A Long Conversation with Peter Tork


IT WAS PROBABLY late 1966 or early 1967 when word first began to circulate through the Village. “You know the Monkees, that plastic-fantastic pop group, created in Hollywood, the prefab four, now ever so hot both on the pop charts and on the tube? Well, one of them is our own Peter Tork!”

Certainly nowhere near as momentous an event in pop history as Dylan Goes Electric, the transformation of Peter Tork from promising folkie to full-fledged plastic rock celebrity had the drafty cellars of Bleecker Street agog with mixed emotions. To some, he’d lucked out, plain and simple. Their jealousy was easy to understand. To others, the news was as shocking as if they had heard that Tork had become a Hare Krishna. They refused to sanction what appeared to be a radical departure from tradition. To all, it was symbolic of the extravagant changes life in the sixties could produce at any given moment, in any given body. One day you were a normal, law-abiding honor student sampling the evil weed; the next you were on the street, with no immediate prospects, living in sin, in poverty, an outlaw in the eyes of society – and loving every laughing minute of it.

Of course, that may be an overly romantic viewpoint. “The thing about the Monkees operation is that it wasn’t just the four guys,” Peter Tork told me. “It was the producers, Burt Schneider and Bob Rafelson, Don Kirshner, who oversaw the music, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, the songwriters – the whole crew. The four of us were just the front. I mean, I’ve heard that Mickey said later that we weren’t the Monkees any more than Lorne Greene was a Cartwright, which is true. At the same time, we were the Monkees. It was a unique phenomenon, to be a member of a group that wasn’t really a group and yet was a group. If we’d been a group, we would have fought to be a group or we would have broken up as a group. But we were a project, a TV show, a record-making machine.

“The thing that made the Monkees so successful was the incredibly adept commercial push that was behind the phenomenon, and a lot of people resented that, particularly people who wanted some of it. But I don’t want to demean anybody’s motives, because one of the things they wanted was a more even distribution of those goodies throughout the concerned population, and I’m in sympathy with that. But there I was, you know, racked with self-doubt: Do I really deserve to be here? And then, being a member of a synthetic group. I suffered from the criticisms – ‘those no-talent schmucks from the street’ – while in the meantime I wasn’t able to make the music I thought needed to be made. From the producers you’d run up against a lot of ‘You guys are not the Lovin’ Spoonful, so shut up.’

“But one of the things that’s a blessing to me is that I’ve been able to accept things that weren’t quickly describable,” he said. “The phenomena are the phenomena.”

The reflective Monkee, sometimes the ebullient one, a rock ‘n’ roll Maynard G. Krebs in a Nehru jacket, Peter Tork sat across from me in the spare room he occupied in his manager’s small Manhattan apartment, a child of the sixties, approaching forty in a Beatle-bob haircut. “I don’t want to have the Monkees on my back,” he joked. “But I don’t have to close the door on my past anymore. I don’t have to try to escape from what I’ve done and been. Everything I am now is a product of all of what I was, and I’m not given to know the whys and wherefores of things as I go through them. Mostly I find out the whys and wherefores afterward.”

Born in Washington, D.C., in 1942, Tork would live in Detroit, rural Connecticut, and Madison and Badger, Wisconsin (with an interval in Germany) before he turned ten. After flunking out of college in Minnesota twice, he gravitated to the Village in 1963 to begin picking out a minor living with his banjo and his antic persona. In 1965 he hitched to Los Angeles, where destiny in the form of folksinger Stephen Stills awaited him.

“Stephen met one of the producers socially in Hollywood, while they were holding auditions,” said Tork. “They liked him a lot, liked his music, but thought his hair and teeth were wrong. Stephen and I were known in the Village as the guys who looked alike. So when the producer asked him if he knew anybody who looked like him, who was also musical, and whose hair and teeth were right, he immediately thought of me and called me up to say go try out for this thing. So I walked into the middle of the auditions and I got a part.”

In November 1965 Tork, Mike Nesmith (a folkie from Los Angeles), Davy Jones (an English actor who had previously achieved fame as the Artful Dodger in Oliver), and Mickey Dolenz (whose credits included a stint as Circus Boy on TV), got together for the first time to make their demo for RCA. The idea of the producers was to tap into the ready-made subteen audience for an American Beatles, by duplicating on a week-to-week basis the rambunctious, good-time vibes the Beatles had created in A Hard Day’s Night and Help! Similarly designed songs would be provided to sing on the show and to quickly leap into the upper reaches of America’s Top 10. And if one or more of the Monkees could not play their instruments well enough, superb backup help would be provided. All in all, no sweller deal could have befallen man or ape.

Except if you were once an aspiring musician, hoping to stamp your own identity on the product bearing your name. “When the Monkees made their pilot,” Tork said, “the four of us got on stage and we were supposed to be doing a dance set. Mike had his guitar, I had my bass, Mickey knew two beats on the drums. During breaks in the filming we asked the stage crew to fire up the amps, and, never having played together before on the same stage, we knocked out a song and the audience liked us. Everyone danced. When it was over they applauded. Some people from Capitol records, who had heard us, said they would have signed us even if we hadn’t had a TV show.”

While this story may only serve to illustrate the depths record companies had reached in their attempts to exploit the huge numbers of young people turned on by the Beatles, it also underscores Tork’s dilemma as a breathing human in a plastic machine. As a novice TV actor, he could deal with the confusion. But as a musician, there was little he could claim as proof of his existence. Recording sessions were especially depressing.

“Davy played nothing but tambourine,” Tork said, “so he had his part down after the second take, and we would sometimes do fifty takes to get our basic track down. Davy’s arm got tired. He got sick of banging the tambourine all day long. Mickey lost faith in himself. He never did believe he was a decent drummer, so he didn’t want to do it anymore. Mike wanted to produce his own records. He wanted to have total control. I was the only one who believed in the group, and so there I was all by myself, wanting a group, with nobody to be a group with.”

Understandably, his musical memories are few and tinged with ambivalence. “At the outset,” he said, “the background instrumentals were almost entirely studio musicians, but the lead vocals were always one of us. On ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’ I played piano, we had a studio drummer, the producer played bass, Mike played guitar. Essentially we created that record ourselves.”

Their fourth single release, after ‘Last Train to Clarksville’, ‘I’m a Believer’ (both number-one songs), and ‘A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You’ (which peaked at number two), ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’ continued the Monkees’ seamless string of prepubescent odes to normalcy and suburban contentment – finishing its run at a comfy number three on the charts. “A notion of mine that I was real pleased with took over at one point,” Tork said, “and that was having two guys sing in unison rather than one guy doubling his own voice. So you’ve got Mike, who was really a hard-nosed character, and Mickey, who’s a real baby face, and these two voices blended and lent each other qualities. It’s not two separate voices singing together, it’s really a melding of the two voices. Listening to that record later on was a joy.”

Tork’s favorite Monkee album is their third, Monkees’ Headquarters, released in June 1967. “At that point we behaved like a musical group,” he said. “It was our record. We had the producer play bass. We had a cello player and a horn player on one cut.” That cut was ‘Shades of Gray’, which Tork feels holds up to this day. “Mike wrote the cello and horn parts; he sang them to me and I wrote them on paper and we gave them to the musicians. I wrote a little piano lick at the top and played it. That was a record we created out of our own feelings. It’s like, not only are there shades of gray. God damn it, but what happened to the black and white? What happened to those clear-cut old ways that used to be?”

By 1967 those clear-cut old ways were being subjected to a veritable chaos of self-expression. The war in Vietnam was beginning to edge into mass awareness. Under a cloud of doom, a generation proceeded to freak out. A joyously contagious laziness took hold, symbolized by the spectacle of grown men wearing T-shirts! Wildly striped, splashed with crazy color, these T-shirts represented the dream of an adolescence regained – knowing everything you knew now. Men burned their draft cards, women burned their bras – and the weight of the world was lifted off their shoulders. Indeed, the times were too dire to think of anything else but having fun.

While Students for a Democratic Society was galvanizing incipient campus radicals and while black separatists shaped by the race riots of several long hot summers were beginning to organize the Black Panthers, the Beatles released their joyful opus Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was certainly a more pleasant option to ponder. At the same time the Yippies emerged – Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. It was revolution for the hell of it, a wide-open street theater of the absurd, suggesting that the peace movement could be fun and games too. In 1967 Yippies marched on Washington in an attempt to exorcise all evil spirits from the Pentagon. Many in the audience swore they succeeded.

On the streets, at four in the afternoon or four in the morning, grown men could be found unshaven, barefoot, giggling – with their pre-Lib women by their sides – in any number of towns, experiencing a wonderful, sudden release from traditional obligation: forty years of work and a heart attack. Self-discovery and self-indulgence were the order of the day. For a brief, exultant while, everyone conformed to nonconformity.

“Oh, I thought the New Dawn had come,” said Tork. “The Dawning of the Age of Aquarius. So did everybody else. We thought everything was just going to be roses from here on out. But you have to do that. Those of us who were young and innocent and open and thrilled to be part of the age were not able – couldn’t have mustered the vision – to see that it was a passing thing and that it would eventually turn around.”

In 1967 the feeling of community, of safety, was prevalent and expanding. The ability to walk down a street at midday in zebra-skin jeans and a tattoo shirt, hair in a ponytail and zonked to the gills, was absolutely predicated on the certitude that no one would come up to you and break your face. “There was a feeling,” Tork said, “that if you messed up, your friends would pick up the pieces for you, and that was true in a lot of contexts. There were a lot of little societies where people knew if they flipped out, their friends would take them to the beach and let them watch the ocean roll.”

The ideal was often breached, however. “My brother flipped out on acid and thought he was the last humanist in a pocket of enclosing fascism,” Tork told me. “He was at a party in a beach house, and he tried to get out by throwing his guitar case through the window. When I finally got to him, he was covered with sweat in a clinic in Malibu. But he came out of it all right.”

In fact, as time wore on, little niggling chinks began to appear in the armor-plated fantasy. “You began to find what we call lame heads,” said Tork. “At first ‘head’ was a compliment. Anybody who smoked grass was all right with me. I saw it as a vindication of my way of life. Then I began to perceive that it was not a matter of everybody finally waking up to themselves, but rather of simply following the style of the day.”

If it was a kind of mass neurosis that overtook young men in the sixties – a collective, euphoric maladjustment – Peter Tork’s position atop the rock pinnacle at the time only intensified and quickened the emergence of his latent personality disorders. Like an acid trip, the fame and the money, the status and the stimulants came in a glowing, breathless rush. But that was just a prelude to the pointy-headed monsters frothing within. “I saw myself as the victim of forces, the product not of myself, but of other people, places, and things,” said Tork. “I was in therapy for about a year when I was a teenager, and I learned that whatever happens to me in life is a function of my own choices – but I lost sight of that for a long time.”

Even in its early stages, the trip contained warning signs enough. The first time he attended a Beatles concert, at Dodger Stadium in 1966, in preparation for the Monkees’ upcoming road shows, Tork was clearly disillusioned. “I couldn’t believe the kids were not listening to them,” he said. “Here was the greatest single musical operation of all time, and they wouldn’t listen. It was all just screaming. The Beatles did about twenty minutes, and I don’t blame them.” Later, when the Monkees were on tour, Jimi Hendrix opened for them in England.

“Once Jimi came along, everybody said, ‘Gee, if I turn up my amps, everybody will go berserk.’ But what they were really going berserk for was Jimi Hendrix’s pioneering musicianship and his art. No matter what kind of inspirational thing happens, somebody will latch on to one of the external details and call it that. It’s called mistaking the finger for the moon. You point to the moon and somebody looks at the finger. It’s inevitable.”

Like a lottery winner rolling in the ruins of his fortune, Tork’s ambivalence about the end results of his windfall cannot supersede the marvelous fact of the windfall itself. “It was a chance,” said Tork. “I’ve always been a clown. I did comedy-variety shows and minstrel shows in high school and college. On the Village stages all you could do is throw out a few one-liners: basically you’re up there to sing and pass the basket. This opened up a whole new area that I hadn’t been able to explore so fully before. I was hoping to base further experience on that and eventually expand, but that didn’t happen, which was disappointing. But my goal was always to wend my way merrily through life, playing my little banjo and my little guitar and singing my songs.”

On the concert stage, Tork had the best time. “One of my points of pride is that as a musical operation the Monkees did amazingly well,” he said, “not world cup, but national class, without a doubt.” In these sentiments Tork is no longer alone, as critical commentary has finally caught up with the Monkees, marking them down in the record books as a quality good-time band. Tork recalled a typical show.

“First we had an opening band, which did a set, including a Beatles medley. Then a girl singer came out. After an intermission, we’d come out for our portion of the concert. We started off dressed in our suits – we had suits of matching fabric, but different cuts. Mike had a western cut, I had East Coast: Mickey, West Coast; Davy, English. We’d do five tunes on our own and then we’d each do solo spots – I did mine on banjo – with the opening band backing us up. Then that band would retire and we would come out and finish off the show by ourselves. There was one costume change. In the early days we came back in those paneled pullovers; later on we came out dressed however we felt.” They introduced some of the earliest light shows, psychedelic slide projections that came to be a staple of the sixties’ concert experience. “Most places we went it was the first time the light operator had ever gotten instructions to wave the spotlight at random. They’d never heard of such a thing before.” Nevertheless, what lingers most are the incessant screams. “That was annoying,” said Tork, “but, what the hell, they didn’t come to listen to music. They came to vent their oppressions.”

Painfully mixed feelings seem to have been a common sixties malady. “I don’t mean to paint such a bleak picture of it,” Tork said. “I still felt I was in the vanguard, along with a bunch of other people. I was pretty happy. I had a circle of friends, and it was a lot of fun. God knows, I went through a lot of scenes and found out what I needed to find out, which is, for instance, that orgies are nice, but they’re only temporary and they’re not fulfilling.”

Tork’s infamous orgies were held at the Hollywood house he bought in 1968, previously the property of comedian Wally Cox. At the height of his fame, Tork could have paid for it in cash, but was advised against it. So he took out a huge loan and spent his money redecorating. In the master bedroom Tork’s bed was eight feet by eight feet with a foam mattress six inches thick. He had a four-place bathtub put into the bathroom, along with a sauna. He had Mexican tiles laid. He carved his initials into the shower stall. There was red plush carpeting throughout the house, a wet bar in the foyer, six-by-nine-foot picture window in the living room overlooking the San Fernando Valley. The film room was a splendiferous workshop of sandblasted natural wood that housed Tork’s resident filmmaker manqué. The screen covered the entire wall, offering a ten-by-twelve-foot platform for the flower of psychedelia’s exploding visuals – viewed by exploding heads of all chemical persuasions, days on end. Just down the hall and across a bridge was another wing of the house. Downstairs was a cabana, leading to a fifty-foot pool. There were no houses behind his, so many people preferred to dive into the pool nude – straight out of his bathroom window. “I’d rather have nude swimming,” reflected Tork; “it’s much easier. There’s a certain charge to bodies if they’re covered up, and if you remove that, it takes a lot of that extra energy out of things.”

Originally, Tork brought a girl friend to live with him at the house. Then his filmmaker friend moved in. He was followed by a young woman and her son. Later a friend of his girl friend stayed there. When Tork quit the Monkees toward the end of 1968, his new group, Peter Tork and/or Release, moved in. Often, wandering downstairs of an early afternoon. Tork would come upon two or three strange bodies asleep in the walk-in fireplace. But that was all right. At the same time, it wasn’t all right.

“If you’re fixed on the notion that an orgy is going to fulfill you, and one doesn’t do it, you’re going to try a hundred. If orgies don’t do it, maybe drugs will. Like the fixated person I was then, I went from one thing to another. I had to try everything: flower power, dope, orgies, fast cars.” His sternest nemesis was alcohol. “In the beginning drinking was a lot of fun,” said Tork. “I have some memories of things that I did drunk that I never would have done sober, that I guess I always sort of wanted to do. But drinking isn’t selective. It doesn’t let you do exactly what you want to do and keep you from doing the things you don’t want to do. Furthermore, at a certain point, and I think with certain personality types, it’s addictive. You find you cannot drink moderately any longer. It finally reached a point with me where it was obvious that I was going to die if I kept up with it. I was never hospitalized, but I could see the path. I realized I was out of control.”

If the rock ‘n’ roll fantasy was falling apart for Tork in 1968 and 1969, on the street the spool of possibility the sixties had presented in its idealized version was unwinding into an awful mess. The war wasn’t ending, it was heating up. The peace candidates weren’t winning, they were getting chopped down. Civil rights had turned to civil war. Nothing was working out as planned. The communal ideal depended on an equal sharing of the load, and who in the sixties wanted that kind of hassle? The perpetually stoned ideal presupposed no commitments in the real world; it also needed an independent income. The revolutionary-male-loafer ideal wound up victimizing women even more than traditional macho. Finally, the rock ‘n’ roll ideal was a sham, too, when you realized that while our rock stars were singing about overthrowing bourgeois society, they were the ones getting rich.

Not that being the rich kid on the block didn’t come with outsized problems. “I think I was a sort of Gatsby,” Tork said. “I was isolated and did not have a continuing sense of community. I’d have a moment of friendship here or there, a moment of sharing, but I didn’t believe that was the main body of my life. I didn’t know who my friends were, and anytime somebody asked me for a favor I wrote them off as a hang-around. And I wasn’t able to ask people for favors, because I was supposed to have all that it took to keep myself together, because I had the money. At the same time, by giving the money away, I thought I was returning something to the community. I didn’t see myself as apologizing, which is how I see myself now. But I had all this money, and I tried to make amends to the world by throwing it at people. And, essentially, what that did was to isolate me all the more.”

Meanwhile, the hits had stopped coming for the Monkees. The TV show was canceled. Their movie, Head, was a critical and commercial disaster. Tork’s money soon evaporated. “I think I was imbued with the notion, as my money ran out, that my fate was not in my own hands,” said Tork. “I didn’t have the sense that I had to hold on to it because nobody was going to save it for me.”

Although he can live with the results of most of his career as a Monkee, Head‘s failure is still to Tork a source of deep frustration. Had it been as successful as he felt it deserved to be, we might not be speaking today in a furnished room in Manhattan, but instead sipping champagne in an opulent mansion in the Hollywood Hills. “When it was revived for a week in Hollywood,” said Tork, “Charles Champlin, the senior critic-at-large for theLos Angeles Times, said it was a movie that had been grotesquely underrated, a serious movie. But it was too late. It died a death you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.”

In part, Tork blamed the Monkees’ fall on the very marketing machine that had been responsible for their efficient rise to pop stardom, only a day or so before, or so it seemed. “The series left the air early in 1968. We toured the Far East, made the movie and a TV special. We didn’t go into the public eye in America at all. That’s one of the reasons the movie didn’t go, the special didn’t go – and nothing ever happened to the Monkees again.”

If you missed the movie Judith Crist called “some pot-smoker’s dream,” Peter Tork has seen it upward of a dozen times, and has total recall. “It begins with this guy who looks just like the mayor of Los Angeles, Sam Yorty, trying to dedicate a bridge. The microphone whistles on him, an officer taps the mike and it’s all right. He steps back to the mike and it starts to feed back on him again. The officer checks the mike – it’s okay. He steps back to the mike. And just then the four of us come running in. Mickey breaks the tape with his chest, like he’s leaping across a finish line. And there are thousands and thousands of people chasing him – Indians, cowboys, the cavalry, Arabs, Italian World War Two army soldiers. All four of us jump off a bridge. There’s a long sequence of us falling into the water. We hit the water and get carried away by mermaids, and this thing called ‘The Porpoise Song’ comes on. After a while it suddenly seems like we have been looking through a fish tank, and on the other side is this very, very pretty woman who kisses each one of us. When the woman kisses Mike, he whispers to her, ‘How about you and me ditching these guys and going out together?’ She looks at him and says, ‘Are you kidding?’ and walks off.

“Then we break into this new Monkee chant, and we cut to footage of the Saigon chief of police executing a suspected Vietcong prisoner. He puts a gun to his head, and the guy falls over with blood spurting out. Then there’s a war sequence, the four of us in army uniforms, including a scene where I get caught in a pit with Ray Nitschke, former defensive end for the Green Bay Packers. He hits me. We all dive into a tunnel, blow things up, come out of the tunnel, and we’re all dressed up in white and it’s a concert. We do a tune, and at the end of the song we put down our instruments and run. The kids come screaming onto the stage and start ripping the clothes off what turns out to be dummies. The overall view of the movie is Bob Rafelson’s vision of the whole scene. He saw rock concerts as war sequences.”

Love and war, black and white, the clash of mortal opposites – the theme recurs again and again; on the one side death, a party on the other. In Rafelson’s movie each scene is a mini-movie in itself, commenting on or parodying dozens of other movies and movie genres, complete with dazzling color, abundant Monkee music, numerous insane cameos, a panoply of effects, experiments, state of the artifice, tricks of the trade. It may have stopped the Monkees’ career in its tracks, but director Rafelson went on to fame with Five Easy Pieces, produced by Burt Schneider, and made Easy Rider, with Monkee TV profits.

“There’s a big black box that figures prominently,” Tork continued. “We keep getting trapped in a big black box, and there’s a little personality examination in how each of us tries to get out of the box. Mike cons his way out. Davy says. ‘I’ll show you how to get out,’ and kicks the door down. I have had an experience with a guru, so I say, ‘Well, it’s really a question of choices, and it doesn’t matter whether we’re in the black box or not.’ And Mickey runs this utter gobbledygook, ‘Well, the universal plane is on a different order of vibrational sequences…’ and on and on, sounding just like himself.”

Viewing Monkee reruns is slightly less of an all-consuming ordeal for Tork. “The episodes look a little pale to me,” he said. “What I remember most are some of the guys in the background – who they were and what kind of times we had during those days on the set. I remember staying at Mike’s house in Hollywood when we first started filming the series. It was the upper story of a two-story building on a little hillside. Mike’s wife, Phyllis, was wonderful. Mike and I laughed a lot and played music together. I remember that time very fondly.”

It was a multimedia bash while it lasted, but comeuppance struck with rude swiftness. Tork found out he’d paid half again what his house was worth, so he wouldn’t have been able to get back his initial investment, even had he sold it. For a while he leased it to Stephen Stills, who’d gotten over the rejection of not being selected as a Monkee by becoming a superstar on his own, first with Buffalo Springfield, then in a trio with David Crosby and Graham Nash. Tork and his girl friend, who was then pregnant, went back East with the idea of becoming organic farmers. Late in 1969 Stills moved out, with a few months of rent paid up, so Tork and his girl friend returned to finish out the decade. “We were there for a few months, but it was much less comfortable. Then a fellow came in and took it over, a would-be-guru type, who ran a colony there. When he quit paying the rent, it was foreclosed.”

Next they moved into a house in Beverly Glen owned by David Crosby. Tork’s daughter was born there in January 1970. “We stayed there for a while, and I became involved with another woman, and my girlfriend and I broke up,” he said. A few months later, traveling back to California from the East, Tork was busted for possession of hashish and committed to a Federal reformatory in Oklahoma for three months. “Finally I was granted probation and my record was wiped.”

If the bust served to isolate him from the straight world, his past as a Monkee was an onus just as severe in the entertainment business. “As far as I can see, in Hollywood, if you haven’t got a lot of political support or another hit lined up, everybody thinks you’re dead. I knocked around for a year with my picture, looking for roles, and out of eight people that I went to see, all of whom said they liked me, ‘We’ll definitely use you,’ I got one reading, which I blew, and that was that.”

The downward spiral began to turn wicked. “I was never inherently afraid of my situation,” Tork assured me. “When I found myself in a boardinghouse with my daughter in a room for twenty-five dollars a month, sleeping on a mat on the floor, I was not discouraged. I had already made my connection with my source.”

The source in this case had nothing to do with drugs. It was a spiritual awareness. “Cosmic intelligence, higher power, connectedness, the pattern, the source – these are ways of alluding to the process that expresses itself, in my experience, as intelligence and order,” Tork said. “So we discuss a source, an unknowable source, which we call one, the unified one, from which all things spring.”

Like many “heads” of the sixties, Tork’s introduction to the spiritual plane was provided by LSD. “I brought some of those sugar cubes with me when I left New York in 1965,” he recalled. “I’d heard that they deteriorate at room temperature, so I took two. Acid does not deteriorate at room temperature.” His trip was virtually a classic of the genre. “I looked in the mirror and saw my mother. I dove out the front door yelling and hollering in Long Beach at two in the morning. I fell into a pumpkin patch and I had my first experience. I finally had a sense of there being a cosmic pattern. I didn’t see God in the sense that Jesus came to me, or I saw a man with a beard in a chair high in the sky, but I did have a sense of a driving patterned force being the sum total of all the benevolent intelligences now or ever on the face of the earth.”

Ultimately, Tork came to feel that the acid experience was a limited one. “I mean, it opens you up to the possibilities of living beyond your ego, but after a while you come back down and the chemistry you had before the acid trip is largely restored; your ego comes back. I particularly relate to what Ram Dass said, which is that in the throes of acid he was egoless, but as he started to come down his ego walked back in the door and re-fused with his body. That’s why he decided to go to India, so he could have the acid experience without having to go through the return trip. In India they had techniques that they’d been developing for years, that made it possible for one to go into a post-ego state.”

Tork’s trip, in a larger sense, reflects that of many sixties seekers who opened up to the possibility of possibility, the magic of rock ‘n’ roll and the magic beyond. Some of them are still out there, having missed the flight back, either accidentally or by design. “It is said in a certain school of esoterica that when you first get the hint of it the mountains are no longer the mountains and the moon is no longer the moon,” said Tork, as the afternoon sun went down and shadows slanted across his room. “But when you get past it and come out the other side, with some journeyman mastery, shall we say, the mountains are all mountains again and the moon is a moon.

“I think I’m at that stage with my life. When I first got the awareness of the extramundane, things just became all holy and completely beyond rational understanding. It was the first flush of acid, the first social explosion of the hippie era. ‘Everything is everything’ and ‘Wonderfulness is wonderfulness’ absolutely swamped the factual reality of a chair. Chairs were no longer chairs; they were imbued with mystery and magic. Having lived with that and taken a few hard knocks on the basis of overdoing it, I’ve entered what I call the tertiary stage of things. The first stage is where things are what they are. You’ve got goals and dreams and hopes, but there’s no magic. Then you find the magic and it’s all magic and nothing is real. Now there is reality and there is magic; they’re both real.”

What’s missing, however, is that sense of community that rock ‘n’ roll, the peace movement, flower power, a dope-sweet righteousness, and all the media hoopla conspired to create. In the eighties, Tork’s talk of magic seems a little beside the point. Once there was time enough for such speculations, when the days stretched yawning across the void and ‘Six o’Clock’ was just another song by the Lovin’ Spoonful, not a notch on a train schedule meaning dinner. But Tork, a philosopher-king in the clothes of a jester, has considered all the possibilities.

“It’s what I call the Church of Three,” he said. “You have a starting point that’s essentially unitary, then comes the binary, the secondary phase, where everything is broken up and shattered and shot into millions of pieces. From there, you must have a dialectic. The third stage must appreciate and understand and value the first without undercutting and devaluing the second. It’s no good just to talk about the positive. If the negative is there, you can’t shut it out. For a while there wasn’t any negative. Then it came into our lives in real ways, in ways we had to come to grips with. So, there we were, in the middle of stage two, shattered and broken, not believing in stage one anymore. Then comes stage three. This is where we recognize that there are times to slip into that primary mode and times when it won’t do. If you insist on sticking to that mode, you’re going to get your nose broken. And that’s what happened. So there comes a time when, in full awareness of stage one, you behave through stage two, to get your stage three – a transcendent involvement of both stages.”

Specifically, stage two began at Kent State, when four students were shot by the National Guard during a protest demonstration. “When they shot them down at Kent State, that was the end of the flower-power era,” said Tork. “That was it. You throw your flowers and rocks at us, man, and we’ll just pull the guns on you. Essentially, the revolution, which was sort of tolerated as long as it wasn’t a significant material threat, was not tolerated anymore. And everybody went ‘Ooops’ and scurried for cover and licked their wounds. They became isolated – which was the point of it all. ‘Togetherness isn’t going to get it’ was the moral they tried to lay on us, because the less togetherness there is, the more room there is for exploitation. Kent State was an attempt. Let’s try this and see what happens. And what happened was the shooting and vast inflation and a swing to the right – the moral majority. The whole thing was inherent in the situation. A certain amount of loosening up, a certain amount of extra leisure, and people are going to try to improve their lot instead of just barely hanging on. If you had a little extra you’re going to try to make everything better. And if you see that your own happiness, or the lack of it, is tied in with the sadness of your neighbor, you’re going to start feeling communal. And that’s going to expand until the crunch comes. As long as people are educated to believe that isolated self-interest is the only way to go, when the crunch comes they’ll withdraw from each other. And only now, in the faintest glimmerings, do I see any sense that people are realizing that togetherness and flower power alone won’t get it. It’s got to be togetherness, flower power, plus a willingness to do something pretty stern from time to time. If you’re not willing to behave sternly, people who won’t stop short of stern behavior are going to keep on going. It’s taken a while for that message to sink in.”

It’s obvious that Tork was a true believer and ironic that he, of all people, should have been a cog in the plastic Monkee machine. He took the sixties to heart, and if the failure of the sixties took the heart out of him for a while, he hasn’t let that failure break him. “You’ve got to struggle over the material,” he said. “The struggle involved in keeping those people who want what you’ve got from getting it deprives you of the time to really be yourself. Instead of struggling to keep things out of everybody’s hands, if you give what you’ve got – as Jesus said – if you give away what you’ve got, life unfolds for you. And the Catholic church would have us believe that heaven doesn’t happen until after the death of the body. But I report differently. I report that heaven is an experience available in this life. And it comes from giving your shit away. If you give away your heart, your life, your soul, your goods, and live as close to the bone as you can prudently do, and don’t worry about next week, if you live as close to that level as possible, you will find yourself as happy as possible. If you put your faith in the future, you’re going to be chasing something all your life. Put your faith in the present; it’s all right.”

Tork must know whereof he speaks, having gone from uncounted riches down to zero. “I went dead broke for a while,” he said. “I still have my guitar. I sold my car, a 1967 MG, a couple of years ago. It was starting to rot away in storage.” Though he’s back on the scene with a group called Peter Tork & the New Monks, it’s not likely he’ll either reap the huge rewards the old Monkees did or have to pay the same whopping dues. “Having had a solid taste of fame, I’m aware of the pitfalls of it,” he told me. “Being young enough to have assessed the experience and reevaluated my whole life on the basis of it, I’ve been able to see that what I once heard called ‘three hots and a cot’ are my only requirements. Give me my meals and a place to put my head at night and I’m okay. That’s all I really need, that and my community, my life with other people. To me isolation is the only sin. Human beings are not meant to live alone. And while I feel that I may have a fairly large place in the public life of the world today, it could be just a dream and a fantasy, and it certainly is not a fitting basis for my decisions. The basis for my decisions is to do what I have to do today, do what’s put in front of me as well as I can, and to learn the lessons of the results.”

One lesson, well learned only recently, has put Tork off alcohol since 1980. “I was able to change my course as early as I did, relative to some of the stories I’ve heard, because of my dabblings in Eastern philosophy,” he said. “Because of that spiritual experience I had beforehand on acid (which has since been validated and expanded) and because of a few experiences in community, I’ve been allowed to recognize that what I really did want to find on a day-by-day basis was spiritual surrender. Now I am not in charge, not in the sense that somebody else is in charge, but in the sense that what is in charge is larger than I can know by myself, but I have to trust it.

“I can’t ascribe my alcoholism to fame,” he went on. “I can more easily do it the other way around. One of the things about alcoholics, to the extent that I’ve been able to make any observations, is that we are either above the crowd or below it – or both at the same time. The reason you shoot to be above is because you feel below, and the reason you feel below is because you’re not part of, never one of the guys. You envy the people who seem to have a certain contentment. The character makeup that sent me into pop stardom is the same character makeup that sought to anesthetize myself with chemistry. I found that it was not until I put all of that chemistry behind me that I began to get back in touch with my place in the human scheme of things.”

In the mid-seventies, Tork’s place in the human scheme of things was anything but clear. “I was kind of half wanting to get my career back together again, but not doing a great deal about it,” he said. “I was playing odds and ends here and there and not making out terribly well. The woman I was living with, who would later become my wife, was teaching at a school on the beach in southern California. Through the grapevine we heard that there was a job open at a small private school in Santa Monica.” Another ego might have found the shift in rank disastrous, a falling from grace to mere mortalhood, with the screams of the crowds – instead of the alarm clock – still ringing in your ears.

“I believe I’m meant to do whatever it is I do,” Tork stated. “I don’t want to say it was easy, but sometimes getting up at eleven o’clock is not easy for me now.” The two professions were not entirely dissimilar. “You try to be of use,” he said. “You try not to just while away the empty hours, either as an entertainer or a teacher. The long-term relationship that you build up in teaching with what could be compared to an audience has a dynamic of its own – that I found to be very interesting. But the thrill of a good job of entertaining, when you know you’re hot and everybody else thinks you’re hot, is really unmatched for me.”

Tork taught English at this school for a year until its director died and the school collapsed. He found another teaching job at a different school, one that had a much more restrictive atmosphere. “What had gotten me out of organized show business in the first place,” said Tork, “were the tensions involved with having to deal with power-hungry people. I thought, if this is what show business is like, I don’t want to have any part of it. Then, when I worked at this highly autocratic school, I found exactly the same things going on. It was at that point that I finally decided to make my push for show business again. I thought I might as well do what I like to do, where there’s a chance for the big bucks. Even if I don’t have them, at least I’ll be doing what I enjoy.”

But the transition from pleasant youthful memory to an ongoing modern-day concern is hardly simple. Tork no longer has a machine behind him. “When you stop working the formula, people who were depending on you to produce according to the formula desert you, and you’re left only with yourself and those who believe in you in the long run regardless of the formula. It takes a lot of imagination, a lot of heart. But that’s my hope for myself – that I have that imagination.”

Unfortunately, his decision to return to the boards has meant leaving the home he established for himself in Venice, California, with his wife and two kids. “We’re still married,” said Tork. “I’m still the kids’ father. We all love each other. There’s no dispute on any of those issues. I happen to be in New York, where I have a career, and they are in Venice, where they have a life. My wife’s career is beginning to come along, and I think she’s going to be very successful. I see them regularly, not nearly as often as I’d like, and I’m not part of their lives on a daily basis, which is a drag. But it’s just the way things have fallen down. There’s no career for me in Los Angeles. But in New York, within a two- or three-hour drive, it’s possible for a person to find enough clubs that pay enough money so you can make a living.

“So, while it’s potentially possible that we might get back together, it’s not likely, certainly not in the foreseeable future. We both have far too different fates to work out. I think it’s terrible for the kids that Daddy’s gone. Daddy didn’t leave in anger, which I think is an improvement, but Daddy did go. Then again, my parents were together all my life and I had to put myself through an incredible school of hard knocks before I came to any sense of self-worth. I’m still coming to grips with the feeling that there is support for me in the outside world. I’m still relating on a day-by-day basis with my own loneliness and isolation. I’ve had some bleak moments, of course, and I’ll continue to have them, but I trust that if I stay in contact with my source, that my bleakest moments will be a prelude and a vehicle to other times.”

While he does not keep as close tabs on his other family, his machine-made Monkee family, Tork isn’t out of touch either. Touring with Peter Tork & the New Monks in Japan, he encountered Davy Jones, with his own variation of the Monkee theme. Mickey Dolenz, when last Tork heard, was producing and directing a children’s show in England. Mike Nesmith has achieved prominence as an actor and director of musical video productions, a leader in the quirky new field of video-rock. “Mike also hit a low point financially,” said Tork, “but he inherited from Liquid Paper. Mickey did the best, I think, because he came from a show-biz family, and they knew what they were doing, so he made out like a champ.”

The championship-season metaphor is one that Tork would not reject out of hand. “Yeah, you won the championship that year and you applaud all the other guys because you won. Then you remember the fist fights you had out behind the stadium. In any quartet there are six pairs of relationships and each one had its positives and negatives. I loved them differently and respected them differently and not in proportion to my loving of them – in fact, it was in inverse proportion, if the truth be known.

“What’s happened to me in my life since then hasn’t been so disastrous,” he said. “I could have wished to have better financial resources at the present time, but so what? I’ve got my three hots and a cot and I have friends. I know I’m going to eat and I know I’m going to sleep and I know I’m going to have company. And I have a career, for Christ’s sake. It’s not tearing down the walls and breaking up the halls at the present moment, but I’m playing, I’ve got musicians – good guys, with lots of talent. I have no particular wants. I have odds and ends of desires running loose that may or may not ever be satisfied, but who cares? The really important stuff is right now, this very minute.”

An Uncomfortable Evening with Lou Reed

d07185ey3ih-150x150LOU REED THINKS he’s gone as deep as he wants to go for his own mental health. If he got any deeper, he’d wind up disappearing. Or so he says.

It was last August when I got the word from one of the leading ladies on his office staff.

“Lou Reed does not want anyone to know how he writes his songs.”

I was momentarily disoriented. “Pardon?”

“He will not give you permission to use his interview in your book.”

“Surely you jest?” I remarked.

“I’m not paid to jest,” she snapped.

Give a man a staff, I thought, and his sense of reality goes out the window. Regaining my composure, to say nothing of my indignation, I whipped up a new battle plan to deal with the secretary. Secretaries are my bread and butter, my ice cream cake. To secretaries I am Goliath.

“Then you must realize that I don’t actually need his permission. Calling for permission was a mere profes-sional courtesy on my part. Technically just the fact that he granted the interview is permission enough. Technically, all I need is the tape!”

“Technicalities, my ass,” snarled the secretary, “we have lawyers.”

“Lawyers, my foot,” I snarled back, not in the least intimidated, “I have friends high up.”

“How high?”

“The sixth floor?”

“Lou Reed does not want anyone to know how he writes his songs!” she bellowed.

“But everybody already knows. I’ve told all my friends!” I shouted, but she didn’t hear me, having hung up.

Still reverberating from that insulting conversation, I retreated to my living room, sank to the couch, my battle plans in tatters. This was not the first such sunlit moment to turn dusty on me in the bleak light of day. My memory is an attic cluttered with the broken down gadgetry of ambi-tion. Agents disappearing into the forests with my short stories. Record companies going bankrupt just after signing up my songs. Whenever good luck strokes me, sooner or later there is a secretary on the other end of the line, taking it all back.

From the outside I may seem important. People pop in at all hours, find me on the phone ninety percent of the time. What they don’t realize, what the world does not yet know, is that eighty percent of the time I am on hold.

It was November, vicious outside. As I left my house it began hailing. Thin young men skidded by me in the slush, pulled along by their umbrellas. Women in rubber-soled shoes trudging on the pavement in packs of twelve made the avenue impassable. I inched my way uptown, holding onto my hat. (Though winds they blow and trains may stall, taxicabs go floating into the river, no one has yet accused me of being late for an appointment.) Sopping wet, my yellow sheet of questions ruined, little eels swimming out of my trouser cuffs, I arrived at the publicist’s office on the dot of four, integrity personified.

“Didn’t they tell you?” moaned the British lady who was his press agent; “the interview’s been postponed.”

“Surely you jest?”

On viewing the figure before her, wringing out his overcoat sleeve, the lady was taken with pity. “Perhaps I can phone him again and see if he’s available.”

Had I met with the same fate as was handed me nine months later, by that foul secretary, there would be no story left to tell, except that of my subsequent pneumonia, which I have already sold to another publication. Reed, although suffering from a cold himself, agreed to grant me an immediate audience. I was interviewing him for a book on writers, after all, and Reed, I had a feeling, despite his footwork, was a literary man.

It was still vicious out, but now pitch dark, as we left the office for Reed’s apartment in Greenwich Village. Bowing toward the absurdity of having to journey directly back from whence I had just departed, I took no other pleasure in the fact that he and I were neighbors, perhaps shared a few of the same hangouts, haunts, knew a wino or two in common.

The press agent and I took the bus downtown. While she lathered me up with a finely recited message on the cur-rent comings and goings of Lou Reed, I lapsed into an historical reverie.

When Reed arrived, the Village had been engaged in a mini-civil war. The West Village had tradition on its side and little else, some notable watering holes, the Vanguard for jazz, the coffee house scene. But the East was in, had those marvelous slum apartments, perfect for dropout living, had the Summer of Love in its backyard, rock flow, the Balloon Farm and the legendary Fillmore East. St. Mark’s Place was giving MacDougal Street a run for the hippie dollar.

There was more than mecca at stake here, more than a territorial skirmish for possession of those sultry girls in tight dungarees, weekend runaways to decadence. There was a philosophical debate raging too, a war of lifestyles. It was like the difference between folk/rock and heavy metal, between grass and heroin.

In the West Village you still held onto your day job, got stoned every night after work. Acid was a risk worth taking, maybe twice a year, for the world it revealed. Primary to your lifestyle was control, discipline in your craft. For years you might plod along, revising.

But once past Fifth Avenue, everyone freaked-out. No one did acid over there because they believed in it, only because it happened to be a good kick at an orgy. Minds were blown and busted routinely out on the edge where hippie genii spewed speed raps into microphones, issued verbatim transcripts as works of art and were rewarded with the keys to the vault as they slouched through the ozone.

So if you were a Western Yankee, the Rebel Eastsider was an object of envy and ridicule. You longed for a taste of such liberation – to really go psycho for a month or two – but knew the price was way too high – spontaneous art was fine, but let’s see them do that again for posterity. Meanwhile, those on the other side of the divide held the Yankees in the same ambiguous contempt, whining for your Establishment praise and approval, while at the same time calling you gutless or worse, conventional.

The press agent and I departed from the bus and entered Lou’s building – on Fifth Avenue, the very street that separates East from West. I found it more than symmetrical that Reed should live on the Western-most block of the Eastside, where he could in fact peer from his kitchen window into the posh gardens and lobbies of the enemy.

I considered his early days, the Velvet Underground, with their image of leather lips and contemporary cool –so chic and vague and dispirited. Their melancholy songs of addiction and despair. Reed in sunglasses playing at the Cafe Bizarre, a tourist trap in the Village, where they didn’t even have hawkers. Then came Andy Warhol and soundtracks at the New Cinematheque. When they opened at the Balloon Farm, a converted dancehall above the Dom, later to be known as the Electric Circus, all the freaks in the neighborhood made the place the number one local hangout. The group did ‘Heroin’, and ‘I’m Waiting For My Man’ – songs of another culture, the new age, written in blood, accompanied by a grinding, atonal backbeat. Bowie, Iggy, the glittery cynicism of the ‘70s; that’s where it started. Now Reed’s records get reviewed in heavy print, his poems command space in the Harvard Advocate – leading figure in a cultural five-year plan, the underground rising to the surface, lopped off at the neck and dry-cleaned for mass consumption. Fitting then that Lou should live within smelling distance of the roses.

Are you interested in hearing an interviewer drown? The sound of a once-promising writer going down the toilet? Just listen to my tape. It’s all here. Dylan made a career out of destroying journalists. Reed had refined the process to an art. As I listen to it now, in pain, my face fixed in a wince, each minute hangs like a guillotine. The interviewer’s throat begins to get raw, his voice cracks. Soon he develops a cough, one which gets worse as the hour progresses. You can hear the terror in his tone.

Reed’s tone throughout is constant, drab, ominous, no trace in it of drama – the special craft of the put-on master, never give yourself away. In T-shirt, dungarees, newly shorn head, deep-set, hollow, ghastly eyes, my adversary stares at me across a bridge table in the living room, press agent and lady of the house chatting indistinctly on the couch.

“Were lyrics the first thing you started writing – songs
or did you write before that. . . poetry or anything?” I begin, establishing the high level I would maintain for some thirty seconds.

“I wrote stories,” says Reed.

A silence. The interviewer steps into the breach. “When was this?”

An ambulance goes by on Fifth Avenue. I follow its siren as it fades all the way downtown. “I wrote songs too,” says Reed at last. “When I was a kid.”

Having written stories myself at that age, I grab onto this as a connection which could lead us to a realm where we might wander unrestrained, revealing long-locked secrets of adolescence, lost loves, original philosophy.

“What kind of stories?”

Thirteen fire engines roll by. Fourteen. “Well, one of them was on one of my albums.”

I can see that Reed is already bored, has no desire to impart any ancient visions. But I persist. “Do they seem to follow the same kind of mood as your songs?” This is for a book, after all, on writing, writers.

My thirtieth birthday comes and goes. “I haven’t written a story in a long time.” I turn thirty-five. “Berlin’s a story that’s kind of in the same mood.”

I can’t believe it. He’s given me a break, divulged a bit of independent information. Berlin is his latest work, his new baby, a strange, haunting piece filled with variations on gloom. There is loss, gentleness beneath the sorrow, a pervasive feeling of ennui. Passing up this opportunity, the interviewer blunders in the wrong direction.

“So, what led you into songwriting?”

“I had a job as a songwriter.” I wait for some further exposition, but none is forthcoming.

“Was it the result of going around knocking on doors and things like that?” the interviewer rasps, his lips bone dry.

“No, I met somebody who said ‘You write songs. So and so could use a songwriter. A staff-songwriter. Would you be interested?’ So I said yeah.”
The battle lines have been drawn – my Westside literary verbosity, his Easterly existential monotone.

“So what brought this staff-writing period to an end?”

“I just split.”

“When you write now, do you have a discipline, set aside a certain amount of time each day? Do you take any sort of notes, like if you get an idea for a title?”

“If I come up with something good, I’ll remember it.”

Earlier I had been handed a mimeographed volume of his poetry and lyrics; sensitive and raw, poignantly evocative pieces. I had a feeling he’d be vulnerable in this area.

“Do you have the same approach to writing poetry as you do lyrics?”

“I’ve stopped writing poetry altogether.”

“Is this a conscious decision?”

“I just haven’t had any poems to write.”

I have become the heavy, looking for explanations, footnotes. Reed is the Street; his curt responses render my long-winded questions meaningless. In rock & roll, as in all beatnik poetry, it’s the feeling not the method that mat-ters. I am the professor, he is the natural. I am the sociologist, he is the delinquent. I am the square, he is the streetpunk rockstar hipster. The anti-intellectual anti-hero played to its logical extreme.

But I am not as dumb as I look. I have my own devices too, even more devious. While asking him to describe how his lyrics have changed over the years, I begin to feed his image.

“I mean at one point you seemed to be really into describing a certain kind of scene, and making it very real for people who knew about it, but didn’t really know about it.”

“Especially for people who didn’t know about it at all,” Reed chimes in.

“Well, people might have heard of the East Village, but that’s as far as it went.”

“Yeah, but I brought a little taste of–” Catching himself, he holds back. “Ah, maybe that’s pretentious. It’s just I wrote about what I knew about.”

But at least I’ve gotten him interested. Soon Reed has us on St. Mark’s Place; Saturday night at the Balloon Farm.

“That was the beginning and everybody was quick to jump on the bandwagon.”

“What would you call that the Lower East Side experience?”

“It was a show by and for freaks, of which there turned out to be many more than anyone had suspected, who finally had a place to go where they wouldn’t be hassled and where they could have a good time.”

“Did it surprise you that this crowd was out there?”

“Well, you see, what it was – Andy had a week at the new Cinematheque when he could put on whatever he wanted, and what he wanted to put on was us. . . with films and stuff. And the people who showed up – everybody just looked at everybody else and said ‘Wow, there are a lot of us.’ So we knew they were there.”

We are finally untracked! Now let me speed up the tape a little bit to where he’s talking about Berlin again.

Berlin needed a lyrical approach that was direct. There could be no mistaking it, no head games. You didn’t have to be high to figure out what was happening, or be super hip or anything. It was to-the-point, whereas some of my other albums and songs had puns or double entendres. In other words, the difference would be, in ‘Heroin’ I wrote ‘It makes me feel like Jesus’ son’. Now if the Berlin guy had said that he’d say ‘I take heroin’. That’s the difference. Like in ‘Heroin’ I say ‘I wish I was born a thousand years ago’. The guy on Berlin would say ‘I don’t dig it here’. You can go through the whole album and he’s always approaching things that way. He’s consistently saying very short, straight, to-the-point, unmissable things.”

Like a freaked-out Zen master, Reed’s words can be misconstrued in several ways, but just look at the trans-cript so far. Time after time those short, straight, unmissable replies. He is the guy from Berlin, at least for the space of the interview. The question was, had the many complex emotions he’d lived through in the sixties, the drugs and suicides, the bad trips which scarred the Andy Warhol crowd, then his belated rise to fame, driven him into a psychological corner? And his response to it, like his songs, like his poems, were statements of an experience so devastating as to defy expression except by the most primitive of means? Reflecting a life where, after feeling too much for too long, the safest reaction is no reaction at all?

Or was he putting me on?

“Do you see this as representing a new approach to things on your part?”

He shrugs. “On my next album I may go right back to the other way.”

And yet, the conversation picks up from here on. The literary man begins to emerge. During another of my interminable dissertations on the inaccessibility of most forms of publishing to the young writer, Reed jumps head-first into my thought.

“That’s why I get a kick out of publishing poetry in rock magazines. I mean, I’ve been in the Harvard Advocate. I’ve been in some of the heaviest. But I get a kick out of being in the rock magazines because that’s the people I want to read the stuff, not the people who read the Harvard Advocate.”

And then he really opens up about his songwriting.

“I write very fast. The lyric part of it comes in one clump. I like to leave the lyrics for the very last possible minute and then just sit down and zap, go through them. Just take each song and put a lyric to it, put it away. Take the next song, put a lyric to it, put it away. Do the next song. And just not even look at them. I look at them later to check, ’cause I know the basic thing is perfect, for me. Sometimes one or two words have to be changed. The real danger is that maybe I’ll be tired. . . and my handwriting is so bad..

“That you won’t be able to read a few words?”

“I won’t be able to read the whole damn thing!”

And then we talked about prose.

“Dorothy Parker – now if she wrote a song, watch out! That would be something else because she was right on target. I mean, just a little short story about a guy and his wife, where he’s reading the newspaper and she’s setting the table and they’ve got nothing to talk about – that story’s unbelievable, so painful sometimes you just have to put her away or she’ll drive you through the wall.”

I asked him if any songs had ever affected him that way.

“‘Mother’ by John Lennon. That was a song that had
realism. I mean, that did it to you. That’s about the only one I can think of on that level. When I first heard it l didn’t even know it was him. I just said ‘Who the fuck is that? I
don’t believe that.’ Because the lyrics to that are real. You see, he wasn’t kidding around. He got right down to it, as down as you can get. I like that in a song.”

“Do you think you’ll get further down in your songs?”

“I think I’ve gone as deep as I want to go for my own mental health. If I got any deeper I’d wind up disappearing.”

Things are happening thick and fast. He’s breaking out anthologies of his essays and poetry, showing me reviews of old albums and performances.

“Ralph Gleason, the dean of American reviewers, wrote in a review, I’ll never forget it; he said the whole love thing going on in San Francisco has been partially sabotaged by the influx of this trash from New York, representing everything they had cured.”

Reed becomes rhapsodic, flipping through the pages of

“When we went to Frisco, Bill Graham was doing his Fillmore and he had alight show, right? So we walked in and we saw a slide of Buddah and we said, ‘That’s gotta go!’ He hated us, said we were the lowest trash ever to hit Frisco. Let’s say we were a little bit sarcastic about the love thing, which we were right about, because look what happened. We knew that in the first place. They thought acid was going to solve everything. You take acid and you’ll solve the problems of the universe. And we just said bullshit, you people are fucked. That’s not the way it is and you’re kidding yourselves. And they hated us.”

Then he pulls out the Rolling Stone review of Berlin. “It’s one of the worst reviews I’ve ever seen of anything. I got one paragraph saying I should be physically punished for putting out the album.”

Though Reed may thrive on being reviled, the interviewer has given him no such outlet. In fact, things may have gone much too well. Instead of formally signifying an end to the interview, Reed drifts off, into a discussion with the press agent, leaving me to prepare for the street alone. I assume that while I am in the midst of slipping into my coat, unraveling my scarf, pulling on my mittens, someone will come over to acknowledge my leaving, walk me to the door with a few kind words. Hopefully it will be Lou Reed himself, offering me a handshake to commend a bout well-contested.

But it doesn’t happen. He won’t even meet my eye. Already he’s denying the event, banishing our conversation from his mind. Means nothing. And I in my foolish pride, cannot force myself to return and face him in the living room. He might punch me out. At last the lady of the house (who has never been introduced) unbolts the door and wishes me Godspeed in the violent night.

Months later, in the summer of the year, Reed would act, through his intermediaries, to deny the encounter even further, withholding his signature from the manda-tory book company release, as if to say we never met. And maybe we didn’t.
You certainly won’t read about it in my book.


Nine Questions for Paul Simon

1.Did Mrs. Garfunkel ever think of you as a bad influence on her son?

SIMON: Oh, no. I didn’t lead him into the wild life; he got into it on his own, later on, when he grew up. We both got hooked on rock ‘n’ roll at the same time, listening to Alan Freed’s Moon Dog Show and the Everly Brothers. Artie was always a singer at school. He sang ‘(They Tried to Tell Us We’re) Too Young’ in the fourth grade and knocked everybody out. By the seventh grade, we were singing together in groups. The friendship was based on much more than music – we were very similar kids, we had the same sense of humor – but without the music, I doubt if we’d have remained close friends.

2.You started in rock ‘n’ roll in 1955, at the age of 13 – a mild-mannered middle-class Jewish boy from Forest Hills – when macho Southern punks and lower-class greasy hitters were the musical rage. Was there anyone in rock ‘n’ roll you could have beaten up?

SIMON: Do you count Artie as being in rock ‘n’ roll? Then I think I probably could have beaten him up. I could have easily taken care of Michelle Phillips. Neil Sedaka, too. Actually, I tried to emulate those hoody guys; we used to call them rocks.

3.Did you and Garfunkel attract distinctly different groupies on the road?

SIMON: We attracted about the same, because people saw Simon and Garfunkel as one person. We did get separate letters, but I never paid much attention to the letters. I just remember that most of them were very, very long. The groupies we used to get were usually heavy readers – people who had read a lot of poetry. But I didn’t really participate to a great deal in the groupie scene. I was always attached, and when I wasn’t, I didn’t go out of my way to pick someone up. And then the ones I did pick up, I thought were nice. I liked them. Maybe I didn’t want to spend any more time with them than a day or two, but I liked them. It wasn’t like a straight rock-‘n’-roll fuck-them-and-leave-them style. It was a crooked rock-‘n’-roll leave-them style.

4.Did you feel rejected by the counterculture of the Sixties?

SIMON: Simon and Garfunkel became so enormously popular that we were eventually disdained by the hip critics. In the beginning, they lavished praise on us. Maybe at the height of the hippie days, we weren’t really in fashion – we were too New York; we weren’t particularly associated with the drug scene, though we were in it as much as anybody could be in it. But it wasn’t part of our image. I never wanted to be busted in Des Moines, you know. I didn’t believe the hippie thing, anyway, that California, laid-back, minimal-vocabulary existence. I didn’t believe all the smiles. I thought there was a lot of vindictiveness in it; there was something very cruel underlying a lot of it. I didn’t buy it nor was I particularly intimidated by it.

5.As the generation that came of age in the Sixties now reach mid-30s, do you think it has made an impact – or has everyone of consequence sold out?

SIMON: Selling out is a tradition in this country. It’s like Mom and apple pie. I mean, Abbie Hoffman turns himself in to promote his book. Hitler’s the one who said every man has his price, the only thing that’s surprising is how low it is. But, sure, the generation changed things. That war-baby blip in the population is always going to be the thing responsible for change, until they don’t have any money to buy things anymore. In this generation, there’s a great emphasis on form and not content, which I find distasteful. Yet these are the people I feel most comfortable with. I’d be shocked to find out they were as conformist as other generations, but I think they’re just as materialistic. I think that temptation is too hard to withstand.

6.What is your most blatant example of conspicuous consumption?

SIMON: I try not to be conspicuously consumptive – because I just don’t want to antagonize anybody. But I’m not afraid to spend money on where I live or on how I travel. I don’t think twice about buying anything, but, on the other hand, I don’t buy that much. I’ve been wearing jeans since I was 14 years old, and that’s what I like to wear. I don’t have expensive hobbies. I don’t own boats or sports cars. Feeling that you can do whatever you want is great, and I can do whatever I want.

7.It has been said that perhaps the chief benefit of huge success is the ability to afford a higher-priced shrink.

SIMON: Success doesn’t necessarily make you go into analysis. Besides, a higher-priced shrink isn’t necessarily a better one. I was in analysis for a long time – it was really good for me. I’ve been through a marriage and divorce and fatherhood, successes and failures, and I think I’m now a very competent cripple. I can absolutely navigate my way across the street. Not in the most graceful manner, perhaps, but I can definitely get from one curb to the other.

8.Are there any musicians in rock today who awe you with their talent?

SIMON: Stevie Wonder has a really great gift, though I wasn’t crazy about the last bit of work he did. I don’t know if I’m awe-struck, but as close to that as my nature allows. But there are a lot of extraordinary musicians around.

9.Are you a legend on your old block?

SIMON: Sure, I guess so. I took my son there recently to show him my old house. I drove him around, took him to Artie’s house. We went down to my public school. I took him to the candy store where I used to hang out and place bets on the trotters. I bought him an egg cream – which now costs 45 cents. The guy in the candy store recognized me. He knew what had become of me – but he related to me the way he’d always related to me. He called me Paulie.


Finding Laura Nyro

One of the most enigmatic and evocative and emotionally intense songwriters ever to hit the Top 40, Laura Nyro’s career survived numerous dips and bends. Known for her late ‘60s smashes, “Wedding Bell Blues” (The 5th Dimension), “Stoned Soul Picnic” (the 5th Dimension), “Sweet Blindness” (the 5th Dimension), “And When I Die” (Peter, Paul & Mary, Blood, Sweat & Tears), “Eli’s Coming” (Three Dog Night), and “Stoney End” (Barbra Streisand), she dropped out of sight at the turn of the decade after releasing Gonna Take a Miracle with Labelle, an album length tribute to the r&b songs she grew singing on New York City subways and rooftops, harmonizing under the moon of love. Quite a departure from the stark and melancholy epics that populated her previous albums, like “Been on a Train” and “The Confession.”

Writing out of personal experience, Laura always stood at the front lines in the battle between the sexes, an emotional firestorm, who moved halfway around the world from the naive bliss of “Wedding Bell Blues.” After her mellow return to action in the late ‘70s, with Nested, Smile, and the live Season of Light, she dropped out again. Five years later Mother’s Spiritual marked a kind of emotional rebirth, a series of songs to and for her newborn son.

Around the release of that album, in 1984, I spoke with Laura, who gave few interviews. But after reading my piece on John Lee Hooker, she agreed to talk to me on the phone about her life as it applied to songwriting, portions of which appeared in USA Today. I had the pleasure of meeting her in person backstage at a Newport Folk Festival just a few years before she died in 1997. “I think that I searched,” she said in a smoky voice conjuring candles and incense, “and I think I traveled far to find something that was very close. People who are going to find their own convictions will all have to go through a certain amount of obstacles. I don’t think I’m different from other people who are searching….to be happy, really. And I’m kind of happy now.”

“When I was very young I remember sitting at a piano and hearing the notes and the chords ring out in the air and I knew there was something special in that sound, some kind of freedom. As a kid I listened to the 50’s songs of urban romance: ”The Wind” by the Diablos, “Oh What a Night” by the Dells, “Happy Happy Birthday Baby” by the Tune Weavers. The first two 45s I bought were “Bye Bye Love” by the Everly Brothers and “Mr. Lee” by the Bobbettes. A year or two later my favorite songs were by Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions. By the age of 15 I was seriously listening to John Coltrane and jazz singers like Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Nina Simone. I remember one spring afternoon at (the High School of) Music & Art. The weather was lovely and me and my friends were sitting outside looking at a newspaper picture of the Beatles arriving in America. We were listening to ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ and I felt this thunderbolt in my heart.

“I have a love for simple basic song structure, although sometimes you’d never know it. It’s a musical starting point and you could stay with it or take it to the ends of the earth, because as beautiful as simplicity is, it can become a tradition that stands in the way of exploration. I started off in music with simplicity and then moved into abstraction and some uncharted waters with the exploration of it. Some people would say went off the deep end. I wanted to learn more and I took freedoms with the principles of composition. I used these dark chord structures, suspended chords, advanced dissonances (advanced for rick and roll), rhythms leading to other rhythms within the same song. My jazz background put certain inflections into my songwriting and singing. Throw in all the poetry I’d read since I was a kid and just being a woman, and that’s what made my songs complex and emotionally rich.

“I don’t think you should categorize yourself as an artist. You should allow yourself to grow. Growth is the nature of the creative process. You have to accept it, respect it, and move on. The thing that’s important to me is to express life as I see it. That’s my priority. There’ve been many changes over the years as I saw life differently from age 18 and age 25. You have to remember, I was still a teenager when I made my first record and the world around me started changing at the speed of lightning just because I’d written some provocative songs. The ‘60s started spinning into a whirlwind and outside of some recognition for my music I felt like I was living inside a hurricane. My rhythm of life was more of a free spirited one and then it changed. I kind of felt like I was losing the rhythm of my youth. So many things were happening at the same time. This is how I experienced it. So I started slowly moving out of that scene so I could experience other things in life without a bunch of people breathing down my neck. When I turned 30 my love songs changed from romantic notions to a deeper taste of life. My mother died right before I wrote the songs for Nested. My child was born right before I wrote Mother’s Spiritual.

“The last few years have been so musically abundant that I felt like the Goddess of Creativity. But who knows? Next year I may only write one song, because that kind of songwriting is cyclical, seasonal; it’s the culmination of a deeper experience. It’s like nature, it takes time to seed and then it blooms. Mother’s Spiritual was a wonderful idea that flew through my head in a minute and then took years to manifest because the relationships and responsibilities that were inspiring the music were also pulling me away from it in terms of time. Since I was recording while I was writing it actually took me two and a half years to complete the 14 songs. Most of the songs I wrote a night. I would just wake up in the middle of the night. I had a young baby and that’s when I found the space to write. I didn’t work with a tape recorder. I would write my ideas down. I have love songs written upside down on matchbook covers. I’d write on my hand if there was no paper. Sometimes I might hear a particular instrument, like when I wrote ‘Melody in the Sky’ I heard gypsy violins.

“Once I’m writing I’m very disciplined. I’m there for the music. When I’m writing music there’s a certain magic from the music underlying life. It’s like you’re living at a deeper current. It’s a very complete feeling. You’re taking care of everyday things, but you’re living at the edge of a song.”