By Jared Chausow
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The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame devotes a case in its main exhibition hall to New York. Next to paraphernalia from the Ramones, Talking Heads, and Patti Smith hangs a red sequined jacket that reads "Handsome Dick Manitoba." There are also black tights, trunks with a big white star on each ass cheek, and red-laced white wrestling boots that say "handsome." The label tacked to the wall explains that this was how the frontman of the seminal New York punk band, the Dictators, appeared on the cover of their 1975 debut album, The Dictators Go Girl Crazy.
This week marks the release of the Dictators' first studio album since 1978; they play the Bowery Ballroom on November 30. It's been over a quarter-century since the band started delivering swift kicks to the groin of overproduced cock rock. While kids wearing headphones sat cross-legged in their basements smoking banana peels and contemplating the musical masturbation of Kansas, ELP, and Yes, the Dictators were praising junk food, bad TV, and professional wrestling. Go Girl Crazyestablished a blueprint for bad taste, humor, and defiance that would be emulated by the Ramones and live on in acts like the Beastie Boys and Kid Rock. "I knocked 'em dead in Dallas and I didn't pay my dues," one song went. "Yeah, I knocked 'em dead in Dallas/They didn't know we were Jews."
But between rotating drummers, perpetual record company and management issues, and lean record sales, the band's commercial ship never sailed up the East River. The five members disbanded in 1981, eventually regrouping for sporadic shows, but remaining uncharacteristically quietuntil now.
The first CBGB band to get signed and put a record out is now older andbelieve it or notwiser. A lot has changed since songwriter Andy Shernoff started publishing his fanzine Teenage Wasteland Gazette in 1973, then traded his Smith-Corona in for a bass guitar a year later. "Things like fame and ego that were so important when you are 20 just don't matter as much now," he says. "This is an opportunity to protect the Dictator legacy."
The new album begins with a song that poses the question "Who Will Save Rock and Roll?": "I saw the Stooges covered with bruises. . . . My generation is not the salvation." It sounds like they're giving salvation a shot, though, as soon as Ross the Boss's piercing guitar jump-starts the album. Tracks like "Moronic Inferno" ("For every phony little wannabe careering in the industry/Shove some product up your marketing degree") and "Avenue A" ("Taking the edge off a beautiful day with a frappuccino and a crème brûlée/ It's all over when you see a Range Rover") are infectious anthems assaulting the music business and gentrification. The rest of the record, notably "Pussy and Money," "I Am Right," "It's Alright," and "Burn Baby Burn ("I crave the flesh of the sacred cow charred and dripping fat/I love the sight of a baby lamb spinning on the rack"), is rife with wiseass attitude, blazing guitar hooks, and Shernoff's twisted social commentary. But whether the album will garner the Dictators some much overdue props, or at least a wider fan base, is not an issue, Shernoff says. Manitoba agrees. "I accept my place in life," he insists. "People come up to me all the time and say how important we are, how much we mean to them. That's what keeps me going."
The new record is called DFFD, which stands for "Dictators Forever Forever Dictators," a slogan that can be traced back to the band's third album, Bloodbrothersitself named after the Richard Price novel. Impressed with the ominous AFFA (Angels Forever Forever Angels) patches on Hell's Angels jackets, the Dictators approached the Third Street biker crew and inquired about a knockoff. Permission was granted. "At the end of the gang movie The Wanderers," explains Manitoba about another work by Price, "the guys are all going their separate ways and one says to the other, 'Wanderers forever.' That's how I feel about the Dictators. No matter where we go, whenever we see each other, there will be this special bond."
From a European tour amid the fury of English punk in '77 to a spin-off band called Manitoba's Wild Kingdom that spawned a decently rotated MTV video in 1990, the Dictators were as fundamental to New York as concrete. Manitoba's antics, especially, are the stuff of urban legend. Born Richard Blum in the Bronx "in the back of a Greyhound bus," the hamburger-and-quaalude-eating teengenerate started out as a roadie (and sometimes cook), but destroyed so much equipment that the band thought having him onstage would be cheaper and safer. Ridiculous, outrageous, and (at 200-plus pounds) literally ground shaking, Blum cultivated a startling persona rock had never seen before. "I'm a Jewish kid who grew up with television in the '60s and spent time in the Catskill Mountains," he says. "You give the people a show, and you have a shtick."
In a 1978 story for Creemmagazine, Richard Meltzer applauded Manitoba's ascent into the spotlight because he could be "the onstage version of the fantastic asshole he was in private life." In one infamous incident at CBGB, he heckled transvestite punk performer Wayne (now Jayne) County, and (s)he smashed a mic stand over his head, shattering his collarbone. In 1974, some booking genius teamed the band with African drummer Olatunji, and the Handsome One ripped the metal awning off the front of the bar they were scheduled to play when he drove the Dictators' touring van into the venue. He sometimes appeared in full wrestling regalia, pouncing on the audience and putting bandmates in full nelsons; Punkmagazine captured his best moves during an impromptu wrestling match with Lester Bangs, and Manitoba once got a crowd so enraged that they threw chairs at him until a roadie dragged him off. When the Dictators opened for Rush's Fly by Night tour, Handsome Dick pelted devout Geddy Lee supporters with burgers and fries. A reporter once asked him if the Dictators were "new wave." He responded, "We ain't no new wave, Jack, we're the tidal wave!"
"The music industry was a fraction of the size it is now," Shernoff remembers. "Today, you have a lot of different niches. Back then, there was no alternative music; it was just something in my mind." Today, though, the Buzzcocks and Iggy are selling cars and cruise ships, and the September issue of Teen Peoplefeatured punk fashion from D & G and Moschino. Things that were once wild and shocking are now mainstream. And the face of American punk, Joey Ramone, is no longer with us.
Maybe the Dictators can pick up the slack. They remain a thunderous experience live, and Manitoba can still fire up a crowd. Offstage, though, he has mellowed considerably. He is getting married next June, and his Avenue B bar, Manitoba's, has become something of a local institution. When asked today if the world might finally be ready for the Second Coming of the Dictators, the most unlikely frontman in rock and roll laughs. "I ain't holding my breath," he says. "We're going to do what we do. As long as we are loving it from the inside out, having a great time, and people respond, we'll keep doing it."