Film chronicles The Monks; 60s band included members from Bemidji
TURTLE RIVER -- Long ago and far away -- 1964 in Germany -- five American GIs got together to play rock 'n' roll.
The group evolved into The Monks, now known as the "godfathers of punk music."
Disbanded in 1967, The Monks are now together again with a massive cult following. The band is also the subject of a full-length documentary film produced by Deitmar Post and showing tonight at 7 p.m. at the Riverview Theater in Minneapolis and at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Lake Bryant Bowl in Minneapolis as part of The Sound Unseen Film Festival.
"It's a pretty bizarro story," said Gary Burger, 63, of Turtle River, lead vocalist and guitarist for The Monks. "We came to learn that worldwide there are underground collectors that pay $1,000 for a Monk vinyl, if it's in pristine condition, $250 for a single."
The story of The Monks began when Burger joined the U.S. Army right after graduating from Bemidji High School, "as my ticket out of town."
The Monks will get together again this fall when Burger, along with original band members, Larry Clark on keyboard, Dave Day on banjo and Eddie Shaw on bass, will do a three-city concert tour of London, Zurich and Berlin. Len Curiel, a Los Angeles drummer, will take the place of the late Roger Johnston, percussionist for The Monks.
Burger said he attended the screening of the film, titled "monks -- the transatlantic feedback," on Sunday in Chicago and performed with the other Monks, all of whom are in their 60s, afterward at a nightclub.
"We basically brought the house down," he said. "These old boys. It's 40 years now."
Burger said he learned to play guitar as a boy from John Souder, a neighbor when Burger was growing up in Turtle River.
The film documents the early days of The Monks from 1960s German television footage. The producer/director also interviewed Johnston before he died on Nov. 8, 2004, at his home in Bemidji.
"He's in this movie a lot," Burger said. "The producer went down to Pastor (Eric) Hucke's church and interviewed him there."
Johnston worked as a janitor at Bemidji's United Methodist Church.
The Monks started playing together as The 5 Torquays. They worked playing Army entertainment bands, such as "Operation Jingle Bells" to cheer up folks in hospitals and nursing homes. Burger said he took advantage of the performances because they got him out of his regular duty driving a fuel truck.
The 5 Torquays also had their own nightclub shows and recorded a 45 rpm single -- "Boys are Boys" with "There She Walks" on the flip side -- in a little studio in Heidelberg, Germany.
They were approached by a German music promoter who developed The Monks concept, complete with black gowns and rope ties.
"We resisted like crazy for quite a while," Burger said of the costume and makeover. Then, they agreed to try it for six months. Three years later, The Monks were hugely popular, especially in Germany.
They even added monks tonsures, shaved bald spots on the tops of their heads. Burger said The Monks started out wearing their hair fairly long, something like The Beatles. Then their manager took them to a barbershop without telling them what was going to happen, just maybe shorter haircuts. Burger said Johnston went first, but by the end of the session, they all had the trademark bare parch.
In conjunction with the documentary film release, Post has produced a new album "silver monk time," with modern bands reproducing 20 of the original songs on the 1966 vinyl LP, "black monk time" on Polydor records. Burger said the producer sent him the master so that he could again sing lead vocals on some of the cuts. He said Day and Shaw are also featured on the new tribute album.
"The Monks were an anti-war band," Burger said, noting the irony of soldiers taking that position.
As for the song "Monk Time," in the original Burger sings the line "Why do you kill all those kids over there in Vietnam?" He said he has added lyrics referring to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I'm not going to call it a song. I'm going to call it a rant," he said. "The song is just as current today as it was 40 years ago. It's always going to be current."
The Monks spent three years touring Europe, five young musicians living together seven days a week, too closely and for too long. Day and Clark were not getting along well, "like a very unhappy married couple," Burger said, causing tension and making the others uncomfortable.
"We were a regular rock 'n' roll band -- 30 days in one place, seven-hour nights," Burger said. "It's not easy going back and being that guy again."
In 1967, they were booked for a tour of Asia -- Saigon, Djakarta, Hong Kong, Tokyo and then to Los Angeles.
"Roger quit just then," Burger said. "I got a post card saying, 'I can't take it any more.'"
He said Johnston moved back to the United States taking his German wife with him. The remaining Monks offered to find a replacement, but their German managers wouldn't back the tour without the full complement of the original band.
Burger had married a Swedish woman, and they also returned to the U.S. Burger used his GI Benefit to attend Brown Institute in Minneapolis in radio and electronics. He went through some hard times -- divorce, return to Germany to try to renew a music career that didn't work out, and then return to Turtle River to use the rest of his GI college benefit to attend Bemidji State University. He got a job digging septic systems, by hand.
"I loved that job, down in a hole with a shovel," he said.
Then, the Department of Natural Resources asked him to help them present a slide show, which led to continuing work making educational videos for state parks, such as "The Itasca Story."
He also pursued his music as a "weekend warrior," with buddies Gary Broste, Jim Miller, Mark Enblom and Gary Vanyo.
In 1997, The Monks got together again for the first time since they broke up at Cave Stomp in New York City, the last time Johnston was able to join the group. They also played gigs in 2004 in Spain and Las Vegas.
Burger said The Monks had plenty of original ideas, such as using the feedback from his guitar as part of their signature sound, hence "the transatlantic feedback" title for the documentary.
Burger said The Monks are enjoying their resurgence of popularity.
"We're actually getting more famous than we were in the '60s," he said. "If I had another 50 years to live, I might actually make some money from it."
But, he said he is happy to be able to live quietly for most of the time, about a mile from his childhood home.
"Life is good. I'm glad I live here in Turtle River," Burger said.