The Monkees' Peter Tork, born Peter Thorkelson, died this morning at age 77. The announcement came over his Facebook page, which did not state the cause of death, although in 2009 it was reported that Tork was treated for cancer in the form of adenoid cystic carcinoma.
As depicted on the 1960s TV show, Tork played the role of the goofy, "dumb" Monkee, with his head in the clouds—the Harpo Marx of the gang. Behind the scenes, Tork was a thoughtful, folk-trained musician who embraced the '60s counterculture movement, and often felt confined by his role as a "pre-fab" teenybopper idol.
Tork's voice was often considered by the Monkees' producers to be not up to snuff, and his only featured vocal on the Monkees' first two albums was on the novelty song "Your Auntie Grizelda," a song whose seriousness can be evaluated by the nonsense noises Tork makes during the instrumental bridge. But Tork—in addition to being a skilled guitarist and bassist—was also a talented banjo player, pianist, and arranger, and when the Monkees started playing their own instruments on their third album, 1967's Headquarters, Tork made his mark.
He earned his first songwriting credit with Headquarters' "For Pete's Sake," which became the closing theme to the second season of The Monkees TV show. Tork's other major Monkees contributions came on the soundtrack to their 1968 movie Head, for which Took wrote the songs "Can You Dig It?" and "Do I Have to Do This All Over Again?"
Tork was the first member to leave the group, departing at the end of 1968 following work on a bizarre Monkees television special, 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee, although he participated in the band's numerous reunions over the years, most recently for their 50th anniversary tour in 2016. Over the years, Tork worked as a teacher and coach, and briefly spent time in an Oklahoma prison for possession of hashish in 1972. He always kept one foot in the music world, though, recording sessions for punk/new wave label Sire Records in the early '80s and revisiting his Greenwich Village folk-music roots on a series of recordings through the '90s and '00s
Although Tork auditioned for the Monkees as a working musician, his gift for comedy became quickly apparent in front of the camera. But music remained his greatest passion. Here's "Shades of Gray," from the Headquarters album, which features Tork's finest recorded vocal performance, a duet with fellow Monkee Davy Jones (who passed away in 2012). That's also Tork playing the song's central piano figure.
Rest in peace, Peter.