Remembering Peter Tork, 1942-2019

TorkMuch of what we know about Peter Tork, who died Thursday at 77, is based on the character he was cast for in 1966 on “The Monkees.”

There, he played the dim member, the bassist, with a blissful, childlike look in his eye as the made-for-TV band got into capers each week, even as its songs were overtaking the Beatles at the top of the charts.

But he among the group had been a working musician for years, culled from Greenwich Village folk scene to round out the group in Los Angeles. His background also helped the four as they defied expectations and became a real group of songwriting musicians who forged their own musical direction after the show was dropped after two seasons.

The last time I talked to him, in 2001, he was switching identities between touring in a revived Monkees and heading his own blues band called Shoe Suede Blues, something he’d accomplish with a simple costume change.

“I came out in black pants and shirt, sunglasses and a Panama hat, and some people didn’t know it was me,” he told me. “It’s fun to put on another personality — this Leon Redbone, low-key kind of Tom Waits guy.”

Between playing the Monkees hits and the blues classics, Tork said, “It’s amazing how little they have in common, given they’re both part of the same American music tradition. I suppose it’s as different as John Cage and Kenny G. There’s none of that shuffle in Monkees music, none of those triplets. Even the nominal beat isn’t the same.”

Still, he was playing a handful of Monkees songs when playing the smaller Shoe Suede Blues sets. “I play them as bluesy as I can.”

In that case, he was playing a tiny place in Manchester, Conn., called the Hungry Tiger — not far from where he did a lot of his growing up, in Mansfield, Conn., where his father John Thorkelston was an economics professor at the University of Connecticut.

Born in D.C., Peter Halsten Thorkelston spent time in Detroit, Berlin and Madison before landing in eastern Connecticut.

“It was a grim place to be translated to,” Tork told me. After having lived in Madison, “which probably would have better suited me more.”

Upon graduation from E.O. Smith High School, “I was very happy to get out of Connecticut.”

After flunking out of Carleton College in Minnesota, he took his guitar and five string banjo to New York’s Greenwich Village, then in the midst of its folk boom.

“I got to be a regular at a club called the Four Winds,” he said. “I’d do a set from 7 p.m. to 4 in the morning.”

Even with such experience, he realized “my particular combination of charms wasn’t going to break open the folk circuit.” He decided to moe west and had been there only a few weeks when his friend Stev Stills encouraged him to try out for a new TV comedy.

“The Monkees,” Tork said, “have been on my back ever since.”

He was back in Connecticut to perform a decade ago, his first appearance after being diagnosed with cancer months earlier.  The occasion was the 50th anniversary of E.O. Smith High School, at which he included such hits as “I’m a Believer,” “Last Train to Clarksville,” “Daydream Believer” and a version of “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” informed by the Sex Pistols cover.

“The people who have ben coming to these shows off and on for a while say, ‘Drop the Monkees songs.’ But for people coming to the show for the first time, I cannot in good conscience deny them a Monkees song,” Tork told me. “I can’t’ imagine going to a Paul McCartney show and him not playing a Beatles song.”

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