Monty Lee Wilkes saw a lot in the 30 plus years he worked in the music business. A Minneapolis native, he bumped heads with Prince and dodged bottles onstage with the Replacements. He worked as a tour manager and sound engineer with the likes of Britney Spears, the B-52's and Alice in Chains.
But Wilkes, who passed away last weekend at the age of 54, also played a pivotal role in one of Dallas' most infamous music moments: Nirvana's concert at Trees 25 years ago.
Wilkes had been hired to manage the tour in 1991 after managing to keep the Replacements relatively upright during their 1985 tour for their first major record release Tim. It was around that time Jeffrey Liles first met Wilkes.
“I actually did the Replacements show at Theatre Gallery,” Liles says. “[The Replacements] showed up at 8 in the morning on the day of the show, wanting beer. They had been driving all night on no sleep and were ready for breakfast. Years later, at the Nirvana show, I figured that maybe Monty would have remembered me from that morning, but he didn't make the connection. Apparently that was kind of an everyday thing. Drive all night, drink all day.”
Nirvana was flying high off the release of Nevermind, which caused a sensation upon its release less than a month before their appearance at Trees, where Liles worked. “[Wilkes] was frustrated. I mean, this tour was blowing up beneath them,” Liles says.
He says Wilkes was tasked with keeping a lid on the eccentric debauchery of Kurt Cobain while also attempting to jury-rig the venues they stopped at for the band’s own safety. “Their [fan base] exploded in literally a matter of days," he said "So many of the rooms on that run, like Trees that night, were too small to accommodate the size of their crowd.”
The Trees of 1991 was a far cry from the club that stands in today’s rapidly expanding Deep Ellum. The club had opened that year and lacked adequate security measures to keep fans a comfortable distance away from the stage. As Wilkes demanded barricades be erected, Liles says the best he could do was put three bouncers in between the stage and the sold-out crowd.
It didn’t help that Cobain proved difficult to handle before the show even started. Liles says that while Nirvana band members Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic were professionally accommodating at a pre-show poster signing, Cobain had other ideas. While two thirds of Nirvana simply signed their names, their front man doodled across his first of 50 posters for nearly five minutes, until Wilkes stepped in.
“Monty slipped in behind him and whispered something into his ear,” Liles says. “Kurt then shifted gears, and instead of drawing an elaborate mural on each one, he started moving much quicker, and purposely misspelled his name on each one.”
But while Wilkes was successful at keeping the peace before the show, once he settled in behind the board an ocean of slam dancing bodies barred him from exerting that same control over the events. And as the band kicked into a fairly loose interpretation of Georges Bizet’s “L'Amour Est Un Oiseau Rebelle,” Cobain destroyed a monitor console with his guitar.
“Then it was just kind of weird, the dynamic totally changed on the spot. Most of our staff members went from a ‘protect the band’ mentality to a ‘who the fuck does this guy (Kurt) think he is?’ perspective,” Liles says.
The night went downhill from there. Cobain hit a bouncer with a guitar, the bouncer punched Cobain and the band split off stage in different directions. Liles says he and Wilkes set off to get the band back on stage as a rowdy crowd vibrated with obscenities and anger. Grohl and Novoselic were easy enough to find, but Cobain was nowhere in sight.
Liles made his way to the DJ booth on the club’s second floor, where he says on a $20 dare, he decided to play “Smells Like Teen Spirit” over the venue’s P.A. system.
“The audience pretty much went berserk, throwing cups and clothes and all kinds of shit at the stage,” Liles says. “Monty came running into the DJ booth, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ he said. I looked at him and said, ‘Get your fucking band back on stage, Monty! These people aren't leaving until the show is over!’ He turned around and headed back downstairs.” Minutes later the band finished the show. Nirvana made it out of Trees in one piece, and that was that.
Liles says he saw Wilkes a few years later at famed Minneapolis night club First Avenue, where Wilkes was the front of house engineer for decades, but Liles opted to avoid bringing the night up. “I'm also sure that type of thing happened in many, many different cities, so it was all probably a blur to him,” Liles says.
Still, those memories were stirred back up at the news of Wilkes' death over the weekend.
“I'm sorry to hear of Monty's passing. I know that everybody holds him in the highest regard. I certainly never held anything against him personally about what happened,” Liles says. “He handled his end as professionally as anyone could have, given that he was working with a miserable, uncooperative and temperamental artist. But that's why management companies hired him to road manage their artists. He had been through hell and back, and he had seen everything.”