The Star Who Never Was

The Sydney Morning Herald
by Jack Marx

Of all the legendary tales in Australian rock and roll folklore, none pops my cork quite like the story of Marcus Montana, son of a Sydney greengrocer had who promised his boy that he’d be a star. Like some pop culture Aesop fable, the saga of Marcus Montana is a cautionary tale about the elusive nature of rock and roll stardom, and a sweet lesson in how respect is often earned in ways one least expects. My thanks to Tim Freedman, Michael Vidale and Toby Creswell, who reluctantly spilled the beans they’d been housing for years.

It was the winter of 1989, the year of Tone Loc’s Funky Cold Medina and Madonna’s Like A Prayer. Milli Vanilli, too, were about to see their last number #1 hit. A new decade loomed large.

So too, it seemed, did Marcus. Posters told us Marcus was “coming”, but didn’t say why. A doe-eyed boy sulked at us from beside the bold words. He may have been an evangelist, or the face of a new men’s fragrance. That was none of our business. All we were meant to know was that he was on his way.

Teaser advertisements, as they were known in the industry, were popular in the ’80s. Designed to create a buzz in a vacuum, the teaser sucks in the masses while starving them of information. The hungry will eat anything if you can convince them they’ve been deprived of it. That’s the theory.

But the plebs were hip to teasers by the end of the 80s – they knew that the best way to sell shit was to hide its identity until the very last second. And thus “Marcus is Coming” might have slipped by as just another piece of entertainment industry spam.

But there was a difference.

The “Marcus is Coming” campaign was so massive that few who were alive in Sydney at the time have forgotten about it. It wasn’t just posters, but billboards, the sides of buses, the backs of taxi cabs. It was everywhere.

Sydney began to talk, and Marcus, invisible as he was, uncoiled like some cosmic snake in our midst.

Michael Vidale, ex-bassplayer with legendary Australian shock band Jimmy and the Boys, and a respected sound engineer, got a call one evening from an exhausted pal working at EMI recording studios in Sydney.

“He asked me could I come in and finish off mixing some demo tapes that he’d been working on,” says Vidale. “The recordings were…pretty green. But I did the best l could with what I had, and that was that as far as I was concerned.”

A few days later, Michael received another call. The person who’d made the music on the demos was impressed with Michael’s work, and wanted his advice. He needed to form a band and fast.

It was Marcus.

“I was aware of Marcus because of the poster campaign,” says Vidale. “I can’t remember whether I realized at the time that it was Marcus whose demo I’d been working on. In any case, I said I’d do it.”

Vidale called his friend Louis Burdett, a drummer in a small-time indie pub-rock band called Paris Green. Burdett then called a fellow Newtown regular, Tim Freedman.

“Michael was the contact with the family,” says Freedman, who would go on to front popular Sydney group The Whitlams. “I was good mates with Louis, who played every Monday night at the Sandringham. He told me that Michael had been contacted by this family and asked to form a band. When I heard that it was Marcus – the Marcus from the posters and ads – I thought, ‘this is bound to be interesting’. The ad campaign was a big push that, you would only think, could be paid for by someone like Sony.”

Vidale, Freedman and Burdett were told they would be paid well – $100 each for a rehearsal and $120 each per performance.

“That was terrific money for us at the time,” says Freedman. “So we agreed to a rehearsal to see what it was all about.”

During the initial negotiations, not one of the three saw the actual people – “the family” – from whom they would receive orders for the next few months of their lives.

“As I understood it,” recalls Freedmen, “they were fruit wholesalers from Paddy’s Markets. They obviously had a lot of money to play with. It had been explained to me by Michael that the family were trying to make young Marcus a rock and roll star, without the conventional backing of the corporate industry.”

As the three convened to a local pub to talk about the enterprise, the strangeness of the story began to unfold. It was revealed that “Marcus Is Coming” was the attempted fulfillment of an exalted fatherly pact – to grant each son whatever dream he desired.

“Michael explained to me that each of the sons in this family had been allowed to fulfill a wish,” says Freedman. “The elder brother had been a big gridiron fan and had been sent to a big university in Hawaii to learn how to play. Marcus himself had a penchant for gridiron, that’s why his stage name was Marcus Montana – because Montana was the name of a famous quarterback at the time. But, as I understood it, Marcus’s dream was to be a rock star.

“But I was never 100 per cent convinced that this was his idea,” says Freedman. “I think he was due to be married soon – I remember hearing that. And I remember wondering if this wasn’t some kind of bachelor thing that he felt obliged to perform.”

The band received demo tapes of Marcus’ music, with instructions to learn the songs before the first rehearsal. To Freedmen, the recording sounded like something of a learner’s document – that first recording by a boy thrilled to have a new guitar and a few chords to tool with. Nevertheless, he learned them.

“We tried to do the best we could,” says Freedman, “at the same time realising that these songs were not ready to be performed, and certainly they didn’t deserve the money that seemed to be behind them. But we were on the dole. We needed the money.”

It was in a dingy rehearsal room in Sydney’s Redfern that the band first laid eyes on Marcus and his entourage.

“When he first walked into the room it was obvious that he was nervous,” Freedman recalls. “He hadn’t been in a situation like this before – the same as the rest of us. He was very polite, asking our advice about certain things. My first impression was that, basically, he was just a really shy, diffident little guy and I really couldn’t work out what was going on. I couldn’t work out whether he really wanted stardom or whether it was being pushed on him. And right from the start I realized that he was lever going to get there.”

“He was a good looking kid,” says Vidale, “which is a start. But you need more than that. I wasn’t sure he had what it took. But he seemed a nice kid. That was good enough for me at the time.”

The rehearsal lumbered to life, under the watchful eye of Marcus’ cousins and manager.

“Marcus had this guitar,” says Freedman, “a beautiful Gibson or Grech. But it wasn’t even tuned up. When he hit it, you could hear that it wasn’t even basically tuned. So I suspected straight away that he couldn’t even play.”

What came next took the whole room by surprise. As the first song kicked into gear, Marcus, flailing at his untuned instrument, launched into a series of choreographed moves – a strange cocktail of stadium rock standards and Frankie Avalon beach blanket limbo. While scarcely able to play his guitar, Marcus had clearly been preparing for the spotlight.

So too had his manager, who happened to be Marcus’ younger brother.

“He was about 21,” Freedman recalls, “and he’d obviously styled himself on the Las Vegas rat pack hipsters. He was always wearing these wide sports jackets and those ridiculously large sunglasses. He’d come into rehearsal all snappy and say, ‘Ok, fellas, here’s what’s happening…’. It was pretty funny. I suspect he’s the guy who went into Rolling Stone with the money.”

“I was just sitting at my desk one day than this strange little guy walked in with a weird suit and a briefcase,” recalls Toby Creswell, then editor of Rolling Stone. “He sat down and started trying to sell me his brother, Marcus, as a great new talent who I should consider putting on the cover of Rolling Stone. Naturally, I didn’t want to do it and told him so. It was then that I saw these wads of cash sitting there in the briefcase. I don’t know how much it was exactly, but I do remember telling him that to put his brother on the cover would cost me my job – and about $50,000.

“And I remember him saying, ‘That would not be a problem’.”

Meanwhile, Marcus Montana hit the national airwaves. Months earlier, he and his associates had flown to Music Mill Studios in Nashville, Tennessee, to record Tell Him I’m Your Man, the first smash single for Marcus Montana. Rattling along to a curiously lazy Buddy Holly throb, Tell Him I’m Your Man featured a logical inconsistency in the lyrical anchor:

Baby, tell him I’m your man
Never to come back again…

The music press slaughtered it. Andrew Mueller at Sydney music rag On The Street described it as a “sack of shit”, adding forthrightly that “anyone who doesn’t think so is a dickhead”. DJ Maynard F# Crabbe, then hosting the morning show on radio Triple J, played the single every morning, ceremoniously tearing the needle off the record before it had reached the 30 second mark. Columnists from both The Sydney Morning Herald and The Telegraph used Marcus to up the laugh count whenever gags were thin on the ground.

But it was too late – “Marcus is Coming” posters were now nowhere to be seen, replaced with “Marcus is Here!”. Sydney braced itself for the coming they’d been promised for months.

And it came on a crisp Sunday afternoon, in the outdoor arena at Darling Harbour.

“I remember Louis rocked up with Tex Perkins,” says Freedman. “I turned up in a blonde Andy Warhol wig, so even those who knew me didn’t know I was there, let alone in the band. In the dressing room, when Marcus caught sight of me in a wig, he said, ‘What are you wearing a wig for?’. I said ‘Marcus, I always wear a wig on stage’.”

By the time a desperately uneasy Marcus climbed the stairs to the stage, between 700 to 1000 people had gathered on the grass.

“As anyone who has ever gone out on stage in front of 500 people knows,” says Freedman, “it takes quite a while to stem the rush of adrenalin and actually get your head together to be able to pull off a performance. Marcus was thrown into these gigs. He was obviously nervous and his mind must have been racing. He wasn’t experienced enough to handle it like he did at rehearsal. So…he made mistakes.”

It didn’t take long for the assembled crowd to realize that the man on stage in front off them – the Marcus of the posters and the teasers and the cosmic-sized ad campaign – was a pretender. And what started as a general growl of disappointment snowballed from a titter to a full-blown mass belly-laugh.

“We were concentrating,” says Freedman, “just trying to do our jobs, when I looked out into the audience – who had been brought to a fever pitch of expectation by this advertising campaign – and you could see them suddenly realising that Marcus wasn’t as good as his advertising had promised. There was this general hilarity going on in the crowd – it was quite disconcerting. And I remember very clearly looking out and seeing, about 100 meters out from stage, Roger Grierson (then Australian manager for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) lying flat on his back on the grass, laughing his head off.”

The boy had hit performing head on. The moves – the Frankie Avalon jaunt – were struggling to get through the tangle of terror that raged through the body of Marcus Montana.

As Sydney music critic Nicholas Tulk so generously wrote in On The Street: “Marcus did not exude the energy of a man who was at all comfortable with his art.”

“There was a particularly embarrassing moment,” recalls Freedman. “Marcus had this slow song, a ballad. It was your classicUnchained Melody sort of thing. Very slow – G, E-minor, C, D – very slow and awful. Classic stuff. But Marcus – nervous, you see – started singing it two beats out of time. We were trying to slop him – ‘No, Marcus. Stop for two beats or go two beats ahead’ – but he didn’t seem to know what we were trying to get him to do. It was a horrible cacophony, and it was unstoppable. It went for four fucking minutes and got worse as it went along.”

The crowd, transfixed by the spectacle unfolding in front of them, remained rooted to the grass for the entire nine songs.

In the wake of Darling Harbour, the rehearsals concentrated on the weak points. The ballad came in for particular scrutiny. So, too, did Freedman.

“I got a message from the family,” he says. “I was quietly pulled aside and told: ‘No more smirking’. I was told from above to stop giggling during the show. Which, of course, l did.”

The band then embarked on a series of performances at local shopping centers – Westfields and Roselands – attracting the fleeting attention of the passing midday crowds. A gig at the swanky Chatswood Chase complex was trashed when the management themselves complained about the noise.

“I remember the introduction at Australia’s Wonderland,” says Freedman. “It was like Spinal Tap at the Air Force Base. There was this dome with about 300 people in it – kids eating fairy floss. Marcus’ brother, who was the warm-up man, climbed on stage and boomed: ‘Mothers, hold your daughters down. Daughters, hold your mothers down. He’s here! Would you welcome…MARCUS !”’

By all accounts, the resulting applause resembled a handful of live fish being thrown onto wet cement.

The Marcus Montana show regrouped for one last hurrah – Selinas at Coogee Bay, the biggest pub-rock room in Australia.

“It was the coup de grace,” says Freedman, “the big, pre-planned finale. I’ve never seen a poster run like it. It must’ve been $15,000 worth – every fucking poll on every street from the city to Parramatta. No one knew what was going to happen after this.”

To ensure a last minute victory snatched from the jaws of humiliation, Montana Inc. had a bold plan, as Freedman recalls.

“The manager said to me, ‘We want to get the blokes in and we want to get the girls in. So it’s Australian Manpower for the girls, then the Penthouse Pets for the blokes. When the place is completely full, bang! – Marcus comes on’.”

The plan worked – about 300 people filed through the door of Selinas to witness the spectacle of Marcus Montana…and whatever else was on offer.

“But the joke was out,” says Freedman. “It was clear from the crowd’s reaction that the whole enterprise of Marcus Montana hadn’t worked. I just think he didn’t understand the music industry at all, and he was slowly realising that this wasn’t how it worked.”

The evening was notable for drunk punters climbing the stage and mocking Marcus wholesale – girls leaping up to dance with him as if in a Bruce Springsteen video and blokes playing air guitar by his side. The loudest applause for the evening was reserved for the Penthouse Pets (who, by all accounts, put on a very good show).

After Selinas, Marcus thanked everyone for their help and bade them farewell. As far as he was concerned, the dream was over.

“I was really sad it was finished, to be honest,” says Freedman.

On a whim, Tim called Steve Pavlovic, a small-time promoter who would go on to distinguish himself by booking Nirvana beforeNevermind hit the charts, who at this point in time was the manager of The Lansdowne, a small inner-city hotel on Sydney’s Broadway. Steve was only too happy to book a show for the Marcus act, which was now a semi-legendary joke among Sydney’s alternative set. Freedman convinced Marcus to give it one more try.

“It was a night or two before New Years eve,” says Freedman. “In hindsight, I really should have warned the family that it was not to be taken seriously. We got on stage and the crowd rushed Marcus as soon as he started. They were turning on this whole mock Beatlemania thing – screaming stupidly, trying to tear at him, going berserk. And Marcus got really frightened. His cousins, who were acting as security, were linking arms trying to hold back this mob. And I don’t think Marcus could work out exactly whether they were joking or whether they were seriously trying to rip his clothes off.

“I remember Marcus walked over to me after a few songs, looking very nervous because the next song was the ballad. And he said to me, ‘Tim, we can’t do the ballad – they’ll fucking kill me!’ I was torn between employer loyalty and the sense of the moment, and so I said, with a completely straight face: ‘Marcus. . .do the ballad!’ So he did it.”

The rumpus escalated, the crowd making a hellish noise as they screamed and slam-danced in the most inappropriate display of fan mania ever seen.

“Marcus became more and more like a rabbit in the headlights,” continues Freedman. “He was not enjoying himself. I think he was smart enough to realize what was happening. Either that or he was truly scared about the fever into which he’d plunged the crowd.”

Michael Vidale remembers it differently.

“People were standing in front of him shouting, ‘You’re fucked! You’re fucked!’ It was incredible.”

Always the soldier, Marcus braved through all the nine songs despite the ludicrous scene in front of him. But, somewhere during that 45 minutes, Marcus decided his rock star fantasies were to remain so forever.

“As soon as he finished,” says Freedman, “he put his guitar down and walked through the door at the side of the stage. In the laneway outside there was a Mercedes waiting, engine running. His brother and his cousin were there. Marcus left the building, climbed into the back seat and drove off into the night.

“And that’s the last anyone ever saw of him.”

Today, you can buy fame – perhaps you always could. But the one thing that nobody has ever been able to purchase in the music industry is credibility. The essence of ‘cool’, elusive and intangible as it is, cannot be acquired and strapped on like a new coat. It is a gift that is earned by actions unseen, and usually unknown to the artist himself.

In 1989, Marcus couldn’t buy fame. He probably could today. And he’d probably get more for his money.

“It’s a shame,” says Michael Vidale. “That last show began with people screaming at him that he was fucked. But he kept going. He always did. I think that impressed them. By the end, they thought he was all right.

“I really do think,” Vidale continues, “that Marcus actually succeeded that night. He really achieved something. He made it after all.

“And to this day, he probably has no idea.”