The Story of My Life by Peter Tork

Catherine McGuire Straus, Peter Tork
Info Above at about two, Peter is shown with his grandmother in New York’s Central Park.

As Told To Tiger Beat

The road to stardom has been a long one for Peter… living in Germany… nearly starving in Greenwich Village… spending seven disastrous years wondering what to do. And now he’s a MONKEE.

I’m the oldest child in my family.

Immediately after I was born my family moved to Detroit, where my brother Nick was born. Then we went to Germany. My father was a First Lieutenant in the Army and was stationed in Berlin.

I have a number of impressions of Germany, more than memories, but I do know that when I left I spoke German like a native. We had a chauffeur in Berlin and he was one of the first people to teach me German, because he couldn’t speak a word of English.

Addie, Peter Tork
Info [Above], that’s Peter with his boxer, ‘Addie’ in Berlin, Germany.

I remember one funny incident. Whenever I was outside the big gates that surrounded our house I spoke German and when I was on the inside, I spoke only English. I never varied. So one day a colonel was visiting my father. I wanted to go in and see what was happening. You know, “Oh! Company!” So I started to go in and the colonel said, “You can’t go in there you little gutter snipe!” I yelled “I live here!” only I said it in German. He couldn’t tell I was American. Then my mother called me from the door, so I got to go in.

I never ran away from home, because I was always happy there and our family was very close. But I remember getting lost a few times and I dug it! I remember one time discovering myself on a dirt road in the middle of the countryside somewhere. I said, “Oh, I’m lost, what do you know about that.” I never got scared. I’d just go walking for hours and if I got lost I’d just keep walking until I got to someplace I recognized.

Peter Tork
Info Two year old Peter has a smile for everyone as a baby.

I have a couple of “instant” memories from my childhood. One is when I was two years old, I can remember looking at my baby brother just brand new home from the hospital and the other is sitting in my high chair with a bowl of oatmeal in front of me.

I recall the voyage back from Germany. It was terrifying! During our crossing there was one of the most violent storms ever to hit the Atlantic Ocean. We were on an old tub, a converted freighter, which was meant to go through everything—and it did!

A short while after we arrived back in America we settled in Madison, Wisconsin. In Germany I had gone to an American school and in Germany you start school at five years old. Even though I didn’t turn five until the middle of the school year (because my birthday is in February) they sent me anyway. When I came back to America they wanted to put me through first grade again, but my parents would not allow that. So from that time on, until I got to college, I was always younger than my classmates.

Peter Tork
Info [Above], at about six, Pete liked to play the rugged outdoorsman.

I went to private school in the fourth grade and I pulled A’s and B’s exclusively. In Madison I had a close circle of friends and we had a club. We got a whole mess of packing crates and converted them into a club house. I remember liking the private school, but my parents tell me I didn’t want to go back.

My life between then and my senior year of high school was a total disaster. In fifth grade I started going downhill because I was unhappy. I was constantly trying to make friends, trying to be funny, but never succeeding because I was younger. I always had a small circle of friends, but that was at home. It didn’t have much to do with school.

After my father got his PhD at the University of Wisconsin we moved to Connecticut. I took piano lessons from fourth grade through my sophomore year in high school, but I never got much out of it. I never liked the lessons. When I was 16 my folks gave me a guitar for Christmas and I taught myself to play. I got my first tape recorder about that time and I still have a tape I recorded of the old American Bandstand Show from Philadelphia. There are songs on it like “Flying Purple People Eater,” that are a riot!

In my senior year of high school I changed schools because a new high school went into operation—the University of Connecticut High School. It was much more comfortable and I was totally among kids my own age.

Peter Tork
Info At four, Peter loved the water and used to go swimming often in Berlin. He’s still an excellent swimmer and athlete.

I started dating in my freshman year of high school. I had a girlfriend, but she wasn’t a “date.” We never dated. She lived across the street and we did a lot of talking and spent a lot of time together. When I did go out on dates I did the usual things—movies, concerts and school dances. I really liked to dance!

I never had much of an allegiance to my first high school so I never went to any football games there. But at the University of Connecticut High I went to all the football and baseball games. I was also in the Rifle Club. My father and I would go target practicing every so often.

I was interested in dramatics, but I was always too small and too young to play leading roles. Twice, when I was 13 and 15, I played the paper boy in “Our Town.” I had also learned to play the French horn and in my senior year I played fourth chair French horn in the University of Connecticut (not the high school) band.

One other thing I did was work with my brother, Nick, on the campus humor magazine. Ever since Nick was about six he’s been drawing cartoons and he’s really good.

Peter Tork, Nick Thorkelson
Info [Above], Peter plays his guitar in his home at Mansfield Center, Conn. That’s brother Nicki with Peter. They’re very close.

Right after high school I went off to college. I didn’t listen to popular music much during college. I guess that was the time when my taste and the hit parade were at their furthest points. But I still used to listen to Ray Charles and when they came out, Beatle records. The Beatles entranced me right off the bat. I said “Wow! They’re the people that are doing it!” I suddenly felt that all the things I had been saying all my life about pop music and the way it ought to be was coming out of the Beatles.

I flunked out of college the second term. I didn’t understand or maybe I didn’t care to understand how much work it took for me to stay in school. Maybe I was just not interested in going to college. But in the second term I suddenly discovered myself with a failing average and I couldn’t bring it up.

So I worked in a thread factory for a year. I loved it. My childhood sweetheart from way back when I was first starting to notice girls still lived across the street and we were still talking. A lot of my friends were going to the University and some weren’t in college yet. So I didn’t have too hard a time keeping friends and having a good time.

14 months in the factory and then I went back to school. I completed a year successfully, came out with a high C average, but I flunked out again at the beginning of my junior year. Same problem—I didn’t care enough. Then I went to New York. I had always wanted to live in New York. My grandmother lived there and we used to spend a week at a time, two or three times a year with her and I loved it!

Christopher Thorkelson, Peter Tork, Nick Thorkelson
Info Peter in center with brothers Chris (left) and Nicki (right). This show was taken at home in Mansfield Center, Conn.

I got a job as an office boy in a theatrical agency. Then I started going down to Greenwich Village and taking my five-string banjo with me. I started playing in the Village and I started staying up late at night and I started coming in late on the job, so they fired me. While I was working as an office boy my grandmother was paying the rent in her apartment—she wouldn’t think of taking anything for it, so I managed to put together a little money, which I lived on until I started to get into the swing of things.

Then I got a place in the Village and walked to work. By that time I’d made a lot of friends and I really loved it. Once I got on the stage it was all over, I knew I had to be some kind of an entertainer. I loved it!

I worked a total of two years, including a six-weeks vacation in Venezula, where my father was at the time and I went down and stayed with my folks. I was the best pampered Village beatnik in the world. During the two years in the Village I was trying to make it and I took occasional jobs as a kitchenboy to make a little regular money. Although, at the best of times I made more money as a folksinger than I ever could as a kitchenboy, I kind of enjoyed the work. I like drudge work. It gives me time to think and peps me up inside. I feel respectable.

Peter Tork
Info [Above], the portrait was taken of Peter when he was about twelve years old and beginning to develop a beautiful set of freckles.

The thing about the village that is so beautiful is that it doesn’t take any money to live comfortably there. There is a very strong community sense among the village beatniks. If you’re ever down and out there are a half dozen people ready to take you in for a day or three or five.

When I had my own place there was always somebody over for the night because they didn’t have a place to stay. I was almost never alone. Another thing about the village is that it’s so concentrated that you walk from place to place and you pick up all the influences there are. Some of the people that come out of the Village are terrible, but some of them are so good or so potentially great that you can’t help but learn a great deal.

But I’d had it with the Village after two years and some friends of mine were going to California and said I could stay with them at any time, so I hitchhiked out here and they put me up on their couch. I began working as a dishwasher at the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach, envying groups like the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band who were performing there. I would do guest sets, playing my banjo whenever I could. just so I could be in front of an audience.

One day Steve Sills, who’s now in the Buffalo Springfield, told me about the audition for the TV show. Three weeks went by and I hadn’t gone down and he called me and said “You better go down there for an interview. I really think it would be worth it.” I didn’t have anything else to do the day he called, so I took a bus into Hollywood and went in for the interview.

I couldn’t believe it when I got the part. My family is in Canada now. I went to visit my parents, my brothers Nick and Christopher and my sister, Annie, who’s 11, a month ago and they thought it was really great. Me? I still can’t believe it’s true, but I’m loving every second of it!


Magazine: Tiger Beat
Editor: Ralph Benner
Volume: 2
Issue: 5
Publisher: New Asbury Ltd. Publishing Co.
Pages: 28–29, 58