Interview with Peter Tork
This is the (almost) unedited interview that I made with Peter Tork in 1994:
This is Lise from Denmark.
Well, are you ready?
Just fire away!
First of all: I don't know how much you know now about my project, or how
much you want to know about it.
But I've been writing som analyses about the TV-series "The Monkees" and the movie "HEAD".
These analyses are going to be a book later on. But I don't want it to be just that dry, analytic material, so it would be nice with some personal comments.
Sure. Just ask away. You have 45 minutes!
About "The Monkees": the TV-series was technically rather
unconventional for its time.
But how did you perceive taking part in it the? Did you realize how revolutionary it was when you made it?
Not all of it, no. Some of what was revolutionary about it was only evident afterwards. We knew that the quick cuts were new, all of that was radical and we knew that because we were told so by everybody in Hollywood, all the professional photographers in Hollywood. Ehh...I forget how it went, but what we called set-ups, which is to say stop the action, let the camera roll, set the lighting, that's called set-ups, and in conventional comedy, situation comedy, there would be like...oh...15 set-ups in a show, in an entire show there were only 15 set-ups, but we were running 60!
So we knew. They kept on telling us: you guys, you don't know what you're asking! But we didn't, we weren't asking, it was the producers. So that was one thing that was radical, and we didn't know that. And what the producers also decided at one point was that there should be no father figure.
Yes, I've noticed that.
Up till then all situation comedies had a father figure.The situation comedies of the day were "Father Knows Best", "You Fool You", My Three Sons", "Ozzie and Harriet", "Two Little Brats", all of the shows, when children figured in the shows...even after us!, "The Partridge Family" which was modelled on us, which was taken off on us...they had a parent figure, they had the mommy there. "The Brady Bunch", all those shows were about parents, were about parents and children. And we did have somebody who we thought was going to be a parent figure. We had a guy who was going to be our manager, but he only appeared for a split-second in the pilot, and then they decided to do away with him.
And in some way, sociolo...eh...gically speaking...
It was the most radical aspect of the show, the no-parent figure, because it was a first. We were presumed to be teenagers, but teenagers on our own and that was radical. I mean, people weren't adult in TV-shows until after they had graduated from college and gotten married. And that didn't happen until 24 or 25 or something and we were supposed to be 18 or something so it was quite unusual.
Then I've noticed something about the influence of "The Monkees".
For instance the British TV-series "The Young Ones" from 1982 has
taken a lot of gags and jokes from "The Monkees" and used them without
any alterations. Does it surprise you now that "The Monkees" had such
a big influence that other series 20 years later are still copying it?
Surprise me? No. Because the truth is that we ourselves, we derived almost directly from "A Hard Days Night", so we weren't the originators of very much, I mean, we were the first on television and some things, the quick cuts, the costume changes, that kind of thing was new for us, but I think in the overall general outlines we were just transmitters of the tradition, not originators. I think there's a lot of value in that, I'm not denigrating, but I also don't think that too much originality can be "ascribed" to us. So "The Young Ones" is a combination of, I don't know, "The Monkees" and "Murder and Mayhem"...those guys were really grouchy!
Okay. I don't have anything else about the Monkees now.
Yes, I'm on a time limit and I want to talk to you about "HEAD", too.
I used to watch "The Monkees" and then I watched "HEAD"
and I got the impression that in the series you were these 4 guys acting
different parts but in the movie you didn't seem to act as much. The parts you
played in the movie seemed to be based more on yourselves than the parts in the
Yeah, the movie was about who...who we were... [Peter pauses for a long time before continuing the sentence] ...I think as Bob Rafelson saw us, who the individuals were. The ways it was. I was spaced out with my newage philosophy, Davy is a little rough neck and Mike is a conniver, Micky, I don't know, but Micky's character hadn't formed at that point, he didn't know anything about him. But yeah, it was about who we were and not who the characters on the screen or TV-show were. The movie was about the Monkees-phenomenon and people and Hollywood and some of my complaints, the black box, we complained about what later became the black box a lot.
How much influence did the four of you have on the script?
On the movie? Oh, I think we had a lot. The producers and director were very pleased with us, we had a conference before we began work at the movie. The 7 of us [i.e. Peter Tork, Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider and Jack Nicholson] went to Ojai in California, a peaceful part of the world, and we sat in a motel and we talked about what we wanted and that what we all wanted was not to have another TV-episode. That was very important to all of us. And I don't think they hardened by that, because I think they wanted to make a good movie, I wish they could have made a movie that had had a commercial success, too, but they chose not to. I think that that was their choice, too, which I'm very disappointed about.
Okay. Did you have any influence on the scripts for the TV-series?
Well, you know, as the writers began to notice what our skills were, we were able to influencing the directions of the characters in general and also if we didn't like a joke or a line or something was going on, you know...
[Peter sighs deeply]
...we could change it if it fitted the plot. There were some structures, but we could change the scripts if we wanted.
Back to "HEAD" again: it wasn't a success in its own time, it has a cult status now.
Yeah, but it is never going to make money.
But did you like the movie yourself?
Yes, very much! I think...at various times...it's been what? 20 years since the movie came out? No, let's see, it's been, it's been...1968...25 years since the movie came out and over the course of that time I have "waxed and waned" with it but by and large I think it's a very good movie, it very much does a lot of what it means to do and there's some wonderful stuff in it.
You also made a TV-special called "33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee".
I know that Rhino is releasing it, but I haven't seen it yet, so if you'd tell
me something about it?
Surely. The interesting thing about that...TWO interesting things: one is that it covered very much the same territory as "HEAD" did, only of course with a different slate, a completely different take, but at one point the four of us were in test tubes, so you get the idea... [Peter laughs sarcastically] ...you get the drift.
The point is that we are manufactured, it was very much part of the entire Monkees-thing. The other interesting thing is that NBC scheduled it so that on the West Coast it was up against the Oscar-awards ceremony. So they really threw it away.
Nobody saw it?
No, not on the West Coast. Since the Oscars were live and the TV-show was scheduled regionally, that is to say it was more widely seen on the East Coast and evidently it received pretty good reviews. Oh, a couple of other interesting things about "33 1/3 Revolutions": it has in it Little Richard, Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis.
You knew that.
Yeah, I read about it.
As well as Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger, who were quite a well-known couple of rockers of that day. And the Buddy Miles Band played back-up for everybody. He was quite well-known for a while, he was doing quite well before he got himself landed in jail for what I don't remember. I played a piece called "1719" by Bach on the tape and sang a song that Michael brought us that was quite...FETCHING, I thought. It was an exploration of the Monkees-phenomenon as well and at one point we did 50'es duap costumes and sang some old "At the Hop". It was quite cute.
I can imagine that!
Well, here in Denmark we don't know the visual side of the Monkees. We only
know you as a band. The TV-series has never been broadcasted in Denmark.
Yeah. When I started telling people that the Monkees was a TV-series, they thought I was crazy.
How did you know?
I knew it because I got in contact with somebody in England who was watching it on British TV back in 1986-87 and then I later saw it via satellite where I could receive British TV. Then I started being interested in it as I'd never heard of it before. Well, of course I'd known the band the Monkees since I was 4-5 years old. But therefore my main concern is the visual side of the Monkees, but the music I'm also going to talk about. And...it always strikes me when I hear the music that you are composing that it is...I don't know what to call it...I call it punk in my mind. Your music is always very fast and sharp and hard and that is contrasted by your lyrics that are always very spiritual or gentle. That gives your music an incredible nerve. I'd like to hear more about how you go about composing.
I would never have called my music punk.
No, but I don't know what else to call it.
No, no, I love it! Because, you know, I came awake as a follower of pop music with Little Richard and Elvis Presley, you know, and it was about rockabilly and good, hard, up-beat stuff. Do you have my record?
Not yet. I'm working on it.
I can have it mailed for you if you like, I'm sure they'll send it to you, they are after all human beings over at Beachwood and as long as it is fair. Then you'd hear a whole lot more, because there's about half a dozen of my tunes on this album. Of the tunes, of the Monkees-tunes I've written are "For Pete's Sake", the tunes in "HEAD" - "Long Title" and "Can You Dig It" - and let's see...and a couple of songs on collections albums and bootleg albums, have you been getting the Rhino catalog?
Yes, I have.
So you've heard a few of my other songs.
Yes, I've heard some of them..."Tear The Top Right Off My Head" is one of my favourites.
That's a straight love song.
Sure. I also like the one from the 1987-album "Gettin' In".
That's the one that really started me thinking about that punk-thing.
Interesting. [Peter sings the rhythm of "Gettin' In" before continuing], I don't know, up-beat, I think it must be...it's interesting when you say sharp, because to me that's not terribly sharp. Hiphop music and trash music are laser sharp and much harsher than anything I'm interested in doing, at least musically, although I sometimes like that stuff if it is just right, you know, it is so easy to do it wrong. [Peter pauses for a long time, then sighs and says], You know, we come from a tradition when that is something you did only once on an album, you had one extreme thing, but now they do it all the time. And it seems a little peculiar, but I think that's just changing times and guys my age have just got to get used to it, you know, and as they say; get over it.
It's changing all the time, it can be difficult to follow, I can't follow it either.
How old are you now, may I ask?
Yeah? Okay. Such a young thing from my point of view.
Thanks. The only thing is, that I believe I'm still 15!
So do I.That's the problem. You go through the rest of your life thinking that you're 15...
Well, let me get back to...I write fiction, too, so the process of
creating is something that I'm very interested in. Whenever I'm interviewing an
artist I'm therefore asking how he or she is creating.
Okay. Actually what I have found is that often things come to me out of the blue, little bits and pieces, when I'm determined to write something then I sit down and do nothing else and when I do nothing else then the bits and pieces tend to focus in on my project whatever I'm doing. Sometimes I'll ruminate and something will come in out of the left field and I won't be able to use it except put it down for further reference, but when I'm sitting down just working on a particular project it turns out that it is very much like any kind of work, if you just keep at it, the things you need come to you. I don't think that there's as much difference between the creative process and mundane work as everybody else does. I think that there's much more creativity to normal work and there's much more grind to the creative work than anybody believes. And if you're going to be creative you'd better be willing to sit down, you know, for if not 8 hours then 6 and if not 6 then 4 and if not 5 days a week then 4, but you'd better find some way to do it regularly and be willing to sit with it and sit still with it and do nothing else. My tendency is always to get up and divert, you know, I sit down and get so antsy sometimes that I CAN'T sit still and I have to get up and make a cup of coffee, watch television or eat chocolate or chase women or something... [Peter laughs dryly before continuing], ...pick up my guitar or I don't know what else, so it is a matter of rigor, of doing it, and what I find is, that generally speaking inspiration comes, it is not even inspiration, it is, you know, the tools you need to do the work.
To get back to what you call up-beat music, that made me think of: how much influence did you have on the number called "Goin' Down"? It is credited to Diane Hilderbrand and the Monkees.
She wrote the lyrics. And basically the thing about that piece is that that's an old rock'n'roll-chart from somebody elses version of somebody elses song, that I brought in, and we just played it. We were in the studio, I think we were making "Daydream Believer", we were in the studio and we just said; let's do this chart, so we did this chart and everybody played the same thing at the same time without saying anything to anybody. Later on, 2/3 through the record, we stopped playing...the chord changed, the cycle of chords, I don't know how musical literate you are, but the cycle of chords stopped and we just shifted over to a little back-and-forth pattern... [Peter sings the pattern] ...like that. We all did it at the same time and I didn't even remember doing it until afterwards, long afterwards I listened to the record and I went: wait a minute, we all changed chords, we all stopped doing the pattern and went to this other pattern at the same time without saying anything to anybody else and that was one of those things a musician lives for, you go: my God, that actually just happened without anybody saying anything, you know, and that is one of the reasons, I think the song is so good. That's me playing bass on that record, incidentally, and I'm very happy with it.
I can see why.
Oh, thank you.
Living in Denmark it is very difficult for me to track down new
material about what you and the other people involved in the Monkees have been
doing lately, so I don't know if you'd tell me briefly what you've been doing
work-wise for the past, say 4-5 years or so?Yes.
That much? [Peter laughs], I've been playing a few dates here and there. Basically not much, just around L.A., when I was living up here in the North Bay I had a bar band and we played cover songs for a while, that was a lot of fun, and then down in L.A. I played more like what's on my new album. Other than that I made my new album and that's been it. That's been the sum total of my labors. Let me tell this; here's a number for you: Maggie McManus is president of a fanclub called Monkee Business…
I have spoken to her and she promised to send me some copies of the magazine so I can see what's been going on, but I haven't heard from her for about 6 weeks.
Let me give you her phone number. Call her and kick her a little bit and make her come forth with it. She's the best of the fan magazines. She's the most rigorous, the most careful and the most scrupulous and the most intelligent of the fans. She'll tell you that Davy's been doing "Grease", musical, a feature in that, Micky is going to do that for a while later on and Micky is trying to make this film happen, a new Monkee-movie happen, and Mike's been running his record company and that's been about it.
I have one very short, stupid question that has no significant relevance
for my book, but I just have to ask you because it is driving me crazy that I
can't find the answer anywhere. Most books about the Monkees state that you've
participated in Joe Massott's movie "Wonderwall" from 1969. But some
books say that it was as a musician on the soundtrack and others say that it was
as an actor, although I've never been able to spot you. What's right?
I just played a little banjo for George Harrison. I did not act in the movie at all. George Harrison didn't have anything to do with the movie except for the soundtrack.
I know, it was Joe Massott who made the movie.
I don't remember anything about that. I didn't see the movie and I understand that I'm not on the soundtrack album. Just on the soundtrack, so I would like to see it, but I haven't, yet.
It's one of those movies that are quite difficult to find.
And probably with good reason. [Peter laughs.]
I actually have a copy I can sent you and now I think I've been talking for quite a while...
Have you got all the main stuff you want?
Yes, I have.
If you think of anything that is really bugging you, you can write me and I'll try to answer.
Okay, I'll do that.
Or call me again if you want to. You have my schedule? I'll be here till the 21. and then I'll be back in L.A. after that.
Well, it's been very nice talking to you and I'm glad you'd take your time to do this for me as it really means a lot for my book.
I hope so. So you'll send me a copy, won't you?
Okay. Take care of yourself then.
You too. Bye, bye.