Obituary: Peter Tork, talented musician who helped manufactured band The Monkees transition into a genuine pop group

Peter Halsten Thorkelson, singer, songwriter and musician. Born: 13 February 1942 in Washington, DC. Died: 21 February 2019 in Mansfield, Connecticut, aged 77
Peter Tork of The Monkees performs in 2012.  (Picture: Noel Vasquez/Getty Images)Peter Tork of The Monkees performs in 2012.  (Picture: Noel Vasquez/Getty Images)
Peter Tork of The Monkees performs in 2012. (Picture: Noel Vasquez/Getty Images)

Peter Tork, a talented singer-songwriter and instrumentalist whose musical skills were often overshadowed by his role as the goofy, lovable bass guitarist in the made-for-TV pop group The Monkees, has died at age 77.

Tork’s son, Ivan Iannoli, said his father died on Thursday at the family home in Connecticut of complications from adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare cancer of the salivary glands. He had battled the disease since 2009.

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“Peter’s energy, intelligence, silliness, and curiosity were traits that for decades brought laughter and enjoyment to millions, including those of us closest to him,” his son said in a statement. “Those traits also equipped him well to take on cancer, a condition he met, like everything else in his life, with unwavering humour and courage.”

Tork, who was often hailed as the band’s best musician, had studied music since childhood. He was accomplished on guitar, bass guitar, keyboards, banjo and other instruments, and Michael Nesmith, the Monkees’ lead guitarist, said Tork was actually the better of the two.

He had been playing in small clubs in Los Angeles when a friend and fellow musician, Stephen Stills, told him TV casting directors were looking for “four insane boys” to play members of a struggling rock band.

Stills, a member of Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, reportedly told Tork he had been rejected because his teeth were ugly. He thought the handsome Tork might fare better.

When The Monkees debuted in September 1966, Tork and Nesmith, Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones became overnight teen idols.

Producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider modeled the show after the Beatles’ popular musical comedies A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, seeking to create a band that would mirror them in cheekiness if not musical talent.

In the Monkees iteration, Nesmith was the serious one, Jones the cute one and Dolenz the zany one.

Tork said he adopted his “dummy” persona from the way he’d get audiences to engage with him at Greenwich Village folk clubs in the early 1960s.

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He knew only one member of the Monkees before the show’s debut, Nesmith, who had been running “Hoot Nights” at the Troubadour nightclub, where Tork would occasionally perform after moving to Los Angeles. “As I write this my tears are awash, and my heart is broken,” Nesmith posted on his Facebook page on Thursday. “PT will be a part of me forever.”

During its two-year run The Monkees would win an Emmy for outstanding comedy series and the group would land seven songs in the US Top 10. I’m a Believer, Daydream Believer and Last Train to Clarksville would reach No. 1.

Initially, the Monkees was a band whose members didn’t play their instruments or write many of their songs, something that infuriated both Tork and Nesmith.

Tork would tell of going to an early recording session, only to be told dismissively that session musicians were laying down the musical tracks and all the Monkees had to do was sing.

“I was a hired hand, and I didn’t quite know that, and I didn’t quite get it,” he said in 2000. “I had fantasies of being more important than it turns out I was.”

Eventually he and Nesmith wrested control of the band’s musical fate from Don Kirshner, who had been brought in as the show’s music producer. By the group’s third album, Headquarters, the Monkees were playing their instruments and they even performed live in Hawaii.

After the show concluded in 1968 the band went on a lengthy concert tour that at one point included Jimi Hendrix as the opening act. But music critics had turned on them. They were dismissed as the PreFab Four, a mocking comparison to the Beatles.

That and creative differences led Tork to leave soon after the group’s 1968 movie and album Head.

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For several years he struggled financially and creatively, working for a time as a waiter and a schoolteacher.

By the mid-1980s, thanks to TV repeats and album reissues, the Monkees gained a new, younger following, and Tork rejoined the others for reunion tours.

All four produced a new album, Justus, in 1996 featuring them on all of the instrumentals and including songs they had written.

In the 1990s Tork also formed the group Shoe Suede Blues and he toured and recorded frequently.

Later albums included the solo work Stranger Things Have Happened and the Shoe Suede Blues albums Cambria Hotel, Step By Step and Relax Your Mind.

Tork begged off a Monkees reunion tour with Nesmith and Dolenz just last year to finish Relax Your Mind. Jones died in 2012.

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