As a member of the classic 1960s TV sitcom and pop band "The Monkees," Peter Tork always put on an act as something of a country bumpkin, slow on the uptake. This was a routine he had learned years earlier to protect himself from the verbal barbs audiences on the Greenwich Village folk music scene would sometimes hurl.
But in an interview done last week in preparation for a performance of Shoes Swede Blue band in Secaucus later this month, Tork showed he had thought a lot about his career and the choices he had made over the last three decades.
Tork is scheduled to perform twice at the Super Mega Show at the Crowne Plaza in Secaucus on Sept. 20 and 21, and will also have a talk about his career and his relatively new venture into the blues at a special Saturday night dinner concert.
Tork grew up in a family that emphasized folk and classical music, and became part of the second generation of the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early 1960s that included Roger McGuinn, Richie Havens, John Sebastian, Joan Bias, Steven Stills and others.
"Most of us played the same kind of music," he said, rattling off the names of what have become for most of us classic folk tunes.
He said folk singer Peter Seeger, a member of the Weavers, had a large influence on him.
Perhaps a bit disillusioned with the lack of success in the Village scene, Tork sought out success on the West Coast, hooking up for a brief time with Steven Stills in Los Angeles. It was Stills who told Tork about the auditions for the TV show.
Although capable of playing numerous instruments, including banjo and guitar, it was not his musical talent that allowed him to get the part of the lovable, somewhat slow-witted Monkee, but the character he had developed on stage.
Designed to evoke the wackiness of the Beatles’ movie "Hard Days Night," the Monkees TV show, Tork admitted, used every corny plot ever created for television. Yet the program broke new ground in one particular area, it presented a family-like group not controlled by a parent-like figure. This paved the way for several other hit TV shows that made use of a similar format.
The Monkees, while billed as a band with records topping the charts, were not initially a band, but a group of actors playing parts. Yet as time went on, the actors gelled and sought to become more involved with their parts by seeking to live up to some of the hype by actually playing the instruments. Of the four, however, Tork was the only actual musician going in, and until he sought a greater music role, he played only a minor part in the musical production.
Egos clashed as management mistook the band’s intentions.
"We didn’t want creative control," Tork recalled. "We just wanted to play our own instruments."
And for a short time, the illusion created by Hollywood actually came together as a band with the album Headquarters as their most commercially successful effort and the soundtrack to their movie, Head, perhaps the most artistically successful.
Many of the hit singles put out under the name Monkees were ghostwritten for them by people like Carol King, Neil Diamond and others.
"They were great songs, but they weren’t our songs," he said.
Getting the chops to play the blues
During a telephone interview last week, Tork talked about the past, but also about the present, about his reluctant steps towards singing the blues.
While he always loved the blues, listening to some of the greats perform them, he always felt he lacked something that would allow him to reach into that part of himself.
"The Blues over took me at a time I was left without feelings," he said. "Before that, I didn’t know how to do it, or didn’t feel I had a right to do it, and didn’t know if I could ever do it."
Perhaps time allowed him to develop those experiences, the common pain and joys that allow people to find ground upon which to agree. Everybody suffers. Everybody works through problems, indeed, even a one-time superstar like Tork.
In fact, Tork went broke shortly after The Monkees broke up, and like many people of his generation, struggled through the issue of drug and alcohol abuse, eventually giving them up. After years of menial jobs such as washing dishes, and even an stint as a high school teacher, Tork found voice and comfort in singing the blues.
"My experience with the blues when I do it well, is that I am relieved of my trials and tribulations," he said. "The blues remove you for a moment from everyday worries."
But more importantly, he said, the blues allow people to realize that everyone is struggling through similar situations, building a common reference of understanding.
"People might go out later and treat others a little better because they’ve come to understand we’re all have the same kind of problems," Tork said. "Blues isn’t about being blue. It’s about sadness, women, low life up bringing, but it is not designed to bring you down. Everyone relaxes a little and maybe treats their neighbor a little better."
Tork became involved with Shoe Suede Blues in 1994 as a part of what was supposed to be a one-time fund-raiser for a charity event. People liked it so much, he and the other members continued on. Some members have come and gone over the years, but the band has always had an impressive musical lineup.
The group coming to Secaucus on Sept. 20 through 21 includes Michael Sunday, a one-time member of Blues Underground; John Palmer, who has played with The 5th Dimension; The Diamonds; Rosie and the Originals; The Penguins and Sha Na Na, and Richard Mikuls, whose credits include work with Rufus, BB King, Ike and Tina Turner, Chuck Berry, Sly Stone, Quincy Jones, Ray Charles, Little Richards, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Pointer Sisters and others.
Tork said performances at the Crowne Plaza in Secaucus will be about an hour long, and will include a special dinner talk about music, the Monkees, politics and overall life.
"Something like this interview," Tork said.
Performances include a variety of well-known and not so well-know blues tunes, including some bluesy Monkee tunes.
The band has two CDs that will be for sale at the event, one a commercial release that includes a variety of cover tunes, and the other a live souvenir edition only available so far at their shows, including original material and obscure blues numbers
Although a West Coast resident, Tork said most of the tours are east of the Mississippi River, including previous performances in Secaucus at the Super Mega Show.
The event, which is a kind of collectable, toy and comic fair, has a score of other guests, former movie and television stars, and models and wrestlers on the bill. The cost is $16 per day or $30 for two days (with admission to the concert for both days). A super VIP Weekend Pass of $150 includes all the weekend events including an exclusive Saturday night dinner and concert. For more information about the show, times, and ticket costs call (800) 505-8697.