What Do You Expect Me To Say

An exclusive interview from 2016 with the late Peter Tork

Peter Tork at Seattle’s Moore Theatre, 2016 / Photo by Gillian G. Gaar

Though Peter Tork was the first to leave the Monkees in 1968, he readily joined forces with fellow Monkees Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, and Mike Nesmith in a 20th anniversary Monkees tour in 1986.

After that, he played in various Monkee-related combos, most recently in 2016 when he toured with Dolenz. The tour followed the release of the album Good Times!, which featured all four members of the group (Jones died in 2012; a song he’d recorded in 1969 was featured on the album with new backing vocals from Dolenz and Tork) and their first Top 20 hit since 1968’s The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees. This interview was conducted in 2016, when Tork was in the middle of his tour with Dolenz:

 

How’s the tour been doing?  

Well, what do you expect me to say? (laughs) In fact it has been going very well. I’ve been having more fun up there than I think is allowed. It’s remarkable. The fact that the two of us are pulling off a Monkees show without either of the other guys is surprising and gratifying. We did a show in Salt Lake City where it was an open air thing, and early enough that we could see the whole audience almost all evening long. And the age range was all the way; mothers taking their kids to their first concert, people in their twenties, and thirties, and forties, fifties, and so on. And it’s just astounding really, when you think about it. When we were first starting out, going to somebody’s 50th anniversary would have meant seeing some act that started in 1916. Like Charlie Chaplin taking his silent film on tour 50 years later or something, you know what I mean?

 

I looked at a chronology of the Monkees’ early days in 1967; you were incredibly busy.

Oh yeah. (laughs) We didn’t let up. We were the cash cow for somebody, if not ourselves. But we had a good time up there, really.

Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork in action at the Moore / Photo by Gillian G. Gaar

It’s typical for an act to put an album, and then tour, but you also had to squeeze doing a TV show in there.

Oh yeah. Those things take up time. When we shot The Monkees pilot, we were there for 10 days, and we were operating on 12 and 13 hour days. And they wound up using only about 20 minutes of it. By the end of the series, we were doing the shows in about three eight hour days; we got so good at it we could just knock ‘em off. It got to be child’s play. But in the middle time we got there at 7:30 a.m. for makeup, and left at 7 o’clock at night, and then went and did some recording. So I didn’t get much sleep in those days. I didn’t think I needed it.

 

When you’re young you feel invincible.

Yeah. I’m still invincible, but I’m not pain free! (laughs)

 

VIDEO: Radio promo for concert with The Monkees and Jimi Hendrix Experience in 1967.

It’s incredible to think that Jimi Hendrix opened for the Monkees. Had you seen his set at the Monterey Pop Festival?

Yes. I didn’t believe it. I didn’t get it. Because he followed the Who on stage, and the Who broke up their instruments, and then Jimi came out and set fire to his guitar, and I thought, destroying guitars — I just saw this act! (laughs) Micky got it, interestingly enough. Micky heard what Jimi could do. And it was he who got Jimi onto the Monkees’ tour. And Jimi who got himself off the tour! It was like (sings) “Foxey Lady….” “We want the Monkees! We want the Monkees! Davy, Davy, Peter, Peter!” I think he flipped them off, but I’m not positive.

 

Did you hang out with him?

We flew on a plane, on a DC3 that we had, that had the Monkees’ logo on the side. But it was a big plane and everybody had to be on it. So there was Jimi and his lovely Experience and a couple of other guys who were also on the show for a while, and we had a girl singer. So anyway, we saw him all the time.

But I have to say Jimi, I say this as often and as loudly as I can, he was just one of the sweetest guys I’ve ever known. Absolutely human and alert, you know. Most of the entertainment people I know to some extent or other — not always, but usually — are in their own world. And you say something to them and they cue off of what you’ve said. They hear something that cues them or triggers something that they have prepared for when they hear that cue. But Jimi listened to you. You said something and Jimi paid attention. He wasn’t just waiting for Cue A in order to express Item B that he has handy or something like that.

 

And you watched his set, I assume.

Yeah, much of the time we did. I remember Mike and I hiding behind the stage watching him play. And he hit this spot; in his act he did this thing where he didn’t play anything for a beat, just dead silence, and then he came back in, and his timing was so exquisite that it made us jump. We both yelped, the timing was so perfect. Most musicians, they kind of don’t trust themselves and they’ll rush a break like that just a little bit. But Jimi didn’t. Jimi waited until the moment, and then he hit it. The timing was exciting and wonderful. And everything, the whole quality of his talent, just — dang! I could go on murmuring things like this forever, but it wouldn’t be very informative. He was great, he was great in every way that I know.

 

You ended up being the first to leave the Monkees.  

I wanted to be in a band. And Mike wanted to do his own music, and Micky didn’t; I don’t know what Micky wanted, and who knew what Davy wanted, but they didn’t want to be in a band. It was just that simple.

 

So what brought you back for that first reunion in 1986?

I don’t know. It’s so much fun to play for big crowds, for one thing. And the pay is great! And it doesn’t hurt to be up there on stage with those guys; Davy and Micky are the funniest guys I know; Davy was and Micky remains.

 

VIDO: The Monkees 20th anniversary tour.

The tour in 2013 must’ve been bittersweet to do because of Davy being gone.

Yeah. Although the thing about Davy is that he sort of went away before he died, if you know what I mean. He withdrew into his own world. He was so great on stage, but he wasn’t much available off stage anymore after a while. He certainly was a huge part of what we did; I’m the derriere guard of the band, right now, always have been, in so many ways. But I sure did miss him onstage. So bitter, yeah, I don’t know about sweet, there wasn’t any sweetness in not having Davy.

 

I really like Good Times!

Well, it certainly is more in line with the early Monkee records. That’s the thing about it. A, the sound; 12 strings and farfisa organs and it’s all sort of a piece. Justus was a shift. We were a little heavier, musically. I think Justus is bolder; I think it’s more substantial, if you listen. The songs Micky wrote, those are the songs he wrote after he broke off with Trina [Dolenz’ second wife; they divorced in 1991], and he called those songs “Pain Into Profit.” (laughs) He’s so f-ing funny I can’t believe it sometimes. But there’s some real grindingly unhappy songs of great sorrow and distress in there.

 

And Good Times! is a hit album!

It’s astounding. Of course it’s very gratifying. I’m delighted to be a part of something like this. It’s that 50th anniversary thing; I wasn’t going to live to be 50 years old! You know what I mean?

Micky and Peter at The Moore, 2016 / Photo by Gillian G. Gaar

It seems the Monkees’ legacy has been re-evaluated over the years; like your film Head now being considered a classic.

Well, I don’t know. The surrealism of the movie was — I don’t want to say quite a breakthrough, there’s certainly nothing extremely startling — just unusual. And there’s some wonderful scenes in it; there’s a whole Coca Cola machine in the desert scene with Micky that just knocks me out. And the boxing scene.

 

And your scene in the steam room.

And my scene in the steam room. And a lot of these things were really interesting trips; it was pretty obvious that it was [director] Bob Rafelson’s take on who we were and our struggles against the machinery of showbiz.

But ultimately, I personally found the movie unsatisfying. There’s all these good things in it, but finally a movie to me is — with shoot-em-ups, you know what it is, the good guy wins, and order is restored to the cosmos. Generally speaking, if there’s any character drama in a movie, then the protagonist represents the movie maker’s point of view of the world; it’s his world view. And in Head the Monkees wind up underwater, trapped, just like they did at the beginning, having to leap off the bridge and go into the water, and the message is “You don’t get out.” And that’s a terrible message.

 

Very cynical at least.

Cynical, it’s terrible, for art. Art’s not supposed to do that to you. You’re not supposed to go “Oh yeah, you’re right, life sucks.” You’re not supposed to walk out of a movie theater like that. That is a sin. That’s pretty low, personally. I think it’s bad art. And I find it unsatisfying on that exact and only account.

 

VIDEO: The Monkees’ in “Head” (clip)

Is that your view on music generally; it should leave you feeling positive?

Well, sure. With music the point is that you play the song and everybody hears it and thinks, “Yeah, I’ve been there,” and you create a community. And if you don’t do that — there’s people who say, “I want everybody to know I’m not going to sing any songs that made me famous, I’m only going to do other stuff.” Well, shoot, then why are you up there?

 

The recent tours do have the Monkees’ big hits, but do you mix it up and put other songs in there.

Yeah, we made our point. We know that fans who have paid any attention at all have favorites for songs that weren’t hits, album cuts. And we actually polled the fans, and put in their songs that they said, “Well, we haven’t heard this, we’d like to hear that.” So most of the stuff is actually fan generated.

 

Why do you think the Monkees have lasted?  

This is the big one! We could’ve done a half hour on this one alone. The Monkees represented something, particularly in a TV show. The Monkees were getting along without senior adults on the TV show. That was unheard of in television comedy; young adults with no senior adults. And it represented a fact of life for those of us who were kids and young adults at the time, which was that the senior political structure was not paying attention to us. They didn’t care about us. Johnson and Nixon had their little ego driven things going where they wanted a war and they didn’t care how it affected the country or what it meant for anybody else. They were not on our side. And The Monkees TV show was “We’ll get along anyway, and be happy about it.” We didn’t say anything about it. It was never made a point of. But it was relief for the kids, and for everybody else, and we represent that, even on stage. And it’s a very good job, if you ask me.

 

Gillian G. Gaar

Seattle-based writer Gillian G. Gaar covers the arts, entertainment, and travel.

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