Blog Title: Do I Have To Do This All Over Again?
Peter Tork passed away last week at the all-too-young age of 77.
I didn't used to think 77 was young. But the older I get, and the more people I know who live and live well in their 80's and even 90's, 77 seems too young.
Peter played the bass player on the TV show The Monkees (returning soon to MeTV). Peter also played bass in the band The Monkees. And guitar. And banjo. And piano. And harpsichord. Of the four members of the group, Tork was easily the most musically accomplished.
But on the TV show, he played the dummy. Micky was the wacky one. Davy was the heart throb. Mike was the leader. They were all playing roles, but of the four, Peter's was the furthest from the truth. But as the dummy, he was funny. And it was a TV show. That's what you do on a TV show - you play a role.
As I wrote when Davy passed away almost seven years ago, the lines between roles and reality got blurred with the Monkees. It really wasn't until the show had been off the air for years, and books were written, and interviews given, and time and perspective were gained, that a picture of who these guys really were started to emerge.
It seemed that in the wake of Davy's passing, the surviving members had finally all come to terms with their time as Monkees. Nesmith had eschewed it for years, but started doing some reunion tours with Micky and Peter, and the three of them even put out an excellent album during the group's 50th anniversary. Sometimes they'd tour as a trio, or just Micky and Peter, but almost always Peter was there. After the 2016 anniversary tour though, Peter stopped touring with the Monkees to spend more time working with his own band - Shoe Suede Blues. But then as Micky and Michael set out in 2018 for their first-ever tour as a duo, rumors started swirling about Peter's health. He'd had cancer in 2009 - which took a toll on his voice - but he kept on keeping on. He fought the good fight for a decade, but then last Thursday, he lost the battle.
In the days since his passing, I've been re-listening to his music. He didn't sing lead on very many Monkees songs. In fact, someone familiar with only their TV show would be hard-pressed to find more than a few. He did the novelty-like Your Auntie Grizelda (which was actually intended to be in the style of the Rolling Stone's 19th Nervous Breakdown), and sang co-lead on Shades of Gray and Words. And... that was about it.
But if you dig deeper, he sang backing vocals on many of the tracks, and played instruments a lot on their songs (once they had wrested control away from Don Kirshner). The piano opening to Daydream Believer? That's Peter. That's him on piano again on Pleasant Valley Sunday. And on banjo on You Told Me - the first track on the first album they did as an actual band. Those, and many other songs wouldn't be the same without him there. And something anyone would've heard watching the show in reruns is the second season's closing theme song: For Pete's Sake. Even though it was sung by Micky, Peter wrote it and that's him playing the iconic guitar intro.
Largely absent from their fifth album - The Birds, The Bees and The Monkees - Peter made his biggest impact on their next (and shortest) album, the soundtrack from their movie Head. There were six songs in the film: Carol King co-wrote two of them, Harry Nilsson wrote one of them, Nesmith wrote one, and Peter wrote two of them: Long Title: Do I Have To Do This All Over Again? and Can You Dig It? (sung by Micky). In addition to writing a third of the songs for their film amidst some pretty impressive company, he absolutely killed it on their live performance of Circle Sky. And yes - that really was them playing live. By that point, they were a band.
And then, Peter left.
All he'd wanted to do, from the outset, was be in a band. The times they were in the studio as a band were his happiest moments. But that was all-too-brief, as the others' interests diverged, and everyone musically started going their own ways. And so in December 1968, Peter became the first ex-Monkee.
Considering he was the first to leave, Peter sadly had the littlest output as a solo artist. While he released a couple of singles after the Monkees, it wasn't until 1994 that he released his first proper solo album: Stranger Things Have Happened.
Why? Well... probably for the same reason he didn't sing lead much in the Monkees. He didn't have what you'd call a commercial voice. It was a bit thin. His pitch wavered. Even on that first solo album, it seems strained at times. Which is too bad... because he loved music. You can hear it in the lyrics of the songs he wrote. You could see it when he played on stage. When he talked in interviews about it.
But there were times... when the stars aligned... where you could hear it.
Known more for his folk music leanings at the time, he came out of seemingly nowhere with the hard rocking Long Title: Do I Have To Do This All Over Again? (On the Deluxe Edition of the Head soundtrack there's also a rare earlier version where his voice has an even harder edge to it.)
At the other end of the spectrum in the aforementioned Shades of Gray, after Davy sings the first verse, Peter takes over and his voice captures the song perfectly - emotional, melancholy, somber. Haunting.
There are other examples, but if I were to pick one album to hear Peter at his absolute best, it would actually be a duet that he did with James Lee Stanley: Two Man Band. It's just the two of them, alternating singing lead, and playing acoustic guitars. Their voices blend effortlessly. Peter seems perfectly comfortable in this setting, and his performance reflects that. This is how Peter could sing, given the right songs, the right arrangements, and the right collaborator. One of the highlights is a song Peter wrote about a car he once owned: MGB GT. There's sincerity and wistfulness in the lyrics, and an ease and joy in the way he sings it, as if he's just sitting down and telling the story to a friend. The album is capped with an acoustic version of Pleasant Valley Sunday. One of the best pop songs ever written. One of the best performances of it ever recorded.
Peter wasn't the dummy of the group. Not by a long shot.
Peter was the kind soul of the group. And now, sadly, the world has one fewer of them.
Edit: I'd forgotten about these videos Peter recorded for Paste Magazine in 2011. So I've added them here.
I would've loved to have heard an entire album of these.