minds of the jealous and jaded. Why, anybody could be a pop star! It's like winning the lottery, the American Idol dream. That ain't workin', that's the way you do it: you play the guitar on the MTV.
And if we're talking about a pop star made famous in a made-for-TV rock group? Could have been anybody, man. Could have been anybody.
Yeah. That's bullshit.
Peter Tork was a pop star, one of four pinup-ready faces in the cathode-ray manufactured image called The Monkees. If you know anything at all about the flesh-and-blood talent, the effort, the heart and soul that went into the making of The Monkees--if you know facts, not cotton-minded clatter--then you can reject all of the nonsense detailed above, and you can mourn with us as we say goodbye to a gifted individual, a gentle spirit, an artist who also happened to be a pop star. We were born to love one another, this is something we all need. Join us as we say goodbye to Peter Tork.
Tork was born Peter Thorkelson on February 13, 1942, the Aquarius referenced in The Monkees' album title Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd. (respectively Micky Dolenz, Tork, Michael Nesmith, and fellow Capricorn Davy Jones). From an early age, Tork was drawn to music, and he learned to play several instruments. By the mid '60s, he was playing folk music in Greenwich Village. By 1966, he was cast as a member of The Monkees.
It's difficult to look back and know what Tork expected with The Monkees. One presumes he wanted a paycheck; pop stars gotta eat, too. More than that, it's likely Tork wanted a chance to make music; when he showed up for his first Monkees recording session, his guitar in hand, the producers chuckled and said, You won't be needing that. Backing tracks were completed prior to the arrival of any individual Monkees, and were awaiting only some lead vocal tracks from a Micky or a Davy, maybe a Michael, and probably not from our Mr. Tork, whose singing was deemed pitchy. And Monkees would provide vocals only, so none of them would require anything so redundant as a silly instrument.
Tork was probably crushed.
Nevertheless, he persisted. Nesmith brought Tork to the studio to play acoustic guitar on one of Nesmith's productions. When the need arose for The Monkees to perform in concert, Tork and Nesmith helped the actors become a band. In a united front, all four Monkees demanded the right to record as a functioning rockin' pop combo, resulting in The Monkees' hey-hey-we're-a-real-band success with the 1967 album Headquarters. Tork was playing in a group, touring and recording. He was happy.
That moment passed. After Headquarters, Tork was the only one who wanted to continue as a band; his co-workers lost interest in that goal, drifted away from a group identity in the studio. A little part of Peter Tork died with that decision. Tork did what he could, played when he could, wrote when he could, recorded when he could. He introduced his friend Stephen Stills' group Buffalo Springfield at Monterey. He longed for authenticity, something genuine and real, while continuing to play the fool on TV. On one episode of the show, his character sold his soul to the Devil for a chance to make music. You know, his character said, it was almost worth it.
The TV show was cancelled. The Monkees' 1968 film Head was a box office failure. Tork, disillusioned with the lost promise of the group and what it could have been, was the first Monkee to leave. He had ambitious plans to make music with his new group Release. None of that music has ever been heard by the public.
The 1970s were a tough time for former Monkees. Collective pop cultural wisdom dismissed them as fake, unworthy, and the world moved on without them. Tork's Monkee money was gone. He became a teacher. A singing waiter. A guest of the state for criminal possession of hashish. He mentioned writing an autobiography, Monkee Business: Why I Had To Pawn My Gold Records, a book that was presumably never written, and now never will be.
And Tork returned to playing. He came to (perhaps uneasy) terms with having been a Monkee. In 1986, he became a Monkee again, an on-again, off-again association that would renew itself sporadically throughout most of Tork's remaining years. He felt the changing of the guard, the growing appreciation and acknowledgement of The Monkees' ultimate merit. He played CBGB's. He played with his own groups, from Peter Tork & the New Monks in the late '70s and The Peter Tork Project in the early '80s through The Shoe Suede Blues Band in recent years. He battled head and neck cancer in 2009. He mourned the passing of Davy Jones in 2012. He toured again with Micky and Michael, then with just Micky, and all three surviving Monkees participated in the triumphant 2016 album Good Times!
Tork's health was reported to be in decline again after that. Dolenz and Nesmith toured as a duo. Tork contributed but one track, an auto-tuned "Angels We Have Heard On High," to The Monkees' 2018 holiday album Christmas Party. His passing this week was not unexpected. It hurts just the same.
As fans, we console ourselves with a connection to what was, and to what remains. We have the delight of Tork's work with The Monkees, the charm of his simple TV character, and the emotional investment he brought to the music. We reflect with great joy the pride Tork came to have in his role with The Monkees: the distinctive piano lick intro he arranged and played on "Daydream Believer;" the songs he wrote, from the familiar "For Pete's Sake" (which closed every episode of The Monkees' second season, and which should have been a single) through dazzling Head soundtrack efforts "Do I Have To Do This All Over Again" and "Can You Dig It;" his vocal turns with Davy Jones on "Shades Of Gray" and with Micky Dolenz on "Words;" his immersion in the creative process of crafting Headquarters. He knew he'd be remembered as a Monkee, no matter what else he did. In the end, I believe he knew that recognition would be enough. In this generation, in this loving time, in this generation, we will make the world shine.
It's easy to be a pop star; anyone can do it. That's not true. No one else could have been Peter Tork.
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