It’s a steamy, late-afternoon on the Friday before the titular summer’s end and Robert Montesdeoca, aka Rob Monte, The Columbian Freak Boy is about to head southeast to do what he has done for the past 20 years; sing, prance and entertain over every inch of a packed barroom. He will do it as he always has; in front of a popular New Jersey rock band. He will make a lot of money for some and some for himself. It is business as usual for the grizzled stage warrior. This time, however, is different. This time will be his last. The long, rock and roll road ends for the man most know as Monte this Labor Day Weekend 2010. He is calling it quits after some 20 years of running amok on the famed Jersey Rock Circuit; much of it a blur and all of it chock full of what he politely calls “reckless abandon” while “feeling very comfortable playing it by the seat of my ass.”
“I am one-hundred percent ready” he tells me when I ask if this is truly it. “But for awhile I felt guilty saying it aloud or to anyone, because I might disappoint them..”
That’s always been the nut for Rob Monte, who took every show, hell, every song to be a long walk to the gallows, as if tomorrow was a rumor and squeezing every last inch of a Saturday night meant a little bit more than everything.
There is weird blood running in the man’s veins, much of it tainted with alcohol and the gripping fear that someone in his presence might not be having the time of their lives. It’s a rough gig spending nearly an entirety of an adult life convincing audiences that infinite merriment is tangible while the clock has other ideas.
“It was a unique period,” he exhales, before packing his kitbag of lunacy for one last go-round, two-decades of memory working its way through the fog. “Beer funnels? You can’t do that in clubs anymore, bro! People think that was the dark ages – hundreds of people smoking in clubs? The drinking and driving? The complete chaos?”
His voice cackles over the phone line and it sends a chill down my spine. I have heard that laugh before, a broken gravel of a coughing guffaw, fused with a kind of mischief that knows soon there will be danger afoot. “Whatever the formula was, it worked,” he admits with confidence. “Even with everyone trying to reel me in, there I was deep in some Irish drinking contest off stage, while the band figured it out.”
And the “figuring out” is what made the incredible professionals Monte has played with over the years so fascinating. There are far too many to name here, but know they are brave subjects in an improbable conquering horde of weekend marauders just the same.
“The bands? Four sober guys following along, hanging with me, I want to thank all of them. Thank them or apologize!” Monte laughs, but then there is a serious shift to his tone. “Hey, there was trouble sometimes, but once the club read the register they’d forgive us.”
Monte’s story is hardly unique. It is but one of thousands played out across this great land, where somewhere tonight there are hard-bitten dreamers tossing about elusive glories in cover tunes and original numbers; piano troubadours and harp-mouthed folkies and jazz cats and sing-song beauties putting on one more show for one more dollar and one more round of applause. But here in New Jersey, when a man steps down from his well-earned throne as King of Long Beach Island, it is pretty big news. For the mythical, radical, hysterical place I once called Clubland in my book, Deep Tank Jersey, it is monumental.
As far as icons go, if there is such an animal trolling the sordid corridors once inhabited by the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi, Rob Monte sure as hell is. He has fronted several bands of varying degrees of reputation and earning power for the past two decades, the most lucrative and history making is DogVoices, the birth of which during its most lavishly successful summer is depicted in the aforementioned book by yours truly. Therefore, Monte’s swansong is also a somewhat selfish personal tribute for this space. It can be argued that without Deep Tank Jersey and the wild events of the summer of 1995, the access and honesty of the original five members of DogVoices, and all those clubs and roadies and fans and wonderfully colorful hangers-on, there may not be a Reality Check News & Information Desk.
So blame the whole damn thing on Monte, who was foolish enough to allow the sordid tale of young men treading the floorboards from Atlantic City to Clifton to be recorded for posterity.
Lord knows it is hard for me to believe a word of it today, and I wrote the damn thing. Worse still, I lived it. Barely. Like most of the poor souls who stepped into a Jersey rock club looking for a good time but were assaulted with a strange combination of burlesque and mud wrestling soaked in gallons of beer and sweat. Rob Monte the ringmaster of it all, from midnight ocean dives to launches from the odd hotel roof, impromptu strip shows and Tequila-shot binges, bar dancing and a rabble of dawn seekers thrown into the spotlight for an inch of what Monte has come to call home.
It is a home he never takes for granted as he continued to review his incredible run at a pace that would have killed several if not all other men not named Keith Richards.
“I plan on playing my last gig at the Ringside Pub in January,” he says with pride. “The owner, Bob Harper is a friend and mentor. I started there, and I should end there.”
Along with the Ringside, a modest but hopping rock venue in the hamlet of Caldwell, there is the now-defunct Wally’s and Nickel’s Alley, Wild Mike’s, the Wreck Room, and the legendary Mother’s, all of them outlasted by the unsinkable Columbian Freak Boy.
Then there is the cash cow for any serious full-time cover band; the Jersey Shore, where for 18 consecutive years Monte has plied his trade at Nardi’s, the Sea Shell and of course, Bar A. “I have to play Bar A once more in December,” Monte says. “My craziest stunts may have happened there. I broke ribs jumping off that balcony. The owner, Tom Jannarone, has always been there for me.”
The center of Monte’s universe for nearly 20 years has been Long Beach Island, known to many in the tri-state area as an interesting amalgam of quiet, sunny family getaways and completely maddening midnight parties, the latter of which became the central force in an impressive career of playing popular songs of the day with a splash of carnival folly.
“The Quarterdeck, Sea Shell, Nardi’s, Joe Pop’s, you could play over four days without ever leaving the island,” Monte chuckles, as if struggling to recall earlier triumphs.
Now, placing it all into perspective, he can securely move into a fulltime career mentoring younger bands with his newly formed Monte Booking Agency, where the man himself tutors his acts to steer clear of the Monte Method.
“No way Monte could survive now,” he says, speaking in the third person as if this Monte creature is a thing of fiction. “Most of the bands I book now don’t know about the Deep Tank Jersey years. I tell them to do the opposite!”
And what about any parting words, a final stage dive or perhaps a Daffy Duck self-immolation jag?
He laughs again and sighs; “I cannot plan anything. It goes against everything I’ve done as an entertainer. So there’ll be no final song. No canned speech.”
Whatever it will be, its toll will end one part of an implausible career, close an era, and provide another reason for those who were there to recall the past.
For me, I wish good luck to my friend, a long-gone protagonist in my first published work.
And good luck to the rest of the Weird Blood who dare scour the depths of what is left of the Deep Tank.
James Campion is the Managing Editor of The Reality Check News & Information Desk and the author of Deep Tank Jersey, Fear No Art, Trailing Jesus, and Midnight For Cinderella.