Peter Tork shares tales and tunes
Hey, hey ... it almost didn't happen.
Tucked inside entertainment trade publications was an ad calling for folk and rock musicians to play "4 insane boys ages 17-21" in a TV series about a band trying to break into the big time. Hundreds of hopefuls showed up but Peter Tork's quirky audition captured producers' concept of an era's rebellious, if occasionally uncouth, counterculture. Joined by Mike Nesmith, Davy Jones and Mickey Dolenz, Tork got the job and the cameras started rolling.
But there was a problem. When it came time to shop the sitcom, the reaction was awful.
"It turns out the pilot we made didn't sell," Tork said of the pivotal mid-'60s project inspired by the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night." "In fact, it was terrible. It got a terrible reaction from test audiences (who basically saw) four obnoxious, rambunctious kids ..."
But producers, setting the stage for what would become a hallmark of the reality TV phenomenon in decades to come, decided to splice footage of the guys' colorful audition banter into the scripted sections of the pilot.
"(They) cut in personality tests, so you got to know who these guys were," Tork said. "Once they did that, suddenly the test audience reaction skyrocketed."
And the rest is pop-culture history. Nearly five decades after "The Monkees" hit the airwaves as a fictional rock 'n' roll group, the quartet is remembered for its legitimate leap from the small screen to world stages, earning platinum status along the way with a string of hits like "Last Train to Clarksville," "I'm a Believer," "Pleasant Valley Sunday" and "(I'm Not Your) Stepping Stone."
It's an enduring piece of Americana that has propelled reruns and reunion tours over the years, even as the band and fans continue to react to Jones' death at 66 from a heart attack last year. The surviving members of the group will embark on a U.S. tour that pays tribute to Jones and their collective history this summer.
Meanwhile, Tork is on the road with a retrospective solo show, "Peter Tork in this Generation: My Life in the Monkees and So Much More," which is set to play at the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord on Friday, May 10.
" I'm going to play (and talk about) the first guitar song I ever learned ... going onto the folk world of Greenwich Village (an artistic hub in lower Manhattan that fostered the folk music movement of the 1960s), then arriving at the Monkees and life afterwards," said Tork, who with his blues-pop-rock band Shoe Suede Blues this month released a new CD, 'Step by Step."
Still, while Tork, Nesmith and Dolenz continue to mark individual projects and team up for shows that celebrate the Monkees' lasting appeal, the loss of Jones continues to be felt. For its most recent tour, the band decided that rather have one of the Monkees sing the lead vocals of Jones' trademark "I'm a Believer," they would turn to the audience for the honors.
Tork's own website is headed by the words "David Jones 1945-2012," and is bordered by a blog entry that was posted shortly after Jones' death, following an appearance Tork had made on "The Rachel Maddox Show": "I hoped to touch upon more deeply the richness of our relationship, which covered parts of six decades. A presence, and an absence now, that defies definition. I have yet to find the right words. Perhaps there simply are none, but I want to note that when I said I liked, loved and respected each band mate in different ratios, it was Davy that I loved most."
Yet life in the limelight wasn't always easy, and the Monkees, like many bands, faced ups and downs during what Tork describes as a blistering rollercoaster ride of TV ratings, concert tours, recording sessions, magazine covers, reunion tours and more than 45 on-and-off-again years.
"You know, there were times in our association that I felt very close to David," Tork said of the complexities of his relationship with Jones. " He could be pretty rough in some ways, but when he was openhearted and heartfelt he was probably as richly gifted a man as I've ever known. He could be extraordinarily sensitive and extraordinarily hard. He was probably as wildly varied a human being as I've every heard of.
"He was mistrustful in a lot of ways and felt the need for certain kinds of assistance that were distasteful to me, and other times he was perfectly secure as a person on the face of the Earth and didn't seem to need that (reassurance)," Tork said. " I particularly remember the '87 reunion tour. He was an angel on tour all year long. It was fabulous."
Before Jones' sudden death, talks had begun about a road trip that would bring back Nesmith, who had been out of the Monkees spotlight for a number of years.
".. I'm only glad to say we had planned the tour before David died," Tork said of the bittersweet reunion plans. "I would hate to think it took his death to spur us into some kind of show."
The Monkees' well-received 2012 tour centered on a seminal album that marked a hard-won shift in creative control in the band's history, one that gave the Monkees — and what Tork dubs the "prefab phenomenon" that surrounded its TV persona — much sought-after credibility.
"Last year was the 45th anniversary of the release of our 'Headquarters' album (the third Monkees release and the first to showcase the quartet's own songwriting and instrumental credits). We fought to be musicians on that album, and we were really pleased with that,' Tork said. "I, in particularly, was enormously pleased to be part of the making that album. So, we made that the focal point of the whole tour last year.
"This year will be more of the same," he said of the U.S. summer tour. "We will be going to venues and towns that we didn't go to last year. We have a lovely backup band, most of whom have traveled with Micky over years, He's collected guys one after another.
The musicianship is quite high.
And (it's become an expanded family as) we've thrown in Mike Nesmith's son, Christian, on guitar, and Mickey's sister, Coco, on backup vocals."
Playing It Cool
Today, thanks to a slate of Nickelodeon- bred artists and singing competition alums from "American Idol" and the like, more young performers are using TV as a stepping stone to recording careers.
But back in the '60s, the Monkees' move from acting gig to pop-star billing was a novel concept, one that both propelled and hindered the group as it sought to prove its musical mettle.
For Tork, it all started when Stephen Stills (the guitarist, singer and songwriter who would go on to fame with Crosby Stills Nash & Young) suggested he try out for a part on a new sitcom. Producers were looking for singers who were "spirited Ben Frank's-types," referring to a well-known, latenight Sunset Strip diner frequented by musicians. Tork decided to play it cool for the audition.
"First thing, I walked into the producer's office and he had his feet on the desk, so I put my feet on the desk. I figured, hell, if he could do that, then I could," Tork said with a laugh. "It was very casual. He invited me to a personality test, where they turn the camera on and ask questions.
I was doing something funny with my mouth and the producer said, 'Peter, what's wrong with your mouth?' I said, '500 dollars for the nose and now the mouth doesn't work'."
Producers, who liked his spunk, followed up with a more traditional screen test, with a script, lighting and stage direction, and the part was his.
"I actually thought (the TV show) was going to be as big as it was," Tork said. "After doing the pilot I remember saying, 'If it goes at all — if the TV pilot got sold — it will be big'."
Downside of Fame
Tork, whose introspective and cerebral musings belie his celebrated character's zany naiveté, said the success of TV series, which ran from 1966-68, brought both wanted and unwanted attention often associated with sudden success. People tend to focus on the plus sides of stardom — the adoring fans, the financial reward, the notches on music history charts. But there have been some drawbacks to life in the public eye as well, Tork said, not the least of which is people darting up close to yell the familiar first refrain of the Monkees TV theme song. ("Hey Hey We're the Monkees.") ".. The public (represents) two points on the spectrum, en masse and individually. Individually, when they come at me and all ask the same question or two ... and they all say, ' Hey Hey,' in my face ... It's a little tough at first — that loss of privacy. And the fact is that reason for celebrity has to do with people being led to believe that they're not as worth as much as someone else ... and that they can get something by plucking at me."
But that's not to say that he considers himself any kind of victim.
He's grateful for the opportunities the flashing bulbs have brought.
"I'm in on the game, I wouldn't have become famous ... if hadn't let myself open to the public," said Tork, who resides in Connecticut. "I made myself a target.
... But I got to see aspects of the game (that weren't pleasant).
But who can possibly know what they're getting into?"
Tickets to Peter Tork's solo show at 8 p.m. Friday, May 10, in the Capitol Center for the Arts' Spotlight Cafe in Concord are $20.
For details, call the box office at 225-1111 or log onto ccanh.com.
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