Saturday, July 31, 2010 | 12:05 a.m.
Monti Rock is not a has-been. Monti Rock was a has-been, decades ago, but now he's something else, something transcendent. It's hard to say what.
It's easier to say what he's done. Monti Rock (born Joseph Montanez Jr., in 1942) sold 7 million disco albums, appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson 84 times, and had a cameo in Saturday Night Fever.
But Rock's not a singer or an actor — he admits this much. So what is he? A personality? A punch line? A parody? A VH1 Celebreality show waiting to happen? What does he do?
Earlier this month, at Hennessey's Tavern on Fremont, Rock answered that last question: He performs. No, he doesn't do it as often as he used to, but you don't have to perform to be a performer.
Rock didn't perform on his own; he was the special guest of Derek David and The Platters, who play regularly in Hennessey's. They do a dinner show targeted at baby boomers. Rock joined the show, for one night only, for a very specific reason ...
He told me this reason a week before he took to the stage. He told me that it was "very important," several times, so I'd be remiss if I didn't share. Here goes:
Recently, Rock auditioned to play a gay hitman in an independent film. For the audition, he chopped off his trademark ponytail. Now, he's worried that his fans will think he "pulled a Britney Spears," and he wants "to show them that [he's] not Britney Spears."
I hope that clears up any confusion.
A couple weeks back, I attended Rock's Hennessey's performance. I was seated at a tiny dinner table, next to a couple who reminded me of my parents. In fact, everybody in the room reminded me of my parents.
As the servers brought out the cheesecake, The Platters sang a catchy arraignment of Jackie Wilson's "Higher and Higher." The audience ate it up — both the cheesecake and the song. But I couldn't envision them going for Rock.
See, Monti Rock is an acquired taste. I know that because before his gig, he called me so often that I had his number memorized. And only after several of our chats did I feel as though I "got" him. At first, he just seemed odd.
After I "got" him, though, I grew protective of him. I didn't want to see him bomb. I didn't want the audience to reject him — I didn't think he'd take it well. So I grew nervous as hell for him. And then, one of the Platters called him to the stage ...
"He's a legend in his own time, in his own mind. You know how they say James Brown is Soul Brother No. 1? Well, Monti Rock is Disco King No. 1. Ladies and gentlemen, Monti Rock!"
Rock entered from the back of the room. He wore a white suit, white beads, and a white tallit. His eyes sparkled, his lapel sparkled and his rings sparkled. He carried a stuffed white cat that he referred to as "my pussy." He walked to the stage belting "On Broadway" and tossing white carnations into the audience. A man followed behind, video camera in hand.
The man at my table asked his wife, "Who is this guy?"
And for the next 25 minutes, Rock answered. That's the genius of Monti Rock's act (if you want to call it an "act"): He knows people have questions about him, and he answers each and every one. (Whether his answers are fully accurate is up for debate.)
What was his childhood like?
"When I was 13, my mom found out I was gay and threw me out. I sold my body on 42nd Street, and made every trick a John, and every John a producer."
How did he get started in acting?
"One of my husbands was murdered in a pool. I got indicted for the murder, so I went to Mexico, and there, a man asks me to be in the movies."
How did he build a following in Las Vegas?
"People came to see me because I had no talent, and that upset people. I'm not a singer. I'm not an actor. What I am is somebody who believes so much in myself that I can make you believe."
Rock put on a white cowboy hat and white feather boa. He sang two more songs (one in Spanish) in a wavering baritone. He moved about the stage like an aged Scott Hamilton, directly and indirectly asking for applause. And every time, he got it. Against all odds, the audience loved him. They were shocked, amused, confused and delighted. And after 15 minutes, they all believed.
Rock concluded by singing his 1975 hit single "Get Dancin'." Well, he didn't sing it so much as he strutted around the stage and fiddled with the microphone as the background track played.
But the audience loved it.
Whatever it was.
Monti Rock inhabits the space between Andy Kaufman and Tony Clifton, between Rip Taylor and James Brown, between Andy Warhol and José Eber. It's a grey area, but it's got sparkles, too.
I don't know if Rock really has a TV deal, a book deal and an album deal in the works, as he claims. And I don't know why he calls me so frequently — I mentioned that I know his number by heart? — but I do know that the guy can still put on a great show and that Las Vegas is lucky to have him.
Who is Monti Rock? He's the man for whom the phrase "je ne sais quoi" was invented.
— Originally published in Las Vegas Weekly