We knew it was coming, of course — the cancer he was diagnosed with around a decade ago is one which most people survive for a long time, but which pretty much always gets you within a decade or so, and his absence from Monkees shows last year (and his obvious frailty on the one song he contributed to their Christmas Party! album) made it clear that he wasn’t doing well at all. But it’s still upsetting as hell to learn that Peter Tork has died.
Tork was underrated, even by Monkees fans — there was the joke in Brooklyn Nine-Nine last year about someone on a quiz show “He named all of the Monkees! Even Tork! Nobody remembers Tork!” — but he was a massive, massive talent as a performer, especially as an instrumentalist. The jibe about the Monkees not playing their own instruments was never totally true — even on the first album, which was largely played by session musicians, Tork played guitar on multiple tracks — but when they took over their own record-making process, Tork’s playing on banjo and keyboards was what really held the band together in the studio, and some of the most distinctive instrumental parts on their mid-period records — the harpsichord on “The Girl I Knew Somewhere”, the piano intro on “Daydream Believer”, the sharp piano chords on the middle eight of “Pleasant Valley Sunday” were Tork’s work and Tork’s conception.
And he was a remarkable live performer. I only saw him live three times, sadly, but he was the highlight of those three Monkees shows, moving with a physicality and comic timing reminiscent of Harpo Marx, while switching effortlessly between guitar, bass, banjo, keyboards, and even French horn.
He was also an excellent songwriter and a better singer than he was given credit for, whose work on the Monkees’ reunion albums was generally a highlight of them (and in the case of Pool It! was more or less the album’s only redeeming feature). He wasn’t allowed to sing much on the records in the early years, but his vocals on “Little Girl” and “Wasn’t Born To Follow” on 2016’s Good Times! were some of the best of his career, and those two tracks were, for me at least, highlights of one of the band’s best albums.
He was very easy to dismiss. He wasn’t the front-man like Davy Jones. He wasn’t the great voice that Micky Dolenz has. And he wasn’t the mercurial genius that is Michael Nesmith. But what he was was a fine comic actor (and of all four Monkees he was the one who was most different from the character he played on screen, the only one who was really stretching himself), an excellent multi-instrumentalist, and a fine songwriter. And he was the one more than any other member of the band who pushed in the sixties for them to *be* a band, at least for a time. He was the one who insisted on them doing Headquarters by themselves, and he was the one who was most disappointed when the band started to drift into making solo records under the Monkees banner rather than continuing as a group.
The last time I saw him live was, fittingly for such a folkie, at a folk festival — Moseley Folk Festival in 2015, where the Monkees (just two of them — Micky and Peter) headlined, closing the show with a wonderful set which included the Polyphonic Spree joining them for an encore of “Porpoise Song”.
Like the other Monkees, and possibly even more so than them, Tork seemed to have a love-hate relationship with the band, and sometimes to love it while at other times seeming to resent what he saw as it taking away from his serious musical work — he made albums solo, as part of a country-folk duo, and as the leader of his blues band Shoe Suede Blues, and he seemed to regard those as being more true to his own musical soul than his work with the band he was with for three years in his twenties. But in later years he seemed to have made peace with being a Monkee, and his contributions were all over their final (non-Xmas) album from 2016. He’ll be misse,