The Monkees' "Your Auntie Grizelda," lead vocals by Peter Tork
The New York Times, in its obituary, called Peter Tork “the court jester” of The Monkees, the one “positioned as the goofy one,” whom The Monkees TV sitcom director Bob Rafelson compared to Harpo Marx. “The clown prince of the canyon,” tweeted Turtles frontman Howard Kaylan.
But even though he wrote few songs and sang few leads, Tork, who died Feb. 21 at 77, was much more than that.
As collaborative blog site We Are Cult tweeted, “Peter Tork was the most relatable Monkee to anyone who remembers watching the TV show as a kid. You'd love to be deadpan hipster Nez [Mike Nesmith], envied Davy’s [Jones] cocksure charm, or [Micky] Dolenz’s kinky afro, but deep down we're all a bit Peter Tork--the dreamy, goofy nerd.”
According to photographer Nurit Wilde, who documented the 1960s/’70s Laurel Canyon creative community, Tork and Nesmith were the musicians of the group.
“Micky was an actor and not a bad singer, and Davey was a theater performer,” says Wilde. “I was around a lot of musicians in those days and Peter was good—and he was cool, not that goofy, but funny and just a regular person. And at a time when I really needed support, he was there, and never asked anything in return. He really was a caring person and I feel like I owe my life to him in so many ways.”
For Shout! Factory chairman Richard Foos, Tork, “more than almost any musician I’ve ever met, was the most pure ‘hippie musician,’ and stayed that way his whole life.” Foos co-founded the Rhino Records reissue label, which helped catalyze The Monkees’ 1990s resurgence with a comprehensive reissue campaign. Gary Stewart, then Rhino’s head of A&R, cites Tork as a sort of “secret ingredient” to the group’s visual and even sociological appeal, being that he was not prominent in its songwriting and lead singing roles.
“His influence came from just being in the room,” says Stewart. “It’s there in the psychedelia of ‘Porpoise Song (Theme from Head)’—in many ways he was the heart and soul of [the Monkees’ movie] Head--and the under-the-radar commentary of ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday.’ He added a level of wild theatricality, that left-of-center approach, to everything that was good about the rule-breaking in ‘60s counterculture that The Monkees represented.”
Wilde first knew Tork when both lived in New York prior to The Monkees, when he was a folkie street musician who shared the stage with his hero Pete Seeger.
“I threw $5 into his guitar case and we started talking and became friends, and were friends out here in California. I lived in his house for a little over a year in 1967 and ’68 when I was pregnant and not with the farther of my child, and he said, ‘Please come live with me.’ It was a fairly large house, and there were a couple others there, too. It’s not like we were best friends then, but he took care of me and my son and was just a wonderful guy, kind and generous. A wonderful human being—and a lifesaver for me.”
Davey Jones died in 2012. Both Dolenz and Nesmith expressed their deep sorrow over Tork via social media, as did Andrew Sandoval, who compiled and produced Monkees reissues and authored The Monkees: The Day-To-Day Story of the '60s TV Pop Sensation.
“So long my friend,” Sondoval wrote on Facebook. “I loved you a lot and remember laughing loudly with you over many miles. Your music will always be in my mind. I can think of no better tribute to those of us feeling this loss than to let our hearts sing your song.”
The Monkees' Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork perform the group's 1986 comeback single "That was Then, This is Now."