Hey, Hey, We’re the __________!

Originally Published in the June 2008 Entertainment Guide

Peter Tork, circled, on the Monkees first album cover.

If you filled in the blank with the word “Monkees,” this story will resonate through the soundtrack of your mind for days to come. Or at least until you finish reading this column.

The song starts out, “Hey, hey, we’re the Monkees! People say we’re monkeying around. We’re too busy singing, to put any-body down.” The singing group was designed to be America’s counterpart to the Beatles in the 1960s – frenetic, fun and outspoken. Another Monkees’ line you may recall: “We’re the young generation and we’ve got something to say.”

So what’s the connection to Northfield? Peter Tork, one of the members of this group, attended Carleton College. Twice. Peter’s father, John Thorkelson, was a member of Carleton’s class of 1938 and an economics professor at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. Peter, who ranked 15 in his high school class of 66 students, left Connecticut for Carleton in the fall of 1959 and declared an English major in 1962.

A yearbook photo shows Peter wearing a sweatshirt with “Tork” on it, so it appears he adopted this nickname at college. Alas, “Tork” flunked out of Carleton twice. He was dropped by the college for low grades in 1960, readmitted in 1961 and then dropped once more after the fall term of 1962.

While at Carleton, Peter was a DJ on the radio station and was engaged in dramatics, especially from January through May 1962. Peter was among the musicians in “Mandragola” (with Peter Basquin, who went on to fame as a concert pianist), was an assistant director in “Under the Milk Wood” and a cast member in “Apollo of Belloc,”“The Underground Man,” “Ulysses in Nightgown,” and “The Plough and the Stars.” During his last term at Carleton in November through December 1962, he played the roles of Bernardo and the Player King in a production of “Hamlet” at the Little Nourse Theater.

After his second attempt at college, Peter wound up in New York City where he lived with his grandmother and entered the music scene by playing banjo in Greenwich Village. There he became acquainted with other musical newcomers, including José Feliciano and Stephen Stills. It was, in fact, Stephen Stills who persuaded Peter to audition for the Monkees in the summer of 1965 in California.

The advertisement in the show biz paper Variety read: “MAD-NESS!! Auditions. Folk & Roll Musicians-Singers. For acting roles in new TV series. Running parts for 4 insane boys, age 17-21.” The producers liked Stills, one of 437 “insane boys” who tried out for a part, but they told him his hair was too thin and his teeth were crooked. Stills said he had a friend who resembled him, but with better hair and teeth, and he encouraged Peter to give it a try. Peter won the part and Stills had to content himself with going on to become part of a group called Crosby, Stills and Nash (and sometimes Young).

In September 1966, Peter Tork, Mickey Dolenz, Davy Jones and Mike Nesmith were introduced as “The Monkees” and their first single, “Last Train to Clarksville,” sold more than 500,000 copies in only three weeks. The television show lasted two seasons and won the group an Emmy Award for outstanding comedy series for 1966-67. Six of the Monkees’ singles made it into the Top 10 during the first season. Among the hits from their albums were “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” “When Love Comes Knocking” (written by Neil Sedaka), “I’m a Believer” (written by Neil Diamond), “Pleasant Valley Sunday,”“Daydream Believer,”“Shades of Gray” and, of course, “Hey, Hey, We’re the Monkees.” Peter told People magazine in 1985: “The ’60s were a very schizoid period. We had, on the one hand, a lot of hope and good cheer and gentility going on, and on the other, a lot of pretty brutal stuff. I think in some ways the Monkees were the distillate of the cheery side. They were the epitome: ultrasharp, ultragood cheer, ultraharmless.”

Early on, some of the instrumentation was said to be provided by studio musicians, though all of the Monkees could play. In fact, Peter has studied classical piano and plays 5-string banjo, drums, guitar and bass, among other instruments.

There was one final project for the original Monkees before they broke up: actor/screenwriter Jack Nicholson and director Robert Rafelson put together a movie starring the Monkees called “Head” in 1969. Peter was the first to leave the group after the TV series ended. It was not until 1986 that Dolenz, Jones and Tork reunited (without Nesmith, who sent a stuffed dummy of himself to a reunion tour press conference).

After the Monkees, Peter played in several musical groups, performing in folk festivals and small clubs. He also tried teaching in California, went through three marriages and faced up to substance abuse problems in the 1980s. In the 1990s, Peter discovered an affinity for the blues and now has a touring band called Shoe Suede Blues.

Peter's application picture to Carleton.

He also has a website, www.petertork.com, which features an “Ask Peter” segment. As yet, Peter has not answered my questions about his time in Northfield (there is no record that he has ever returned here). But he did tell “Cyndi in Nashville” who had self-esteem issues that his own journey from “self-doubt to self-esteem” was a  slow process. He said he gets a lot out of reading and practicing Zen Buddhism. He advised Cyndi to try volunteering at a soup kitchen or other charity: “Do something you believe to be valuable and you’ll become valuable to yourself and the world.”

Peter Tork was memorialized at Carleton in 1980 at the dedication of the Tork Pinball Area after the Sayles-Hill Gymnasium was remodeled into the Campus Center. In October 1979, a portrait of Carleton’s first president, James W. Strong, which had been hanging in the building, was stolen and replaced overnight by a day-glo velvet portrait of Elvis Presley. A ransom note from a group calling itself “The Gang of at Least Three and Not Over Sixteen Hundred” had several demands, including renaming Great Hall after Peter Tork. In his response, the Director of College Relations, George Dehne, refused to rename Great Hall because Peter Tork did not graduate from Carleton and “it is against our best interest to show you can succeed without a Carleton diploma.” The gang’s threats escalated, as the kidnappers sent a snapshot of the Strong portrait with a knife held at Strong’s throat, followed by a photo of Strong’s ear (“an anatomical sample of the President”).

Finally, the “Gang of at Least Three and Not Over Sixteen Hundred” asked only that the Sayles-Hill pinball room be named after Peter Tork. Dehne said this demand was also unac-ceptable. “But, it just so happens that we were planning to name the pinball area after Peter Tork, anyway… remember that we are doing this because it is an appropriate gesture to a fine non-graduate, not because we have been coerced by your illegal act.” On March 5, 1980, the Tork Pinball Area was formally dedicated at Sayles-Hill with a sign and a champagne reception.

Today there is but one Bally Addams Family pinball machine at Sayles-Hill (along with PacMan, Mario Brothers and Nintendo, four pool tables and one ping pong table). And no sight of the Tork Pinball Area sign. Please don’t tell Peter – it might affect his self-esteem.

Thanks to Eric Hillemann of the Carleton College Archives for ferreting out the picture and information from Peter Tork’s Carleton years and to Brian KenKnight at Fine Groove Compact Discs & Vinyl for the cover of the Monkees’ first record album.

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