Peter Tork Interview
What do you do when your track record includes being part of an award winning television show, being involved with a project that’s merchandising out-sold the Beatles, and being with a band that recorded an album which knocked “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” out of the number one slot in Billboard for a week? Well, I guess anything you want to! And that’s just what Peter Tork has done ever since 1969. I’m sure that he would agree that many of his career decisions, as well as a few in his personal life have not always been right , but I can’t think of anyone who’s rolled with the punches as well as Peter Tork. Always staying true to himself, as well as his fans.
Peter has now formed himself a rock n’ blues band “Shoe Suede Blues”, that tours all over the globe doin’ what he likes doin’ best, playin’ singin’ and dancin’. The band has also recorded a live album that can be ordered on his website, www.petertork.com.
Being a child of the 60’s, I remember that the name Peter Tork was known in every household I was ever in, provided there were occupants living there between the ages of 6 and 16.
After reaching my teens and re-watching The Monkees show, I found it kind of odd that the most intellectual, and obviously the most musically educated was cast as the dummy. Well, after reading a few articles on the members of the cast and reading about Peter’s musical background before The Monkees, another thing was very obvious. This guy was no dummy. And one thing that I could never find was an article or interview with Peter Tork just talking music. So folks, after 30 years of searching, I’ve decided to finally do it myself! Here is as in-depth of an interview (at least as I’ve ever read) with Peter Tork, and also pitching in his two cents every now and then, the band’s keyboard and harp man Tadg Galleran.
SE: I just got the new CD.
PT: Did you?
PT: Long enough to have a listen?
SE: Oh yeah, in fact I’m listening as we speak.
PT: Oh, well then you can tell me that you love it and I don’t care if you’re lyin’.
SE: (Laughs) I like it. It’s kind of a different type of live album. Some of it sounds like it’s right from the board and some of it sounds as though it was recorded right from the audience.
PT: It is in fact. Mic in the air.
PT: Yeah, no frills, no mixing, just whatever sounds hit the mic. I mean it’s a good mic and a DAT machine, so the sound was pretty good. But we think it’s amazingly good under the circumstances, and of course it’s not a commercial release. It’s a souvenir. But there’s times when we think it sounds magnificent. But that’s just because we’re full of ourselves (laughs) completely proud, and house proud, and music proud, and we think that we’re hot shit so we can’t help it.
SE: There’s nothin’ like being humble.
PT: Yeah, I’d like to try it sometime. (Laughs) I hear it’s pretty good stuff.
SE: So, you grew up in Washington?
PT: No, I grew up all over, I was born there but I moved to Detroit, and to Berlin, Germany and a town that no longer exists called Badger, Wisconsin. And then two places in Madison all before my parents moved to Connecticut where they now still live.
SE: Wow, were you an army brat or…?
PT: Among other things, it was the army that took my father to Berlin, so that accounts for a year and a half there, but other than that he didn’t know what career he wanted and it was after his army stint, he actually blessedly didn’t have to go fight thank god, but after the army the G.I. Bill gave him what he needed to get his degrees and he went back to Wisconsin…. which is what took us to Madison. Then he went to Connecticut to teach, where his entire teaching career was, in Connecticut.
SE: So what was your first exposure to music?
PT: Oh god, my parents. They had powdered milk to pay for the record machine. There’s been music in my household for longer than I’ve been alive. First it was like, Beethoven symphonies interrupted in the middle of 78’s, that’s how old I am. And then on to jazz, and folk, all in my household. Mostly classical but some other stuff too.
SE: Didn’t you go to some kind of conservatory of music?
PT: No, no I didn’t. I was actually considering a music major at Carlton college in Northfield, Minnesota where I went to school, which would have been a strong major. They had a serious major there but I couldn’t handle it it turns out. Well, it’s a different world, music majors in college, they’re geared for, you know…
PT: Academia, piano concerti, and symphonies, and I didn’t have the concentration or the attention span for it. I was involved in too many things, I was in theatre, I was a DJ on the radio station, and in folk ensembles, and little intermural things.
SE: The bands that you formed or played with in high school, what genre did you play? Or did you form bands in high school?
PT: Oh yeah, well not in high school. In high school I just did musicals and amateur theatricals, and a few piano recitals. Minuet in G, Bach, stuff like that. I started to do a little folk singing with my pals, you know, singing harmonies. In college I did some folk music and got a chance to play, you know, whenever they would allow folk musicians to play. I mean me and whoever else I could get together with played.
SE: So your poison was folk music?
PT: Yeah. You know what happened for me was that I got really interested in rock briefly with … actually the song that broke through with me was “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You” by Elvis. I kind of got those other guys, but being raised in a classical music household, you know, I got a little bit averse to songs where you know what the chords were before you ever heard them. So I didn’t pay quite that much attention. And then I got to college and the Village. Rock and pop had already decayed and was very, very poor until The Beatles. And when The Beatles came along, all hell broke loose, and everybody was back to rock and pop. But in the in-between times, you know, the only people with credibility were The Weavers. The only people with the courage of their convictions, and everybody was just selling out. Which I would dearly love to do, but nobody’s made me an offer. (Laughs) My price is very low but I don’t seem to have a market, that’s my problem.
SE: “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You”… I think the flipside of that was the best record Elvis ever made.
PT: Which was what?
SE: “My Baby Left Me”.
PT: Oh, that was a good song! The thing about Elvis was that he really did do that stuff awfully well. He may not have been … as far as I’m concerned the best rock singer of all time is Little Richard.
SE: Oh yeah!
PT: For pure skill and virtuosity, and passion, nobody’s really very close. But Elvis in those early days, the Sun records and the early RCA records. There was really an enormous power to the boy. He really did have a grasp.
SE: So your main instrument of choice was…?
PT: I never did have one. It’s always been situational, in terms of actual … relative to classical and thoroughly well grounded methodology, and so piano is in a way my best instrument. I read on it, and I play Bach fugues, preludes and fugues, but I love to play behind the guitar when I’m on stage just cause I can dance better. I don’t want to not dance when I’m performing if I can help it.
SE: A lot of folk groups in the 60’s were looking back to folk blues of the 20’s, and 30’s and re-arranging a lot of those classics…
PT: Mm hmm.
SE: Were those the same type of artists that you were listening to as well?
PT: No. In a sense I was averse to the blues. They scared me! I didn’t think I had what it took to play them. I admired those guys who did play them if they had anything to say, although most of them didn’t of course. Very few that could do the blues with any authority. You know, most of us were very carefully cultivated middle class white kids and it takes something a little different than that to sing the blues. You’ve got to be able to … protected is really what it’s about, most of us were really very well protected and that made all the difference. And since then,you know, you grow up, you escape and do some wild and crazy things and you look around and YOU’RE NOT PROTECTED. And after a few years of livin’ out in the cold like that, then maybe you’ve got what it takes to sing the blues. That’s what it is for me, and recently I’ve decided that I may not have the really magnificent chops that some do, but the blues don’t scare me anymore.
SE: I would think that you’d be the perfect guy to do some of that old folk blues.
PT: I do love that stuff these days. Robert Johnson, and Lightnin’ Hopkins, that stuff. I really love it, but what does me the most in the cosmos is a good oily blues upbeat shuffle. That just knocks my socks off and sends me spinning into the cosmos. It doesn’t make me dance without bass and drums, so I need to hear the group go. I love a good folk blues, a good acoustic thing, but if it doesn’t have,you know, to modify, update, and make brief the famous Duke Ellington epigram… if it don’t swing, it ain’t shit!
SE: (Laughs) Yeah. So growing up it was mainly folk and classical music?
PT: That’s what I heard yeah. You know The Weavers … one of the things that’s interesting? I’ll leave the folk music behind and go into the blues for awhile, and then the other day I picked up a Weavers record and my God, those guy’s swung! That’s what was really amazing. Pete Seeger really knew how to swing! He had a good loping beat, and you know who else? Earl Scruggs swung his ass off! You hear a lot of banjo players and they’re going ding d’kee d’kee d’kee ding, d’kee d’kee d’kee ding, and then you hear Earl Scruggs go ding ding d’kah d ding ding, d’kah d ding ding, and it pops like a mother! He has such a great beat and that’s why he was the greatest. He could do all that anybody else could do and then he could swing on top of that.
SE: Have you ever heard Papa Charlie Jackson?
SE: He was an ol’ timey blues singer from the 20’s who played a banjo. I think the banjo was one of the first instruments of the blues wasn’t it?
PT: Well, it was very strong in the blues. It was invented by somebody I think in about 1850 or 1870 or something.
TG: I thought that the banjo was originally an African instrument…
PT: Well the banjo overall is. The five string in particular is a specific creation
of the middle to late 19th century, but it was used primarily by… I think as a … the boxing and the frailing and the kind of old country banjo playing that we know now. Double thumbing and so on was used primarily by blacks.
SE: If you listen to his stuff he played a six-string banjo…
PT: Oh, a guitar banjo probably.
SE: Yeah. He had a really unconventional picking style that was very interesting. I read that his first banjo was made out of a frying pan and raccoon skin.
PT: It’s interesting. The banjo in it’s most generic form is universal. There’s a bode… the Chinese instrument is a bode, but it’s a skin over a gourd kind of thing with a neck attached.
SE: So you came from New York to L.A.?
SE: Why L.A.?
PT: Well, because I was told to leave New York by some disembodied, intuitive imposition and I just said okay, either San Francisco or L.A. whichever I get a ride to and have a place to stay first. And that was L.A. I arrived in L.A. in June of 1965 and I was trying out for The Monkees by August.
SE: And the musicians that you kind of clicked with in L.A. … well I guess you already knew Steve Stills.
PT: Well, Steve I knew from the Village. I don’t know that I did any clicking with any musicians per se. It’s always been catch as catch can. There was a guy named Monte Dunne that suddenly popped out of nowhere and swung like hell and we played for a couple of hours and he was gone. You know it’s like you never know which way it’s gonna’ go. Actually I don’t think that I ever had any serious musical adventures in L.A. before the Monkees happened. I did have some good music on tour. There were a couple of times that I really got off with those guys playing on the road. I remember Osaka … I can’t remember the song we were doing, and we hit the pocket you know, hit that place where suddenly everything sounds great and is just wonderful, and Davy comes dancing over to me and yells at the top of his lungs, over the music he yells “We’re gonna’ form a group!”
SE: (Laughs) So before the Monkees when you were doing the folk stuff did you ever do any recording session work?
PT: Hmmmm, uh, very little, very little. I played bass on one album for a friend of my brothers. A woman named Wendy Erdman made an album that I played bass on most of the cuts. I played bass as an accompanist for a group called James Hendricks and Vanessa. James Hendricks was in a group with Cass Elliot. I think she and Tim Rose, and James Hendricks were in a band called The Big Three before Cass joined the Mamas and the Papas.
SE: Now as far as your acting debut goes, the history books always have it that Steve Stills passed on the part to you…
PT: No, no, he just told me that it was happening and I just walked in and auditioned from scratch. Nobody awarded it to him, and he didn’t pass it on to anybody else. I just walked into the middle of a cattle call. But if it hadn’t been for him I wouldn’t have ever known that it was happening, that’s all. Nobody annointed me by God.
SE: (Laughs) You were very good as a comedy actor and you’ve had parts in many sitcoms since then…
PT: Mm hmm.
SE: I’m surprised that you haven’t hooked up with another series.
PT: Yeah it’s uh … and I don’t know what the story is with that you know? I was sort of rather more involved with “chemistry” than anything else for awhile. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was blocking my process rather severely and to tell you the truth right now, and I don’t know this for a fact but, I’m at the moment thinking that if I pursued acting, it would take me away from the music. As an actor I’ve only gotten’ off once or twice. Once in an acting class, basically almost never in public. I mean I enjoy acting okay, but in terms of being transported? Music does that to me all the time! And acting does that to me very rarely. You know, there’s more money in acting. I think in terms of the chances of making a good living, they are probably better as an actor, but I think music is where I wanna’ be.
SE: Yeah, it always seemed to be that way, even on that show.
SE: During that whirlwind time, what did you do to relax? Say you had a free hour, or a free weekend?
PT: I probably chased a woman. (Laughs) Or took advantage of whoever was handy.
SE: At that time they were probably chasing you.
PT: You know it’s interesting, cause … no, cause the women that chased me in those days … the kids were too young. It was, you know…
TG: And now they’re too old. (Laughing)
PT: Not all of them, fortunately.
SE: I know it’s mentioned in many books and box set booklets, but are there any tracks that come to mind that you had a good time playing on besides Headquarters?
PT: That was the big one. I also played and created the original parts for “Daydream Believer”. And Mike played the signature lick on “Pleasant Valley Sunday”, but you hear this piano at this place in the middle going, daaa daa daa da da da bah dah n dada … and I was just watching my hand going my god this hand is moving fast! I didn’t know that I could move my hand that fast! So that was a lot of fun. And there’s that song “Goin’ Down”, which basically that’s me on bass. I created that song. Basically it was someone else’s arrangement of some other song, and so we just jammed it in the studio one afternoon… and Diane Hilderbrand and Jack Keller wrote some lyrics to it and we just created a song out of it.
SE: Great song. Most people I know who aren’t Monkee fans appreciate that song.
PT: Yeah, it’s a wonderful bit of jamming, and there’s an interesting jam thing too. We change the chart right in the middle from this one kind of a chart to another, and with no cue. Nobody looked at anybody else, nobody did anything else … we all were just suddenly playing another song without any communication. Just everybody knew to change songs at the same time.
SE: On those early records, did you ever go to any of the tracking sessions just for the hell of it?
PT: I didn’t. I went thinking I was going to play! I didn’t know I was going for the hell of it, but it turns out that I was when I got there.
SE: So you didn’t play on those first two records at all?
PT: Well yeah, I played third chair guitar on Michael’s cuts, but you know, it was just a sop to me. I don’t think it was very important.
SE: In 1967, 1968 you also worked with a lot of other musicians, like Neil Young …
PT: I knew Neil from the Buffalo Springfield days of course, those guys were pals of mine.
SE: I noticed the “HEAD” soundtrack especially had a lot of interesting musicians involved in that album. What an amazing film that is by the way.
PT: I think so, thanks. I think that is an amazing film. I’m not sure how good it is but I think it’s a departure and I think we deserve some credit for that.
SE: I remember showing it to friends in the mid-80’s who were film students who would always say “ Man, this movie is so ahead of it’s time!”
PT: I think so. Thanks.
SE: Now you can either put to rest or confirm this story going around that the reason you guys came up with the title “HEAD” is because if there was a sequel the advertising would start with, “from the people that gave you head…”
PT: (Laughs) I uh, (laughs) I think uh… we didn’t do that. I think Bert said that as a joke. But I don’t think we actually had any hopes of actually doing that in public, no.
SE: That would’ve been way ahead of it’s time.
PT: Well, it couldn’t happen today for that matter, maybe in fifteen or twenty years.
SE: The writing sessions for that movie must’ve been pretty wild.
PT: You know, I don’t know if you’ve heard this story, but Bert and Bob, and Jack Nicholson, and the four of us all went to a motel in Ojai and sat around for three or four days and talked about what we wanted and didn’t want. And what we agreed was that we didn’t want a feature length episode of the T.V. show, and that was all we cared about primarily. We did talk at some length about what we wanted and the kinds of things we had in mind, and I think that Jack and Bob picked up on that probably as well as you could’ve expected or hoped for. But it really was their work. I mean, we didn’t write that movie at all, Jack and Bob did.
SE: It’s pretty out there.
SE: When you left that project, was it just the foresight of seeing a sinking ship, and you thought it was time to bail?
PT: No, I had no idea weather it was going to die or not. I didn’t have enough experience to consider the question. Obviously in retrospect the TV show was the driving factor for everything! And without the TV show the thing was nothing. But basically no. I just wanted out because I didn’t like hanging out with those guys primarily because of the music aspect of things. You know, we did the “HEADQUARTERS” thing and Micky said that he didn’t want to do it again, what he said was “You can’t go back”, which was pure self-history, and just all a joke. Micky just says what comes to mind when he doesn’t want to do something. He will not tell you why, and all he’ll do is just throw up a lot of smoke. Davy on the other hand said that he didn’t want to do it because he was just banging a tambourine. We’re doing fifty seven takes of the same song working on arrangements. He’s got his part down take number two! And he was sick of banging a tambourine while the rest of us hassled over our parts, and he said his arm couldn’t take it (laughs). He didn’t want to do it anymore, and so you couldn’t argue with that. Mike wants to be the boss, basically Mike is “my way, or the highway” and there’s no room for discussion in his cosmos. And Mike basically didn’t want to join the group. He wanted to be in charge, and all I ever wanted was to be a member of a group. And after “Headquarters” we had this moment when we tried it out and it worked okay more or less, but we didn’t seem to have whatever it took to sustain it. So I quit to pursue music for better or for worse and of course nothing was heard from me again for twenty or thirty years or something.
SE: A lot of people followed every move you made though.
PT: They may have but you know, some of my great musical triumphs in between time were on fairly small scales. I tore the house down in Fairfax California …
PT: Fairfax! I lived in the Fairfax area… actually San Anselmo, but Fairfax was the base. I was in the Fairfax street choir, and I worked at the Sleeping Lady Cafe. I was in a group called Asiola with the late Chuck Vincent, and we played the ballrooms from time to time. I tore the house down when I played the Sleeping Lady one time with just a pick-up band… tore it up. It was great! You know, but it was a small scale triumph and I didn’t know how to parlay that into anything more significant.
SE: Did you ever record any of that stuff?
PT: I did make one tape. I don’t have a copy of it though anymore.
PT: I don’t have a copy of it anymore.
SE: There goes the anthology.
PT: Yep. (laughs)
SE: Have you listened to that new “Headquarters Sessions” CD ?
PT: No. I didn’t listen to it thoroughly , I did listen to most of it in stages here and there. It’s a little boring actually.
SE: It’s kind of like the “Let it be” sessions. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard more than a couple of hours of that stuff…
SE: “Headquarters” is much more fascinating.
PT: You think so? I’d rather the Beatles talk over their arrangements than me.
SE: When I listen to the “Headquarters Sessions” all I hear is Peter this, Mike that, Mike, how about this?… Peter what about this? It was all on you two guys.
SE: I think it was “All of Your Toys” where I hear you playing the piano and talking about a bridge or something that wouldn’t be right if it was used. It seemed like you and Mike were the only two that knew what you were doing in that room.
PT: I’ve always seemed to have had some kind of sense of arrangement. I don’t know why exactly or where it comes from, but for some reason I’ve always had a sense … it’s like I know the classic forms. As a matter of fact, most pop music is in the sonata form which is A-A-B-A, as opposed to the Shakespearian motto which is A-B-C-B-A. In Shakespeare there are five acts, and the climax occurs somewhere in the third act. Nowadays we’re unbalanced in that respect. We have an unbalanced dramatic form A-A-B-A- sonata format, and once I got this … it makes so much sense if you don’t have some kind of complimentarity, and then you repeat your initial theme, and then you reiterate your original theme in the light of the change and it differs because of the bridge that’s happened in between, and that kind of thing. It all makes so much sense that it’s impossible to ignore, and the only reason that you wouldn’t know that is if you hadn’t … you know, your attention didn’t drift that way. And why my attention did is just one of those happenstances. During the course of the making of “Just Us” evidently I didn’t even notice this but Micky said, ”You know you’re always coming up with the right arrangement thing. you just always say we’ve got to do this again, or we have to repeat the chorus, or we have to stop this thing, or make this break here, and it’s always good.” And I went,” It is?” But I guess it’s true you know, somehow, it’s just something I have a sense of and it’s you know, no gift, no blessing, it’s just something that comes through me and has nothing to do with me almost.
SE: You just have an ear for it I guess. I mean, when I heard you on that disc playing on the piano that part that you were saying was totally wrong, and you said “look, this isn’t gonna work because …” I was listening thinking, damn, he’s right, if that part was left in, the song would’ve sucked! It didn’t fit.
PT: Uh huh. I don’t remember exactly what you’re talking about, but that’s the same kind of thing that I’m talking about, you know, it’s just a sense of order, and I think it comes from classical training from a classical education you know, relatively. I mean I can’t read Latin or Greek but my parents both have degrees and I was raised with excellent grammar and I soaked up a lot of those kinds of things growing up.
SE: So you lived in Marin. I could’ve sworn I’d heard that you lived in San Francisco for awhile.
PT: I did that too. When I first left L.A. after the Monkees, I moved to the Bay Area, to Marin. I lived in a house in San Anselmo and basically centered my life in Fairfax. Like I said, I was in the Fairfax street choir, and Asiola, and worked at the Sleeping Lady. I don’t know if you knew it but for awhile it was a real hotbed of off-beat post hippie culture. Even now, you go into Fairfax and it has a population of 800 maybe, and there are five music clubs or something. That’s amazing! It’s amazing how much music there is in Fairfax, and it’s always been a center, so at that time I lived in Marin County, then I went back to L.A., got married, then I went to New York and left my marriage… then I went back to San Francisco for a couple of years, that would be in the mid 80’s…
SE: So this is after you were teaching in Venice, California?
PT: Yeah, right. That was in the mid-seventies, then I went to New York for the early eighties from about 1980 till about 1987 or something like that. Then I was back in the Bay Area for a couple of years.
SE: How can you leave the Bay Area to go back to L.A.?
PT: San Francisco is great, but if you want to fly you have to leave the nest. And the Bay Area is a nest and L.A. is where you go to fly. The only thing that’s comparable where you can do both is New York where it’s both a nest, and you can fly, but I don’t like the climate and I’m a California guy by adoption, even though I’m a Yankee by upbringing. And San Francisco twice while I was living up in the Bay Area, I got a great sense of being taken care of, and coddled, and nurtured and I needed it enormously. Then I came to L.A. both times to pursue business.
SE: The only product of yours I remember seeing in the early eighties was a single “Peter’s Back” that I saw an ad for in the back of Billboard, available through mail order. I ordered a copy and thought it was actually very good.
PT: I’m glad you liked it, thanks. One reviewer wrote “Where are the original songs?” And I thought, well, there’s that. It’s true, neither of the songs are originals, although I’m really fond of that banjo arrangement of “Higher and Higher”, that knocks me out. We did that during the 90’s reunion tour.
SE: It’s one of my favorite Jackie Wilson songs and I didn’t think that it could be re-arranged and still sound good, but I really liked your version.
PT: Totally folkie banjo style comes in to start with, and then to have this great big crashing band come in, I love that kind of stuff, real drama you know? That’s the other thing I really love, the great dramatic leaps from this little tiny kind of folkie, stay at home, back porch banjo, slammed back with a high tech rock band.
SE: You made a David Letterman show appearance around the time of that single …
PT: A little bit later I think, yeah.
SE: And at about that same time Rhino began to re-issue some of the later Monkees records, and the band became big business again?
PT: No, that didn’t happen until later. It wasn’t until after that when we had the Monkees re-union and the records started to sell again.
SE: I know that you’ve been clean and sober for quite some time now…
PT: Mm hmm.
SE: How long did the party actually go on with you?
PT: Well, you mean how long was it a party?
PT: Oh, I would have to say it was a party for about ten years.
PT: By and large, yeah, at least it felt like a party, you know. It’s like I look back now… and I told my son… he’s been doing some stuff and I was able to say to him, listen, I can’t tell you don’t do this, don’t do that, because I did it all and lot’s more too! But I can tell ya that I wish I had done a great deal less. When I look now at my life, and the satisfactions I have from the blues band, and from a clean and sober life, if I had known then what I know now I would’ve dumped all of that chemistry junk a long time previously! You know, one of the things about chemical abuse is that it affects the centers of your brain which would have enabled you to know that what you’re doing is stupid, but you don’t know that you’re stupid because that part of your brain is shut down by the chemistry. So you go around thinking that you’re having a great time, and you don’t get enough input until it gets really drastic. I mean, it wasn’t until I was snarling at my wife and children out of the blue and waking up with hangovers. I gave my son a haircut and my hand was shaking, and I said, must be too much coffee. And my wife took me aside afterwards and said, “No, you were drinking a lot last night. It’s the shakes,” and I had to say, “My god, you’re probably right!” And it took a lot of really graphic physical evidence for me to get that I had long overdrawn at the bank you know. I was way in deficit.
SE: So that was pretty much your hitting bottom?
PT: It was getting there yeah. My actual bottom was that I was in a dark and gloomy apartment and I had a beer in my hand and I suddenly saw that I hadn’t had any mental construct of indicating that I wanted it, you know, at no point did I go, “Gee, I’d love a beer, or, a beer would be great right now”, you know? I just suddenly noticed that it had been automatic and the scales fell from my eyes at that point. And I had been fighting it. I had been understanding that I was in trouble and struggling with it one way or another for three, or five years before that. But it wasn’t until then that I saw that I was completely out of control. Nothing that I could do could have any serious effect, and I basically despaired of any rescue. But I actually had had word of what to do and how to… I was able to give it up, and I haven’t had a drink since, and that was over twenty years ago with the alcohol, although I did keep smoking pot. I will be totally clean and dry twenty years come January, God willing.
SE: It’s a day to day thing isn’t it?
PT: It is, or should I say that it serves me better to think of it that way. I don’t know what it is, and what isn’t, but if I start thinking well, I don’t have to worry about this …I’ve heard too many stories about too many people who didn’t worry about it because they were fine, and the next thing you know they were drinking. Or maybe even worse, you know, or dry drunks where they’re snarling and nasty to people and not drinking you know, people like that… Jesus, have a drink for Christ sakes!
SE: In the 70’s we had Keith Richards, in the 80’s we had Gun’s and Roses, in the 90’s we had Kurt Cobain, do you think that we’ll ever get to a point where the young up and coming rockers won’t have to think that you’ve got to walk that walk to be a rock and roll hero?
PT: I think it works the other way. I think that people that lead that kind of life find that they can get over if they pour their heart into performance, you know, it’s not like if you want to be a rock n’ roll star you have to use drugs, it’s if you’re a druggie you’re gonna find that … and if you have any talent by coincidence that being a rocker is the way to stay with your habit. You remain a child. You don’t grow up and the way to be accepted as a person who isn’t growing up is an artist. In other words, it’s not unidirectional, it goes both ways.
SE: So with your new band Shoe Suede Blues, brilliant name by the way…
PT: Thank you so much. It’s a little confusing sometimes I think, but it does point in the direction that we want to be seen as. We do a substantial amount of rockabilly, and jump boogie, and there’s an aspect of the 50’s rock blues when rock n’ roll really were the same thing for a little while there. There’s a particular kind of a beat that comes out of that era that I find irresistible! And I love to do things that involve that beat.
SE: You do some 50’s standards…
PT: A number of 50’s standards, some 40’s and 30’s tunes too. Some straight classic Chicago blues. We do a couple of Dylan songs as blues songs. We also do a few Monkees songs just because I wouldn’t want to go to a Peter Tork show and not hear some Monkees music. But we do it as congenially, and as bluesy as we can.
SE: I was going to ask if you do them as a band, or acoustic, like on the “Two Man Band” album.
PT: Oh no, we do it as a band.
SE: Speaking of “Two Man Band”, I understand that you and James Lee Stanley have been friends since way back.
PT: Oh yes, since before the Monkees by quite a little bit. Yeah, we were friends … I was a traveling accompanist. I actually accompanied a band called the Phoenix Singers, a type of Harry Bellefonte Singers singing group. And me and a guy named Lance Wakely were the accompanists. We went to Virginia Beach and here was this fellow James Lee Stanley, Jim in those days, we just struck up a conversation and did a few things together by way of hootenanny open mic night. So we stayed in touch… he gave me my first out of town solo gig which was a triumph in Norfolk, then more recently we had a chance to go out on the road together. I did an album for his record company, and he said “Look, I can get us a tour, the two of us, do you want to do this tour? And we’ll do a song or two together at the end.” And I said, “Absolutely!” And we started doing, you know, twelve tunes together and then we made an album of the tunes that we did together, doing some songs from his repertoire, and some from mine, and then the Monkees song “Pleasant Valley Sunday”…
SE: I’m guessing that’s your favorite Monkees song.
PT: It’s my favorite Monkees hit. I don’t know if it’s my favorite Monkees song. It is not my favorite Monkees recording. My favorite Monkees recording is “Riu Chiu”.
SE: Have you ever thought about flexing your arrangement muscles and putting a face lift on some of those old 20’s folk blues songs with the band?
PT: No, I think (Laughs) we’ve gone back about as far as we can. I don’t know, you know,.. actually we are thinking about doing a Robert Johnson song.
SE: Oh really.
PT: Well, there are a lot of more modern blues bands, and blues rock bands, and white blues bands that have covered Robert Johnson, but we’re thinking of doing as close to an authentic arrangement of “Come HomeIn My Kitchen” as we possibly can and still be a band. I mean, he did it solo with a guitar so… and of course everybody does “Crossroads”, usually Cream style, and “Sweet Home Chicago”, and people don’t realize that that’s basically a Robert Johnson song.
SE: There were a lot of artists in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s that took a lot of these songs, re-wrote a line or two and slapped their name on it.
PT: That was true in the folk era too.
PT: Yeah. You’d have the Kingston Trio claiming authorship to “On Top of Old Smokey” or something like that.
SE: Your new album is sold through your website. Do you think that the major record companies are doomed because so many artists are making their own product and selling it on their own website? Is it the way of the future?
PT: My guess is that the people will put their music up on the web for free and make their money off of live performances. I think it’s going to be a reversal of the old order.
SE: It’s going to be a promotional tool then?
PT: Yeah, right. The music will promote the live performances. You make your money off of performing if you’re inclined that way. It will reverse the values. There used to be people that could perform but not record and they were doomed, and now there’s going to be people who can record and not perform and they’ll be doomed.
SE: Are the road stories today any different from the road stories thirty years ago?
PT: Actually they’re appreciably milder. The road is an awful lot of fun, I’m a great fan of being on the road, but the stories… I mean people have settled down an awful lot as we’ve gotten older. You know, none of us in the band is a kid anymore, we’re all savvy old rockers, and what we like to do is play music. We don’t really like to get high, getting high is not what we want to do. It used to be that you got high to play music, now we don’t need to get high to play music, in fact, getting high gets in the way, so we don’t do it anymore. But some of the stories are just as fun. One of the guys suddenly developed an incredible directional phobia. It took him six hours to do 120 miles, and he was at the steering wheel, and he was constantly making wrong turns, we’d say “Okay, go right” and he would go left and nobody would notice or nobody would call him on it. It would have to take a furious argument to get him to check out whether he got it right or wrong. It took a long time, but he got to the point where he finally realized that he shouldn’t be behind the wheel of a car. And so he finally gave it up and things got much better after that. We called him wrong way blankety-blank.
SE: Listening to the new CD, it sounds like you’re going for a more alternative blues sound. The CD sounds like how you would hear the show standing by the bar, or standing in back, just a mic facing the stage…
PT: Oh, the Shoe Suede Blues CD?
PT: Well that’s…(laughs) cause it is. It’s a stereo mic in the air of a natural live show. We cut out you know… I mean it was three hours of music and we cut it down to one. And we cut out the bad solos and things like that, but basically it’s just live.
SE: Here’s an easy one. In the last thirty plus years, what’s been your favorite road story?
PT: My favorite road story? It’s still Davy … the story of Davy. We were on our way early on, very early, and one of the things that makes it so good was that we didn’t really know each other at the time… in fact they did this story in the Bio-flick, the Bio-pic, and they didn’t do it quite right but, we pulled into this restaurant and ordered some meals, and Micky’s and my salad came first and David watched us eat and said, “You pigs!” He said, “Anybody would think yous was born in a barn the way yous guys was eatin’!” And I became very crestfallen, and shamefaced, because I didn’t know how you ate a salad if you didn’t eat it the way I ate it. I just stuck a fork in the bowl and whatever comes up on the fork is what I… Davy’s salad came and he cut the salad carefully into one inch strips, turned the bowl ninety degrees and cut the strips into one inch squares, doused it with blue cheese and tossed it carefully until each and every square was thoroughly ,soppingly coated with blue cheese, and then reached in and grabbed a great big fistful and smashed it in his face!
PT: And I laughed like hell! It was like his way of saying, maybe I was a little strong on you guys. Maybe it was kind of an apology, but I laughed like a son of a bitch! It remains one of the great stories to this day. Great Monkees story..great road story!
SE: Well, it’s been great talking with you.