Peter Tork is a seasoned musician, although he’s best known as the bass player for The Monkees, the pop/rock band created in 1966 for the television series of the same name. They were a hit with young teens three decades before Justin Bieber’s birth, although critics dismissed the group as the “pre-fab four.”
After his name was shortened from Thorkelson, he adopted the persona of the less-than-intelligent, goofy Monkee. With his days as a teen idol long behind him, Mr. Tork is following his heart and doing what he couldn’t do as a Monkee — play his music his way.
A year after his one-man performance in the intimate confines of the Sandpiper Ice Cream parlor in Greenport, Mr. Tork, 69, is returning to the East End for a Dec. 16 show at the historic Vail-Leavitt Music Hall in Riverhead. His band, Peter Tork and Shoe Suede Blues, will follow opening act The Characters. It’s predominantly a blues show, with Monkees favorites mixed in.
We caught up with Mr. Tork by phone on Nov. 30.
Q. How long have you and Shoe Suede Blues been playing?
A. About 13 years. I’m the only one of the original three. Somewhere along the line, the band voted three to one, with me as the only negative vote, to change the name to Peter Tork and Shoe Suede Blues. I don’t think the benefit is as much as everyone seems to think it is, but I guess it is, especially if everyone knows I’m going to do some Monkees songs, which is the case.
Q. When did you start playing music?
A. I have been musical since I learned how to play the piano at 9 years old, which is to say, before rock and roll.
Q. What music inspired you?
A. I was inspired by folk music, early rock and the Beatles on top of that. Patti Page singing “How much is that doggie in the window? arf-arf” did not really grab me, you know what I mean? Rock and roll grabbed me. What else was grabbing me was folk music, protest folk like The Weavers.
Q. Where were you when The Beatles were on the Ed Sullivan Show?
A. In front of my grandmother’s television set in New York City, which was down in Greenwich Village. The only person with a TV set I knew was my grandmother, so I invited myself up to go watch the show.
Q. How did you get the opportunity to become a Monkee?
A. Steve Stills [of Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young], my buddy on the street in Greenwich Village. The kid who looked like me called me up and said, “I just ran across this guy who’s making a TV show based on [the Beatles’ first movie] ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and you should go try out.” And I said, “What about you?” And he said, “Well, they like me, but they said my hair and teeth were not telegenic and did I know anybody with one tenth my talent whose hair and teeth were better and I thought of my friend Peter.”
Q. What was the audition process like?
A. First I went into one of the producers’ offices. His feet were up on his desk, so I put my feet up on his desk. I was fortunate in that I was not deeply invested in getting the part. If I had been, I would have been entirely too nervous. I was just relaxed enough to have a bit of personality. The producer said okay and sent me to the other producer and they did what was called a personality test. They turned on the cameras and asked me questions. I think they gave us about 15 or 20 of those. Then they gave eight of us a genuine screen test with a script, director and stage directions. We were culled from that eight.
Q. Where did the Peter Tork character come from?
A. I kind of created that character. It was a kind of defense mechanism I used on the Greenwich Village stages and somebody told me it would be funny, just looking sort of bewildered. If you ever watch the screen tests on Youtube, you’ll see me sort of do that. The producers asked me if I minded doing that.
Q. Did you fight for The Monkees to write and perform their own music?
A. Yes, along with Michael Nesmith. The other two, Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones, joined us because they knew how important it was to us. We had solidarity. We wouldn’t have been able to make the switch over [to writing and recording the music] if we hadn’t.
Q. What happened next?
A. After we made “Headquarters” [March 1967], the lovely album The Monkees made themselves, where the four of us were the musicians, there was a slacking off of enthusiasm. As it became clearer and clearer to me that I wasn’t going to get The Monkees into the studio to make more albums, I became discouraged about staying in The Monkees any longer. That’s where my heart is, in making music in combination with other folks.
Q. You’ve had some health issues recently?
A. I had a rather nasty lump of cancer on my tongue and a really excellent surgeon cut it out [three years ago come March]. There was not a bit left and then it was just, did he take little enough so that my tongue would continue to work? I was lucky that the operation did not involve my vocal cords and there was enough tongue left so that, with a little practice, I could make my tongue do pretty much what it did before. After I guess about a month, my tongue was operating almost normally. I was singing within three weeks.
Q. How are you now?
A. I’m fine! Clear check-ups all the way. I’m going to have to keep on getting check-ups indefinitely. This particular cancer is so slow moving that at a certain point, I won’t care.
Q. Looking back, what would you have done differently?
A. I don’t know that I ever made a choice in my life, if you know exactly what I mean. I never decided for myself that I would be a famous person and so honestly enough, the answer is, I could not have chosen anything different because I didn’t choose this. If you asked me what I would have wished, I might have said I wished that I played fewer instruments, better. If I had concentrated longer and harder on the guitar, I would be known as a guitar player as much as being an entertainer. I would be doing shows based on what a good guitar player I am rather than, “Well he used to be in the Monkees and I’ve heard that this band he’s in is pretty good so let’s go see all of that.”
Q. How did it come about that you’re giving a concert on the East End?
A. Gosh … I don’t know. They made me an offer and we went for it.
Concert tickets are available online at sandpiper.ticketleap.com.