Recently I asked longtime Monkees fan Fred Velez to recall his experiences with Peter Tork in the early 1980s, a time when Peter started to reemerge on the scene after laying low throughout most of the 1970s. Fred was gracious enough to document his memories in this essay for The Monkees Live Almanac.
In the early 1980s it seemed highly unlikely that a revival of The Monkees was possible. There had been some spikes in interest during the 1970s with the solo recordings of Michael Nesmith and the joint activities of Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones, both with Dolenz, Jones, Boyce & Hart and their own tour with Micky’s sister, Coco, backed by The Laughing Dogs. But as Nez moved into the blossoming music video industry, and Davy and Micky branched out on their own, The Monkees seemed to become a distant memory.
Conspicuously missing in action was Peter Tork. After his resignation from The Monkees in December 1968, Peter attempted to launch a fresh chapter of his career with a new band, Release. Peter's time with Release left almost nothing behind. "I didn't know how to stick to it," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1992. "I ran out of money and told the band members, 'I can't support us as a crew any more, you'll just have to find your own way.'"
His Monkees money having dried up, Peter faced financial challenges and suffered from drug abuse in the early '70s. “I gave a lot of money away to friends, on the theory that it would come back to me in the long run," Peter told People. In the subsequent years, he maintained a low profile, eventually landing a job as a teacher at Pacific Hills, a private secondary school in Santa Monica, California, where he taught English, Math, Drama, Eastern Philosophy, and "Rock Band Class" in the mid-1970s. In 1976, Peter made a surprise appearance with Dolenz, Jones, Boyce & Hart at their Disneyland show on July 4, and again a year later at the launch of Micky and Davy's appearances at the Starwood Club in Hollywood. He even contributed to a Monkees holiday single in 1976 under the helm of Chip Douglas. Peter then performed in New York City for the first time since the 1960s at the birthplace of punk rock, CBGB’s, drawing both Monkees fans and curiosity seekers. With these combined appearances it seemed like he was testing the waters in an effort to launch a full-time comeback. Fanzines like Monkee Business and the Peter Tork Fan Club meticulously kept fans up-to-date on Peter’s activities.
By late 1979/early 1980, Peter began playing gigs at small clubs, including the Speakeasy in New York’s Greenwich Village, where he began his career as a folk singer. It's at the Speakeasy that I first had the opportunity to finally see Peter live in concert. He performed a mix of folk and rock music, and sprinkled in Monkees tunes like "Take a Giant Step" and "Steppin' Stone." Peter was funny and charming and showed his chops as a musician, bouncing from guitar, piano, and banjo effortlessly. After the shows he would hang out and talk with fans, and was very friendly and engaging. As a result of these interactions at the Speakeasy I was able to get acquainted with Peter and ultimately established a friendship with him that continues to this day. I found that Peter was very humbled by the fans that supported him during the early years of his reemergence. Peter then toured with a newly formed group, Cottonmouth, including performances at New York City's Lone Star Cafe and Bottom Line. At the Lone Star show I sat in the front row of the balcony where I had a great view of Peter and the band. Peter's tenure with Cottonmouth was short-lived and I was so glad to have been able to see him during this time.
Peter also started to make appearances on public-access TV programs like The Uncle Floyd Show, a parody of 1950s/1960s children's shows. The Uncle Floyd Show developed a cult following and began featuring musical acts. Among the big names that appeared included The Ramones, Squeeze, Jan & Dean, Cyndi Lauper, and local New Jersey band Bon Jovi. I was quite the fan of the Floyd show and became friends with Floyd and the cast. One day in July 1980 I received a phone call telling me that Peter Tork would be making an appearance on Floyd’s show. Needless to say, I was dutifully parked in front of my television set on the day of the broadcast as Floyd introduced Peter, who lip-synced to the songs "Good Looker" and "Hi Hi Babe." In between numbers Floyd interviewed Peter, who was just as funny and charming as he was on The Monkees TV series. During their discussion, Peter mentioned that The Monkees would be appearing together at the  Emmy Awards to present an award. Sadly, this reunion never took place. The book, The Monkees: A Manufactured Image, notes that the Emmys appearance was nixed when The Monkees decided to honor an ongoing actors' union strike that resulted in an wide-scale boycott of the ceremony. Peter’s first appearance on The Uncle Floyd Show, however, was so well-received that he returned several more times.
When Peter was scheduled to make his second guest spot, I got another phone call from one of the Floyd cast members informing me that Peter was returning while also asking if I would like to come to the studio in-person. Without hesitation I said 'Yes!' and with my friend and fellow Floyd fan, Derek Tague, showed up at the West Orange, New Jersey studios. The 1980 Monkees Convention, organized by Monkee Business Fanzine editor Maggie McManus, had taken place in Trenton, New Jersey just about a month previous, and I was wearing the convention T-shirt. I brought along a couple of things from my collection, including a Monkees talking hand puppet and the Monkeemania 2-LP vinyl album from Australia, which was brand new product at the time. Peter performed his first song, and then Floyd brought me on camera to say hello to Peter! I was very nervous but managed to get through the appearance as Peter commented and joked about the memorabilia I was holding. After the taping, Peter graciously posed for pictures outside the studios with Floyd and cast members of the show (as seen above). My friend, Derek, who was behind the camera, caught one of me and Peter laughing and sharing a fun moment together.
Peter went on to make even more appearances on Uncle Floyd. During one guest stint he premiered his very first solo single, recorded with his latest band the New Monks, a tongue-in-cheek reference to his old group. The single featured Peter’s versions of "Steppin' Stone" and "Higher and Higher." In August 1981, Peter toured with the New Monks in Japan, which was going through its own resurgence of Monkeemania that would carry over to America several years later. One of the concerts was broadcast on Japanese television. Peter and the band were greeted by screaming fans, echoing the wild days when The Monkees toured there in 1968. Around this time, Peter and The New Monks also performed at the Rockages Convention in New York City, a show I was fortunate enough to attend. I was able to shoot some Super 8mm film of the concert (seen below starting at 9:25), capturing the band as they performed "Werewolves of London," "Don’t Be Cruel," and "Higher and Higher." Afterwards I visited with Peter and the New Monks backstage, and told Peter how much I enjoyed the show. The New Monks lasted until March 1982 before disbanding. A short while later in July, Peter was the focus of a comedy sketch on Late Night With David Letterman.
In the summer of 1983 Peter would hit the road with a new band, The Peter Tork Project. Among the members was the late Jerry Renino, who would later play bass with The Monkees in the late '80s into the early '00s, while also backing Davy Jones in Breakaway, of which future Monkees guitarist Wayne Avers was also a member. The Project played several shows that I caught in New York City, including Irving Plaza, and a return visit to the Bottom Line. The gig at the Bottom Line was particularly memorable as it was followed by a screening of The Monkees’ movie Head, with Peter sitting in the audience watching the film.
The Peter Tork Project's sound featured a more aggressive approach than what I had been used to at previous Tork concerts, and it suited songs like "Steppin’ Stone," with their version almost resembling the Sex Pistols' cover. Another highlight of the Project's set was "Vagabond John," a cautionary song about a friend's abuse of drugs, which became a favorite of mine whenever Peter performed it. Someone took a very bad, shaky picture of me and Peter together, but it's the only one of us at the Bottom Line.
In the winter of 1983 I saw Peter and The Project once again at a club on a very cold night in Staten Island. MTV was becoming popular around this time and the club had a big screen that showed music videos (one that stood out was "Undercover of the Night" by The Rolling Stones). Peter and the band took the stage and blasted through a high-powered set which included their blistering version of "Steppin' Stone." After the show I went to see Peter as he chatted with folks backstage. The bouncer kept us at a distance, but Peter spied us and excused himself to say 'thanks' for braving the night freeze. Unable to secure a recording deal, The Peter Tork Project dissolved in February 1984. Shortly after, Peter spoke about The Monkees in an interview with Entertainment Tonight.
I would see Peter several more times during the mid-'80s in group and solo shows, many times at his favorite haunt, New York City's Speakeasy. By 1986 with Monkees reruns being aired on MTV, the buzz surrounding The Monkees' 20th Anniversary Tour was at a fever pitch. During the lead-up to the '86 reunion tour, Peter made yet another appearance at the Speakeasy. Unlike previous outings when the audience was more subdued, the vibe was much different as the club was electrified with excitement. When Peter took the stage, the Speakeasy exploded with screams and Peter was momentarily taken aback and remarked, "Wow, you guys must have been watching MTV!," which elicited even more wild shouts. The reaction to this particular Speakeasy show in contrast to Peter's early '80s appearances at the club was like night and day. While I was very happy for Peter’s current success, I couldn’t help but miss the more intimate Speakeasy performances of yesteryear.
Seeing Peter Tork in the early 1980s prior to the Monkees reunions that followed was a very special time for me and a select group of fans like Maggie McManus, Jerry Beck, Helen Pantuso (who later spearheaded a campaign for The Monkees' star on Hollywood Boulevard), and a few others. We were part of a little club that Peter would point out and acknowledge from the stage and take the time to meet with us after each show. It was a memorable era which I will always cherish. Nowadays when I see Peter, it's nice to smile and reminisce about the 'old times.'
Fred Velez is the author of the book A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You: The Monkees From A Fan’s Perspective. A previous essay, '1975/77 – The Early Monkees Reunion Years,' was published on The Monkees Live Almanac in 2016.
Here's a photo of Peter performing with the Peter Tork Project at Irving Plaza in New York City.
"Vagabond John" was written by Derek Lord, who was the drummer for the Peter Tork Project in the early 1980s. The song has remained a part of Peter's repertoire for years. In the video below, Peter performs it at a solo stop in 2012, while the audio file features a live version from a Project show at The Jetty in 1983 (with Lord on lead vocals). Thanks to Kevin Schmid for passing along the Project live version!
You might recall that the late Jerry Renino was a member of the Peter Tork Project. He also toured with The Monkees between 1989 and 2002. After the 1989 US Monkees tour, Jerry's band, Breakaway, became Davy’s road band in the early 1990s. Breakaway consisted of Steve Avitabile (keyboards), VJ Riccitelli (drums), and Rory Gordon (guitar). The group later added sax player Steve Barlotta, along with Wayne Avers (guitar) and VJ's brother Jimmy Riccitelli (keyboards). Monkees fans, of course, know Wayne Avers as the veteran guitarist in The Monkees' backing band. (The Riccitelli's have also toured with The Monkees through the years.)
According to longtime Monkees fan Helen Pantuso (who also was largely responsible for the campaign to get The Monkees a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame), the Avitabile's in both the Peter Tork Project (Scott was the lead guitarist of the Project) and Breakaway are not related! (What are the odds?!)
Helen talked more about Breakaway with the Live Almanac. "Scott and Jimmy were in a band called Rush Hour. I think VJ was in it, too, before joining Breakaway (there were 2 other drummers in Breakaway before VJ). They were all good friends and hung out together and even lived together. I think that Steve and Scott and maybe Jimmy shared a house at one point before Steve got married. I know VJ lived in the downstairs apartment in the house Jerry lived in for a while. I'm not sure how they all connected with Wayne (Avers)."
Helen continued. "Steve was found by Wendy Kaye. She was a booking agent with the Mars Agency. They handled Gary U.S. Bonds. Steve was Gary's sax player and musical director. Mars had just started booking Davy Jones so when Davy decided he wanted to add a sax player to Breakaway, Wendy recommended Steve."
A big thanks to Helen Pantuso for all of the information in this post about Breakaway, as well as Fred Velez, who helped facilitate this conversation about Davy's former backing band. Fred recently published a book, A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You: The Monkees From a Fan's Perspective. You can download the electronic version of the book, and a hard copy is also now available. (Thanks, Fred!)
Thanks again to Helen for also providing some pictures of members of Breakaway:
Monkees Band It's Not - But Let Tork Tell It
by Ann Kolson for the Philadelphia Inquirer
July 6, 1983
New York - Hey, hey, he's no Monkee. But he still monkeys around.
Meet Peter Tork. Unshaven, wearing a sleeveless sweatshirt, jeans and no shoes, he is sprawled on his manager's black vinyl couch. Tork, 40ish, of the long-defunct Monkees, is heading up a new band, the Peter Tork Project, on the bill tonight at Ripley Music Hall.
Remember The Monkees? During the late '60s, they flashed like a comet across the pop-culture skies with their hyperkinetic NBC series The Monkees and an outpouring of bouncy hits - "I'm a Believer," "Last Train to Clarksville," "A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You," "Pleasant Valley Sunday," "Daydream Believer," and "Valleri." Their movie, Head, appeared in 1968. They were the most successful pop act in the country for two years (1967 and 1968) according to Billboard magazine.
The Monkees were the creation of producers Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson, who in 1966 advertised in Hollywood trade papers for "four insane boys, 17-21." Of 437 applicants, they chose Micky Dolenz, who was "Circus Boy" on the TV series of that name; Davy Jones, a British jockey with some acting experience; Mike Nesmith, a sometime folksinger, and Tork, a professor's son, born Thorkelson, who had some experience playing in New York coffeehouses before heading for Los Angeles.
They caught on quickly, even though they initially could not play instruments well enough to record their tunes (written for them by some of the best in the business). And acting? Well, as a TV Guide article said at the time, "they didn't really act, either. They 'romped,' to use their director's favorite term."
In spite of it all, The Monkees series was innovative, suing quick takes, inventive editing and new techniques popularized by The Beatles' movies Help! and A Hard Day's Night.
The Peter Tork Project, Tork likes to emphasize, is not a revival, although the band members do play some Monkees songs "better than the first time," says manager Carol Gore. "Peter will never get the Monkee off his back," she adds.
The atmosphere in Gore's tiny West Side apartment is chaotic as drummer Derek Lord and bass guitar player Jerry Renino play court jesters to Tork, king of the quips. (The group's lead guitarist, Scott Avitabile, is not present.)
"I'm so old that if I told you how old I was you'd think I was too old. Whereas if I don't, you'll think I'm too old," Tork says, admiring his own wit. He repeats the quotation until it is duly recorded.
After Monkees fever abated, Tork, the father of two, taught school in Southern California for three years before receiving an offer to go out on the road in an oldies show. The project failed. Tork knocked around in five bands before the Peter Tork Project came together in January. Besides doing lead vocals, he plays guitar and piano in the band.
"I think I will find ultimate spiritual fulfillment, now," he jokes.
In a more serious moment, Tork calls the Project's loud, driving music "kick-ass rock 'n' roll." The best description for the band's sound, he says facetiously, is "Archies clone. We revere The Archies' heavy mental second only to The Partridge Family."
Since the group got together, it has performed in some small New York clubs. Tonight's Ripley date is the first in a summer of one-nighters. By September they hope to cut a record - no firm deal yet.
Gore is busy mapping out a strategy for the Project that includes doing "a small amount of opening, pre-product" (translation: Before they cut a record they'll open for a bunch of groups). In the beginning, Gore thinks, Tork will be the draw. Audiences "will come because of the name, but will be blown away by the music," she predicts.
The group maintains that this gig at Ripley - billed as "Monkees Nite featuring Peter Tork plus Exclusive Monkees Video" - is the only show scheduled with a Monkees tie-in. Monkees night at Ripley could be just one indication of renewed interest in the group, however: On August 18, the Monkees movie Head will be shown at the Theater of the Living Arts.
Back in the old days, The Monkees liked to think of themselves as revolutionaries, preaching love and peace. But The Peter Tork Project has seen the revolution and they say it is charcoal. Charcoal?
Yes, say the band members, laughing uproariously. Charcoal that doesn't need any lighter fluid. "That's the revolution we've been waiting for."
This article was also syndicated throughout the United States at the time. Here's a copy of it from a Cincinnati, Ohio newspaper, courtesy of Troy Maynus. The Project played a show at Bogart's there in October 1983.
Jerry Renino was a friend of Peter's and a member of the Peter Tork Project in the early 1980s. He later became a member of The Monkees' backing band in 1989 and toured with the group throughout 2002. Sadly, Jerry passed away in 2007. If anyone has information about this picture, like its location and the year it was taken, I'd appreciate it.
A big thanks to Richard Silverberg for submitting this review of the Peter Tork Project in Rockaway Beach, Queens, New York in 1983. Richard always has some great pieces to share, and this goes along nicely with an earlier blog post that featured Project demos. Thanks, Richard!
Have something to share? Please contact me here.
After playing live shows on the road in 1983, the Peter Tork Project eventually recorded several demos in New York City that year. These are a couple of my favorites from the demo tapes that have circulated among collectors for a long time now. It's too bad these songs were never formally produced into a final product.
The last demo below is "Maybe Tonight." I had previously published it on the Live Almanac's YouTube Channel but this one is a bit of an upgrade.
The late Jerry Renino, who was a member of the Peter Tork Project, played bass for The Monkees on the 1989, 1996, 1997, 2001, and 2002 tours.
Thanks to Kevin Schmid for these rare Project photos that come from his collection. According to the Project's former manager, Carol Gore, who contacted me a few months ago after seeing the "Maybe Tonight" demo on YouTube, the photo above was taken on top of a building in the lower east side of New York City. Carol talked more about publicity photos completed for the Peter Tork Project. "We also did a private photo shoot in Central Park that we never did anything with and our very first one was with a professional photographer...that picture had an entirely different look before we went with the industrial one. They had on suits and string ties with well-groomed hair." Carol described another photo to me, which I believe is the one below: "I took one other before that in a park near my office on 57th Street & 9th Avenue."
If anyone has any other Project memorabilia and would like to share, please contact me.
Live in 2021