Sometimes to pretend to be a rock band is the best camouflage for any group of radicals to infiltrate the enemy’s territory. Monk songs are uniquely, carelessly modern precis of living.
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“Let’s start a beat!,” he growls.
And when Roger Johnston does, it sounds like workmen dropping cinder blocks down a flight of stairs. Eddie instantly locks down on top of it. He knows exactly what to do with this. He’s a jazz man. It’s improv time! Gary summons thunder laced feedback, he takes his guitar off and swings it like a razor-sharp pendulum in front of his amp. Dave offers steady counter rhythm chops on the banjo and Larry eggs them all on, tickling piercing notes out of the high end of his keyboard. The song goes where it wants, roaming like a street gang out for a night on the town. The crowd froths. This is magic! We are hearing a new Monks song unfold, one that has never been played before. And when the tune shudders to a halt CAVESTOMP! has been reduced to rubble!
What you hold in your sweaty little hands proves beyond a doubt that the monks 1999 New York performance has entered the fabled annals of Great Shows. Don’t take my word for it. Put this CD in your stereo and hit play. Thirty-two years after last playing, the monks have arrived. Some are born posthumously.
– Will Bedard
I’m a monk, you’re a monk, we’re all monks. funny thing about that...
One Sunday night in April of 1999, I went down into my basement studio, pulled out a few instruments, and whipped off a quick takeoff on “monk time,” turning it into a Christmas song, of all things. “Alright, my name’s Rudolph! Let’s go, it’s reindeer time, it’s...” Yeah, well, you hadda BE there. I sent a copy to each of the monks, and crossed my fingers hoping their sense of humor was as highly developed as my own. Such as it is. Well, lucky for me, they loved it. And, shortly thereafter, when they announced their first show in 32 years, and first EVER in America, they all told me to make sure I introduced myself. So I did...at their in-store appearance on Wednesday, and again at Eddie Shaw’s book-reading on Thursday. The shows were to begin the next evening.
Friday morning, at about 8:45, my phone rings. What the... “Hello?” “Mike?” “Yeah.” “Eddie Shaw.” “Hey!” “Uh...you got any plans for today?” “Oh...the usual. You know. Raking leaves and seeing the monks.” “How many of our songs do you know?” (Pause) “All of ‘email guess...why...” “Gary has laryngitis. He can’t sing. He can’t even talk.”
“Do you think you could come to the Westbeth at 3, for the soundcheck?” “...yeaaahhhh...” “Okay, look, we’re gonna present this scenario to the promoter. One thing though: we’ve changed the keys on a couple of the songs, and lowered them...can you sing them in the lower keys?”
“...sure... guess whatever works for you guys.” “Now that’s the kind of f***ing singer I LIKE.” “...[strangled chuckle]...” “Okay. You’re a Monk. See you at 3.” ‘kay...”
My wife Wendy notices that my face is a greenish blue and there are sparks popping out of my ears. She deduces that something unusual has happened. I relate the story, as best as I can. It sounds to me as though my voice is coming from another room...
Enough about me, this isn’t MY album. But this lengthy explanation will serve as an answer to the inevitable “Who’s that other guy singing?” question. Well, Gary’s throat wasn’t all that scorched after all, and most of what you will hear on this document is The Actual Gary. But that’s me at the end of “monk time,” the high parts in “Oh How To Do Now,” all of “Higgle-dy Piggle-dy,” and I got to trade off verses with Gary on “I Hate You.” Roger sings “Cuckoo and I Can’t Get Over You.” Eddie and Dave sing “Boys Are Boys” with Gary. And everything else you hear is All Burger, no filler.
It was an amazing experience for me, to say the least. But y’know what? I didn’t get to see the show.
– Mike Fornatale
What we expect from life ... and what we get Aesthetic. Cells of a large interdependent organism. monks. Music of Magritte frozen. Timelessness transfixed. White souls in black suits. How did we get to “the monks”? Why am I squeezed out from under my nice warm alternative rock by this twisted, loud, dada minimalist thud of protest and sensuality masquerading as a beat music combo? monks. Spirit. Belief. Confession. Echoing cathedral engines in Vox boxes. I suspect that only the best of bands have the audacity and faith in themselves to turn to each other with supreme confidence saying, “let’s start a beat!” I know that its monk time!
The Monks know they are laying the legend on the line. One perfect album and a perfect legacy is at risk. The Big Apple isn’t known for tolerating middle-aged men trying to recapture past glories...I enter the Westbeth Theatre Centre on Friday evening November 5th. Mike Fornatale’s there. He’s a devoted Monks fan who has suddenly been handed the key to Mecca. Word has circulated that Gary Burger has a case of laryngitis. Mike can replicate Gary’s voice to a “T” and he is brought in as insurance to help handle vocal chores if necessary. It couldn’t have been scripted any better. After all, “I’m a monk! You’re a monk! We’re all monks!”
I squirm into the packed main hall. The audience screams with abandon as a cabinet bearing the legend “monks” is set up around Larry’s keyboards. Then, five guys step out of a time warp onto a New York stage. They are beautiful and sublime in black robes and rope ties. Dave Day sports an actual tonsure circa ‘66. The crowd loses its collective marbles. The band takes off their robes and arm themselves for battle.
“I hate you, baby, with a passion,” somebody in the audience screams.
“We hate you, too,” Eddie Shaw deadpans.
The crowd howls with delight. I’ve never seen a New York audience behave like novitiates who are more than willing to sacrifice their cynical celibacy in the name of Awe and Wonder. They’re totally fascinated, as if watching backwoods preachers handling snakes. MC extraordinaire and leader of the world famous Fleshtones, Peter Zaremba gauges the crowd who are now set to pop. Making sure the monks are ready, and they are, he declares, “IT IS BLACK ... MONK ... TIME ... NOW!” ... And the band rips into “monk time.” First, there’s the whir of the organ. Then, the clack of the banjo. It makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. And suddenly, those immortal lead lines courtesy of Gary Burger. Gary plays much looser than on the record. He uses the original versions as springboards, hurtling past the bridge and hurling himself into gales of feedback. His hangnail solos are wildebeests on tricycles.
Eddie Shaw is the Devil. His countenance harbors a look that says “Why me?” He is enveloped by eternities. He contains multitudes. He has always played Hell’s own bass. Eddie pins the song to the mat, allowing Gary to kick it in the head. Repeatedly.
Roger Johnston’s drumming is the essential element in their foreplay. He still has that jungle groove hardwired into his genes. He and Eddie make up the most unique rhythm section in rock n roll. It’s impossible to understand “over-beat” until you actually hear it live. Roger is loud. He grips his sticks upside down, punishing his kit. His tom toms bellow in protest.
Larry sticks to the original solos, until Gary goads him to get loose and nutty. Larry obliges and summons waves of off-kilter rhythm and fractured melody from his keyboards. Together they create a beautiful dissonance.
And Dave? Well, Dave’s more than just your average windmilling banjo-playing sideman! Wind him up, let him go, and he becomes Earl Scruggs and Pete Townshend inhabiting the body of The King himself, as he gets down on his knees, doing Elvis Live at Leeds. Dave Day IS rock-n-roll.
Mike Fornatale is in his glory. He nails the high harmony parts perfectly. Closing my eyes, I imagine I’m at Hamburg’s Top Ten Club in 1966. But Mike’s vast resources, for the most part, will go untapped this evening as Gary covers his territory with air to spare. When it’s over, Mike will walk away a monk through trial by fire and having had the best seat in the house. He’ll be remembered as more a part of and less a witness to what may be the only monks show ever after 32 years!
It’s beyond transcendent! When Dave and Gary cross the necks of their respective instruments, conjuring shards of feedback it puts dueling banjos to shame. The crowd roars its appreciation as Dave fingers the neck of Gary’s guitar, shocking himself in the process. The crowd yells the chorus to “Shut Up,” raising fists and pounding out the beat in mid-air. After 32 years, it all ends too quickly. The monks take off their rope ties and swing them over their heads before tossing them into the audience. They stalk off. The crowd is insatiable, stomping and shrieking. The monks return to the stage. They’ve played every song in their set. They don’t know any more. Gary turns to Roger.
The Velvet Underground did that, The Pretty Things too, even Throbbing Gristle. To my way of thinking, if you don’t have an amicable arrangement with mother cut-up, with so-called random chance, synchronicity and immediacy, then you are primarily show business.
In this monk music, these dum-dum bullets of songs so descriptive of the intersection of five displaced, upstart Americans, I can hear fairground calliopes; early gospel rock and roll; military beats; ragtime; even, dare I say it, a little polka from the Hamburger holler; and a lot of savvy, sarcastic commentary and preciously cynical attitude. I hear a cheekiness that softens the edges of an aural apocalypse and it doesn’t matter if the monks knew or not these sounds were here, or if it was knowing or innocent that they somehow encapsulate the post-war occupied German environment so exactly. All these collisions and elements, in the end are merely the facets and sonic edges of the rough cut diamond that is larger than chic, closer to the source of an immense energy that, through hidden but enormous pressures, created this priceless moment in music, this crystalline clear, refracting gem that focuses and displays an illumination that can never wear away, dull, or lose its purity or intensity. The monks strip away the decorative paraphernalia of the sixties post-Elvis song. Remove so much extraneous material until then considered essential to a well-crafted pop anthem with a ruthlessness not to be seen again until the intellectualized minimalism of New York, and the seminal explorations of early Industrial music in England years later. “Pretty Suzanne,” “I Hate You,” “monk time,” “Higgle-dy Piggle-dy” sound so ultra-(post?) modern now, especially the atonal roarings of guitar in these live 1999 CAVESTOMP! performances, that a thrill chill of a future leaking through from a past murkily invades the marrow of one’s jaded bones and rejuvenates inspiration like a Keith Richards transfusion. “My God!” our brain blurts. Can you imagine what they’d have been like if they’d played in London in 1966-67 AND taken acid! How hugely popular they would have been! Oh how I wish!
All these songs are rifts. Riffs with the potential for infinite progressions and swirling improvisations. Riffs are the best non-aligned units for a single-minded and original research platform parading in the guise of a beat combo called “the monks.”
Sometimes to pretend to be a rock band is the best camouflage for any group of radicals to infiltrate the enemy’s territory. Monk songs are uniquely, carelessly modern precis of living. Sparse to the point of perverse. Taking the least to achieve the most. The soul of poetry. I keep trying to think of other metaphors to highlight the sheer beauty of how little is consciously used to affect so much. I was right before, dum-dum bullets. These short sharp flying projectiles of music and slogans rip through all one’s aesthetic armour and splinter and shatter into thousands of deconstructing, preconception-levelling seizures of sheer sonic supremacy. That we have these recordings. That the monks made music so pristine. That thanks to Jon Weiss and his crew of visionaries, they played live again with such visible enthusiasm, enabling us to listen and re-evaluate with awe the accelerating relevance of their work. That 32 years could only distill the heady infusion to a perfect bouquet sipped to savour but always ending up with pulsing intoxication. That we have all this is really a blessing. Thank you, monks.
All lead vocals by Gary Burger except
*Lead vocal by Rohger Johnston
**Lead vocal by Dave Day and Eddie Shaw
The Monks are: