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Peter Tork went from prefab Monkee to real life says ex-Tiger Beat editor (Opinion)

CNN logo CNN 2/22/2019 By Ann Moses
a close up of Peter Tork: American musician and actor Peter Tork, in a double breated shirt, of the popular music and television group the Monkees, late 1960s. (Photo by Jack Knox/Getty Images) © Jack Knox/Hulton Archive/Getty Images American musician and actor Peter Tork, in a double breated shirt, of the popular music and television group the Monkees, late 1960s. (Photo by Jack Knox/Getty Images)

"Why don't you drop acid with me?" Peter Tork asked me for what felt like the hundredth time.

It was September of 1966. I was 20 years old and held the enviable position of editor of Tiger Beat magazine (the teen-idol bible back then).

I had many interviews with the affable and sincere young Peter Tork (five years my senior), who was the bass player for the TV pop group, The Monkees. And in every one he would respectfully answer my questions, sign his autograph a dozen times for us to superimpose over his color pin-ups for his droves of adoring fans, and then, politely, try to treat me like "one of the gang," by encouraging me to come to his house and try LSD. What can I say? It was the '60s.

"Don't worry, I'll be there with you. I promise you'll have a good trip." I was afraid to try, in any case, and always declined.

Peter Tork was not your typical teen idol. He was a musician first, and a genuine peace-and-love hippie the rest of the time. He died this week from cancer -- and the world lost a kind, talented man who stumbled young into his moment of fame as one of the Monkees (along with Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, and Mike Nesmith), a group manufactured to mirror the success of the Beatles -- TV-land-style.

Before he was a Monkee, Peter had been playing his banjo in Greenwich Village clubs and had made his way out to California to join the folk scene. Then he (reluctantly, he later recalled) went to an open audition call by Raybert Productions -- which was producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider-- for "4 insane boys, ages 17-21, folk and rock musicians." The Monkees.

Nicknamed "the prefab four" (as in fabricated, not fabulous) as soon as they came on the scene, The Monkees were aimed directly at teenyboppers, who could watch their ersatz Beatles every week on NBC-TV in their family living room.

The show's premise? The Monkees characters were a struggling band, searching for success, living in a quirky boho house in Malibu (like real struggling musicians could afford a Malibu pad!). Tork played the pleasantly dazed and confused Monkee. And for a few years they were insanely popular. It was called Monkeymania.

Their instant fans would flock to drugstores, clamoring to read all about the cute young men who graced the covers and many pages of Tiger Beat, 16, and Fave, and to follow their goofy antics.

They were the dream team for the merchandising monsters. Their pin-ups were plastered all over girls' and boys' bedroom walls. And young fans bought Monkee records in chart topping numbers and flocked to their concerts. There were Monkees lunchboxes, Monkees shoes (from Thom McCann) and Monkees love beads from Tiger Beat.

Even Tiger Beat franchised the four boys for their monthly columns and access to the "stars."

None of those young men realized what they were in for. Becoming a TV comedic actor was a new and thrilling career for Peter. Did he enjoy the music making? Well, the Monkees struggled with their record producers to find a compromise between the bubble-gum music demanded by Schneider and Rafelson (and usually played by studio musicians) and the music Peter and Mike (the Monkees who came into the group as actual musicians) were creating that was original, but too new-agey to the "old" producers.

a woman smiling for the camera © Ann Moses

The fans didn't care. While "serious" music publications railed against the prefab four, saying they couldn't play their instruments and didn't on their recordings (an assertion that would be proved wrong), fans turned out en masse as the band toured the US, then the world.

As editor of Tiger Beat, I spent many of my weekdays of 1966 and 1967 on the Monkees set, and even traveled with them to concerts in San Francisco in 1967, saw them at the Hollywood Bowl in June '67, and traveled along with them again to their Dallas and Houston concerts in August '67.

Audiences never questioned their musical ability, whether they had written the songs, and whether or not they were playing their instruments on stage (they were). They were instantly caught up in the Monkees' irresistible performances.

Concerts were one of the few areas where Peter Tork and the other Monkees got to have their say. After Peter and producer Bob Rafelson were inspired by the video tricks they had seen other bands use at The Fillmore in San Francisco, the Monkees made their political statement by including slide shows with scenes from the civil rights movement on huge black-and-white screens behind them as they performed.

In their Monkee hearts, they wanted desperately to be taken seriously. Since they were not receiving the monetary rewards equal to their contributions (common in a Hollywood and music industry that profited handsomely from underpaid young entertainers), they wanted to make a statement. They longed for respect from the music establishment.

The Monkees would split up in 1968, two years after they started, and Peter went on to form his own group, Release. I visited his new house in Studio City that year and he took me on a tour of the place. Peter, who along with his friends was naked, advised me, "Our house is clothing optional, so you're welcome to take your clothes off if you like." Did I mention it was the '60s? I think I muttered "I'm fine," as I focused on the kidney shaped swimming pool, the food he served (I referred to it as "health food" in my story) and what the furniture looked like (thrift store bargains).

It sounds odd today, and God knows I've had my #MeToo moments. But this was not one of them; it was the times. And Peter was just that casual and hippie-ish all the time.

One of my favorite exchanges with Peter was in an interview titled (his suggestion) "Ann Moses exchanges frank confusion with Peter Tork" from Monkee Spectacular magazine in 1968. My final question that day was:

"What do you have so much of you could afford to give some away?" He replied: "The only thing there is so much more of to give away." "Which is?" I asked.

"The power of love."

His sincerity was true Peter. Never lived a rock-star lifestyle. He always smiled the brightest on the stage. That is his legacy.

After his Monkees days, Peter would struggle with alcoholism until he got clean in the 1980s. When the Monkees appeared near my home in 2013, I was delighted that Peter agreed to a mini-reunion. We talked for an hour before the show about life then and now, he proudly introduced me to his fiancée, and talked about an upcoming wedding for one of his children.

I asked Peter, "Do you remember how you used to encourage me to try LSD and how I always said 'no?'" His response was not surprising: "Annie, you didn't miss a thing." He appeared to me to be in such a peaceful state of mind when looking back upon his life.

I came out of our conversation that day understanding that Peter didn't have regrets about the rollercoaster ride of his life. He seemed fulfilled and happy to be making music with his group, Shoe Suede Blues, and preserving his family home in Connecticut with his loved ones close by.

There was nothing prefab about his life.

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