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Hey, Hey, He's Back Again : Pop music: Ex-Monkee Peter Tork has started a new band, which plays at Bogart's tonight.

October 20, 1992|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VENICE — In one of his best musical moments as a Monkee, Peter Tork wrote and sang a song called "Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again?"

Sounding like Ringo Starr on a good day, Tork rode a psychedelic arrangement that pulsed with gritty electric guitar (courtesy of the singer's pal Stephen Stills) and a persuasive, rocking drive.

"Didn't I do it right the first time?. . . . Didn't I?" Tork kept demanding in the 1968 recording, his voice rising at the end to a strangled shriek, as if the obvious answer were about to drive him mad.

Twenty-four years later, Tork can face those questions calmly. He readily admits that he lacked the wherewithal to do it right the first time--"it" being the pursuit of a lasting post-Monkees musical career. Now Tork is trying to mount a comeback, thankful for the chance to do it all over again, and convinced he has the maturity now to get it right this time.

At the end of 1968, Tork became the first member of the Monkees to leave the "Prefab Four" and try to launch a band of his own. He failed abysmally, suffering one of the quickest and deepest plummets into oblivion of any pop icon who had enjoyed the kind of stature that Monkeedom conferred. Along with Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones and Michael Nesmith, Tork cavorted through two years of high jinks on the tube during 1966-67, and reaped the rewards of being in a band that had eight Top 20 hits and five Top 10 albums (four of them reaching No. 1 on the Billboard chart, the other hitting No. 3).

Last week, Tork sat in a '50s-style diner around the corner from his small, white stucco cottage in Venice, talking freely about the past and looking forward to what he hopes will be a solid future with his new band, which plays tonight at Bogart's.

At 50 (he says he no longer shaves two years off his true age, as he did in his teen-idol days), Tork still has the sweet, dimpled smile, the crinkled, twinkling brown eyes and the long, straight brown mop (although with hairline receding) of his Monkees days. No sooner had he sat at a booth than he was punching up oldies on a jukebox and singing along in high harmony to the Del Vikings and Elvis Presley. Tork showed he could still summon up the old Monkee-manic deportment on command, mugging once or twice with a wild grins and bug-eyed looks. But along with a lingering eagerness to entertain, and the occasional glibness of the practiced interviewee, came a strong measure of sincerity. Tork has an interesting story to tell; no need to monkey around.

Pondering the title of that song he sang years ago, Tork paused, smiled and nodded.

The very idea of having to "do it all over again" may have seemed a curse to the impatient young pop star who sounded so desperate as he sang that phrase. But to a middle-aged Tork, the opportunity to do it all over again comes as a blessing. Peter Tork is that rare fortunate person who has been given a chance in his maturity to retrace the path of his youth and make up for some of its shortcomings.

Tork's chance to do it right at 50 stems from the same pop phenomenon that set him up to blow it at 27: Monkeemania. A return of the Monkees phenomenon, fueled by reruns of the old TV episodes, brought Tork back into the limelight in 1986, led to three years of touring with Dolenz and Jones (Nesmith declined to take part in the reunion), and, he says, gave him both the resources and the motivation to pursue a musical comeback.

A mixture of fantasy and realism takes hold of Tork when he is asked to speculate about his prospects. In the end, realism asserts itself.

"I wanna be a rock 'n' roll star," Tork said, lightly. "Actually, I'm exaggerating. It's not about being a rock 'n' roll star. It's about getting to play the music full time. It's not about the following any more, the fame game. A little bit of fame is fun, but I've had enough, thank you. A part of me wants the arenas and to be Bruce Springsteen, but part of me says if I could just play clubs and make records and have enough money to send the kids to school, I'd be a happy camper."

Tork says he now has resources, both inner and artistic, that were lacking when he tried to go solo years ago.

"I can sing, which may not have been the case before, and I can play guitar," he said. "I'm a much better musician than I was then. Also, I feel, rightly or wrongly, that I have a much (more realistic) grasp of the attitude it takes."

Tork reflects evenly on the character flaws he sees in his younger self. He has a recovering alcoholic's sense of perspective, the ability to concede that, as the Monkees' 1986 comeback hit put it, "That was then, this is now." (Tork said he became aware in the late '70s that he had a drinking problem, and says he hasn't touched alcohol or other drugs in more than 11 years.)

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