Sunday, October 9, 2011

Dictators -- "The Next Big Thing" (1975)

I sock 'em everywhere that I sing
Cause you know, baby
I'm the next big thing!
Not exactly.  Sure, the Dictators were a big thing to me in 1975, when I was in law school and listening to their debut album, The Dictators Go Girl Crazy! But the rest of the world little noted nor long remembered the band.

The cover of that album featured a picture of band member Handsome Dick Manitoba (real name: Richard Blum), a pseudo-professional wrestler whose role in the band is described on that album cover as "lead vocals, secret weapon."

Handsome Dick isn't the lead vocalist on this song, but he is certainly the secret weapon.  The song (which is the first track on Go Girl Crazy!) begins with Handsome Dick addressing the audience: 

I don't have to be here, you know!  I didn't have to show up here!  With my vast financial holdings, I could have been basking in the sun in Florida!  This is just a hobby for me!

Here's the album cover:

Look at that beautiful jacket, complete with a map of Manitoba.  (Richard Blum was a 21-year-old from the Bronx, and I doubt that he had ever been west of the Hudson River at the time this album was released.  Manitoba must have been an impossibly distant and exotic place in his mind.)  

I can't really say that Handsome Dick Manitoba was my alter ego, but deep down inside I probably had fantasies of ditching law school and trading places with a Jewish punk rocker from New York City portraying a professional wrestler from Manitoba.  

I used to write restaurant reviews and humor [sic] pieces for the Harvard Law School student newspaper.  One of my reviews described the restaurant I was writing about as being a Handsome Dick Manitoba favorite.

Bob Seger with Handsome Dick Manitoba
In those days, the law school newspaper was mailed to all Harvard Law School alumni.  Just imagine a Supreme Court justice or other big legal muckety-muck reading that review.  I can picture a smile coming to his face as he let his mind wander back in time 30 or 40 years and remembered dining at the cheap Cambridge student dive that I had reviewed in that issue of the paper.  I can then picture that smile turning into a puzzled frown as he reads the words Handsome . . . Dick . . . Manitoba?

Some of my fellow law students were already so focused on their future careers that they wouldn't have dreamed of doing something as a student that might come back to haunt them.  As for me, I had the same attitude as the well-known member of the Harvard Law School class of 1991 who appears in the picture below -- f*ck 'em if they can't take a joke!

Do you recognize this man?
One critic has called the Dictators "one of the finest and most influential proto-punk bands to walk the earth."  That would put them in the same class with the MC5, Stooges, and Sonics, and I'm not sure they really belong there.  I would compare them to more tongue-in-cheek performers like Alice Cooper, Kiss, the New York Dolls, and Blue Öyster Cult.

I'm not saying that those bands didn't produce some great music, because they did.  I am saying that those bands were showmen first and foremost -- good music was important to them, but a compelling look and persona and attitude were just as important.

Go Girl Crazy! should not be taken too seriously.  Produced by Sandy Pearlman and Murray Krugman (who are best known as Blue Öyster Cult's producers), the album is a mixture of anthems ("I Live For Cars and Girls"), shock-rock songs ("Teengenerate," "Master Race Rock"), and out-of-left-field covers ("I Got You, Babe" and "California Sun").   

Perhaps these lyrics from "Two Tub Man" best sum up just how the Dictators wanted to be seen by their audiences:
I am a pilgrim looking for danger
I am an outlaw, I am a stranger
I'm just a clown walking down the street
I think Lou Reed is a creep
I need a girl
I need release
And perhaps legendary rock critic Robert Christgau best summed up what they were:

New York smart-asses who have fastened on circa-1965 California teendom at its dumbest, they play punks rather than embodying punkdom.

That's OK with 2 or 3 lines.  After all, 2 or 3 lines plays at being things it is not, too.

Here's "The Next Big Thing":

Click here if you'd like to buy the song from Amazon:

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