The Weekly interview: The Monkees’ Peter Tork

Dolenz, far left, and Tork, second from right, bring the Monkee business to Primm this weekend.
Photo: Andrew Sandoval
Matt Wardlaw

Only a handful of groups make it to the 50-year mark and find themselves as busy as the members of The Monkees in 2016. Since the middle of May, Peter Tork and Micky Dolenz have been on the road playing anniversary shows. Guitarist Michael Nesmith, who reunited briefly with the pair in 2012 for several tours following the death of their longtime bandmate Davy Jones, is sitting out the current trek as he finishes up several projects, including a book for Random House.

And yet on record, all four members of The Monkees have been reunited on May’s Good Times!, the band’s first album in 20 years. Songwriters who are fans contributed material, and Fountains of Wayne bassist Adam Schlesinger was tapped to help shepherd the sessions. In addition to the new songs, the band and Rhino Records unearthed archival material to finish and flesh out—a move that brought the late Jones and singer/songwriter Harry Nilsson into the mix.

Surprisingly, it manages to feel cohesive on this cheerfully energetic project. The old days and the present come together, and compositions from the likes of Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard and the dynamic duo of Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller reveal the influence The Monkees have had on musical culture.

We caught up with Tork between dates. “The really glorious part about all of this is that Micky and I are having such a good time onstage,” he says. “We’re making each other laugh like hell every night.”

What has the reception to Good Times! been like? We’re selling hard copies of this thing, apparently at the equivalent of a million-selling copies. I mean, somebody told me how many we’re selling, and I went, “Well, what’s this? That’s not a big number.” And they said, “No, it’s the equivalent of a million-seller, back when people really bought records. The fact that you’re actually selling hard copies is a great, great thing.”

“Little Girl” was a song you wrote that Davy would sing back in the day. What was it like for you, revisiting that one and finally recording it for this new album? That song has wafted in and out of my attention over the decades. The Monkees did an album in the late ’90s called Justus, which “Little Girl” would have been fabulous for. It never came to mind. And then we’re doing this album, and it does. I can’t explain it. You know, I certainly am not privy to the workings of my own mind. All I know is what comes out at the end. So it was great that it showed up at last. It was a way of paying tribute to Davy without actually having to find a recording of his voice or manipulate something.

It’s great to also hear “Wasn’t Born to Follow” on this album. We’re familiar with The Byrds’ version, but as I understand it, Gerry Goffin and Carole King had written for The Monkees, who recorded it first. Yeah, that’s true. The thing about this album that’s gratifying for me is that it’s not like, okay, here’s a dollop of ’60s stuff that we’re reclaiming and here’s a dollop of new stuff that we’ve jerry-rigged out of some other guys … It’s much smoother than that. If you didn’t know, you wouldn’t be able to time-place all of the music in order. That’s a great thing about it.

For instance, on “Wasn’t Born to Follow,” I played banjo over the ’60s track, so that’s a little bit of an Evian spritz in the face. I mean, it’s not like I couldn’t have played the banjo on it back then, but it somehow made it more present, because I did it now.

It’s interesting, the mix of things that have more of a retro sound with tracks that sound more modern and in the present. Nesmith’s vocal on “I Know What I Know” has a poignant feeling and an earnest sound. And on “Me and Magdalena” as well. The first time I heard that I heard just Michael’s lead vocal without Micky’s harmony part, and I was really struck. Michael has tapped some new, personal emotional depth within himself that I never expected to hear on record.

The title track goes back to a set of demos that Harry Nilsson submitted as a young songwriter, for consideration on the next Monkees album at that time. What are your memories of working with Harry and knowing him back in the day? I did not work a heck of a lot with Harry. I do remember him coming in and playing some songs for us and being struck by that there really was something special about him, right from the start. He had such an interesting voice ,and he was really so musical.

You can see why, at the time, it was not a song that would have broken out, yet right now it seems ideal. There’s Micky singing background vocals on it and harmonizing, and it’s got a beat to it that was more or less in the mainstream of the style. But today it’s an exceptional driving beat. And really, Micky and I have been looking at each other over the years saying, you know, if it was just the two of us, we would do nothing but rock ’n’ roll.

Davy, for all of his virtues and glories, was very much into British music hall. Given his head, he would do nothing but “I’m Henry the VIII, I Am.” I mean, not that he did that song, but that’s the kind of music that he would do, in spite of the fact that Davy could rock like nobody’s business. [At one point] Davy [did a version of] “Hippy Hippy Shake” and nailed it! It just wasn’t what he wanted to do.

I think that demonstrates the dynamic of what each member brings to a band and to a situation and how they contribute things but are also there to tell you to pull back where necessary or encourage you to go further. I’m only sorry that we didn’t do more of that by a huge amount. I only now have, in the last couple of years, come to understand how smart and good-hearted Davy Jones could be. I did not have the skills to notice that, even though I was drawn to it without knowing exactly why. But I certainly did not have the first clue of how to encourage all of the good stuff from Davy that I loved. I wish I could have known how to do it—and he might still be with us, even.

You’ve talked about how you wanted to be a bigger part of the album-making process on the first couple Monkees records. And yet you seem to recognize that time-wise that wasn’t feasible at the time. How do you think that affected how the band evolved? We learned to play the first album, and we did do a show. Our show was an hour long in the early days. [We’d be] sitting in the rehearsal halls, [going,] Who is going to play what instrument? How do you this? How do you do that? But we found a way to play The Monkees’ music on our own. We were sort of a cover band for The Monkees is what it came down to. It was kind of funny. We were on the road, and somebody bought a copy of the second album and brought it across the street to the hotel where we were. There we were, looking at this album, and we had never heard it through. I’d never heard some of the cuts. And they used a cover shot where we were posing for a commercial tie-in for J.C. Penney.

On the back is Don Kirshner, congratulating himself for spotting good talent in songwriting. It was just infuriating. Don had no idea what he was doing. He was just completely oblivious, and that really was the turning point. That was where we went, “Wait a minute, this is ridiculous.” Micky and Davy didn’t care as much, because they grew up in the tradition of actors. They’d get records made for them, and they’d stand behind the mic and sing. But Michael and I were into The Beatles, where the idea was that you create your own songs and you thrash out the songs in the studio. So Mike and I were particularly enraged. Micky and Davy looked at us and went, “Whoa, whatever they want, let’s give it to them in spades!” (laughs) You know, give them double. And that was the beginning of the evolution.

We were already a band—in fact, we were a band from the day we were making a pilot in November of ’65. We played some stuff even then. We heard from Capitol Records, that even if it hadn’t been for The Monkees TV show, they thought we were a really good band. And here comes the album, and it’s just a slap in the face by an insensitive S.O.B. who ... and listen, don’t let me sell him short. Don Kirshner, truly did have his ear on the pulse of teenage America. The thing was, that was because he was a teenager himself at heart and that contributed to his inability to understand what would happen to us if we wound up buying the record across the street for the first time we ever heard it and what that said about him and us.

So we went to the producers and said, “This is what we want.” And Bert [Schneider] says, “Are you all in for this?” And we said, “Yeah.” He was able to climb up the chain of command and down the other side and put the order on Don Kirshner, who had no sense that there was anything that he could work with here. He was strictly a “my way or the highway” kind of guy and he could not handle it. So he went ballistic, and he didn’t say, “All right, let’s see how we can make this work.” He said, “F you guys, you can’t do this to me.” That was his attitude. The result was that he got fired. The only job I’ve ever been fired from, he said. And it’s too bad, because I didn’t want to fire Don Kirshner. I just wanted to be the sideman on my own records, that’s all.

The Monkees September 17, 9 p.m., $15-$44. Star of the Desert Arena, Primm, 702-382-4388.

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