The Monkees‘ Peter Tork died on Thursday (February 21st) at age 77 at a family home in Connecticut, following a decade-long battle with adenoid cystic carcinoma — a rare cancer of the salivary glands. Tork is the second member of the Monkees to die, following the February 29th, 2012 death of Davy Jones, who died of a heart attack at age 66.
Tork, who celebrated his birthday on February 13th, was cast as the naive and dimwitted bassist on the Emmy Award-winning NBC musical comedy which ran during the 1966 and 1967 seasons. Tork — whose real name was Thorkelston — had made a name for himself in the Greenwich Village folk scene, performing with various members of the Lovin’ Spoonful and briefly dating “Mama” Cass Elliot. It was Stephen Stills, a friend from his folk days, who convinced him to audition for The Monkees pilot.
During his original four-year-stint in the band, Tork sang lead on several of the group’s album tracks, including, “Auntie Grizelda” and “Shades Of Gray.” Out of all the group’s members — Micky Dolenz, Mike Nesmith and Davy Jones — Tork was by far the most musically accomplished, playing guitar, bass, banjo and keyboards during the group’s ’60s shows and recording sessions.
However, it was Tork’s songwriting, on such tracks as the Monkees’ outgoing theme song, “For Pete’s Sake,” and “Can You Dig It?” from their 1968 Head soundtrack, that made him stand apart from his more popular bandmates.
Peter Tork left the Monkees in 1969, having bought himself out of his contract, and in the ensuing years, went on to battle substance abuse. In the ’70s he worked a variety of jobs, including teaching algebra at a private school in California and performing as a singing waiter.
He was on hand for every one of the group’s reunions since 1986, until — according to Jones — he was fired from the group by Dolenz and tour promoter David Fishoff in 2001. Tork was on hand for the Monkees’ 2011 45th anniversary tour as well as his and Micky Dolenz’ 2012 and 2013 reunion dates with Mike Nesmith.
In June 2016, the Monkees scored their biggest album in 48 years with its latest album, Good Times! The set, produced by Adam Schlesinger from Fountains Of Wayne, is the band’s highest charting album since 1968’s The Birds, The Bees, And The Monkees, hitting Number 14 on the Billboard 200 album chart.
Good Times! features songs the group passed over back in the day from such heavyweights as Carole King & Gerry Goffin, Harry Nilsson, and Neil Diamond. The main draw of the new album is the inclusion on newly written songs by such “modern” songsmiths as Weezer‘s Rivers Cuomo, Oasis‘ Noel Gallagher, Paul Weller, Death Cab For Cutie‘s Ben Gibbard, XTC‘s Andy Partridge, and Adam Schlesinger.
In 2009, Peter Tork underwent surgery for Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma — a cancer that usually grows slowly on a person’s head and neck. Back in October, Tork contributed to the Monkees’ first holiday collection, titled Christmas Party. The album features new vocals by Dolenz, Nesmith, and Tork — with Davy Jones featured on two vintage recordings. 2018 also saw the release of Tork’s latest solo album with his band Shoe Suede Blues titled, Relax Your Mind, a tribute to the music of Huddie William Ledbetter — better known as “Lead Belly.”
Tork’s Monkees bandmates, friend and fans have taken to social media to eulogize and remember Tork, with Micky Dolenz posting, “There are no words right now. . . heart broken over the loss of my Monkee brother, Peter Tork.”
Mike Nesmith posted a tribute on Facebook, which reads:
Pardon me if I am being dogmatic — but I think it is harder to put together a band than a TV show — not to take anything away from TV shows. These days I watch MSNBC — mostly aghast at what I see — and what I am missing is ‘madcap’.
Peter Tork died this AM. I am told he slipped away peacefully.
Yet, as I write this my tears are awash, and my heart is broken. Even though I am clinging to the idea that we all continue, the pain that attends these passings has no cure. It’s going to be a rough day.
I share with all Monkees fans this change, this ‘loss’, even so.
PT will be a part of me forever. I have said this before — and now it seems even more apt — the reason we called it a band is because it was where we all went to play.
A band no more — and yet the music plays on — an anthem to all who made the Monkees and the TV show our private — dare I say ‘secret’ — playground.
As for Pete, I can only pray his songs reach the heights that can lift us and that our childhood lives forever — that special sparkle that was the Monkees. I will miss him — a brother in arms. Take flight my Brother.
The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson posted: “I’m sad to hear about Peter Tork passing. I thought The Monkees were great and Peter will be missed. Love & mercy to Peter’s family, friends and fans.”
Peter Tork was always very open and upfront about his battle with cancer over the past decade: [“I was diagnosed with a rare cancer, called adenoid cystic carcinoma — ACC for short — in the beginning of the year 2009. I’m very lucky that the symptoms were made obvious to me in time that a treatment was available. Who knows what would’ve happened if it had gone much longer? I am a great fans of early screening, because the earlier the diagnosis, if there is trouble, the earlier the diagnosis, the better the chances of a healthier, happy life thereafter.”] SOUNDCUE (:27 OC: . . . happy life thereafter)
Tork shed light on his long road to finally becoming sober in 1982: [“That bottom was the last moment that alcoholism was having its way with me. Just at that turning point where I said, ‘I can’t do this’ and scurried around looking for help and found the help I needed and haven’t had to drink since then. Haven’t had to drink, haven’t had to smoke, haven’t had to smoke a stick of dope, or do a line — or anything else.”] SOUNDCUE (:17 OC: . . . or anything else)
Shortly before his death in 2012, Davy Jones told us he believed Tork was always better suited as a solo act, rather than making musical decisions by committee: [“Y’know he’s very difficult. He’s got his ideas. If he could only be directed and shown how to do it. The longevity of his time in the Monkees was because he didn’t rebel against an idea, or a mood, or an occasion.”] SOUNDCUE (:13 OC: . . . or an occasion)
Davy Jones told us that throughout the group’s career, bandmate Tork always encouraged him musically: [“I’m a great fan of Peter’s, y’know? He told me and instilled in me that I was a musician. I am a musician. I keep a good beat. I’ve got perfect pitch.”] SOUNDCUE (:09 OC: . . . got perfect pitch)
Micky Dolenz was always astounded at the raw musical talent that Peter Tork possessed: [“One of the things about Peter that few people know, unless you’re a real diehard Monkee fan, is that Peter was, by far, the most accomplished musician of all of us. In fact, Peter plays, like, five instruments. He plays anything. You just sit him in a room with a bunch of instruments and he will pick up anything and play it. It’s amazing.”] SOUNDCUE (:17 OC: . . . it it’s amazing)
Although Mike Nesmith was a key player in getting the group to choose and write its own material — it was Peter Tork’s ultimate dream to turn the Monkees into an actual living and breathing rock band: [“I believe that we ramped up to the point that we eventually could have been making our own records in an ongoing basis, as well as being on the TV show. Circumstances conspired against that happening in full, but there were a few moments that indicated to me that it could’ve happened. The Monkees’ third album was Headquarters. We made that album ourselves.”] SOUNDCUE (:17 OC: . . . that album ourselves)
The full Facebook statement from Peter Tork’s family: