Black Monk Time
RIP Dave Day
Dave Day was born in Bellingham in 1941. He played banjo in an infamous '60s punk band called the Monks. No one—anywhere, at any time, before or since—has looked or sounded like the Monks. Day passed away Thursday, January 10, from complications of a heart attack and stroke. Everyone who met him called him a sweetheart. As a musician, friend, and husband, he'll be deeply missed.
The Monks came together in 1964, when Day and Gary Burger started playing music while stationed at the U.S. Army base in Gelnhausen, Germany. They added fellow GIs Eddie Shaw, Larry Clark, and singers "Hans" and Ernie "Zach" Zachariah, and went by the name the Torquays, playing usual pop hits and some instrumentals and finishing out their army time playing in "Operation Jingle Bells." Out of the military, they were convinced by a local agent that they could make a living playing music in Germany—THE proving ground for hundreds of '60s beat bands. In fact, if not for Germany, the British invasion wouldn't have been such a storm! So the Torquays stayed. They lost Hans and Zach and added Roger Johnston, touring on Stones/Kinks/Beatles covers plus a couple originals.
The scene in Germany was saturated, so the Torquays tried something radically different. Over the course of 1965 they retooled the entire idea of the band, sacrificing extraneous elements: cover songs, lyrics, cymbals (!), and 12-bar blues. And they added a banjo.
Dave Day's banjo was NOT for picking. Instead it was strummed like a guitar, but muted—used as a percussive instrument! With this transformation, the band reinvented the idea of beat music, shifting from "beatnik" to literally being about the BEAT—as in stripped bare, down to the pounding rhythm. On this primal thump they hung their cheeky, catchy, timeless songs. Thus were born the Monks.
To further the thematic transition, the quintet wore proper monks' tonsures—the shaved-on-top haircut—as well as all-black cloaks and white-rope nooses as neckties. They toured Germany relentlessly with a look and an attitude: They were not background music for boys pulling chicks; they were the main attraction.
In late '65 they recorded their only album, Black Monk Time. Because they were, um, strange by contemporary standards, only a few copies were pressed, and commercially it went nowhere. Too bad—it's arguably the most striking (ahem) punk LP of the beat era! It opened with Gary Burger hollering, "ALL RIGHT, MY NAME IS GARY! LET'S GO! IT'S BEAT TIME, IT'S HOP TIME, IT'S MONK TIME!" That holler set the "hang on tight, we're shakin' shit loose" tone of the entire album. As the LP's prospects sank, the band continued touring and issued a couple more 45s. Without commercial success, by early '67 the pressures that split bands caught up to the Monks and the boys went their separate ways.
Everyone went back to the U.S. soon after, except for Day. He had an exceptionally rough go. He and his German wife, Dora, opened a bar, and all went well until Dora dumped him for another man. Awful, but worse, she had his passport, so he couldn't go to the American consulate to get a ticket home. He was left homeless and lived in Germany's forests for years. Eventually his brother wired him money and he returned to Washington State. By that point he couldn't speak English, which he relearned by reading comic books.
In the '80s, the Monks' profile was raised beyond "collector" status when Black Monk Time was reissued. It was followed by tracks on compilations and Eddie Shaw's excellent Monks biography, Black Monk Time: Coming of the Anti-Beatle, in 1995. The band reunited for their first gig on U.S. soil, in 1999 at New York City's Cavestomp festival. Onstage is where Day seemed to live most, grinning, as a Monk, from behind his banjo.
In recent years, Seattle label Light in the Attic worked toward reissuing some of the Monks' material. Day and his second wife, Irene, would often come to the label office from Renton in their RV. "Everyone loved them, to say the least," says Light in the Attic owner Matt Sullivan. "Then they started coming to Saturday Knights shows, Blakes shows, all dressed up in full Monks attire. People flipped out." Day and Irene enjoyed the younger crowd, drinking and smoking and hanging out. Day often declared—humble and matter-of-fact at the same time—to have invented punk rock. Anyone who's heard the Monks' primal, skuzzy stomp knows he has a right to the claim.