The sweet, silly and razor sharp bassist for The Monkees loses his battle with cancer at 77
Peter Tork was in the unique position of being one of the most misunderstood persons in rock & roll twice.
Tork, best known as the Monkees’ bass player, as well as an actor on their eponymous television show, died of cancer on Feb. 21 at age 77. It was enough that he was one-fourth of a prefabricated band that defied all odds and made some of the finest, most diversified pop-rock of the sixties. But even within the band, it seemed like he was slightly undervalued. He was the only member of the band whose character on the TV show (a good-natured dimwit) contrasted sharply with his public image (an introspective, banjo-strumming flower child). While he may have been the most musically proficient of the four members, he was stuck in a band that didn’t play instruments on their first two albums, and got the least amount of lead vocals (admittedly, he wasn’t much of a singer).
Yet still, he was the first Monkee to leave the band in 1969. If you’ve ever seen YouTube clips of the Monkees without Tork, you’ll see the dynamic was seriously off without him in the band. The forced comedy felt like they were trying to compensate for something that wasn’t there. They were selling themselves more as fading kiddie-show hosts, rather than a competent rock band. Peter Tork was nobody’s weak link; if anything, he was comparable to Chris Rock during his time on Saturday Night Live – a potentially strong link that wasn’t used as much as it should have been.
Before he auditioned for the Monkees’ TV show, Tork (born Peter Thorkelson), a native of Washington, D.C., had been hanging around the Greenwich Village folk scene in New York. He was famously recommended to the show’s producers by a then-unknown Stephen Stills, who was rejected for having bad teeth. Having come up in an era where most folk singers also dabbled in comedy, Tork’s skills were a natural for this new band, whose television show would premiere on NBC in the fall of 1966 and continue to run for another two years. It was made crystal clear, early on, that the project wasn’t entirely organic; the show’s producer, Don Kirshner, commissioned first-call L.A. session musicians (later dubbed “the Wrecking Crew”) to play the sessions and Brill Building songwriters to pen the tunes.
The band gradually fought to have more of a say, resulting in the Headquarters album, on which they played most of the instruments. they eventually settled on a mix of session musicians and actual band members. (After the TV show went off the air in 1968, some of the album tracks were table scraps left over from the early days.) From all reports, Tork was the one member who hoped the Monkees could develop into an actual band, after Headquarters proved they could. It wasn’t to be; seemingly each member was using the group to further their own interests, with Michael Nesmith focusing on his songwriting and producing, Micky Dolenz gaining experience as a director, Davy Jones furthering his teen-idol appeal as an actor. Tork didn’t want the band to be a means to an end – he likely hoped the band would be that end. And interestingly enough, he was the first to leave, in early 1969, after the failure of Head (the Monkees’ wildly experimental movie) and the TV special 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee. Given his talent, you would expect Tork to possess the focused productivity that his bandmate Nesmith would have in years to come, but despite drifting from band to band and career to career, nothing seemed to jell. There were occasional Tork sightings through the seventies – singing waiter, guitar teacher, playing a one-off gig at CBGB’s in New York, but nothing steady, until the Monkees’ reunion and revival of the mid-80s put him back in the light. From then on, he was a bit more visible, alternating between occasional Monkees gigs plus his own band, Shoe Suede Blues.
In March 2009, Tork was unfortunately diagnosed with cancer. Luckily, the man stayed around long enough to reunite with Nesmith and Dolenz to record Good Times!, an unexpectedly great late-career comeback produced by Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger. (Davy Jones had passed on by then, although he did appear posthumously.) As a Monkee fan, the best thing about this album is that it picked up on their quirkier side, and didn’t try to promote them as aging teen idols. That was the mistake their previous comebacks made. This 2016 effort contained no attempts to recreate the sixties nor “get with” the 2010s; they just picked up the plot where it left off, ca. the Head movie. While Peter Tork was too ill to tour behind that album, he was still very much involved, even getting off a couple of lead vocals. This wasn’t the Monkees that did Kool-Aid television ads with Bugs Bunny; this was very much the Monkees that had Frank Zappa on their TV show and Jimi Hendrix as an opening act. I’ve always suspected that this was what Nesmith and Tork wanted the Monkees to become. Good Times! brought this way of thinking full circle. Evidently the public agreed – this became their first Top 20 album in 48 years. At the time, my friend Dave was comparing the news events of that summer with those of 1968, noting the similarities – a right-wing President elect, a long and protracted war, and the Monkees back on the charts. The only difference is, the Monkees might have been the only thing on that list that I didn’t mind seeing revived. Before cancer claimed Peter Tork’s life, he went out on an extremely high note.