Peter Tork, bassist with The Monkees, who played with the group from their earliest days as a made-for-TV band in the 1960s through their recent reunion tours, died earlier today, 21 February, of unknown causes. He was 77. Tork’s sister, Anne Thorkelson confirmed the musician’s death for The Washington Post.
“I am told he slipped away peacefully,” his Monkees bandmate Michael Nesmith said in a statement. “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.”
Tork often played the lovable fool on the Monkees TV show, but in real life, he was an accomplished songwriter and guitarist/bassist that played on many of their key recordings and wrote numerous songs for the group, including ‘Can You Dig It?’ and ‘For Pete’s Sake.’
“I was hired to be an actor on a TV show,” he told Rolling Stone in 2016. “The producers did have hopes that something musical would come out of us when they cast the four of us. But if we couldn’t have done the music, they would have been alright with us just making the TV show.”
Contrary to the persistent belief that The Monkees didn’t play their own instruments, Tork played guitar and bass on their earliest recordings – including ‘Papa Gene’s Blues’ and ‘Sweet Young Thing’ – even though Monkees music supervisor Don Kirshner would have preferred to leave everything completely in the hands of session pros.
“I never objected to Kirshner’s song-picking abilities,” Tork told Rolling Stone in 2012. “It was obvious he knew how to pick a hit. All I wanted to do was be the musician in the studio. I wanted to be the sideman on my own album.”
Tork grew up in Connecticut and was a part of the early Sixties Greenwich Village folk scene, where he befriended a pre-fame Stephen Stills. Once they both moved to Los Angeles, Stills told Tork about a TV show looking to cast a Beatles-like band. “I remember Stephen saying to me, ‘They like me but they think my hair and teeth won’t work for television,’” Stills told Rolling Stone in 2011. “I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, thanks Stephen’ and hung up without any intention of going to the audition. He called me again and said, ‘No, no, you really have to do this.’ I never would have gone had it not been for Stephen.”
He was cast on the show along with Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith and Davy Jones. The TV show was an enormous hit from the moment it hit the airwaves in September 1966 and it helped send early singles like ‘Last Train to Clarksville’ and ‘I’m a Believer’ up the charts. Almost overnight, Tork and his bandmates were huge celebrities.
After two albums where they had minimal influence over the group’s music, Tork and the rest of the group seized control and recorded Headquarters largely by themselves. It reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts in May 1967, though just a week later it was knocked out by the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. This was the pinnacle of the Summer of Love, and unlike many of his more straight-laced bandmates, Tork revelled in the excesses of the era. His mansion in Studio City, on the north side of Laurel Canyon, became a gathering place for the likes of Jimi Hendrix, David Crosby, Mama Cass Elliott, Judy Collins and David Crosby.
Unlike his friends, Tork was never taken seriously by rock critics since his group began on TV and appealed to young kids. Shortly after the release of their psychedelic movie Head in 1968, Tork quit the band, citing exhaustion.
However, after embarking on a successful teaching career during the 1970s, Tork rejoined the Monkees after nostalgia for the band fuelled by MTV putting the old show back on the airwaves in 1986 caused the group (minus Nesmith) to reunite for a series of highly lucrative reunion tours.
Tork stayed with them on the oldies circuit until 2001 when he abruptly vanished from a tour. “Honestly enough, I have to say that I kind of lost it myself and bolted towards the end of it,” he told Rolling Stone in 2011. “I ticked off the other guys good and proper. It was a serious mistake on my part. I was not in charge of myself to the best of my ability. I behaved inappropriately, honestly, and I apologized to them.”
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