Rest in peace, Peter Tork: The Monkees, “Words” (1968)

tork

Peter Tork, best known for his work in the Monkees, has passed away at the age of 77. Tork had been diagnosed with cancer about ten years ago, and had beaten it for a long time, but succumbed to the disease yesterday.

I’m reluctant to say “ex-Monkee Peter Tork” in a piece like this. For a long time Tork, as with others in the band, wanted to be remembered for more than that. Even when associated with the band in later years, the relationship would have been classified by Facebook as “complicated.” We had the Monkees in Chicago for a show in 1996, and I arranged for my mother to take part in a meet-and-greet after the concert. (It was her 50th birthday, which – given what I have looming in a few weeks – looks really weird.) Mike Nesmith, of course, was not a part of the tour, but Tork, Davy Jones, and Mickey Dolenz were there, smiling, posing for pictures with concertgoers. And yet I noticed something odd: while the band mates appeared to have had fun on stage, and were as nice as could be to their fans, at no point at the meet-and-greet did the three interact with each other. The fans probably didn’t notice, which was just as well – but I picked up on the fact that there was a tension about still being associated with “that group.”

I sense that it was because The Monkees wanted to be more than they were. They were musicians who auditioned for a band and then found out they wouldn’t be the musicians. Tork was an accomplished keyboard player as well as songwriter: he wrote “For Pete’s Sake,” which became the TV show’s closing theme in its second season. I suspect that, after a while, they felt they weren’t contributing enough. That’s too bad, because The Monkees contributed a lot to the culture.

In terms of a hitmaking machine, The Monkees often get overlooked. From 1966 to 1968, while the TV show was on the air, they placed eleven singles in the Top 40, with three of them hitting number 1. (The Beach Boys had three number ones in the 60s as well, and they’re in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame while the Monkees sit outside.) Of those eleven, the only two singles to not make it into the Top 20 were B-sides of bigger hits: “The Girl I Knew Somewhere,” which has always been a “secret weapon” record at my oldies stations and came along with “I’m Not Your Steppin’ Stone,” and the fun “Tapioca Tundra,” which rode the back of “Valleri.” The Monkees’ first four albums all hit #1 on the Billboard album chart, while the fifth – The Birds, The Bees, and the Monkees – spent four weeks at #3, kept from going higher by Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends. To simply dismiss the group as “made for television” is simply not sound.

There’s a lot of songs I could spotlight for this piece, but I wanted one that was not only a hit but featured Peter singing. That’s a little tricky to do, since while his keyboards stood out, Tork didn’t get the lead very often. But he did on “Words” – at least half it it. It’s a cool record that has Peter and Micky trading lines back and forth. “Words” made it to #11 in the late summer of 1967. It should have been a top ten, in my view – but “Pleasant Valley Sunday” was already at #8, and you can’t ask for too much, right?

You can hear “Words” by clicking here.

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