Chip Monck

“Grandfather of Rock and Roll Productions”
By Kevin M. Mitchell

There’s no shortage of other people putting Chip Monck’s contributions to this industry into perspective. A small sampling includes: “The greatest guy that ever walked—he’s the D.W. Griffiths of this industry. He invented the basic vocabulary of this industry” (Patrick Stansfield). “Chip Monk was the leading person in formulating the concert look and style. He is amazing with follow spots. He is a master on the headset” (Jim Moody). “He taught us to present our product in the very best light and how to do it—he brought new life to a dull aspect of the industry” (Mike Brown).

“He’s actually the grandfather of rock and roll production” (David Noffsinger).

While accurate, the grandfather rap seems premature—as does the Parnelli Lifetime Achievement Award he’ll receive at the ProProduction 2004 show in February. Like the industry he had a hand in shaping, he’s matured and is now doing corporate work for big clients in Australia, and still with the same frenetic attention to details that launched his career more than four decades ago.

And what decades. He’s our virtual Forrest Gump—the fictional character created and stuck behind the scenes of every major pop-culture event of the last half century. Only he’s real, as are his credits: The Village Gate in the early 60s with folks musicians like Peter Paul and Mary and comedians like Bill Cosby; Newport when Bob Dylan went electric; Altamont, loosing teeth at the hand of a Hells Angel’s pool cue as the angel tried to make off with the trademark stage carpet (which he had co-designed); Woodstock, the LD and Master of Ceremonies; the Stones historic early tours; Bangladesh; Rumble in the Jungle; a Tony nomination for his work on The Rocky Horror Picture Show; Bette Midler’s Divine Madness Tour; Vegas; the Los Angeles Olympics; Pope John Paul’s historic mass at Dodger Stadium….

But we get ahead of ourselves.

Monck Gets a Nickname

Edward Herbert Beresford Monck was born on March 5, 1939 in Wellesley, MA. His mother (“she was an inspiration”) was from Nutley, NJ, and his father (“He was English,’nuf said”) from Liverpool. We don’t call him “Beresford” (his chosen name) or even “Ed,” because the kids at a short stint at a summer camp called North Woods Camp Lake in Winnipesaukee, NH, nicknamed him “Chip.” And it stuck.

A scholarship to play Ice Hockey and Crew (four oared shells) got him into Kent in Connecticut, a prep school for the Ivy League, but his mind was too fertile to stay interested in studies or sports. He gained more education from two Polish farmers who taught him how to weld and about steel, alloys, and structures. Monck and the farmers decided to convert their McCormack tractor into a potato picker.

“We fiddle-f***ed around with harrow blades and bits of steel, and f*** if it worked!” Monck recalls cheerfully. Cheerfully indeed, because the three turned around and sold the design to McCormack “and I still get a shilling in royalty once in a while.”

Perhaps Monck would be receiving some lifetime achievement citation from the Farm Tractor Machinery Trade Association (FTMTA) instead of the Parnelli if he had not fallen in with a summer theater group that performed at nearby Wellesley College. Working behind the scenes while the group did the classics (Shakespeare, Marlowe, Shaw), it was there he met his tutor, Greg Harney, a lighting director who would later become technical director of PBS television’s flagship station, WGBH Boston.

“Greg taught me to break down a fitting, repair it, realign it, focus it, make it work for just a night or a week, depending on whether or not the company could afford to pay for spare parts.” At the theater he learned the basics, including how to operate the dimmer board. During this time Monck did a bit of unglamorous unlicensed electrical odd jobs, putting some much-needed spare change in his pocket. “I learned how to find power anywhere, which would be essential for my soon-to-be new trade.”

Next, he audited a few classes at Harvard while working with the school’s theater company. He also cut a deal with the theater department, using its staging for fraternities’ events on campus. “This was a big thing for these guys, they did compete, they did!” he laughs, adding that it was a good way to make extra cash, as the school was not noted for being “short a penny.”

Monck Fixes a Hole

When taking a Harvard production of a Gilbert & Sullivan show to New York in 1959 (literally, as in driving), Monck found himself at the historic Village Gate, a club that featured comedians and jazz and folk artists. It’s where he would make his home for the next couple of years, meeting important acts that would take him on tour with them. Of course, you don’t just walk in off the street and start working at the hippest, most happening club in New York City.

Unless you’re Chip Monck, that is.

“I walked into the Gate, and saw that it had a leak by the door,” Monck recalls. “At the time I was washing dishes at the Cock & Bull [pub], and I told them I could fix the leak.” Soon he was lighting a small play they were doing, and that led to other things, but these were lean times. Monck laughs and tells that he got $1.87 for each show, coming to a grand total of $16.83 a week, but “I could eat and drink there, too.” Bartering his burgeoning technical skills was a necessary survival tool during that period.

His persistence and talent allowed him to start working shows for the likes of Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, and Bill Cosby, among others. This was also the year he worked his first Newport Folk Festival. By the following year, he had hooked up with Charles Altman of Altman Lighting, and the two became fast friends.

“I started working with the old man on the benches,” Monck says. “I used to go up to his place on my Yamaha 250 motorcycle, against traffic, then take fernels and put them on the handlebar of the bike and put the cables over our shoulders and drive back to Manhattan.… I borrowed all kinds of [equipment] from Altman and tried it out at the Gate. They eventually liked the well-lit look and started buying from him.”

Soon he was also doing shows at the Apollo and working the Newport Jazz Festivals. A tour in Europe landed him in Copenhagen, where Beatles manager Brian Epstein answered a letter he had written, asking to work for them. Epstein said yes, but Monck didn’t have the money in his pocket to make it from there to London, so that fish got away. (Thinking about it now, he jokes that he should have asked them to pay for it, but at that point in his youth, such things didn’t occur to him.)

In 1967, he did the Monterey Pop Festival, got to L.A. and lit the Byrds at Hollywood Bowl, and most important, did his first Stones show in Boston. The following year, it was Crosby, Stills & Nash in Europe.

But it would be the year 1969 that would catapult Monck into rock and roll history.

Monck Warns of Brown Acid

Monck had by the late 1960s established himself with Bill Graham and was often hired to do his shows. David Noffsinger, currently doing production based out of Santa Fe, “walked in off the street at New York’s Fillmore in 1968 because I thought it would be a very groovy place to work.” There Noffsinger got to work with Monck on some shows. “He’s a pivotal character in the whole scheme of things. He worked with Bill Graham on the West Coast but would come to New York for special shows. He’s such a flamboyant character—everyone knew when he was [at the theater].

“At some point, I said, ‘I’d like to work with you,’ and then he came back to New York, and I did!” This included Woodstock.

By this time Monck’s clever business sense had honed the skill of “networking” decades before the term would be fashionable. He had made friends with some agents, including those at William Morris, and would volunteer when there was an especially hot new act at the Gate. Anxious to sign up the un-represented next big thing, the agents, grateful for his favors, returned in kind when they could. In this case, they turned him on to the people putting on Woodstock.

“We heard these guys were signing up every big act of the day, and I found out where their festival office was, went down there, and wove them the best story I could.” For the 10-week gig, Monck would get a mere $7,000.

What many don’t realize is that Woodstock was originally to be held on another farm, but the organizers were kicked off that land and had to procure Max Yasgur’s farm for the event. So precious time was lost, and there was an entire lighting design that never got put up because they ran out of time to put the roof on the stage. Scores of lights sat under the stage, unused.

As the sun was getting out of bed on August 15, 1969, sharing itself with Max’s farm, it dawned on the organizers that they forgot a detail: there was no master of ceremonies. Co-producer Michael Lang perused the melange of musicians, roadies, technicians, and hangers-on before pointing the fateful finger at LD Chip Monck. The masters of ceremonies needed to be larger than life, be able to calm, be able to excite, be a babysitter, and be a cop. For those who have seen the documentary, apparently the shirt was optional.

But Lang did well in choosing Monck. (And he likely didn’t know the guy had entertained thousands of waiting Rolling Stones fans with a fanciful rendition of Jonathan Livingston Seagull for two hours while said band members were working out some delicate issues with customs involving certain controlled substances they were caught with.)

“I was petrified,” Monck says. “But I got to the point where I was practically paternal in some periods of dire emergency: ‘Shut the f*** down—do you have any idea what you’re doing?’”

So there he is, in the Woodstock documentary, making the infamous announcement:

“The warning that I’ve received, you might take it with however many grains of salt you wish, that the brown acid that is circulating around is not specifically too good. It is suggested that you stay away from that. But it’s your own trip, be my guest. But please be advised that there’s a warning, okay?”

Monck says he wasn’t trying to be flippant, but some people had already taken it. So he had to diplomatically try to keep others from taking it while not freaking out those who had already indulged. And this was on top of the work he was hired to do, some of which was scary and dangerous.

“There was a huge power pole behind the stage that had all the main switches on it,” he says. “The rain caused it to slide down two feet. But we were able to laugh about it, because the [light] towers moved two feet in the same direction, too! So it all worked out.

“And you must understand that this was a cow field, so when the grass turned to mud, the mud turned to cowshit. Sometimes the mud and shit was 18” deep and was hard to walk because of the suction.

“It was very unpleasant, that part.”

Monck Loses Some Teeth

Up next was Altamont, the infamous misguided attempt to re-create Woodstock at a raceway in San Francisco. Hells Angels, in addition to murdering a man, stole the famous carpeting that covered the stage. When Monck caught the gentleman doing it, he tried to smooth talk him out of it. Said gentleman responded by knocking out a handful of Monck’s teeth via the butt of a pool cue. Monck, not one to give up, simply showed up at the house of the stolen soft goods with a case of brandy and sweet-talked his way into retrieving the precious stage prop.

But the more important, more successful gig with the Stones was to come.

Stansfield, currently of Patrick Stansfield & Associates, first met Monck when Stansfield worked for Bill Graham in the early 1970s, and was tour manager for a Crosby Stills Nash & Young tour in 1971 with Monck as the lighting director.

“I was entranced [by Monck] because he’s very flamboyant, and already had this reputation of being a conceptual genius. I was bowled over by him and his mastery of technical terms.” Stansfield then launches into a dead-on impersonation of Monck’s accent and speaking style, ordering a replacement part and being very specific. “He’s Mr. Nomenclature.”

Kidding aside, Stansfield and Monck bonded immediately because they both were passionate that the art of what they did was in the details. “The phrase ‘good enough for rock and roll’ drove us both nuts,” Stansfield tells. “We did not want to fly by the seat of our pants—we wanted to know.” He adds that they were the first people who really advanced shows and says that Monck liked him because Stansfield got into the number of seats, the type of power, the door heights, the stage depth.

Stansfield says he “wiggled onto the ’72 Rolling Stones tour.” Historically, in our industry, this is the tour that launched the period when tours became events. Preproduction, staging, better lighting and sound, special effects (however quaint by today’s standards)—the bar was raised forever on this tour.

Stansfield still can see Monck stalking the spot operators and shouting out cues, then on stage, at the piano, cueing from there. Specific cues are still vivid.

“Going into ‘Street Fighting Man,’ we had a big truss with probably 100 PAR-cans with gels, on a hydraulic lift,” Stansfield recalls. “The lift would bring down the lights, and we’d skitter on and pull the gels off [by hand], so when it went up again, it would all be blazing white. It was a huge effect, a big part of the show… a pre-technical color change. Now, you’d just flip a switch and it would all be white, but in those days, that’s not how it happened.”

There was a breach in their friendship when the Stones used a legal mark against Monck to fire him and keep him from continuing with the tour on to Australia. Monck: “It was February 8th, 1973, and I’d done advance for the show in Australia, but when I get to Honolulu, I’m told that my prior [drug offense] has come up in the Commonwealth record, a record shared by the U.K., Canada, and Australia. So they decided there is only one drug offender who gets to go to Australia and it has to be Keith [Richards]; I couldn’t understand [their choice],” he laughs. (The “drug offense” in question was being caught with a single joint in Canada after doing the Monterey Pop Festival earlier. He was thrown in the slammer for six days.)

“It made it easy for them to kiss me goodbye,” he shrugs. “But I just went on and worked with Peter Gabriel.”

Stansfield took over Monck’s duties when they left him on the beaches of Hawaii. “It was like a military operation, a field promotion, and I was brash enough to take it. He was very hurt,” said Stansfield. The awkwardness led to a period when the good friends didn’t speak to each other for eight years before finally burying the hatchet. “It made us both sad [to not be on speaking terms], and we were both happy when we became friends again.”

Monck Does a Rumble, a Rocky, and a Pope

In 1974, Monck found himself in the jungles of the Africa’s now Zaire working on the fiasco that was the Ali-Foreman fight. The fight itself was the draw, but the event was multifaceted and included concerts featuring local, national, and international acts. A large Liberian beer company, Monrovia Breweries, was putting up the money for the event in an effort to get its product established in the central African nation.

“They had more money than God,” Monck says. “Everything we did had the beer name attached to it. The event itself was one of the more difficult I have ever had to do.”

As line producer, he had to work with the local bands who weren’t used to performing in arena concert events. “I went out every day all day with a tape measure, a small crew, and an interrupter and met with all the local bands, making a floor plan for them.” But basic conveniences and tools previously taken for granted were out of their reach.

“Visualize this: when you wanted a drafting board, it was too hard to ask for it because they wouldn’t have one anyway. So you could take the bathroom door off and set it on two chairs at a right angle, use your trusty gaffer tape to hold it down. Or use the glass balcony door in the same manner, but if you did that, you better put your drafting table back before the sun went down or you’d get eaten by mosquitoes.”

Acquiring the blue drafting paper took weeks. And when he requested white paint to paint the deck of the stage, he received only two gallons, which he surmises was probably all they had in the entire country at the time. “It was particularly difficult,” he says. And dangerous, as corrupt Zairian leader Mubutu was wanting to confiscate the beer company’s lighting equipment. Monck and company barely got it returned on a 707 while they had to make a daring escape via a dinghy across the river.

Back in the states, he lit The Rocky Horror Picture Show and enjoyed the work on Broadway. “Broadway and Vegas are fantastic places to work because they have the best crew and an appropriate facility,” he says. “Putting on a show at Madison Square Garden is a horror—it’s built for sports, not for shows.”

Monck says the Rocky gig “was a quick learning experience. My prints and plans are pretty damn exacting, but trying to take a New York union crew and show them something different [is challenging]. When they hang a pipe, they do it like this. I hang in different ways—I know how tight they can be. If the light on the left is going to the right and the light on the right is going to left, I know how much space they need.

“That’s also the show when I first started using memory boards. That was great fun.” But Monck does confess he “freaked at the size” of the project. At one point in trying to deal with the new technology, his engine stalled for a few hours as someone more versed with the board had to be called from lighting designer Jules Fisher’s office to show him how to cue the show. “I had a little egg on my face,” he admits.

In 1975, he got to try his hand as a talk-show host for the short-lived show Speakeasy. Despite his offbeat sense of humor and guests that included Jackson Browne, Grace Slick, Frank Zappa, Waylon Jennings, and many others, the show never caught on. Then came his highly successful Divine Madness Tour with Bette Midler, where he took that “memory board” out, despite Midler’s apprehension with “working with a computer—she thought she would have to keep up with it.”

The 1970s ended well, beginning with a chance meeting with his future wife, Camille, on the Australian leg of Midler’s tour. An industry veteran in her own right with major productions like Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar on her resume, the highly respected, exceptionally well connected woman met Monck in 1978 and married him the following year. “True happiness, a true people person, a production assistant, a director, a brilliant typist—from heaven,” he says of her and their marriage.

Also, the “Music After Sports” movement was burgeoning, and working with Mike Brown’s company, he did his first one after a Padres game in 1982 in San Diego. The two would work a great deal together during the next decade.

Brown, himself a former Parnelli Lifetime Achievement Award winner who founded Brown United, worked with Monch often in the early days.

“Chip was all about presentation,” Brown says. “He taught us how to make our stages look good. It was a whole new part of our business—soft goods, the dressing, the scrims, skirting, etc. He covered up the sound stack and make outdoor staging look like indoor theater.”

He adds that when Monck would hire him to work on important larger events staged at such venues as the Rose Bowl or Hollywood Park, he would sometimes feel overwhelmed at the level of sophistication and high standards Monck would hold him to. “We were always having to pull another rabbit out of the hat.”

Brown says the biggest job they ever worked on together was Pope John Paul’s papal mass at L.A.’s Dodger Stadium in 1989. They had to set up a huge platform and break it down in a short time: they got on the field at 10:30 at night and had everything up by 8:30 in the morning. Then came the bomb-sniffing dogs, then the mass, then they had to break it all down for a double-header baseball game that night. The 425’ wide series of mitered triangled stages, an average of about 50’ deep, with trap doors for security escapes, was complicated enough, but Monck made sure soft goods covered everything to make it worthy of its subject.

“Everything was preplanned and prestaged by Chip, and he was so good at making things look absolutely perfect literally overnight.”

Monck Goes Down Under

In 1988, Monck moved to Melbourne, Australia, with Camille. There he designed and opened a Vegas-style club called the Continental. He would show up to light the special shows—John Hammond, Colin Hays—and had “quite a good time doing that.” The club closed its doors after five years.

Eventually he hooked up with Moonlighting, an architectural, commercial, and industrial lighting company with over 300 people on its payroll, as a consultant. His current project is lighting all the new K-Mart stores (whose Down Under versions are decidedly more upscale than in the States). He goes into details about the challenges of lighting the stores (“they have to look well-lit but not too expensive”). Showing his trademark flair for details, he talks about the metal alloy he chooses and the different lights he’s using, all of which is having the desired effect and keeping Moonlighting’s client very happy.

It is natural that this phase of his life sees him turning his talents to corporate work. As he points out, Australia has only five major cities and so there isn’t a lot of touring, and “my requirement of funds to do a job is quite high—because it always gets done. For all intents and purposes, in everything I’ve ever done, more was delivered than promised.”

In September of 2003, Camille lost her valiant battle with cancer. Good, long-lasting marriages in this industry can be a bit of a novelty, and as theirs was one of the strongest, it’s a particularly mournful time in Monck’s otherwise prolific and colorful life.

But there are more chapters to be written as Monck steps on the Queen Mary Grand Ballroom Stage on Friday, February 20th, to accept our industry’s highest honor. Stay tuned.

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