Peter Tork—Way Back When

Peter Tork

Old friend Stevie Stills reminisces about the good (?) old days

By Stevie Stills as told to Ginni Ganahl

Peter Tork is a Monkee. For as long as he lives, regardless of what other fields he follows, in spite of other talents, he will ALWAYS be a Monkee. However, Peter Tork was not always a Monkee. He has friends who knew him before he ever THOUGHT of being a Monkee. He has one friend who is partly responsible for his BEING a Monkee. Stephen Stills, composer-singer-leader of the Buffalo Springfield, tells all about the Peter Tork of Greenwich Village, the Peter Tork who didn’t want to be a rock and roll artist, the Peter Tork who used to stay up all night playing folk music and then ride the Staten Island Ferry for a nickel till show time again at eight.

“I first saw Peter Tork in Greenwich Village at a coffee house called the Four Winds, which stands on West Third Street, about 25 yards from the subway entrance and about 25 yards from the now-famous Night Owl, birthplace of the now-famous Lovin’ Spoonful. He and I, as well as my roommate, John Hopkins, were all playing the basket houses. Peter played guitar and banjo and sang songs of social import, big, heavy ballads, Phil Ochs’ tunes and occasionally, a show tune.

“We all met through Peter’s girlfriend, who introduced us at the club. Soon after, we decided to form a trio… Peter, John and myself. I don’t remember if we had a name, or if we did, what it was. We tossed a lot of names around. Why did we join up as the trio? Well, it was something to do when you’d been playing from eight ’til four in the morning and still felt like playing. Peter used to come over to our house and practice and once or twice, we went over to his place on Bradford [sic] Street.

Peter Tork

“I left after a while and went to New Orleans and San Francisco, where I hung out and looked for a group to play with. I had left John and Peter not because of anything personal, except that I wanted to do rock and roll and they wanted to stick with folk. Now, Peter has turned to rock and roll. I think it is because he realized that he is just as good a comedian as he is a musician. And he was then. He used to have some phenomenal bits. The best was his basket pitch. Everybody had to have a pitch as to how to tell the people after they had been soaked a dollar and a half for a cup of coffee that they had to drop something in the basket to pay the performer. You see, it was against the law for the coffee houses to pay entertainers because they didn’t have cabaret licenses, which cost a whole lot of money in New York City. There’s always a law in New York City! Anyway, your pitch had to let the people down easy and not make you look like a beggar… it had to be very diplomatic.

“Peter’s went like this: There would be a basket at the corner of the stage and Peter would gaze over at it and say, ‘Look at the basket. What is in the basket? A baby? No, more’s the pity! There is nothing in the basket. What goes into the basket has to be provided by you (pointing at the faces in the crowd), because there is a law in New York City…’

“Another was: ‘Now, ladies and gentlemen, since there is a law in New York City that says that singers like myself and my cohorts cannot be paid for singing our beautiful songs for you, I am going to come around with my banjo, which is empty (he would tap it to accent the hollow sound) and accept your kind offerings. For those of you who wish to give a dollar, I’ll yell “swish” so everybody will know you’re not a piker!’

“Peter has a very active mind. He and his mother and younger brother wrote a whole Broadway-type musical when they were kids. Two marvelous little songs came out of it. One of them is ‘Alvin the Alligator’ [which has been performed locally and recently by the occasionally re-grouped duo] and the other one went like this:

’If the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,
And the parts are you and me,
Where’s the little something, the extra little something
We don’t add up to be?

“Nick Thorkelson is younger than Peter, my age, and is going to school in Wisconsin. Nick’s a groovy guy… warm like Peter and he’s got the same quick mind.

Stephen Stills

“We never got the trio good enough to play at any clubs besides the Four Winds. We had to work so long at night that we never had time to actually rehearse. It was easier to just learn a song and get up and try to make it fall together on stage. This is how the Buffalo Springfield was created. It was all just off the cuff. It had to be… we were all so durn poor! After work, we used to go up to the 42nd Street movies and stay till morning, then ride the Staten Island Ferry.

“Peter was such a groovy person. He used to talk a lot and have a lot of energy. He wore sweatshirts and jeans and hole-y tennis shoes with no socks. [He still does… see page 46.] He finally left New York when he decided that he wanted to play rock and roll bass. He does play rock and roll bass, you know, Anyway, everybody was saying, ‘There’s gold in California!’

“I ran into Peter Tork again when a guy named Ron Long and I had a duo called the Buffalo Fish. We were playing at the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach and lo and behold! There was Peter Tork! He was playing guitar and banjo behind anybody who needed an accompanist. Hanging out, in general. I told him about the television show that Screen Gems was putting together and said that he should go down there and try out for a part. He said he would but he didn’t, so I called him again. I knew that even if the show was only on for one season, he could establish himself as a comedian. And who knows where that can lead?

“So, Peter Tork took the job and became a Monkee.” And they said “There’s gold in California.” And who knows where that can lead?

Magazine: TeenSet
Editor: Judith Sims
Volume: 3
Issue: 6
Publisher: Capitol Records Distributing Corp.
Pages: 40–41