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Y2K IST MONK TIME!
By Jake Austen


(From Roctober #26, 1999)

As you may know, the EVENT of the season was the monks reunion in New York at the Cavestomp 99 festival. If you don't know who the monks are read the book black monk time by Eddie Shaw, or articles in back issues of Roctober or Ugly Things, or seek out their 2 CDs of archival. The short of it, they were a combo of American G.I.s stationed in Germany who became a band in the post-Beatles Beat scene. After playing up to a dozen times a week for years they were such an incredibly tight unit that when they took an experimental route they performed challenging material with a sheen and perfection rarely associated with "anti-music." As the monks they shaved their heads and wore robes like their namesakes, and their trademark outfit was all black with rope/noose ties. A combination of unusual skills, bizarre, brilliant material and advanced, amazing recording techniques made their one album (German issue only) one of the most legendary Garage punk releases of all time.

Though they have had partial social reunions (no performances) over the last decade or so, never have all five been together since they left Germany over thirty years ago. This is mostly due to Larry, the eccentric, genius keyboard player, falling off the radar. Recently found (he wasn't hiding, he worked for IBM and then took lucrative early retirement) the boys were back together, and after a week of New York rehearsals they were ready to play two sets to a mob of adoring fans. Arriving early I walked in on rehearsal and was surprised to see a younger man singing with the band, and singing remarkably I might add, sounding exactly like Gary's wild voice on the record. In addition to the voice, his face contorted into the exact shapes and expressions seen on the rare surviving monks footage. Gary soon explained to me in a hoarse voice that he had blown his pipes out in rehearsal and doubted he'd be able to hit the wilder, falsetto parts. Here's where the story gets nuts.

Apparently there was a guy who hits the monks website twice a day, and is known as sort of the Weird Al of the underground. A monks novelty parody Christmas song he had done mimicked the voice and music of the band so perfectly, that when in this bind, despite the fact that they'd never met or spoke to the guy, they decided to give him a call to help out. Thus, when the monks eventually played their first show in 32 years, their first U.S. show ever, their number one fan would be singing with them. That explains why the young man almost passed out from nervousness when he left the rehearsal stage.

That night after some rousing fest performances by supporting acts, the headliners took the stage. The crowd actually went apeshit when they just set up their instruments, but after a film clip of an in the works monks-umentary that teased the frantic crowd who were frenzied with anticipation, the band entered the stage in hoods and robes and preceded to amaze the packed house. Only Dave Day still had the locks (and mentality) to shave a monk tonsure into his head, but all were dressed for battle in their classic black and rope tie ensembles. The energy in the room was incredible and the band fully delivered. Though they were, obviously, not as tight as on the record, the overriding truth of the situation was that all of them had such unique musical voices (Roger's tribal drumming, Eddie's powerful bass playing, Gary's savage feedback guitar, Larry's soulful keyboards and, of course, Dave's electric punk banjo) and the material is so incredibly strong that even of 60 or 70% they are still one of the most interesting, bizarre, moving acts you'll ever see. When they got to a song where Gary's vox couldn't cut it, they brought out the new monk and here was my sole contribution to monks lore. I earlier had suggested to Gary, to gain instant audience acceptance, that he introduce the singer as his son, and he did, and it worked. Though he laid the truth on the line at the end of the eve, the Gary-voice coming out of the Jr. monk's throat convinced people he was a true Son Of A Monk. The crowd readily accepted him, and one of the real joys of the performance was watching him balance poop-your-pants nervousness with perfect performance. Imagine this: You worship a band that will never perform again, and then they do get back together, and not only are you there, BUT YOU ARE IN THE BAND! And it's not like they let you sit in as a favor, they needed you. He really was a monk, a true Garage fairy tale!

Anyhow, the show was amazing, hard to really describe, to be honest. Everything, from banjo/guitar feedback wars to plenty of "making show" to genuine love from the crowd to the band and back made this pure magic.

Sunday's second monk set was a little sloppier as the boys were exhausted. Not from playing two nights previously, but more from the constant adulation they had been receiving non-stop for 72 hours. Dave alone held court at the bar non-stop, certainly meeting over a thousand people that week. They still sounded great, and Gary sang more of the songs, but they had to rest here and there, and they rarely ended a song in perfect unity. At the end of the set they were pooped and had played every song they ever wrote, when the perpetually glassy-eyed emcee Peter "Fleshtones" Zaremba urged them to play another. They were reluctant, and were about to just play something for a second time, when Gary had an idea. He had Roger play a monks beat and the band jammed and improvised an über-monks instrumental that was, to quote Accept, a balls to the wall barnburner. They were definitely going out on top with a killer, but I feared they wouldn't be able to pull of a together ending, as that had been the case all night, and a new monks song(!) seemed more likely than a classic to suffer that fate. As they tried to wind it up with punch it was almost there, but it stuttered and straggled and didn't quite make it, and I felt bittersweet as the notes died out. But then, as if from above, out of Larry's keyboards float flourishes of ancient church organ monk music, grabbing the loose ends of the tune and tying them together, floating the entire tune heavenward. It was a perfect ending.

Will the monks ever play again? If I were Pete Rose I wouldn't bet on it. One of the things that made them so unique musically and brought out the brilliance in their classic stuff was the unlikelihood of these five completely different, personally and musically, people getting together. Certainly old artistic and personality differences flared up that week. However, there are a number of factors that could get them together again, so I'd never say never. I suspect if a major motion picture of the monks story (very possible, if not probable) went down, we might see the black and rope again.

As far as the rest of the festival, everything was pretty great, and one of the most interesting things was that monks aside, the best bands to perform were each night's opening acts. Get to shows early, people! The Hate Bombs set on Friday was as solid and entertaining a Garage performance as you would hope to see, local boys Mooney Suzuki were actually brilliant on Saturday, delivering an explosive, dynamic set that, like the best rock, balanced hilarity and horror as precariously as possible, and Sunday's Greenhornes set heralded them as the future of the genre. Other standouts included the always twisted Demolition Dollrods and the Third Bardo, proving their Nugget about being ahead of their time was a truism. Being New York, the 80s Garage era was well represented, and I'm not the biggest Midnight/Voxx fan, but all the bands delivered. As far as the headliners, the most disappointing act of the fest was The Chocolate Watchband. They played a short set of classic stuff, and were pretty impressive, but then made the awful decision to end the set with an hour of fairly pedestrian new material, completely blowing a rare opportunity to play to an audience familiar with b-sides, rarities and album cuts. And they looked like Huey Lewis and the News. On the other hand, The Standells delivered a set that demonstrated the simple fact that they are very good at playing Garage music! They shined with great personality on stage and played their best material with incredible gusto and a great sound. Yes, there was an element of a state fair oldies act. Though they avoided all the negatives associated with such performances, like, say, playing "Satisfaction," nonetheless, they wore Standells T-shirts and basically looked like your favorite uncles having a good time.

And therein lies the magic of the monks. When watching the Standells and Watchband, no matter how much you dug it, you definitely were conscious that you were watching older people doing their thing. With the monks, what they most exuded wasn't that they were old, it was that these are not normal people! That trumped age in every respect, and it was really about watching unusual folks display their unusual skills with unusual music. If you see photos of the event (especially one that ran in the New York Times) and think these cats looked old and worn, believe me photos lie! If you were there, you know what I mean, this was IT! Y2K ist monk time!