`The strange life and bloody death of Billy Monk, smalltime crook and drifter, whose rowdy exterior hid a subtle eye for photography.
A few months ago a Cape Town photographer named Jac de Villiers was sorting through some papers in his studio when he discovered a set of files which belonged to a one time nightclub photographer.
The pictures showed the raw underbelly world of Cape Town nightclub life in the 1960s, a seedy contrast with the sweet and clean affluence of the other side of town and were taken by Billy Monk. Jac de Villiers and I decided to put on an exhibition of his work at the Market Gallery in Johannesburg.
The critics raved and the Johannesburg Art Gallery bought six for their permanent collection. Sadly, Billy Monk never lived to see his exhibition. He was shot dead before he could do so.
Billy Monk was buried at sea on a thick grey Cape Town winter’s day. The sort of day that looks as if it needs to clear its throat. The sea had that chip-chop movement of a child’s drawing; up –down,plip-plop, sick-sick.
The movement of the boat was relentless and some people said it was Billy Monk’s last revenge. A woman in a black slit skirt and smudged lipstick hung to the side. Billy’s wife Jeanette stood, frail and sad and thin, in a white coat. His three sisters sat solid and a little surprised.
There was a woman with long red nails who worked in an advertising agency. There were musicians and artists and people who’d tried everything. There were the blown-out faces from Long Street, with features that had long ago lost their buzz in too much brandy and Coke.
There were pimps and bums and nightclub owners and drunks and people who had done time and would do time again. There were old girlfriends and new girlfriends and the girlfriends who had simply endured. There were scabangas and scruffs and sophisticates.
A seagull followed the boat and it was remembered that the souls of departed seamen came back as gulls. A girl threw a red rose into the water and an old friend read a poem by W.E. Henley: “In the fell clutch of circumstance/I have not winced or cried aloud.”
In death, as in life, Billy had managed that same mixture of tough talk and romance Even as a corpse draped in a black cloth (which a woman would later clutch around her shoulders to keep out the cold), Billy Monk was the outsider, the rough diamond, the primitive, the man who gave it to you straight. Even in the cold grip of eternity, Billy Monk was his own man.
He died on a Saturday night in a house with turquoise-blue walls and a bar with a glitter top that had lost it shines from too many elbows sliding along the top. There was a chair without legs, supported by a pile of old magazines and a sweetly pretty picture of a mother feeding her baby.
A girl told me what had happened. Her voice sounded careless but it was more likely the deprived edges of sound coming from a centre that was so depressed that it had forgotten about acquired form. There was something about her that screamed, ‘Wake me when its over.” Billy Monk’s death was only one small thing.
“Ja, I don’t know,” she said shakily lighting a cigarette. It was a fight over some furniture. Lionel (pronounced Lawnel) promised to moved some of Johnny’s furniture and he forgot, so Johnny tried to shoot him. Here the issues are not big. Billy Monk died protecting his friend Lionel in a tacky argument over moving furniture. he was shot with a .22 which his diving friends thought afterwards was a very ignominious way to go.
His blood did not rise in a thrilling arc as it does in detective novels. It splattered and sank and pooled and there were two small holes in his new jacket which he had bought that morning at Lightbodies for R54.
Before he fell to the ground, he stood there helpless and plunging, his arms stretched out in shock and pleading. “Now you’ve gone and killed me,” he said. That is how it was told by the girl with the shaking hands and I can assure you she is beyond imagining anything. In her life imagination is superfluous.
I’d seen the exhibition of Billy Monk’s photographs the week before. I wanted to interview the man because they were the first photographs I had seen by a South African photographer that were right there. He had a way of moving with his camera along the cutting edge. There was no flab, no space, no pretension.
The saddest thing in the world is that most people think they’re being photographed because they are beautiful. Then the coffee table books come out and others laugh with dark sophistication as they pry into sad little lives.
in a way his photographs – like his life – were flashes of opportunism. Like Man Ray in Paris at the beginning of the last century, he just happened to be the right man at the right place.
Unfortunately a bullet met Billy before I had a chance to meet him.
Who was Billy Monk?
I had met Billy once about six year ago. He had the face of an embattled baby. The contours were loose and rubbery and enduring. Although the face changed little over the years, as the years passed it, it began to take the look of something that had been dropped from a great height. The nose was broken and the soft bones around the cheeks had loosened and widened. There was an area round the eyes that looked as if it had done hard labour.
His build was powerful and low with a pelvic intensity that gave the arms an oddly superfluous look that so many good fighters get. He seemed to carry his arms separately from his body. It was the voice that hit you by surprise. It had a lather that seemed to soap up over the soft sounds. it was a modulated, educated voice.
‘Hullo sweetness,’ he would say and a woman could melt.
Many people in Cape Town knew Billy Monk by sight. He fitted the place well and had over the years drawn from its tolerance to gain that strange homogenous quality of the Cape Town ‘character’. it is what the people coming to the town liked best and least about the place. In Cape Town he was simply BillyMonk one word, and sometimes he disappeared. People said he had gone fishing.
In those few days after the funeral, when his wife Jeanette began to wonder whether it was Sunday or Monday and people were saying that a Cape Town legend had died, BillyMonk, one word, was remembered in a hundred different ways. They remembered him as a character. They remembered him as a good musician who could twist your guts with the agonies of bad sound. They remembered him as a man who could have any woman he wanted. They remembered him as a man who wanted many woman.
They remembered him as a man who could change a baby’s nappy and swing a powerful left hook, a man who could read Tortilla Flat deep into the night and a man who could make you cry. They remembered he was seldom on time, and sometime didn’t arrive at all, and the people who said the worst things about him, still liked him.
It was universally agreed that Billy Monk, one word, had charm, was so mean he wouldn’t off you a plugged nickel if you were dying, was his own man, sexually ravenous, and a good cook. There were also the people who said that, although he could put on the varnish, at heart he was nothing more than a small time crook
Billy Monk was a hangover (and I use the word advisedly) of the 1960s, a decade that had slammed into reverse. In the 1960s the dreams had gathered intensity, after the years of repression and prohibition. For a poor boy with little education and a good smile,there was nothing to stop you trying every bit of shade you could, even if you ended up with grazed knees.
In Cape Town it was the era of the confident political dissident, the music of Dollar Brand (later to become ) and recherché clubs like the Vortex where he lived and played. It was a time when there was always a policeman in a tree looking out of the Immorality Act, a fancy name for cross cultural fucking. Billy joined the Cape Town underworld where men were called ‘babyface’ and ‘sneaky pete’, where there was always somebody who could play the piano like Brubeck and payment was strictly cash.
Sometimes it was easy to confuse the underworld with the underdog.
His sister don’t like talking about his childhood. They say that if Billy had wanted anyone to know, he would have spoken about it. Certainly, he didn’t go around hanging too high with the notion of a bad childhood or, for that matter, any childhood at all. Somehow Billy Monk always seemed to be around the age of consent, although consent was the last thing he would ask for.
he said once that the only memory he had of his father was of a man sitting huddled in a blanket on the pavement, puking into the gutter. There was the story of a stepmother and a bed-wetting episode and he was born on January 11, which was why some people said he liked the sea.
He quickly learnt to survive. He learnt to work the system.
“Billy,”said a man who had worked with himfor years, “was a small-time crook. He would do anything to survive, he was always looking for an edge.” The edge came in different ways.
In those early days the scam was safecracking. The first big hoist was the OK Bazaars and the safe wouldn’t budge, so they finally decided on a carry out scheme. When they got out of the lift, carrying a safe hoisted between the three of them, the police were waiting, jostling up with guns. It didn’t look like Billy had been shopping.
Billy Monk came out with his hands up. Over the years it became a favourite gesture. He died with his hands up.
The safe episode cost him nearly two years. In the rozzer he became the receptionist, and learnt and elegant, archaic copperplate handwriting.
When the files of his pictures were found, kept alive by artist Paul Gordon who had once had an affair with Billy’s wife Jeanette and was awake to the uniqueness of the photographs.
When photographer Jac De Villiers started looking into the negatives, each one was marked and cross referenced in this gentleman’s script. It was in jail he also learnt to box and some say that is where he also learnt a sexual ambivalence because, for the rest of his life, some people would say of Billy, he liked men AND women. When I asked a friend of his about this, he said carelessly, “Oh, there were simply not enough women in the world for Billy. He needed to double up.”
In jail it wasn’t long before he was getting the weekenders to bring in cigrettes and condensed milk, which he would then resell. Even I prison, or perhaps especially in prison, Billy needed an edge.
There were other scams.For a while he ran dagga from the Transkei where he had worked out a plan to avoid the main roads by getting the help of farm workers – moving at 2 am through the lean lands that lead from the Transkei, and the farm gates would be open and there would be instructions to follow.
after that he moved to Cape Town and started working the waters.Crayfish poaching brought in a bit of pewter and it was a good life. All you needed were a few ivers, a skiboat and a compressor. Sometimes you could rake in as much as one thousand bucks a night. In those days that was enough money to buy schvitzy white canvas one-button suits, hopsack shirts and a red studabaker. But Billy got careless and Billy got caught.
For Billy just when things were getting good,something would always spoil. He had a way of throwing the stop dice
I talked to a night club owner who wears a lot of serious gold and says that nobody knows Billy like he does. “So what can I tell you. Billy was a crook. Okay so I liked the guy, but he would do anything to survive and he wasn’t even a very good bouncer. A good bouncer doesn’t need to half kill.
‘This will tell you something about Billy. One day this bloke from the narc squad comes to me. Look, he says, I am looking for this guy his name is Jose who is a forger, I want you to let me know if he comes to the club. “So I am going to tell the fuzz? What for? I don’t remember they were killing themselves to help me.
So one day this guy Jose come in and Billy who has been inside with him, gives me the tip off.
I say to this guy, “Look you can’t come in.The place is crawling with fuzz and they’ll pick you up. He says thank you and leaves. A couple of days later the narc guy comes back. “I believe the narc guy was here, “I believe that Jose guy was here,so why didn’t you let me know. Now I ask you, who could have told him? Billy Monk would shop his own mother.
Derek Lyons was a long-time friend and the man who cried out when they told him of Billy’s death, “Oh, my beloved Billy, what have they done.’
“I’m very sorry,” he says “Billy was a sweet and gentle person. He was always late and he could be violent, but his heart was in the right place. Derek Lyons is a middle-aged mane with a 19th century scholar’s approach to life, who, this very night is probably going to bed with two soft-boiled eggs and a copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets His relationship with Billy was based on the extraordinary.
Here is a man who can write wonderful poetry, but who forms a close and lasting link with a man who never quite grew out of being a breker (bruiser), a man who could be senselessly violent and was known to go down to Zippy’s (an all night café on Loop Street) just so he could half kill anyone who dared dust up against him. He said it was a way of letting off steam.
It was something that marked Billy’s relationship with the world, a respect for people he thought could teach him something. Derek loved Billy and Billy respected Derek. In the last years of Billy’s life, when he was making a respectable regular income from diamond diving, it was Derek who looked after the money, no receipts given.
It was Derek who entered Billy I the ledgers of life, who went to the tax office and explained about his friend, the beachcomber who had never paid tax;who got his children registered; who made him make a will.
Written on a lined scrap of paper, it says, “I William John Monk, being of sound mind…” which even in the days after his death gave everyone a bit of a giggle. It was largely due to Derek that Billy died with a not inconsiderable amount of money. It was with Derek that he was one day going to buy a boat and they were going to sail away.
“And I’d say to myself as I looked so lazily down to the sea, there’s nobody else in the world and the world was made for me.”
This same respect permeated his relationship with Jeanette, the woman he called ‘the mother of my children’ and had once called ‘the most beautiful woman in the world”. Jeanette has class.She looks like a waterbird, with those same long, dithering legs that nevertheless, when they finally decide to make a step, make it strongly. She picks her way along, long fingers crumbling bread, lighting cigarettes, moving her head always a little before her body.
Her language is oddly old-fashioned.For Jeanette a fight always ‘ensues’ and people ‘proffer’ advice. When she met Billy she was 22 and a virgin.
Jeanette remembers every word Billy has ever said She remembers how he stayed with her through her son’s birth and gentely wiped her face, how he once said to a girlfriend, in front of her, “I have one wife and her name is Jeanette.”
She once went into the bathroom and her son, who was about five, was washing behind his ears. “What are you doing?” she asked. “Daddy taught me,” he answered. For most people this is run-of-the-mill domestic detail. Jeanette remembers it as special because Billy wasn’t around that much.
Billy could not be faithful and the eventual debacle of sex on the run, of complicated relationships and one night stands, gave their marriage a sort of now-you-see-him, now you don’t ambivalence that did nothing to aid its survival.
Sexually, Billy Monk was a driven man. Sex was his power, the handle he used to get at life. He wanted to make love to every woman he met, when all else failed, this was a jack to his ego. The sordid sideshows along the way – petty rackets, law courts and the scuffle for a quick buck – could be forgotten. In sex he was powerful and he liked to turn on the current.
(When the OK Bazaars case was being heard, it was thought at one time that Billy would go free,he stood up and said, “I did it.” He wanted even the tacky glamour of a small time criminal.
Sexually, it was tinsel and glitter all the way. There were girls with the right vowel sounds and private incomes (a surprising number in fact), girls who whored, girls who talked about life deep into the night, girls who were crumbly thin, girls who were Junoesque. There was a top model and a woman of 55 who said he had helped her “cut the spiritual loaf of love”. As a predatory blonde shouted across a bar, “Billy Monk was a pioneer among lovers.”
Billy Monk had been places. He was once a Woolworths’ model and when he was a bouncer in a nightclub, he kept a baseball bat under the desk for the extra plunge. He had been a photographer’s assistant and gone round the world with a film company. He’d done the Early Hashish lifestyle and had a sandal shop and a vegetarian restaurant. It was rumoured that he had once studied at the Cape Town College of Music.
If he was in the mood, Billy could give you a real juju and once he drove his car through a restaurant window because he was owed.
In his last years, when he was diving for diamonds off the Coast of Port Noloth, he was a changed man. There were no rackets. “No rackets?” asked Jack Wiener and one-time owner of the Catacombs – pardon me Les Catacombs nightclub. Billy Monk said a man who dived with him, “was a perfect gentleman.”
A long time back when Billy a taking photographs in the Catacombs, he said to a friend. “You’ll see – I’ll make it in photography. They’ll be talking about my photographs long after I’ve gone.”
Billy Monk was killed before he knew he was famous. A few days before he had ridden smoothly out of Port Nolloth, feeling good that people were talking about him.