From the Bronx to Nashville and beyond, The Dictators Frontman examines his life in stories and song
Born in The Bronx is the solo debut by Handsome Dick Manitoba, former pro wrestler and long time frontman of The Dictators, one of the most notorious punk bands to come out of New York City.
The cover of their 1975 debut, The Dictators Go Girl Crazy, featured a smiling Manitoba posing in a locker room in his wrestling gear. The band was the first to introduce the elements that became the foundation of punk rock – loud, fast music, an in-your-face-attitude and lyrics packed with ironic humor. Unfortunately, it was released just before the official start of New York’s punk/new wave scene and sank without a trace. Follow up albums fared poorly and the band broke up, but many critics call The Dictators Go Girl Crazy the first great American punk rock album.
“I was a good wrestler, a heel. In wrestling parlance they have baby faces and heels. Heels want to win the belt and have the glory, but they would rather inflict pain and break rules. If you get the belt, that’s cool, but being villainous is the goal,” Manitoba remembers the band’s early days with affection. “I was also the best friend of the guys [in The Dictators]. They lived in a house in upstate New York, where they practiced during their embryonic stage. They gave me a roadie job, but I crashed the band’s truck and lost some amps, so they said, ‘Let’s give him a mic and keep him out of trouble.’ The lead singer at the time didn’t have much charisma. Something magical happened when I got my hand on the mic. There was something coming off my body, and out of my mouth, that people responded to. At my first gig in Brooklyn, I sang one song – ‘Wild Thing’ by The Troggs. Chris Stein from Blondie was there. Eric Emerson, a friend of Andy Warhol from The Magic Tramps was there and they were going crazy.”
VIDEO: The Dictators perform “Two Tub Man” at The Winterland 1977
Manitoba got rave reviews for his singing and performing. He stayed with the band throughout their career as both The Dictators and Manitoba’s Wild Kingdom, but he never wrote any songs.
“I tried to write a few lyrics, but I didn’t get any pats on the back,” he explains. “I got no support from Andy (Shernoff the band’s main songwriter). At that point, I wish I had dug deep down inside of me and found what I found 30 years later, but I didn’t. I let the environment and the people crush my spirit for songwriting. Andy was a bit of a control freak, if you can be a bit of one. He was the songwriter, and got paid as a songwriter. He wrote a bunch of good songs, but that doesn’t give you any more power than anybody else in the band. I was surrounded by people who were musical geniuses! What was I to do? I just stayed the lead singer. As the years went by, a variety of people helped me get my legs as a songwriter. Palmyra Delran was one and Dave Marsh, the rock critic, was another. I showed [Marsh] the first song I ever wrote – ‘Supply and Demand’ – and he called it a masterpiece. I also showed my songs to Jon Tiven, who I knew from the ’70s. He was one of the guys who told Andy he should make me the lead singer of The Dictators.”
Tiven had left New York to resettle in Nashville. He became a noted multi-instrumentalist and producer, helming projects for Wilson Pickett, Frank Black, Don Covey and Little Milton and many others.
“I started talking to Jon during breaks of doing my radio show. I would just jot down notes, one or two lines, when I was doing my radio show. (‘The Handsome Dick Manitoba Radio Program‘ ran nationally on Little Steven’s Underground Garage channel on Sirius XM for 14 years.) I’m a good storyteller and writer. When he asked me to write a few lines and send them to him, I did it. He sent me back a complete song the next morning. Amazing!
“I kept sending him lyrics and he’d say, ‘Add a bridge here’ or ‘Write another verse for this one.’ We went back and forth and when we had enough songs, I went down to his home studio in Nashville. I recorded 18 songs in four and a half days. There are 13 of ‘em on the record, five not on the record and we wrote six new ones since. It’s all me. We did it in his home studio. He had a lot of great musicians stopping by to help out. He got guys like Simon Kirk, the drummer from Free and Bad Company, had added parts. He knew PF Sloane, the great songwriter who wrote ‘Eve of Destruction.’ I wound up having the honor of singing lead on the song, with PF Sloan singing along and playing harmonica. I don’t know how he does it all, but Jon helped put together a great album for me.”
‘Born in The Bronx’ has the primal, lo-fi the sound of a record cut in the late 60s or early 70s. “Shelly” is a punchy surf rock tune driven by Sally Tiven’s rolling bass and sparkling acoustic piano. “The Cooker and The Hit” is a solemn ballad detailing the danger of a drug-addicted life, highlighted by Manitoiba’s processed vocals and fatalistic lyrics. The title track is a mid-tempo Dylan-esque rocker that gives us a confessional look at Manitoba’s young adulthood. The songs will resonate deeply with anyone who grew up in New York City, regardless of their age.
Arny Schorr, a music industry veteran who helped bring projects by Dave Edmunds, Dick Dale, The Flamin’ Groovies and other heavies to fruition, released ‘Born in The Bronx’ on his Liberation Hall imprint in November. The album’s getting very good reviews and Manitoba is planning the next step in his career.
“Last year I put a band together for a show,” he said. “We opened with ‘Cars and Girls’ [from the first Dictators album] and everybody was singing along with us. The guys sounded great and people kept asking me, ‘Are you gonna play with those guys again?’ The answer is, ‘Will a promoter give me enough money so I can pay them to play with me again?’ Meanwhile, I’m gonna go out and play with a guy I know, Cody. He’s a talented guitarist, singer and piano player. I’m gonna buy a projector and do songs and storytelling, with photos and video in the background. It’s a lot of work. We’ll do a couple of shows solo first and then figure out how to work the projector. Some of the stories are one or two minutes, some last a lot longer. I told stories between the songs I played on ‘The Handsome Dick Manitoba Radio Program.’ I also told endless stories between Dictators songs for 40 years.
“I also started a podcast – You Don’t Know Dick. You can subscribe to it on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher, but the easiest thing is going to HandsomeDickManitoba.com. You can see my fantastic website, with great pictures, a bunch of articles and a place to buy some really cool stuff. The podcast is picking up some steam, but it’s hard to find a niche. I don’t do one thing, like The Dictators didn’t just do one kind of music. I talk to people I find interesting, some just regular folk, some big-time rock stars. I play a little music, but as I get more technologically advanced, I’ll find out how to play more music, because, after all, I do the whole goddamn thing on my couch in my living room, true organic DIY. I also have a life taking care of my son, making sure he’s in school, making sure he’s as healthy as can be, keeping an eye on his friends and the girls he dates. Some people are talking to me about doing a book. I’ll believe it when they offer me some money. I’d like to make some money selling a bunch of records, but I don’t need a lot. The creative stuff I do is rewarding, but not super lucrative. I’m going to make that two-man thing with my friend Cody work out. I’m going to work on it and I’m going to have fun doing it. It’s going to be another craft added to all the other ones I’ve mastered. Meanwhile, I’ll take care of my kid and keep writing songs that cover the whole spectrum of my human experience and my personality. I refuse to give up on stuff I love, stuff that makes me feel good. I’m always going to figure out something to do that’s creative, and fun, and exciting, and pays the bills.”
VIDEO: Handsome Dick Manitoba “Eve of Destruction”