Music in Black & White
The Year of the Monks

part 5

Meeting their pioneering heroes and rock’s newest revolutionaries was one of the few things the Monks had to look forward to. Months dragged by, with commercial success still eluding them. They weren’t making money off the album, which Polydor said had not even paid for itself. The Monks were neophytes, babes in the woods, when it came to business procedures. They just wanted to play, hoping that their management was taking care of the legal end of things. Some of the band members voiced vague discontentment with this state of affairs. Gigging seven days a week gave them little time to get a grip on the situation, though.

Further, the incessant process of touring itself wore on everyone’s nerves. Playing and sleeping in beer drenched venues had lost its allure.

"We were getting a little bit burnt out," Eddie Shaw said. "We were still playing the same places after all that time. We asked when we were going to play in America. They told us when we had a hit over there. The problem was, they weren’t releasing anything in the States."

Dave Day and Larry Clark sniped at one another constantly. Tension between Eddie Shaw and his wife, who didn’t want a musician for a husband, didn’t help matters. Nor did Roger Johnston’s drug use, which caused major mood swings in the drummer.

The CD reissue of the album contains some other bonus tracks. After "Complication" was released as the first single, two more 45s were issued. These singles did not appear on the LP, but rather were recorded with the intent to breach the charts. The two 45s show a noticeable change in direction for the band. "We were under pressure to produce something more like traditional pop," Gary Burger said. "So we gave it a shot."

The first single, "I Can’t Get Over You" b/w "Cuckoo," is one of the most bizarre attempts at commercial music ever. The A side features organist Larry Clark on his sole lead vocal. The song is highly reminiscent of the Velvet Underground. It would not appear out of place on that band’s eponymous third album. Close your eyes and you can easily hear Lou Reed’s nasally voice delivering the lyrics. The Monks didn’t have the penchant for antiseptic pop like the aforementioned New York quartet did, though. "I Can’t Get Over You" comes across as slightly anemic. The flipside is a completely different matter, however.

The Monks’ rhythmic attack is intact on "Cuckoo." It’s the lyrics and vocals that strike one as eccentric. Burger’s vocal opens the tune, swiping a page out of some outlandish Beach Boys’ songbook. He nails high notes that no male, unless he’s a castrato, should be able to hit. Next, the drummer finally gets his chance to be in the spotlight. Johnston’s monotonal singing voice tells an odd story about somebody stealing his pet cuckoo. During the bridge, fuzzed-out guitars and booming drums remind the listener that, yes, this is the Monks. Then, Burger reprises the chorus, jarring the listener back to unreality.

Soon after, the Monks toured Sweden. They played several shows and made an appearance on national television. One night they stayed in a hotel, or so they thought, where they commenced to engage in the usual debauchery. Women visited their rooms.

In the morning, the hotel’s management appeared highly disturbed. Empty liquor bottles and cigarette butts littered the band’s quarters. The Monks’ behavior had shocked the man at the front desk and he let them know it. Confused, the band questioned him. He turned out to be an abbot, not a night clerk. The Monks’ Swedish road manager had booked them to stay in a monastery! He thought it would be great PR, getting the Monks thrown out a religious order’s sanctuary.

Not amused, the weary band returned to Germany and their lives on the road. By this point, fame’s luster was tarnished.

"We were getting fed up," Eddie Shaw stated simply.

The Age of Aquarius was supposedly dawning. Several of the Monks tried the sacrament that epitomized the so-called "Summer of Love." They found THC strangely lacking.

"There was some minimal enjoyment of hashish during the last year, but I can’t say that it increased the sought after dementia levels," Gary Burger said. "I think it made me mellower and stimulated my urge to sing ‘Danny Boy’ soft, pretty and high in a windblown wheatfield with a violin section at my left elbow."

Of course, Eddie Shaw’s memory differed slightly.

"Yes, Gary was in the wheatfields often. We all were. I don’t remember any violins. I only remember a chorus of sexy nuns," he reminisced. "Maybe they were prostitutes in disguise. Oh, God! Don’t print that. Someone will say I called nuns prostitutes. Damnit, that’s even worse. Don’t say anything."

Perhaps the hashish could be held accountable for the continued softening of their sound. Once again, they entered the studio in an another attempt to crack the pop market. Certain members of the band were willing to experiment with these contrived and watered down formulas. Others found it a betrayal of the monkish ethic.

Their last single, "Love Can Tame The Wild," proved the latter faction to be in the right. A mawkish song, it has cliched lyrics that include taboo words like "moonlight." The 45 is as uninspired as the LP was revolutionary. The flipside, once again, is a strange little number.

"He Went Down To The Sea" has psychedelic tinges and an Eddie Shaw trumpet solo. The one point of interest is Burger’s girlish vocals as he delivers the gender bending lines "and then he went down to the sea/ and thought of the girl I used to be." Wrestling with one’s sexual identity does not a song make, however. Over-beat is absent from both songs, giving no clue as to who this band is or had been.

By this point, dedication to the Monks’ image was giving way to a desire not to be gawked at anymore. Johnston was growing his hair out as were other members. They were also wearing colorful clothing. Surprisingly, the least likey rock n roller of them all, the chess master Larry Clark, remained steadfast. He chided the apostates for their lack of belief. Clark tried to convince the fallen Monks that their once and future vision could still come true. Unfortunately, his liturgies fell on deaf ears.

"Black Monk Time" and the subsequent singles were unreleased in both the United Kingdom and the United States. Polydor was unsure of the music’s reception outside of Germany. Further, one must question whether British and American listeners of the era would have been ready for such an assault on the senses.

This was never put to the test. The Monks had a tour of Vietnam and points east scheduled for 1967. After this, there were vague plans to play the States. The handwriting was on the wall, however.

Touring war torn south east Asia made absolutely no sense to Roger Johnston. The police action in Vietnam was escalating. The band was making no money as it was, never mind the possibility of becoming rock n roll martyrs courtesy of the mad Viet Cong. Burger and Johnston had both gotten married in the mean time. Consequently, external pressure emanated from all three wives against the tour. Addled by self-doubt, Johnston fled back to America with his wife. He sent Gary Burger a postcard, announcing his resignation. The proposed tour collapsed.

Worn out and shell shocked, the rock n roll soldiers dispersed. Johnston was already in Texas. Burger caught a plane to New York City. Clark and Shaw, along with his wife, took a tramp steamer back to the States. Day was to stay in Europe for another nine years, living a hermit like existence in Germany’s forests.

The story doesn’t end with the Monks departure from Germany, though. Like the rest of humanity, they found a semblance of normalcy and continue to struggle through everyday life. Larry Clark went to college and worked at IBM for over twenty years until his retirement. Gary Burger lives in his home state of Minnesota, where he runs an audio and video production company. Burger produces records and in his spare time enjoys hunting and fishing. Roger Johnston also lives in Minnesota, where he works two jobs. Eddie Shaw runs an independent publishing company that issues books of fiction. He wrote an autobiography detailing his days with the band, entitled appropriately enough "Black Monk Time." Shaw still spreads the Monks’ gospel, appearing at rock n roll conventions and reading on National Public Radio. And Dave Day . . . well, what would you expect from the original rock n roll citizen? In a phone conversation, Day was informed that this interviewer had recently seen Link Wray perform."Link Wray! Are you serious?" Day shouted. "Me and some of my friends still play ‘Rumble’ in our set sometimes! He’s still playing? That’s great!"

Day went on to tell about four of the five Monks getting together in February 1998 to record some new songs.

"Man, we sounded incredible. It was amazing. We look fine. None of us are overweight. Hell, I’d shave my head and play with the guys in a heartbeat," he said. "I’d love to play in New York City."

Deferred dreams that might be realized? Let’s hope Day’s enthusiasm is infectious. When the possibility of playing live is broached with the other Monks, they usually laugh nervously and change the subject. They don’t realize the grip that their music holds on today’s fans, who are wise to the hype that accompanies every flavor-of-the-month act. The Monks also seem unaware of the true depth of interest that is slowly seeping to the surface. They’ve gotten on with their lives and rock n roll is a young man’s game after all. But there are plans to release a CD of early demos and other unreleased songs, with the probability of the new material following in its wake. Maybe they’re just hedging their bets, seeing how things fare.

There is a hardcore sect of Monks fanatics, upon whom the group could depend upon to turn out for to a tour. The music resonates with people who were born a decade after the band brokeup. Most telling, perhaps, of the music’s staying power is an encounter Eddie Shaw had two years ago.

"I ran into a guy in Carson City who had been a GI. He’d gone out with a German girl and she took him to see us in a club in Hamburg. When he found out I’d been in the Monks he said ‘I saw you assholes. What the fuck kind of music was that? I didn’t like it, but I’ve never forgotten you’," Shaw said, chuckling.

Whatever the future holds, the Monks’ legacy is secure. They left an incredible document in the form of "Black Monk Time." In retrospect, 1966 was rock n roll music’s zenith, a watershed of experimentation, the promise of which has never been fulfilled. The Yardbirds’ "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago," a nuclear meltdown and aural firestorm posing as a pop song, has yet to be equaled. The Who’s early potential soon dissolved into Pete Townshend’s ego-tripping in an attempt to give rock n roll "meaning" when it already meant more than it ever would again.

The Monks didn’t break up until 1967, but they were at their innovative peak the previous year. Modern music’s just now catching up. Bands like the Beastie Boys and the Fall claim them as an influence. Somehow that doesn’t hold water. The Monks music was truly one of a kind, forged in the sweaty dives of a place and time that is long gone. The Monks’ influences, be they Bill Haley, Ray Charles or the Ventures, are alien to today’s pop stars i.e. they’re quaint figures in rock n roll’s musty history book. That locked up sound is impossible to recreate, whether because of today’s technology or because now rock n roll is just a good career choice devoid of its former passion and freshness.

The only certainty is that there never will be the likes of the Monks again. If gods ever did walk this earth, they were five ex-American GIs playing over-beat music. With tonsures.

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