This has been a weekend of calamitous loss for fans of hard American music, with the passing of Monks lead singer and guitarist Gary Burger announced on Saturday, with news of Stooges and Sonic’s Rendezvous Band drummer Scott Asheton’s passing making the rounds early Sunday.
Burger had not been active in music for some time, having participated in a handful of Monks reunion concerts since the late 1990s with the vocals being largely performed by his son. But the couple of years that he and his fellow American servicemen spent trying to make it big playing rock music in Germany resulted in some of the strangest, most singular and most inspirational music to come out of the sixties, essential roots punk in all but name. The Monks’ beats were tribal, the guitars fuzzed out, the lyrics brash and confrontational, and every once in a while they would just freak out utterly, making the biggest racket you ever heard. It’s 1965, Dylan’s just starting to blow everyone’s mind and the Stones have already invented rudeness, but these guys are cutting straight to the chase a little more directly than most: “Well I hate you with a passion baby – but call me! My hate’s everlastin’ baby – but call me!” At their best they were totally unchained, the closest a white band working in Europe had yet gotten to standing inside the middle of a Little Richard scream and working it for their ends. Their one album, Black Monk Time, is a shining example of American ingenuity at work, an album and a band that feel like a novelty until you notice how many great songs there are in their repertoire, and how completely they can rock you.
I didn’t write that many fan letters in my adult life but I wrote one to those guys when Black Monk Time was finally issued on Henry Rollins’ 2-13-61 label. I found their whole story so inspiring, and was so pleased at the opportunity to finally hear the album, and have it surpass my expectations, and I wanted them to know. Gary wrote me back, twice, once because he wasn’t sure he had replied the first time. He included postcards signed by all five members of the band with both replies. He seemed genuinely touched by the interest thirty years after the fact, and I’m glad to think that letter might have brightened his day half as much as it brightened mine to get a postcard from the Monks!
And then Scotty Asheton, aka Rock Action. I think that guy may have inspired more of the drummers I like than anyone. The drums are a big key to why the Stooges sounded so different, so much tougher than the rest. Scott’s beat was insistent. always, it was insisting on something, kicking you in the teeth to make his point. In this performance, one of his few appearances on national TV, and the moment of his induction to most prestigious organization in professional rock and roll, Scott opens “Search and Destroy” with a cymbal hit so hard, the cymbal immediately falls over onto the stand. A lot of guys would be tempted to stand up and say “Hey, hang on a minute, this has to be right, let’s start that over again for the big broadcast.” But Scott does exactly what I would expect him to do – he keeps going. For like a minute until a roadies comes out and fixes it, he’s playing one of the biggest gigs of his life without a freaking crash cymbal, which is pretty important to play “Search and Destroy” properly. But he powers through it. Most non-drummers might not notice that ever happened.
And the thing is, it does not surprise me that Scott found a way to keep going rather than stop, because the Stooges play the kind of songs that you cannot just STOP playing without sounding like failure. Coming up in Detroit, I’m sure he’s had to play through way worse conditions than a cymbal falling over. That kind of training comes in handy when your cymbal falls over on the first note of the first song of your big TV appearance, and instead of halting the moment, the moment gets to happen anyway. That’s what rock and roll power is all about.
Scotty, you will be missed, and those of us who got to see you play in the last few years of your life will miss you even more acutely. Truly, you went down swinging.