Sunday, May 25, 2014

Peter Tork - He's Not the Dummy. A Monkees Interview Part 1

Peter Tork's musical career is pretty well known: Former Greenwich Village folkie heads out to California where his friend Stephen Stills tells him about an audition for a television show about a band. (Stills had been rejected because of his hair and teeth.) The show turns out to be The Monkees which starts out like a made-up band, becomes huge and breaks beyond their studio-constructed identity to something where all four members gain creative control. Their albums begin as pretty good bubblegum pop and evolve into something more on the level with what Tork's pal Stills was doing with Buffalo Springfield. (Don't believe that comment? Reexamine Headquarters, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones, Ltd. and the soundtrack to Head.)
The reunited Monkees - Tork, Micky Dolenz and..........TA-DAH! Mike Nesmith - are performing at the Palace Theater in Greensburg, PA this Wednesday, May 28. (8 p.m. $65-$95. Last Wednesday, I had a chance to talk to Tork, something I've wanted to do for years, knowing he was a lot sharper than the character he played on the show. We spoke for 15 minutes, which means we couldn't get into deep questions like specifics about the Head recording sessions or the fact that my uncle was on two episodes of the show and whether or not he remembered him. 
But I also avoided the usual questions about whether or not the Monkees were a real band. This is the first installment of the uncut interview. More will come in the next day or so. 
PS, while the title is obviously true it's also a reference to part of Head

Is music something you always wanted to do or was it something that you just stumbled into?

I can’t tell you for sure. I think I’ve always wanted to be an entertainer. And I always wanted to be a musician. But I’m an entertainer first and a musician second. I took piano for five years, and played banjo and guitar and bass and everything ever since. I love music, but I’m just not really sure that I’m as good as I ought to be if I’m gonna be, like, someone who you go to hear play music. But I am good enough that you should come and see me if you want to have a good evening with some good music stuff going on.
So I have to say music has been sort of a secondary thing to what I’ve always really wanted to do, which is to be an entertainer.

I can see how being on a tv show like The Monkees would factor into that. You get the best of both worlds.

It’s a good question: whether I became a Monkee because of my attitudes about this or whether being a Monkee postured or spurred. If I hadn’t been chosen for the Monkees, I probably would’ve been a folk singer for the rest of my life. Like a…I don’t know, I can’t even think of any guys that are like this. Tom Rush, who was a figure from my youth, very good folk singer – like that.

When you were in Greenwich Village…. A lot of people that I think of from that time, Phil Ochs or Dylan come to mind, seem a little more serious where the music or the message came first and entertainment might’ve been secondary.

Yeah something like that. It’s hard to tell. Phil, of course, is no longer with us. I have never heard from Bob Dylan, one way or another, on the point. Although he’s not a very good entertainer. [We both laugh.] I don’t know what he was up to. I think he was about… he wanted to be part of this, and he felt safest and best when it came to worthsmithing and writing lyrics. So that’s where he went.
I didn’t write much. I’ve written some good stuff here and there. But nobody thinks of me much as a songwriter, particularly. So each to his own. Phil Ochs, like Bob Dylan, got to thinking that the message was the important side of things. I think Phil was a little more musical than Bob was, or is. But you make your own choice. You follow your own proclivities.

I have to say a song like “For Pete’s Sake” still really packs a whallop all these years later.

Thanks very much. I’m really pleased that the stuff that I have written has been a little outside the mainstream. I once made the acquaintance of a young lady, a guitar player, and we got closer together and she finally said that guitar chord in “For Pete’s Sake,” — the chord on the word “Everything,” — which is a 7-add-4, which is a highly unusual chord. It sort of fell out of my hands on the guitar. We had been boyfriend and girlfriend for a while, she said that chord was what did it. [Laughs]
I wrote a set of chords once and thought, “Gosh, this is great.” I couldn’t think of anything to do with them. A couple years later I wrote “Can You Dig It,” to those chords. They were… let’s see: D-minor to B-flat major 7th to an E diminished 9th chord. That’s a really interesting way to set it up to the V chord. Or to look at it another way: we’re in A – Arab scale, which is – I don’t want to get too heavy. But it’s an unusual scale in Western music, in pop music. And it worked fine for me. I was just really glad. It just fell out of my hands again. It really felt good.
So I’m pleased that I’m not just writing “moon/june/spoon” songs in doggerel. My girlfriend says that if you can sing [your tune] to “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” it’s doggerel.


Look up the word: doggerel.

I forget exactly what it means, but I know it’s not good.

It’s cheap poetry, with no thought given whatsoever to rhyme or tension. Bad stuff. Completely thoughtless.  


James Jones said...

I look forward to the rest of the interview--thanks for avoiding the usual questions. (I am a bit curious about what Pete's girlfriend thinks of Emily Dickinson; you can in fact sing "Because I Could Not Wait for Death" to "Yellow Rose of Texas".

shanleymusic said...

I think that flashed through my mind for a split second while I was talking, but it vanished before I could say it. I also wondered what Mike Nesmith would think. By the way, I interviewed Mike via email a year ago. Here's that interview: You'll note that Monkees questions got the shorter answers. Thanks for reading!