[Q&A] Handsome Dick Manitoba on Dictators, White Castle, and being the "heel" of metal / Thursday @ Church

The greatest revenge, in some ways, is persevering long enough to prove your detractors wrong.  In the case of mid-'70s rock/punk/metal misfits The Dictators, they somehow went from being rock rejects to pre-punk legends, largely on the strength of their initial three-album run. 1975's Go Girl Crazy is a way-ahead-of-its-time juggernaut of riffs, jokes, and crushing rock. The prime movers were songwriter/singer/bassist Andy Shernoff and guitar wizard Ross "The Boss" Friedman, smart NYC kids who got the attention of Blue Oyster Cult producer Sandy Pearlman with their rocking odes to White Castle and professional wrestling.  They also had what, in the world of wrestling, is called a "secret weapon"-- Richard Blum aka HANDSOME DICK MANITOBA, a huge afro'd wildman who started as the band's roadie and unofficial mascot before proving himself to be the X Factor that the band needed to break through to the next level.

The Dictators finished out the '70s managing to release a few amazing albums and graduate to stadium gigs without really getting the recognition that they deserved. Manitoba himself has kept trucking ever since: he's kept a number of different Dictators iterations going ever since, as well as his late 80s post-Dictators collaboration with Shernoff, Manitoba's Wild Kingdom (who put out the excellent-yet-unheralded ...And You? in 1990).  He also bought a bar that now bears his name on the Lower East Side, and currently hosts "The Handsome Dick Manitoba Radio Program" on Little Steven Van Zandt's Underground Garage channel on Sirius XM Radio.

He's also hitting the clubs with his new project, MANITOBA, a Dictators for the 10s that features Ross The Boss (but no Shernoff, hence not being called The Dictators); they plow through Church on Thursday, May 24, on their inaugural tour.  I caught up with Manitoba recently (I also talked to Ross The Boss about Manitoba, as well as what it was like to have founded both punk legends Dictators and metal legends Manowar!) and he amicably took me through a tour of his unique blue collar punk aesthetic-- perhaps the amicable part is due to the fact that I didn't mention the Sox to this notorious Yankee bully...

Hey Richard!

Boston Phoenix, how you doin’, brother?

Good, good, how are you?

Good, fine, but let’s just stay off of baseball!

Hah-- I figured as much. How’s Manitoba?

Life is good, life is good. I appreciate what I have in life: a wonderful family, the chance to play some rock and roll, travel and make a few bucks, have some fun. I got my radio show, I got my bar, I got my bar, I have everything a guy could want. A 52 inch tv to watch the Yankees on. The band has been a lot of fun, the camaraderie: we’re having a lot of fun playing with each other, having a ball. No complaints.

So is there a specific feel to this iteration of the band?

You know, every time you change an equation, a different person walks in the room and the interaction changes. This particular group of players, a couple of the guys approached me a few years ago and I wasn’t ready. This time everyone just said “Yeah, let’s do it” at the same time and it’s been a lot of fun. The approach is to celebrate the music that we’ve had a hand in doing for the last thirty years, as a starting point. I know that we’re using this as a starting point, we’re rowing away from shore and we’re getting started. We’re starting with the cover tunes and tunes in Manitoba’s Wild Kingdom and Dictators. People have been coming in to my bar going “When are you guys going to play, when are you guys going to play.” And it became clear that the Dictators might not play again because there are people involved who don’t want to do it. And people would say “I don’t care, I just want to see you do those songs.” And it got to the point where I said “Why not?” I’m an entertainer, my job is to entertain, and if people want to lay their money down and say “Thank you for entertaining,” then, hey, buddy, I’m there, I’m doing it.

What do you think it is about the Dictators that resonates with people all these years later? I mean, you guys were heavy-- well, duh-- and at times that was odd for what you were doing, either too heavy or not heavy enough. And when I spoke to Ross, he said the lines between punk and metal that seemed like such a big deal don’t exist anymore.

I think that clearly we were not the quintessential punk band. I think we had a strong vein of punk but we represented the metal community, the punk community, the surf community. And therein might be one of the reasons why the world wasn’t ready for the Dictators. But we also hit this thing that was very blue collar, very everyman, very teenager, very rock and roll. And I think that-- I don’t know, I’m not that smart, I don’t know all the answers, but I’ll tell you this, I’m so glad to have lived long enough so that a failure by standards of selling records becomes something I’m known as being brilliant for being part of. I mean, how many artists have lived and died and then afterward people go “This guy was brilliant!” Really: we sold three thousand copies when Go Girl Crazy came out, it was an abject failure by all standards in the industry we’re a part of, and now thirty-five years later people are bowing to me for being a part of it. And I’ll tell ya, Dan: I’ll take it!

It’s interesting to hear you say that, because so many artists would take a somewhat opposite tact, like “Where were you people way back when?” type of thing.

I’d rather be happy for what I have, I have a lot. I don’t care if I play Madison Square Garden. Would I like to? Would I like to sell five million albums and play to millions? Yes. But honestly, really, what I would really like to do, and call me an idiot for not dreaming high enough, but three thousand seats is the most I’d want to play to. We opened for Guns N' Roses and it was three thousand kids, but anything more than that and it’s a lack of intimacy. I mean, Springsteen does it but that’s almost a religious thing, there’s almost a disconnect between artist and audience at that point. I’m talking about still reaching people. Iggy still reaches people, and that’s what I shoot for. Right now, I dream about putting four or five hundred people in a club, that would be great.

Manitoba with James Osterberg, circa mid-70s

But really, we’re a working class band. I think people work all week and they need releases. There are different ways to do it, but one way is to plunk down fifteen bucks and go see a live rock and roll band, that’s a lot of fun. Have a few drinks, sweat scream and yell, and we’re gonna be there with you and you’ll have fun. You fuckin’ work all week and you looked forward to seeing my band and we came to your town and you left buzzing that you had a good time with a couple of drinks in you-- hey man, I’m totally grateful to be a part of that. And I think that people feel that honesty and passion. Like Iggy: he’s the real thing, and we have our version of being the real thing.

But you guys were different than the Stooges: you were funny, you sang about White Castle and running and whatnot.

Well, it was rock and roll performance art. I mean, if you look at a band like Rush-- we opened up for Rush once-- if you look at what we were doing, with a fat guy with an afro and a red sequined wrestling jacket throwing hamburgers into the audience, singing about getting laid and eating hamburgers and getting high and taking Quaaludes, it’s like “What the fuck is going on here?” We were a bunch of guys who thought we were the coolest guys in the world, like every group of guys in the world. And we started a rock and roll band, and we sung songs about what we knew about, about our culture. “Master Race Rock” was about the master race of this wonderful American teenage culture that we came from.

Do you find it odd to look back now on the early days of the band, when you kind of accidentally transitioned from the band’s mascot to its frontperson?

You know, you look back in life and you see it as a bunch of pieces that fit together, and people like to look at the glory parts at the end. Like The Godfather was made into a movie, and then you go back and read about what almost happened. Life is not so linear and jigsaw-puzzle-y. It’s a combination of bizarre events and then sometimes it just makes so much goddamned sense it’s scary. I was kind of shoved down Andy’s throat a bit, I guess. I mean, here’s the brilliant songwriter with the vision, and yet the thing that Sandy Pearlman responded to was that the playing is there, the ideas are there, the conceptual part is there, but there is some connect missing, some synapse between audience and performer that’s not putting it over the top.

And I was best friends with the band. “What are we gonna do with Richard?” “Oh, he’ll be the roadie!” I was terrible at that job. And it’s almost like-- I don’t want to sound heavy-handed, but it was almost divine intervention, like it was supposed to be. Was it an accident that I’d wind up at a party singing “Wild Thing” with the band in Brooklyn, and that people would go more crazy for that than for any song in the set? And it’s like “He’s not really the singer so we’ll make him the secret weapon”, because we were really into wrestling. And there was an evolution to my growth in the band, and the evolution was based on the fact that I was the guy that people responded to. I can look back now, thirty years later and go “Oh, there’s a reason why Little Steven wanted me to do a radio show, there’s a reason for all these things.” I can say “Oh, I had this thing that people responded to and still do. So it’s like how do I market this thing? I do this radio show, I put out a book, I have a bar, my band, and people seem to like it. People respond to it. But I don’t know all the answers, I’m just putting one foot in front of the other, pay the bills, take care of my family.

Fascinating-- especially since the first words you say on the first Dictators record are “This is just a hobby for me!”

Here’s the thing: it’s a lifestyle. Just because I didn’t make a million dollars doing music doesn’t mean it’s a hobby, it’s a lifestyle and it’s all intertwined. It’s a cottage industry, it’s all really just Handsome Dick Manitoba. When you talk about punk rock and about rebelling against society, I didn’t have to take over empty buildings and be out on the street, I got to do it on my terms. With kids, a beautiful wife, the bar, on my terms. And I stayed true to myself, and I’m a grown-up, I pay my bills, I pay my taxes, and it’s great that I’ve been able to not work a normal job and take this Handsome Dick Manitoba character into this situation where I can support everything.

Do you think seeing Handsome Dick Manitoba as a “character” helps you be humble about the whole thing?

People think that they’re gonna be better than you, and that they’re gonna be bigger than you. If I’m the big rock star, like I’m so big, I’m like “Fuck you!” The best coolest people I’ve ever met don’t have that attitude. Lee Allen was sweeping up floors in a junior high school when the Blasters brought him onstage. Lee Allen is, outside of King Curtis, the greatest rock and roll saxophonist before guitars trumped saxophones in rock and roll. And Lee Allen was the most humble, cool person I’ve ever met. he’s still on the ground, he knows where he comes from. Those kind of people, the ones that really have it, don’t act like they’re better than you.

I can tell you this, it’s getting up in the morning and going to do something that you like-- I’m not saying that you have to define your life by your job, but if you gotta get up every morning and go to work, the odds of you liking your life better if you like what you do, instead of going “Oh shit, I gotta go do this”, is so much greater. That’s what it’s about. And I’ll tell you this, I count my blessings, and you wanna know why? Because I drove a cab in New York and it killed me and I hated it and I was miserable and depressed. And if you know what makes you miserable and depressed, it makes you so happy when you aren’t depressed.

How did the Dictators come to be fixated on wrestling as a part of the band’s aesthetic?

Wrestling, it’s not more or less than White Castle, it was all part of our b-movie junk comic book thing. Let me put it this way: my grandfather comes from Eastern Europe, and I sat with him in the early 60s and watched wrestling with him, and I loved it. It’s a combination of comic books and drama and plays. Good guys, bad guys, morality tales, friendship and friendship gone awry. It’s this wonderful insular world of suspended belief. You just buy into what it is and it’s a lot of fun. So I started out watching it with my grandfather and it really drew us in.

The way the heels-- that’s the wrestling parlance, babyfaces and heels are the good guys and bad guys-- would walk around bragging about themselves, talking about how great they were, we just thought it was funny and cool and charming and entertaining!

The rock frontperson is kind of like the “heel”, but you guys were the first band that explicitly made the connection.

It’s no less real than movies. You go to a movie, and what’s real and what’s not real. The outcome is decided, that makes it unreal. But you don’t go to a movie and go “This isn’t really happening!” You go to have the emotions that the movie needs you to have. Same with wrestling, so wrestling is real! Same as movies, at least.

Or at least as real as rock and roll.

Oh come on! Rock and roll is totally fake! Like I’m going to go off stage and they’re gonna clap and we’re gonna come out for an encore-- fakest thing in the world.

Or I’m gonna show my pain, or show that I’m sensitive.

Yeah! There is an honesty to music, but there’s also a complete self-consciousness and Spinal Tap-ian aspect.

You guys came up in the punk world, but there was also this general hard rock thing going on, and you played shows with REO Speedwagon and stuff like that. The genres hadn’t been formed, and you guys were punk in the sense that you were confrontational but you were also aesthetically a missing link in this general 70s rock formation.

Totally, I think that’s very astute and shows that you’re a real music fan. We were part of that general rock thing, which separated us and made us not punk. And in that punk world-- you know how Sonny and Cher said “We’re hip to the squares and square to the hips”? I think we were punks to the general rock world and not so punky to the punk world. And along those lines, we had a vein of punk, we had a punkness to our sound and attitude. And if punk was about anything it was about attitude. We hated that big band stuff but we also loved the Stones, the Beatles, the Beach Boys; Ross was all about Sabbath. Our favorite songwriters were Brian Wilson, Jagger and Richards, Lennon and McCartney, Ray Davies, Pete Townshend. And those are big bands!

I feel like when people revisit punk, as a movement, they see it as this Marxist erasing of history, and the Dictators weren’t part of that.

People see punk as those wacky British haircuts years after punk started. If you look back at CBGBs, look at the crowd, everyone had Beatles haircuts, they were regular-dressed people who loved rock and roll. It wasn’t until it hit England, the next generation, who were obsessed with style. As opposed to regular people who loved rock and roll. You look at Punk magazine, look at how we looked! Black leather jackets, normal hair. But people see that spiky haircut and go “Oh that’s punk”. And that was, but it was just a subset, and there were many other parts to it. One thing doesn’t have to exclude the other.

You guys were an important part of the American side of hard rock, there was this stadium movement, but you were the other side that eventually led to punk rock.

We were in the connective tissue, like-- you know how there’s the Yardbirds, and there’s Led Zeppelin, and a lot of people know both bands, not a lot of people compared to those two know the Jeff Beck Group, who put out a number of albums and were great. And with us, the Dolls were breaking up when we played some shows with them, the Stooges and MC5 were around but stuff was drying up and turning into other stuff. And we were sort of bouncing around playing, we were there. And some people get it right and some people ignore it-- we have a really odd place in history!

When you guys were starting out, a lot of things were ending. Did it feel like rock sucked, or were you just energized with what you were doing?

Energized with what we were doing, definitely. Listen: I always say to people that you can’t take out of the equation that we were 20 years old. It’s exciting to be 20 years old no matter what you do. I mean, I had a band, what’s cooler than that? I had a band, we had gigs, it was like let’s get high, let’s make music, let’s get high, let’s make music. It was a party seven nights a week! It was New York City, cops weren’t chasing guys with beers, they were chasing felons. There were a hundred after hour clubs in New York, I’d leave my house in the Bronx at midnight, I’d come home at ten, eleven in the morning. It was the wild west! I was twenty years old and it was exciting, thrilling!

What I love about the Dictators is the way that you found something positive out of things that could have been negatives to bitch about. Like a lot of people look at New York of the mid-70s and think “This was a city in decline, it was a real low point.”

Right! “Ford to City: Drop Dead”. But you know, there’s lots of room in music to express yourself. You want to take on the world’s problems... we’re all part of the human race, we’re all part of a small community that is part of a larger community. How you want to represent yourself onstage is up to you. You want to be Bob Dylan, be Bon Dylan, you want to be GG Allin, be GG Allin. From the sublime to the ridiculous. You can be all about the waist down, you can be all about the neck up. Springsteen seems able to do both somehow.

A band like the Sex Pistols was angry and political and socially conscious, which is great. We were more social commentators and purveyors of this wonderful junk culture from whence we come. And to this day if I have to come onstage and act like an angry punk rock guy, I can’t. There are times in my life where I’m angry and hostile, why would I want to get up on a raised stage and do that? And I adore people like Billy Bragg and Tom Morello and what they do, I am 100% on their side for what they do. But I, representing myself, I’m on this raised thing and you in the audience want release and stupid silly fun and I’m here to let you do that. That’s how I see it, that’s how I see my job. How could I get onstage and be angry? People pay money to see me onstage? What can I be angry about that? I can’t be angry with that, at that moment!

MANITOBA + RULE | May 24 @ 8pm | CHURCH OF BOSTON | 69 Kilmarnock Street, Boston | 21+ | $15 |

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