After helping shape the acoustics at Minnesota’s landmark rock venue First Avenue and keeping chaotic tours with the Replacements and Nirvana on track, Monty Lee Wilkes settled into an impressive 30-plus-year career as a sound engineer with artists ranging from Prince and Britney Spears to the Beastie Boys.
The veteran Twin Cities roadie, 54, died Friday after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis last fall. He had returned to his parents’ house two weeks ago in Kettle River, Minn., to undergo hospice care.
A fixture in war-torn biographies on the Replacements and Nirvana — he was tour manager for the latter’s pivotal “Nevermind” tour in 1991 — Wilkes made his last appearance behind the sound board at First Avenue in December to helm the 36th annual John Lennon tribute.
“We all wanted to think it wouldn’t be his last one, but we knew it would,” said Lennon tribute leader Curt “Curtiss A” Almsted, who praised Wilkes for having “good ears and good taste, which isn’t the case with a lot of sound men.”
“To get jobs ranging from Nirvana to Britney Spears and Engelbert Humperdinck, you really have to be highly regarded at what you do,” Almsted said. And he wasn’t kidding about Humperdinck; the “Release Me” balladeer was one of the more recent acts to employ Wilkes on tour.
With a rainbow array of Sharpie markers and a briefcase as his tools of the trade, Wilkes’ impressively varied résumé also included stints with Soul Asylum, the Suburbs, Babes in Toyland, the Smithereens, Alice in Chains, Joe Strummer, Lisa Marie Presley, Red Kross, Siouxsie & the Banshees, the Go-Gos, the dBs, the B-52’s and, another recent one, the Commodores.
Raised in Barnum, Minn., Wilkes became fascinated with sound equipment and the science and art of amplifying rock ’n’ roll after attending a Grateful Dead concert around age 12 with his dad, Howard Wilkes.
“The Dead had their giant stacks of equipment, and he just thought that was cool,” remembered Howard Wilkes, whose own band, the Leisure Brothers, played around the Duluth area in the 1970s, with a teenage Monty working sound.
After being hired by Johnny Rey & the Reaction, Monty worked his way into the Twin Cities’ budding indie-rock scene of the early-’80s. He started at First Ave when it was still transforming from the disco club Uncle Sam’s into the punkier First Ave. The venue did not even have its own sound system for rock shows and would hire out to Southern Thunder, the local sound company that employed Wilkes.
“He was another young, upstart, know-it-all kid, but it turned out he really did know what he was doing,” remembered Steve McClellan, First Avenue’s former general manager of more than 30 years. “He became one of those bigger-than-life rock ’n’ roll characters who wasn’t actually in a band but was still a big a part of that world.”
Wilkes was working at a record store in Duluth in 1985 when the Replacements’ manager, Peter Jesperson, called and asked if he could join the band’s traveling circus on very short notice just as the Minneapolis quartet was about to release “Tim,” its first major-label album.
“Without hesitation, he jumped in his van, drove down to Minneapolis, and we met at the C.C. Club later that day,” said Jesperson. “He truly was a consummate professional who was dedicated to his work. Doing sound literally was his calling.”
One story in last year’s biography, “Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements,” has Wilkes being called to the stage to play bass at a gig in Norman, Okla., because a still-underage Tommy Stinson was arrested before the show for public intoxication in a dry county.
“I can barely bang out a crappy punk rock song, but they start calling me from the stage,” Wilkes recalled of his panic. After a couple elementary cover songs, the band launched into its own “I Will Dare,” hanging Wilkes out to dry. “I don’t think we made it to the chorus before it fell apart and people started pelting us.”
As the tour manager on Nirvana’s “Nevermind” outing — which followed the rocketing ascent of the band’s first hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit” — Wilkes endured Kurt Cobain’s erratic reaction to sudden fame, which often included broken music equipment and trashed hotel rooms. When band members told an angry Wilkes they smashed a TV in a hotel room because they couldn’t get the window open to throw it out, the unimpressed tour manager famously replied, “A real punk-rock band would’ve thrown it through the window.”
On last week's episode of the KFAI-FM program "Spin With Cyn," which was devoted entirely to Wilkes, longtime First Ave sound engineer Myles Kennedy recounted being hired by Wilkes as a drum tech for the Nirvana tour. “It turned into being one of the things of a lifetime where you get to go on a ride,” Kennedy said. “Not many people get to do that, and I had the extreme pleasure of getting to do it with my mentor.”
Wilkes only worked for about a year with Prince in the ’90s, and it was a predictably a tense experience. Said McClellan, “It wasn’t that he wasn’t good enough for Prince. It was because he and Prince were both consummate perfectionists, and no perfectionist likes being told how to do their job.”
Wilkes also taught classes at McNally College of Music and produced records for a variety of local bands including the Magnolias, Big Trouble House and Black Spot. In recent years, he had been finishing off a recording studio at his home in Mound, a job his family and friends hope to complete after his death. T-shirts honoring Wilkes will soon be sold at Hi-Fi Hair & Records in downtown Minneapolis to help fund the studio.
Perhaps the ultimate tribute to Wilkes, First Avenue painted his name in one of the stars on the club’s exterior walls two weeks ago alongside many of the bands he served.
“That really perked him up a lot and was a wonderful thing to do,” Howard Wilkes said.
In addition to his dad and mother, Sandra Wilkes, Monty is survived by daughter Olivia Wilkes, brother Ray Wilkes and dog Penny Lane. Memorial service plans are still pending.
[UPDATE: Family and friends are hosting a memorial gathering on Saturday, Sept. 3, from 1-5 p.m. at the Elmwood Inn, 2145 County Rd. 61 in Atkinson, Minn.]