“We actually made such a good team. Being completely different, we equaled a whole in a math equation,” says Richard Manitoba, better known to the world as Handsome Dick Manitoba, once the front man for the Dictators, now the same for the close cousin called Dictators NYC, which plays ONCE Friday Sept. 16.
Manitoba is talking about his one-time partner in crime, Dictators songwriter-bassist-sometime singer Andy Shernoff. “He’s tall and thin and I’m short and stocky. He’s completely controlled and hidden emotionally; I wear everything on my sleeve. Also, whether you believe in God or fate, look at the roll of the dice of this band. When the band started, no one cared about it. I became the lead singer and people cared about it. I gave power to his songs and his songs gave power to me. It’s a friggin’ phenomenon. Townshend and Daltrey may be the only band off the top of my head that had that kind of setup.”
That set-up is no more, but Manitoba, co-founding guitarist Ross the Boss and longtime drummer JP “Thunderbolt” Patterson carry the torch – more than that, really, they set clubs ablaze – alongside bassist Dean Rispler and rhythm guitarist Daniel Rey.
“The thing Is we’re still really good,” says Manitoba. “We still put out a high energy show and people still have a great time. That’s why we’re getting people in their 20s and 30s along with the 40s and 50s and old-fart punk rockers. This tour was so successful it seems to have opened up a bunch of doors to play many shows all over the world. That’s more businesss and work than the Dictators have ever done. To go to Europe and get paid and adored? Yeah, It’s a pretty good feeling.”
And they have their first new song since, Shernoff parted ways with the band, the Manitoba-penned “Supply and Demand.”
Some history: The Dictators formed just before the punk explosion hit – they were more of hard rock band than classic punk – but they were part of the CBGB scene that spawned so many great bands, Talking Heads, Dead Boys, Ramones, Cramps and Television among them. On the first album, “The Dicatators Go Girl Crazy!” – Unuct named it the No. 1 punk album 50 Greatest American Punk albums feature — Shernoff channeled Manitoba’s over-the-top pro wrestling style persona and wildman approach to life. Humor was part of the package – but not in a ha-ha joke band way. Shernoff wrote killer melodies, and he also wrote songs on subsequent albums that explored other areas, teen prostitution, the line between science and science fiction.
The Dicators’ prime period was 1974-1978, though they toured and recorded sporadically afterwards. Manitoba and the Dics that wanted to play first went out as Manitoba, but later shifted to Dictators NYC, a move that didn’t exactly please Shernoff, who had opted out of the band and didn’t want the name used. Rhythm guitarist Scott “Top Ten” Kempner also opted out, but for different reasons. He’s living on the west coast and leading the Del Lords. (More on this later.) Anyway, we had a chat with Manitoba – who’s also a DJ on SiriusXM’s “Underground Garage” show – while he was in Puerto Rico on vacation with his wife and son.
JSInk: Let’s first do something for the people who’ve never seen you. What kind of heart punch do you deliver to a crowd today?
Manitoba: It’s like we’re bringing a party. We’re the antidote to turning on the TV. Just shut it off saying I can’t take it anymore. There’s no relief and we are relief. Give us an hour and we’ll destroy your house. (That’s a line from the ‘tators song “Weekend.”) You worked hard all week, had a rough week, want to have a couple of drinks and lay your money down. You’re going to have a great time with us. Not only that, I’m going to break down that barrier between the stage which is higher because we’re “rock stars’ and it’s going to be all together.
You knocked ‘em dead in Europe I heard.
Seems like Dictators part two is this: If you add up the fact that Dictators part one is in a box and closed and over and was a wonderful experience, we’re keeping the ball rolling. [Over time] you get this legendary status. I think it skips a generation. The generation in the early ‘80s has to distance themselves from what just came even if they give them props. They have to say “We’re different than them.” It’s the nature of rock and roll and the nature of age. As history is noted it becomes more myth. That’s natural to me.
How long to you play in concert?
It’s tough to figure out. The band teases me by saying it’s a 40 minute set and 20 minutes of me talking. Usually it’s an hour plus encores and with the yapping an hour fifteen.
The set you played, more than three years ago at Church in Boston there some songs I heard I wanted to but some I didn’t. What’s your range? Can you pluck from the entire Dictators catalog or is it more limited?
We can play about 20-25 songs. I just got the list from JP and I said let’s go deeper into our catalog.
Are there any new songs?
Palmyra Delran [from the Friggs] is helping me write songs. I’m getting my songwriting legs under me, ‘cause I never had it. I never worked with anyone because I don’t mention his name, but the guy who wrote the songs was not into working with people. He just wanted to do his thing and maybe that’s the way he worked. But I have somebody like Palmyra and I love her music and she’s telling me “What the hell was going on the last 30 years? You have so many ideas.” She’s helping me craft ideas and learn the craft of songwriting.
We have two songs. I keep pushing them off as I’m part lazy/part busy. We have one song where the music is basically done except for putting a tambourine or something in and the lyrics need a final verse. The second one the music is done but I have the idea for the lyrics but have to get it together with some order and storytelling. I know what I want it to be about.
It’s always nice to think a band is not just plucking from the catalog, but moving on with new material.
You want to do it right. We are this band. Some people will look at it positive some people will look at it negative. It’s your choice. One of the first ideas was called “Supply and Demand” and it’s about the birth of the band. I sat there in my bar for 15 years waiting for one man who didn’t want to do it, but people all over the world wanted to hear these songs. We’re scratching an itch. We go out there and they’re loving it. This man, individually, arbitrarily decided I’m not doing it because for whatever reason. We’re all thrilled to do it and we’re very happy with that, having something 30-40 years old and people want to hear great versions of it. And we can go deeper. Of course, something fresh and new, if people like it is almost not the point, but the point is you’re adding on.
We have to talk about Andy because he was the songwriter.
I’m not sure I understand his position. I get his decision not to play with the Dictators = fair enough. He’s got his own solo thing and he wrote a song called “Let’s Get the Band Back Together,” which is not specifically about the Dictators, but suggests it’s a futile endeavor. But I don’t know why he’s wanted to put the kibosh on this. You keep his songs alive and that helps everybody, him included.
If you’re in a relationship, it’s hard to figure out why somebody outside of you is who he is. If you want to define Andy, he believes in what he believes in 100% and doesn’t care what anyone else thinks and that’s his belief system. He told us in the beginning: “I don’t want to turn into an oldies act.” But there’s a mean-spirited part about it. There are excited 20-year-olds posting youtube videos from Germany and he pulls them down immediately. He thinks it’s disrespectful to history because the Dictators were the Dictators and now it shouldn’t be called Dictators, it should be called something else. But he doesn’t own the Dictators – spiritually or emotionally in any way. He was like the Xs and Os guys in football. He would draw up the charts, but we would bring the people. For 33 years, there was never one moment that Andy Shernoff existed without Scott Kempner, Ross Friedman and me. Even though he was the songwriter. It was like the Who. It wasn’t Springsteen where it was like “I think I’ll get a different band to tour” and it’s all about Bruce. He doesn’t see it that way. Murray Krugman, our old producer really helped me with this in my head. He said, “Did you have a good time when you did the Dictators? Did you have fun in the ‘70s?”
I had a lot of fun. You finish reading a book, Ok, you can’t go back in time and change my mind about the book – it’s done, history. You leave it alone. I don’t want to disrespect anybody who loved that because that was great and I had a great time and actually we all got along great. That’s in a locked box. The thing that’s grown now, for years and years, is people want this and we who spent 33 years of our lives being Dictators and wanted to do it. One man didn’t. The funny thing about the oldies act is first of all, certain things happened personally that gave him enough money to be an “artist” – I can take my time, I don’t have to work. That gave him that freedom. He said to me one day, “Why don’t you re-invent yourself?” and I said, “If you mean starting with a different name with the same product or not use song I’ve been singing for 33 years I can’t afford that. I’m 60, I have a family to feed, and the strongest statement is people want it and I’m a performer, an entertainer.” We’re a living breathing organism.
You don’t seem angry anymore.
Well, I’m getting what I want. If you’re doing what you’re want, I don’t want to spend my time being angry at that guy. I accept his opinions. I don’t like his opinions, I don’t agree with his opinions, but he is who he is and Ross keeps saying, “You gotta talk to him” and I say “What I am going to say? Don’t be who you are?” I’ve known Andy all my life and we’ve had some joyous times – I just wish he would leave us alone and understand there are other forces in the universe besides his own. Just go to your corner, enjoy your life and let us enjoy our lives. And we’re having a ball. I’m having the most fun I’ve ever had on stage. Dean is this lovable fun-loving guy, a great bass player and there’s this good feeling on stage, there’s no curmudgeonliness.
If Scott could be in the band, would he?
Scott would rather be a songwriter than sing someone else’s songs. To him, that’s the most important thing. In a small festival in Spain, Scott and the Del Lords were playing and Scott came on – a little like Christopher guest ran on stage and rejoined the band, a little Spinal Tap. I’ve known Scott 50 years and Scott is Andy-like in his beliefs in the original band and if it changes it’s watered down and it’s lame and Scott saw us, got oup on stage and played with us and you know what, “Seeing and playing with you guys was like the final piece of the puzzle. It’s so much fun. I’m totally a fan.” Andy is an island.
Dictators would never have been successful without Andy’s songwriting; nor would they have been successful if you weren’t the front man. Andy is not that. Along with the other guys of course.
It’s not unprecedented in rock and roll history. I’ve toured with the guys in the MC5 and there were many moments Rob Tyner was disrespected as the front man and the Ramones I think there were many moments when Joey was disrespected as a frontman. I think it’s not “did you write or not,” but for whatever reasons, sometimes the front man take a lot of hits, cos they’re the quarterback. You get the glory and when it’s shit you get the shit. It’s some psychological thing. Andy’s got a weird thing with me. I’m not saying he does with anyone else. Some people think I’m weird, that’s it’s a level playing field.
There was a lot of love there. You don’t have passion about something you don’t care about.