Confession of a TV Addict #13: Remembering Peter Tork and The Monkees

Before the advent of cable and MTV and music videos, there was The Monkees. Now I know some of you are going give me flak about “The Pre-Fab Four”, how they weren’t a real band, just a commercialized, bubblegum TV concept, so let me put this in perspective… if you were an eight-year-old kid  like me back in The Monkees’ heyday, you watched the show every week, bought the records, and actually enjoyed them! That’s where I’m coming from, and that’s why I’m writing this tribute to the late Peter Tork, who passed away today of cancer at age 77.

Peter Thorkleson was born in Washington, D.C. on February 13, 1942, and as a child loved music, learning to play piano, guitar, bass, and banjo early on. After college, he shortened his name to Tork and hit New York City, becoming part of the burgeoning Greenwich Village folk scene. He was always a musician first and foremost, but when his friend and fellow folkie Stephen Stills (who went on to a pretty damn successful career of his own!) tried out for a part in a new “rock and roll sitcom”, he was turned down, but recommended his pal Pete audition. The young Tork was cast, along with ex-CIRCUS BOY star Mickey Dolenz, Broadway singer/actor Davy Jones, and another musician, Michael Nesmith.

(clockwise from left): Peter Tork, Mickey Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, Davy Jones

THE MONKEES made its network debut on September 12, 1966, and was an immediate smash! A mash-up of A HARD DAY’S NIGHT , Marx Brothers-style madness, quick jump cuts, and what would later be known as music videos, Monkeemania swept the country, as kids and teenyboppers drank in the weekly ‘youth culture’ antics of these four telegenic stars. Peter was the ‘Ringo’ figure of the group, his character a lovable loser with a sad sack face and not much sense. The Monkees soon found themselves on the covers of teen magazines and racked up such #1 hits as “Last Train to Clarksville”, “I’m A Believer”, “(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone”, and “Daydream Believer”:

Though all four were accomplished musicians, only Tork was allowed to play on their first two albums. The musicians used were definitely no slouches; session players like Hal Blaine, James Burton, Glen Campbell, Jim Gordon, Louie Shelton, and Larry Taylor all contributed to various tracks. But The Monkees, now bona fide superstars, rebelled, and beginning with their third LP played their own instruments (and yes, that’s really Tork doing the piano intro on “Daydream Believer”). But like most fads, Monkeemania subsided, and the show ended its run in 1968. The boys went on to star in HEAD , a Jack Nicholson-penned, Bob Rafelson-directed  piece of psychedelia that bombed at the box office – the younger kids were turned off by it, and the older hipsters wouldn’t be caught dead watching The Monkees! The movie has since become somewhat of a cult classic, and is worth a look.

Tork in the 70’s

Peter was the first to leave the group, dissatisfied over their musical direction and off-screen bickering. He drifted back to his roots, trying to get a folk-blues band called Peter Tork And/or Release off the ground without success. He was pretty well broke by 1970, a scant two years after Monkeemania, and a bust for possession of hashish landed Tork three months in a Oklahoma prison. The end of the 70’s found Tork working as a teacher in California  (teaching music of course!) and gigging around in small clubs.

Then came the 80’s, and MTV began rerunning THE MONKEES episodes, and suddenly The Monkees were hot again! A tour was put together with Tork, Jones, and Dolenz (Nesmith declined to participate), and the band continued to tour sporadically over the years. I was fortunate enough to catch them in the early 90’s (along with 60’s favorites The Turtles, The Grass Roots, and Gary Puckett), and their combination of comedy and nostalgic hits was one fun night! Over the years, Peter Tork continued to tour with The Monkees and in smaller venues on his own, playing with his blues/rock band Shoe Suede Blues. 90’s kids will remember him for his guest appearances as Topanga’s dad on BOY MEETS WORLD. Peter Tork certainly had a wild ride during his lifetime, but was blessed to spend it doing what he loved – playing music. Say what you will about The Monkees, but the eight-year-old boy in me will sure miss him.

Rockin’ in the Film World #12: The Monkees in HEAD (Columbia 1968)

The Monkees (Davy Jones, Mickey Dolenz, Peter Tork, and Mike Nesmith) brought rock’n’roll to TV with their mega-successful 1966-68 musical sitcom. Inspired by The Beatles’ onscreen antics in A HARD DAY’S NIGHT and HELP!, producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider cast four fresh-faced youths (Jones was a Tony nominee for OLIVER!, Dolenz had starred in TV’s CIRCUS BOY, Tork and Nesmith were vets of the folk-rock scene), hired some of the era’s top songwriters (Gerry Goffin & Carole King, Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart, Neil Diamond, Harry Nilsson) and session musicians (Hal Blaine, James Burton, Glen Campbell  , Carol Kaye), and Monkeemania became a full-fledged teenybop pop phenomenon.

Detractors (and there were many) in the music biz called them ‘The Pre-Fab Four’, looking down their noses at The Monkees while looking up as hits like “I’m a Believer”, “Daydream Believer”, and “Pleasant Valley Sunday” climbed to the top of the charts. But like all fads, Monkeemania quickly died out, and NBC cancelled the show in 1968. Rafelson, Schneider, and the group (who by this time were writing and playing their own music) decided an image makeover was needed, and together with co-screenwriter Jack Nicholson (yes, THAT Jack Nicholson) concocted the psychedelic, surrealistic feature film HEAD.

The movie is a completely plotless, colorful swirl of imagery, blackout skits, and satire focusing on The Monkees’ attempt to be taken seriously. To try and describe this mélange of trippy 60’s bizarreness would be pointless, which features everything from clips of film classics (Bela Lugosi in THE BLACK CAT, Rita Hayworth in GILDA ), footage of Monkee concerts and the Vietnam War, spoofs of movie genres (westerns, boxing epics, war films, musicals, science fiction, AIP/Poe horrors), guest stars ( Victor Mature , Annette Funicello , Sonny Liston, Frank Zappa, Tor Johnson , and a totally insane Timothy Carey !), and songs. Yet somehow, it all works as an entertaining piece of LSD-inspired lunacy that may be jarring to some but is never boring!

Despite this stab at something different, HEAD totally tanked at the box office. The Monkees’ teenybopper fan base didn’t know what to make of it, and the older hippies wouldn’t give them the time of day. As for the adults… fuggetaboutit!! The Monkees gradually disbanded, only to reunite decades later after the ironic crowd rediscovered them via reruns on Nickelodeon and MTV (which Nesmith had a hand in creating). Davy Jones died in 2012 and Nesmith’s now too rich to care, but Dolenz and Tork still carry the Monkee torch, touring as recently as 2016 for the group’s 50th anniversary.

As for the producers, each went on to success. Schneider won an Oscar for the 1974 documentary HEARTS AND MINDS, while Rafelson directed films like FIVE EASY PIECES (1970), STAY HUNGRY (1976), THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1981), BLACK WIDOW (1987), and BLOOD AND WINE (1996). That guy Nicholson did okay for himself, too! HEAD is truly too unconventional for words, but I don’t think you’ll be disappointed by it, especially if you’re a classic film fan. Just turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream… oops, sorry, wrong band!

More “Rockin’ in the Film World”: