Local Current Blog

Gary Burger of the Monks passes away

As the lead singer of the pioneering ’60s garage band the Monks, Gary Burger is often cited as one of the unsung heroes of early punk rock and one of the originators of guitar feedback. And as the mayor of Turtle River, Minn., Burger spent the later part of his life modestly tucking away his status as a musical trailblazer, intent on living quietly and occasionally remembering back to wilder days gone by.

It was a fascinating dual life, and one that Burger laughed about when I spoke to him in 2009 for a City Pages profile. Even when I told him that famous modern rock bands like Green Day and the Beastie Boys cited the Monks as inspiration, he politely declined to take any credit for his band’s enduring influence.

“We all knew that we were doing a different sort of music, but as far as being a forerunner band—that was the furthest from our minds. We really weren’t thinking that,” he said. “We were thinking that we were playing rock and roll with a twist, and the twist was the electric banjo, the feedback, the drums, basically not using cymbals but lots of tom toms. We had no idea that we were creating a new movement. And I’m still thinking, hey, we were just a rock and roll band that really had a lot of fun, and was able to be lucky enough—or unlucky enough, depending on your point of view—to work on the album.”

The Monks formed overseas in 1964, when the band’s five members had been shipped to Germany for GI duty. Soon after they were discharged from the Army and started playing the German club circuit—where another rock ‘n’ roll band, the Beatles, had gotten their start—and out of sheer boredom they began incorporating bizarre sounds like amplified banjo and squealing guitar feedback into their shows.

Monks_2They also got a look: black robes tied shut with white rope nooses, and hair that was shorn straight down the middle of their heads into traditional monk tonsures.

“We didn’t like it that much, the haircut,” Burger chuckled. “You had to shave the thing almost every day, or else you’d get a stubble like a guy gets after a day of not shaving. So we all had electric razors—it was a funny sight, you’d see us all in our room shaving our heads.”

In recent years, the Monks’ underground cult following bubbled back up to the surface after Light in the Attic reissued the band’s one and only studio album, Black Monk Time, which had become an invaluable collector’s item. And Burger himself had started playing shows again with other members of the Twin Cities garage rock scene; just this past December, his cover of the Beatles’ “I Feel Fine” was included on the fifth volume of the Minnesota Beatle Project compilation. Nearly 50 years after the Monks were active, Burger’s music has been connecting with a whole new generation of audiophiles and music fans, a sure sign that the Monks’ legacy will live on.

“It amazes me that the beat goes on,” he said. “It just keeps going and going.”

Burger passed away early this morning at the age of 72 from pancreatic cancer.