Monkeying around at DADA’s Gallery Hop
When Peter Tork of the Monkees died in February of this year, at the age of 77, the New York Times obituary didn’t mention his ties to North Carolina and the Triad region. The Monkees were hugely popular in the late-’60s, starring in their own T.V. show and releasing hit records. Tork left the Monkees, initially in 1969, though the band and its members reunited for tours and events starting in the 1980s. But Tork, who lived most of his life in California and Connecticut, had also spent a lot of time in Winston-Salem and Clemmons over the years, working with musicians and business professionals from the area. He was managed, from around 2005 to 2008, by Marilyn Ingram, who also performed and toured with him during some of that time. Ingram, the president of the Downtown Arts District Association of Winston-Salem, is helping to coordinate Dancing In The Streets: A Tribute To Peter Tork, an event that will honor and celebrate Tork’s life and career.
His time in the Monkees created a lifelong legacy for Tork, and it was one he was proud of. His role in the band, particularly the character he played on the T.V. show, meant that, on one level, Tork also needed to reassert his musicianship, artistry and intelligence to differentiate the real-life Peter Tork from the one known to fans.
“My public life began and ended with the Monkees,” he once told an interviewer.
He was cast as the innocent airhead beatnik, a loveable clown. And the show was sort of a mix of the Marx Brothers and Laugh-In, taking ‘60s-era grooviness and making it something acceptable for the after-school crowd. They popularized a certain strain of the counterculture and made it seem harmless, at a time when beads, shaggy hair, sandals, protests, Eastern religion and psychedelic drugs were frightening or alarming a subset of American society. (Though, doing his part to raise eyebrows, Tork once wore an “Orgy Organizer” button during a photo shoot for a teen magazine in the ‘60s.)
Tork was an entertainer, but he was also a classically trained musician and a brilliant guy. (Watch some older interviews with him, where he routinely swerves fluidly from talking about pop culture to discussing capitalism, global resources, competition, religion, greed and other big-time subjects.) He might have been a real ham, but he was serious about the business of bringing people together through music.
The Monkees were much maligned at the time for not playing their own instruments or writing all their own material, something that was true, in varying degrees, of a lot of stars of the era, from the Byrds to Glen Campbell. In fact, Tork, in addition to singing, playing bass and guitar, also played piano and banjo on some of the Monkees recordings. And the Monkees went on to surprise doubters by making albums that had their own creative stamp.
In their way, the Monkees anticipated the era of the boy band, a hand-picked assemblage of music and stage talent designed to resonate with audiences and to harness the fan fervor of the moment.
But the band broke up, and Tork did other things, including being a school teacher, for a time. He also eventually did some T.V. acting and had a short stint as an advice columnist. Music remained a constant, even if he didn’t remain in the public eye.
Tork released his debut solo album, Stranger Things Have Happened, in 1994. He had a band, Shoe Suede Blues, that focused on Chicago blues and other gritty dance styles. They also took other genres and gave them a new spin. As proof of his counter-cultural bonafides, Tork and his bandmates did an old-timey banjo tune, “Bound To Lose,” originally by the Holy Modal Rounders.
“The thing about him that I found, he liked the community of playing together,” said Ingram about Tork and his fondness for performing to all kinds of audiences. In that way, Tork was a real product of the folk revival, embracing American music — from the cities, from the country, from different cultural origin points — and enjoying the chance to bond.
Ingram said the Winston-Salem event, which is part of the arts association’s monthly first-Friday Gallery Hop, will be a chance to focus on Tork’s non-Monkees career. There will be yoga (Tork was a practitioner), singing, dark chocolate (Tork was a fan), children’s events, a scavenger hunt, theater sketches, visual art, and more. Ingram will showcase some of the memorabilia from Tork’s career, items — film footage, posters, articles, and more — that she gathered in her capacity as his manager and collaborator. She expects the evening will culminate in a sing-along.
“I think he’d love it,” Ingram said. “He liked people to just play music.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
Dancing In The Streets: A Tribute to Peter Tork will take place on Friday, May 3, from 7 – 10 p.m. in the Downtown Arts District, Winston-Salem.