Handsome Dick Manitoba, the Dictators' lead singer is a roundish, furry Jewish kid from The Bronx who theoretically has about as much business being the lead singer for a rock 'n' roll band as my grandmother, yet has made himself into a new American hero of sorts through a combination of chutzpah, charisma (or is it anti-charisma?), an outrageous sense of humour, and a natural warmth and style that make him lovable despite almost anything he may do or say. (Unless you're Wayne County).
"A guy asked Handsome Dick whether we were a part of the New Wave," Ross the Boss intones. "You know what he said?" He waits for me to shake my head. "He said, 'We ain't no New Wave, Jack, we're the Tidal wave!!!'" He smiles gleefully.
It's difficult to believe all this is coming from a band who are currently climbing the singles charts with a bone-crunching rendition of the Stooges' immortal punk rock anthem "Search and Destroy."
"People are gonna say we're New Wave," says rhythm guitarist Scotty "Top Ten" Kempner, "but musically we're not. To me the real rock 'n' roll heroes are those who practice, not those who just get up on stage and look cool."
Yet the Dictators could claim a position at the vanguard of the American New Wave. Their first album, "The Dictators Go Girl Crazy," released way back in spring, 1975, when Johnny Rotten was still in art school (or whatever), stands alongside such classics as "Raw Power" and "Back in the U.S.A." as a New Wave archetype. More importantly, it defined and described the typical American punk as no one had ever done before.
American, that's the key word, because the Dictators' punk was not the same as the one bred on the dole queue in a London burning with 1977 boredom. Theirs was the overfed, over pampered child of middle class America, weaned on a steady diet of television, cheeseburgers and rows of used car lots so that by adolescence his scope, logically enough, had grown to encompass the whole of American Pop Cultures (What else do they serve up on TV?), acne (How many cheeseburgers can one body tolerate?), and "cruising" (a great American pastime directly related to used cars). Get the picture? That is the American punk and that is why Kiss, Aerosmith, and Ted Nugent and not the Pistols and the Clash are playing in front of 20,000 unwashed and slightly dazed teenagers nightly.
Anyway, "Go Girl Crazy" captured the essence of American punkdom to a tee. Musically, it was sledgehammer rock in the grand tradition of the Stooges, MC5, and Blue Oyster Cult, with flourishes of everyone worthwhile in rock 'n' roll from the Who to the Beach Boys to Eddie Cochran thrown in for good measure.
Lyrically, it was pop satire of the highest order, filled with some of the funniest and most telling lyrics ever commited to vinyl. From Shernoff's pen came such gems as:
"My favourite part of growing up is when I'm sick and throwing up/It's the dues you gotta pay for eating burgers every day/Take my vitamin C, know what's good for me/Life can take its toll when you're living rock 'n' roll."
Know what? "Go Girl Crazy" didn't sell at all. Well, a little, of course, to the type of fanatics who were probably reading Andy's fanzine and had all the Stooges and MC5 albums (no great sellers either). But the punter -- the kid who all the songs were written about, the one who probably queued a day early for tickets the last time Black Sabbath were in town -- ignored it. There were reasons, of course. First, no radio station would touch it -- it was too loud, too crude, most of the words were unsuitable for airplay. Then too, the Dictators never toured to promote it. Their drummer, one Stu Boy King, was fired the week of the album's release. By the time they'd found a suitable replacement and changed their lineup to accommodate Shernoff's switch from bass to keyboards, they had already been dropped by their record label and were forced to start from scratch again.
The ensuing months were hard times for the Dictators, the kind that would make any band with aspirations beyond a lifetime in the shoddy dressing rooms of the New York club circuit reassess just where they were going and how they were planning on getting there.
For a while the band teetered nervously on the edge of breaking up. Every few days a different member would be ready to leave the fold, but somehow they persevered until they finally came up with the right drummer in Ritchie Teeter, who also sported the best pure singing voice in the band (which enabled Shernoff to write more complex pop-styled songs), and the right bassist in Mark "The Animal" Mendoza, a menacing looking giant prone to produce sounds from his instrument by pounding it with his clenched fist.
At first they continued following the direction established by "Go Girl Crazy." Manitoba supplied the personality, jumping around the stage like a super-charged matzoh ball, exchanging quips with the audience. Garbed in an outlandish sequined red jacket with a map of the Canadian province from which he took his name on the back. Manitoba patterned his persona after that staple of American pop culture, the professional wrestler. The wrestling motif was an integral part of the early Dictators and is featured prominently in both the cover and some of the between song bits on "Go Girl Crazy."
Shernoff, intelligent and articulate, a rock theorizer in the tradition of Pete Townshend -- an idol of all the Dictators -- was probably the most profoundly affected by that album's failure. As he speaks you can sense the ambition in his voice.
"I was a critic," he says, "then I said 'fuck it, I'm going to be a rock 'n' roll star.' Critics have never gone through the hell of what it takes to make it in rock 'n' roll . . . the compromises, the giving and taking, losing your integrity. . . ."
Did he feel that he'd lost his integrity?
"I feel I had a misguided integrity in the past. What I thought was cool was what my little circle of friends thought was cool -- the rock critic's circle. What's cool is really what's going to turn on the 14-year-old kid who doesn't know about the history of rock 'n' roll. They just want to go to a concert and have a really good time. That's what's really cool, giving them a good time."
By fall of last year, the Dictators had turned into a music machine of awesome proportions, both musically and visually.
With the band filling CBGB's to the brim at every appearance, it was only a matter of time before they were offered a second shot at a recording contract. Signed by Asylum during the fall, they spent six months working on the album they hoped would remove the stigma of "Go Girl Crazy" from the ears of American radio programmers.
"Manifest Destiny" was the perfect title for the album. Every American schoolkid knows the phrase, which refers to early American pioneers pushing across the continent until it was settled from coast to coast. The conquering of America, so to speak, which was exactly what the Dictators had in mind.
Unfortunately, the album has not yet set the world on fire. Although the material is by and large excellent, the decision was obviously made to try to make it palatable to the conservative taste of radio programmers and as a result the sounds flaccid in spots.
Top Ten now believes "We were overly conscious of making a playable LP. It was sweetened up and everything offensive was removed."
The power and heat which seemed to have been lost somewhere in the mixes of the album are revived in concert and numbers like "Steppin' Out," "Young, Fast and Scientific," and "Diseased" become the stuff great rock 'n' roll evenings are made of . . . not to mention "Search and Destroy."
"Our live shows will be different from our records all the time," Andy comments. "I want the record to be a piece of art, a statement, and the live show entertainment, a visual experience. This record can be played on the radio, that's the main thing."
Shernoff's current success oriented attitudes are reflected in many of his lyrics to "Manifest Destiny."
Have you heard. They say I could be the Next Big Thing.
Take my word. I've got a method that could make me king.
Rock 'n' roll made a man out of me, took awhile for the whole world to see.
It's like a magic spell, can't you tell?"
Whether Shernoff's method will make him king still remains to be seen. In a Britain so thoroughly caught up in its own sub-culture, it should be interesting to see the reaction to a band so totally steeped in American culture and the American dream of success. Andy envisions no problems. "We're ambassadors of American culture and people love it 'cause we're for real. We live what we sing about."