Unless you've ever had your clock cleaned by a drag queen, don't think for a moment that you know what it's like to be Handsome Dick Manitoba. The Dictators' charismatic front man got himself entangled in one of the most celebrated imbroglios of the mid-'70s at proto-punk hole CBGB's during a performance of Wayne County and the Backstreet Boys. The exact details have been lost to rumor and conjecture--as evidenced in the Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain oral history of punk, Please Kill Me, in which virtually all of the downtown denizens have something to say about the incident whether they were there or not--but the basic plot is pretty much the same. Manitoba constantly heckled the band and approached the stage, at which point vocalist Wayne (who became Jayne post-op) hit him with a mike stand, sending him to the hospital. It incited one of the many melodramas in the scene; Lester Bangs himself even penned a characteristically ranting diatribe against NYC's "gay mafia" following the incident that he then decided not to publish. But being laid out by a man in a dress has to give the old ego a little jolt, and it could've left Manitoba thinking he had something to prove.
If so, Manitoba--the "handsomest man in rock and roll" was born Richard Blum--needn't have worried. Though Jad and David Fair's Half Japanese may have whittled rock down to its barest essentials by writing nothing but love songs and monster songs, the Dictators provided some of the basic building blocks of contemporary punk. The band formed in 1974 partly as a response to hellfire howlers such as the MC5, the Stooges and Flamin' Groovies. At the time, big-bored rock was a little out of fashion with a downtown scene more smitten with the literary allure of Patti Smith, the artful dodging of Television and the glam bam of the New York Dolls. Aided by the firecracker boosterism of rockcrit wonder boy Richard Meltzer, the Dictators sprayed NYC art types with a pop-cult-drenched shower that regaled the joys of girls, cars, fast food, late-night television, beer, tabloids, comics, pro wrestling and cult movies. It was what the band spread all over its 1975 debut The Dictators Go Girl Crazy! in choice cuts like "Next Big Thing," "(I Live for) Cars and Girls" and "Teengenerate." Though its subsequent albums--1977's Manifest Destiny and 1978's Bloodbrothers--didn't turn into the commercial rewards that its signing label Asylum/Elektra had hoped, the band had already secured its place in rock lore.
Predating the Ramones' 1976 debut, some bar-stool historians claim the Dictators were the first punk band proper. It's really a moot argument--the American punk family tree has so many roots, branches, leaves and knots it looks more like a weed than a stump. The group officially disbanded in 1980, and though it spilled into later groups--guitarist Scott "Top Ten" Kempner went on to form rock purists the Del-Lords, bassist Mark "the Animal" Mendoza showed everyone his metal in Twisted Sister, and Manitoba later ruled over his Wild Kingdom, which performed briefly in the 1987 cult item Mondo New York--the band's brand of naïve flamboyance spawned a drunk punk mutt archetype. Its effervescent antics can be seen in the blotto ramblings of the Meatmen (and its jabbering mouthpiece's later offering, Tesco Vee and the Hate Police), smart-ass power rock like the Didjits and, to a lesser extent, late-'80s psychotic sludge wranglers such as Cows, Bastards and Drunks With Guns. (In the wrong hands, the same basic recipe morphed into the raunch affront of case studies in abnormal psychology like G.G. Allin and the Mentors.) The band still occasionally gets together to relive its glory days--for the 10th anniversary of punk, for CBGB's 20th anniversary and whenever it damn well feels like it. It even managed to keep the circus together long enough to cut two late seven-inches in 1996's "I Am Right" and 1997's "Who Will Save Rock & Roll?" Die-hards and neophytes claim the band can still bring its muscle when it shows up, but you have to wonder if it's beginning to look a little too much like a WWF Smackdown taking place in a heavy-metal parking lot of reclaimed youth.