Remembering the funniest Monkee on his heavenly birthday
There’s a lot of Monkees love going around these days and, as far as I’m concerned, let it flow.
It used to be the Monkees were like Rodney Dangerfield’s old punch line – no respect. Not anymore. You bash the Monkees these days, you do it at your own risk on social media.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
Sure, some of the 21st century love can be attributed to nostalgic memories sparked by Michael Nesmith’s death in December and the rekindling of youthful passions. And the residual grief for Peter Tork, who died three years ago, reportedly from a rare cancer, and Davy Jones, the first to exit, dead from a heart attack in 2012. Micky Dolenz is the lone Monkee left standing.
But some of the love, too, comes from critical revisionist history: There was more to the Monkees than the manufacturing of a pop band, a Prefab Four.
But let’s back up first. Many of those of us in the mid-Boomer generation – I’m 65 – grew up with the Monkees as our shiny new American Beatles, aware that they were a product manufactured for a TV show, but ultra-aware that they had these killer pop songs that resonated in our pre-teen brains just like the early Beatles songs did. Not only that, every week they participated in these wacky hijinks, just like the Beatles of A Hard Day’s Night and Help!. Just that opening bit set to the Monkees theme song, “Here we come walking’ down the street/We get the funniest looks from everyone we meet/Hey, hey we’re the Monkees and people say we monkey around/But we’re too busy singing to put anybody down.”
They lived by their own rules in the Monkee house – outside of society!, as Patti Smith sang much later in “Rock and Roll Oops Can’t Say it, N-Word” – but they weren’t rebels or if they were rebels they were cuddly rebels. I, like most everyone else my age, would have loved to have been part of that gang and, via TV, we were vicariously.
The antics were fun, but the music was astonishing. I knew songwriting was a craft, songs took some time, yet these Monkees – four guys chosen mostly for their acting chops, three Yanks and a cute Brit singer/tambourine banger – had this incredible string of songs. Bang, bang, bang. I did not really know anything about outside songwriting. I assumed everyone did it like The Beatles: Jam, compose, record, release music, make people happy.
VIDEO: The Monkees “Last Train to Clarksville”
“Last Train to Clarksville” was a hit right out of the box in August, 1966, followed by “I’m a Believer”/ “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” in November. I liked this one a lot – the yearning of the former and the anger of rejection in the latter.
“A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” was kinda meh, but then “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” “I Wanna Be Free”–with a string section just like The Beatles’ “Yesterday”–and the killer, “Daydream Believer.” That was the peak. Then came “Valleri” – another meh – and by the end of 1968, I was 12 (all grown up!) and my short-attention span interest had drifted to “real” groups. I know there were Monkees fans who stayed the course through Headquarters and the psychedelic movie, Head, but I wasn’t among them.
I had become aware of how “phony” this Monkees business was. The hits were written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart or Carole King and Gerry Goffin or Neil Diamond. Outsiders! How could they place those words in Monkee mouths? What did they know about being a Monkee? And there was the question of who played on those hits, not the Monkees it seemed, but studio musicians. Ack! Nesmith and Tork could play but overlord Don Kirshner wouldn’t allow for it. There was also this, as far as the 1968 version of me was concerned: The TV show was over. A great run, 58 episodes, two seasons, from April 1966 to March 1968. Maybe I absented myself from the Monkees music because of that, too; they weren’t in my face every Monday at 7:30.
And now, from the distance of 50-plus more years I wonder: Of what I enjoyed back then, what do I still enjoy? Baseball – yes. Baseball cards – no. Velour turtleneck shirts – no. Cats – yes. Girls/women – yes. Chewing gum – yes, but not bubble and not with sugar. Practical jokes – sadly, not so much. MAD magazine – well, I still like rifling through old issues in the cellar. Marbles – no. Coke or Pepsi – no. Pop music from that era? Yes, but some of that I chalk up simply to being a kid influenced by what came out his AM radio, the Top 40. I’d also argue some pretty damn good – and diverse – stuff came out of that. Along with the pop and rock, it was a kid’s introduction to country, soul, R&B and, yes, novelty tunes.
VIDEO: The Monkees Season One Theme Song
In June of 1982, Peter Tork was in my face again. It was at a gritty, downscale, but packed-to-the-gills club in Boston called Bunratty’s. (Long gone.) Tork, then 40, was on a tour he described as the “I Have to Laugh to Keep from Crying Tour.” It was billed as Peter Tork and the New Monks – Tork plus four crack musicians providing a hard-rock ride down memory lane.
We talked a bit between sets.
Me: “What it’s like going through life and to always be viewed as a former Monkee?”
Tork: “Compared to what?”
I paused for a moment and thought to myself, “Exactly! When this is the life you’ve known, what can you compare it to?” (This was one of the best answers I’d ever had to one of my queries.) I re-used this anecdote when I talked to Ringo years later – switching up Monkees for Beatles in his case – and he chuckled. “Yeah,” he said. “What can you compare it to? This is where I am and this is what I am.”
So, why were we Bostonians packed shoulder-to-shoulder in the post-punk heyday to hear ‘60s pop done live and loud?
“A lot of people come out and they want to remember the old songs,” Tork said. “They want to drift back to when they were fetuses or however old they were then.”
The Monkees’ bubble was punctured in 1967 when Nesmith revealed that they didn’t play the instruments on their records. When the TV show went south, they started to crumble. Tork, who won the spot in the Monkees over Stephen Stills because of Stills’ thin hair and imperfect teeth (or so legend goes), was the first to leave. He got a watch from the others inscribed “To Peter, from the guys at work.”
“When I arrive at the gates of St. Peter,” Tork quipped, “he’s going to say First one to go . . . okay, we’ll let you in.” One Peter to another.
“When I quit the Monkees,” Tork continued, “the first thing I wanted to do was divorce myself from the whole thing entirely.” Tork formed a “straight- ahead pop rock” band, Peter Tork and/or Release, but it failed to go anywhere. In late 1971 and early 1972 Tork spent three months in jail for possession of hashish. Tork, who was a folk musician prior to Monkee-dom, resurfaced in 1977 to play an acoustic gig at CBGB’s, at the time New York’s prime punk club.
AUDIO: Peter Tork at CBGB 1977
In a sense, punk was responsible for bringing Tork back to work. The Sex Pistols did a vicious sloppy cover of “Steppin’ Stone,” and other punk new wave bands have embraced the Monkees on two levels: 1) damn good pop tunes and, 2) potential kitsch value.
Tork, who was married and living in Venice, Calif., was on a tour playing small U.S. clubs. (Dolenz and Jones, incidentally, had also formed Monkees facsimiles at that time and were rumored still to be big stars in Japan.) Tork has been around the area all week – he was playing an even dive-ier club in nearby Somerville the next night – unveiling a repertoire that consisted of some Monkees tunes, some non-Monkees originals, and some early rock ‘n’ roll covers.
He wasn’t exactly playing the Monkees’ songs by the (Boyce & Hart) book. I’d venture to say this was almost hard rock/heavy metal Monkees music.
“The [Monkees] records are a little thin by contemporary standards,” Tork said. “People who are just into rock ‘n’ roll and had a lot of contempt for the Monkees phenomenon as a whole aren’t going to come in the first place. People who are on the borderline – they liked the Monkees and they like rock ‘n’ roll today – are going to come. If I play it like it was off the records, they’re going to say ‘Well, it was nice to see him but so what?’ If I play ’em right and they want to dance, I’ve got good musicians whacking away and they’re going to come back.”
Tork’s musicians – Phil Simon and Nelson Bogart, guitars; Vince Barranco, drums; and Paul Ill, bass – have played variously with Little Feat, Dave Brubeck, Joe Beck and Carolyne Mas. With Tork they let it rip, boogieing through “Clarksville,” funking up “I’m a Believer.” What makes the enjoyment slightly ironic is that Tork, whose voice was the most ragged of the Monkees and still remains rough after all these years, didn’t even sing on many of the Monkees’ songs. (“Auntie Grizelda” was his signature song.)
Although not signed to a label, Tork said producer Jimmy Miller (Rolling Stones, Traffic) was ready to record an album with them. (Jimmy Miller, who lived in our region, was had made maybe the greatest Stones album ever in Exile on Main St., but was drug-damaged goods by that point, sad to say.) “My goals right now are to make a living entertaining,” Tork said. “Put away something for my old age, cookouts on the weekend, no big thing. You never know what’s going to happen. One of these days I might make a mark on my own.”
That never quite happened. He did release a solo album, Stranger Things Have Happened, in 1994 and partnered with folk singer James Lee Stanley for several records. He died at age Feb. 21, 2019 at 77 and would have turned 80 today.
The Monkees did their first reunion/comeback tour in 1986. They did the big summer shed outside Boston four years later. I skipped those and in fact missed ‘em all – most done without the recalcitrant Nesmith – even the one not far from me last year featuring Dolenz and back-in-the-fold Nesmith. I probably should’ve but for some reason, I just couldn’t. There was the Good Times album in 2016 – critics raved about it and I streamed it, liked it enough, but still …
Maybe I was still hungover from the other Monkees solo tour I saw, Davy Jones at the Middle East club in Cambridge. Jones was pretty wooden, and “cute” was something very much in the rear-view mirror. I thought of kittens that lost their charm as they became old tomcats. Jones and his sextet played “Great Balls of Fire,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Wooly Bully,” “Jailhouse Rock,” plus some generic hard rockers and schmaltzy ballads, withholding Monkees hits until the end: “Look Out, Here Comes Tomorrow,” “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You,” “I Wanna Be Free,” “Daydream Believer” – his signature song – and “Stepping Stone,” which he sang with a vacuous smile, seemingly missing the song’s thrust. At one point he asked, “What am I doing here?” which I didn’t know was just puzzlement – only 200 people attended the 500+ capacity club, two shows knocked down to one – or existentially.
I did, though, spend a very happy hour with Micky Dolenz at Northeast Comic Con in 2018, hosting this Q & A.
Upon Tork’s death, Harrison Smith, in the Washington Post, wrote: “And while the Monkees were dogged by reports of squabbling and frequent tensions — Mr. Tork was once head-butted by Jones and said he dropped out of a 2001 tour because he had a “meltdown” and “behaved inappropriately” — Mr. Tork insisted that they were at their best when they were together. Their musical chemistry was special, he said, even if it was the result of a few producers looking to cast a few handsome men for a television show.
“This is not a band. It’s an entertainment operation whose function is Monkee music,” Tork told Britain’s Telegraph newspaper in 2016. “It took me a while to get to grips with that but what great music it turned out to be! And what a wild and wonderful trip it has taken us on!”
“I refute any claims that any four guys could’ve done what we did,” Tork told Guitar World in 2013. “There was a magic to that collection. We couldn’t have chosen each other. It wouldn’t have flown. But under the circumstances, they got the right guys.”
Not that it matters, but d on’t look for the Monkees induction into the Rolling Stone’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2007, Tork told the New York Post’s Page Six: “Jann Wenner is single-handedly keeping us out of the Hall of Fame.” He “doesn’t care what the rules are and just operates how he sees fit. It is an abuse of power. I don’t know whether The Monkees belong in the Hall of Fame, but it’s pretty clear that we’re not in there because of a personal whim.”
VIDEO: Peter Tork guest VJ’s on MTV 1986