Peter Halsten Thorkelson was born in Washington, D.C., on February 13, 1942 to John and Virginia Thorkelson. He was the oldest of the Monkees even though this fact was concealed so that Mike Nesmith could assume the job as leader of the group. When he was younger, Peter and his family moved quite a bit, and even ended up in Berlin, Germany at one point until his family finally settled into Connecticut. His father assumed a job at the University of Connecticut teaching economics.
Peter began mastering musical instruments at a very early age. At nine, he studied piano and later took up the banjo and acoustic guitar. He attended Carleton College in Minnesota, but he flunked out twice, so he decided to seek his fame and fortune in the Greenwich Village scene of New York. There he played in clubs and cafes, trying to make a living. While in New York, he befriended Stephen Stills and his first wife Jody. His first marriage was short lived however, only lasting three months. He realized that he would not find fame in New York, so Peter made his way to California.
In California, Peter had hoped to make it big, but ended up working a dishwashing job for $50 a week. Peter met up with his friend from the Village, Stills, and got a job playing piano for him in the group, The Buffalo Fish. It was Stills who got Peter the audition for The Monkees, after he was rejected for thinning hair and crooked teeth. Peter auditioned and got the job, his musical ability and his ability to play a convincing dummy landed him the role.
"I played a simpleton," Peter said about his part in the television show. "It was a character I had developed on the Greenwich Village stages as a way of protecting myself against the result of my bad jokes."
While The Monkees was a terrific opportunity, there were many tales of hard times for Peter during the project. But apparently Peter knew what he was getting into. "The goal was what happened. Nobody was taken by surprise. I wasn't taken by surprise but the magnitude."
However, his lack of creative control over the music was disappointing. On the first album, Peter was only allowed to play fourth chair acoustic guitar on Mike's song "Papa Gene's Blues." Studio musicians were brought in to play on the album. The second album was more of a shock for all the Monkees because it was released without their consent. They were on tour at the time and were given no input on any of the album.
"The second record was so angering, because Donnie almost militantly cut us out of the process. By the time we were playing our own music onstage, and we were righteously pissed that the album was released without our knowing anything at all about it. We thought those tracks were being recorded for the TV show, not a new album. We were on the road at the time, and somebody went across the street to the mall to get a copy. We had to buy the album just to hear it."
This caused a revolt against the "golden ear," Donnie Kirshner. Mike and Peter were the most prominent protesters bringing Davy and Micky along for the ride. "What we asked for was to be allowed to be the studio musicians on our own records. We did not ask for creative control. We did not ask to be the producers. We did not ask to replace Kirshner… The order came from Bob to Kirshner 'The next single must have the boys themselves being the musicians on the B-side.' So Donnie put out a record where professional studio had done both sides. He released the record in Canada. Fired, bam! Just like that."
After Kirshner was gone, Headquarters was the next album project. Chip Douglas was brought in to produce the album and the boys played almost all the instruments on all the tracks. Peter very much enjoyed the studio time. He was finally given some creative control over his music. He even got a song he had written on the album, "For Pete's Sake," which was adopted as the ending credits number on the show for the second season. "It was honest, it was pure and we had a great time," Micky Dolenz said of the Headquarters sessions. "Peter says that the reason he quit was because after we did this album, we decided we weren't going to be a group anymore. It broke his heart, because Headquarters was the whole reason why he'd become one of The Monkees."
Peter wasn't one to embrace his stardom though. He immersed himself in the lifestyle of the 60's; love beads, paisley clothes, and, of course, chemical stimulants. Peter was the most hippie-like of the four Monkees.
After the cancellation of the Monkees in 1968, the group moved onto movies. The Monkees starred in their first, and only, feature length movie, Head. The movie was not much success, and has now become a cult classic. There have been given many interpretations of this movie, but the most common is the one that it is an explanation of The Monkees phenomenon. In the end, the Monkees leap off a bridge, trying to escape their teeny bopper image.
In late 1968, Peter finally quit The Monkees with the official reason of suffering from exhaustion, which was not far from the truth. Soon after he formed a group, Release, with his girlfriend Reine Stewart. Release was not long lasting, and it did not release any vinyls.
Soon Peter's money began to run out, having spent his Monkees millions. In order to keep his house, he had to rent it out to his buddy, Stephen Stills who was just beginning a group with David Crosby and Graham Nash. Peter was finally forced to sell in 1970, and he and his pregnant girlfriend, Stewart, moved into the basement of David Crosby's home. Soon after, Peter was busted for hashish possession, spending three months in an Oklahoma penitentiary. After he was released, he spent time between odd jobs.
A few years later, Peter ended up back in Southern California where he married Barbara Iannoli and took a job teaching at Pacific Hills School in Santa Monica. He taught many subjects including math and music, and also coached baseball. Teaching was not very successful because he couldn't get along with the system, so he was fired. He tried another school, but it ended the same way.
Peter finally decided to go back to show biz. He went out on his own and formed a few groups, the most notable being Peter Tork and The New Monks (no relation to The Monkees). They toured in Japan in the early 80's.
At that time, he finally realized he had a drinking problem, and he did something about it. "The bottom came for me in June, 1980," he said. "Then I managed to quit drinking. The following January I had my last toke of grass and last toot of snow. Since then my career has been puttering along at a steady rate." Peter then moved to New York, forming The Peter Tork Project.
Now Peter has a solo album, Stranger Things Have Happened and he has perfomed many solo shows. He also has an album, Two Man Band, with friend, James Lee Stanley. Peter can still be seen in solo shows, mostly in Southern California, with his blues band, Shoe Suede Blues, or doing shows with James Lee Stanley.