The first public performance given anywhere by the Monkees didn’t occur at an amphitheater or civic arena. It happened just north of La Jolla — on a temporary stage erected at what is now Del Mar’s Powerhouse Park.
We thought a good way to remember Peter Tork — the bass-playing Monkee who died on Feb. 21 at age 77, following a battle with cancer — is by retelling a story everyone seems to have forgotten.
The date was Sept. 11, 1966. The Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville” was already No. 61 on the Billboard chart. But since “The Monkees” wouldn’t debut on NBC-TV until the following night, the group — which went on to earn some musical credibility but was hatched strictly as a prefabricated Beatles knock-off — was still faceless to the American public. The performance was part of a contest staged by L.A. radio station KHJ-AM, whose 400 winners entered to see “the next Beatles” perform and then ride “the last train to Clarksville” with them back to Los Angeles.
The 16-coach special pulled into Del Mar — the train station used by most La Jollans at the time — with the contest-winners (and their parental chaperones) at 3:18 p.m.. It was followed 45 minutes later by two Monkee-bearing helicopters that landed on the concrete ruins of the old Del Mar Plunge saltwater swimming pool.
Tork, singer Davy Jones, singer/guitarist Mike Nesmith and singer/drummer Micky Dolenz were greeted by applause and, according to the Sept. 12, 1966 San Diego Union, “a gorilla-like mascot who led them to the open-air stage by the lifeguard tower.”
There, they picked up their instruments and performed two songs: Nesmith’s “Papa Gene’s Blues” and “She’s So Far Out, She’s In” by songwriter Baker Knight.
The Union story included neither a byline nor the song titles. In fact, this is all it had to say about the historic performance itself: “The mopheads, in their wine-colored shirts, gray pants and black boots, performed to the satisfaction of their fans.”
Even one of the contest’s architects recalled the event dismissively. In the 1997 Nesmith biography “Total Control” by Randi Massingill, KHJ promotions associate Barbara Hamaker said: “We rented a train from Union Station down in L.A. and we created a fictitious Clarksville. We used some podunk town called Del Mar, California that was on the beach between Los Angeles and San Diego. It had a little, old-fashioned train station and we put a big Clarksville sign over the station and we gave away tickets on the air.”
Not being taken seriously at the time was only one reason the performance was forgotten. More significantly, it was never preserved for posterity. KHJ shot a film, which aired on an L.A. television show called “BossCity” on Sept. 17, 1966. However, that footage has long since gone missing. (If it’s ever rediscovered one day, then the event, Powerhouse Park and the Del Mar train station might earn the small paragraph in rock history that they deserve.)
In 1983, the area that would become Powerhouse Park — named after a powerhouse built in 1910 for the then-isolated Stratford Inn (today the L’Auberge), which also built the Plunge — was purchased by the City of Del Mar and underwent a 17-year transformation into the lush grass park, playground and community center that exists today.
The train station — in 1966 the only passenger stop between San Diego and Oceanside — closed when the larger Solana Beach Transit Center opened two miles north in 1994. However, the original station building was saved from demolition by a consortium of local real-estate developers who now use it as offices.
“The Monkees” aired on NBC from 1966 to 1968 and experienced a brief resurgence in the mid-’80s via reruns on MTV. The group members have toured, solo and in various reunion configurations, on and off since 1986.
Tork is the second Monkee to die, following Jones, who succumbed to a heart attack on Feb. 29, 2012 at age 66. They are survived in the group by Nesmith, 76, and Dolenz, 73.