I admit this really isn’t much of a story, so I’ll try to keep it brief. The passing of Peter Tork has me in a melancholy mood, and my thoughts cast back to the one time I met Tork very briefly, after a show in Buffalo in 1983.
Brenda and I lived in a beat-up, rat-infested tenement apartment. We were both in our early twenties, college graduates, working menial jobs, Brenda still pursuing her Masters degree at the University of Buffalo. I'm not sure of the date, so we were either already engaged or about to be. We both loved The Monkees, and neither of us had ever had an opportunity to see any of the group's members in person...anywhere. I remember coercing our troublesome little TV to magically work when Tork appeared as a guest on Late Night With David Letterman; we weren't even aware of Michael Nesmith's subsequent Letterman spot, and missed it entirely.
The early '80s were still a lean time for Monkees fans. Pop culture apparatchik had declared The Monkees uncool. Who were we mere human beings to presume arguing with that pronouncement? Well...screw 'em. I like what I like, then and now. And I like The Monkees.
Money was a little tight--gotta figure the above-referenced "rat-infested tenement apartment" is a clue to our economic status at the time--but we still managed to go out when we could. When we heard that one of The Monkees--PETER TORK!--was going to be playing a show at The Tralfamadore Café in downtown Buffalo, we knew we needed to scrape together the appropriate pocket change and be there.
This was probably our first visit to the Tralf. What a great venue, and I regret we didn't make it there more often. I don't think there was an opening act. We sat at our table, enjoyed our chicken wings and beer, and waited breathlessly for The Peter Tork Project to take the Tralf stage.
And there he was.
Adults don't admit to being starstruck. Good thing I've never been an adult. We were starstruck. Our jaws dropped as we saw this man we used to watch on TV when we were kids, watched and listened to him pilot his group through a set of live rock 'n' roll music. My concert-goin' resumé was decent up to that point; I'd seen KISS, The Flashcubes, Elvis Costello & the Attractions, The Runaways, The Ramones, The Kinks, Herman's Hermits, Dylan, 999, Joe Jackson, Artful Dodger, David Johansen, The Records, The Pretenders, possibly The Animals by then, and a few others. In that moment, seeing The Peter Tork Project was right up there with the best of 'em, at least as measured in our giddy enthusiasm.
All because one of The Monkees was on stage, mere yards from where we sat.
Tork seemed in good humor, though one sensed he could become prickly if circumstances warranted it. He brushed aside requests, stuck to the set list. And he and the band played, running through an assortment of mostly unfamiliar tunes with a few Monkees tracks sprinkled in. The only non-Monkees song I specifically remember hearing that night is "Milkshake," a tune Tork much later recorded (with backing vocals by Dolenz and Nesmith) for his 1994 album Stranger Things Have Happened. After a rendition of The Monkees' "Take A Giant Step," Tork commented that he wanted to move "from the days of yore to the days of mine." A protest song included the lyrics No guns! No war! U.S. out of El Salvador! I think Tork and company did Jackie Wilson's "Higher And Higher." I'm pretty sure they did "Pleasant Valley Sunday." I'm positive they did "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone."
Whatever they did, I know Brenda and I just ate it up. A Monkee was on stage, and all was right with the world.
As the show ended, I saw a chance for us to follow the band backstage. Don't think about it. GO! No one stopped us. We stood face to face with Peter Tork.
Brenda was speechless. She later said she was surprised that Tork was so short; he always seemed tall when standing next to Davy Jones on TV. Nonetheless: starstruck, both of us. Tork smiled as he shook our hands and autographed my copy of my favorite Monkees LP, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd. I was nearly speechless myself, and only managed to stammer to Tork, I used to watch you on TV when I was six years old...!
Polished? That's me.
If my blathering annoyed Tork, he gave no sign of it. But we needed to get out of there. Show's over, kids. Time to go home.
In 1983, the idea of a massive revival in interest in The Monkees seemed as remote and unlikely as Adam West donning a mask and fighting crime in real life. In 1986, resurgent Monkeemania took hold anyway. Reruns of the show on MTV. New fans. New hit single. New tour! I bought two tickets to see Tork, Dolenz, and Jones as soon as they were available; alas, the show was the night before Brenda's big teaching test, so she had to opt out of seeing The Monkees. She finally did get a chance to see them in 1987, and I got to see Tork, Dolenz, and Nesmith in 2012.
I noticed something in all three of those shows. "Your Auntie Grizelda" was one of the very few original Monkees records to feature Tork on lead vocals, so the song became an integral part of their live set. It's a silly number, one I've never especially liked, but it's Peter's spotlight song, and he always performed it with full-tilt goofiness. At one point in the song's live renditions, Tork imitated a parrot, squawking intentional banalities and mocking the dull nature of the clueless. And every such rendition always included Tork squawking, I used to watch you on TV when I was six years old SQUAWK six years old!
Decades have fallen away since that night Brenda and I saw The Peter Tork Project at the Tralf, that night we met Peter Tork. The tenement apartment in Buffalo is just a memory, and not necessarily a happy one. Brenda and I have been married for nearly 35 years. We own a home in the suburbs of Syracuse, and its mortgage is fully paid off. We're not rich. We're not poor. We try to remain too busy singing to put anybody down.
Last night, Brenda poured herself a glass of wine. I made myself a martini. I took out my blu-ray set of The Monkees TV series. We watched the episode "The Devil And Peter Tork." We raised our glasses, and toasted those who have gone. I used to watch him on TV when I was six years. I see no reason I can't remain six years old forever. Days of yore? Days of mine. Days of ours. Love is understanding. Don't you know that this is true? Love is understanding. It's in everything we do.