In one of his best musical moments as a Monkee, Peter Tork wrote and sang a song called “Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again?”
Sounding like Ringo Starr on a good day, Tork rode a psychedelic arrangement that pulsed with gritty electric guitar (courtesy of the singer’s pal Stephen Stills) and a persuasive, rocking drive.
“Didn’t I do it right the first time?. . . . Didn’t I?” Tork kept demanding in the 1968 recording, his voice rising at the end to a strangled shriek, as if the obvious answer were about to drive him mad.
Twenty-four years later, Tork can face those questions calmly. He readily admits that he lacked the wherewithal to do it right the first time--"it” being the pursuit of a lasting post-Monkees musical career. Now Tork is trying to mount a comeback, thankful for the chance to do it all over again, and convinced he has the maturity now to get it right this time.
At the end of 1968, Tork became the first member of the Monkees to leave the “Prefab Four” and try to launch a band of his own. He failed abysmally, suffering one of the quickest and deepest plummets into oblivion of any pop icon who had enjoyed the kind of stature that Monkeedom conferred. Along with Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones and Michael Nesmith, Tork cavorted through two years of high jinks on the tube during 1966-67, and reaped the rewards of being in a band that had eight Top 20 hits and five Top 10 albums (four of them reaching No. 1 on the Billboard chart, the other hitting No. 3).
Last week, Tork sat in a ‘50s-style diner around the corner from his small, white stucco cottage in Venice, talking freely about the past and looking forward to what he hopes will be a solid future with his new band, which plays tonight at Bogart’s.
At 50 (he says he no longer shaves two years off his true age, as he did in his teen-idol days), Tork still has the sweet, dimpled smile, the crinkled, twinkling brown eyes and the long, straight brown mop (although with hairline receding) of his Monkees days. No sooner had he sat at a booth than he was punching up oldies on a jukebox and singing along in high harmony to the Del Vikings and Elvis Presley. Tork showed he could still summon up the old Monkee-manic deportment on command, mugging once or twice with a wild grins and bug-eyed looks. But along with a lingering eagerness to entertain, and the occasional glibness of the practiced interviewee, came a strong measure of sincerity. Tork has an interesting story to tell; no need to monkey around.
Pondering the title of that song he sang years ago, Tork paused, smiled and nodded.
The very idea of having to “do it all over again” may have seemed a curse to the impatient young pop star who sounded so desperate as he sang that phrase. But to a middle-aged Tork, the opportunity to do it all over again comes as a blessing. Peter Tork is that rare fortunate person who has been given a chance in his maturity to retrace the path of his youth and make up for some of its shortcomings.
Tork’s chance to do it right at 50 stems from the same pop phenomenon that set him up to blow it at 27: Monkeemania. A return of the Monkees phenomenon, fueled by reruns of the old TV episodes, brought Tork back into the limelight in 1986, led to three years of touring with Dolenz and Jones (Nesmith declined to take part in the reunion), and, he says, gave him both the resources and the motivation to pursue a musical comeback.
A mixture of fantasy and realism takes hold of Tork when he is asked to speculate about his prospects. In the end, realism asserts itself.
“I wanna be a rock ‘n’ roll star,” Tork said, lightly. “Actually, I’m exaggerating. It’s not about being a rock ‘n’ roll star. It’s about getting to play the music full time. It’s not about the following any more, the fame game. A little bit of fame is fun, but I’ve had enough, thank you. A part of me wants the arenas and to be Bruce Springsteen, but part of me says if I could just play clubs and make records and have enough money to send the kids to school, I’d be a happy camper.”
Tork says he now has resources, both inner and artistic, that were lacking when he tried to go solo years ago.
“I can sing, which may not have been the case before, and I can play guitar,” he said. “I’m a much better musician than I was then. Also, I feel, rightly or wrongly, that I have a much (more realistic) grasp of the attitude it takes.”
Tork reflects evenly on the character flaws he sees in his younger self. He has a recovering alcoholic’s sense of perspective, the ability to concede that, as the Monkees’ 1986 comeback hit put it, “That was then, this is now.” (Tork said he became aware in the late ‘70s that he had a drinking problem, and says he hasn’t touched alcohol or other drugs in more than 11 years.)
“I wanted it right now,” Tork said, recalling his attitude during his initial shot at a post-Monkees career. “I had no patience, I didn’t know how to stick to it. Learning from my own mistakes in those days was something that happened against my will. Now it’s different. I used to try to (blame) the problems in my life (on) the outside world. Now I know the problem with my life was me.”
Tork began his musical life as Peter Thorkelson (he says his is the only Thorkelson family he knows that pronounces the H), the son of a University of Connecticut professor of economics. His parents collected folk records, and they bought Peter his first guitar and banjo. He took five years of piano lessons and studied French horn in high school and at Carleton College in Minnesota. He also acted and sang in school productions. In 1963, having quit college, the young Thorkelson dove into the burgeoning folk-music scene in New York City’s Greenwich Village.
Billed simply as Tork--the nickname printed on a hand-me-down sweat shirt that his father had worn in high school--he began playing in small folk clubs where performers were given a stage but no money. “We had to pass the basket. I was making out OK,” Tork recalled. In the Village, he began hearing about another scuffling folk singer who looked a lot like him. One day, he spotted his look-alike--Stephen Stills--on the street. The two became friends and began to perform together.
In mid-1965, Tork decided to be a starving artist in warmer climes. He moved that June to Long Beach, where an acquaintance let him sleep on her couch.
“She was waiting tables at the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach,” which in the ‘60s was the top concert club in Orange County. “I wound up getting a job there, jerking beers and washing dishes.” Tork took his first dip into the Southern California music scene with a few shows at the Blue Beet in Newport Beach--a gig he does not remember altogether fondly. Then he got a chance to play in pickup bands behind some of the performers booked into the Golden Bear. One was Stills, who, unknown to Tork, had moved to Los Angeles and was playing in a duo called the Buffalo Fish.
Later that summer, Tork says, he got a call from Stills. The future partner of Crosby, Nash & Young had auditioned for a spot in the Monkees, only to be turned down, the story has it, because of his poor teeth. Stills called Tork, his dentally sound Greenwich Village double, and suggested that he try for the part.
“I went, ‘Yeah, sure, thanks for the call,’ and hung up,” Tork recalled. “Then he called me a few days later,” again urging Tork to try out for the show. Tork figured any tip worth two calls was worth checking out. Soon, he was a Monkee, part of a group put together by TV producers who had the bright idea of generating a tube-fed, American-bred version of Beatlemania. Tork got the role of the Ringo type: a good-hearted, lovable bumbler, only more handsome.
Tork says he had experimented with that persona since his Greenwich Village days. “I created that character on stage (as) a defense. In case a joke fell flat, (I’d) smile befuddledly.” Looking back, Tork mused, “It probably expressed an inner truth about me.”
Backed at first by studio pros, the Monkees gradually assumed more control over their music. Their third album, “Headquarters,” was pretty much all the band’s own work, and Tork rates it “an OK record for a young garage band.” But Tork became disappointed that the Monkees didn’t develop the cohesion of a truly collaborative unit whose first priority would be rock, not show-biz.
“At the time I thought we had what it takes to be a band, a real band. That was my highest ambition, and I resented those guys when they wouldn’t do what I wanted to do. So you see, I had the attitude that the world should conform to my notions.”
After quitting, Tork tried to launch a new band called Peter Tork and Release. The fact that he’d been in the Monkees may have made it harder to gain respect, he said, but his fame also gave him advantages over other new bands. The pluses and debits of being an ex-Monkee balanced out, Tork thinks. Release failed, he says, because “I didn’t know how to stick to it. I ran out of money and told the band members, ‘I can’t support us as a crew any more, you’ll just have to find your own way.’ ” In hindsight, Tork says, he should have asked the others to help support the band and hang with it after he could no longer afford to be its sugar daddy. But at the time, Tork says, he lacked the self-esteem to ask for other people’s help.
Tork, whose Hollywood pad became notorious as a haven for freeloading hangers-on, tersely ticked off a four-point explanation of how he went broke so quickly.
“A: The Monkees “was not as good-paying a job as one would suspect. B: I did not take care of business. C: I gave a lot of it away. D: I was robbed blind.”
By 1972, Tork wasn’t just broke; he was behind bars, having been caught with "$3 worth of hashish in my pocket” while crossing the border from Texas to Mexico. Luckily for him at a time when Texas state courts were legendary for locking up drug offenders and throwing away the key, Tork was arrested and prosecuted by federal authorities and allowed to serve a short sentence under a special leniency program for first offenders. After three months in an Oklahoma prison, he said, “they realized I was not a criminal type, and they let me out.”
In the mid-'70s, Tork got jobs teaching English, social studies and music at two private schools in the Los Angeles area. The first job, which he enjoyed, was at “a radical progressive school in Santa Monica.” The second was at a school he describes as “a holding tank for budding fascists. I couldn’t hack it. I found more integrity in being a singing waiter"--his next job.
Eventually, Tork moved to New York City, working odd jobs and performing “sporadically.” In the early ‘80s, after he quit drinking, he started a couple of bands, Peter Tork and the New Monks, and the heavy-metal-leaning Peter Tork Project.
But Tork says that heavy drinking had “left me with mediocre skills. Until I started working on my skills again, it didn’t matter.”
His prospects began to improve in 1985, when Davy Jones called him with an offer to tour as a duo in Australia. When they got back to the U.S., Monkeemania was booming again thanks to TV reruns. That led to the lucrative reunion that resulted in extensive concert tours in 1986, 1987 and 1989. The re-formed Monkees released a new album, “Pool It!” in 1987, and last year Rhino Records issued “Listen to the Band,” a four-CD boxed set of 80 Monkees songs.
Tork said his rights to residuals from TV reruns ran out before “The Monkees” enjoyed its mid-'80s revival. But he says he has continued to draw royalties from resurgent album sales. Financially, Tork said, “I did get something of a second chance” from the Monkees reunion--enough, he says, to support him until retirement age.
“But I want to work. If I don’t, I might wind up with no money and old. I just want to make a living at this,” and to help put his 22-year-old daughter, Hallie, and 16-year-old son, Ivan, through college. Tork, who is single, said both children live in Northern California with the third of his three ex-wives.
Tork moved from Marin County to Venice six months ago to launch a solo comeback. One other option at the time was to tour Scandinavia with a “Beatlemania” troupe--an offer he turned down because “I don’t know whether I could have stood the irony of Peter Tork doing John Lennon.”
Tork says that three years of voice lessons in Marin have strengthened his singing and taught him “how to bring my heart into the music.” Now he is taking acting lessons as well. Tork said he recently filmed his first TV part since “The Monkees,” playing a character called Surf Guru in an episode of “California Dreams,” a Saturday morning show on NBC about the adventures of a young rock band. He said the episode is scheduled to be broadcast on Nov. 21. Tork, whose recall is so strong that he can spout lines from a Shakespearean role he played in college, launched into a playful recitation of his new part as an aging surfing seer who imparts ethical wisdom to novice surf-dudes.
Tork’s main thrust is the band he has put together--himself on vocals and guitar, former Frank Zappa sideman Tommy Mars on keyboards, drummer Darren Elpant, bassist Pat Holloway and backing singer Deborah Van Valkenburgh. They played their first show about three months ago and have been performing about once a month, doing sets that feature old Monkees hits as well as new Tork originals. Tork said he is about to make demo recordings of his new material with James Lee Stanley, a Los Angeles musician-producer who runs his own label, Beachwood Recordings.
Tork is fond of quoting a favorite saying from Stanley, one of his oldest friends in the music business: “Everything I learned, I had to learn twice.” In other words, even if you think you’ve missed the last train to Clarksville, with some luck, there might be another one on the way.
* Peter Tork and Dyke Bridge play tonight at 9 p.m. at Bogart’s, in the Marina Pacifica Mall, 6288 E. Pacific Coast Highway, Long Beach. $10. (310) 594-8975.