ARCHIVES: The Day of The Monks has passed

This is one of my pre-Franorama World blog posts. It ran in the Fresno Beehive Jan. 14, 2008, 4:43 p.m. PST:

(Photo L-R: bassist Eddie Shaw, organist Larry Clark, drummer Roger Johnston, singer/guitarist Gary Burger and banjoist Dave Day.)

Started the work week with a sad email. Well, it’s sad if you know some of the secret history of rock’n’roll and even sadder if you got the chance to see these guys up close. Dave Day (born Dave Havlicek), banjo player for The Monks — the great lost-and-found rock band — and arguably the second-best musician to come from Renton, Wash., after Jimi Hendrix, died Thursday morning of heart failure at 60.

So what does this mean and why should you care about a banjo player? Well, if you grew up with punk and other alternative music forms, The Monks — five mid-’60s American ex-GIs in West Germany, who tore through the same manic club scene The Beatles trod before them — were the first punk band.

In terms of sound, you could argue that The Sonics, who stormed out of mid-’60s Tacoma/Seattle with their loud, raucous wails, were the first. You could argue it was The Velvet Underground, with their artsiness and disdain for the norm, but you couldn’t dance to them. But in terms of attitude and breaking of conventional rules and making it loud and making you want to move? It was The Monks. And Dave — who took a hit for the team by giving up his Chuck Berry aspirations to shift to playing rhythm banjo — was the heart of the band, the guy who seemed to have the most fun with it. And so it was in his later years, too, in an unexpected and triumphant final chapter.

Picture this: It’s 1966, in the menacing shadow of Iron Curtain, and here’s a band of five U.S. Army vets who ditched their cover tunes to play furious music while Lyndon Johnson was escalating the Vietnam conflict back home. Five guys who, in an era of colorful, outlandish clothes, wore solid black, save for the rope ties around their necks. Five guys who, in a day when long hair was the norm, cut theirs short — and shaved tonsures, monk-style, into their skulls. A band who, in the midst of a million-and-one pop love songs, were singing such tunes as “Complication,” “Shut Up” and “I Hate You (But Call Me).” A band that was protesting Vietnam before it was hip. (“Why did you kill all those kids over there in Vietnam?” singer/guitarist Gary Burger shouted on “Monk Time.”) A band that included an organist with a demented church sound (Larry Clark, ne Larry Spangler) and a rhythm banjoist, and experimented with feedback independently of The Beatles and “I Feel Fine.”

Those were The Monks — iconoclastic and near-anarchic 10 years before what we came to know as punk, sounding like absolutely nothing before or since. They recorded one album overseas for Polydor, “Black Monk Time,” and some singles, then flamed out in 1967. (If you find a copy of the original vinyl LP, it’ll run you over $500.)

Hard to believe any of this? After all, no one in America knew of them at the time. Thankfully, some people took notes and music lovers spread the word. Thanks to YouTube, you now can see clips of them in their mad prime, on a West German “Bandstand”-style show called “Beat-Club.” (Dave, hammering his banjo on “Oh, How to Do Now,” looks like he’s having the most fun of the five.) The bassist, Eddie Shaw, co-wrote (with his first wife, Anita Klemke) an autobiography, also called “Black Monk Time” (Carson Street Publishing), published in 1995. Rick Rubin reissued the “Black Monk Time” album on CD on his short-lived Infinite Zero label in 1997. Coca-Cola used “Monk Time” in a circa-2000 Powerade commercial (a hockey spot, with L.A. Kings goalie Jamie Storr). There’s an official Web site, www.the-monks.com.

And in November 1999, 32 years after flaming out, The Monks finally got to play two shows on their home soil, at the WestBeth Theatre in New York, at the Cavestomp festival. Gary lost his voice the day before the first show (a diehard fan named Mike Fornatale picked up the slack), but the two appearances were a triumph of spirit, and something we’d never thought we’d see. And, again, Dave seemed to be having the most fun of the whole bunch — nothing but a big, beaming smile the whole time. (He also had enough hair left to shave in a tonsure.) The festival was a long-delayed validation of what he and his bandmates had done and gone through. And he loved the experience so much that he and his wife, Irene, came back to Cavestomp the next year just to hang out and talk to fans.

Oddly enough, it was a year ago this very week that I saw Dietmar Post’s and Lucia Palacios’ documentary, “monks: the transatlantic feedback,” at the Berlin & Beyond Film Festival in San Francisco, which helped flesh out the era in which they thrived. (I also keep hoping that Eddie’s book will eventually be made into a film, which was the original intent.) Dave, filmed with Irene at their home up in Washington, seemed quite at peace. But time takes its usual toll. Roger Johnston, an animal of a drummer who played with the butt ends of his sticks, died in November 2004. The band went on to play in Spain, England and back in Germany, as well as Gary’s home state of Minnesota (where he’s a small-town mayor).

But now that Dave’s gone — the heart of the band, felled by a failed heart — the Day, and day, of The Monks has truly passed. I’m just glad some of us got to see them and experience them and let them know how much we appreciated what they did. And that history was set straight. And that Dave got to enjoy a degree of fame in his final years. And that inspiraition and heart prevailed — even if it did take a couple of generations …

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One Response to “ARCHIVES: The Day of The Monks has passed”

  1. 25 Songs for Norton’s 25th (and then some) « Franorama World Says:

    […] by the great lost American band, The Monks. If The Sonics were sonically the first punk band, then The Monks were spiritually the […]

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