THE MONKS PART 1: WE ALL WANNA DIE IN A HAIL OF BULLETS
The Monks were one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands ever. They came from nowhere—five G.I.s stationed in Germany about to muster out of the U.S. Army when Vietnam and the Beatles were both heating up—and they sounded like nobody else on their single album Black Monk Time and they faded away after only a few years, so shell-shocked that they had to struggle to remember how to be Americans again. Light In The Attic has just reissued Black Monk Time (with vital outtakes like “Pretty Suzanne”) and the pre-Monk Time demos. Founders Eddie Shaw and Gary Burger (who reveals the location of the lost last Monks session!) speak now about the Monk times. These interviews by Chris Ziegler. Read Part Two of the interview (with Monks singer Gary Burger) here.
Eddie Shaw (bass): I was a musician when I was 15 years old and I played in a casino in Carson City, Nevada, and Wayne Newton was 12 years old—he was on the front stage, and I was 15 and I was on the back stage. So, you know, I come from a musical family. My aunt Sue almost married Will Wills, who’s Bob Wills’ brother. I was a musician all my life and actually I was assigned to the 6th Army band when I went in the Army. They were gonna station me in San Francisco. I had a plush job and I went and screwed it up and said, ‘Well, I’m gonna be so close to home—can I see some place else?’ and they said sure and sent me to Germany. When I got to Germany all of a sudden I was in an artillery outfit.
Do you feel like you’ve always chosen the path of most resistance?
Well, yeah—I did. My new book is about birds hitting windows and this trumpet player keeps hitting windows and I’ve spent my life hitting windows but that’s the thing. I don’t like playing or doing the conventional sort of stuff. Usually its about discovery for me, and that’s what the Monks was. It was about discovery.
What did you discover through the Monks?
The minimalist thing. The idea of tension.
Do you still feel what you wrote in your book Black Monk Time—that all Monks songs are love songs?
They are in a sense. If you listen to ‘I Hate You, But Call Me,’ how many of us hate the person that we love at any given minute because we’re so frustrated and so in love? The very heart of love in some ways, right?
Did you ever feel that you were turning into your own songs?
We got tired at the end. I don’t know if you saw that Monks documentary Transatlantic Feedback—the documentary was about a list and really there was no list. In the documentary it sounded like we broke up or we didn’t make it because we didn’t follow the list. It’s a myth—just like the Lunachicks in New York City were the first to play Monk music in the states. They had an interview in People magazine and they said, ‘Where’d you get those songs?’ and they said, ‘Well, we discovered this old obscure recording.’ They said it was a bunch of GIs in Germany who went AWOL and the police were looking for them and they showed up on German TV singing ‘I Hate You, But Call Me’ and the police closed in on them and they disappeared and nobody’s seen them since. I’ve always liked that story the best—I wish that one was true. But getting back to whether we were that thing—when you wear that image everyday, people treat you differently and you get used to it and you get the feeling of how it must feel to be a monk. Or a figure of religious authority, so to speak. Until you say, ‘fuck you’ and you have a shot of whiskey and ogle the girls standing over there and they figure it out—‘Wait a minute!’
In the book, you say everybody’s personality was defined by the instrument they play. So who were the Monks?
Gary was a country-western player. I think his roots were probably in folk music. [Banjo player] Dave [Day] played three chords. [Organist] Larry [Clark] took piano lessons and he played Chopin and he also got a $90 organ and could play ‘Green Onions.’ [Drummer] Roger [Johnston] was from Texas and he played Texas swing. He might have been influenced by the Bob Wills swing group. I never discussed my musical past with them. We were all from different environments—for the most part, that’s what made the Monks. The music is a hybrid of sort of a conversation between all of us to get rid of what all of us had that the other ones couldn’t work with. I come from Miles Davis and Chet Baker and all that. My music culture has nothing to do with the Monk music culture and I know that Gary’s music culture has nothing to do with the Monk music culture. Neither do any of them. Basically what the Monk music culture became was what we could do that would work together that nobody else had ever done.
You guys said in the book how you wanted to be truthful as a band and just communicate the simple truth. Is that why people thought Monk music was so ugly?
I don’t think people like to be hit in the head with the straight-on idea that everybody lies. I tell everybody that I lie three times a day and I try to do them as early in the morning as possible so I get them out of the way. So you know—‘Shut up, be a liar.’ We still have that today. Just look at politicians. I’m not a political person. I didn’t really like the political content that we were doing because I don’t really like that. To me it dates the songs. ‘Monk Time’ is dated because of the reference to Vietnam. If it wouldn’t have been the reference to Vietnam, it could have been like ‘Shut up, don’t cry!’—it could be good now. But there is a way to talk about politics in a song that doesn’t date it and we had a big argument about that one. I was against it. But I compromised. If it’s our kid then I’ll do it. But when you use a song to attack the headlines, you are basically dating yourself. It’s not that you shouldn’t have the honor or the courage to say, ‘I’ll speak my mind.’ Because I will. But if you’re going to make a piece of art you want the message to last. I don’t want it to die as soon as the problem died.
I read about someone who’d seen you play in Germany and said, ‘What the hell were you guys doing? I didn’t understand what it was but I got pissed off as soon as I heard it.’ Does that count as success?
Yes, it does. I was in a bar five years ago and I was sitting there drinking a beer and this guy about my age was sitting there we were talking and he said, ‘I was in Vietnam.’ I told him I was in Germany and he said, ‘Yeah, I went to Germany from Vietnam and I had a girlfriend and went to Hamburg and saw this group playing and I hated them—I wanted to kill ‘em.’ I drank my beer and I didn’t say anything but after a while I said, ‘I was in that group.’ He says, ‘I absolutely hate you.’ He said it, but we were drinking a beer real friendly and I say, ‘What did you hate about it?’ He said, ‘That whole bullshit about Vietnam and crap—I just got back from Vietnam.’ I said, ‘Yeah I didn’t like that myself. But as you turn around and look at it thirty years later when Robert McNamara came on TV and apologized about it—I felt then at least maybe we weren’t wrong. Not that that’s the important thing—the sad thing is that 58,000 American kids died along with all the Vietnamese kids.’ And he says, ‘I know that and I thought about it and you’re absolutely right.’ ‘After all these years,’ he says, ‘you’re right. But I still hate you.’ So I said, ‘OK.’
You seemed so shell-shocked coming out of the Monks experience. What did the Monks do to you?
You get conditioned to knowing that you’re going to piss people off. When I went home—my mother is a hell of a piano player, and when I played the Monks stuff for her, she didn’t say anything against it but she just ignored it and went on to something else. But normally before, when I played drums and trumpet, all the jazz stuff—she’d say, ‘Great! Do that again!’ My uncle who also played just turned it off—‘God, you used to be a better musician than that! Why are you doing that?’ So you just lock it away and say, ‘Well, that didn’t work.’ After I wrote the book, these two guys showed up at my house and asked if I was Eddie the Monk and I about fell over. I called Gary Burger in Minnesota just because he would like to know that and I said, ‘You wouldn’t believe this but two guys showed up at my door and wanted to do an article because they’d read the book and they loved our music—the Monks have people who like them.’ And Gary said, ‘fuck you,’ and he hung up.
Was that an affectionate fuck you?
No—it was a pissed-off fuck you. He thought I was fucking with his head. It’s the idea that if you go out and you’re going to be an artist and if you’re just up there to please everybody and you want everybody to love you, you’re really wasting your time. Dave always sought love—I’m not using that against him but people want to be loved and Dave was one of those. You never test the limits of anybody—you just want to please them. If you want to be an artist you need to feel the ripples of tension throughout the audience. I want to see if something is causing a little pushback, because if I get a little pushback then I know that there might lie a key to some hidden truth right there.
The path of most resistance?
You get the pushback and it says you’re raising a reaction. If you’re getting a reaction, then you’re doing something.
Isn’t this basic chemistry? A reaction producing results?
Yeah—that’s it right there! Holy Christ, we are gonna talk about the universe here shortly. Holy Christ, this telephone is getting hot!
So what discoveries do you have that you need to share?
I don’t have any discoveries. I think the idea is the idea of living to discover or learn something. I can’t imagine the idea of retiring and then sitting in my RV in an RV park to watch the sun go down and say, ‘Oh, this is a great life—I don’t have to go to work.’ I enjoy my work, so I live for my work because my work is the process of discovery.
What are the biggest revelations you’ve had in your life?
The idea of being in love is a revelation because you become more than just yourself. The idea of one person standing alone against the world is totally non-existent.
Isn’t that supposed to be the whole romantic rock n’ roll rebel thing?
Well, that’s the outlaw. We all want the outlaws. We all wanna die in a hail of bullets.
But that’s not a realistic expectation.
I don’t think so. If it is, go join the Army.
So the Monks really were all about love then?
In a sense, don’t we all strive for love? If you discover something, isn’t that illumination sort of freeing? It’s like—yeah, this feels good.
Why do you guys think you got so many letters from East Germany? What were they responding to?
One of the things I think was the idea that we would speak our mind—to say, ‘I’m an American, I have free speech, I can say what I wanna say whether you like it or not.’ They go, ‘You can’t say that—you can tell me that in private but don’t say it out loud like that!’ That is what the East Germans picked up on. These Americans are saying this stuff and it doesn’t even sound like they’re supporting their country but the thing is we are. We’re proving that in our country we’re free.
Who were the Monks fans?
What kind of people? I would say people who are more free-thinking. That could be anybody from a stripteaser to a painter or a jazz musician who doesn’t like rock. One of my friends used to hang out and he liked Monk music because he said it doesn’t sound like all that other crap. And it was always amazing that this Monk music was being played by guys who, much of the time, didn’t know more than three or four chords.
Do you feel like that laid the groundwork for punk?
I don’t think it laid the ground but I think that there’s an evolution going on all the time and we’re just part of it. We were the first ones that got the little fins that we crawled out of the water two inches.
Do you still feel like you failed?
No, I don’t. It takes a while to see that the idea of failure is good—if you have no failures then you’ve never tried anything. My grandmother wanted me to be a preacher. I didn’t dare tell her what kind of Monk I was. She said, ‘Are you with the Lord, Eddie?’ I said, ‘I think so.’
Read Chris Ziegler’s interview with Monks singer Gary Burger here.