Peter Tork: Monkees’ Lost Tell-All Interview on ’60s Glory Years – Rolling Stone
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Peter Tork: A Lost Tell-All Interview on His Sixties Glory Years

Hanging with Hendrix, the Who and the Beatles while dating Mama Cass’ sister — and more remembrances of Laurel Canyon

Peter Tork, 1968.

Peter Tork, 1968.

R Miles/REX/Shutterstock

If the Monkees were supposed to be uncool, someone forgot to tell Jimi Hendrix, the Who, half the Beatles, Mama Cass and the future members of Crosby, Stills and Nash — all of whom spent a good chunk of 1967 and 1968 hanging out with Peter Tork in Los Angeles. In 2007, Tork called up Rolling Stone to reminisce about his Sixties heyday for one of our 40th anniversary issues. Here, for the first time, is that interview in full.

RELATED: Rob Sheffield Remembers Monkees’ Peter Tork

Jimi Hendrix had some fond memories of hanging out at your house.
He would have seen the big house that I lived in in Studio City. The Monkees had the TV show…this would have been ’67. That house had a swimming pool that had nobody overlooking it, so we could swim au naturel. Confidential magazine actually mocked up a picture… I don’t know where they got a photo, they got a photo of the backyard of the house with the swimming pool in it, and they airbrushed in the picture of a woman of indistinct features facing the camera naked, but with her arms crossing her chest. Since I know that no woman ever did that, that’s one of the reasons I know it was a fake, and when you look closely, you can see it. Confidential magazine, which was then the hotshot gossip, tell-all National Enquirer, what Entertainment Tonight is, all that stuff, they made a point of intimating debauchery — which there wasn’t too much of. There was a lot of good stuff, a lot of innocent stuff there, too, I must say. The house was on the north side of Laurel Canyon.

So people that lived in the Canyon, it was convenient for them?
It’s interesting you said “living in Laurel Canyon,” because when you say Laurel Canyon, I think of Micky [Dolenz], who actually did live in a little place called Horseshoe Canyon, which is just off of the main canyon of Laurel Canyon. He really did live in the canyon. I lived north of the canyon, really it was in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains there, where Laurel Canyon comes down off of Laurel Terrace, on a little tiny street called Shady Oak, I think it had one other house on it.

Crosby was a key person on the scene. How did you become friends with him?
First, I met Crosby when I was a Village hippie. Nothing had happened for me yet, I was still singing folk songs with my little banjo and passing the basket. I knew McGuinn, who had been in the Village scene with me; we used to play guitar together in the apartments and smoke a little weed and sing and play together, and I knew him pretty well. He went off to L.A. and came back with the Byrds, and they were doing a TV show, and they came back to the Village.

McGuinn said, “Let me show you my old stomping grounds,” and they walked into some of the cafes that I used to inhabit, so I had dinner with those guys once and met Crosby there. Interestingly enough, I remember McGuinn and Crosby, and I hardly remember the other guys at all. I met them all there; all five were there, but I hardly remember anybody, except for some reason, Crosby was there. Beard-less, mustache-less, but still with that kind of subtly gleeful look on his face that he always has.

Later on, when I was in L.A., I saw the Byrds at the Trip; I didn’t believe a band could be so loud. It was my first experience with a really loud band. That volume level would have been nothing today, but at the time, it was shocking to me, because I’m used to folk music and blues music, and if you’re going to be electric at all, it was just a little 20-watt amp on the floor. These guys were pounding the decibels out. Crosby came up to the big house a lot, along with Denny Doherty and Barry McGuire and Steve Stills, and Steve, as you may have heard, was the guy who looked like me on the Greenwich Village streets who later turned me on to the Monkees, because they liked him, but they thought his hair and teeth were not telegenic and, ‘Did he know anybody more telegenic with a 10th of his talent?’ Of course, Stephen had to go on and suffer with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. [laughs] Of course, two or three times, Stephen didn’t know which way to turn sometimes, and I was able to offer him my hospitality. When I had the big house, he came up, and for a while, I vacated the big house, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were staying there. The Stones stayed there for a week once, under Stephen’s aegis. He had them come over, and I think he cleared out for a week while they stayed there. That was pretty cool.

When Denny was there and Crosby, what would it be like, would they come over in the day and hang out by the pool or at night?
Mostly come over in the afternoon. Sometimes I would wake up to find them swimming in the pool with a half-empty gallon of wine floating in the pool that they would take occasional hits from. I don’t know if you remember the song “Creeque Alley,” there’s the refrain of “McGuinn and McGuire still getting higher,” and nowadays, McGuinn and McGuire are both born-again Christians. You might count that as higher. I’ve recently gotten back in touch with Barry, who has become extraordinarily calm and wise, and it seems to work very well for him overall. So yeah, they would come in, or they would come barreling in at 2 or 3 in the afternoon, peel off their clothes and pile into the pool.

Would there be music played? I heard people would bring by their albums or stuff they were working on and play it.
Oh sure. A little of that, but that was actually a very small part of it. It’s a funny thing about artists, I guess. You don’t know whether you’re creating or not. You’re swimming in the pool, and maybe you have an idea, and you write it down, put it in your pocket, and you go back in the pool. I guess no mention of my house would be complete without mentioning that the Who came by and Ringo and George came by on separate occasions.

Was it ’68 when Ringo and George came by?
You couldn’t prove it by me. Do you have the dates?

I saw it in some Beatles chronology, that they came over and jammed.
Yeah, they did, with Steve Stills. Steve was there, and he was embarrassed; he shook hands with George and kind of turned his back on him, the way shy guys will do. Getting all shit-kicking and shit. We all jammed, Stephen and George and Ringo, and I was on keyboards, and I don’t remember who played bass. It was fabulous to hear Ringo play. My God, what a drummer. God, he was good. He was so solid, and the authority was astounding. I learned so much just by playing with him for five minutes; it was a wonderful experience.

It’s a bummer it didn’t get recorded.
It is too bad, nobody thought to record it. The best we had at the time was cassettes, but even so, that would have been a wonderful jam. Jimi came over a lot with Buddy Miles. Jimi came over from time to time, but more often came Buddy Miles, who I think…Buddy and I were pretty fond of each other, actually, for a while. I haven’t seen him in 30 years or something. We used to have a grand time playing together. When Ringo hits the drums, they stay hit. Buddy played with a big loud beat, but somehow he more caressed the drums. Buddy was a very sophisticated drummer already, a lot of one-hand rolls, that kind of thing. Very, very smooth. Buddy played on a few of my cuts, when I did… I can’t remember exactly which ones right now. I think it would be a song called “Tear the Top Off,” which didn’t get onto any of the regular albums, but came out on some of the collected oddities and leftovers albums and CD’s that came out later. Who else played drums for me? This doesn’t relate too much to the house, but Dewey Martin, Buffalo Springfield’s drummer. He was also a very good drummer. I was really impressed with him. In the Monkees movie Head, “Long Title” and “Can You Dig It,” he’s on both of those cuts. He’s the drummer on both of those, for the most part. Actually, I think it’s “Can You Dig It,” it involves a lot of playing around on the toms, and I had Dewey take the snares off of his snare to make it into another tom, and he said, “I can’t get the snare back on in time to play the backbeats,” and I said, “Nevermind, play the backbeats on the tom and I’ll overdub the snare afterwards.” And I overdubbed the snare myself, so that’s me playing snare. But all the running around on the toms and the rest of it, that’s Dewey.

Was it immediately after Monterey Pop that Jimi stayed at your house for a while?
No, not immediately after Monterey Pop. I didn’t see much of Jimi until after the Monkees tour that Jimi played with us.

There was that thing at your house where he went back to Stephen Stills’ house and jammed all night.
Yeah. Stephen came to me full of praise for Jimi, saying this guy made him swing the hardest and jam the hardest he’d ever jammed, and was totally enthused about Jimi. So I was interested.

“Being a member of the Monkees was like being the star quarterback.”

By the time the first season of the Monkees’ show ended, how intense was your personal fame? If you went out and walked down Sunset, how intense would that get?
It would get pretty intense. But L.A. is blasé about that kind of thing, and I’m very grateful for that. It means if two or three girls would come up to me at a time and say, “Oh, it’s you, it’s you!” it would be cool, it would be two or three at a time. If we got spotted on the streets of Cincinnati when we were on tour there, it was all over. It was by the thousands and they’d come stomping and screaming. In L.A., you’re part of the industry, you’re part of the home industry.

Being a member of the Monkees was like being the star quarterback. You’d have your gaggle of fans, and they’d be on you, but it wouldn’t be people who…in Cincinnati, you’d walk into a store and a 50-year-old grandma goes, “Oh my God, you’re my favorite, we watch you…” Three generations would be watching me and they’d get totally flustered and have no sense of you as a human being. In L.A., at least they have some sense. You were doing a gig, you were doing a job, and while there are a few people who couldn’t control that, it wasn’t as high a percentage, because it’s the industry town, which is a good thing, like I said.

Did anyone give you shit for being in the Monkees or treat you with any less respect than if you were in some other band?
Not that I know of. There was all that stuff about the Monkees, there was a huge controversy about the Monkees not playing their own instruments, being a commercial band, and the truth is, as far as I can tell and as far as I’m concerned, like I said, the Who came over…they hadn’t heard Music from Big Pink, the Band’s album, and I played that, I had a decent stereo system, and I played that beginning to end, and Peter [Townshend] came over to me and said, “It’s really rare,” as it was in those days, particularly rare, “to hear an album that was good from beginning to end.” Because obviously, you had a hit, you cranked out an album, and the album was mediocre except for the hits. That was the custom, and everybody sort of expected it, but Big Pink was good from beginning to end, and those guys were…they saw me for who I was and what I was and what I was doing, and they knew exactly what was happening.

It is said about us — I’m not sure about this — that Lennon said, “Well, they’re not the Beatles, after all, are they? They’re the Marx Brothers.” I used to go over to Mama Cass’ for lunch during the shoot, I would say, “I’m going to pop off and drop in on her,” and she too saw us for what we were. All of the guys, the Beatles and the Stones and the Who and Jimi and Janis Joplin, whom I met before I’d broke, Big Brother was just coming up, and I was still a Southern California hippie on the streets, and she and I became friendly. When the whole thing exploded, she was delighted for me and delighted to see me, and made no bones about that. The big boys made no bones, they had nothing to say about us. They saw us exactly for what we were. They understood the process, they knew exactly what was going on, they had no gripe. What’s to gripe, for crying out loud?

I know a guy now who occasionally alludes to me out of the blue, and somebody else had to point out to me that this guy wished he had my life. “Hey, Tork over there knows all about this, don’t ya, Tork?” at the top of his lungs, across a room sometimes. “What’s going on here?” Somebody had to point out that the guy wished he had my life and not his. Do you remember a group called the Walker Brothers? They were bitter about the Monkees. They had one or two hits, and that was about it. And they were virulent. “Any four slobs off any street in America could have done better,” and I’d say, “OK, whatever you say.”

It’s obvious. All credit has to go to the producers: It really was Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson’s show. One of the ways that these guys expressed their brilliance was by picking me. And they produced this fabulously successful event, which we’re talking about 40-odd years later. So this is not nothing; this is certainly something. As to whether the Monkees could play their own instruments, the usual joke is that no, we all played borrowed instruments, and we went out on the road and played our own hits, and it was kind of funny. That’s almost exactly what the Byrds and the Beach Boys did, and the Byrds, after all, were playing other people’s songs with other musicians in the studio. McGuinn played on their own cuts, I gather, because he knew how to get that 12-string.

Speaking of the Byrds, “So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star” was supposedly written at least about the idea of the Monkees, or as a subtle dig. Were you aware of that?
No. Nobody ever said anything like that to me. I took it at face value. Maybe they thought about the Monkees, but “Get a guitar and learn how to play…” Michael and I had been playing…I’d been playing music of one sort or another from the time I was nine years old, when I began to take piano lessons. So that was for 14 years. Michael had been playing continuously for several years before that; he was a folkie. Micky played folk guitar, fireside guitar — you gave him a guitar, and he could play anything. Davy, who didn’t play any instruments, had been on Broadway. He was the American original Artful Dodger in Oliver, and that’s not nothing as a musical ability. Davy, too, when we said, “We need a bass player for this,” he said, “How do I play bass?” We said, “You put your finger here, and you pluck this string here at this moment,” and he was onstage with us playing bass in five minutes. He knew. Davy is one of the most fabulously musically adept minds I have ever met. You just don’t…that’s not nothing. These days, I’m still on the road, incidentally — I’d like to get a plug in if I can for what I’m doing now, which is this blues band, Peter Tork and Shoe Suede Blues. We’re primarily a blues band, kind of blues-pop, really. You can’t do a show with Peter Tork without doing a few Monkees songs. We do a version of “Clarksville,” it’s on our site.

You mentioned Mama Cass’ house. That was another big gathering place.
Yeah. Actually, I didn’t have a lot of gathering, although I did meet a girlfriend there. Cass’ sister, Leah, showed up there, and she and I got together as a result of meeting up at Cass’ house, and Leah is still one of my very best friends and lives about 75 minutes away from here up in Massachusetts and married Russ Kunkel, the fabulous folk-rock drummer, and had a couple of kids, including Nathaniel Kunkel, one of the great engineers/producers in America today. My first solo album, I used Cass’ daughter, Owen, and John Phillips’ daughter, Mackenzie, as background singers on a song, and you can hear it, it sounds like the Mamas and the Papas back there. It’s fabulous.

You chose to live in Studio City. You were aware that Laurel Canyon had this vibe and that people were gathering there?
Yeah, Laurel Canyon was the place to be. Zappa lived at the foot of Laurel Canyon, on Laurel Canyon Boulevard, just off of that curve…the Crestview Mountain…the big main road that comes off of Laurel Canyon, about a third of the way up, that Horseshoe Canyon was off of. Deborah Van Valkenburgh was on a TV show, she starred in The Warriors, the cult movie, and then was on a TV show, a sequel to Mary Tyler Moore with what’s his name, Ted Knight, the guy who was a broadcaster on Mary Tyler Moore. Too Close for Comfort, it was called. She was one of the daughters on that TV show, and it was fabulous. We used to go out together. They ran over me to get her autograph, which gave me such a giggle.

“It was totally erotic and risqué and completely innocent, and in so many ways, it was exactly the kind of world I had prayed to be in when I was a kid growing up.”

How much did you get out to the Whisky that year?
I went every so often. Those were the days…the Troubadour and the Roxy, upstairs at the Roxy, where you’d go and have a couple of drinks and friends of yours would wander in, you’d see people you know. “I think I’ll go to the Roxy and see who’s hanging out.” The Troubadour was the place to be, though.

I remember one absolutely fabulous moment with Linda Ronstadt, I hope she doesn’t mind my telling you this. She said something about Playboy, and of course, Linda had had a hit with a Michael Nesmith song before that, before any of us became famous. The Stone Poneys became famous on Michael Nesmith’s “Different Drum.” We were all in this set together and knew each other all over the place, and I’m chatting with Linda, and she says something about Playboy wanting her to pose for them, and she said, “I turned them down.” And I said, “What’s the matter, you don’t want to show your tits?” She said, “I’ll show my tits to my friends,” and she peeled back her peasant blouse and flashed her left boob at me. That’s the kind of thing that makes my heart sing; it was so glorious — it was just a little flash…totally erotic and risqué and completely innocent, and in so many ways, it was exactly the kind of world I had prayed to be in when I was a kid growing up.

Who were  the women who would attend those parties at your house?
There were a couple ladies living at my house, none of whom you would have heard of, probably. They’d gotten into the scene…one of them was a lady whose first encounter, I think, was with Chris Hillman, and whose second encounter was me, and whose third encounter was Peter Fonda, except that she got it on with Crosby on the side, because nobody cared in those days. So in a sense, it was groupies, but not the ‘pick ‘em up’ groupies on the street. These had actually evolved into ladies of position in the scene. Invaluable, really. Couldn’t carry on without them.

Crosby has fond memories of you, but he remembers you as “a little innocent.” Do you have any sense of what he might have meant by that? I guess he was starting to screw around with some pretty serious drugs.
In terms of the drugs, I smoked dope and I did my share of acid, but as far as the harder stuff — what we called the harder stuff — I wasn’t averse to a nighttime cocaine run, but amazingly, I never got addicted to it, I never got caught. In the middle of a nighttime run, you want more, but you go to bed and you wake up the next day, and you’re not like, “Oh God, I’ve got to have another one; I’ve got to have another one.” For some reason, I’m a pretty addictive personality, but coke didn’t grab me, and I didn’t ever do enough of anything else to tell the tale.

I don’t know that Crosby was talking about drugs when he was talking about my innocence. I am absolutely of the optimistic believer in the better angels of our nature type of guy, and I absolutely was then. Being that way, you tend to overlook the harder realities. The British have this expression, gobsmacked, which is a great expression — it’s like being hit with a big wet fish. As reality hit me, I was gobsmacked at every turn, and years and years later, now, as we’re talking, I think I’ve had my education and I’m not stupid about the way things are, but I still believe in the sunnier angels of our nature. I’ve just become less sanguine about how we were going to fix the world by tomorrow. That’s clearly not going to happen, because too many people have too much of a stake in what’s wrong with the world, as far as I’m concerned, and I believe it’s all fear. I don’t believe anybody, given the full choice — except for sociopaths — would prefer to be operating on a basis of greed and acquisition, because everybody knows that the actual possession of things themselves does not generate any longterm satisfaction. Everybody knows this, and yet people keep chasing the carrot, even though they sort of know that it’s tied to their own heads and they’ll never get it, they still keep chasing it because they don’t know how to.

“It used to be sex, drugs and rock & roll. Now it’s sex, sushi and the blues.”

It’s like me with drinking. I once saw a bumper sticker saying, “I’m just glad I was allowed to quit drinking,” or something like that. You get on a vicious cycle, and you don’t know how you’re going to get off, because you’re certainly convinced that if you try to get off, you will be instantly and magically propelled into poverty and fear and ignorance and loathing and screaming gibbering terror, and you can’t get over that without somebody to guide you through the baby steps it takes to get from there to here or here to there.

It’s taken me all these years to find people who will give me the guidance and the baby steps. This is something I’m sure you cannot do alone. The worst part about all of the greed and loneliness and the addictions is that they can foster aloneness, making it harder to get the help it takes to get off the wheel. Incidentally, this is the wheel that the Buddhists and the Hindus talk about when they’re saying the ‘wheel of karma.’ You can’t get off it, the squirrel wheel, you run around and around. That’s the image. You can’t get off it without help, and you can’t ask for help when you’re on the wheel, because you’re so sure there is no help, that to ask for help is to leave yourself open to worse ridicule and more nastiness, so it’s really very, very difficult to get off the wheel. But everybody I know who’s gotten off that wheel is grateful beyond the power of words to express. Nobody says, “Gee, I wish I was still chasing money or women or drinking or smoking dope,” that kind of thing. It used to be sex, drugs and rock & roll. Now it’s sex, sushi and the blues.

Were people doing coke as early as ’67?
Yup. Not a hell of a lot. There were people who had it and were doing runs, but it wasn’t anything like pot, where you’d just say, “Who’s your dealer, have you got anybody, who can you get?” Somebody would come up and deliver a kilo in a briefcase. Only minimal efforts at disguising what you’re doing. The dealers were the most respectable-looking among us. The hippies wore the long hair and the beads and the flowered shirts, and the dealers were wearing jackets and suits and ties.

What was your Monterey Pop experience like?
Yeah, I was given an invitation. Alan Pariser, who was a mover and shaker in the scene, allowed me to come up as a guest, backstage passes. It was just fabulous; it was the most wonderful, one of the most wonderful things of my entire life. I introduced [Buffalo] Springfield, I introduced Lou Rawls as “the man with the pipes everybody wishes they had.” That man had just the best…I heard him sing the other day; he’s still fabulous. I introduced Booker T and the MG’s, who introduced the Bar-Kays, who introduced Otis Redding, and there was Otis Redding. “This is the love crowd, right?” is what he said. He was so congenial and amused and secure.

The thing about the Stax/Volt gang — Booker T and the Bar-Kays and Otis — was that those guys were just totally fabulously thoroughly well-established in their own musical hearts and minds. We visited the Stax/Volt studios once on the road, the Monkees did, and we sat in with those guys, just jammed a little bit, not much, and those guys, just the most solid, secure musicians. You learn a ton from playing with them for 10 minutes, just finding out what music is really all about. In many ways, that’s been the name of the game for me and one of the things about the blues that has always attracted me. I could hear a blue note and faint from the time I was 18 or 19; I could never believe how I would be able to do it until more recently. It’s happening for me, too. When we’re on, and we hit the pocket at least once a night when we play, and every time it happens, I go, “Yeah, this is what I’m here for, this is solidity.”

When you have enough of an awareness of what you’re doing, what basketball players call ‘in the zone,’ and secure enough with the guys around you that you relax and let the music play you. I’ll tell you a secret, the secret is to play within yourself. If you know only four or five notes, play those notes with conviction. The zone is not dependent on your technical ability. If you want to find the zone, find a couple of other guys who play those same notes or like those notes; you’ll find it, it’ll hit you. You will fall in love with yourself.

“I’ll tell you a secret, the secret is to play within yourself. If you know only four or five notes, play those notes with conviction.”

How are you doing these days?
The Sixties were a fabulous time for me, and I’ve had some ups and downs in my life, but mostly, the glamour and the glitz is gone, but the fabulousness of my life is still with me. I’m so glad to be where I am and who I am and in the state of health I am and the age I am, all these things are still glorious. It’s really a function of…basically, it’s a function of being able to accept the health that I needed when I needed it, ultimately. I lost a good friend to despair, I’m sure it was to despair. A man named Jerry Renino was the Monkees’ bass player, we had a backup band, and he was our main man. He did himself in, and I’m convinced it was because he couldn’t relinquish his role as the go-to guy, he was the man. He couldn’t relinquish that role, and ultimately, I think he couldn’t ask for help. When they say in real estate, “There’s only three issues: location, location, location,” in life, there’s only three things to remember: get help, get help, get help.

Sounds like you’ve discovered some wisdom.
Hard-earned. And not discovered, strictly a function of being at the right place at the right time. You go into life sometimes, you expect justice, and if you get mercy, you go, “All right, thank you.” That’s what happened to me.

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