For Pete’s Sake: Peter Tork, 1942-2019

Peter Tork, bassist, banjoist, and keyboardist extraordinaire for The Monkees, died today. He was 77.

On the TV show, Peter was often portrayed as something as a simpleton — certainly silly, at any rate. In real life, though whimsical, Peter was a serious musician, whose chops earned him respect not only in folk, prog rock, and blues, but also enough to play banjo on George Harrison’s first solo album.

That simpleton persona helped make him the most under-represented of all four Monkees: no lead vocals on their first album, only one song on their second, a handful on the third and fourth, backup vocals on one track on their fifth, and two leads on their sixth — though he did have instrumentation on all of them but the first.

After that, Peter left the band and, while rejoining Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz for a Christmas tune in the late 1970s and being a part of the 20th anniversary resurgence in 1986, he didn’t appear on another album until Pool It! in 1987, where he sang lead on two tracks. He had one lead track on the 1996 album JUSTUS, two on the 2016 album Good Times!, and one on the 2018 album Christmas Party.

And it’s a bloody shame.

Peter had an immensely strong baritone — rich, with a good range. His voice may have been the most sonorous of the four; Davy’s was distinctive, Mike’s was — and is — a beautiful rock/country tenor, and Micky’s vocals are so powerful and ageless as to defy science, but Peter’s voice could work in almost any musical genre.

And now he’s gone, after a ten-year battle with a rare adenoidal carcinoma. It’s a surprise, but no shock, particularly since his limited involvement on Christmas Party was cited as being due to health reasons.

As a remembrance, I would like, if I may, to present some of my favorite of Peter’s tracks, in no particular order (click on the titles for audio):

1. “Your Auntie Grizelda

Peter’s first lead vocals, from More of the Monkees. There’s a lot of contention as to the merits of this number, and it certainly did help cement Peter’s silly persona, but it’s pure fun, start to finish.

2. “Shades of Gray”

Peter’s duet with Davy off of Headquarters, “Shades of Gray” mixes rich vocals with simple instrumentation — piano and French horn, mostly.

3. “Words”

Peter’s duet with Micky from Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, & Jones, Ltd. Peter’s voice blends beautifully with Micky’s, each playing off of instead of overpowering one another.

4. “For Pete’s Sake”

While not a vocal track for Peter, he did write it. It was so well-received that it was used as the closing credits number for the show’s second season.

5. “(Long Title) Do I Have to Do This All Over Again?”

One of my favorite tracks from the soundtrack to their film, Head. Crazy guitars, a little dissonance, a little psychedelia… a little of everything.

6. “I Believe You”

Peter’s vocal track from the band’s 30th anniversary album, JUSTUS. This album hit me at a particular point in my life where I was on the cusp of a very bad breakup, and this song, and his desperate need to believe his lover, to do anything to keep her, resonated with me deeply.

7. “Wasn’t Born to Follow”

Twenty years after the previous track, this one almost serves as a thematic sequel, where the singer has finally found himself and has thrown off the shackles of his emotionally abusive relationship. This one, too, came at a point in my life that made the song hit me to the core.

8. “Angels We Have Heard on High”

Peter’s last song with The Monkees. His vocals and banjo, with a timeless carol. One of the best on the album.

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