The Talented Peter Tork Part One
Peter Tork (born Peter Halsten Thorkelson, February 13, 1942) is an American musician and actor, best known as the keyboardist and bass guitarist of the Monkees.
Tork performing at Family Gras in Metairie, Louisiana in January 2016.
Peter Halsten Thorkelson
February 13, 1942 (age 75)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
* Folk Blues Rock pop rock psychedelic rock experimental rock rock and roll pop
* Singer-songwriter musician artist multi-instrumentalist activist
* Bass guitar vocals keyboards
* Colgems RCA Bell Arista Rhino Sire
* The Monkees Shoe Suede Blues George Harrison James Lee Stanley Release Cottonmouth The Peter Tork Project
Tork was born at the former Doctors Hospital, in Washington, D.C. Although he was born in the District of Columbia in 1942, many news articles incorrectly report him as born in 1944 in New York City, which was the date and place given on early Monkees press releases. He is the son of Virginia Hope (née Straus) and Halsten John Thorkelson, an economics professor at the University of Connecticut. His paternal grandfather was of Norwegian descent, while his mother was of half German Jewish and half British Isles ancestry. He began studying piano at the age of nine, showing an aptitude for music by learning to play several different instruments, including the banjo and both acoustic bass and guitars. Tork attended Windham High School in Willimantic, Connecticut, and was a member of the first graduating class at E.O. Smith High School in Storrs, Connecticut. He attended Carleton College before he moved to New York City, where he became part of the folk music scene in Greenwich Village during the first half of the 1960s. While there, he befriended other up-and-coming musicians such as Stephen Stills.
Tork (right) with The Monkees in 1967
Stephen Stills had auditioned for the new television series about four pop-rock musicians but was turned down because the show’s producers felt his hair and teeth would not photograph well on camera. They asked Stills if he knew of someone with a similar “open, Nordic look,” and Stills suggested Tork audition for the part. Tork got the job and became one of the four members of the Monkees, a fictitious pop band in the mid-1960s, created for a television sitcom written about the fictitious band. Tork was the oldest member of the group.
Tork was a proficient musician, and though the group was not allowed to play their own instruments on their first two albums, he was an exception, playing what he described as “third chair guitar” on Mike Nesmith’s song, “Papa Gene’s Blues,” from their first album. He subsequently played keyboards, bass guitar, banjo, harpsichord, and other instruments on their recordings. He also co-wrote, along with Joey Richards, the closing theme song of the second season of The Monkees, “For Pete’s Sake”. On the television show, he was relegated to playing the “lovable dummy,” a persona Tork had developed as a folk singer in New York’s Greenwich Village. The DVD release of the first season of the show contained commentary from the various bandmates. In it, Nesmith stated that Tork was better at playing guitar than bass. In Tork’s commentary, he stated that Jones was a good drummer and had the live performance lineups been based solely on playing ability, it should have been Tork on guitar, Nesmith on bass, and Jones on drums, with Dolenz taking the fronting role, rather than as it was done (with Nesmith on guitar, Tork on bass, and Dolenz on drums). Jones filled in briefly for Tork on bass when he played keyboards.
Recording and producing as a group was Tork’s major interest, and he hoped that the four members would continue working together as a band on future recordings. However, the four did not have enough in common regarding their musical interests. In commentary for the DVD release of the second season of the show, Tork said that Dolenz was “incapable of repeating a triumph”. Dolenz felt that once he had accomplished something and became a success at it, there was no artistic sense in repeating a formula.
Jones and Tork, 1966
Tork, once free from Don Kirshner’s restrictions, in 1967, contributed some of the most memorable and catchy instrumental flourishes, such as the piano introduction to “Daydream Believer” and the banjo part on “You Told Me”, as well as exploring occasional songwriting with the likes of “For Pete’s Sake” and “Lady’s Baby”.
Tork was close to his grandmother, staying with her sometimes in his Greenwich Village days, and after he became a Monkee. “Grams” was one of his most ardent supporters and managed his fan club, often writing personal letters to members, and visiting music stores to make sure they carried Monkees records.
Six albums were produced with the original Monkees lineup, four of which went to No. 1 on the Billboard chart. This success was supplemented by two years of the TV show, a series of successful concert tours both across America and abroad, and a trippy-psychedelic movie, Head, a bit ahead of its time. However, tensions, both musical and personal, were increasing within the group. The band finished a Far East tour in December 1968 (where his copy of Naked Lunch was confiscated by Australian Customs) and then filmed an NBC television special, 33⅓ Revolutions Per Monkee, which rehashed many of the ideas from Head, only with the Monkees playing a strangely second-string role.
No longer getting the group dynamic he wanted, and pleading “exhaustion” from the grueling schedule, Tork bought out the remaining four years of his contract after filming was complete on December 20, 1968, at a default of $150,000/year. In the DVD commentary for the 33⅓ Revolutions Per Monkee TV special—originally broadcast April 14, 1969 – Dolenz noted that Nesmith gave Tork a gold watch as a going-away present, engraved “From the guys down at work”. Tork kept the back, but replaced the watch several times in later years.