By Therra Cathryn Gwyn
In 2001 when The Monkees (sans Mike Nesmith, who had not appeared with them since 1997) were offered proper sums of money and succumbed to fans demand to tour again, I had an opportunity to interview Peter Tork, the band’s multi-instrumentalist and the generally cheery philosopher of the group. This interview was conducted many years before I represented him as his publicist or started The Peter Tork Hope On Project when he was fighting a rare form of cancer. It was also long before I asked him, and he kindly agreed, to write an advice column called “Ask Peter Tork” for my online magazine, The Daily Panic. He did a great job and that success prompted other publications, The Washingon Post among them, to ask him write an op-ed here, an article or blog post there, something he proved very good at. However, in 2001 the advice column was six years away. We’d met only a few times previous to my interviewing him. This particular interview has appeared in whole and in part in some magazines in Europe/Asia and in various venues on the internet. Reading it now I have to laugh. I do count this as one of the more interesting interviews I’ve ever done. It’s not that often you find performers willing or even able to be as blunt as Peter can be on a regular basis. That can be a double-edged sword but it wasn’t one that was a problem this day. Personally, I find a real conversation much more interesting than a carefully canned or rehearsed one.
Who would have thought the celestial Jimi Hendrix would succumb to the excesses of the 1960s and the band he once opened for, The Monkees, would still be making the girls (and grandmothers) scream in the 21st century? In this interview from 2001 Peter Tork explains it all for you.
Peter Tork and Davy Jones, 2001. Photo credit: Therra C Gwyn
I have a memory that many people share. Before MTV and pay-per-view concerts, before Vegas specials and Behind The Music, I was staring at the television for a half-hour one night a week and could not be dragged away for love nor punishment. As a young child ( in my case, I’d been on the planet almost seven years) I was fully enthralled with what was then the revolutionary freshness of none other than the Monkees. Yes, those Monkees, as in the ” Hey, hey we are the…” variety. Remember? The 1960′s TV show and the catchy hits written by Carole King and Neil Diamond? The mid-1980′s MTV darlings doing packed stadium tours? There’s an undeniable appeal there. Trust me on this if you are a non-believer. At the very least, give a girl a chance to explain.
It was some thirty years or so after the initial primetime run of the show that I was on a highway somewhere between Jacksonville and Atlanta when all my childhood excitement over the group came to fore. My best friend ( and often partner-in-crime), Sherri Nielson and I were in a brand new, fire-engine red Camaro convertible, top down, music blaring, speeding in between shows on what was billed as the Monkees ”Final Tour”. I had been trying, with no success, to hook up ( in an interview kind of way) with Peter Tork to chronicle this newest chapter in the Monkees journey through time. Even with help of his preternaturally patient manager, Bonnie Verrico, I wasn’t having much luck thus far. Actually, I was having none.
The tour had begun several nights before in Clearwater with Natural, Lou Pearlman’s ( N’Sync, Backstreet Boys) latest boy band experiment inserted midway through each evening to give the younger lads some exposure and experience and to allow the older lads a break in a show that often ran three hours. Despite media criticism that haunted the Monkees early success and sometimes still follows them to this day, this “pre-fab four” as they’ve been called, are really a hardworking, cohesive group onstage. The group is hardly a one-trick pony, although admittedly, the trick they are best collectively known for is a pretty innocuous one. The Monkees are all in their fifties now and are aging fairly well. Peter Tork looks at least 5 years younger. When he smiles the years fall away. Micky Dolenz’s voice is a powerful pop instrument that time hasn’t seemed to change. Their concerts are a lively combination of their popular hits, some of the TV show schtick, and include a solo spot for each member to show off his particular brand of musical talent/interest. Davy Jones, an energetic performer who knows his audience and courts them, does Broadway, charmingly. Dolenz sings ” Since I Fell For You” like he means it . Tork, dressed nightly in a Sgt. Pepper-by-way-of-Melrose stage outfit, hits the rock standards, tearing it up like a teenager on Little Richard’s “Lucille” and performing a bright version (on banjo, no less) of Jackie Wilson’s “Higher and Higher”. For those who may be sneering ( and have actually read this far), yes, the Monkees play their own instruments ( please, when did this become an actual issue in a business filled with fake body parts and Britney Spears non-live concerts?). They are backed by a full band, including a section of interpretive-dancing horn players. The sound onstage is almost as full as the screaming ( yes, even now) in the audience. It appears that the Monkees most enduring legacy may be that they simply make people happy.
I had done my research, talking to the variety of fans who still follow the group, and one thing became apparent very quickly. They worship their favorite Monkee. like any true fan of any boy band. You have to have a favorite, right? To have, to hold, to hope they are hetero. These particular fans are proud of their Monkee, whichever one it is that has captured their heart. Tork’s fans proved very protective and vocal.
” If you are going to take pictures of him, don’t use a flash, ” one 40-year-old fan informed me archly, ” He doesn’t like it.”
“He’s really very shy,” offered a teen young enough to be a Monkee granddaughter.
” He can get testy on ya,” a Micky Dolenz fan sniffed, sizing me up, it appeared, as not Monkee-worthy.
“He’s not dumb like he plays on TV!” , a woman and her husband insisted.
“He’s sexy,” a young mother sighed.
“Okay, ” I said, scribbling notes for an interview I didn’t know if I’d ever get, ” No flash, shy, smart, testy, sexy…got it.”
Later, in the lobby of yet another crowded venue, Sherri handed me a drink and asked , ” If you speak to this guy, are you going to confess that you had your very first ‘I love this boy’ fantasy about him?” I shook my head. ” No way, ” I swore. I had once worked on a Rolling Stones tour and easily managed not to tell Mick Jagger about my teenage fantasies involving him. I wasn’t going to start revealing any silly stuff from my youth to a Monkee I couldn’t even corner for a 15-minute chat.
As fate and determination would have it, the interview finally took place a few months later. Tork was at his home in California, in between tour dates. This was a tour which would eventually take much of the summer and claim much of the patience of all members of the band. The Monkees bandwagon crashed and burned in August in a somewhat typical rock band rift and it seemed that the fans who followed the group might indeed have witnessed the “Final Tour”, at least with this line-up. But when we talked in very early summer things were still merry and bright, at least on the surface.
Photo credit: Therra Cathryn Gwyn, 2001.
After a flurry of e-mails Monkee and writer connected by phone.
” Hi, it’s Peter,” the polite voice on the other end of the phone sounded familiar, still a touch of East Coast in the accent. We talked for over an hour, yet it was several minutes before I even got to ask a first, planned, question. His in-the-moment way of going places verbally can serve to throw a person like me off-balance, at least initially. I got the idea he might have this particular chat almost with whomever was on the other end of the phone, it just happened to be me at the time. That’s okay, I thought. I’d waited a long time and logged a lot of miles to get to this chat and my interview style tended more towards conversational than central-themed anyway.
“I’m checking to see what the age of consent is in different states” he offered, un-asked, before I could say anything. Peter was evidently sitting in front of his computer while talking to me. ” Look at this. In Maryland it’s sixteen. That’s considered the South, right? It’s below the Mason-Dixon line? Tennessee, sixteen again…South Carolina, fourteen?…hmmmm… in North Carolina it’s sixteen…no surprise there…” he goes on to rattle off other states and ages. Finally, I had to ask ; “Why is this of interest to you?”
“Well, at one gig in Maryland, about a year ago, these two girls came up to me. I think they were about 15 or 16. They asked for an autograph and I teased them, said ‘It’ll cost ya…”. They said, ” Oh anything!’, and I thought ‘Anything?.’”
“Well, ” I try not to sound too worldly, ” You know if you had one of them, you’d have to take both.”
” Oh really? Why?”
” Because, Peter, ” I can’t believe I’m having to explain this to him, ” Teenage girls do everything together. Hang out, stay in, go to the ladies room…everything.”
“Oh, ” he sounds amused, “Do you think they were looking for ‘a scene’?”
I had to laugh. “I don’t know. Did anything happen?”
“No. And the last time I was in town I didn’t see them there. I am attracted to younger people, certainly, but I find that although it’s good in theory, it doesn’t always work in practice.”
In all those Florida miles I hadn’t planned on the interview starting out like this. But I went with it. Why not? If we were going to talk about sex, so be it. We were both adults. I mentally crossed off being able to sell the interview to any G-rated magazines.
TCG: So, how old were you when you lost your virginity?
TCG: No way.
TCG: In America that sounds about right. In Europe it tends to be younger, I’ve heard. Actually, I don’t know if that is the case any more. Speaking of age, you have people of all ages that attend your solo and group shows. By now the Monkees have been together longer than many married couples, longer than many bands, longer than some of your fans have been alive.
PT: Thirty-five years. Our older fans are still at the shows but the median age is in the thirties now. Our original fans are still there, but are older, settled, have kids. Some are grandparents.
TCG: Hmmm, I’m not a grandparent but I was part of your original audience.
PT: How old are you, Therra?
TCG: (dodging the question slightly) I was 6 and living in London when the Monkees hit. I was crazy about you guys. Everyone was. So, if you lost your virginity at twenty, do you remember who you had your first sexual fantasy about?
PT: Annette Funicello. I thought she was great.
TCG: I didn’t figure you for someone who preferred brunettes.
PT: I really have no preferences in that area. Now, the funny thing is, I really thought I would actually get along better with (fellow Mouseketeer) Darlene Gillespie. She was the better entertainer. She had a charge. Annette was great, but Darlene, she was a powerhouse.
TCG: Annette had that big chest, didn’t she?
PT: And the lovely part was that we got to see it grow. The first year it was flat, the second and third year it was bigger, and so on.
TCG: Tell me another female performer you like.
PT: I love Liv Ullman. She just grabs me. She knocks me out, really. Understand I am talking about her in her prime…if she chose, she could do the mature woman’s roles now…but she, really…wow.
TCG: Liv Ullman has a rather delicate Nordic beauty about her.
PT: I don’t know about delicate, but yeah, she has those Nordic looks. I love it. Maybe it’s because of my own Scandinavian background, I don’t know. She’s the whole package, as opposed to…well, I love a bimbo… I am not adverse to empty-headed bimbos. But a woman who is smart and who knocks me out to look at, that’s the whole package.
TCG: I hear that from a lot of men. I do hope it’s true that men like smart girls. Are there female vocalists you like?
PT: Gladys Knight. Magnificent face, and in my opinion the greatest soul singer ever. Now, Aretha, she’s in a class by herself, she’s Aretha. Gladys is great. The best. When she sings, she commits. There’s also Mavis Staples. They are both great for the same reasons. When they are in their song, there’s no sense of holding back, or protecting the voice. They are right there, complete commitment.
TCG: Who do you feel a kinship with, musically? Any person or group?
PT: To various extents I have a strong feeling for James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt. People where one performance has really gotten me. I feel some kinship, but not like brothers or a sister, just a connection. I identify with them on some levels, but on other levels they are just so over my head.
TCG: What do you think of Prince?
TCG: Leonard Cohen?
PT: Lugubrious. (Sings a snippet of ” Suzanne” in a dirge-like manner, to illustrate).
TCG: You don’t “get” Leonard, I think. Elvis Presley?
PT: The first flash of Elvis was almost unbearable it was so wonderful. My musical partner James Lee Stanley blames the Colonel for Elvis’s untimely demise.
TCG: Has your music been influenced by any literary works?
PT: I cannot put my finger on too much of it . Well… “The Most Unkindest Cut”. I was told in a songwriting class that the title was redundant. I said to them ‘ Ah, no, it’s from Shakespeare.’ Micky Dolenz said something when we were doing Justus ( 1996 music release featuring all four original Monkees). He said to me, ‘You’re the one we count on to arrange the songs so they sound like full songs, from beginning to end.’ I didn’t realize that. I gain my sense of arrangement from Bach.
TCG: Bach? No kidding?
PT: Yes. Bach was psychedelic. Here, wait. I’m going to play something for you. ( Pause ) Can you hear this? (Strains of a synthesizer float in the background)
TCG: Yes, I hear it.
He plays a wildly beautiful piece of music, explaining at different junctures where tones and chords change in an unexpected manner, why it’s so radical and influential, and why, in his opinion Bach was ” a world of musical adventure”, and Mozart ” a toady”.
“Mozart wrote for the aristocracy.” he sniffs, “It shows.”
He occasionally stops for a millisecond, says ” Oops, sorry!”. (Did he make a mistake? How would I know?) Then he continues or sometimes plays a refrain again. What I’ve been hearing , it turns out, is part of “Prelude in D Minor for the Clavier”.
PT: Bach gets extraordinarily wild. I played a piece for Davy Jones and he wanted to know who it was. I told him it was Bach and he said ‘What was he – a madman?!’ ( laughs ). Bach was so influential, he does trips through harmony that no one else does. Almost all Western music is in Bach.
TCG: If we – meaning the public – look, as we often do, to certain “entertainment moments” to define ourselves, to define our place in time, what do you think the Monkees represent to your fans?
PT: No remarkable effect. I mean, the internet works for everybody. Every artist has a website, the fans chat, it’s democratic. I will say that I think the one thing the internet has allowed is anonymity and people use it to say things they wouldn’t dare say otherwise.
TCG: That’s true. Have you seen some of the Monkee fan web pages? There are tons of them.
PT: I hate alt.music.Monkees (at the time a popular discussion group on Google). It sucks! They don’t like me on there.
TCG: Oh, they like you just fine. You must have caught a bad thread. Have you checked out any of the fantasy fiction sites, also known as fanfic groups, where people write fiction about their favorite stars? Have you seen any of the sexual fantasy ones?
PT: No… really? Where?
TCG: I think MonkeeX was the first one to have those sorts of stories about the Monkees.
TCG: ( I can hear him tapping away on his computer keyboard) Yes. Surely you have heard of this website?
PT: Yes, I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never been there. Where is it?
TCG: Yahoo groups, I think. Or perhaps it’s MonkeeX.com.
PT : Okay. ( tap tap tap)
TCG: Here is why I believe sites like this are interesting. Certainly for baby boomers, and the generations that followed, the first love for almost every young girl was a rock star of some stripe. Elvis, the Beatles, The Monkees, David Cassidy, Backstreet Boys, Bon Jovi, whoever. We fell “in love” with our popular musical artists. We all fantasized about them and even if the daydreams were silly or graphic, it was just between you, yourself and your diary. These days it’s all out there on the internet. These young women are expressing their carnal desires and writing about it for anyone, including you, to read. I find that a new and fascinating cultural phenomena.
PT: I think it’s a function of the times. It says here you have to be a writer to join this list. There are fantasies on here about the Monkees?
TCG: Yeah. Lots. Featuring you, Mike. Micky too. Not so many about Davy. I feel kind of sorry for him, being left out like that.
TCG: (deciding to tease him about his heart-throb band mate). Awww. Poor Davy. Ya know, I thought for a second about trying my hand at it, writing something about him, sure… so he wouldn’t be left out. But I couldn’t do it!
PT: ( laughs) Couldn’t imagine it?
TCG: No, and I have a good imagination. Couldn’t do it.
PT: Couldn’t do Davy?
PT: Couldn’t picture him between your legs?
TCG: ( A mental picture forms almost against my will. I can see is cute little Davy Jones, wearing nothing much, singing “Daydream Believer”, shaking his tambourine. It’s an ” Ally Mc Beal” dancing -baby-esque moment. I shake my head to dislodge the scene) Yes…no.. I mean NO, I can’t see it! ( laughs) God, don’t throw me off track here. When did I lose control of this interview? Are we done yet?
PT: Okay. Pick two of your remaining questions, okay? Ask me your second favorite one.
TCG: Gladly. Tell me what a perfect day is for you. Give me your perfect day.
PT: ( Laughs) Oh… you shouldn’t have asked this one! I had one of those very recently. I couldn’t deal with having them every day, mind you, but…my perfect day is waking up next to someone I like a lot, having sex a couple of times…then a cup of coffee…having sex a couple more times…ummm, strolling through some interesting city like Paris, or exploring the bluffs in Malibu. A perfect day would include some good meals and good conversation. Some TV… “West Wing”, that’s a good show. Then sex, and sleep. That’s a perfect day. And, as Micky says, ‘Mother of Christ, it’s good to be king!’ ( laughs again).
Peter Tork fronting his band, Shoe Suede Blues, 2008. Photo credit: Joshua Kinder