Peter Tork and the Box We Can’t Escape

Peter Tork, one of my childhood icons, died last week. He was 77.

The Monkees’s movie “Head” was released in 1968, the year I was born, but I didn’t see it until I was an adult.

This is despite the fact that I was an avid watcher of reruns of “The Monkees” as a child. I was excited at possibility that, as they promised in their song, they might soon be coming to my town.

If you’d asked that very young me which Monkee I liked best, I probably would have said it was Davy. He seemed like the most popular of them, the smartest, and the most attractive. Mike reminded me of my older brother; Mickey reminded me of me. And at that age, Peter was “the other one.”

I don’t remember when I finally saw the movie, but it changed how I saw Peter. Peter was no longer the goofy “other one” following behind the others.

In 1996, half a lifetime ago, I wrote an article about the image of the fool in Western culture, particularly pop culture. I mentioned Peter’s pivotal scene in “Head.” “The fool knows nothing,” I wrote, “and this is all we really need to know.”

After I published that article, the president of Tork’s fan club reached out to me and said that he was flattered at being mentioned in the article. I was awestruck.

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The movie expresses two major frustrations. One was the band’s irritation at the manufactured nature of Hollywood and the entertainment industry, of which they were the most blatant example. The other, more subtle perhaps, was the way in which the innocent bubblegum of entertainment was hiding the gore and war on the other side of the planet, in Vietnam.

Near the end of the film, Peter is in a sauna listening to a swami about the nature of belief, reality, and imagination. Another person adds steam, causing Peter to lose the swami in the mist.

He leaves, looking for the swami. Instead, he finds Mike and Mickey looking up at a bikini-clad model threatening to jump off a building. He tries to get their attention, but they call him rude and otherwise ignore him. Mike bets Mickey $10 that the woman will jump. The actual risk to this woman is ignored; she is utterly objectified.

He finds Davy, who’s freaking out about a giant eyeball he saw in a medicine cabinet, and tries to tell him about what he’s learned. But Davy is also not interested in listening. They walk back outside, where Mike is holding the bikini-clad model and Mickey is counting out bet money into his hand. Mike casually hands the model to Peter, and the other three Monkees walk off as Peter shouts after them to listen.

He catches up to them as they’re escorted through a door which then slams behind them, leaving the four of them imprisoned again. Peter finally convinces them to listen, and gives his speech, a version of what he’d gotten in the steam room.

“Perhaps you’d like to sit down,” he begins, lighting a candle. “We were talking with the Master regarding the nature of conceptual reality. Psychologically speaking, the human mind, or brain, or whatever, is almost incapable of distinguishing between the real and the vividly imagined experience. Sound and film of music and radio, even these manipulated experiences are received more or less directly and uninterpreted by the mind. They are cataloged and recorded and either acted upon directly or stored in the memory, or both.

“Now, this process, unless we pay it tremendous attention, begins to separate us from the reality of the now. Am I being clear? For we must allow the reality of the now to just happen as it happens. Observe and act with clarity. For where there is clarity there is no choice, and where there is choice, there is misery. But then, why should I speak, since I know nothing.”

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Davy is stunned that they listened to that entire speech when Peter knows nothing, and starts getting upset. Mike tries to call him down, but he just gets more upset, insisting that they need to get out of the box.

“Don’t you see, David,” Peter says calmly. “It doesn’t matter whether we’re in the box or not.”

Davy gets more upset. “I’ll show you how to get out of this box. You want to get out of this box? This is how you get out!” Then he kicks the door down, and leads the others in a fight scene where they try to punch their way to freedom.

In the few minutes left of the film, though, they get stuck boxes several more times, including in the last shot.

The two frustrations of the movie come together in Peter’s exploration of fabricated reality: The Vietnam War was real, but the entertainment industry, including their own Pinocchio band that dreamed of being real, was a comfortable distraction. A process that separated us from the reality of the now.

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Watching this sequence again, a quarter century after my previous article and thinking about Tork’s passing, I can’t help but reflect on the metaphor of the box as it relates to the Man Box often discussed on The Good Men Project.

The movie is about boxes, masks, and fabricated reality. Davy uses a tool of toxic masculinity—unthinking violence—to try to get out of the box. But Peter’s message is that we spend too much time thinking about the very box we feel trapped inside.

We’re always in a box. I see progressive men boxing up themselves and others with the same rigidity as that of the Man Box. The rules for conformity may be different, but the consequence for apostasy is still ostracism.

We can either continue to fight this reality or we can accept it and design our own boxes. Maybe that’s what Peter was trying to say in that box half a century ago. (And does it matter whether it was Peter Tork, the real person, or the character in the movie? I don’t think it does.)

Just a few weeks ago, I wrote on my Facebook, “I don’t think I’ll ever meet Peter Tork.” It was an oddly prescient statement, emerging from a manic haze in the wake of depression. I doubt I would ever have met him regardless, but now that door is shut entirely.

The world could use more men like Peter Tork. Rest in peace, gentle spirit. The world is a darker place without your candle light.

Originally published on The Good Men Project.

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