Monday, February 25, 2019

A Salute to Peter Tork, Who Tears the Top Right Off My Head

The first time I heard the Monkees' "Your Auntie Grizelda," I don't think I liked it. It didn't bother my young ears as much as Davy Jones' sappy, spoken word lyrics in "The Day We Fall In Love." In reaction to the latter song, I took a pencil, crossed out the title as best I could on the record label and wrote "BOO!" next to it. "Auntie Grizelda" got under my (approximately) seven-year old skin because of Peter Tork's goofy noises during the lead break. It felt too close to some sort of baby talk noises. It wasn't funny to me.

But different qualities float to the surface of Monkees songs as time goes on that offer a deeper appreciation. In the final verse of the song, the comedy almost makes way for melancholy. The first two verses have set up the song's title character as a comedic character, a stuffy "normal." Now, Peter Tork is warning the person in the song to break away from her, "or, just like her, you'll have to make it alone." As he sings those final words, Peter's voice always seemed to take on a sadder tone. It explained why Grizelda is so stodgy - she's lonely, and more of a tragic figure. Even in the early days, the Monkees were good for drama. Think about the way that Micky sings, "And I don't know if I'm ever coming home," in "Last Train to Clarksville." It sounds nervous, truly like a guy who doesn't want to leave his girlfriend for Viet Nam. (Years later, it was admitted that the song was about that.)

I say all this while I remember what a former co-worker once told me after reading an article of mine that explained the depth of the Monkees bubble gum music. He told me, "I don't know if I'm just missing something or if you're full of shit." It could be that I'm over analyzing their work, though I doubt it. Regardless, it seems like a good way to start a salute to Peter Tork, who died last week at the age of 77. Peter was typecast as the dumb member of the band, on both their tv show and to some extent onstage. When he finally got a song, on the second Monkees album, it was "Your Auntie Grizelda," a joke tune. Sort of. But he managed to elevate it beyond that before it was over. He did quite a bit to elevate the band's music, in fact.

One album later, on Headquarters, his talents really added to the work, when the band took artistic control of the recording sessions. His banjo fueled the drive of Mike Nesmith's "You Told Me," blending country and rock perhaps a few steps ahead of the Byrds. Tork also did the finger-picking guitar work in Nesmith's "Sunny Girlfriend" which it's author did the rhythm part.

If that weren't enough, Peter co-wrote one of the album's cornerstone songs. "For Pete's Sake" is not only catchy, built on a guitar lick with a lot of snap, it also has a strong call for love and unity. Maybe it comes off as a little more simplistic than other things that came out during the Summer of Love, but damned if the whole thing doesn't hit hard. Micky Dolenz sings the whole thing, but Peter put the words in his mouth, knowing that the drummer would leave a greater impression as he wails, "We gotta be freeeee." So effective was this song that it became the closing theme to The Monkees during the second tv season.

Peter only sang about two lines on Headquarters but they were significant. He delivers the start of the second verse of "Shades of Gray," which already sounds sad due to the somber piano intro. After Davy Jones sings the first verse in a near-whisper, Peter takes the second one, with his voice, with a bit of echo on it, almost sounding like it's about to crack. Not to forget the title line of the song, which he sings all by his vulnerable self, except during the final chorus. Not to belabor the point, but it reinforces the meaning of the song, which, perhaps in retrospect, spoke legions for what the country was going through at the time.

The next couple Monkees album shortchanged Peter. On Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., his sole contribution was "Peter Percival Patterson's Pet Pig Porky," which played into his role from the show. Instrumentally, he did contribute a lot to the songs though. But The Birds, The Bees & the Monkees has nothing by him. The CD version has a short song called "Alvin." "Tear the Top Right Off My Head" was a strong one that didn't see legit release until the late '90s. There were a few others that he recorded around that time, including the haunting "Merry Go Round." I once played that for a former bandmate, who was appalled at the keyboard-heavy, drumless song. "He's not even singing into tune!" Yeah, but This Mortal Coil should've covered it on one of their albums.

Head, the movie and album, set the record straight, with two solid Tork songs, "Can You Dig It" and "Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again." The Monkees brought the latter back into their stage show in the early 2000s, I believe it was, which I was happy to hear. If nothing else, that song, with its frantic pace and arty time signature changes during the solo, should be enough to solidify Peter's credentials.

Then he left the band. Of course, he returned, left and returned again. He also did other things, like teach high school and start a blues band, Suede Shoe Blues. He also fought a battle with adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare cancer of the head and neck. He seemed to be doing well when he went back on tour with Dolenz and Nesmith in 2014.

In the weeks prior to that tour, I got to interview Tork by phone. There wasn't a chance for me to publish an article anywhere but one doesn't turn down a chance to talk to this guy, who sounded strong and healthy. And I posted the interview on this blog in two entries: Part One and Part Two. We only had 15 minutes, so I did my best to avoid all the typical questions and cover a few things that he wouldn't normally get to talk about. Peter was gracious, serious when he needed to be and witty when it was called for. I've always hoped that there would be a chance for a follow-up, where we could pick up our previous conversations. Life had other ideas.

In closing, here's an odd story.

A couple weeks ago I had a pretty vivid dream about playing at an open stage at Pittsburgh's Club Cafe where Peter and Mike Nesmith were also on the bill. That's a weird set-up for me because I never do open mike nights. And it seems funny to think about either of them doing them as well. Like many dreams, I didn't actually see either one perform. In fact I think that provided part of the tension: Mike and I were chatting after the show, shaking our heads at the soundman who was being kind of rough with the microphones as he tried to strike the set. Rather than taking the mike out of the stand, he was yanking the cable, making the stand fall over, and smashing the valuable equipment on the stage.

It looked like I was going to get away without admitting that I missed his set, so I looked at Mike and said, "Well, I'm going to get going. It was great seeing you, Peter. Uh, WAIT, I can't believe I just called you Peter. I mean....I know which one you are. I really do...." He looked at me with the understanding face of a guy who's been in awkward situations like this before, not really believing me but trying to be polite.

On the way out, I saw Peter and told him what had happened. He laughed it off.

The next thing I knew I was on Craig Street in Oakland where I ran into my high school friend Priscilla, who as it happens was a Monkees fan too. In fact the whole dream might have transpired because she recently posted a picture on Facebook of Nesmith holding a Monkees t-shirt. But she was walking up to use a payphone, which could only mean the year in this dream was somewhere around 1988, so I didn't tell her what happened.

And that's what Peter Tork means to me. I salute you, sir. Did you know my uncle was on your show twice?

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