The pop band known as The Monkees were an undeniable musical & cultural phenomenon for three short years from 1966-1969, producing six albums and a hit television series that shot them to the peak of pop stardom, yielding several number one hits, millions of screaming pre-teen and teenage fans, and for a brief moment, outselling both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
In many ways, Peter Tork formed the pivotal musical foundation of The Monkees because he was a well-respected musician and artist in the burgeoning New York Folk & Blues scene that yielded the likes of Mama Cass Elliott, Denny Doherty (of Mamas & Papas fame) and Bob Dylan. Peter's gift for playing a plethora of instruments (bass, guitar, keyboard, banjo, and French horn) generated a high demand for his services; and he knocked around for several years in the mid-60s, hanging and performing with the likes of Van Dyke Parks, Arthur Lee, and Steven Stills.
The fateful call, which would change Peter's life forever, came in June of 1965 with a casting call for a new NBC show that would assemble a band of musician's together known as The Monkees. Friend and confidante, Steven Stills, not quite hitting the mark with his own audition, rang his buddy, urging him to give it a go. Twice. Stills remarked to the producers that he knew 'just the man to fill the bill' and Peter aced the audition for what was to become a ground breaking multimedia project centered on a zany, young, rock/pop band - styled as THE American answer to the Beatles. The results were legendary and changed the popular music and television biz forever.
Peter, never totally satisfied with prefab fame, stuck to his roots. He could forever be found jamming with bands, learning and honing his chops. Music legend Jimi Hendrix jammed with Peter on several occasions, calling Peter - "The most talented Monkee."
Peter realized a real love affair with the blues sometime during the 1990's. The result of that love is his new band called Shoe Suede Blues.
When The Monkees hit big I was all of 12-years old at the time; but to this day I still own every one of their albums. Recently I had the pleasure to conduct an extensive interview with Peter - enjoy!
Review: What are your earliest memories about how music engaged your interest & imagination; and at what point did you realize that you wanted to pursue it seriously?
Peter Tork: I'm not sure it ever did, but let me put it this way. I was always drawn to music as entertaining and diverted away from it for various reasons. As a matter of making a conscious commitment to music that happened in my 50s - long after the breakup of The Monkees.
But music always held a fascination for me and I always pursued it. Anybody who knows about my Greenwich Village folk days also knows I was engaged into pursuing interesting arrangements and how to go about things musically, always without a conscious sense of commitment to the music that I did create. Not until much later in life can I say that I made a real decision about how to pursue music in my life, which is kind of funny.
Review: The Monkees were an incredibly short-lived yet obviously enduring phenomena, which has been well documented and I'm certain you've been asked every conceivable question under the sun about.
Tork: A few still pop up.
Review: One criticism has always been that The Monkees were a manufactured pop band. But given that each of you did play your own instruments was that a fair accusation considering how many pop bands - from The Beatles to The Who - wee in fact manufactured and cultivated and presented to appeal to pre-teen audiences. Indeed, The Who's classic The Who Sell Out addressed this very topic.
Tork: That's true enough that a lot of manufacturing went on in the music and still does today. Nobody gave much thought about Peter, Paul & Mary - but they were created by a single person - Albert Grossman - who was Bob Dylan's manager. He stuck them together and it bewildered even themselves. But he had an ear and an eye and knew it would work musically and in many ways that endured until Mary died.
And then you get The Byrds and The Beatles who put themselves together more or less originally, yet everybody knows that of the original Byrds line-up, only McGuinn played his instruments on the records, so the business of manufacturing a band is actually one of degree. The Beatles never would have made it without Brian Epstein and they're held up as the Gold Standard. Maybe The Monkees were at the opposite end because rather than put ourselves together, management originally put us together, which is one of the reasons we got so much flak. If somebody chose not to make the point, it wouldn't have been an issue; but somebody drew a line and we were on the other side.
Review: The Monkees also had some of the best songwriters in the business writing material on the early albums - Neil Diamond, Bobby Boyce & Tommy Hart, Carole King - and then the group wrote and performed everything on their third album, 'Headquarters' - but do you think the sound or impact of the band would have been different if you had played on those first two albums instead of studio musicians?
Tork: No, those first two albums would have been worse if we actually played on them because we didn't know how to make a record at the outset. I realized much later that musical proficiency comes in stages. You practice scales and play melodies and create accompaniments and then you need to learn to make a record. We could play together as a band and had no trouble with that; but making a record is a different animal - as we found out with Headquarters. We were in the studio from 10 AM to 2 AM seven nights a week.
The first two albums are much better in terms of pure professional polish of sound. But what we did do with Headquarters that the first two albums couldn't achieve was convey what we were like as humans creating it. People got let in on the dynamics of being The Monkees as we made the record and Headquarters stands up well for these reasons.
Review: Plus it featured one of your best selling singles, Pleasant Valley Sunday and also outsold Sgt. Pepper and Jimi Hendrix first album in 1967 at the height of the Summer of Love…
Tork: Well, we didn't outsell Sgt. Pepper. We had a number one album with Headquarters the week it was released and the Beatles were at #3. But then that knocked us out of the number one spot. And at one moment in time for a little while we outsold The Beatles and The Rolling Stones combined.
Review: There's a rather obscure Monkees song that I heard called 'If I Ever Get Back to Saginaw' and have to ask you the back-story on that one.
Tork: That was a Mike Nesmith tune and he was given to titling songs that had nothing to do with the lyrics or content of the song - so would come up with titles like Daily Nightly. But that was pulled out after I left the group.
Review: How do you get along with the other guys in the Monkees? I realize Davy Jones also recently passed, so wanted to know your thoughts about him as well.
Tork: Mickey and Mike and I have a very cordial relationship and share a lot of common topics. We go to lunch together when we're all in town and have a good time. I love and respect each of these guys in their own way, although the real joys that I shared with Davy were special. At one point we had some good hard connections but as the years rolled on, those things faded away. But I am sorry to see Davy go. He was the one member in the group that I had the strongest human connection with. I still have two guys that I love and respect left from the band, but we share a different dynamic.
Review: What was it like creatively back then? I read David Crosby's autobiography and he mentions how you loaned him the money for that famous 80-foot sailboat of his. Plus I've heard accounts about how you would jam with Jimi Hendrix at your home back in '60s. Do you still have any tapes of those sessions?
Tork: It's true. I did have such a lovely house for a little while, but overshot the mark. It had a big lovely swimming pool and a good music room where we could get pretty loud. Jimi did come over to my house. Buddy Miles and I were close for a while and both of them would come over and say hello.
Once Steven Stills and David Crosby and my then girlfriend and I were jamming together and I leaning into the drums something ferocious, banging on cymbals and lashing out pretty good, until a city councilman and a cop came over and we were so loud that we drowned out conversation down the hill, apparently.
Review: You were part of a young elite hanging out with some pretty heavy hitters.
Tork: I didn't have any sense of that at the time. I didn't know they were members of the elite until years later when they all had successful careers. I didn't know Richard Havens was doing really well. I didn't know Jose Feliciano was making it. I didn't know any of those guys were going to be good until they got good, so it wasn't like I was hanging out with heavy hitters as far as I knew at the time.
Review: What about your current touring band. How did you hook up with them and what goals are you seeking in terms of musical expression these days?
Tork: In terms of goals, nothing short of screaming escalating teeny boppers will do; but in the meantime, I'll settle for a working career. The three of us in my current band got together 12 years ago and basically it's the same band with the parts interchanged. It's like that old farmer's joke: See this hatchet? It's had 8 handles and 3 heads, but I've had this hatchet for 45 years. I'm the only continuing member of the original band, one or two guys would quit, we'd get a replacement, but the band has a continuing history. We're now making a new CD.
It's interesting to be with these guys. The guitar and drummer live about 90 minutes away and the bass player is the second oldest member of the band, having played with us for 7 years now. He lives in San Bernadino.
But we're looking forward to playing in Bay City. Actually, I had a girlfriend that lived in Midland for a little while that I met when I was going to college before the Monkees. Her Mom and Dad were classmates of my Dad's and she and I dated for a year and change. I would often visit her in Midland.
But we're gonna rock and roll the joint. We have an authentic Chicago Blues sound - Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy - and incorporate it with a few pop jump blues approaches.
The name of the band - Shoe Suede Blues - I came up with as a joke, referring to a time when blues, pop, country and rock music could all be heard on the same radio stations and they all influenced one another. Blues guys were doing pop songs, country guys were doing blues, and to me that's a wonderful moment in pop music history. There's also a special beat that came out of the music at that time - a cross between a shuffle and a straight beat that surfaced years later in reggae and still shakes me to the bone. The older I get the more I realize the beat is what its all about.
Sturgis Cunningham, our drummer, is a driven and balanced musician and our guitarist Joe Boyle will put the hair up on the back of your head. I pick the rhythm and sing the songs and we even do some Monkee songs - one that stands out is this oily bluesy version of Last Train to Clarksville that has a tempo similar to that old tune Black Velvet. The new CD is called Cambria Hotel and you can check it out at petertork.com.
Review: After you formed Shoe Suede Blues you went and opened for The Monkees later.
Tork: It was funny being at both ends of that. I wore sunglasses and a Panama hat and a loud checked jacket and I was the guitar player and one of the singers in the band. In those days the opening band came out and sang Daydream Believer with The Monkees and so out comes the band they bring me out my jacket and hat and sunglasses; and I put them on and there were gasps from the crowd. That was fun.
Review: Do you enjoy touring?
Tork: I don't tour enough. In the 1980s for this big Monkee Reunion tour I was on the road for 7 months and had a blast. I'm not sure if I have what it takes to be on the road like that anymore, but time will tell. If I had my druthers I would go out for 2-3 weeks at a time, stay home for a week or 3, and then go back out and do five or six shows a week if the support staff and money and tour bus were right. I could do that for 30-40 weeks of the year. Performing is it for me.
Review: Apart from Clarksville are you going to perform any of your Monkees songs on this tour?
Tork: Sure thing. Absolutely. I love them. Almost a third of the show is Monkee's songs: For Pete's Sake, Auntie Grizelda, Shades of Gray and a few others.
Review: What/s the most challenging component involved with keeping things on an even keel in the music business?
Tork: Oh, you're talking a couple of different things. A career takes dedication on the part of many different people. One needs people to believe in one and I cannot muster a career on my own hoof. I don't have what it takes to book shows, make arrangements, and tend to all the details, so it takes a village basically.
But in terms of staying personally balanced in the midst of showbiz requires a particular little extra something - the ability to rely on something or someone or some process that I'm included in. In other words it's not me and everything else but a process that I'm included in and can rely upon. Sometimes this works mechanically and sometimes its transcendent; but its got to be greater than my solo self and I need to have something on my side - friends who have insight and a collection of people that I can turn to for spiritual uplifting or a joke here or there. Nobody does this alone, but that's true about everything as far as I'm concerned.