The Monkees, a pop band born from a 1960s situation comedy, were always as culturally authentic to me as the Beatles and the Marx Brothers, whom, in the spirit of “A Hard Day’s Night,” they were created to conflate.
Monkee (and former Monkee, and Monkee again) Peter Tork, who died Thursday at the age of 77, was the Ringo of the group in Beatle terms, and in Marxian terms Harpo — the sweet one, the funny, unearthly, childlike one, an angel with a touch of the devil. But he was also a George, a little enigmatic, a little shy, a little dry, a little apart yet absolutely essential to the group dynamic, scoring from the side.
Where Mickey Dolenz and Davy Jones were show business kids made into pop musicians — Dolenz had already starred in a TV show, “Circus Boy,” Jones had played the Artful Dodger in “Oliver!” — Tork, like Mike Nesmith, was a musician first, a Greenwich Village emigre with folk roots, hanging out on the Sunset Strip when the Hollywood Reporter ran an ad that read, “Madness!! Auditions. Folk & Roll Musicians-Singers for acting roles in new TV series. Running Parts for 4 insane boys, age 17-21.” Legend has it that an auditioning Stephen Stills, rejected for bad teeth, was asked if knew anyone with a similar “open, Nordic look,” and Stills sent Peter.
While proficient on a number of instruments — he played “the bass player” on the show — and the co-composer of “For Pete’s Sake,” which ran under the series’ closing credits, Tork wasn’t as distinctive a vocalist as his band mates and sang lead even more rarely than Ringo did in the Beatles. His best-known number, “Your Auntie Grizelda,” is a novelty sung in a funny voice. (You can hear him singing straight on “Words,” echoing Mickey’s vocals.) In this respect, he might seem to carry less weight than the others; but carrying less weight also made him more free.
“I’m the dummy…. I’m always the dummy,” Tork would say in “Head,” the ironic Monkees movie (written by Jack Nicholson with director Bob Rafelson, who co-created “The Monkees” for NBC, and would next direct “Five Easy Pieces”). The film was meant to demonstrate that the band was wise to its curious position as a manufactured product in an age of authenticity, as if anything were authentic, and everything wasn’t. (The Monkees were a real band, with real hits; history has spoken.)
Although the emphasis could change from episode to episode, broadly speaking Mike was the leader, the John Lennon or Groucho of the group; Mickey was the crazy one, Davy the cute one. Peter was the Stealth Monkee. He almost had the quality of a sidekick, and sidekicks are often more interesting, because they are more human than the heroes they partner with and sometimes prop up; everyone knows it’s the stooge, not the straight man, who carries the show.
And if Davy was the designated dreamboat, Peter was actually dreamy. I am looking at a gallery of photos of him as I write, and he really did possess a kind of abstracted, animal beauty — half minstrel in a Renaissance portrait, half friendly dog. (To take this Game of Terms a little wider, in “Scooby-Doo” terms, he was both the Monkees’ Shaggy — he had the hair — and Scooby.) There is an aura of untouchable repose about him, a little reminiscent of Stan Laurel, along with an element of melancholy that made him seem, within the madcap context of “The Monkees,” a relatively complicated character.
He was my favorite Monkee.
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd