’Tator tautology

May 21, 2003 at 12:00 am

Lester Bangs wrote way back in ’76 that the Dictators “made me realize again that rock ’n’ roll will stand in the face of all contrived scenes and withering glances which have been practiced so identically with such repetition in front of so many mirrors that they don’t mean anything at all anymore, if they ever did, because they never will again.”

Christ, did he ever nail it. Talk about your prophecy.

As a pup growing up in a greened-over desert blip, my only link to a world that extended beyond my own had so much to do with the Dictators, a band I found after discovering Bangs and the Ramones.

At 12 years old, lines are drawn at musical choices and life is forever altered. I was struck dumb by the arrangement of events, the music, the possibility of personal velocity. And the Dictators singing lines like “We knocked ’em dead in Dallas / They didn’t know we were Jews” had my ears twisted into fantastic shapes at a tender age.

Then it became one of those classic instances where the choices were either to suffer the world of bigoted and well-fed Little Leaguer ass-kickers who detested a spindly punk-rock kid with no friends and many pimples, or flee. I did the latter, taking with me Salinger, Leave Home, the Dictators and a handful of others, all of which became the shaky-handed shaft of a guiding light.

The names and sounds hit home before pubic hair and masturbation, and a few years down the road it was on to the rock ’n’ roll fuck-yous: quit high school, join a band; girls, booze and drugs — in that order, and all by my 16th birthday.

Anyway, the fact that no one I knew had even claimed to have heard of the Dictators — and if they did, they didn’t get ’em — said so much. The fact that kids hadn’t heard of the band simply reaffirmed my beliefs about other kids trapped in a repetitive suburban existence. I longed to get out of that. As a teenager, I moved to a couch in New York City to hunt down ghosts of bands like the Dictators, Heartbreakers, Blondie, Ramones, Dead Boys, etc. By that time, punk rock was long since dead, and any attempt to go back in time, to be at CBGBs, was sad, tragic even.

Well, fuck me, the Dictators are still around. Still. And with the principals intact: guitar hero Ross the Boss, singer Handsome Dick Manitoba and bassist-songwriter Andy Shernoff. For a band that came together as a nod to the MC5 and Stooges, Flamin’ Groovies and the New York Dolls — a band that was vital to ensuing generations, from Bon Jovi and Dinosaur Jr., Turbonegro and Sum 41 — it’s hard to believe they’re still kicking.

The ’Tators are a chance to visit the heady days of New York City rock ’n’ roll. The band made a trio of major-label classics that quickly became cutout bin fodder: Go Girl Crazy, Manifest Destiny and Bloodbrothers. Then there was Dick Manitoba’s band — with Shernoff — Manitoba’s Wild Kingdom whose track “The Party Starts Now” was a brief MTV hit in the early ’90s. Every record — every track — great. What’s funny, the band’s last record, 2001’s D.F.F.D., is arguably their best, rife with riff-riot refrains and lampoons of record-biz ladder-climbers, fake nonconformists, themselves and television.

Who’ll save rock ’n’ roll?

On the phone, Handsome Dick Manitoba is at once like a kid nephew who’s amped on sugary cereal and a streetwise hustler who’s self-effacing and funny. He fumbles around his Manhattan digs in an effort to ease conversation: “I have to put my hands-free set on so I can walk around and do things and pee!”

He takes the piss and I ask him if there ever was a point when he thought he was going to be huge?

“I really thought the Wild Kingdom record was gonna be it,” he says in a patented Bronx brogue. “Out of the box it was going great. But that tanked too, after a while. Yeah, I never thought I was gonna be a millionaire.”

Manitoba smirks philosophically at the idea that perhaps he’s hit a personal gait in life that sees all things peachy; neither he nor songwriter Shernoff could ever be accused of believing that they deserve anything more, that the world owes them.

“There’s something everybody’s bitter about, there’s something everybody’s angry about,” says Manitoba. “I don’t choose to identify myself by my anger, by hostilities. I choose to try to enjoy the pleasures that I have.”

In a recent e-mail interview, Shernoff adds: “First of all, I’m a pretty content guy. I have a great life, so why be bitter? Money was never a motivating force for me. I am motivated by people and experiences. If somebody said to me 30 years ago you have a choice of two careers — you can have big hits for two years or you can make music for the rest of your life — I would have chosen the opportunity to make music for the rest of my life … that is what I am doing. Regarding the music business, it’s full of creeps and hustlers. I don’t even consider myself to be a part of it ... I’m in the Dictators business.”

See, the Dictators helped decode a lot of fucked-up academic conjecture about rock ’n’ roll’s promise into a pithy, brilliant truth. Record buyers never got it — or them. The ’Tators were too witty, too loud, too self-mocking, too New York City, and just too much for the kids.

Manitoba: “An interviewer from Cleveland on the phone said, ‘You know a lot of people were influenced by you but are making more money than you.’ Of course, I have some anger — of course I have some resentment, but you know what? I don’t want my life to be defined by ‘I gotta a bad deal, we shoulda, we coulda.’ You could spend your whole life that way, hating people.”

Manitoba, who says he runs five or six miles a day, is married, has a new baby, and runs his own Manhattan watering hole, Manitoba’s. Things have certainly changed for the singer, who, from 1973 to 1983, wasn’t exactly “Let’s Work”-era Mick Jagger.

“I had a heroin addiction,” he explains. “I think it’s just mixed in with something else. With me I was really depressed. But there’s different types of strung-out. I would sometimes get high three, four, maybe five days in a row and that would be the worst chippy I’d have. It went on like that for 10 years, on and off, on and off. I guess I knew that that [death] was sitting there for me.”

Shernoff, the Dictators songwriter, became, of course, Shernoff the producer, and worked on the timeless and final Joey Ramone record, Don’t Worry About Me. He’s written songs for the Ramones, and was pals with Joey. Shernoff was at the singer’s bedside when he took his final inhalation.

“I’m proud to have known him and performing with him was always a thrill,” he says.

A blanket interpretation of Ramone’s untimely death could be a kind of eerie metaphor for New York City rock ’n’ roll, an ephemeral piece of history now resigned to memories.

“I’m not sure it [New York City] has been romanticized but it was surely a more innocent time; sex was safe and drugs were cool,” says Shernoff. “New York City in the mid-’70s was a dirty, dangerous hellhole but that situation allowed the musical and artistic scenes in the ’70s and ’80s to develop … and judging by the current budget cuts, we may be heading back in that direction.

“The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are very trendy. I haven’t heard the record but I’ve seen them live and I think the girl has a lot of charisma, but I’m not sure they have the long-term musical goods.”

Standing tall

It doesn’t matter that the ’Tators are old farts. Peter Pan Syndrome or not, the band has somehow managed to not become pacemakers to the sounds of an age, like Aerosmith, or worse, the Stones.

If nothing else, the group is laudable because, frankly, they were the first rock ’n’ roll band to instill throwaway/trash culture allusions — fast food, cars, girls, wrestling, TV, beer, weed — in song.

The respect is coming, finally, in increments: There are Dictators’ tribute albums either out or about to be released. Springsteen was once spotted sporting a Dictators T-shirt during a symbolic performance of “Born to Run.” Cast members of “The Sopranos” are fans of the band, as is Bon Jovi, and ’Tators music is regularly featured on Steve Van Zandt’s syndicated radio show, “Little Steven’s Underground Garage” (heard Sundays 7-9 p.m. on WCSX-FM 94.7).

“The one goal I had that we needed to do,” explains Manitoba, “is continue the Dictators and not try to act like we are a bunch of 19-year-old kids anymore, yet still have the fury and the power, and have the fans show up at our shows and have a good time.”

“I think we have a more exciting show now than we did in the old days,” says Shernoff. “These days a Dictators show is a party, it’s an opportunity for our fans to get drunk, throw their fists in the air and sing along. Also, nobody else is doing what we’re doing ... they’re all dead.”


The Dictators will perform Sunday, May 25, at the Magic Stick (4120 Woodward, Detroit). For info, call 313-833-9700.

Brian Smith is the music editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]