Friday, September 14, 2012

Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke


Top Ten Dictators Go Girl Crazy! Moments in History:

1) 1894: Coca-Cola is sold in bottles for the first time on March 12.

2) 1921: White Castle Restaurants are founded in Wichita, Kansas.

3) 1926: Henry Ford shuts down his automotive factories for all of Saturday and Sunday, inaugurating the popular concept of “the weekend.”

4) 1948: major television networks begin broadcasting professional wrestling.

5) 1953: the first issue of TV Guide is published on April 3.

6) 1964: “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Twist and Shout,” “She Loves You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and “Please Please Me” occupy the top five spots simultaneously on the Billboard Hot 100 during the week of April 4.

7) 1967: The Stooges play their first show, on Halloween.

8) Late 1960s/Early 1970s: Sopors, a brand of Methaqualone—aka, Quaaludes—are manufactured.

9) 1971: Adny Shernoff publishes the first issue of Teenage Wasteland Gazette fanzine at State University of New York New Paltz.

10) 1973: Hilly Kristal opens CBGB on the Bowery in New York City.

 ~~

The Dictators released their debut album The Dictators Go Girl Crazy! on Epic Records in March of 1975. An unpacking of that sentence reveals several incongruities: that a band outrageously named the Dictators releases an album; that the album is issued on a major label that’s home to the likes of mainstream artists REO Speedwagon, Charlie Daniels Band, and Johnny “I Can See Clearly Now” Nash; and that the major label releases the album in 1975, a year inhospitable to anti-authoritarian, satiric, fast-food-eating, homework-in-the-bar-doing, downer-dropping, trash-culture-celebrating, nose-thumbing rock made by juvenile delinquents. Thus begins the story of an album that four decades after its release is heralded as among most influential punk rock records in music history. Too late for 1960s Garage Rock, and too early for 1970s Punk, the Dictators are one of the great in-between bands in rock and roll: Steven Van Zandt describes them as “the connective tissue between the eras of the MC5, Stooges, New York Dolls, and the punk explosion of the mid- to late-1970s.”

Andy Shernoff (b. 1951) was a student in the Music Department at SUNY New Paltz when a corny joke forever consigned him to music infamy—he was asked to spell his name at the registration office and answered snottily, “A-d-n-y”. Meanwhile, Shernoff was busy mimeographing and distributing copies of his self-published rock and roll and pop culture fanzine Teenage Wasteland Gazette, one of this first of its kind. Mostly making fun of fellow students and/or pompous Rock Acts, Shernoff used the Gazette as an outlet for his semi-serious desire to become a music journalist, and for his native sarcasm and love of mid-1960s rock and roll culture and its spirit of energy and fun. “It was all very tongue in cheek,” Shernoff remembers of the Gazette, “with articles about fake bands, concerts that never happened, drinking and general mayhem. The closest comparison today would be The Onion.”

Raised in Queens, New York (he went to high school with Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls, Peter Zaremba of the Fleshtones, and future members of Joan Jett’s band), Shernoff had endured the late-60s and early-70s rising pretensions in rock and roll, of virtuosity and epic guitar solos, smoke machines and album-length conceptual suites. The Stooges, the MC5, and the New York Dolls were continuing to fight the good fight, their axes handed to them by the likes of the Sonics and early Who and Kinks, but simple, raw rock and roll was vanishing in a haze of pot and solipsistic self-expression. Influenced by the writing and philosophy in maverick Creem magazine out of Detroit, Shernoff wanted in the Gazette to lampoon Rock Royalty while celebrating the lowbrow (truth be told, he mostly wanted free records). “I was basically satirizing the anemic rock scene of the time,” he says. “I had a few cool people writing for me like Richard Meltzer and Lester Bangs. They would send me the stuff that was rejected by the mainstream rock press because it was too outrageous. They were the first writers with real punk attitude before punk attitude in the media became commonplace and generic. I used to get free records, get free tickets for shows and parties. It was all a scam, a rock and roll swindle.”

After dropping in and out of a few bands up in New Paltz, Shernoff began jamming with Ross Funicello (b. 1954) and Scott Kempner (b. 1954), two New York City borough transplants like him with like-minded approaches to music and turmoil. The three moved into a large house in the country, throwing parties and damaging their livers and brain cells, while making noise (Shernoff on bass, and Funicello and Kempner on guitars). After a name change or two—“The Fabulous Moolah” and “Beat The Meetles” are consigned to the dustbin of history—the trio added drummer Stu King and christened themselves the Dictators, the funniest name that they could come up with. Following “Adny”’s lead, Funicello become “Ross The Boss Friedman,” Kempner “Top Ten,” and King the relatively subdued “Stu Boy King.”

Meanwhile, via industry connections made while editing Teenage Wasteland Gazette, Shernoff had arranged for music critic Richard Meltzer to visit SUNY New Paltz and give a lecture. In 1970, Meltzer had published The Aesthetics of Rock, an infamous, sprawling, unclassifiable book of rock criticism and cultural philosophy that stemmed from Meltzer’s writing as an undergraduate and graduate student at SUNY Stony Brook and Yale University, respectively. Greil Marcus has written that The Aesthetics of Rock is about, among many other things, “breaking down and recombining the totality of rock ‘n’ roll, or the totality of life as it is or could be lived”—the book is not, Marcus assures us, “a joke,” before adding, “It was received as a joke, I think.” Shernoff understood this tension between earnestness and a gag, loving Meltzer’s subversive take on the possibilities of rock and roll and the dissident power of the ironic humor that it always courted. Shernoff loved Meltzer’s writing in Crawdaddy magazine, and was happy to publish him in Teenage Wasteland Gazette. Meltzer’s visit to SUNY New Paltz strengthened a simpatico between the critic and Shernoff and his new band, who Meltzer subsequently took under his wing as a mentor-with-attitude.

One of Meltzer’s classmates and spiritual cohorts in college was Sandy Pearlman, with whom Meltzer booked bands in Long Island and who would go on to co-manage Blue Öyster Cult with Murray Krugman. In the summer of 1973, Meltzer introduced Shernoff to Pearlman and Krugman, and the Dictators recorded a rough demo. To suggest that the Dictators were not proficient at their instruments at this time would be coy: they could barely play, and Shernoff had written only a handful of songs. Emboldened by rock star dreams and Meltzer’s encouragement, the guys banged out a set list as Shernoff began conceptualizing their ethos and attitude. “We formed the Dictators mostly because we had no other choice," Shernoff said. "We were all friends before we formed the band, but, the band was formed mainly because we didn't seem to fit in anywhere else.”

He added, “Music was the only place we all felt comfortable. I, personally, didn't know what else to do with my life.”

~~

So, Shernoff started scribbling. “Writing those songs was natural—it was the life I was living," he says. "I always felt rock and roll was more than just notes on a page or music on vinyl; it was a lifestyle, and I just tried to capture that. I think that was the real innovation of the Dictators.” Gritty reality, life in the boroughs in the mid-1970s, downer punk fantasies of a “California Sun” and an alternate reality where rock and roll and Joe Franklin reigned: Shernoff’s milieu was teenagedom in an era of diminishing returns. Here’s Shernoff’s “Next Big Thing,” a statement-of-purpose and one of the first songs he wrote:
I used to shiver in the wings / But then I was young / I used to shiver in the wings / ‘Till I found my own tongue // I sock 'em everywhere that I sing / ‘Cause you know baby / I'm the Next Big Thing // I knocked 'em dead in Dallas / And I didn't pay my dues / Yeah, I knocked 'em dead in Dallas / They didn't know we were Jews // I'm a fuel-injected legend / I don't wanna be a bore / I just wanna live a rich life / And I wanna die poor // But I won't be happy / ‘Till I'm known far and wide / With my face on the cover of the TV Guide
Life for these Teengenerates? Drinking Coca-Cola for breakfast, ignoring “edumacational” television, cutting school and getting drunk, eating at McDonald's for lunch, Sopors for the weekend, pro wrestling, cars, girls, surfing, beer, sleeping all night, sleeping all day, taking Vitamin C, playing sports, dreading the country rock that’s on the way. They ain’t no boys, but they ain’t men. The only goals in life? The fastest car and a movie star. Shernoff’s songs were funny, risky, ironic, and completely out of step with the mainstream music. As a Jew, Shernoff was well aware of the knife-edge of his band’s name and the controversy of titling his songs “Master Race Rock” and “Back to Africa,” yet this was instrumental to his punk ethos, which was about courting danger and defusing it with humor, tongue firmly in cheek.

~~

A key, combustible ingredient in the Dictators was a troublemaker from the Bronx and friend of the band, Richard Blum—aka, Handsome Dick Manitoba, his name a reference to bad-guy Handsome Jimmy Valiant of the 1970s wrestling tag team “The Valiant Brothers.” Blum (b. 1954) inaugurated his stormy career with the Dictators as the band’s cook and roadie, but with his outsized, pro wrestling-style personality, Herculean drug and alcohol intake, and propensity for detonating center-of-attention mania he soon found himself onstage with his friends, billed as the band’s “Secret Weapon.” Invited by Shernoff one night to end a show by “singing” along to a crunching version of “Wild Thing,” Blum proved a hit to chaos-seeking crowds who vibed off of his dangerous mania; soon he was ending shows by sauntering onstage in a bathrobe, pro wrestling-style, rocking a giant Afro and no musical skills whatsoever. The Dictators played their first show in November of 1973, supporting Iggy and the Stooges and Blue Öyster Cult in Maryland at Prince Georges’ County Community College, and soon after that their first New York show, at Portchester Theater. Pearlman and Krugman were there, and wanted to sign the Dictators after witnessing the energy and humor of the live show—provided that Blum become an official member of the band. Dumbfounded, the group acquiesced. Handsome Dick Manitoba, “the handsomest man in rock and roll,” was born.

A record deal? You talkin’ to me? Shernoff couldn’t believe it, until Pearlman and Krugman, who worked marketing for CBS, helped bang together a contract with Epic Records, who signed the Dictators without hearing any of their songs. Epic’s A&R men were convinced by Blue Öyster Cult’s management that the droll but edgy band could deliver a commercial-sounding record, and things escalated quickly. By 1974, the band had relocated to New York City and were regularly playing the Coventry, a storied rock club in Queens, writing songs and rehearsing. Armed with a handful of Shernoff originals and sardonic covers of Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” and the Rivieras’ “California Sun,” the Dictators recorded their debut album, with Krugman and Pearlman producing, at CBS Studios in Manhattan in August and September of 1974. (As the Dictators were recording their debut, a band of fellow Queens misfits with the surnames “Ramone” were playing their first shows at a derelict bar on the Bowery.) The album in the can, the Dictators played out in New York with greater frequency—they were headlining at the Coventry by now—looking forward to their album release. At a Halloween show, Handsome Dick gobbled White Castle hamburgers onstage and threw french fries at the audience. Everything mattered: they were The Next Big Thing.

~~

The real world was brutally indifferent. Two weeks after the celebratory Halloween gig, the Dictators supported Nazareth (Hair of the Dog) at Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium in Calgary. The headline band’s audience—let alone the booking agents—didn’t knew who the Dictators were, and didn’t care. Their slot on the tour was summarily ended, and after one night the Dictators returned chastened to New York. Over the next few months, they played several gigs with Blue Öyster Cult. Finally, in March of 1975 Epic released The Dictators Go Girl Crazy!, featuring Manitoba on the front in full wrestling regalia, the guys on the back posed half-naked in their bedrooms, and a group shot inside of the band lounging in leather jackets at a counter at White Castle. The slim audience who were on the lookout embraced the album. In New York City, Legs McNeil and John Holmstrom founded the legendary PUNK magazine in part to hang out with the cool guys in the Dictators, so impressed were they with their spirit, image, and philosophy.

In 1975 there was nothing on the charts that sounded, looked, or smelled like The Dictators Go Girl Crazy! If the fellas had turned on a radio while they were recording, they would’ve likely heard Cat Stevens, Gordon Lightfoot, America, Elton John, Carole King, and Tony Orlando and Dawn maneuvering for ascendance in the Top 40. When The Dictators Go Girl Crazy! was released, Billboard was not commercially encouraging: Paul Anka, the Carpenters, Barry Manilow, and Herbie Mann all scored monster hits that month, leaving behind the Dictators in their sonic boom. America yawned: The Dictators Go Girl Crazy!, brilliantly and ineptly played, poorly promoted and critically savaged, ahead of its time, died a mercifully brief death on the charts. The Dictators were released from the contract with Epic after two months.

Two long years would pass before the band released its follow-up, Manifest Destiny, on a new label (Asylum) and with an altered lineup (Stu King was out, replaced by Richie Teeter; Shernoff moved to keyboards as Mark “Animal” Mendoza joined on bass). By then, the Ramones had released their first three seminal albums, the Sex Pistols and the Clash their epochal debuts, and fellow CBGB artist Blondie was on the verge of commercial success. The Punk and New Wave landscape was permanently altered—but the funny, original, prescient Dictators were there first. Represented in the “Punk Wing” of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Dictators’ legacy is assured due in no small part to the groundbreaking music and attitude in the grooves and imagery of The Dictators Go Girl Crazy!



Publicity photo (third) via Zombies En El Ghetto.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

joe
I'm hoping people are seeing great posts like this. Reminds of the Hound's work when I first discovered his blog.

Joe Bonomo said...

Thanks, anon.

Ahmad Abdullah said...
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