They’re not as famous as the Ramones or the Stooges, but the Dictators were just as instrumental in creating what we now know as punk rock. Formed in New York in 1973 and led by the swaggering, charismatic Richard “Handsome Dick” Manitoba—who started with the band as a roadie, occasional vocalist, and mascot, working his way up to full-time front man by their third LP, 1978’s Bloodbrothers—they played boneheaded tough-guy garage rock that was always smarter than it sounded. The Dictators broke up in 1979, frustrated by their lack of mainstream success, and in 1980 lead guitarist Ross “the Boss” Friedman became a founding member of power-metal institution Manowar. Bassist Mark “the Animal” Mendoza, who left before the split, went on to play in Twisted Sister.
In the late 80s, though, Friedman and founding Dictators bassist Andy Shernoff joined their old front man in Manitoba’s Wild Kingdom, and growing public awareness of the Dictators’ role as forefathers of punk led to a full-fledged reunion in 1991, culminating in a new album, D.F.F.D., in 2001. The current lineup, convened last year, doesn’t include Shernoff, who was the band’s principal songwriter, so it’s calling itself the Dictators NYC; it consists of Manitoba, Friedman, drummer J.P. “Thunderbolt” Patterson (who played in Wild Kingdom and on D.F.F.D.), guitarist Daniel Rey (also from Wild Kingdom), and bassist Dean “the Dream” Rispler. The compilation Faster . . . Louder: The Dictators’ Best 1975-2001 came out last month.
For this week’s Artist on Artist, Manitoba talked to Dave Springer, aka Tutu & the Pirates front man Little Richie Speck. Formed in 1977 and widely considered Chicago’s first punk band, Tutu & the Pirates likewise didn’t get the love they deserved till long after their original run. Their off-the-wall stage shows included a drummer who wore a tutu (and a hockey helmet, after the band was showered with bottles, glasses, and ashtrays at a suburban show) and a bassist whose instrument was built out of a toilet seat (it got a workout during “I Wanna Be a Janitor”). The Pirates set off a local punk explosion that included the likes of Silver Abuse, Naked Raygun, and Articles of Faith, but they were all but forgotten until Joe Losurdo and Chris Tillman released the Chicago punk documentary You Weren’t There in 2007. The band re-formed to play premiere parties for the film, and they just self-released an LP of new material whose title, Trail of the Great White Beaver, ought to reassure anyone worried that they might have grown out of their adolescent antics.
The Dictators NYC headline the HoZac Blackout on Sat 5/17 (see Soundboard), and Tutu & the Pirates play a release party Fri 6/6 at the Mayne Stage. —Luca Cimarusti
Little Richie Speck: I went online and I saw where your album, the Dictators’ Go Girl Crazy!, was voted the number one American punk album of all time.
Handsome Dick Manitoba: That was very nice of them.
Uncut magazine, I think that was.
It’s a great feeling, when you look at the history. History is littered with people who’ve created art—whether it be literary art or fine art or musical art—where they did something, died, and were later appreciated. I am infinitely appreciative of the fact—
That you’re still around!
And that I’ve lived long enough to see what first was an abject failure become an important thing to a lot of people’s lives.
I think that’s great. I had a similar experience with my band, because we were considered the first punk band in Chicago, and nobody remembered us until a couple years ago. All of a sudden, we had some recognition—and that was kinda nice after 30-something years.
I kinda know a little bit about that.
Well, you know what happens, the first generation right after a generation creates something, it’s almost like a child resisting his father’s thing that he thought was cool. Then what happens is a mystique gets built—via stories, via books, via video—that grows as time goes on.
And your music stands up too. That’s part of it.
You have a real rabid following of people—the original fans on through. It’d be nice if they were a larger following, but the people who love you absolutely love you.
The following is fine for me. We’re probably doing more shows this year than we’ve ever done. We’re probably making more money this year than we’ve ever made—in terms of not being signed with a big label but controlling our own destiny and putting money in our pockets. We’re probably happier than we’ve ever been.
Let’s say we go to Europe. Let’s say we play a venue where there’s 80 people. Those shows pay for your day on the road. They pay for your hotel, they pay for your food, so it costs you nothing. Then you do the three shows, Thursday Friday Saturday, which are, say, Madrid and Basque country, which is pretty big for us—we play for 800 people. Hey, at 60 years old, I go up to Basque country and play for 800 people, for 500 people in Madrid, and we come home with a wad of money and we sell T-shirts? I’m very happy about that!
I get that! [Laughter.] Nothing to complain about.
I’m not one of those people where I’m not going to be happy unless I play Madison Square Garden. Those people are never happy. Bruce Springsteen said, “Don’t spend your life waiting for a moment that just won’t come.” It might come. But it probably won’t at this age. And I don’t give a fuck. I’m happy with the hand I’ve been dealt.
It’s great to see this happen for you at this time. It gives me great hope for my future as well! But you’ve spread out into so many different things. You’re a restaurateur—
A bar owner.
A bar owner. Are you starting a record label?
I was offered my own imprint, and I turned it down. I appreciate the respect, but I’ll spread myself too thin. I have an 11-year-old child. I have a family to run. I have a bar. I do five national radio shows for Little Steven [Van Zandt] on Sirius XM Radio. And I have tours. For the first time in my life—it’s very exciting—I’m writing songs. I’m bringing songs to the band. So this band will actually not just be playing covers, Dictators songs, and Manitoba’s Wild Kingdom songs. Within the year, we should have at least a handful of new songs.
That’s great, man. I have some questions that some friends of mine who are great fans of yours wanted me to ask. Is that OK?
Bloodbrothers—was that all done in one take?
No. What do you think, we’re Frank Sinatra? [Laughter.] It was done over a couple of weeks in Record Plant Studio, and that’s where we became friends with Springsteen and the E Street Band. They were making Darkness on the Edge of Town and we were making Bloodbrothers, and we hung out in the common area and became real good pals, and to this day I’m pals with my boss, Steven, who asked me to be a DJ when he started his own radio station on Sirius XM.
Did Springsteen sing any backups on that?
He didn’t sing backups, but on “Faster and Louder,” he goes, “You guys want me to do something?” We go, “Yeah!” He goes, “I’ll count off.” It was like, “One, two, one two three four!” So he counted it off. [Laughter.]
There you go.
We got him on the record. That’s all that counts.
You were produced by guys who did Blue Oyster Cult at one time, right? Back in the day? There’s always been a rumor that their whole shtick was completely tongue-in-cheek—they weren’t really serious about what they were doing. Is that true?
[BOC producer] Sandy [Pearlman] is—here’s the thing. We’re serious about our craft, but we’re not serious about ourselves. It’s too Spinal Tap in rock ‘n’ roll to be serious about yourself. Sandy was a serious guy, but he had a sense of humor. We were serious about our craft, but we’re total goofballs. And we sang about—we had some songs that were culturally descriptive about the change of our neighborhoods, aesthetically, artistically, and economically. Those are important things.
You sang with the MC5 for a while.
Was that just a few gigs?
About 30 total. It was such an honor for me because I’m a few years younger than them, and I grew up on them. They called different people up at different times to play guitar, to sing. One of the great joyous onstage experiences of my life.
I can imagine! I was wearing an MC5 shirt and I was in Arkansas, and it was the cover of their first album, with the picture of them, and these kids came up to me and wanted to know who the five MCs were. Instead of the MC5.
[Laughter.] That’s great.
I didn’t know what to tell them. Things have changed a little bit in that regard.
I saw you guys at Monopoly in Arlington Heights in, like, 1978. There was this suburban kind of vibe, and we drove out from the city to see you. I just wonder how you guys ended up playing at that place.
I don’t know. We had booking agents at the time. We played a show with the Ramones and a band called Widowmaker. We opened up for Alice Cooper outside of Chicago. And we always played in downtown Chicago too. It was great for us. Love that town.
Were you guys influenced by Mad magazine?
Of course. We were influenced by the borscht belt—not directly, but indirectly. We grew up watching Ed Sullivan. So along with the Beatles, you got Jewish comedians.
Mad magazine, as children, we all grew up on it. We were also influenced by Robert Crumb and everything he’s done. We were influenced by a ton of bands, obviously, and professional wrestling. All the great things that I consider under the umbrella of rock ‘n’ roll culture.
Did you ever do any wrestling, as people used to say you had?
Nah. But I loved it. I’ve always loved it. These days, not so much. Only a slight interest because my son is 11, but he’s getting too cool for wrestling, so whatever.
Is Sandy Koufax your favorite left-handed Jewish pitcher?
[Laughter.] Yeah! That’s my only one-word answer. Yes.
Where was I going with this? I don’t know. I wanted to ask you if you feel like you have to pay homage to any of the current pop icons in order to get some relevance. Everybody I see always says, oh yeah, they really like Lady Gaga. I’ve never heard anybody mention any of her songs, but so many people feel that they have to pay lip service.
No! Not at all. I would tell you if a new band excited me. Like, these kids, I didn’t think they were perfect, but I thought they were the best thing I’ve seen come down the pike in a while. They’re the Strypes, from Ireland. They’re managed by Elton John’s management company. They’re 16, 17, and 18. They have two different people who play harmonicas like wild men, and their sound is so rock solid and professional—it’s mind-boggling how together and sophisticated they are at that age. They grew up on the great rock ‘n’ roll, they grew up on the great blues—these kids have impeccable rock ‘n’ roll taste, and they know what they’re doing.
Have you heard the Orwells?
No, no. Are they good?
Oh, they’re great. They were on Letterman—they tore the place up.
The Orwells? Like George Orwell?
Like George Orwell. They’re from the Chicago suburbs and, uh, they’re like 16, 17 [Editor’s note: The Orwells are a little older than that now].
I’ll look ’em up on YouTube.
Yeah, definitely. You’ll love ’em. Anything else? Um, let’s see. Your wife’s an author. She must be pretty smart, huh?
Um, yeah. She’s pretty smart. [Laughter.] She’s very sexy too. She writes, she’s an author, and lately she’s started her own clothing company. It’s called Fear City.
Yeah. Fear City Custom. The inspiration was, in the 70s—I have a good detective friend here in the Ninth Precinct, by my house, and he showed us these newspapers. When cops and firemen were on strike in the 70s, President Ford said—front cover of the Daily News, “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” No more money. So there’s no more money for cops and firemen. They went on strike and they stood at the airport and they handed out these pamphlets: “Welcome to Fear City,” with a skull on it that said “Good luck.”
And when [my wife] Zoe [Hansen] saw this, she said, “Oh my God, that’s such a great logo.” So her and her friend [Raffaele Mary], who used to play in the Cycle Sluts From Hell, got this clothing company together.
You guys are becoming the kings of all media.
You know what? I took “Handsome Dick Manitoba”—whatever it was worth in the 70s, I took it, I ran with it, I worked hard with it. I’m 60 years old; I hustle my ass off. I’m out there all the time. It’s a little bit of luck and a lot of sweat. But I love it! Because I get up, I go to my radio show, I go to my bar, I go play with my band, I go play baseball with my kid. Some people say they don’t get their joy out of work. You don’t have to, but I’ll tell you what—if you get up five days a week and you don’t get some sort of enjoyment out of work, to me that’s a friggin’ hard life. I deal with a lot of problems some days, but I like everything I do, and it makes life a lot sweeter.
That’s great. It sounds like you’re in a great place right now.
Were you friends with Lou Reed?
Acquaintances, not really friends.
He was quite an inspiration, but he seemed kind of crabby sometimes.
It depends who you talk to. You talk to some people, he was the greatest guy in the world—you know, not unlike myself. “Oh, Manitoba’s the biggest asshole I ever met. What a blowhard.” And then some people are like, “Wow, that guy’s great. I love him.” If you have a strong personality, that’s how it is.
Yeah, the last time I saw him play, he seemed to have a little bit of disdain for the audience, the way he—
I was the last guy he got mad at in public! I was at John Varvatos’s store—[photographer] Mick Rock [and Lou Reed] had put out a book—and he kept yelling at the audience to shut up. I was talking, and this woman in front of me goes, “Will you please be quiet?” And I went, “Go fuck yourself.” It’s rock ‘n’ roll! “Please be quiet”?
So my phone went off, which I usually shut it off at these events, and my ringer is the Godfather theme. [Sings the first two bars of the Godfather theme.] Lou Reed heard it, and he goes, “Jesus, that’s the worst cell-phone ring I ever heard.” And I yelled back, “Lou! The Godfather is the worst cell-phone ring you ever heard?” And, you know, the security guard came over and put his arm on me. I go, “Get your arm off me, I’m good friends with your boss.” And then this woman is like “Shh” again, and I go, “Go fuck yourself again.” And then I look at [rock photographer] Bob Gruen, who I’m standing next to, and I go, “Bob, this is not for me. I’m gettin’ out of here.” And I left.
So he was a little crabby that time.
He was crabby that day.
Iggy Pop’s a great influence on, you know, all of us I guess. It took a while for him to get his due, and he seems like he’s a pretty happy guy at this point. I’m hoping that you can have the same kind of thing goin’ on for you.
Well, we’re not at that level in terms of audiences or economics, but I can tell you this: Sometimes you love somebody’s art and you meet them as a person and you’re disappointed. Iggy is one of the most influential and one of the greatest front men and has created one of the great bodies of music of my lifetime, and he’s also a fantastic, loving human being. A sweetheart. I adore him personally and I adore him musically.
For years, he was always my favorite, and people didn’t even know who I was talking about half the time. Now, finally—
They caught up to you!
Either that or I fell back, I don’t know. You’re also a Stones fan, right?
Oh, a British Invasion fanatic! The British Invasion, as Steven Van Zandt calls it, is the Big Bang. The Beatles on Ed Sullivan—the Big Bang. Beatles, Stones, Kinks, the Who. Forget about it.
You also obviously like the surf stuff.
Brian Wilson is one of my favorite songwriters. I love Jan & Dean, I love Dick Dale, but the Beach Boys for me are it.
Yeah, they’re cool. Very cool.
I love the way Brian Wilson and Lennon & McCartney pushed each other.
What happened to those kinds of things in music? Why does today’s music not seem like anybody’s pushing anybody to do anything?
I think rock ‘n’ roll is—there’s a difference between it being two years old, 20 years old, 30 years old, and 60 years old. Rock ‘n’ roll is at 60 years old, so what’s going to happen? Where’s it going to go? In terms of math—sets and subsets—it was the main set of our music. And now, even though in my heart and your heart it still might be the main set, as far as society goes it’s a subset.
All I know is that it’s 60 years old, and there are less new bands selling less stuff than there ever was. I know how to do one thing. I had a talk with Lemmy one day—it was like, we can’t sell out. What are we going to become at our age? Let’s become disco? Let’s become hip-hop? This is who we are. We bought the farm.
And helped build the farm.
Well, thank you for that.
I know you’re going to have a great show at the HoZac festival—you’re gonna get a great turnout and a great reception here, and I’m looking forward to it.
And I hope someday to be able to play with you guys.
You know what? We’ll see you down the road. Stranger things have happened than that, and if it makes sense for both of us, we’ll do it. I’m looking forward to coming back to Chicago and playing.