Watch the Last Time Peter Tork (RIP) & The Monkees Played Together During Their 1960s Heyday: It’s a Psychedelic Freakout

Peter Tork died yes­ter­day at age 77. You might not have heard the news over the deaf­en­ing alarms in your social media feeds late­ly. But a mut­ed response is also note­wor­thy because of the way Tork’s fame implod­ed at the end of the six­ties, at a time when he might have become the kind of rock star he and his fel­low Mon­kees had proved they could become, all on their own, with­out the help of any stu­dio trick­ery, thanks very much. The irony of mak­ing this bold state­ment with a fea­ture film was not lost on the band at all.

The film was Head, co-writ­ten and co-pro­duced by Jack Nichol­son, who appears along­side the Mon­kees, Teri Garr, Annette Funi­cel­lo, Frank Zap­pa, Son­ny Lis­ton, Jer­ry Lee Lewis, Fats Domi­no, and Lit­tle Richard, among many oth­er famous guest stars and musi­cians. Den­nis Hop­per and Toni Basil pop up, and the sound­track, large­ly writ­ten and played by the band, is a tru­ly groovy psych rock mas­ter­piece and their last album to fea­ture Tork until a reunion in the mid-80s.

Head was a weird, cyn­i­cal, embit­tered, yet bril­liant, attempt to tor­pe­do every­thing the Mon­kees had been to their fans—teen pop idols and goofy Bea­t­les rip-offs at a time when The Bea­t­les had maybe got­ten too edgy for some folks. And while it may have tak­en too much of a toll on the band, espe­cial­ly Tork, for them to recov­er, it’s clear that they had an absolute blast mak­ing both the movie and the record, even as their pro­fes­sion­al rela­tion­ships col­lapsed.

Tork’s best song­writ­ing con­tri­bu­tion to Head, and maybe to the Mon­kees cat­a­log on the whole, is “Can You Dig It,” a med­i­ta­tion on “it” that takes what might have been cheap hip­ster appro­pri­a­tion in a funky, pseu­do-deep, vague­ly East­ern direc­tion free of guile—it’s light and breezy, like the Mon­kees, but also sin­is­ter and slinky, like Dono­van or the folk rock of Bri­an Jones, and also spi­dery and jan­g­ly like Roger McGuinn. In the esti­ma­tion of many a psy­che­del­ic rock fan, this is music that deserves a place beside its obvi­ous influ­ences. That Mon­kees fans could not dig it at the time only reflects poor­ly on them, but since some of them were fans of what they thought was a slap­stick com­e­dy troupe or a back­up act for dreamy Davy Jones, they can hard­ly be blamed.

Cast as the Ringo of the gang (The Mon­kees and Head direc­tor Bob Rafel­son com­pared him to Har­po Marx), Tork brought to it a sim­i­lar­ly seri­ous whim­sy, and when he was final­ly allowed to show what he could do—both as a musi­cian and a songwriter—he more than acquit­ted him­self. Where Ringo mas­tered idiot savant one-lin­ers, Tork excelled in the kind of oblique riffs that char­ac­ter­ized his playing—he was the least tal­ent­ed vocal­ist in the band, but the most tal­ent­ed musi­cian and the only one allowed to play on the band’s first two records. Tork played bass, gui­tar, key­boards, ban­jo, harp­si­chord, and oth­er instru­ments flu­ent­ly. He honed his craft, and his “lov­able dum­my” per­sona on Green­wich Vil­lage cof­fee­house stages.

It’s not hard to argue that the Mon­kees rose above their TV ori­gins to become bona fide pop stars with the song­writ­ing and pro­mo­tion­al instincts to match, but Head, both film and album, make them a band worth revis­it­ing for all sorts of oth­er rea­sons. Now a wide­ly-admired cult clas­sic, in 1968, the movie “sur­faced briefly and then sank like a cos­tumed dum­my falling into a Cal­i­for­nia canal,” writes Petra May­er at NPR, in ref­er­ence to Head’s first scene, in which Micky Dolenz appears to com­mit sui­cide. If the Mon­kees had been try­ing in earnest to do the same to their careers, they couldn’t have had more suc­cess. Head cost $750,000 and made back $16,000. “It was clear they were in free fall,” Andy Greene writes at Rolling Stone.

“After that deba­cle,” writes Greene, they could have tried a return to the orig­i­nal for­mu­la to recoup their loss­es, but instead “they decid­ed to dou­ble down on psy­che­del­ic insan­i­ty” in an NBC tele­vi­sion spe­cial, 33⅓ Rev­o­lu­tions per Mon­kee, green­light­ed that year after the huge chart suc­cess of “Day­dream Believ­er.” Tork had already announced that he was leav­ing the band as the cam­eras rolled on the very loose­ly plot­ted vari­ety show. He stuck around till the end of film­ing, how­ev­er, and played the last live per­for­mance with The Mon­kees for almost 20 years in the bang-up finale of “Lis­ten to the Band” (top) which “quick­ly devolves into a wild psy­che­del­ic freak­out crammed with guest stars.” Tork, behind the keys, first turns the down­beat Neil Young-like, Nesmith-penned tune into the rave-up it becomes. It’s a glo­ri­ous send-off for a ver­sion of the Mon­kees peo­ple weren’t ready to hear in ’68.

via Rolling Stone

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Frank Zap­pa Play Michael Nesmith on The Mon­kees (1967)

Jimi Hen­drix Opens for The Mon­kees on a 1967 Tour; Then After 8 Shows, Flips Off the Crowd and Quits

Watch The Bea­t­les Per­form Their Famous Rooftop Con­cert: It Hap­pened 50 Years Ago Today (Jan­u­ary 30, 1969)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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