HARDER THAN IT LOOKED (Peter Tork, R.I.P.)

In the Broadway version of Jersey Boys, the Four Seasons’ most anonymous member, Nick Massi, described himself as “the Ringo of the group.” It got a big laugh in the theater, but, of course, Nick Massi was selling himself short. (Frankie Valli has said that Massi’s arranging skills were on a par with Don Costa or Burt Bacharach.** He would know.)

If there had been a Broadway show about the Monkees (and why hasn’t there been?) the line could have been handed to Peter Tork and gotten just as big a laugh….and been just as not-quite-true.

Tork answered the audition for a new TV show in 1965 at the urging of his friend, Stephen Stills, who had just flunked an audition himself. When Tork got the part–playing a guy in a fictional rock and roll band–he was surprised (well, shocked actually) to learn his considerable musical skills would not be required. In the end, he and the other Monkees did play their own instruments, with Tork the one who played the most–and the most variety (half a dozen instruments by the time they made Headquarters).

He nonetheless remained the quiet man of the group. It’s easy to think they could have got along without him, just as it has been easy for some to think the Four Seasons could have got along without Nick Massi or the Beatles could have got along without Ringo.

Maybe.

But chemistry is a tricky thing. Take even the most gifted performer out of the context where they rose to Rock and Roll fame and, almost always, something is missing. Take even the most “token” member from a great Rock and Roll group (and the Monkees were a fantastic Rock and Roll group even if many were and are too hidebound by their preconceived notions of what all that was supposed to be to admit it), and, again, something is invariably lost.

And no group, not even the Beatles, needed “all four” more than the Monkees.

Tork’s best musical moment came on Mann and Weil’s “Shades of Gray,” where he shared the lead vocal with Davy Jones.

Given where the world has gone in the years since, it is fitting, perhaps, that they should be the first to go…

**(For evidence, listen to the records the Seasons made between 1962 and September 1965, when Massi departed. Or just listen to the two-sided single “Rag Doll”.”Silence is Golden,” both of which are among the greatest arrangements of the rock & roll era–or, as I like to call it, The History of Arranging.)

4 thoughts on “HARDER THAN IT LOOKED (Peter Tork, R.I.P.)

  1. I’m glad you’ve indicated that Peter’s skills were overlooked. In the ’60s, it was because he was good at playing the part of a goofball, even on record — for example, he was content to sing his funny song “Your Auntie Grizelda” and give the superb “For Pete’s Sake” to Mickey. Since then, it’s been too rarely stated that he was one of the only two actual musicians and songwriters in the Monkees when they started (Michael Nesmith was the other).

    Peter and Michael had the easiest time when the group decided to finally become a band and play their own instruments during recording sessions. Peter was a great guitarist, but that’s also him on harpsichord in the incredibly catchy “The Girl I Knew Somewhere,” their first 45 after they wrestled control of the Monkees from Don Kirshner (who moved on to the Archies to get his subsequent mastermind fix).

    Some of the decade’s greatest songwriters felt it was worthwhile to contribute their tunes to the Monkees project: Goffin / King, Neil Diamond, Leiber / Stoller and of course the group’s initial producers, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart.

    From about ’67 onward, Peter let other musicians, plus assorted sycophants, hang out at his house around the clock, providing them with free food and party space and essentially spending way too much money to prove that he was truly one of the gang. The poor guy harbored a guilt trip that he didn’t deserve, concerning the Monkees’ initial commercial success having been the result of a “fake” band being passed off as a real one.

    (The guys were alarmed at seeing their first album being presented as the work of a true band, when they’d been under the impression that it would be billed clearly as the soundtrack to the TV show. They didn’t even know their second album existed until they saw it on tour, while browsing in a record shop. There, on the cover, was a photo they’d done to model clothes for a J.C. Penny ad.)

    They went from four guys hired to play the TV roles of fictional wanna-be Beatles to a distinctly non-fictional American rock’n’roll band with dozens of amazing songs ultimately attached to the name “Monkees.” Peter’s instrumental and songwriting skills were crucial during this transformation. Thanks for the article!

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