REISSUE OF THE MONTH
in this generation
BY CORY FRYE
I CAME LATE TO THE MONKEES, relatively speaking. It wasn't my choice. My parents didn’t meet ’til ’68, so I missed their era completely. Nevertheless, their moribund series ran weekend afternoons during my childhood, four distorted heads in each cramped corner of a small, rabbit-eared black-and-white television. I knew of them, vaguely; one wore a wool cap, there was a British fella, another played an amiable dope, and the frizzy-haired dude was funny. (That dude, I learned later, briefly became the celebrity spokesman for my mother’s East L.A. firm in the mid- to late-'70s.)
That changed in 1986, the early throes of a tireless ’60s nostalgia machine. I was a prime 14, a willing receptacle to the peacelovedope my folks had enjoyed. It sounded so Important, so delightfully bacchanalian: free love, Woodstock, naked hippie chicks. There was something magical about the 20-year mark, as well: not too close, not too distant. Its heroes remained relatively young — dark-haired, unlined, natural in the period’s accoutrements — and still mostly alive.
For me, that celebration begins with The Monkees. In 1966, the ’60s were the ’60s but not yet THE SIXTIES. The group arrived — prefabricated for television, of course — in the innocent afterglow between The Beatles’ Fab and psychedelic periods, the narcotic pirouette from Rubber Soul to Revolver. Its own generation seemed to have quickly abandoned The Monkees as idiot piffle after an initial ebullience, as if it had cruelly been swindled by cynical forces capitalizing on youthful gullibility. Fool me once in Clarksville; feel my wrath in Teardrop City.
Not being The Monkees’ original audience, I proved the perfect new audience. I knew they were media-built — that was baked into their creation myth by ’86 — but it no longer mattered. Their discography spun as staples on classic-rock radio, and MTV aired the series’ episodes in delectable blocks, halving their musical segments into videos. There they were, impenetrably young, broadcasting shtick from an Aquarian Bronze Age. Much of their output was already weirdly familiar, either through regular airplay or belated covers. As far as I’d known, “Daydream Believer” was an Anne Murray original. When I heard it in Davy Jones’ buttery velvet, I knew I’d been duped.
Then The Monkees came back! Well, most of them, anyway. Michael Nesmith was conspicuously, deliberately absent, his wool cap relegated to the ether in exchange for skinny ties and badass beard. Gently leathered by Father Time, Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, and Peter Tork reemerged as if summoned by subconscious demand. They went to great lengths, however, to dissociate from their hoarier image, resplendent in contemporary fluorescence. We were those Monkees; we’re these Monkees now. Davy rocked a mullet, Micky dressed in youthful backyard-barbecue uncle, and Peter went Miami Vice in bright sleeveless shirts and sports jackets. Not a Mohair in sight.
Their music boasted structures more appropriate to an era of synthesizers and drum machines. A new single was tagged to the end of a top-selling Arista hits package: “That Was Then This Is Now” illustrated their historical significance while announcing their relevance in a much-altered landscape. A full comeback album, Pool It!, followed on Rhino in 1987, its three returning members treading water in modern tributaries. At the time, such concessions were necessary for legacy-act survival (even Deep Purple dumped its trademark Hammond in an ill-advised bid for vitality). Today, that material seems embarrassingly weak and dated while the older stuff resonates with unabated power.
Whew. All this preface for an album by Peter Tork. But for me he was the band’s most intriguing member. Of the four, he was by far its most versatile musician, versed on multiple instruments. Only two of them, Tork and Nesmith, could really play, anyway. They were jobbing performers in Los Angeles when they landed the Monkees gig, suddenly becoming actors essaying heightened versions of themselves in half-hour chunks of TV make-believe. Their costars were old hands at that game. A son of the industry, Dolenz had dabbled in the medium since childhood, and the Brit-born Jones was a musical theater kid. Both exuded buckets of showbiz charisma; Tork and Nesmith had to develop it over time.
Luckily, their personas weren’t overly demanding. In fact, one could argue that Tork endured the quartet’s most herculean stretch. In many ways, he’s actually acting. Their characters bore the men's names and basic personalities, but Peter’s “Pete” was far simpler than his real-life counterpart. “Pete” was a goofy, likable dimwit; conversely, Peter was sensitive, creative, complicated, argumentative, well-read, and articulate, given to quoting gurus late into life. He lived his era to its fullest as a free lover, pharmaceutical dabbler, and voracious student of multiple philosophies. He had faults and shortcomings; his doppelganger’s vacuity, however, was not one of them.
Like Nesmith, he also wrote for The Monkees. Although he wasn’t as prolific or successful as his bandmate in that regard, and he was hampered somewhat by a limited vocal range, Tork’s work could be heard at the conclusion of every episode in “For Pete’s Sake,” which played over the end credits. He contributed two of the best songs for the Monkees film, Head (1968): “Can You Dig It?” and “Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again?” (though Nesmith’s “Circle Sky” is a righteous punkish pleasure). While Nesmith leaned toward rock-informed countrypolitan, aligning with such contemporaries as The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and predating The Flying Burrito Brothers and Poco, Tork imported his traditional folk sensibilities into the then-current scene.
Creatively stifled by commercial demands (the insistence on songwriting ringers and studio musicians) and damaged by charges of phoniness, Tork left The Monkees in 1969. He was the first to go. Nesmith was next, though he’d begun uncoupling himself while still in the group (1968’s The Wichita Train Whistle Sings). His subsequent work, solo and with various iterations of The First National Band, plunged him deeper into rootsier, more experimental territory, far from his prefab shackles. He was also rather vocal about being hindered by The Monkees’ artistic limitations, his epilogue more public, first as a struggling solo artist, then as an entrepreneur and video pioneer. While his second act wasn’t as visible, it was successful on its own terms.
Tork quietly vanished, seeming to suffer long in rudderless silence, wrestling with various addictions and disappointments. I recall seeing him occasionally on Late Night with David Letterman, goofing on his persona, and that was about it. Others caught him in clubs fronting bands or playing alone. In the time between his departure from and return to The Monkees, he released very little. Despite his undimmed talents, he appeared to have lost his way. Attempts to put out new material under his own power were largely thwarted. The world remembered him purely as a Monkee, a cog in a throwback juggernaut.
That changed in the early ’90s (!), when longtime friend James Lee Stanley, who knew Tork before his TV fame, asked him if he wanted to issue an album through Stanley’s small label, Beachwood Recordings. Of the four Monkees, Tork was the last man out. Micky and Davy’d been slabbing together and apart since the ’70s and Nesmith had reconvened his own career after a steady flow had ebbed in the ’80s. The result was Peter Tork’s first new full-length recording in 25 years, Stranger Things Have Happened, and the only solo album of his post-Monkees career. (He tended to record in band or duo settings afterward.)
Long out of print, Stranger received the grand extended reissue treatment this month from 7A Records, a label devoted to The Monkees and associates’ non-Monkees activities. Wanna hear Micky, Davy, or Mike live? Collect their singles in handy compilations? Welcome to your wildest dreams.
7A wisely overhauled the album’s original cover, which, like its content, was dated even by 1994 standards. The package is fat with an adroitly researched, compellingly written essay by Nesmith, Tork, Goffin, & King podcast host Mark Kleiner, who follows Tork’s ill-documented trajectory from The Monkees to his untimely death from cancer last year at age 77. The reissue attempts to do the same with nine bonus tracks covering the early ’80s to a final demo in 2010. What that makes for is ancillary material that’s more interesting than the record itself.
Sadly, Stranger Things Have Happened was more historically significant than great, even in its time. Its production is self-conscious, busy, and arcane. Most albums in the ’90s reveled in guitar-heavy feedback or wall-to-wall layers of hard-edged samples; this is jammed tight in the mid-’80s, limp and tinny, despite having been recorded during the first half of 1993. The title track is squishy with synthesizers and sets the wrong tone. Stanley wanted a more acoustic temperament, Tork’s greatest strength as an artist; he always sounded best unadorned by trickery. Tork, apparently, had other plans.
The initial album consisted mostly of Tork originals of varying vintage. “MGB-GT” is a holdover from the Pool It! years, a nonalbum track superior to its tech-threaded brethren (Peter also romps through “Gettin’ In” here) because it’s beholden to no discernible era, a robust, jazzy ditty about a car. “Sea Change,” with its obtrusive opening wind effects, and “Miracle” emerged from early-’80s stints in songwriting circles. “Tender Is” surfaced in the ’70s. “Get What You Pay for” went back to his original run with The Monkees. They never recorded it, so he eventually did.
At Stanley’s request, Tork revived that earlier band’s “Take a Giant Step” as “Giant Step,” featuring background vocals from The Mamas & the Papas progeny Mackenzie Phillips and Owen Elliot. Stripped of a desire for modern augmentation, the Gerry Goffin/Carole King offering goes down pleasantly. “Milkshake” presaged the Monkees reunion of Justus (1996); Dolenz and Nesmith drop in to add support on a whimsical trifle of comestible-related double-entendres. (Jones reportedly visited during album sessions but contributed nothing beyond his endorsement.)
According to Kleiner’s essay, Tork insisted on ending Stranger with a bare-boned take on gospel/R&B standard “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” just him and his banjo, his weapon of old. It works so well you’ll wish the entire album had adhered to that tone instead of succumbing to loud, rampant business, despite Tork’s proficiency with clean-sounding electric guitar solos.
Luckily, he sustains that tempo through most of the bonus tracks, accompanying himself on a game acoustic. Here, the slightly ominous sounding “Miracle” and a sunsplash-awash “Pirates” (written by his brother Nick Thorkelson) work more effectively as duets with Stanley. “Get What You Pay for” is reborn as a coffeehouse shuffle. Tork’s banjo keeps a 1982 recording of “i Truly Understand” refreshingly traditional, but his nagging need to refresh his catalog with a 1981 New Wave reinterpretation of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart’s “(‘m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” serves as a painful reminder that the original arrangement worked just fine, and this “Higher and Higher” is just a little too busy for the back-porch atmosphere it wants. These he recorded with The New Monks, a debacle doomed to failure.
Alas, Peter Tork is gone now, his smile a ghostly reminder of all he’d accomplished and suffered. He left us but a passel of material: 10 Monkees full-lengths, four fairly OK postmillennial releases with Shoe Suede Blues, three worthwhile collaborations with James Lee Stanley, a single concerto (something no Monkee's attempted), more than a few aborted projects, and one solo album, which despite its deficiencies is worth owning, if for just a peek of an underappreciated artist at work, engaged in what he’d loved. Hear it at least once, for Peter’s sake.