Peter Tork, the affable, goofy bassist on the hit TV music show “The Monkees,” was nothing like his character. He fought for years to have The Monkees and, later, his own music taken seriously. That battle ended with his death today (Feb. 21). He was 77.
Monkees bandmembers Tork, Micky Dolenz, Mike Nesmith and Davy Jones were thrown together in 1966 and declared a band to star in the music-based television sit-com.
“On TV he often played the hapless but lovable clown, but in real life was a deeply talented musician,” said music author Mark Bego, who wrote about Dolenz.
Tork always believed the television show hurt his own music career. He was a budding folk-rock artist when he joined the cast and struggled afterward to be taken seriously as a musician.
But judging by the tributes flowing in upon his death, including from bandmembers, Tork and The Monkees were the real deal.
“There are no words right now…heartbroken over the loss of my Monkee brother, Peter Tork,” Dolenz posted on Facebook.
Tork turned 74 only eight days ago (Feb. 13) and also received a shout-out from Dolenz. “Happy Birthday to my Monkee brother, Peter Tork!”
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“I am heartbroken,” Nesmith also wrote on Facebook, before issuing a longer statement.
“Peter Tork died this AM. I am told he slipped away peacefully. Yet, as I write this my tears are awash, and my heart is broken. Even though I am clinging to the idea that we all continue, the pain that attends these passings has no cure. It’s going to be a rough day.”
Even a towering figure in ’60s pop music, Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson, expressed his condolence on social media. He called Tork’s music “great.”
The show was based on the early antics of The Beatles, and the fictional Monkees parodied the personas fans had created for The Fab Four. Tork was the Ringo character. He was the quiet, lovably goofy bandmember.
Although musical talent was the last thing in mind when they were hired for the show, all four bandmembers were accomplished musicians. The show lasted for only two seasons, but was popular enough to give its stars a launching pad for music careers.
The Monkees segued into an actual band and blasted its way up the charts.
The band’s success is virtually legend now. The Monkees sold more than 75 million records worldwide.
They include a string of No.1 pop hits like “Last Train to Clarksville,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” “Daydream Believer,” and “I’m a Believer.”
But the band was almost as short-lived as the show. It launched in 1968 and broke up in 1971.
During that time, it went through a metamorphosis and became a true band. Following the success of their 1967 sophomore album, “More of the Monkees,” bandmembers started writing, recording and performing their own songs.
The band was so big, it could fill stadiums on tour and draft opening acts like Jimi Hendrix. It was also one of the first musical acts to have extensive merchandise sales.
But success, as always, brought discord. Despite the band’s popularity, music critics refused to take The Monkees seriously. Tork felt his music career would never get the respect he wanted, so he left the band to go solo.
He was right. By the time the band broke up, he and the others had been typecast as The Monkees, and his later career suffered. Before the show, he’d played with such noted artists as Stephen Stills, but his follow up band never really made it big.
During much of the ’70s, Tork’s personal life also went into a spiral. He drank heavily and was busted for drugs, leading to a short stint in jail. He was forced to worked as a high school teacher and “singing waiter” to make ends meet.
“I was awful when I was drinking, snarling at people,” he told London’s Daily Mail. He finally quit alcohol in the early 1980s, just in time to catch a second wave of Monkees mania.
The show began airing on late-night cable television and won the hearts of a new generation of fans.
Tork reconciled with his Monkees persona. He joined the group for reunion tours and saw a revival of his own music. His 1994 solo album, Stranger Things Have Happened was critically well received.
Tork was born Peter Halsten Thorkelson in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 13, 1942. His father was an Army officer who later taught economics at the University of Connecticut in Mansfeld, were Tork grew up.
He played guitar, banjo and piano as a youth and studied French horn at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. before dropping out. He left school and began playing in Greenwich Village’s folk scene in New York City. He went by the name Tork.
He met and played there with Stills, who went on to fame with the rock group Buffalo Springfield and later Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Both Stills and Tork landed in Los Angeles in the mid-60s. Stills actually auditioned for a part in “The Monkees,” and when he didn’t get it, he urged Tork to try out.
The rest, as they say, is history
Tork’s sister confirmed his death today, but did not reveal the cause. The musician, however, was diagnosed with a rare cancer that affected his tongue in 2009, which was successfully treated.
His death came as a surprise.
“I share with all Monkees fans this change, this ‘loss,'” Nesmith said.
“PT will be a part of me forever. I have said this before — and now it seems even more apt — the reason we called it a band is because it was where we all went to play.”