Peter Tork, the bassist and wise-cracking character in the 1960s teen-pop sensation the Monkees, died today at the age of 77, a rep for the group confirmed to Variety. Speaking with the Washington Post, Tork’s sister Anne Thorkelson did not specify a cause of death, although the guitarist had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer a decade ago.
Tork wrote a blog piece for the Post about his diagnosis with adenoid cystic carcinoma after beginning treatment in 2009. Through most of the 10 years since, he had been able to resume an active musical life, participating in Monkees reunion shows as recently as 2016, and recording his own solo blues albums, the last of which, “Relax Your Mind,” a Lead Belly tribute, came out in early 2018.
“There are no words right now… heartbroken over the loss of my Monkee brother, Peter Tork,” Mickey Dolenz tweeted.
Michael Nesmith posted a lengthier appreciation. “Pardon me if I am being dogmatic — but I think it is harder to put together a band than a TV show — not to take anything away from TV shows,” he wrote. “These days I watch MSNBC — mostly aghast at what I see — and what I am missing is ‘madcap.’ … Peter Tork died this a.m. I am told he slipped away peacefully. 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. It’s going to be a rough day. I share with all Monkees fans this change, this ‘loss,’ even so. PT will be a part of me forever.
“I have said this before — and now it seems even more apt: the reason we called it a band is because it was where we all went to play,” Nesmith continued. “A band no more, and yet the music plays on, an anthem to all who made the Monkees and the TV show our private — dare I say ‘secret’ — playground. As for Pete, I can only pray his songs reach the heights that can lift us and that our childhood lives forever — that special sparkle that was the Monkees. I will miss him — a brother in arms. Take flight my Brother.”
The Monkees’ legacy is a complicated one that even today polarizes serious rock fans, many of whom argue, as Nesmith did in his statement, that their transformation from a “manufactured” group to a “real” one deserves at least as much credit as anything with more organic beginnings. “Sometimes the question of the [Rock and Roll] Hall of Fame comes up, and I’ve been thinking lately that I don’t know whether the Monkees belong in the Hall of Fame,” Tork said, modestly, to the Baltimore Sun in 2016. “I mean, I would vote for us if I had a vote. But what I can say is if there was a hall of fame for television casts who became pop groups in their own right, we would be the only candidate.”
While the Monkees were a television-centric, American version of the Beatles as depicted in “A Hard Day’s Night,” Tork and fellow guitarist Mike Nesmith were serious musicians who paid their dues on the folk and rock scenes of the early 1960s; vocalist Davy Jones and singer/drummer Micky Dolenz were former child actors. Tork played the “Ringo” role in the group, as a charming and goofy comic foil.
“Peter was pure in spirit and dedicated to music all of his life,” said their manager, Andrew Sandoval, told Variety. (Sandoval wrote a book about the group in 2005 before going on to join their team.) “Peter’s greatest thrill was sharing a song and a story in the folk tradition. He left behind some incredible songs of his own, like ‘For Pete’s Sake’ from the ‘Headquarters’ album, which defined the essence of his philosophy.”
Tork had been part of the Greenwich Village folk scene before becoming instantly famous. “To be in Greenwich Village in the ’60s was pure joy; to be young was pure bliss,” he said in an interview with UK Music Reviews. “When I talk about having a well favored life, I went from Greenwich Village almost directly into The Monkees. … I had first heard about the Monkees in the early summer of 1965 from a good friend of mine, one Mr. Stephen Stills,” who had been considered for the show himself and made a call to Tork, whom he figured would be better suited.
“With the Monkees, it was timing that a lot of kids came up and they were the younger brothers and sisters of the kids who loved the Beatles and they wanted something of their own,” Tork said in an interview with Rock Cellar in 2016. “And along came the Monkees and they had something of their own, oh boy, oh boy, oh boy. They were like, You can keep your damn Beatles, I’ve got The Monkees! A lot of kids grew up that way and some of them became musicians,” he added, explaining why younger rockers like Rivers Cuomo, Ben Gibbard and Noel Gallagher had eagerly agreed to write songs for the Monkees’ 2016 comeback album, “Good Times.”
Tork attributed the huge initial success of the Monkees to two factors. “We were lucky to lock into one of the greatest song writing gangs of all time. … We had Carole King writing songs for us. Please, there has never been a better songwriter — really, come on,” he said to UK Music Reviews. “Secondly there was television. When you got to see the guys playing off of each other, even if they were reading scripts and playing parts, you still got a sense of who they were. There was a much more personal connection to us as people with the audience than there was with even the Beatles or the Stones, or even the more recent boy bands.”
While the Monkees enjoyed enormous chart and box-office success in the wake of the television show, which launched in 1966 and was created by producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, the group grew weary of not being taken seriously.
When the series began, the four had never played together as a band. One day while on break, Tork recalled, they asked if the amplifiers on the set actually worked. Being told that they did, the group launched into their first spontaneous jam session, playing some rock oldies — with Tork reminiscing that he had taught Dolenz how to play the drums the night before. Soon they were out on tour during filming breaks, and after two initial albums that mostly featured L.A.’s top session players, they assumed most of the instrumental and much of the songwriting work on 1967’s “Headquarters,” the third of nine albums they released during their original 1966-70 run.
They made a dramatic split with their past on the uneven and very psychedelic 1968 album and film “Head,” which baffled fans and largely failed to introduce them to a new audience. (The movie became a cult favorite and drew a sold-out audience to a 50th anniversary Hollywood screening in November.)
“The TV show had this huge ad campaign, and everybody went for all the hype,” Tork told the Los Angeles Times upon the movie’s 40th anniversary in 2008. “The ‘Head’ campaign was designed to be Postmodernist, and the commercials were off-putting. The hip thought it was going to be another bubble-gum movie, and they didn’t want to see it. And the bubble-gum kids thought it was going to be a freak-out movie, and they didn’t want to see it. I think if the movie had been thoroughly promoted in an appropriate way, it would have done much better.”
Tork was by some accounts the most musically proficient member of the Monkees, and someone comfortable with a variety of instruments. In the 1960s, George Harrison invited him to play banjo on his first solo album, the “Wonder Wall” soundtrack, although his picking reportedly only appears on bootleg outtakes and in the film itself. Although he was usually seen playing guitar in his solo acoustic or blues-band shows, in his spare time, he played piano, telling Medium in a 2017 interview that a typical day for him included some casual classical music. “I enjoy playing Johann Sebastian Bach for a hobby, just to take my mind into different places,” he said.
All four members of the Monkees had rarely played together since Tork left the group in 1968 and the band officially broke up two years later. But after MTV reruns made the band newly hip, Tork regularly participated in reunion tours that began in 1986 and included all of the original members except for Michael Nesmith, who rejoined briefly for a 1996 album and ’97 UK tour. After Davy Jones died in 2012, Nesmith warmed up more to participating in reunion events. Tork, Nesmith and Micky Dolenz made their last appearance as a trio at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood on Sept. 26, 2016.
In 2018, Nesmith and Dolenz went out on the road as a duo — dubbed as “The Monkees Present: The Mike & Micky Show” — leading many fans to question why Tork was no longer participating. “I have in general made no secret of the fact that all these recent years of Monkees-related projects, as fun as they’ve been, have taken up a lot of my time and energy,” he said in a statement to Rolling Stone. “Moving forward, I have blues projects that I want to give my attention to...I’m shifting gears for now, but I wish the boys well, and I’ve learned to never say never on things further down the line.” But, Nesmith told the magazine at the time, “I’m afraid I would betray a confidence if I said any more than, ‘This is not a right time for him.’ He has his reasons. They are very private.” However, Tork did add one last song to a new Monkees Christmas album released last fall, a banjo-fueled version of “Angels, We Have Heard On High,” with Dolenz citing health issues as a reason Tork couldn’t contribute more.
In 2015, Tork discussed his illness with UK Music Reviews, prior to a London Monkees show. “It is pretty common knowledge that I had a surprise gift from a cancerous growth a number of years ago,” he said. “They carved it out of me and I have recovered solely from all of that. However it still requires attention on a regular basis; it doesn’t interfere terribly but that’s life. What I am trying to say is that I am as well as could be hoped for; life goes on like this. In fact I have to say that I am an extraordinarily well favored human on the face of the earth, and I am very grateful for that.”