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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Ex-Dictator Handsome Dick Manitoba releases first solo album

Handsome Dick Manitoba performs the P.F. Sloan classic "Eve of Destruction"

His first solo album is aptly titled after its closing track, but Handsome Dick Manitoba’s Born in the Bronx (Liberation Hall Records) could just as well be titled after the tune that precedes it: “Soul Punk King of NYC.”

For Manitoba, frontman of New York’s historic 1970s pre-punk band The Dictators—and in the mid-‘80s, Manitoba’s Wild Kingdom--can stake as rightful a claim to that crown as anyone.

Indeed, New York music legend Kenny Laguna (Joan Jett’s manager/collaborator), in a testimonial in the CD notes, says Born in the Bronx “embodies the spirit and the mood of the original punk music I fell in love with.” In his blurb, esteemed singer-songwriter/musician/author Lenny Kaye (Patti Smith Group) calls Manitoba “the quintessential voice of New York, it’s beating heart, brash sense of humor, with the ability to be heard over the roar of a great metropolis. His music celebrates the city’s irrepressible energy and renewal. [He’s] a great rocker and holy roller.”

He’s certainly up there among the handful who epitomize New York City rock. Yet Manitoba, who also took over the vocal role in MC5’s final incarnation from 2005 to 2012, was understandably reluctant when it came to making his first solo album.

“You really don’t know if you’re good--especially at my age!” says Manitoba. “I mean, it’s me--opening up my soul. That’s why I put the David Bowie quote [‘Make art, and while people are thinking if it’s good or not, make more art.’] on the bottom of CD notes. But there’s an insecurity that comes with putting out your first album when you’re almost 66.”

Manitoba, who turns 66 in January, hasn’t been part of a studio album since 2001’s D.F.F.D. (Dictators Forever Forever Dictators), the band having occasionally regrouped over the years since their original heyday.

“I have no clue how it came to be in my weird one-of-a-kind life, but ever since the first time they put a microphone in my hand, people responded,” says Manitoba, speaking specifically about his debut as Dictators lead singer, in front of the likes of future Blondie co-founder Chris Stein and Warhol film star and glam rocker Eric Emerson. It’s been that way ever since, and in his CD booklet notes, he says that rock historian Dave Marsh and rocker Palmyra Delran were so impressed by his early songwriting efforts that it gave him much-needed self-esteem and confidence.

“They gave me my legs,” says Manitoba, adding, “We don’t live in a vacuum. At some point we need to reach out in the world--and need someone to tell us if it’s good.”

Soon after, Manitoba met a mutual friend of his and of Jon Tiven—a New York emigrant to Nashville who has produced the likes of Wilson Pickett, Frank Black and Don Covay. The friend passed on Tiven’s warm regards, and Manitoba responded in kind.

“He got in touch and suggested we write some songs. I sent him a couple, and the next morning he’d finished them! So we kept going back-and-forth, and then I flew to Nashville and went to his house studio, and we got along so good that we left five other songs off the [13-track] record--and I have six more on my iPhone, so there’s 24 total. And I’d barely written a song in my life!”

With Tiven producing—“and playing seven instruments!”--Manitoba cut 18 songs in four-and-a-half days.

“We wanted to make a record that was contemporary punk ’n’ roll with a love for the sound of our early heroes like Wynonie Harris, Bert Berns, and the Beach Boys,” says Tiven. “I brought in a few of my Nashville friends to play and sing on it----Buddy Miller, Harry Stinson, Beth Hooker, Shannon Pollard, Chuck Mead, Donte M'Shawn---as well as some old friends to kick the skins: Mickey Curry, Mat Reale, Simon Kirke and Mike Shrieve. Our beach song, ‘Surfside,’ was injected with a direct dose of the California Sun by transcendental poet Stephen J. Kalinich, the only lyricist to work with Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson--as well as Mike Love and Stephen Marks.”

Tiven suggested they cover his late friend P.F. Sloan’s classic protest anthem “Eve of Destruction,” which Barry McGuire took to No. 1 in 1965. Tiven also mixed in Sloan’s harmony vocals, harmonica and acoustic guitar parts taken from sessions he’d done with Sloan. The originals, says Manitoba in his CD notes, range from “the beauty of the Bronx [‘Born in the Bronx’], a childhood love affair [‘Shelley’], and running all the way through the gamut of heroin addiction [‘The Cooker & The Hit’] and everything in between--which basically means, ‘Me! No regrets! Enjoy!’”

He noted that his songs differ from the Dictators’ in that theirs were written mostly by founder Andy Shernoff.

“In the same way that Andy had a personality and style and passion in the way he wrote, I’m a different person,” he says. “There are snippets in every song from some part of my soul: songs, sports, TV shows, movies, comic books.”

He explains that album track “Layers Down,” which alludes to the suicide of a favorite soul singer among other things, has a line--“There’s no armor to protect you from this savage land”—that is modified from the second line in the theme to the classic 1950s-’60s TV western Have Gun--Will Travel. “Back to My TV,” meanwhile, concerns retreating to TV when “real life can’t compete” with Kojak and Charlie’s Angels reruns.

“Eighth Avenue Serenade”’s subway ride from the Bronx to the East Village invokes the Grateful Dead’s self-titled debut album’s lead track “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion).” “Soul Punk King” references Manitoba’s early days “hangin’ at CBGB [and] goin’ up to the Apollo to check out [Bobby] Blue Bland and BB [King]”—not to mention getting “some smothered chicken at Sylvia’s.”

The title of “Big Army Brass” derives from a line in a Manitoba movie favorite that’s also considered to be the best worst movie ever made, Plan 9 from Outer Space (“Big Army brass grabbed us and made us swear to secrecy about the whole thing.”). And “Born in the Bronx” brings up wearing off-white Chuck Taylor high-tops, eating White Castles for lunch, playing stickball and gobbling Quaaludes, hanging out at the Bronx Zoo and Yankee Stadium (“I saw Mantle as a kid…I thought he was God”), namechecking Dion and Richard Price, and eating home-cooked food in Little Italy.

“I got a chance to do me,” he says, comparing himself in Born in the Bronx with his Dictators persona. “The other me was someone else giving me stuff, and this is the full me!”

But Manitoba, a single father, is also proud that his teenage son Jake took the back cover photo of him holding a basketball while leaning on a goalpost in an asphalt Bronx outdoor playground. In fact, he’s in the middle of cooking three pounds of ravioli for a potluck for Jake’s school, ingredients including cheese ravioli (“the little square ones with the ridges around the edge”), soppressata deli meat, sun-dried tomatoes, San Marzano plum tomatoes, garlic, Classico marinara sauce, and after you chop up the soppressata and toss it with the sun-dried tomatoes and garlic (until “all three ingredients have met each other and become family”), anything you want prior to mixing in the other tomatoes and sauce.

“The thing about cooking is having everything ready!” informs Manitoba, who besides music and cooking has excelled at owning and operating a bar (Manitoba’s, in Manhattan’s East Village) and hosting the SiriusXM show The Handsome Dick Manitoba Radio Program.

He now has his own YouTube channel and a new podcast, You Don’t Know Dick.



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