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|Also Known As:||Peter H. Torkleson||Died:|
|Born:||February 13, 1942||Cause of Death:|
|Birth Place:||Washington D.C., USA||Profession:||Cast ...|
A founding member of the Monkees, Peter Tork rose from obscurity to pop idol status with the group's eponymous television series (NBC, 1966-69), and remained with the group through various reunions over the course of four decades. Though his "character" on the television show was gentle but slow-witted, Tork was actually the most accomplished musician of the quartet, having mastered guitar, banjo, bass, harpsichord and numerous other instruments. However, his talents were unable to maintain a career as a solo artist in the wake of the Monkees' initial demise in 1969, and for much of the 1970s and 1980s, Tork struggled with substance abuse and financial issues. The group's unexpected revival in the late 1980s revived Tork's fortunes through a string of successful tours, though the members frequently found it difficult to maintain their Age of Aquarius brotherhood. By 2001, Tork had left the act due to internal conflicts with Davy Jones and Mickey Dolenz. Despite the acrimony, Tork remained as genial and committed to his music as he had been in the Monkees' heyday, which did much to preserve his status as an underrated member of the '60s rock generation.
Born Peter Halsten Thorkelson on Feb. 13, 1942 in Washington, D.C., Peter Tork was the son of economics professor Halsten John Thorkelson and his wife, Virginia Strauss. He showed an aptitude for music and instruments at an early age, learning piano by age nine and soon adding banjo, guitar and bass to his growing list of talents. He moved to New York City in the early 1960s, where he fell in with the burgeoning folk music scene. Tork later relocated to Los Angeles when pop music shifted its focus from folk and vocal groups to rock-n-roll acts. One of the musicians Tork had befriended while in New York was Stephen Stills, who would later rise to fame on his own as a member of both Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills & Nash. Like many aspiring L.A. musicians, Stills had auditioned for a new television series about a rock band by producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, and suggested that Tork follow suit. Tork's genial nature impressed the producers, and he was soon thrown together with musician Michael Nesmith and actors Davy Jones and Mickey Dolenz as the Monkees.
Tork's "role" within the group was to play the genial fool, easily swayed by fast talkers or get-famous-quick schemes. In reality, Tork was well educated, but with his wide smile and sunny disposition, he fit the role perfectly. Since the Monkees were intended to be both sitcom characters and a real band, the group was soon dispatched to the studio to record vocals for their first single, 1966's "Last Train to Clarksville." Much to the chagrin of both Tork and Nesmith, Don Kirshner, head of music for Screen Gems, which produced the series, used studio musicians on that track and nearly all of the songs on their first two albums. Adding to their dismay was the fact that the single was a hit, as was the show, instantly minting them as pop stars. Dolenz quickly learned to play drums in a rudimentary manner, and the band began to gel. They soon played live shows in Hawaii, despite initial protests from the producers. The results, however, were better than expected, and footage from their concerts was soon incorporated into the program itself. Still, as a band, the Monkees had a hard time earning the respect of some critics, who derisively dubbed them the "Pre-Fab Four."
Ironically, the real Beatles greatly admired their show and music, even going out of their way to praise them in interviews. Tork himself would provide banjo for George Harrison's soundtrack to the psychedelic experimental film "Wonderwall" (1968). However, Kirshner and the producers continued to prevent the group from playing on their own records. Eventually, mismanagement caused Kirshner to be ousted from the Monkees' recordings, and the quartet recorded their third album, Headquarters (1967). The record shot to the top of the charts, but was quickly unseated by the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Tork had hoped that the success of the album would mean that the Monkees would continue to record together. He had composed some of the group's better material in the wake of Kirshner's dismissal, including "For Pete's Sake," which became the show's end title theme in its second season, and contributed the piano introduction to what was arguably the Monkees' greatest single, "Daydream Believer." But the four individual members were too disparate in their talents to maintain any consistency in their recordings. They had also tired of relentless attacks on their proficiency by the media, and of their show itself, which was canceled in 1968.
Rafelson and Schneider attempted to revamp The Monkees' image with 1968's "Head," a stream of consciousness feature film that only served to alienate their core fan base. Following a contentious tour of the Far East and a failed TV special, "33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee" (NBC, 1969), Tork left the group. He formed Peter Tork And/Or Release, but the group failed to secure a record contract, and he disbanded the group to pursue a solo career. However, he was unable to generate much interest in that format, so by 1972, he was living in the basement of David Crosby's house with his pregnant girlfriend, Reine Stewart, and struggling with mounting addictions to alcohol and drugs. The latter came to a head later that year when he served a three-month sentence in an Oklahoma prison for hashish possession. Tork re-surfaced in the mid-1970s in Southern California, where he was teaching at a progressive school. There were numerous attempts to launch a new band, comprised of either Monkees material or new solo songs, but none found a willing audience.
Tork was substance-free and living in New York when the Monkees experienced an unexpected revival, thanks to reruns of the series on the then-fledgling MTV and Nickelodeon networks. Tork and Dolenz would record two new songs, including the Top 20 single, "That Was Then, This is Now" for the greatest-hits compilation, Then and Now The Best of the Monkees, which earned platinum sales. American and later global tours featuring Tork, Dolenz, Jones and occasionally Nesmith racked up top ticket sales from 1986 through 1989. An album of entirely new material, Pool It! with Tork, Dolenz and Jones was released in 1987 to modest acclaim, and the trio made frequent guest appearances that traded on their nostalgia value in features like "The Brady Bunch Movie" (1995) and numerous commercials. Tork himself would make regular appearances on the sitcom Boy Meets World (ABC, 1993-2000) as the eccentric father of Danielle Fishel's character, Topanga Lawrence.
Tork took advantage of the newfound spotlight by releasing his first solo album, Stranger Things Have Happened (1994), which received positive reviews. A collaboration with singer-songwriter James Lee Stanley called Two Man Band surfaced in 1996. He remained with the Monkees for the remainder of the 1990s, which saw the release of Justus (1996), the last album to feature all four original members of the group, and a 30th anniversary tour that featured occasional appearances by Nesmith. However, the veneer of happy-go-lucky that had surrounded previous Monkees reunions fell away during their 35th anniversary tour in 2001. Tork quit or was fired from the group at the end of the tour, citing abusive behavior on the part of Dolenz and Jones. The four original members would spend much of the next decade alternately sniping at or praising each other in the press while Dolenz and Jones carried on as the remaining Monkees. In 2009, Tork was diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare form of cancer which required several rounds of radiation therapy. He was declared cancer-free at the end of the year, and rejoined Dolenz and Jones in February 2011 for a 45th anniversary tour. Despite strong ticket sales and positive reviews, the tour ground to a halt in August of that year due to long-simmering resentments between the remaining members. Any chance of further reunions ended in February 2012 with the death of Davy Jones. All three surviving members paid tribute to him with statements to the press in the days following his passing.
By Paul Gaita
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