BEMIDJI -- Musician and filmmaker Gary Burger of Turtle River died early Friday, family and friends said. He was 70.
A multifaceted artist, Burger achieved international fame as lead singer and guitarist for The Monks, a prototype punk band that gained prominence in the mid 1960s and opened for artists such as Jimi Hendrix, The Troggs and The Kinks.
He was also known locally for the recording studio he operated for decades out of his home, and his filmmaking work that featured Bemidji and Minnesota.
A mainstay of the community, he was also the mayor of Turtle River north of Bemidji. He had been battling cancer.
“He lived courageously and well,” said longtime friend Carl Baer.
In what Burger himself called a “pretty bizzaro story,” five U.S. servicemen stationed in Germany came together to form the band that would become The Monks. One of them was Burger, who had joined the U.S. Army immediately after graduating from Bemidji High School.
Originally, they were the 5 Torquays, playing in hospitals and nursing homes. Burger said he played in the band in part because it got him out of his regular posting as a fuel truck driver. They played nightclubs and produced a 45 RPM single in a small studio in Heidelberg. Then, they were approached by a German music promoter who turned them into The Monks, with outfits that included monastic attire and shaved heads.
“After awhile, we came to love the haircut,” Burger wrote in “The New Testament,” a web collection of band members’ reminisces. “As long as (we) were in full dress Monk stuff, it kept us out of trouble with the polizei (German police) and most ruffians plus it put us all in the same pew, further bonded us and made us instantly recognizable.”
After band members were discharged from the army, The Monks toured Europe for three years, and recorded a 1966 album, “black monk time.” Their music was loud, beautifully dirty and unapologetic, with songs such as “I Hate You” (featured in the 1998 film “The Big Lebowski”) and “We Do Wie Du.”
The stress of touring got to The Monks and the band broke up in 1967, just before they were to tour Asia. Burger came back to the Bemidji area, went to BSU on the GI Bill, and took a job digging septic systems by hand, he said in a 2006 interview with the Pioneer.
“I loved that job, down in a hole with a shovel,” he said.
He later found success producing advertising spots and films for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Longtime friend Mike Tangen met Burger in the 1970s after Burger came back to Turtle River. He knew him as a fellow musician and outdoorsman who loved to hunt and fish.
Tangen enjoyed dropping in on Burger’s recording studio, a labor of love that Burger took from a “glass closet” to updated digital recording equipment.
“I just wonder how many bands would not have had the opportunity to record had Gary not been there,” Tangen said Friday. “What Gary was able to do for the music scene in this northern Minnesota area is almost unfathomable.”
In the 1990s, Burger discovered something odd. Not only was The Monks’ music popular again, they had developed an international cult following.
“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,” he said in the Pioneer interview.
They played a 1997 reunion show in New York City, and a documentary film “monks - the transatlantic feedback” was made that combined archived footage from German TV with contemporary interviews with band members.
The Monks didn’t get to enjoy the new revival for long. Roger Johnston, the percussionist, lived in the Bemidji area, too, until he died in 2004. Dave "Day" Havlicek, the electric banjo player, died in 2008.
Pitchfork, a music website famous for rating the trendiest of new artists, said in 2009 that the band “recorded just enough deliriously raw garage rock jams to secure their place in history, taking freaked-out punk rock anxiety to new heights before The Stooges pushed it even further.”
The same year, the New York Times described “black monk time” as “joyously hostile.”
“The levels of craftsmanship, savage glee, concept, put-on and inspiration are innumerable and inseparable,” it said.
A laudatory article in the international edition of German publication “Der Spiegel” called them “the most important rock band you’ve never heard of.”
But to the Bemidji community, Burger’s legacy will be far more than reviews.
“He was a true blessing to all of us,” said Baer. “He wasn’t just one thing… he loved northern Minnesota deeply, he loved his friends, he loved his wife and her family.”
Funerary services are with Olson-Schwartz Funeral Home in Bemidji. A funeral is planned for 3 p.m. Tuesday at New Salem Lutheran Church in Turtle River, with visitation starting at 2 p.m., according to the Olson-Schwartz website.