RIP Peter Tork, a Man With a Monkee on his Back
When I saw the sad news that Monkees bass player Peter Tork died on Wednesday, I thought back to a long exchange of letters I had some years ago with Fred Velez, who maintained that the Monkees belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
That was a long shot then and remains a long shot now. To rock writers and rock music industry people, who make most of the Hall of Fame decisions, the Monkees were inauthentic, a band manufactured for television and thus not real rock ’n’ rollers, never mind Hall of Fame material.
They were seen as cute, disposable and trivial — in contrast to, say, the Sex Pistols, whose slender body of work 99.2% of the music audience has never heard, but who led the class in defiant rebel attitude. They were awarded Hall of Fame membership almost immediately. Did we mention that the Sex Pistols once recorded their own version of the Monkees’ “I’m Not Your Stepping Stone”?
Fred Velez wasn’t, and isn’t, a guy who sits in his basement indexing Monkees trading cards while obsessively listening to “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” He’s an articulate fan who has written Monkees books and functions normally in the world.
Years ago he argued that other artists who had made it into the Rock Hall were no more deserving than the Monkees, and he would have a stronger case today.
Take Hall of Fame band Journey. Can anyone seriously argue that either for importance or musical quality, the Monkees were below Journey?
Now it’s totally true that the Monkees were a manufactured “band,” the “Prefab Four” in the running gag of 1966. They were put together not by kids driving their parents nuts by playing guitars in the basement, but by trade paper ads and auditions.
The goal was to build a sitcom around the antics of a pop band more than slightly reminiscent of the good-natured, zany Beatles. Throw in a couple of catchy pop songs every episode — a TV gambit that went back to Ricky Nelson on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet — and you had a show that kids would want to watch.
The filming was also zany, full of seemingly improvised non sequiturs and quick-cut gags. If it resembled the Beatles’ films, A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, that was not coincidence. It was mission accomplished.
Purely from a TV perspective, the show had a great first season and then fell off a cliff. It was cancelled at the end of the second season, having delivered 58 episodes that would be rerun tens of thousands of times in subsequent years.
Perhaps to the surprise of their creators, the Monkees became more of a radio than a TV force. They had three №1 hits — “Last Train to Clarksville,” “I’m a Believer,” “Daydream Believer” — and put three others in the top five.
Their singles and albums outsold the Beatles, thanks to the smart ears of producers who picked songs by the likes of John Stewart, Neil Diamond and Carole King and gave them toe-tapping, radio-friendly arrangements.
Stewart, a terrific singer-songwriter, got to make his own music for years thanks to the royalties from the Monkees’ recording of “Daydream Believer.”
In any case, the Monkees for a year or two were a legitimate pop phenom, something I didn’t fully appreciate before my exchanges with Fred Velez.
I knew that my sister, who was five years younger than I, bought Monkees records the way I had bought Beatles records. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with that, but I did find the music less substantial, and it is true, I believe, that she doesn’t listen to Monkees records now, a half century later, the way I still listen to the Beatles.
But musical durability isn’t the only thing at work here. Velez and another music writer whose work I always admired, Jim Bohen, argued that when you came along five years later than I did, the Monkees were your discovery, your gateway to the exhilaration of pop music — the way the Beatles were for many of their older siblings.
The fact the Monkees were assembled by audition doesn’t automatically put them in the same lineup as Fabian, who in the late 1950s was yanked off a street in Philadelphia and shaped into a safe “teen idol.” Fabian was a hunk who couldn’t sing a note — and who, to his credit, embraced that situation and parlayed it into a career that continues today.
If we were going to disqualify every artist who was shaped into a pop star like a ball of Play-Doh by calculating managers and music biz executives, we’d have to erase half the pop stars of the last 20 years. At least since the disco era of the ’70s, a whole lot of pop “stars” have been a front person, a face and image selling the work of a production team.
Back in the mid-’60s, though, it was still considered a musical betrayal when word got out that the Monkees didn’t play their own instruments on their records.
Of course, it was later revealed that the same was true for a lot of the records by the Beach Boys, who were never accused of musical sleight of hand.
Which brings us back to Peter Tork, who was a legitimate musician. So was Michael Nesmith, the Monkees’ guitarist. The other two Monkees, Davy Jones and Mickey Dolenz, came from acting backgrounds. As the lead singer, Jones was excused from playing an instrument, while Dolenz played the drums.
In any case, once word got out that the Monkees didn’t play on their records, they heard a lot of laughter, which was particularly irksome to Tork and Nesmith.
Tork was a multi-talented instrumentalist who had hung around the New York folk music scene in the early ’60s with folks like Stephen Stills, who suggested Tork audition for the Monkees TV show after Stills auditioned and was rejected (a teeth and hair thing).
Tork eventually did play on some Monkees records, contributing among other things the rather nice piano introduction to “Daydream Believer.” When they toured — and you can’t mention Monkees tours without recalling that for seven shows, their opening act was Jimi Hendrix — the four group members did play live.
The Monkees also behaved like a real rock ’n’ roll band in at least one other respect: They fought with each other a lot.
That was one reason their recording career ended soon after the TV show. First Tork and then Nesmith split off to play their own music, Tork specifically saying he wanted to play in a band with musicians.
Nesmith had some success with songs like “Joanne,” and he’s credited with influencing the country-rock sound of the ‘70s.
Tork did less well, though he had some fun and he never had to stop playing music. His several bands and solo projects didn’t land any big record deals, so he was better known for things like, in 1981, playing a California pizzeria with a band called the Dashboard Saints.
He also abused drugs and alcohol. He served three months in 1972 for possession of hashish, and he didn’t get sober, he later said, until 1981.
Eventually the Monkees also did something else that real dissolved rock bands do when the individuals are spinning their wheels with solo careers: They got back together for reunion tours.
Several, in fact, starting with a 20th anniversary tour in 1986 that included Tork, Dolenz and Jones. Nesmith dropped in occasionally, though he resisted being identified too strongly as an ex-Monkee.
They parted ways in 1997 and again in 2001 after renewed internal feuding, then did one last round in 2011, the year before Jones died. Tork and Dolenz regrouped in 2015.
Meanwhile, in 2009, Tork was diagnosed with a rare cancer, adenoid cystic carcinoma. He documented his case on Facebook and became an advocate for raising research funds. He eventually went into remission, though the cancer returned and was the primary cause of his death this week.
Over the years Tork created a career that, apart from the Monkees, could charitably be called spotty. While his Monkees career overshadowed the rest, for obvious and unavoidable reasons, it’s also true that his Monkees identity supported the rest of what he did.
As for whether his band belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Tork felt it did. He argued that Jann Wenner — long-time publisher of Rolling Stone magazine and a pillar of the old-school rock writer industry — was keeping the Monkees out.
True? It certainly could be. Maybe in the end it comes down to which daydreams you believe.