The Monkees’ Peter Tork on fame, fans and learning Welsh
Here he comes, walking down the street, he says the funniest things to the journalists he meets. Monkees star Peter Tork lets Nathan Bevan in on his fondness for Wales and how a mysterious sign from above helped make him a star
YOU’RE in Cardiff?” chirps Monkees bassist Peter Tork down the Transatlantic phone line.“Now I don’t know if you know this already, but that’s the residence of my brother.”
It’s not quite the opening gambit I expected from a ’60s pop legend, but nothing about Tork – whose younger sibling Chris married a violinist with the Welsh National Opera – could be described as predictable.
For 30 minutes the 69-year-old from Connecticut happily and eccentrically shoots the breeze on everything from the Welsh language, the craziness that comes with having been in the one of the world’s biggest bands, to why God Himself may have told Tork to go audition for The Monkees in the first place.
“Oh, I’ve been to Wales a bunch of times to see Chris in Pontcanna, more times than we’ve actually played there,” laughed the star, who will be appearing with his former band mates at the city’s Motorpoint Arena soon for their 45th anniversary tour.
“But unlike my brother, who’s even joined a male voice choir, I won’t be attempting any Welsh myself from the stage.”
Not even an occasional, tentative ‘diolch’, I ask him.
“Are you kidding me, I just learned how to say Llewellyn, man,” he jokes. “I can make that ‘llech’ sound though, so I’d say I’m already doing pretty great for an American.
“Anyway, you guys don’t exactly make it easy – I mean, you put two Ds together and pronounce it ‘ttthh’. What the hell is that about?” he adds.
“Anyhow, us Yanks have a tendency to cover everyone in spit when we try speaking your language, and we’re not the only ones.
“Like when your Prince Charles had to learn some for his investiture, even his instructor had to wipe his eye afterwards.”
For a man who, alongside Davey Jones, Mickey Dolenz and Mike Nesmith, became the teenage crush of millions of screaming female fans the world-over Tork seems remarkably lacking affectation, even if the effects of fame themselves – drink, drugs and the much of the subsequent ’70s spent losing the plot – proved somewhat harder to avoid.
“Oh, I always knew we’d be successful,” he says matter-of-factly.
“I could see the show’s producers knew exactly what they were doing and had the ear of those studio people with the power to make it happen.
“And I knew if the TV show took off then the hit records would follow.”
But the Beatles-esque global mania, surely that wasn’t foreseeable?
“I have to say, I did anticipate it,” shrugs Tork. “But what I never thought I’d see was us still being around 45 years later.
“I didn’t even think I’d live to see 45.”
A self-confessed former drug-addict and alcoholic, the now long-time clean and sober Tork admitted that life in The Monkees took its toll on his health in more ways than one.
“We’d play to 18,000 screaming kids in an arena some place with no monitors on stage whatsoever,” he sighs.
“They didn’t mic the amps either, so we couldn’t hear ourselves playing at all.
“Go on, ask me how my hearing is,” he teases.
“How’s you’re hearing?” I ask him.
“Sorry, what ?” he replies, before dissolving into a fit of giggles.
But, when asked about how influential The Beatles – in particular their movie Hard Day’s Night – had been on his group’s schtick, Tork is quick to confess.
“It’s a cliche but I’ll use it anyway, we were standing on the shoulders of giants,” he says. “I don’t give us much credit for originality, but we had great humour and attitude.
“The Monkees were always on your side, if you know what I mean.”
And how did the real Fab Four react the times you met them?
“They were fine generally, but John Lennon is reputed to have said of us, “They’re not The Beatles, they’re the Marx Brothers,” Tork laughs, before revealing that he was compelled to audition for the band after experiencing a mysterious calling on the streets of New York in early 1965.
“It was the strangest thing, I was walking through Greenwich Village when WHAM!” he recalls. “It was like The Annunciation or something, a real Road to Damascus moment – although I didn’t have a horse to fall off.
“I just heard a voice saying, ‘Hey pal, get out of town now’ and not long after I found myself in Southern California trying out for the show.”
So The Monkees were part of the Divine plan then, Peter?
“I don’t know if I’d go that far,” he laughs. “I’m just telling you I had an experience and here I am.”
The Monkees play the Motorpoint Arena, Cardiff on Tuesday May 24. Call the box office on 029 2022 4488.