Monkees vs. Macheen: Peter Tork (1942-2019)

There is only feeling
In this world of life and death
I sing the praise of never change
With every single breath

Just a few weeks ago, I was writing about James Frawley; now Monkees fans have the one-two punch of grieving for the loss of Peter Tork. There is plenty of biographical information available about Tork on the internet, so I won’t spend much time on that. I’ll just do some basics. Peter was born Peter Thorkelson on February 13, 1942 in Washington D.C. He was a struggling folk singer in Greenwich Village and then Los Angeles. According to the book, Monkees Day by Day (Andrew Sandoval), he was working as a dishwasher when musician Stephen Stills (who also auditioned for the show) recommended Tork for The Monkees. The producers were impressed with his sense of humor and cast him.

Since this is a blog about The Monkees, this will be all about Tork’s performance as the charming, adorable band member character, created for the show. Monkees writer Treva Silverman mentioned in an interview that the writing team couldn’t decide if Peter should be an idiot, or a genius. They took a vote and decided on “idiot.” After recapping 58 episodes, I think that’s a little too narrow. Peter was more childlike and naive than anything, with many flashes of pure genius. Certainly, he was one of the funniest performers, though frequently he had the thankless job of being the punchline of one-liners and sight gags. The character’s innocence, gullibility, and misunderstanding of situations was always good for a laugh. His questions to Mike or Micky would often provide exposition to the audience. Tork may not have always liked playing or being identified with the character. Micky Dolenz said in the Monkees documentary, Hey, Hey, We’re The Monkees (1997), that Peter Tork had the toughest acting job, since he had to play a character the least like his real-life personality. Peter was possibly the most likable Monkee; certainly he was the easiest to root for. The band was a group of underdogs and Peter was the underdog among them.

One of the best episodes featuring Peter was “The Devil and Peter Tork,” a story based on “The Devil and Daniel Webster” by Steven Vincent Benét. In this episode Peter nearly loses his soul to the Devil because of his love of playing the harp. Tork captures Peter’s childlike wonder when he first sees and then falls in love with the harp. When the Devil supposedly gives him the talent to make beautiful music with the instrument, I smile when I see his face light up as he plucks the strings. The Devil comes calling to make Peter pay his part of the deal and, thanks to Tork’s acting, I completely buy that Peter’s intentions were pure. He didn’t care about the fame and fortune he received; he just wanted to make people happy with music. Tork’s natural gift for inspiring sympathy from the audience went a long way towards making this episode work.

As a viewer, I don’t want to see the kindest Monkee doomed to hell, and I actually felt frightened for him. Fortunately the other Monkees rally around their friend and Mike convinces him that he can play the harp without the Devil’s power. Tork is convincing in the climax of the episode, showing us his anxiety and fear and then his gentle happiness when he realizes he’s really playing! Peter Tork’s success in these performances might have something to do with the fact that he wasn’t previously trained as an actor. His portrayal comes off as genuine, not practiced. He’s the kid in all of us, and he nicely contrasts the smoother Davy and cynical Micky and Mike. Peter Tork also did well miming the harp performances. Though he did subsequently learn to play, he did not know how at the time, and he watched Harpo Marx for inspiration on faking it.

Peter Tork wasn’t usually the star of the episode and many of his best moments were as part of the ensemble. One of the funniest episodes of season one was “Monkees in a Ghost Town,” and Peter Tork contributed many entertaining moments. In one bit, Peter lists the events of the plot so far, setting up Micky for the fourth-wall breaking line, “That’s for the benefit of any of you who’ve tuned in late. Now, back to our story!” Next, Micky gets an idea and Peter holds the light-bulb over Micky’s head. Both of these gags are over the top, and could have failed, but Peter sells them with sincerity and energy. Peter Tork and Micky Dolenz made dynamic comic partners and among their best scenes is their attempt to impersonate gangsters. Micky’s Cagney impression is a scene-stealer, but Peter backs him up as gruff-voiced sidekick, Spider. For the few moments while the illusion lasts, Peter Tork captures Spider’s physical stance and aggression and he and Micky Dolenz nail the comic timing. After the duo are busted, Peter resorts to his usual little boy demeanor, protesting to the real gangsters that they can’t step on a spider because “…it’ll rain.” Again, such a silly line could have easily been a groaner but Tork could always say that kind of stuff like he meant it. At the climax of the episode, when Peter gets a hold of the gangster’s gun, even big, bad Lenny is rooting for him and prompts him with his own famous line, “You guys ain’t goin’ nowhere!”

I could go on forever, mentioning memorable performances of Peter Tork’s from the series. But, in the interest of time, here’s a quick list of 10 more of my favorite Peter moments:

“I’ve Got a Little Song Here”–After a few failed attempts, Monkee Man Peter finally learns to fly.
“One Man Shy”–Peter gains confidence in his ability to win over the ladies and gets them all to kiss him in a game of spin the bottle.
“Too Many Girls”–Peter as The Amazing Pietro: “Notice that my fingers never leave my hands.”
“Find the Monkees”– Peter comes up with the idea to “be” the band that television producer Benson Hubbell is trying to find.
“Monkees a la Mode”–Peter sweetly menaces Robroy and blocks him from leaving the stage.
“It’s a Nice Place to Visit”– Peter’s surprises Micky, Mike and the audience with a cool, gun-twirling maneuver.
“Hillbilly Honeymoon”–Peter as Uncle Racoon pulls off an over-the-top hillbilly accent and gives marriage advice to the lovelorn Jud.
“Monkees Marooned”– Peter is miraculously able to communicate with Kimba of the Jungle, learning his entire life story from the word “Kretch.”
“The Card Carrying Red Shoes”–Peter evades amorous Natasha, who chases him around the pad. “Well, I love you and my face loves you, it’s just my body that’s out of shape.”
“Monkees on the Wheel,”–In a rare out-of-character moment, Peter as “The Professor” uses his “system” to trick the gangsters into getting drunk and passing out.

Of course I don’t want to end this post without talking about music. Peter Tork was, rightly or wrongly, considered one of the two “real musicians” of the cast. He’s the musician behind the memorable piano lick on “Daydream Believer” (John Stewart). Though he didn’t get to sing as much, I always enjoyed the duet with Micky Dolenz on “Words” (Tommy Boyce/Bobby Hart) and what the heck, I even liked the novelty-folk song, “Auntie Grizelda,” (Diane Hildebrand/Jack Heller) which was certainly well-used for romps on the show. I’m also a fan of his songwriting contributions to the Head soundtrack, “Can You Dig It?” and “Do I Have to Do This All Over Again?” (Interesting that both song titles are questions.) “Can You Dig It” is one of the strongest tracks. Last but not least, one of my favorite Peter Tork-penned songs was on the album Headquarters, “For Pete’s Sake.” This tune was the closing theme in the second season and one I remember fondly. Though I was often sad to hear it because it meant the episode was over. The song has lovely lyrics and captures the psychedelic feel of the second season.

In this generation
In this lovin’ time
In this generation
We will make the world shine

After the show ended, Peter Tork was the first to leave the band in 1968. He worked as a solo musician, formed other bands, even tried his hand at a recording and film production company. He reunited with the other Monkees several times for tours, albums, the 1997 special, and the fifty year reunion album, Good Times!. He contracted adenoid cystic carcinoma in 2009. He died of complications from the disease on February 21, 2019 in his home in Connecticut.

The Monkees universe and the world in general is a sadder place without this funny, charming, brilliant man.

by Bronwyn Knox

Every couple of weeks, “Monkees vs. Macheen” examined the crazy, spirited, Ben Franks-type world of the Pre-Fab Four: David Jones, Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork alias The Monkees.

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Monkees Vs. Macheen: “Monkees on Tour”

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“Is It Live or is It Memorex?”

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“Monkees on Tour” has no storyline; it’s a documentary of the Monkees during their 1966-1967 North American tour. Most of the episode was filmed on January 21 and 22 in Phoenix, Arizona and San Francisco. Writer and director credits go to Robert Rafelson and the episode aired April 24, 1967. According to IMDB trivia, Bob Rafelson filmed the concert on his own, without permission from NBC or Columbia studios, because he wanted to end the first season “on a different note from other television shows.”

The episode opens with Davy thanking the viewers for all the things that have happened to them this year. He’s sitting in a rocking chair on the Bewitched set and has shorter hair then we saw in season one. The Monkees set up that we’re going to watch what happens to the Monkees on the night of a concert. Micky, Peter, and Mike remove Davy from the set and take him out the back door. This sequence was shot after the tour portion in March 1967 and was filmed on 35mm. The concert parts of the episode were filmed on 16mm.

bearded-monkees

Micky, Peter, and Davy are wearing fake beards over their real beards. They grew those beards during the recording of the Monkees third album, Headquarters, which took six weeks to record from Feb-March 1967. According to the VH1 Behind the Music episode on the Monkees, six weeks was a long time by the standards of the day. (Shout-out to John Lorinc for sharing the Behind the Music link with me a few months ago.) The significance of Headquarters is that it was the first album they truly made as a group, writing and playing most of the instruments themselves and away from the influence of former music supervisor Don Kirshner. It was the #1 record on the US charts for one week before being bumped by the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. If you are going to be bumped by something, it might as well be that. As a fan, I have to say that many of my favorite Monkees songs are on this album. I’m looking forward to hearing the more of the tracks from Headquarters as I start to recap season two.

Back to the show, the Monkees arrive at their tour destination in a plane. Kids scream, chant for the Monkees, and talk about how excited they are to see them behind a chain link fence. The Monkees stir the crowd up, touching hands and signing autographs before getting into a car and driving away. The audio and the film is really pretty bad. I don’t have the new Blu Ray; I just don’t have that kind of disposable income, so when I say that it’s bad, I’m talking about the DVD version, and what’s available on IFC and Antenna TV. I’ve read that the Blu Ray of this episode in particular is a great improvement. It’s frustrating to have bad audio on an episode that focuses on music.

Next is film of the Monkees doing random things. There are shots of them showering and getting ready and then having breakfast. Micky is sleeping and gets a wake-up call from Peter. In the DVD commentary for this episode, Peter Tork mentions that they were improvising and doing shtick “just as fast as we could.” There’s a cute bit where Davy imitates Roy Kinnear in the “fiendish thingy” scene from Help!:  “I am picking the sandwich up. I am putting the sandwich in my mouth. I am biting the sandwich.” 

More footage. Davy plays with a swan [Editor’s note: You shouldn’t mess with swans!].  Micky signs autographs and imitates a smiling robot. Peter, Davy, and Micky go horseback riding without Mike. Micky is without shoes. Peter asks if the horse is a boy or a girl because “your hair is as long as mine”; a little comment on the type of reactions long-haired young men might have gotten at the time. Davy wants to know if the horse has ever wanted to ride a person.  Mike, Micky, and Davy go to radio station KRUX. This was a Phoenix top-40 radio station back in those days and they sponsored the Monkees concert that evening. At the station, there’s a lot of crazy quick edits, including a shot of the disc jockey tied up on the floor and the Monkees messing with the dials. Mike gives the farm report again, like he did in “Monkees at the Circus.”

monkee-on-your-back

The record, “Mr. Farmer” by The Seeds, spins on the turntable as they cut away from the radio station. More random footage set to music, this time Mike Nesmith’s “The Girl That I Knew Somewhere.” During this sequence, Micky roller skates and gets chased by some kids. Mike takes the Monkeemobile for a spin, and we get to see the license plate number is 57A-MFG-015. He shops at a mall and goes up an escalator backwards. Davy rides a motorcycle through the dirt, shirtless. Between this and Micky riding the horse barefoot, I feel like an old lady for wanting to tell them, “Don’t do that.”

After 10 minutes and 34 seconds of this episode, there is still no live playing.

Back to the radio station, Mike interviews a young woman and asks if she’d hate the Monkees if she found out they couldn’t sing or play. When she says no, Mike is naturally curious as to why not. Her answer, “well because, you’re putting people on pretty good,” makes them and me laugh.

I wanted to talk about that a bit. I remember when I was a teen in the ’80s and the Monkees were popular again. Around that time, my Dad decided to let me know, “You know, the Monkees didn’t play their own instruments.” I’m sure every Monkees fan has experienced getting this “truth” from someone at some point. [Editor’s note: You need a safe space!] Yes, I’m aware that isn’t entirely the case. Getting past the controversy at the time and the way the Monkees felt about it themselves, the more accurate way to say that would be: they didn’t always play every instrument on all of their albums. They didn’t always write all of their songs. You could say it about any band.

I’ve always been drawn to The Monkees as a TV show primarily. That’s how I first saw them, in syndication in the late 1970’s, along with shows like Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, and Lost in Space. I was about five or six years old, so I didn’t know anything about the Monkees songs or records. In 1986, when MTV started showing The Monkees again on the “Pleasant Valley Sunday” marathon, that’s when I discovered the songs and the albums. In the VH1 Behind the Music on the Monkees, Eric Lefcowitz, author of The Monkees Tale, makes the statement that “without Don Kirshner’s involvement you really don’t have the hit songs, and if you don’t have the hit songs, it’s a completely forgettable TV show and I don’t think we’d be talking about it still.” I have to disrespectfully disagree with him. Without the show being as unique and memorable as it was, those hit songs would only be present on golden oldies radio stations. It’s the show that I come back to decade after decade. Never, as a tot or a teen, did I worry about the Monkees as a “real band” in the same way I didn’t think that Elizabeth Montgomery or Barbara Eden had magic powers.

fan-at-the-radio-station

This episode however, takes a break from fiction and shows them really playing. Eventually. Next shots are the outside of the venue, Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix. The sign shows that they’re on the bill with The Harlem Globetrotters, whom I was lucky enough to see play in person. (Thanks, Dad!)

On stage they play “Last Train to Clarksville” (Boyce/Hart). You can barely make it out over the screaming. This episode does show the popularity and the hype, how excited all the kids were to see the Monkees. The boy band from my day was Duran Duran. By the time I finally got to see them play live in the 1990’s, I just wasn’t a screamer. It’s hard for me to imagine myself reacting this way. My Mom was lucky enough to see the Beatles play live in Las Vegas in the 1960s. She told me she couldn’t hear a note for all the screaming.

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Next they play “Sweet Young Thing” (Goffin/King/Nesmith) and then “Mary, Mary” (Nesmith). Davy swaps out Micky on the drums for this one.  I know I already mentioned this has poor sound. I have a recommendation for something recorded around this time to get a better feel for the live music. The album, The Monkees Live 1967 which was recorded August 25-27, 1967 in Seattle, Portland, and Spokane. The record wasn’t released until 1987 due to the poor sound quality, but it was cleaned up in the ’80s for CD and the new generation of fans. I bring this up because there’s a fun bit on the record at the end of “Mary, Mary” where Mike drags out the end and forces Micky to keep improvising. Mike keeps promising he’s going to stop, then he starts to play again and Micky has to start again…until Mike plays a twangy “na-na-na na na na” on the guitar. You can see a bit of this in the episode, but it’s not as clear what’s going on as it is on the album.

monkees-live

Back to it, Peter gets a solo spot and plays “Cripple Creek” (Traditional) on the banjo. They unfortunately cut away from the awesomeness for an awkward voiceover of Peter talking about needing some quiet and time away from people, while showing footage of him walking on a beach.

cripple-creek

Mike sings and plays maracas “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover” (Bo Diddley). In the middle of this is a cutaway of Mike in a car, talking to someone about sitting on an empty stage, imagining that he’s playing to a full house and saying “someday, someday.” I love Mike’s performance of the song. It sounds much cleaner on The Monkees Live 1967. Davy is introduced as, “the world’s best looking midget.” He sings “I Wanna Be Free” (Boyce/Hart). They cut to him talking to interviewer Bob about losing track of time on the road.

Micky is introduced as the hardest working man in show business, “Micky James Brown Dolenz.” He sings “I Got a Woman” (Ray Charles‎/Renald Richard). Cut to an awkward voice over where Micky wanders around the site of a house a man had built by himself (according to the voiceover) and talks about wanting to make something that will last. Back on stage, Micky parodies a bit James Brown used to do during live performances of the song, “Please, Please, Please”: Micky collapses, and Mike covers him with a black cape and starts to lead him off stage but Micky comes back and finishes the number.

micky-james-brown

The Monkees are all back on stage for “I’m Not Your Steppin’ Stone” (Boyce/Hart). They’re all wearing white sweaters that look like the ones we see in “Star Collector” and “Daily Nightly” performance clips from the show. They take their bows and get bundled back into their car with a police escort.

There is a tag sequence with “I’m a Believer” playing and shots of the Monkees in all the locations we saw in the episode. Mike thanks many musicians of the day and ends with, “But most of all we’d like to thank the Beatles, for starting it all up for us.” I’m happy with the knowledge that the Beatles were fans of The Monkees as well. Here’s a couple of groovy quotes from the Beatles on the Monkees.

“I think you’re the greatest comic talents since the Marx Brothers. I’ve never missed one of your programs.”- John Lennon

“I like their music a lot…and you know, their personalities. I watch their TV show and it is good.”- Paul McCartney

Two days after this episode aired, the Monkees started work on the fourth album, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. After all I said above about appreciating The Monkees more as a show, I want to note that this record is one of my favorite all time records. I remember my excitement in receiving it for Christmas in the ’80s. I played it over and over again. My favorite tracks are “Salesman,” “Daily, Nightly,” and “She Hangs Out,” but the entire thing is good from start to finish.

Final thoughts on this episode? Obviously I prefer the episodes with comedy and a story line. But it was fun to see the Monkees perform. The “real life” bits all felt a bit staged, and as I said I do think it’s a shame about the audio, given that this episode was about the music.

I’ll be taking a little break, about two months or so, before picking up with the second season. Thank you so much to everyone who has been reading these. It’s wonderful to relive all these great episodes with other Monkees fans. Thank you to all the various Monkees Facebook group members. Your positive and insightful comments and likes encourage me to keep this going.

thank-you

by Bronwyn Knox

Every couple of weeks, “Monkees vs. Macheen” examines the crazy, spirited, Ben Franks-type world of the Pre-Fab Four: David Jones, Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork alias The Monkees.