The trouble with Monkees

Hearing that Peter Tork would come to Secaucus to play at the Crowne Plaza hotel for a two-day gig starting Sept. 21 made me a little nervous.

Peter and The Monkees – the band that made his name famous – have always been a harbinger, if not of doom, then of change. And hearing of his arrival again made me grip my computer terminal and wonder if I would survive.

This is a relationship that goes back more than three decades to 1967. For most people, The Summer of Love was issued in by the release of the Beatles Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

I was a Top 40 kid. While the Beatles played a big part in my listening, so did The Rolling Stones, The Doors and others. Yet few bands played such a big part in my life that year as The Monkees. In 1967, it was not possible to turn on AM radio and fail to hear a song by The Monkees. "I’m a Believer," "Pleasant Valley Sunday" and "Daydream Believer" became the soundtrack of my life, by coincidence capturing my mood at any particular moment.

And it didn’t end there.

In 1968, one of the most turbulent years of my life, the Monkees’ album Headquarters swirled around me, reflecting my inner feelings with such songs as "Shades of Gray," and a year later, the band’s movie soundtrack from Head captured yet another aspect of my spiritual and emotional journey.

Even after the breakup of the band, Tork haunted me. He or news of him would pop up at particularly vexing moments in my life, such as the time I was out on a date with the wildest woman I ever met in Passaic. In the middle of one of her outlandish dances in a club, out popped Tork singing tunes from my childhood – as if he reminded me how little progress I had actually made in my life. He also popped up for a performance in Secaucus just around the time my mother died and terrorists attacked the World Trade Center. So his arrival this week as part of a blue band had me wondering if perhaps I should expect a random asteroid strike or some other similar disaster.

Such expectations struck me when he agreed to a telephone interview – although his story seemed to uncover additional connections I had not previously suspected. Indeed, he was part of the second generation Greenwich Village folk scene I struggled to find years later, a scene that included then-struggling musicians such as Roger McGuinn, Richie Havens, John Sebastian, Joan Bias, Steven Stills and others.

"Most of us played the same kind of music," he said, much of this inspired by Greenwich Village’s previous generation of folk artists such as Pete Seeger.

As I did years later, Tork went west to L.A. seeking to find his fortune. He settled in briefly with still as yet unknown Steven Stills, who turned him on to an interview for the proposed new sitcom called "The Monkees."

A capable musician, Tork did not get his role for his ability to play, but for a buffoon-like character he had invented to ward off the barbs of a fickle Greenwich Village audience. I had invented such characters in order to survive bullies at school. Tork was no buffoon, and his hour-long interview probed some of the social issues of that time, displaying a side denied to the television audience and an intensity of feelings about political issues that the movie Head only hinted at. Each step of his life seemed to echo mine, his struggle with drugs and alcohol stirring up memories of mine, his love of music reflecting my love of literature and poetry.

Few moments of any interview ever sounded as impassioned as when, after a torturous road, he came to his ability to play the blues.

"The blues overtook 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."

Time had whittled us both into new more acceptable shapes, had carved room in us where we could shape our art.

"My experience with the blues when I do it well is that I am relieved of my trials and tribulations," Tork said last week. "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 all have the same kind of problems," Tork said. "Blues isn’t about being blue. It’s about sadness, women, a 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."

I hung up the telephone awed and humbled – although I still look over my shoulder for the asteroid strike. – Al Sullivan (The author is a senior writer for the Reporter.)


© 2000, Newspaper Media Group