HANDSOME DICK MANITOBA
INTERVIEW by STEVE OLSON
Dick Manitoba is Handsome. Hard work and love is the answer. Following one’s faith, or whatever it’s called, is the common thread. You do what it is that has to be done. Handsome Dick is just that.
Hey, Dick Manitoba. Steve Olson.
How are you, boss?
I’m doing okay. I saw you at the Cat Club when I was a younger. I wasn’t at CBGB’s, but I’m passionately curious about all of it and about you. Are you originally from New York?
Yes, I grew up in the Bronx. I’m New York born and raised.
How did you ever get into rock n’ roll?
I grew up in the ‘60s, an amazing, amazing era of rock n’ roll. I was ten years old when the Beatles hit, so that pretty much laid the groundwork for the rest of my cultural life.
What was it about The Beatles that grabbed you?
It was all encompassing. If I had grown up in the ‘50s, it would have been Elvis. When you’re a ten-year-old, you’re pretty impressed by the culture around you. For me, it was the Beatles, the Stones and the British Invasion. Everything with a British accent was magical. To this day, I look back and think, “My God, it wasn’t just the band and being ten years old. It was the Beatles.” [Laughs] It all really makes sense now.
So the Beatles had this crazy impact and there was so much shit going on in the ‘60s. You had the doo-wop thing and the British invasion. Did you like The Beatles in leather, like in Hamburg?
I didn’t know of the Beatles then. That was ‘62. It was ‘64 when I first heard the Beatles. The Beatles on Ed Sullivan was what we like to call the Big Bang. That was the beginning of the universe.
Did you immediately realize that you dug rock n’ roll?
Yeah. The Rolling Stones had a very similar effect on me. With the British Invasion, I learned about who they listened to, like Muddy Waters, Buddy Holly and Howlin’ Wolf. I was like, “What do these blues guys sound like?” One led to the other.
When did you realize that you wanted to be in a band?
Well, I always thought it was the coolest thing in the world to be in a band, but I never thought like, “Wow, I can be in a rock n’ roll band.” At first, you just love it, talk about it and immerse yourself in the culture. It wasn’t until my friends started a band, that I thought about it and I wound up becoming a roadie. I wasn’t really a very good roadie, so I used to get drunk a lot. One night, I got up on stage and sang “Wild Thing.” Every time I got up on stage and did a song, people would go more crazy then they did at anytime during the Dictators concert, so I wound up being thrust into the lead singer role, even though I never aspired to be a singer. It was just one of those natural evolutions in life that happens because it’s supposed to happen. It just so happens, people responded to me with a microphone in my hand.
Why do you think that was?
It’s because I have a lot of charisma. [Laughs] I have something in my personality. I don’t know how to describe it. I’ve been like that since I was a little kid. When I get in front of a crowd, I light up and people respond to that.
It just turns you on.
It’s magical to me and people respond to it, so I sort of developed and honed my craft. I’ve used rock n’ roll as a vehicle. J.P. Patterson, the drummer, and I have been working on doing some spoken word. To me, it’s just a Manitoba rant. It’s just me blabbing about a story and him playing percussion in the back.
What do you rant about?
I’ll write a little short story and rant about that. The first one we did was called “Shiksa Goddess.” It was about my great lust and desire to always have a Shiksa goddess in my life. You know, it’s the unattainable blonde, blue-eyed beauty that us Jewish guys aren’t supposed to be able to get and then I got one and it was horrible. It was the worst relationship ever. There’s also a story about a woman I lived with and took a lot of drugs with who is in a very famous punk rock picture. I found out she is in jail for murder for the rest of her life, so that’s going to be my next story.
Do you get the same kind of feedback with the people and the charisma with the ranting?
It’s a work in progress. I’m too long-winded right now. It’s a skill, so I have to hone it down. I was told to do seven minutes and I wound up doing 20 minutes. [Laughs] Most people would be terrified of the time, but I was just going on and on. People were giving me the hook, like “Okay, get off stage!” I definitely have a talent. I just have to learn how to work it. It’s like the first time I got up on radio, I wasn’t so great, but I’ve learned how to hone my radio skills. Now I’m going to work on learning the skill of telling a story in a succinct manner without going on too long.
You’re honing your craft.
I’m honing it. All those kind of crafts take work. I’ve got the basics. I have the gift of gab. I have the ideas. It’s a matter of honing it. There’s a sweet spot. It takes time. I’m not in a rush.
How was it to grow up in the beginning of the movement of new rock n’ roll that was punk rock?
We didn’t really have the self-consciousness of being involved in the punk scene. We were just a bunch of 20-year-olds looking to get high and get laid and have some fun making rock n’ roll. We knew we were part of something cool, but we were just having fun. Years later, it’s like, “Okay, there was Haight-Ashbury and the psychedelic scene. There were all of these different scenes and we were one of these subsets of rock n’ roll.” I’m able to look back at the history books and say, “Oh shit! I was a part of a cool scene.” At the time, we knew something special was happening, but we didn’t have the self-consciousness to figure it out. When we were going through it, we were just living it.
You were getting chicks and having a great time, yeah?
It was a lot of fun! [Laughs] There was no AIDS yet. Everybody was doing heroin and making rock n’ roll and traveling around the world. You could fuck and not die. As I always say, the ascent was astronomical fun and the descent was crash and burn.
How was it going from being this little band to becoming the Dictators?
Well, we never were a big band. The Dictators were there at the beginning and we’re still here. We’ve lived through this whole thing, but we never sold a million records or a million dollars worth of t-shirts. We were just a band that was there. I hear we were pretty influential to a lot of people.
That’s what I’m getting at. I don’t know if it’s always about selling a million records or traveling and getting paid millions of bucks. From my perspective, you laid down some groundwork and that’s way more important than all that monetary shit. Do you know what I mean?
I’m happy to have been a part of something that was so cool. I tell you this honestly and from my heart. Kids come up to me now, and thank me. They love the music. They thank me for my radio show. They thank me for what I have done, and I always say to them, “You don’t realize how much that means to me for you to take the time to tell me you appreciate the work I do. That’s what I do in life. I entertain people, and for you to stop and tell me that you enjoyed it, it’s great. That’s a great compliment.” I’m really grateful for that type of applause or notoriety.
It’s a beautiful thing. How did you ever come across doing the Beach Boys style?
Well, I don’t think people have to be one thing, just because they grow up in a housing project in the Bronx. I think music goes in through the ears and travels through the mind and wherever it takes you, it takes you. You can listen to beats from Africa and have strong feelings. You can listen to beats from the Caribbean and have strong feelings. If anything, it makes total sense to me as an escape. As a kid who grew up in the housing projects in the Bronx, I closed my eyes and listened to Brian Wilson and I was in Huntington Beach on the pier. I’m like, “Wow.” I love bluegrass music, but I couldn’t be further from a guy in the Appalachian Mountains. My point is that music is for the ears and the brain and the imagination. Music always got to me, so I wasn’t locked into just urban street music. I love urban music, beach music, country music and soul music, but I always had a thing for the Beach Boys and surf music. I really liked Dick Dale’s surf music too. It was more hardcore surf music.
What was it like doing the CBGB’s thing when that whole movement was going down?
It was so much fun. It was the ‘70s in New York, so it was a different city. We’d go out seven nights a week and there were after-hours clubs open until noon. Everybody was fucked up and out all day and all night. We had our own rock n’ roll reverse lifestyle. There was a lot of self-destruction.
Did you guys ever get to tour Europe?
We toured Western Europe and England with the Stranglers when punk rock was exploding in the fall of ‘77. We toured around the States a lot and played with a lot of big bands. We played a lot of smaller headline shows and clubs all over the country. I’ve driven the 48 States many times. Since then, I’ve been to Europe a dozen times.
How did they appreciate the Dictators coming in with the Stranglers?
[Laughs] I don’t remember how we were taken at the time. I guess it was good. I remember playing a bunch of shows. I think we went over fairly well. We weren’t booed off the stage. There were nights we would play these horrible shows in the states with Frank Marino & Mahogany Rush and we would be booed. It was these horrible pairings that we had, but we did pretty well in Europe. We’d go to Spain, Scandinavia and Italy and people loved us. People wanted us to come back. Now we do better there than ever. The irony. [Laughs]
Exactly. What was the timeline of the Dictators?
We really were only a band from ‘74 through ‘78. We did three major albums and then broke up. In the early ‘80s, we put out a Roir album called Fuck ‘Em If They Can’t Take a Joke. We played reunion shows once or twice a year for a few years and then it seemed like the history books started being written and there was more of a yearning to see us play. Starting in the mid-’90s we started playing regularly again. We would do a week of shows on the West Coast, a week of shows in Spain, and a couple shows in Italy every year. We went to Spain every year for about ten years straight until it took us to a point where Andy [Shernoff] didn’t really want to play anymore on a regular basis. He was the bass player and songwriter. Scott [Kempner] got busy with the Del-Lords recently. Ross [Friedman], J.P. and I decided that we had the rock n’ roll itch again, so the three of us got together. We added Daniel Rey, who played with the Ramones and Ronnie Spector, and this great bass player Dean Rispler. We’re just going out and playing and having some fun and enjoying ourselves. I’m really enjoying it.