By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Richard Hell would art it up, the Ramones would strip it down, and Blondie would put a pretty face on it and go platinum, but punk was made in the shade by the Dictators--even if the history books don't say so. In the annals of New York rock, the band is most notorious for an incident in which Dick Manitoba was nearly de-brained at CBGB by transgender-legend Wayne (now Jayne) County for allegedly fag-baiting him/her. According to punk biography supreme Please Kill Me, the band was blackballed from the New York clubs until CBGB owner Hilly Kristal threw them a measly Monday-night gig, at which they promptly broke the house attendance record. Capitalism being the great equalizer, they were back.
Label No. 1, Epic, axed them after Go Girl Crazy became one of the worst-selling discs in the label's history. And so on they went, signed to Elektra at the same time critical darlings and CBGB stagemates Television were. Both bands then made a pair of fine discs for the label that did approximately nothing. Soured and disgusted, the Dictators continued to play New York and occasionally Boston and D.C., but for the most part, their history as a recording band ended there.
Until last year, when the 'Tators put out a seven-inch on Norton that was the vinyl gem of the year, a true-blue, flag-waving stomper called "Who Will Save Rock and Roll?" In this three-plus-minute rant, the band asks the new generation--with its nauseating forays into unforgivable sub-genres such as emo-core and other lapses into sissyhood--if they have the balls to save rock and roll. The last verse passes the torch: "My generation / Is not the salvation / So who will save / Rock and roll?" The Dictators are savvy enough to know it ain't them, babe, but they would like to know whether anyone out there is listening and ready to take up the task. If none of the youngsters want the job, the 'Tators are halfway done with a new disc, have re-released a pair of old ones, and show no signs of croaking.
If there's a reason the Dictators' cult is a tiny one, it's that the Dictators have always been a New York thing--like CBGB itself, or the appeal of Joe Torre. "The cultural and musical influences--the Dolls, Blue …yster Cult, Mountain, the Fugs--are assimilated into our sound," Shernoff says. "If we are the bridge between the Dolls and the Ramones, that would be why. We're all from the same place".
But more than that, they exist now, as they did in 1975, as as a band out of time; the place they come from is rarely re-created with any authenticity or fervor. If you shut your eyes and pretend it's '78 again, that feels great, but only for a moment--it's a cocaine high all over again, an illusion. The Dictators--and pretty much anyone who ever had a beating heart that freezes up at the mass dehumanization of what was once semi-popular music--wish the new age had promise. Not an end but a beginning, which is what their single cries out for: If no one saves rock and roll, it finally deserves to die. Rest in peace.