Yes, Peter Tork of the Monkees can play

Teen idol at 71 held the stage with flair

Back when I was still young enough to be entertained by unrequited love, I routinely kissed Peter Tork good night.

It was the summer just before I entered high school, and I kept photos of all four Monkees — Peter, Davy, Micky, Mike — taped to my bedroom wall. Later, as I matured, I would transfer my yearning to Mike, the manliest Monkee, but during that summer, it was Peter who revved my heart.

Peter, with his floppy blond hair. Peter, with the brooding intelligence that I, alone among teeny-boppers, discerned beneath the goofy persona he displayed on TV. Peter, who waited nightly for my tender kiss.

Sweet dreams, my darling!

I would press my lips against the wall.

Until fate brings us together!

That memory blazed in my mind, brighter than yesterday, when my friend Gail asked recently if I wanted to go see Peter Tork at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago.

"I don't guarantee quality," warned Gail, who was also a Peter girl growing up, "only some circle-of-life thing and a live Monkee."

She got us tickets, $15 each.

"I'm going to see Peter Tork!"

I called one of my brothers as I headed to the show on Sunday night, eager to share the campy thrill. He was silent.

"Peter Tork?" I said. "Of the Monkees?"

Surely my brother remembered our mad childhood dash to eat dinner and get the dishes washed in time to watch "The Monkees" on TV.

"Oh," my brother said. "Does he even play an instrument?"

I had no idea. I didn't care. The Monkees had always been dogged by the charge that they weren't real musicians, just a prefab four brought together as the musical jokers on a TV show, but that hadn't bothered me much then and it bothered me less now.

A circle-of-life moment doesn't require hot licks. It's all about connection.

I was, however, a little nervous.

Could Peter play? Would he look really old? Would the audience? Would this be embarrassing to all concerned?

The surprises started as soon as we took our seats.

"What are you doing here?" I asked the guy next to us, who appeared to be in his 30s. He said he liked the music.

"How do you even know the Monkees' music?"

"Channel 32," he said, "after school."

A big portion of the audience appeared to be in his cohort, youngish fans nurtured on Monkees reruns. This was both strange and encouraging, evidence that music of the '60s will survive the apocalypse.

Then there he was on stage. Peter Tork. At 71.

His hair was thinner than my idol's, but he still had some, and he looked fit in black jeans and a black open-necked shirt. The Channel 32 crowd roared. So did the original Monkees crowd.

He picked up a guitar. He played. He was really good. He picked up a banjo. Played. Really well. He sat at the keyboard. Not bad.

He played the blues, imitated Elvis, and did enough of the Monkees repertoire to placate those who desperately needed to sing "Daydream Believer" with him.

He told compelling stories, too, all of them rolled into the autobiography that he clearly wanted to convey: Yes, Peter Tork can play, and he can own the stage, alone.

He talked about growing up in a house filled with classical music; about moving to Greenwich Village in its folk heyday; about heading to L.A., where a friend named Stephen Stills helped him land a job on a TV show about a band called the Monkees.

He recalled his frustration that the members of the band were originally denied the chance to play on their records.

"We don't want what you have to offer," a producer told him when he complained. "You're not the Lovin' Spoonful."

On Sunday, he was witty, agile, energetic and sufficiently self-deprecating to balance his caustic streak. He won a standing ovation, fueled by more than nostalgia.

Afterward, scores of fans waited to have him sign a new CD or whatever memento they'd brought. Gail and I hung around for a while, hoping for a close-up glimpse, but gave up early.

We decided we could close that circle of life without standing in line, but left happy to know we hadn't been crazy to be Peter girls.

mschmich@tribune.com

CHICAGO

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