The Dictators NYC

Wild Things:
The Dictators NYC Make Life More Interesting

With an over-the-top shtick that owes as much to professional wrestling as it does Detroit proto-punk, “Handsome” Dick Manitoba has been one of New York’s brashest rock ‘n’ roll ambassadors for over 40 years. The roadie turned lead singer is still playing the heel (that’s “bad guy” for you non-wrestling fan) in a town near you with the Dictators NYC.

It’s a slightly different name for the seminal New York band, changed due to the departure of original Dictators members Andy Shernoff (bass) and Scott Kempner (rhythm guitar). “We had a core, like the New York Yankees used to have a core four that they had from their farm system that lasted like 15 years and won four World Series,” Manitoba says. “We had the core four, which was Ross (Friedman), Scott, Andy and myself. We were always around as the Dictators. Then Andy didn’t want to do it anymore, and Scott liked the idea but wanted to focus on writing songs for his own band, the Del-Lords.”

Even without two key members, Dictators NYC still brings New York legends to the stage with the addition of guitarist and former Ramones songwriter and producer Daniel Rey. “He’s a very calm person, and I’m a very not calm person. He helps keep me calm,” Manitoba says. The other addition is seasoned producer and bassist Dean Rispler (Osaka Popstar).

The new lineup answers patrons at East Village bar Manitoba’s requests for a Dictators reunion without raising the owner’s blood pressure. “To be honest with you, I’m enjoying myself a lot because the guys get along,” Manitoba says. “The tension that was there with the original members evolved into a lot of stress and tension. The stress and tension level has gone from 90 to like 10.”

The original Dictators bridged the narrow gap between the Stooges’ first breakup and New York punk’s escape from the Bowery, starting with 1975’s The Dictators Go Girl Crazy! The cover depicts Manitoba as a flashy pro wrestling heel, introducing a broad audience to an onstage persona he still revisits. “I got my name from the Valiant Brothers’ Handsome Jimmy Valiant,” he says. “I never liked the faces (in wrestling). Even as a kid watching movies, I’d root for the bad guys. Bad guys make life more interesting. All good guys do is point to the sky, thank God, their family and their friends like they didn’t have anything to do with it. Bad guys go, ‘Look at me, baby, I’m the greatest! I’m so good looking and no one can beat me.’”

Manitoba’s wrestling persona was informed by the nights he spent with Rolling Stone scribe Richard Meltzer and others watching some of Bruno Sammartino’s storied WWE title defenses at Madison Square Garden. “One of the best matches I ever saw was Bruno Sammartino versus Killer Kowalski at the Garden. They wrestled for an hour,” he says. “Nowadays, kids don’t have the attention span to watch an hour-long match. They have to have 20 minutes of talking, 20 minutes of soap opera, 15 minutes of bullshit and a 12-minute match. Of course I’m just another old guy saying how great it was in the old days.”

Early on, Manitoba was the Dictators’ roadie and band mascot. He was pals with the original lineup, bonding with them over a shared love of White Castle hamburgers, comic books, classic films, the New York Yankees and rock ‘n’ roll. “My friends started a band because it was the coolest thing in the world, and I was the best friend of the band,” he says. “But I wasn’t a musician and wasn’t trying to be a singer. One day, as a goof they gave me a microphone, and I did a version of ‘Wild Thing’ after a show. People went crazy. Then it seemed to be that every time they put a microphone in my hand, people reacted.”

Before Manitoba’s chance discovery of his magnetic stage presence, he had no ambition to join the band. “I didn’t dream about being the guy in the band. I dreamt about knowing everybody in the band,” he explains. “Like people would come up to me and say, ‘You know the Beatles?’ and ‘You hang out with the Stones?’ Until I picked up that microphone and saw I could do this, there was no reason to even imagine in my head I could do this.”

Manitoba’s lack of rock star ambition did not mean he was disinterested in music as a teen. Instead, he was a fervent listener during the golden age of rock and country radio, inspiring his unshakable love for the melodic, three-minute pop song. “When I was 16-years-old, I listened to bluegrass, Doc Watson, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson,” he says. “I was also listening to the New York Dolls, the Grateful Dead, the Who, the Stooges, the MC5, the Stones and the Kinks. I’m a child of the British Invasion. The Byrds and the Beach Boys are two of my favorite bands ever. I love the Band. That’s my eclectic taste.”

The Dictators’ final album of the ‘70s, 1978’s Bloodbrothers, was the first to prominently feature Manitoba as the band’s vocalist. During those sessions at New York’s Record Plant Studios, known Dictators fans Bruce Springsteen and the late Clarence Clemons were down the hall recording Darkness at the Edge of Town. While both bands were hanging out in the studio’s common area, Manitoba and Clemons discussed their admiration for each other’s work. “When I told Clarence I didn’t know he was a Dictators fan, he looked at me and said, ‘The big man knows about the universe!’,” Manitoba adds.

Although the Dictators first run tapered off in 1981, Manitoba’s stage persona never completely left the public eye. Five years later, he co-founded Dick Manitoba’s Wild Kingdom with original Dictator Andy Shernoff. Wild Kingdom morphed back into the Dictators in the ‘90s ­– a run that begat unsung 2001 album D.F.F.D. He’s even made several live appearances since the mid-aughts fronting one of his all-time favorite bands, the MC5.

When asked about past trips to Atlanta, Manitoba recalls a March 1975 show at Alex Cooley’s Electric Ballroom, opening for Rush. With few like-minded bands on the touring circuit and Blue Oyster Cult masterminds Murray Krugman and Sandy Pearlman as their go-to producers, the Dictators often found themselves sharing bills with prog, hard rock and metal bands.

“We drove from New York in two separate cars because it was cheaper than flying in those days. We had a great time and a shit time,” Manitoba says. “The great time is we stopped at a place outside of Atlanta called Ma Hull’s (a famous boarding house in Inman Park). If memory serves me correctly, and it usually doesn’t, there was an old lady sitting on the porch with a cigar box or something. You’d sit down with 15 people at a table. They brought out fried chicken, peach cobbler and mashed potatoes. They brought out like 10 different things for dinner, and you passed stuff around to people you didn’t know.”

After stuffing his face at this smorgasbord of down home cooking, Manitoba spent an uncomfortable set in front of bemused Rush fans, belching and farting throughout. It was a hard and embarrassing lesson learned for Manitoba, who now stretches, exercises and only eats a light meal before performing. “These days I’m into my craft, so I tell the promoter if I can’t eat my dinner four hours or more before I play, please save it for after the show,” he says. “Two a half hours before a show, I’ll have a sandwich, a handful of nuts and some juice. That’s my dinner so I’ll feel light when I’m on stage.”

This strict regimen doesn’t just keep Manitoba looking fit for a 62-year-old. It’s done primarily to ensure that he gives his best performance for fans who’d been itching for years to see a version of the Dictators live. “I don’t want anyone going, ‘That’s pretty good for an old guy,’” he says. “I want them going, ‘That’s good, period.’”

Photo by Koldo Orue.