Today, the world learned of the passing of Peter Tork. The oldest member of the Monkees, Tork was the sad, puppy-dog-eyed member of the group clowning around in the background of many shots. He had sandy brown hair that seemed to fall over his eyes continually. I imagine teenage girls, sighing over the Monkees, wishing they could be the one to brush back that hair.
I remarked to a friend, “It feels like a bit of my childhood just slipped away,” but that’s not entirely accurate. It feels more like it cleaved, the way rocks or glaciers do, a giant shelf sliced and sliding into the endless ocean of time.
A big chunk of my childhood played out against the soundtrack of The Monkees’ albums.
I grew up in a small town in Long Island, New York, called Floral Park. It was an incorporated village with a recreation center, a swimming pool, garbage pickup twice a week, and two main street-type shopping areas within walking distance of most of the villagers’ houses. Mature sycamore, oaks and maple trees arced across picturesque streets of close but quaint houses; Tudors, Capes, Colonials.
Within that village, we children of the 1960s and 70s were allowed to roam freely. Age wasn’t told in years, but how far one could wander from the safety of the doorstep. Next door? The purview of babies. Down the block to the streetlight? Now we’re getting there. Crossing the street? You must be in first grade!
Into this life I was born, the youngest of five children with an older sister who came of age in the 1960s. She collected Monkees albums. These were housed in the stereo cabinet in the finished basement or playroom as my mother called it. They nestled next to Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, my mother’s collection of Rogers and Hammerstein Broadway musicals, and miscellaneous albums of what we call today Easy Listening music.
By the time I was old enough to be allowed to touch my dad’s stereo – handmade from a kit, of course, for my engineer father – my sister was in high school and beyond her teenage obsession with Davy, Peter, Mickey, and Mike.
I wasn’t. I stumbled over the television show one day after school. I can’t recall when or how old I was, but I do know that by second grade, age 8 or so, I was obsessed with the Monkees.
I had crushes on each of them in turn. Sweet, shy little Davy. Mickey sort of scared me; he was kind of madcap. Aloof, ski-cap clad Mike didn’t appeal to me too much either. He seemed too mature. But Peter? Peter seemed to be the sweetest one of all!
I found my sister’s albums and whispered, “Can I play them?” She waved a hand over the collection. “Take them.” Onto the turntable they went.
I can sing each song by memory, and recall where they appear on the albums.
My collection of Monkees albums grew so worn from handling that the labels softened with age, like love letters.
Please Read the Letter that I Sent
I read liner notes obsessively. For you kids born in the digital music age or CD age, liner notes on record albums were like little mini magazines. There were pictures on the back of the album covers, information about fan clubs, you name it.
One day, I realized that there was an address – 1334 North Beachwood Drive, Hollywood, CA. Wait, I could write to the Monkees? I asked my mother for stationery. We had just learned how to write a letter in school, and I had written one to my cousin Janice in California that took me days to write. I had put the stamp on the wrong side, but no matter. Now I wanted another piece of my mother’s cream-colored stationery and a matching envelope from the desk in her bedroom.
“What for?” she asked suspiciously.
I sighed. “I’m writing a fan letter!”
I clutched the pencil and printed my letter, laboring over each block capital. I wrote to Davy, Peter, Mickey, and Mike. I remember begging them to write me back.
I imagined the letter traveling through the postal service. Each day, I raced home from school hoping to be at the door when Mike, our letter carrier, pushed the envelopes through the front door slot.
Each day, I was disappointed.
The Monkees never wrote back.
Of course, it was 1979, and the Monkees dissolved as an act 11 years prior. The address on the back of the record albums? According to one website, 16 magazine fabricated it for the show.
I looked at a Google Map tonight, and 1334 N. Beachwood is the parking lot for Sunset Gower Studios.
I’m guessing the Monkees never got my letter. Did Don Kirschner’s secretary have a good laugh over it? Did they have a special garbage can where they threw children’s fan mail?
I’ll never know.
The Monkees and Me
Christmas 1980 brought magic under the tree. My brothers found a double album set of Monkees greatest hits. New songs! The compilation album thrilled me to the core. Someone, somewhere, still loved the Monkees like I did. If they still sold their record albums, didn’t that mean that someone else loved them like I did?
My dad got a VCR. I asked him to tape two shows for me – Land of the Lost, now in reruns (that’s another obsession and another story for another day) and The Monkees.
A few months later, on a warm spring day, I raced downstairs to find a Monkees album, the Arista Greatest Hits album, propped up with my birthday card and presents on the dining room table. My older sister found it in a shop in Manhattan and bought it for my birthday.
My close friends knew of my Monkees obsessions. Annmarie, Angela, Maryellen, Kathy, Debra, everyone who came to my house to play Barbies in the basement listened to the Monkees endlessly on the stereo along with Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. This was the soundtrack of my childhood.
But in 7thgrade, I hit the motherlode. A neighborhood girl was throwing out her old record albums. She put them out at the curb for the sanitation workers to pick up the next day. I hid behind a parked car until she went back inside the house, then raced out to poke through them. There it was – a Monkees album I didn’t have! The Birds, the Bees, and the Monkees, their fifth and final album as a band, came into my collection.
The magic finally happened when I was in high school. I was now obsessed with every long-haired heavy metal lead singer in creation, but I still loved the Monkees. Guess who was singing at the Jones Beach Theater? My older sister bought tickets, and we sat in the open-air amphitheater with the Atlantic ocean softly swelling behind the stage and three of the Monkees singing my favorite songs on stage. I remember every song. I remember the cool evening breeze, singing softly along under my breath to my absolute favorite music in the whole world.
My Favorite Hits from The Monkees
Which are my favorite Monkees songs? “The Girl I Knew Somewhere,” because of the harpsichord counterpoint; I love harpsichord music, and I smile every time the song comes on my playlist because I remember the feel of playing a real harpsichord in 10th-grade keyboard studies class in high school.
“Early Morning Blues and Greens,” from The Monkees Headquarters, paints a soft portrait of a man waking, sipping coffee, contemplating his morning. I love it for the lyrics.
“Writing Wrongs” from the Birds, the Bees, and the Monkees is a strange, long song, with odd lyrics but I do love it. It sounds like Dr. Who in his TARDIS traveling the dimensions.
“Salesman” from Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, and Jones…great lyrics that truly paint the image of a tired salesman traversing the world to sell his wares. When I worked at Yellow Book (yes, the ubiquitous phone book company), I’d sing it softly under my breath every time the fleet of Chevy Corsicas came home to roost at the end of the workday and burgundy, black and white cars bearing phone book ad salesmen began filling the lot. My desk overlooked the parking lot, and I would see the salesmen in their polyester suits, tired and toting enormous bags of sample phone books under their arms, checking their beepers. Yes, beepers. Now you know. I’m older than dirt.
This song inspired my short story of the same name that appeared in the anthology of stories I published for my graduate writing degree. I need to dig that one out and share it with you.
“Star Collector” from Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, and Jones…I smile every time I hear that dopey song. It makes no sense. It has weird Moog synthesizer squeals throughout it. But it’s the song that my friends Laura, and Lisa from across the street, and I made up silly dances to. We’d spin in circles, thinking we were collecting stars from the sky and not celebrities as the lyrics intend…and we’d fall, dizzily giggling onto the cold linoleum floor of the basement.
These were times of innocence and laughter, of playing on the streets until the street lights came on – be home when the fire department tests the siren or when the street lights come on and not a moment later! A time when older sisters bequeathed their collections of Seventeen magazine, Bonne Bell flavored lipgloss and teeny bopper records on little sisters. It was a time when playing an album over and over again until the grooves wore out was common when you were in love with a band, a song, an image.
The Monkees may have been, as one of their ditties chanted before a live recording of “Circle Sky” concludes:
“Hey hey we are the Monkees, you know we love to please,
a manufactured image, with no philosophies.”
But for me, they were my first puppy love, my first childhood crush, my first forays into rock and roll, soft and safe as it was. The slapstick comedy, the happy melodies, the clean-cut image, the bubblegum pop sound…yes, it was a manufactured image, but it was an image that spoke to me, and thousands of girls around the world, for decades to come.
Goodbye, Peter Tork. Thank you for the music, thank you for the laughter, and thank you for the memories.