Shoe Suede Blues: Peter Tork & Me

Anyone who is a cable TV subscriber has probably once or twice run across the TV Land cable channel.  The Nickelodeon owned station broadcasts classic programs from the inception of the medium through the early ‘90s.  You can watch at any given time “Leave It To Beaver” to “Night Court”.  On occasion they even broadcast original programming tied to their format of “classic TV”.


One of the new original shows they air now is “Living in TV Land”. The premise of the show is they spend time in the real life with an actual star from one of these shows.  Two weeks ago they spent time with Adam West (Batman) as he got into a fly fishing contest with a rabid fan and Los Angeles radio personality.  Last night they hung out with Davy Jones on The Monkees.  Well, recently I got to take part in my own “Living In TV Land”.

While surfing the net to check out concerts in the region I ran across an interesting concert.  Playing in Marietta, GA was a band called Peter Tork and Shoe Suede Blues.  Yes… that Peter Tork of The Monkees fame I soon discovered.


I researched a little further to see what the deal was.  The Monkees were a cultural phenomenon from 1966 through the end of the decade.  Hot off the heels of the Beatles invading America and changing the way we listened to music, dressed or wore our hair, network executives came up with the idea of a television series about a rock band, set in usually comic situations.  The show would then showcase a song from some of the best current and up and coming artists.  Thus the birth of The Monkees. 


The Monkees were an American Beatles of sort.  The Beatles had released two highly-regarded humorous movies that showcased their music.  “A Hard Days Night” and “Help!”  are regarded as well-made showcases that endeared the British lads to the world as well as serving as a vehicle for their music.


The Monkees were a wildly popular TV series that aired on NBC from 1966-68.  The show and the band had many critics and fans.  Dubbed by critics as the Pre-Fab Four because they didn’t play their own instruments on their first albums, they were revered as America’s answer to The Beatles.  Between 1966 and 1968 the quartet featuring Mickey Dolenz, Davy Jones, Mike Nesmith, and Tork charted four number one albums in a row.


Some of the greatest songwriters of the generation and all time wrote many of their songs that still to this day are played on commercial radio.  Carol King, Neil Young, Tommy Boyce, Bobby Hart, and Harry Nilsson are a few of the names that wrote some of the band’s songs.  


“Daydream Believer”, “Stepping Stone”, “Pleasant Valley Sunday”, “Last Train to Clarksville” are just a few of the songs that are embedded in musical history that were made famous by the Monkees.


As a small boy (and yes I was small once) I knew who The Monkees were before I could read or write.  While I couldn’t count to ten or spell my name, I could sing “Pleasant Valley Sunday” word for word thanks to a teenage sister who was a fan – as was myself.


So when I ran across Tork’s name online and found out he was touring with his blues band Shoe Suede Blues, an outfit he formed in the mid-‘90s, I investigated further.


I contacted his management about possibly coming to the show and reviewing it.  Surprisingly, I heard back from them (Woodland Moth) quickly.  Not only was I invited to come to the show, I was asked if I’d like to interview Peter while I was there.  I was speechless.  I can’t think of another band or band member I wanted to speak with – one of my pop culture icons.


Getting to the club was another adventure.  I usually know my way around the Atlanta area.  Marietta is quite different as I soon found out.  After numerous stops and no one – at least the ones that could speak English (not a racist remark, but a true fact) a nice hostess at this one restaurant I stopped in called the club for me to get directions.


The landmark mentioned in the recorded message said it was across from “The Big Chicken”.  That was a landmark I knew.  Still no sign of this club called Darwin’s.  The employees at “The Big Chicken” (Kentucky Fried Chicken) knew nothing of the club.  This Spanish-speaking guy across the street in the parking lot of a K-Mart did not understand what I was saying.  I then ventured into a barbecue restaurant.


One of the employees there apparently was a partier as her friends were giving her a hard time saying as much as she partied in the area, she had to know where it was.  She had actually heard of it – a first this night so far.  While she had never been in the venue she finally pointed me in the right direction.


I stopped in my tenth convenience store for directions (no exaggeration) and the line was long.  I asked the guy in line in front of me if he had heard of the club or the street address that I had.


The gods finally smiled upon me as he literally lived a block from the venue and told me it was two lights up on the right.  Finally.


Upon arriving at the club parking was tricky.  On the marquee outside it read “Peter Tork”.  There wasn’t a parking space to be found.  Parking at a nearby accountant’s office, I finally finished my trek and headed towards the entrance of the club.


As I approached I heard a song that sounded familiar.  It was a Monkee’s song.  I knew I was in the right place.  The 400-seat venue was jam-packed with no place to move.  


I was greeted at the door by Shoe Suede Blues’ management and escorted to a front row seat to watch the show.  I was literally three-feet away from the one and only Peter Tork.  Admittedly I was a little intimidated and in awe.  Here was a guy whose TV show I watched religiously growing up, attended anniversary shows and knew most of the words to the songs his old band he played – and I was front row and invited to speak with him afterward.  


The club was small, the crowd was packed and I enjoyed two solid sets of original and classic blues, old rock standards and a few Monkees songs sprinkled in.  Then our face-to-face meeting was on.


All of the musicians that I’ve interviewed over the years they all point to the blues as being a major influence.  What influence has the blues had on your music?


None. I play the blues without any influence whatsoever.  Next question. (pause) Are you paying attention?  These are the jokes!  Sure.  I didn’t hear anybody doing the blues well in Greenwich Village.  The only ones that were doing it were little white wanna-bes and that didn’t teach me anything.  So I waited until I got enough influence to get to do it for real.


In an interview I read you said the blues as a genre intimidated you.


They don’t anymore   They did intimidate me when I was much younger – I didn’t have the technique.  The blues is a number of things.  One of them is an understanding I think of reality – an understanding of reality, which you don’t come by very easily, but on top of that it’s a cultural understanding.  You have to understand African-American experience.  Without that, you’re just doing it.  It’s nothing – nothing if you don’t have any sense of that.  Which means you have to have a sense of yourself as an oppressed person.  Everyone of us – all of God’s children have been oppressed in their lives.  Not everybody is willing to face that fact and it is the white man’s disease.  If you’re willing the face the very bottom of your life and face that you’re the angels and you’re the mud.  And if you won’t face that, then you’re just going to be flat-lined emotionally.  You can’t play the blues that way.  Lastly, it’s a certain bag of techniques.  You have to have a fair share of those.  You don’t have to have all of them.  You don’t have to do this or do that – you have to have a share of them.  My share is actually relatively small.  It’s sufficient for me for the time being.  It’s enough for me to get out on the stage and play.  I’ve got great support and wonderful musicians.


How long has Shoe Suede Blues been a band? 


I don’t know.


I read that it got together in 1994.


That’s probably about right.



That’s a good accomplishment.  How have you managed to keep the project together for so long?


I can’t tell you.  Desire, willingness, good luck.  The fact is from the very outset we swept up.  We were very lucky.  A benefit concert here, a benefit concert there, somebody invited me – a personal fan of mine before invited the band out to the east coast and arranged a few other gigs.  We did it again.  We did it again.  Pretty soon we began to find ourselves playing on a regular basis.  Then we went up and we went up and then we hit a bump and went down for a while.  Right now we’re on our way back up again.  Other than that I can’t tell you.


Has this project been easier seeing that you’re more mature and playing with more mature players?


No.  It’s easier in some ways and harder in others.  This maturity thing is a wash.  You get smarter and slower.  It comes out to about the same thing.


How have you enjoyed playing these intimate venues you’ve played on this tour?


I absolutely don’t care one way or another what the actual size of the house is.  Tonight we were lucky.  We had a good-sized crowd relative to the size of the room.  That’s all I care about, really.  Three or four in a room for five is not a bad house.  500 in a room for 1,500 is a pretty feeble audience.  That’s the only important thing – that the house be reasonably well attended given the size of the house.  And I find that each size of a show has its own rewards and its own distractions.  I couldn’t dance tonight because there wasn’t any room.  Last night I could dance all I wanted, but the room was so big that the sound took a half-second delay to get back to me.  You win some and you lose some. 


What influence did early radio have on your musical tastes?


Oh surely.  The rock and roll of the Fifties.  I still revere that music extremely.  Just for a brief shining moment country was rockabilly was blues was R&B.  Those musics all overlap immensely that you could just barely decide one was one, and another another.  Some of the beats that came out of that era are still the best beats available today.  I was not interested in songs that didn’t have harmonic inventiveness in the early days, and then came along a song that had wonderful harmonic inventiveness.  I’m talking about Elvis Presley’s “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You”.  It was a glorious big drama song.  It was a breakthrough for me.  After that I was a big rock and roll aficionado.


Being a multi-instrumentalist, did any of the instruments come to you easier than others?


No.  It’s all the same.  Each instrument has its own facilities, its own challenges.  It’s funny.  I think I play piano best of all.  I think I rank highest as a banjo player among all the people who do what I do at any given thing.  In other words I’m in the 15th percentile as a piano player, and maybe 25th as a guitar player and 85th as a banjo player, but I don’t know why that is.  One, is it’s simple, I get to relax, I don’t know.    Each thing is different and I don’t get to dance as much.  I play guitar mostly because I get to dance with it.  Piano doesn’t dance.  It just sits there – a wallflower instrument – a stick in the mud.


When the Beatles broke in America, what influence did that have on you?


The Beatles made me want to be a pop musician.  Again, they were so inventive and the music was such a good trip that it was a delight to hear them.  And they were the rescue of rock and roll.  After the Fifties rock thing the music went totally bland again – totally bland. It was like, “How much for that doggie in the window?  Arf! Arf!”  That was pop music back then.  Suddenly here come the Beatles and they’re just wonderful musicians.  The whole thing and McCartney can shout the blues like anybody.  They were just glorious.  The Beatles were fabulous.  Of course I wanted to be a Beatle – that’s why I joined the Monkees.  


Your thoughts on being a pop culture icon.


I have nothing to compare it with.  I didn’t have a life other than that life.  I did the best I could.  I ran as hard as I could with what I had going.  It was a wonderful trip and enjoyed it hugely, and it was a pain in the ass, and I quit.   I rejoined and I quit again.  If that doesn’t tell you the size of my confusion then nothing will.


Compare being on the road with this band to your earlier experiences.


I had a great time.  Sometimes I had wonderful glorious adventures.  Sometimes it was a bore.  These are the funniest guys I’ve gone along with.  Sometimes Mickey and Davy were pretty funny.  The amenities of the Monkees were always better.  We slept in better hotels and beds.  I had better travel arrangements, more tech support to set up my instruments.  The music wasn’t as good with the Monkees.  Sometimes it was great, but sometimes not as good.  Basically I have to say the Monkees’ music, which was good, was not on stage as most any other product I’d been with for me at the time.  I can’t say the Monkees weren’t better than some other bands I’d been with, but I did the best I could in every single one of them.  I had the best people I could find in every single one of them and the Monkees had a higher professionalism because we had a backup band and as a quartet, just the four of us playing I’ve read some good things about that band and some no so good things about that band.  .


What is your opinion of commercial radio today?


Don’t listen to it.  

I read an interview when you were talking about the last days of the Monkees you said, “All I ever wanted was to be a member of a group”.  I was wondering that with Shoe Suede Blues, do you finally feel you have accomplished that?


You’re making an assumption.  The word finally includes an assumption.  I have felt that way many times throughout the years.  I felt it in the Monkees.    One time we’re in Kyoto and we hit the pocket. We grooved like mothers.  Jonesie heard it.  Jonesie came over to me and screamed at the top of his lungs, “We’re gonna form a group!”  He knew what I wanted to do.  The groove was there.  Dolenz and I were slammin’.  It was so good.  But it didn’t happen very often.  Other bands I’ve had it’s happened.  It’s happened in every band I’ve been in sooner or later to some extent.  So you can’t say finally.  This band is the best band I’ve ever been in.  This is the best music I’ve ever done – the best musicians I’ve ever been with by most standards.  The Monkees’ backup bands were very, very proficient, but they didn’t groove like these guys do.  Overall this is certainly the best that I’ve been in, but the word finally – no good.  I’ve been happy to be in group after group after group.  It’s been wonderful.  It’s been a great ride now that I think of it.  It’s been a great ride.


 – Dave Weinthal

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