It's Monk Time

Dave Day, the banjo player from the Monks, died the other day. That's him on the far right.

Over forty years ago, some American GIs stationed in Germany decided to form a band after getting out of the army. They got cowls, wore nooses around their necks, and shaved their hair into monk tonsures. The Monks played weird, distorted, rhythmic, sarcastic sing-along music, and released one album, Black Monk Time, in 1965.

I first heard this band when I was 19 or so and my friend Jackie loaned me a CD of their stuff (which I lost like a jerk—sorry about that, Jackie). I liked them immediately—it's hard not to. They're like some wondrous mythical animal that has the science community scratching their heads, while cryptozoologists hammer away at keyboards, trying to concoct a thesis that will convince the world at large that this impossible creature actually exists.

I don't have any fascinating insights to offer about the Monks; I just think they were light years ahead of their time, and I'm sorry Dave Day is dead.

Thanks to magic of the internets, the existing footage of the Monks, originally broadcast on German TV, is available for anyone to see. Way back when I first heard this band, I never could have dreamed that I'd ever actually get to see a recording of them. They are hilarious: let's watch some television.

This clip contains Monk Chant and How to Do Now. Check out the guitar abuse in the former and the Dave Day's psychotic banjo wrangling in the later.

Boys are Boys. Dance to it, you Germans!

Here is Complication, probably my favorite Monks tune. It was compiled on the famous Nuggets comp, and woulda been a big hit if there was any justice in this world.

The Monks reunited in 1999 for Cavestomp, and then stayed quiet for a while. A book was written on them, a tribute album was recorded, and a documentary, Trans-Atlantic Feedback, was made. So forty years after Black Monk Time was released, they were persuaded to play some shows. Here they are, after all that time, still bringing it.

This song is called Higgle-dy Piggle-dy. Click here to see Mark E. Smith stagger out onto stage with the Monks while they play this song at another date. He does a funny little dance and then abruptly leaves.

Black Monk Time.

Rest in Peace, Dave.


2007 is Over

Recently, my friend Matty send me some clippings from The Wire magazine, along with a couple of CDs he burned. He kindly sent this package from Boston to Hungary just to be a nice guy—it was a mercy mission.

You see, dear Reader, I’ve been living in Budapest for about a year and a half now. And during this time I’ve understandably fallen a bit behind on the killer new sounds pouring out of the USA. Were it not for the internets, WFMU, and music purveying pals like Matty, I’d be trapped in 2006 forever . . . and ever, and ever.

Unfortunately, the rock and roll scene in Budapest isn’t really my cup of tea (except for the band Büdösök, who sound sorta like Cop Shoot Cop, but with better songs and a trumpet player. Stay tuned for a future feature on this band—I finally tracked down a guy who knows them, so hopefully I can actually get their CDs. See, I go into stores and ask for them by name, and that name is a bitch to pronounce. The store owner guys just laugh at me, because the name Büdösök means “We Are the Stink People” or something. Now, besides the fact it’s a funny name, if I mispronounce it—and there are three other possible pronunciations for each of those vowels that only Hungarian ears are properly attuned to—I end up saying something like “we are smelling stinky,” or even “we are a shit-octopus.” It’s embarrassing, man). If I were a metalhead, I’m sure I’d be having a blast watching Magyar metal bands like Watch My Dying and Graveyard at Maximum. But I’m not. So I end up seeing folk music and traditional stuff and various permutations thereof.

A year and change passes with me seeing these kinda shows, when Matty’s package full of clippings and CDs shows up in my mailbox. So imagine my surprise when, tucked in the envelope was a one-page “Global Ear” section on Budapest from the Wire, penned by the guy from A Hawk and a Hacksaw.

It was really weird to read this. I go to these places! I’ve seen all these bands! It’s like the Wire is shaking my hand, saying “Congratulations son, some invisible British music nerds recognize that you are totally with it.”

But enough patting myself on the back for seeing music in places that other, actually cool people told me about. The point is that, out of everything in that little article, the most important thing is that Sirály, my favoritist place in the city, is finally getting the props it deserves.

Sirály is a three-floor bar/café/bookstore/performance space in downtown Budapest, which is also a squat (probably the only one in the city) and a Jewish cultural center (probably the only cool one in the city). The people running it do a great job, and a ton of cool shit goes down there, and it’s usually for free. They just do it for fun. You wanna see Moroccan dance-rock motherfuckers Chalaban? It’s free. You wanna see Eastern European Jewish party songs played by ass-kicking trad Klezmer band Di Naye Kapelye? It’s free. Also, they’re on the same bill, and the place is packed, and everyone is getting down. Seriously, if that place didn’t exist, my experience here would be about 300% less fun.

There have been a couple articles on Sirály—a hi-gloss “lifestyle” kind of piece in the LA Times, and an extremely poorly researched thing in some German paper, which had some factual errors and also totally missed the point of the space. But whatever. We were here when Síraly first opened up, and it’s been consistently kicking ass, the people who run it are providing a service to humanity, and I’m glad to see it get recognized.

I had been planning on writing a sort of year-end rundown of my favorite music shit from 2007, but soon realized that I’m outta touch when it comes to the cool releases that came out. I guess that the song “Vomiting Mirrors” by Clockcleaner became my 2007 Funtime Jam—but really, I haven’t been able to hear most of what came out this year, as I have neither the money to pay for imports or the patience/strength of will to download them all from the internets. Anyway, downloading new releases isn’t very sporting, don’t you think? (Not to diminish the glory of “Vomiting Mirrors,” which is a great big steaming pile of wonderful.)

The best music thing I saw, however, was Frank London playing with Boban Markovic (part I) and then the beautiful audio dogpile of the Síraly afterparty (part II). Now, I know many of you might be rolling your eyes, thinking “Blah blah blah, Boban Markovic, I’ve real miles of print about Boban and I know the score.” But the plot thickens—dear Reader, read on.

Part I: The Show

Here is a shitty picture of the stage

On paper, it was already a good concert. There was Boban Markovic, the megastar Serbian trumpet great who is universally loved in the Balkans and the world around, and who deserves every piece of hyperbole that music journalists invent to try and describe his playing. With Boban, you also get his Orkestar, which is made up of the cream of the crop of Serbian brass band guys, and his son Marko, who is being groomed for excellence. Then there’s Frank London, who recently won a Grammy (!!!) with his band the Klezmatics. From what I understand, Frank is a New York music vet who plays, you know, the cool kind of Klezmer stuff that comes out of New York. Despite his Grammy award, his music doesn’t make concessions to . . . I don’t know, whoever hands out Grammies. You know what I’m trying to say.

Both of these guys did an album together at some point, and they were playing together at the Sportarena. I hadn’t seen an arena show since I had just turned 16 and drove my deathtrap 1972 Plymouth Valiant (which went to internal combustion Valhalla after two guys bought it from me and drove it to a violent end in a demolition derby) two hours through the ice and snow to the Pepsi Arena in Albany. But I digress.

I’ve seen Boban about . . . I think I’ve seen him three times now. I’ve heard a lot of his albums, and I’ve seen him in Underground, obviously, and I have to say, it would have been better to catch Boban a couple of years ago. Because each time I’ve seen him he’s kind of phoned it in. That’s probably understandable—his band plays a lot, and most audiences seem to want the same 15 songs from the standard brass band repetoire, and he’s played them a hundred zillion times and no longer has anything to prove. Of course, he’s not always like this—Sarah saw him in New York, and he happily pulled out all the stops for the ex-Yugoslav expats there. And I’ve never managed to see him in Serbia. The last time I saw the Boban Orkestar was at this place West Balkan not too far from my apartment: the band has kicked ass, Marko kicked ass, and Boban sort of wandered the stage, leaving the soloing to his son, smoking and yelling at the sound guy.

The Main Event worked like this—Boban’s group played some songs, and Frank’s group played some songs, and then, for the exciting part of the evening, they both played some songs. And Boban was pumped up. He was exhorting his band to play better, and his solos traveled through the Sportarena’s stale air to melt my eyes out of my skull. It was the Boban show I felt like I’d always wanted to see, but had never gotten the chance to.

Here they are, playing together. I don't know what this song is, but check out the insane tuba battle halfway through.

When they played together, though, that was when the real shit happened. First of all, it was clear that Boban and Frank had no little amount of mutual admiration, and their playing was fucking intense. Second of all, I learned that I’d been horribly underestimating Marko. He kills it on the trumpet, and when given the opportunity to call the first song of the combined set, do you know what he called? “Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambaata.

You know “Planet Rock,” right? That song that samples Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express”? Well, my mind folded five ways and inverted the minute I understood that I was watching the Boban Markovic Orkestar play an Afrika Bambaata tune. That little snatch of electro-tunage went from Germany to New York to Serbia: how cool is that? Kraftwerk, man—you can’t stop the funk.

Here is 90% of Planet Rock: sorry that I missed the beginning of this song. They kind of mess around with it for a minute, and then it returns to melody at the end.

I came away from this show a fan of Frank London, my faith in Boban Markovic renewed, and a convert to Marko’s playing. I’d pay to see Marko sans his Pops any day of the week.

Part II: The Party After the Show
Sirály was doing something every night of the week for Hanukah, so we headed there after the show figuring that all of our friends would be there. And they were! It was great.

See, there was a giant, unstructured music thing going on in the basement of the club. It started at 8, and we got there around 10:30. How was it? I dunno. I mean, it was great, but it was a real mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly.

For instance, there was a diminutive Hungarian Hip hop girl who assumed that everyone was there to back up her rapping. They kept turning off her mic, much to the amusement of the crowd. I don’t know much Hungarian, but even a foreigner like me could tell that this MC was, as we say in the US, “wack.” Here, let me do an impression of her for you:

Vashty-vashty-vashty VASH
Vashty-vashty-vashty VASH
Vashty-vashty-vashty VASH
Vashty-vashty-vashty VASH

Rinse and repeat. What is this, 1982? Watching her rap was like watching the Bizarro version of Superman try to fight crime. Seriously, she’s the kind of person who they used to drag off the stage with one of those big shepherd’s crooks in the vaudeville days.

There was a Hungarian jazz band that hadn’t played in some time and were having a reunion gig of sorts, and they were the main music nucleus for a while. Their massive piano player had no piano, and engaged in some scatting that—you know what? I’ve never actually seen scatting with my own two eyes, and while I sort of wish he hadn’t done it, the guy managed to come off as ballsy rather than retarded. He also got the fuck offa the stage after dropping his scat. Well played, piano guy.

Then some other guy tried to scat. Horrible. Fuck that guy. Two people scatting is one and a half too many.

It should be said that during this time, a number of drummers had begun showing up to play drums. Most importantly, there were these two elder drum wizards. They just played straight through the whole thing. They didn’t get up to take a leak, get a drink, have a cigarette, scratch an itch—nothing. They just sat there, playing conga drums. They weren’t flashy, either. They just sort of played this beat. I didn’t know who they were. The Sirály folks didn’t know who they were. No one there knew who they were. I still don’t know. In this photo, a young guy who they seemed to know sat down between them and joined in. Mysteries within mysteries.

Accordian player David Yengebarian dipped in and out of the proceedings. He’s played at Sirály a number of times, and he’s fucking fantastic. Also, might I add, a lot of stage presence for an accordian player. The guy sort of looks likes the Somnabulist from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Yengebarian seemed a lot, shall we say, looser than he usually does during his actual gigs, and it was cool. He eventually got up and wandered off.

Frank London’s appearance around midnight went nearly unnoticed. Several members of his All Star band showed up as well, and they killed. They didn’t actually play a proper show or anything, but occasionally a few of them would dip into the general weirdness. They were very generous, giving local musicians more than their fair chance in the spotlight and taking it in stride when their solos were cut short by, say, flailing belly dancers, an enthusiastic whitey-fro’d yeti youth squealing a yeti love call through his clarinet, the aforementioned MC Vashty-Vash, or etcetera.

And so the night wore on into the wee hours of the AM. Although his combined stage time probably amounted to about fifteen minutes, Frank and his All Star band really did music scene of Budapest a solid by showing up. He didn’t have to—I mean, he is Grammy Award Winning Recording Artist Frank London.

“Grammy Award Winning Recording Artist Frank London.” That has a nice ring to it, right? I certainly thought so, and continued to refer to him as such throughout the night. For instance, I might say “Whos that? Why, that’s Grammy Award Winning Recording Artist Frank London,” or “Hey Greg, did you enjoy seeing Grammy Award Winning Recording Artist Frank London play fifteen seconds of free jazz before that dipshit with the clarinet barged in and started shrieked out a 300 decibel yeti call?” Or maybe I’d say “There was a fight outside? A knife fight? Between who and who? Did they both have knives? Only one guy had a knife? Is anyone hurt? Not really? What? ‘It’s all good?’ What the fuck does that mean? What the fuck. You mean to tell me that I’ve been wasting my time standing around down here, drinking beer, waiting to see if Grammy Award Winning Recording Artist Frank London was going to get up there and play something, when I could have been upstairs, drinking beer, watching a knife fight out on the street? Oh man.”

Anyway, Grammy Award Winning Recording Artist Frank London seems like a cool guy, but he wasn’t the coolest guy in the room. Not by a long shot. The coolest guy in the room was approximately 138 years old. He had a long beard, and a wool hat, and looked sort of like a homeless longshoreman. Or maybe a sailor who has been cursed to walk the earth forever and ever after angering the sea gods. He was another guy who no one knew, and was just randomly wandering around downstairs, like he didn’t know or care where he was. He kept picking up stuff, examining it, and then gently setting it back down again. At one point he wandered into the middle of where everyone was playing music, looking bored, then checked his watch and gradually wandered off. Like he had somewhere better to be! Maybe he did. I don’t know.

Around 3 AM, we wandered off as well, exhausted. On the way home, I was thinking about this time I went to go see a show at the Stone in NYC that was a celebration of John Coltrane. It was on his birthday, and there was this incredible band assembled playing Coltrane songs. There was Rashid Ali and Reggie Workman, who were Coltrane’s rhythm section after things got too weird for the original guys. Fuck, I feel like an asshole, but I can’t remember the other guys who were playing, but they were awesome, and my mind was blown. So, I had this realization that these guys weren’t a tribute band or something, but that they were channeling music that was every bit as vital today as it was forty years ago. And that there was all this room in the music for people to express themselves, and it was never played the same way twice. The music I was hearing only existed in the present, and I’d never hear it again.

That looks pretty fucking corny now that I’ve typed it out, but it was a big deal for me to really understand this. It was like learning how to swim or something.

Now, a couple years later and a few thousand miles away, I’m seeing this other musical improv event in Budapest. There are a lot of crucial differences, but that’s all right. There isn’t another venue in the city for this kind of thing, so everyone came to Sirály. Everyone who had the night free and wanted to throw down threw down, from Grammy Award Winning Recording Artists to total beginners with a chip on their shoulder. Good. I’m glad they did, all of them, even Scat Guy II and MC Vashty-Vash. Because that isn’t going to happen again, and I’m glad I had the chance to see it.

Dear Readers, I hope that each and every one of you had a good 2007. And if you didn’t, well, that’s all right too. It’s already gone, and we’re never going to see it again.