Thursday, 18 October 2018

The Jars: A Not-So-Angry Band From The East Bay

My cover story for East Bay Band Calendar
featuring the Jars (left) and the Mondellos (right).
Originally published in East Bay Band Calendar (August 1979)

By Devorah Ostrov

Take a band that finds it easier to relate to the pop music of the early and mid-sixties, a lead singer inspired by Sha Na Na and Dion, a keyboardist who plays atop a shopping cart, put them in Berkeley and you have the Jars — a sensational rock 'n' roll band!

Johnny Savior (vocals), Gary Nervo (keyboards), Mik Dow (guitar), Marc Time (drums) and Armin Hammer (bass), feel strongly about the local rock scene and formed the band to help improve it.

"There was nothing happening in Berkeley," states Time. "The streets were deserted after 11p.m. We wanted to help create a scene here. You really can't say we've caused the scene, but since we started playing the scene has taken off." (New bands like the Mondellos, the Young Adults, and Psycotic Pineapple are also part of the Berkeley contingent.)

Formed last September, as the Saviors, the band began by giving private performances to 75-plus crowds in their rehearsal garage in Albany.

The Jars at Sproul Plaza on the Berkeley campus
Photo: Clayton Call
September was also the first time the band had picked up their instruments. "It's a great excuse," says Dow. "If they say you suck you can tell them, 'Well, I've only been playing since September.'"

What they lack in experience, they more than make up for with spontaneous energy. The kind of spontaneity that allows them to laugh when Savior says, "Tonight was the first time we had a really good sound system so I could hear my vocals, and this was the night I forgot all my words."

Counting Roky Erickson (13th Floor Elevators), Syd Barrett (early Pink Floyd), and TV commercials among their influences, the Jars energetic set combines cover versions of classic pop songs —  "Come on Down" (Every Mother's Son), "High School" (MC5), "Mony Mony" (Tommy James and the Shondells), "Time Won't Let Me" (the Outsiders) and "Hitchin' a Ride" (Vanity Fare) — with their own fast-paced originals.

Savior came to Berkeley from the Midwest last year, looking for the promised land. "We found him on Telegraph Avenue," says Dow. "He was spare-changing us. We said, 'Hey, you look like a rock 'n' roll singer. Wanna join a band?'"

Johnny Savior (left) and Marc Time (right)
Photos: Barb Wire (used courtesy of Marc Time)
Since then, Savior has developed a stage act so athletic he has to wear knee pads to protect himself. "I ripped this pair of polyvinyl chloride pants the first night I wore them," he says, "the knees are gone."

At one time or another each of the band members has worked in record stores and radio stations, giving them a special insight into the music industry. Time was the first disc jockey in the Bay Area to play the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the UK." He was subsequently fired from the station for playing too much punk rock.

The Jars pose outside the "Jar House" in Albany, 
California. This photo was used for the cover of
D. Mickey Sampson's CREEP fanzine.
"All the stations wanna be #1," explains Hammer. "There aren't enough stations who are satisfied to be #5 and still make plenty of money. They all want to play the same 'proven' stuff and get top ratings."

"The worst thing about radio," adds Time, "is that they don't play any of the local stuff, like the new Dead Kennedys' single." (Mentioned because of vocalist Jello Biafra's presence at the interview). Despite their complaints about the state of radio, the Jars do plan to release a three-song single, possibly consisting of "Small Town Rock," "(I'm So) Available" and a cover of "Psycho."

"In the studio our music will sound a lot more clean and bright," says Savior. "'Tear Jerk' and 'Available' will take on a whole other dimension." He adds, "People will just have to imagine the knee drops!"

* Sadly, Johnny Savior (J.D. Buhl) passed away in 2017 after a long battle with cancer.

* * *
A selection of flyers for Jars gigs. You can find out more about the Jars
and peruse lots more memorabilia on their Facebook page. Here's a link:
https://www.facebook.com/The-Jars
* * *


During the band's lifetime, the Jars released two 45s. The first was a 7" EP on Subterranean Records with "Start Rite Now" b/w "Psycho" and "Electric Third Rail." The second, "Time of the Assassins" b/w "Jar Wars" was issued on Universal Records. Both recordings featured a four-piece lineup with Mik Dow on lead vocals. Here's a link to "Start Rite Now" on YouTube:

Monday, 8 October 2018

Ghost Of An American Airman: Four Go On Tour In A Winnebago

Ghost of an American Airman — promo photo
Originally published in American Music Press (1992)

By Devorah Ostrov

At the end of our conversation, Dodge McKay (on the phone from somewhere in Canada, because annoyingly we couldn't chat while he was in SF) tells me this is the best interview he's ever done. Well, thanks very much! Was it my witty repartee and intriguing insights? No.

"You didn't ask where we got the [group's] name," laughs the lead singer/guitarist for Ghosts of an American Airman.

Dammit, I knew I'd forgotten something! But I can tell you that the band formed in 1985, hails from Belfast, Northern Ireland, and is currently touring America and environs in support of its Hollywood Records debut, Life Under Giants.

Also, this is not the band's first US tour. The foursome (which includes guitarist Ben Trowell, bassist Alan Galbraith, and drummer Matt Matthews) initially came over in October 1988 on a self-financed adventure to promote a single ("I Hear Voices") and LP (Someday) released on their own Plain Paper Records. "It was really no frills," recalls Dodge. "There were like eight of us travelling in a car from Chicago to New York!"

Life Under Giants (Hollywood Records, 1992)
But this time around, somewhat flush with nearly-major-label backing, the guys are living the high life and driving cross-country in a Winnebago. "We've actually seen loads of America," offers Dodge. "Probably more than most Americans. I think we've travelled something like 30,000 miles since we've been here."

That's a lot of mileage for something that gets maybe five miles to the gallon! So, what sights have they seen?

"I got to go to the town in Massachusetts where Jack Kerouac was born," says Dodge excitedly, "and because I've read so many of his books I knew the street names and stuff. I was like, WOW! And it's very touristy, but we saw Niagara Falls. We've been on a bit of Route 66 — that was a big thing for our guitarist.

Have they been to Graceland?

"Oh, yeah! Once again, our guitarist... It was a big thing for him. I did buy an Elvis/Graceland pen."

How about Dollywood?

"No... I've heard about it, but we didn't go."

Touring America in a Winnebago
Photo used courtesy of Ben Trowell
According to Dodge, the band is still awed by the sheer size of America: "The weirdest thing for us is the country is so big! At the start of the tour we drove from LA to Phoenix to do a radio interview. On the map it just looked like this little, insignificant line that we'd drawn. About thirty miles outside of Phoenix we said, 'If we did this in Ireland, we'd have fallen into the sea by now!'"

But mostly the band members are just enjoying themselves over here. "We're just getting a buzz off of meeting people," says Dodge. "Because it's on sort of a grass-roots level, after the gig people realize that we're living in the Winnebago. They knock on the door and we'll have them in for a beer, or something, and just talk. People have offered us meals. Some people have said, 'You can come back to our house and have a shower.'"

Dodge acknowledges that there is in fact a shower compartment in the Winnebago but points out: "That's where the bass drums lives!"

Visiting Graceland
Photo used courtesy of Ben Trowell
Like Dodge, the group's music is upbeat and sincere, with nary a trace of religious and/or political ranting. Which, given their close proximity to "The Troubles," is a little surprizing.

"There are some songs on the album about living in Northern Ireland," he notes, "but it's from a different angle. We didn't wanna preach to anybody, whereas 'Sunday  Bloody Sunday' [by U2, who aren't from Northern Ireland] is shoving it down your throat. I don't think it's really like that back home, anyway. I mean, there is trouble, but there's trouble in Los Angeles."

Referring to the recent LA riots, Dodge adds: "We never had anything like that — all the fires and stuff! It's never been that bad."

Just the occasional bomb exploding?

"I'm not saying nothing bad happens," he states, "but the thing is, people are trying to live there and work and provide for their families."

Ghost of an American Airman
Hollywood Records promo photo
Dodge explains that the emotional track "When the Whistle Blows" from the new LP addresses this sensitive topic: "My grandfather and my father both worked in the shipyard in Belfast, a big industry that is falling away now. My dad, just after Christmas, got made redundant and it's like, what happens then? People back home are actually more concerned with those things rather than if you're Protestant or Catholic."

The band members all grew up in the same Belfast neighborhood, and attended the same school as children. Not yet a teenager when the UK punk scene took off, Dodge admits he was "afraid of it," and instead preferred the hard rock sounds of Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin.

However, he also loved the passionate rock 'n' roll poetry of Patti Smith and Tom Verlaine —  and remains an unabashed fan. When I teasingly asked if Patti Smith caught his group's recent CBGB gig, he exclaimed: "No! I think I would have died!"

Pre-production for the band's next album should begin this fall, and Dodge hopes they'll return to the Bay Area to record, as they were only in San Francisco for a total of five hours during the tour.

"When we came in over the Bay Bridge it looked amazing," says Dodge. The Beat Generation enthusiast trails off dreamily. "North Beach... Columbus Avenue... The only consolation is that we're coming back!"

Monday, 1 October 2018

The Dictators: Tracing The Group's History With Handsome Dick, Top Ten & Ross The Boss

The Dictators — circa Bloodbrothers
Photo: Lynn Goldsmith
Originally published in American Music Press (September 1993)

By Devorah Ostrov

Handsome Dick Manitoba doesn't think the Dictators have received the respect the band deserves.

"Every time they mention the graduation class of '76 I always see the Ramones, Talking Heads, Television, Blondie, Dead Boys..." Manitoba reels off the band names in the trademark BOOM that makes whatever he says sound like a WWF challenge. "You never see the Dictators mentioned. Like the Dead Boys were the great punk band, or something. I feel we were just as influential as them. They didn't sell any records; we didn't sell any records."

Of course, a second later and Manitoba's not sure he likes the Dictators being referred to as a punk rock band. "We were a band that rehearsed and practiced and did things in a legitimate way," he contends. "We were called 'punk' but I dunno... We were just at that place at that time. And we were snotty, know-it-all guys from the Bronx. So, I guess in a sense we were real punks!"

* * *

Top Ten & Handsome Dick Manitoba
on the cover of New York News magazine
September 19, 1976
Named Richard Blum by his parents, the Dictators lead singer was born on January 29, 1954 in Manhattan's Jewish Memorial Hospital and raised in the Bronx.

"It was a nice place to grow up," he recalls of his old neighborhood. "I played ball, ate dinner with the family, and did my homework — like everyone else in America."

Manitoba and future Dictators guitarist Scott "Top Ten" Kempner met when they were 10 years old, and quickly became best friends. "We walked to Hebrew school together and talked about Marvel comics," says Manitoba.

And it was the (aptly nicknamed) Top Ten who first became immersed in the exciting world of rock 'n' roll. "Scott became an absolute maniac for the Who," reflects Manitoba. "He saw Pete Townsend, and he went out and got a guitar and learned how to play it by himself. He had his walls papered with every band... and basically, by hanging out with him I learned about the bands."

In 1971, bassist Andy (aka Adny) Shernoff was attending SUNY New Paltz in upstate New York, where he put together his first rock band (Grand Funk Salinsky), published a mimeographed fanzine (Teenage Wasteland Gazette), and occasionally contributed to CREEM magazine.

The Ramones, the Dictators, Widowmaker
and the Nuns at SF's Winterland  
July 30, 1977.
A mutual friend introduced Manitoba to Shernoff. "The guy said, 'This is my friend, rock 'n' roll Andy," he remembers.

Meanwhile, budding guitar hero Ross "The Boss" Friedman (aka FUNichello) decided not to attend Lehman College. Instead, he hooked up with a hippie outfit called Total Crudd and relocated to New Paltz. According to an article in issue #11 of Punk magazine (which charted the Dictator's early career on an almost daily basis), Friedman's aim was to "hang out upstate, drink beer, get laid and play guitar."

"Ross was one of those 'gun slinger' guitar players from the neighborhood," says Manitoba. He was one of the guys with a rep."

Total Crudd lived and rehearsed at the Out Of It House — so named because everyone there was so stoned and drunk all the time they really were "out of it." Punk described a typical night at the house: "They'd throw wild parties for 200 people and more, handing out baggies at the door to those people they knew would throw up. The parties ended at about 5:00 A.M. Most people would pass out on the floor. At 6:00 A.M. Ross would wake up everyone playing along to MC5 records at full blast."

Shernoff, Kempner and Manitoba all hung out there.

Advert for the Dictators' debut LP
Towards the end of '72 Shernoff stopped editing Teenage Wasteland Gazette and handed the 'zine over to cub reporter Manitoba. The final issue, which would have featured a Nick Toshes-designed cover, still sits unfinished in a drawer. "It's about 60 or 70% done," says Manitoba.

By '73, Shernoff had convinced Friedman to leave Total Crudd to form a band with him and Kempner, and the first of a couple of drummers before their pal Stu Boy King joined. The Dictators was just one of several possible names for the new band. Other options included Fireman's Friend and Tommy the Truck. Or they could have called themselves Beat the Meatles.

During this initial stage Shernoff was the group's undisputed leader: he wrote the songs, played bass and sang lead.

Manitoba wasn't even part of the initial lineup. He'd dropped out of City College ("I took a lot of English courses, mythology, stuff like that") and was working as a mailman. On weekends he would cook and roadie for his friends. Sometimes they'd let him sing "Wild Thing."

"I'd be like, 'Wild thing! Get on up and get my ham and eggs!'" He laughs at the memory.

All that changed when Shernoff invited the roadie onstage at a Brooklyn bar called Popeye's Spinach Factory. Punk magazine provided this account: "He slammed into 'Wild Thing,' giving one of the great live performances of that song in this century … Something happened. All the bums in the bar — proud to see a fellow derelict make it big — went NUTS. They liked this degenerate so much they started climbing the bar stools, throwing bottles, and screaming for more, more, more! They danced and ranted and raved..."

The Dictators circa Manifest Destiny
with bassist Mark "the Animal" Mendoza
Photo: Jonathan Postal
And Handsome Dick Manitoba was launched on the world. The stage name came about through the band's love of flashy wrestlers. "The Valiant Brothers were around," explains Manitoba. "There was Handsome Jimmy and Luscious Johnny. I was like, 'Handsome Richard? Nah, I gotta shorten it. Handsome Dick!'" The Canadian province that became his surname was Shernoff's idea, but its inspiration is a mystery. "I dunno..." offers Manitoba. "Maybe he was looking at a globe."

But it took a little more nudging before Manitoba became the group's acknowledged frontman. It actually took a good deal of nudging...

Handsome Dick Manitoba & the American
 flag share the cover of Punk magazine #11 
Oct/Nov 1977
A couple of months after the Popeye's gig, 600 people came to see the Dictators play a party in the Bronx. Billed as a "special surprise guest," Manitoba came on dressed in somebody's father's bathrobe. He did his usual "Wild Thing" and played Sonny to Shernoff's Cher for a rousing version of "I Got You Babe."

As it happened, Sandy Pearlman and Murray Krugman — the team who managed and produced Blue Oyster Cult — were in the audience that night (probably brought there by rock writer Richard Meltzer who was a friend/hero/mentor of Shernoff's).

Punk magazine maintained that Pearlman and Krugman were "stupefied" by Manitoba and wanted to sign the band with him as an official member.

"None of the Dictators understood why," noted Punk. "Richard could not sing. Sandy and Murray thought that the guy was funny. They thought it would be a good joke to get this group signed to a record contract. They threatened to take a bigger percentage of the royalties if Manitoba didn't join. Richard was welcomed with open arms."

Once Pearlman and Krugman were involved, the band was swiftly signed to Epic Records, and the summer of '74 was spent recording their debut LP.

The Dictators circa Go Girl Crazy with 
drummer Stu Boy King.
While waiting for the album to be released, the group regulary played at the Coventry in Queens. Following one such show, a May 1974 review in the Village Voice showed uncanny foresight when it termed the Dictators "the first true punk-rockers of the '70s." 

And once in a while they supported Blue Oyster Cult and Nazareth at larger venues — although the latter told them to leave after one gig in Winnipeg, and mention has been made of a BOC show where Manitoba "got the crowd so crazy they started throwing their chairs at him."

Even early on, it seemed the Dictators weren't going to easily fit into the arena rock mold their managers envisioned for them. But at the time, there were few alternatives.

In March 1975, somewhat behind schedule, Epic issued The Dictators Go Girl Crazy. While the cover featured Manitoba in all his wannabe-wrestler glory, there was still an obvious internal struggle going on for the microphone: Shernoff sang lead on most songs, while Manitoba "guested" on a few. The back-cover credits didn't even include Manitoba as a band member; he's listed as a "Secret Weapon" well below the producers (Krugman and Pearlman) and just above guest keyboardist Alan Glover.

The Dictators - punk rock trading card
"Andy resisted it," says Manitoba of his impending takeover. "I didn't really get going until he realized that the band was boring without me as the lead singer."

The Dictators Go Girl Crazy contained track after track of Shernoff-penned, humor-packed celebrations of teen America ("The Next Big Thing," "(I Live For) Cars and Girls," "Teengenerate") as well as perfectly chosen covers ("California Sun" and "I Got You Babe"), and the group's quintessential statement piece, "Master Race Rock":

"We're the members of the master race
Got no style and we got no grace
Sleep all night, sleep all day
Nothin' good on TV anyway..."

CREEM's review excitedly called every track "an uncouth dream." And Trouser Press said it was "a wickedly funny, brilliantly played and hopelessly naïve masterpiece of self-indulgent smartass rock 'n' roll." Even Robert Christgau (who gave the album a "B") grudgingly allowed: "If you love the Dolls you'll like the Dictators. Maybe."

It's estimated that about 5,000 people rushed out and bought a copy of the LP, and Epic dropped the Dictators. But not before they opened for Rush at the Electric Ballroom in Atlanta, Georgia. Manitoba chuckles as he recalls their reception: "Imagine a 210-pound guy wearing a wrestling outfit, screaming and yelling and throwing french fries at the audience. They were agog, aghast!"

The Dictators Go Girl Crazy — inside sleeve
Unsurprisingly, the Dictators were removed from the bill after two nights of a four-night stint.

The final show with Rush was also Stu Boy King's last with the band. It seems King was driving the van back home that night but was told his services were no longer required at the George Washington Bridge.

"He was so obnoxious for so long," fumes Manitoba. "He was such a fuck up, and he was so mean to us. We gave him so many chances... We finally dumped him at the bus terminal at the bridge."

With no drummer and unable to promote the album, the Dictators effectively broke-up. According to Punk magazine, following the group's demise: "Scott and Ross formed a band with Helen Wheels, Andy went back to writing, and Richard lived with him mom, dad and little sister in Co-Op City."

In an interview with Ira Robbins for Trouser Press, Kempner stated: "That period … was one in which everyone in the band attained the lowest point in their personal lives. Guys in the band were fighting; Andy was out of the group; Handsome Dick and I were handing out leaflets on the street in Brooklyn so that no one would recognize us."

The Dictators headline the Roundhouse
with support from 999 and the Stukas
November 18, 1977
By early '76 the Dictators were rehearsing again but without Shernoff. While he continued to write their songs, he didn't want to rejoin the band. Supposedly, he wrote "Steppin' Out" to explain his absence.

"That would've been great if he did that," muses Manitoba, who has always maintained a part brotherly/part adversarial relationship with Shernoff. But he draws a complete blank on the episode. Although he's been clean and sober for over a decade, Manitoba admits to being very messed up during most of this period.

Advert for Manifest Destiny
"I guess that's when we got Mark..." he speculates.

If there was an interesting backstory to his arrival, it's been forgotten. But at some point, bassist Mark "the Animal" Mendoza (aka Mark Glickman) from West Hempstead, New York, started showing up at Dictators' rehearsals. One report described him as a "hulking six-footer with his hair frizzed out nearly the width of his well-muscled shoulder blades..." The writer affectionately added: "Mendoza appears to be of unearthly, or subearthly origin."

"To this day, Mark has a heart of gold," asserts Manitoba. "He's a maniac tough guy, but if you're his friend he's the best friend to have. He's got your back covered, and he's there for you."

With Mendoza installed on bass, Shernoff was finally persuaded/coerced by the management team to become the band's keyboardist. Meanwhile, auditions for a new drummer yielded Ritchie Teeter. Legend has it he was turned down the first time around, but Manitoba doesn't recall the audition process. I tell him what I've read in Punk: "[Teeter] went back a second time because no one had ever had the nerve to do that to him before. When they heard him sing 'I Can't Explain' they realized they had a great drummer and the only guy in the group who could sing."

"Oh, that's great!" Manitoba enthuses. "I don't remember that."

Advert for CBGB's 2nd Ave. Theatre 
Grand Opening Week featuring the
Dictators & the Dead Boys. 
Just when things were starting to look up, the Navy yard loft the group rehearsed in collapsed, destroying their equipment. The story goes that Manitoba, depressed over the band's troubles, stumbled into CBGB's and got rip-roaring drunk.

Under the inspired headline "Wayne County and Handsome Dick Manitoba: War of the Gargantuas," CREEM's Susan Whitall reported what happened next: "One early spring evening at CBGB's Wayne County was wrapping up his parody of Patti Smith when a disturbance erupted. All the participants will agree upon is that Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators was at one time or another on the stage, that he said 'things' to Wayne, that some mention of 'spit' was made, and that Wayne nailed him with a microphone stand."

When the dust cleared Manitoba had a broken collarbone, Wayne County was detained in the Tombs, and the Dictators were basically blacklisted in New York. "It was a stupid, drunken night," admits Manitoba, "and when it was over people hated us. They branded me as a fag-basher, which is bullshit!"

However, the heaps of publicity that followed "The Wayne County Incident" (as it came to be known) unexpectedly made the Dictators something of a hot property. Elektra/Asylum Records became the Dictators new label and in 1977, they released Manifest Destiny. Six months in the making, it included some moments of absolute Shernoff genius. However, it was an uneven album which presented the band in a somewhat more mature light with mainstream inclinations.

"Heartache" b/w "Search and Destroy" 
Spanish issue single (Asylum Records 1977)
Robert Christgau observed: "... their galumphing beat, their ripped-off hooks, and their burlesqued melodrama are funnier than ever, and I admit that after dozens of playings I like this almost as much as I did their first. But I liked their first instantly, which is the way dumb jokes should work..."

But some band members weren't nearly that enthusiastic about it. "I hated that record," Manitoba nearly shouts. And he confirms that the more serious approach of Manifest Destiny was a knee-jerk reaction to Go Girl Crazy's lack of success.

"We were bummed out because we'd made a record that we thought was the coolest record ever, and no one jumped on it," he says. "We were so weird of a thing that people didn't get it, but we should have just kept being that and lived or died with it. Instead, we decided we were gonna be big stars. It was like, 'We've got Sandy and Murray and we're gonna open up for Blue Oyster Cult and Kiss and Bob Seger — so we have to be ARENA ROCK!'"

In his Trouser Press feature, Ira Robbins described Manifest Destiny as "less tongue-in-cheek, nearly adult." And he echoed Manitoba's feelings when he wrote: "For the Dictators, the way to avoid the frustrating failure of their debut was to follow bands like Kiss into the arena — playing simplified heavy metal for teenagers that found nothing at all funny about songs like 'Teengenerate.' They hoped to produce a technically perfect, guitar virtuoso album of songs that could be played to twenty thousand Deep Purple fanatics."

Flyer for the Dictators & the Nuns 
at the Mabuhay Gardens
In the article Shernoff states: "I think we were selling out … There was no real personality behind the second album." While Kempner says: "We didn't know there was an alternative to going out and doing the Kiss circuit."

"I remember when we were making Manifest Destiny, we had no idea what to look like anymore or what to sound like," Manitoba tells me. "It's not like we invented songs that we never would have done, but we just stopped being as goofy. We tried to write songs that would sound good on the radio with lush vocal harmonies that we couldn't duplicate live."

In May and June, the Dictators opened a dozen mostly Midwest arena gigs for Uriah Heep (the perhaps more appropriate Starz, Styx, Foreigner and Blue Oyster Cult alternated as second billed), and on July 30 they played Winterland with the Ramones, Ariel Bender's Widowmaker and local SF punk heroes the Nuns. However, as Robins pointed out in Trouser Press: "Despite the conscious effort to reach a mass audience, the album failed commercially."

A tour of England later that year, where they supported the Stranglers and headlined gigs with 999, reinvigorated the band, and they took a tougher stance with 1978's Bloodbrothers.

Recorded in studio A at the Record Plant (Bruce Springsteen was next door in Studio B, completing Darkness on the Edge of Town), the group's third and final album took its title from a gritty coming-of-age novel by Richard Price (who also authored The Wanderers and Clockers). The LP also found the group streamlined back down to a five-piece with Mendoza exiting to join Twisted Sister and Shernoff returning to bass; and for the first time Manitoba ably handled all the vocals by himself.

The Dictators — Asylum Records publicity photo
"Bloodbrothers is the album Dictators' fans have been waiting for," raved Paul Goldberg in Bomp! magazine, and he wasn't wrong. Without a doubt it was the band's crowning achievement.

First and foremost were eight magnificent new tunes, including Shernoff's tribute to Richard Meltzer with "Borneo Jimmy," the heart-wrenching "Stay With Me," and the super fun "Baby Let's Twist." There was the patriotic anthem "I Stand Tall," with its litany of "lots of pizza, ice cold cokes, Johnny Carson telling jokes, and lots and lots of American good good girls..." (Shernoff told Trouser Press being away on the UK tour "made me proud to be an American.") There was also a devastating cover of the Flamin' Groovies' "Slow Death" (chosen over the Beach Boys' "Dance Dance Dance" at the last minute), and even an uncredited superstar seal of approval from Springsteen who joined in on "Faster & Louder."

Thin Lizzy headline the Music Hall in Omaha, 
Nebraska, with support from AC/DC and 
the Dictators — September 24, 1978
The album had so much going for it, that for one giddy moment everything seemed possible: A bunch of nice Jewish boys from the Bronx could be — had to be — ROCK STARS! It was almost unbelievable when Bloodbrothers flopped.

At the end of an almost two-month long US tour (which sometimes had them opening for Thin Lizzy or sharing a mismatched bill with Canadian prog-rockers Max Webster), Asylum dropped the Dictators.

But by that point it wouldn't have mattered if the masses had suddenly discovered them because in the end, the band shattered apart from the inside.

"Y'know, sometimes you're watching a boxing match and the guy gets knocked out, but it doesn't seem like that hard of a punch. It's because he's taken a lot of punches, and then he just kind of collapses." It's somehow fitting that Manitoba invokes the image of a punch-drunk boxer to describe the Dictators break-up.

"We had three albums out on two major labels," he continues. "We lost both of our deals, a bunch of different people coming and going... I think our spirit and drive was so diluted from taking all the knocks." There's a long pause before he adds: "I was into a lot of drugs and alcohol, and that wasn't helping things. I didn't give a fuck. I just wanted to get high. They came to my house one day and said, 'We're gonna break-up the band.'"

The Dictators in London, 1977
Photo: Bob Gruen
Shernoff went into production; Teeter briefly joined Mendoza in Twisted Sister; other bands were formed — Manowar, the Del-Lords, and eventually Manitoba's Wild Kingdom. And sometimes the Dictators still pack 'em in for reunion shows, like the one at the Stone in San Francisco a couple of years ago.

In 1981 ROIR issued a cassette-only live recording of a Dictators reunion called Fuck 'Em if They Can't Take a Joke. Richard Meltzer fittingly supplied the tape's liner notes and summed up the band's career better than anyone when he wrote:

"Rock & roll made a man out of no one (least of all the Tators) — the whole adventure didn't exactly backfire, it's just that being so obnoxious made it hard for 'em to, y'know, earn a living, particularly in a biz placing increasing emphasis on sophisticated adult entertainment. Step by step they became career-oriented semi-grownups, surrendering more than a tad of post-teen kick-out-the-etc. in process. They switched from wrestling to Don Kirchner, and finally the news. Meanwhile a career on the burgeoning punk bandwagon had passed them by, the whole metal bizness struck a new generation of kids as so much mainstream hokum, and even their haircuts weren't quite right anymore. They fought amongst themselves (as post-teens often do) and finally … it was over."

* * *

Poster for the Dictators reunion 
at Bottom of the Hill in SF
(Artwork: Alan Forbes)
On May 15, 1999, the Dictators played at Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco and I was able to do a couple of quick interviews with Top Ten and Ross the Boss. These interviews were never published.

Top Ten (Scott Kempner)

I understand you and Richard have known each other since you were kids.
Top Ten: Yep. Since we were 10 years old. We met at Hebrew school. We got into an argument over comic book superheroes. We were both into Marvel comics, that's how it began — who was cooler than who? I think I was into Thor at the time. And he liked the Human Torch, which was a good choice. Y'know, you could go with Stingray... I could kind of understand that. I was looking at it more from a superhero point of view and he was more: "Hey, this guy has a really cool car!"

Were you into rock 'n' roll at that point?
Top Ten: I was totally into it! That's all I've ever been into! Rock 'n' roll, baseball... Rock 'n' roll has always been the thing. I'm one of those people who saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, and it changed absolutely everything. For me, it's like that was the day I was born. I can play it in my head; that moment in my life is so vivid.

What was it that caught your attention? Was it the music? The girls screaming?
Top Ten: In the beginning it was hard to pick out what it was. But as time has gone on, it was really the music. To me, any day that I can get up and play music is a great day!

Top Ten at the Stone — 1991
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
How long was it before you started playing guitar?
Top Ten: A long time. It took me a long time to piece stuff together. I really didn't start playing until I was sixteen or seventeen, right before we started the band.

Did you go to New Paltz?
Top Ten: I didn't go to New Paltz; I was a year behind Andy. I met Andy... I think it was his first year at college and I was still in high school. And I met Ross around the same time. A friend introduced me to Andy and Ross. And then I started going up to visit all my friends who were all going to New Paltz.

Did you ever see Total Crudd?
Top Ten: I saw Total Crudd a bunch of times! They were like the neighborhood freak band.


Who gave you the nickname Top Ten?
Top Ten: Actually, that was a friend of ours. He was sort of the "nickname guy" — you need a nickname! He said, "Hank Aaron." I went, "No." He said, "Top Ten." I went, "Alright."

As well as the Beatles, I've also heard that you're a big fan of the Who.
Top Ten: Yeah! The Who were the band that made me realize I actually wanted to play music myself. That was when I got a guitar.

Scott Kempner (on the right) with the Del-Lords.
(photographer unknown)
Did Pete Townshend's style of playing attract you?
Top Ten: Everything about that band lifted me out of my life and into my real, true calling. The first time I saw them, I think they were like the eighth act on an eight-act bill. And then I got to see them do a full show about a year later when I was 14. Everything about that band... I can't think of anything that I didn't... I mean, obviously the guitar was the thing I was into, so I focused somewhat on Pete Townshend. But every single thing about that band... I guess I was a fanatic. I couldn't get enough of them. I couldn't get enough rock 'n' roll in general. Every time I got my hands on a dollar, I bought something — a magazine, a single... whatever.

Are you self-taught?
Top Ten: Yeah, I'm totally self-taught. I picked up what I could, where I could, and with whoever I could — but it was like doing a gigantic jigsaw puzzle. Y'know, you've got a little piece here and a little piece there... I made progress, but I still couldn't see the picture. It was like doing a puzzle without the picture on the cover of the box. So, it was a little bit here and a little bit there.

2010 reissue of Tenement Angels
 Scott Kempner's debut solo album
What was the first song you played all the way through?
Top Ten: "Manic Depression" [from the Jimi Hendrix album Are You Experienced] and "Gloria." But a friend of mine who was already a great guitar player showed me "Manic Depression." I had no idea what I was doing, I just knew where the notes were. The same thing with "Gloria." I pieced it all together. I had no formal training. You think you don't need it for rock 'n' roll, but it's actually a good thing. Knowledge is actually... you don't have to use every bit of it, but it's good to know it. It would've given me that picture. It took me years and years...

Were you intimidated by Ross?
Top Ten: I wasn't so much intimidated as like, "Well, I'm not playing any solos in this band." I mean, he was the only one who could really play in the beginning anyway. I was an aspiring lead guitar player, singer/songwriter the whole time. But during the life of the band... Y'know, with the Dictators I'm Top Ten. That's what I do. After that... Since 1982, I've been basically making a living off my own songs.

Your solo work seems to veer more towards the style of Springsteen rather than punk or heavy rock...
Top Ten: Yeah, I'm definitely more of a singer/songwriter — American rock 'n' roll. I'm not a heavy rock fanatic. I like loud, but I'm not a heavy metal fan. I like Springsteen and Woody Guthrie...

Top Ten at the Stone — 1991
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
Dylan...
Top Ten: Yeah, those people were very important to me. I was also a Beach Boys freak. All of them helped me piece together who I was. Springsteen is my favorite artist in the world. He's an incredible musician, and I think he's painted himself in a very admirable way. He's shown people that there's another map you can follow that doesn't end in premature death, and it doesn't end in drugs, or a lot of people that you stepped on.

Richard told me he felt the Dictators never got the respect they deserved. Do you agree?
Top Ten: Absolutely. What Andy wrote about on the first record... All that stuff about our lifestyle — White Castle hamburgers, wrestling, cars and girls — overshadowed the music to the point where the music was almost... I don't think people realize how good we are. I mean, we're actually really good, y'know! But the sense of humor overshadowed the band. I hate it when people say that it's a comedy act, because the music is there. Without the music, it would be a comedy act.

It also seemed like the band wasn't sure about what direction to go in. Each album seemed like a reaction to the previous one. 
Top Ten: We were children! We were 19/20 years old. And I think everyone's taste... or everyone's idea about what the band should be doing got tried. I didn't feel as close to the way the first album was received as the rest of the band. I'm not really sure; we never really talk about this.

The Dictators
Epic Records promo photo
It's one of my all-time favorite albums, but you didn't like Go Girl Crazy?
Top Ten: I love what it's about; I love that it's affected people; I love the songs. But the execution of it renders it absolutely unlistenable to me. I put it on, and I hear every mistake.

But compared to what was out there at the time... 
Top Ten: Oh, I know. That's why we started the band. It was a reaction... As much as it was something that we wanted to do, it was caused a lot by what was happening at the time, and we railed against that in a big way. But y'know, it was about the music for me. We had no intention when we made that first record of existing in some little margin of the whole big picture. We thought we were a great American rock 'n' roll band.

Is that why you signed with Sandy Pearlman and Murray Krugman? Did you hope they could do for the Dictators what they did for Blue Oyster Cult?
Top Ten: They came along before there was... anything. They were professional managers; they had a band on a major label; they said they could get us a deal. Blah, blah, blah. Sandy was connected to Richard Meltzer who was like our spiritual godfather. And we didn't know anybody else who could tell us what was a good idea and what wasn't. Anybody that would help us pay our rent and enable us to be in a rock 'n' roll band was OK by us. At that time, it was Sandy and Murray. In hindsight, if they had just managed us and not produced the records, it probably would've been better because they were not competent producers. And then perhaps Girl Crazy would have satisfied both you and me.

D.F.F.D. (Dictators Forever, Forever Dictators)
released in 2001
Was the direction the band took with Manifest Destiny a reaction to the commercial failure of the first album?
Top Ten: It wasn't only about running scared from commercial failure... We deserved better. Andy's a better writer than that; we're a better band than that. So we got Ritchie Teeter; he could play in time. And Mark the Animal, for all his heavy metal tendencies, was a fabulous musician. And all of a sudden, we had guys who were as good as Ross. Manifest Destiny had a lot to do with that, with the band living up to what it should be. And we tried to make a record that could compete with any of the nitwits that were out there. And there were nitwits aplenty — Styx and REO and whatever.

What were your thoughts going into Bloodbrothers?
Top Ten: Y'know, Bloodbrothers was the best we could do. It was stripped down... That was at least who we were. We decided we were gonna go back to clubs. If there were two people... If they were there to see us, we played to two people. And it was a very successful philosophy, but for a label like Elektra it was too little too late. And that was that.

Advert for Bloodbrothers
You can find lots of info about the Dictators and
fabulous ephemera like this at: https://dffdblog.com/
There have been several reunions over the years and I know you guys are working on a new album. Did the band ever really break-up?
Top Ten: Yeah, we broke-up. But we broke-up in a way that was like, "Okay, there's no more band. Alright, I'll see ya tomorrow."

And the next day you were rehearsing again...
Top Ten: We were at least together all the time. Eventually, in the '80s everybody went their separate ways professionally. But we were best friends, so whenever we were all around it was like, "Hey, you wanna do a show?" And finally, it was like, "Maybe we could make the record that we always wanted to make, and we can sort of rescue the legacy." I think the new record will do that.

How far along are you with recording the new album?
Top Ten: We're about halfway through recording it. And that brings us here. We're here to let people know we're alive and there's a record coming.

Is the Dictators an everyday concern for you again?
Top Ten: It is. We've all got lives, but this is an everyday concern. We all have a lot of love and respect for what we've done together. Y'know, we've done this for a quarter of a century together. That's a hell of a thing!

Ross The Boss

Manowar — featuring Ross the Boss
Tell me about Total Crudd.
Ross: My very first band! I was a teenager.

Did you do covers or original songs?
Ross: We did a lot of covers: Flamin' Groovies, Randy Newman, MC5... We were doing all sorts of weird stuff. It was an eclectic mix of musicians. It was pretty good; we had our moments... That's where I met Andy.

I heard about the house you guys all lived in.
Ross: We had the Out Of It House. It was like the original hippie house. We had parties and people were coming around all the time... Everyone in the place was a drug dealer — except me. There was so much pot and stuff going around; I was just partying all the time! New Paltz was just a total party town.

Is it true that you used to annoy people by playing MC5 records at the crack of dawn?
Ross: Yeah! I was into that high-energy stuff. I was listening to the Stooges and the MC5 and picking up all this new stuff. And everyone else was listening to New Riders of the Purple Sage and the Grateful Dead. I didn't really fit into that crowd, y'know.

Ross the Boss at Bottom of the Hill
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
Did Total Crudd ever record anything?
Ross: There's some tapes, and someone said they could blackmail me with them.

Who were your guitar heroes?
Ross: When I first started playing, it was Eric Clapton and Cream. That was it. Leslie West and Mountain, those guys can really play. And Jimi Hendrix, of course. But when Clapton left Cream, I was devastated. When he stopped playing through Marshalls, to me it was just... That's music; anything less than that is just unacceptable. Of course, there's other people that play very good stuff, but that's why I idolized him — wailing, loud, beautiful solos.

So, you met Andy at the Out Of It House...
Ross: Yeah. Andy said, "This stuff is lame, Ross. We gotta do something." So, we started jamming together.

Did he already have the Dictators in mind?
Ross: We didn't have the Dictators in mind. He was a writer; he was doing fanzine writing. And he knew all these people, like Richard Meltzer. And Richard Meltzer knew Sandy Pearlman. So, we got this house up in Kerhonkson... The boonies, man! We were living upstate and practicing and practicing...

Was Richard just hanging around?
Ross: He was our friend, our roadie; he cooked breakfast for us. We didn't have any idea what his talent was! Haha! He came onstage one night at Popeyes... I remember Chris Stein was in the audience. So, Richard came up and sang "Wild Thing." And the place went insane! The place went crazy! We said, "We think we found somebody."

Ross the Boss at Bottom of the Hill - 1999
Photo: Devorah Ostrov
Were you already playing some of the songs from the first album at that point?
Ross: We had a few songs... "Two Tub Man" was the first Dictators' song that we ever wrote, and every night we still play that song. But it's been really amazing, the whole evolution of the band. And we're still here. It's amazing!

The Dictators were around before clubs like CBGBs started featuring punk rock bands...
Ross: Yeah, yeah...

Did you mostly play at the Coventry?
Ross: That was the only real place we could play. Kiss was playing there at the time. They'd already started; they pre-dated us by a little bit. At one point there were three bands that had record contracts in the City: the Dolls, the Dictators and Kiss.

How did you get your first recording contract with Epic?
Ross: It was through Sandy Pearlman. He was Blue Oyster Cult's manager, and we were able to parlay that. He was pumping money into us!

The Dictators headline the Palladium with
the Michael Stanley Band and (introducing) AC/DC.
August 24, 1977
Did you open a lot of shows for BOC?
Ross: Yeah, it was easy to play with them. Of course, we didn't fit at all!

What were the audiences like at the arena shows you were doing?
Ross: Audiences were... Some nights it was amazing. I remember one night we opened for ZZ Top in Binghamton, New York, and they loved us! I mean, we got encores! And Alice Cooper, we'd get encores! But other nights the audiences were like, "What is this?" Back then people said to us, "What the fuck are you guys doing? I mean, really what the fuck are you doing? This is the worst pile of shit that we've ever heard." Back then, there was Uriah Heep and all these lame beer guzzling... I fucking hated it!

Shakin' Street  (CBS 1980)
It seemed like the band got worried and switched direction when the first album didn't sell well...
Ross: We got worried because we didn't sell a fucking lick, and no one understood us. We just had to do something a little different. I don't know why...

What was the relationship like between Richard and Andy back then? Was there a lot of friction between them?
Ross: That relationship... I mean, it's a very strange relationship still to this day. Andy and Richard... It's a double-headed monster.

What happened after Bloodbrothers?
Ross: After Bloodbrothers, we sort of went on hiatus. I took a gig with this band Shakin' Street from France. We played a lot in the Bay Area; we actually recorded the album at the Automat. That was in 1980.

And then you formed Manowar?
Ross: Shakin' Street was on tour supporting Black Sabbath in England, and Ronnie James Dio introduced me to Joey [DeMaio, bassist], who turned out to be my future partner in Manowar. We decided to form a band... We didn't even have to play a show. We met this guy from EMI who signed me right off — he liked my idea, my concept — and Battle Hymns came out in 1982. I recorded six records with them, and in 1988 I left the band.

Iconic photo by David Godlis, 1976
Why did you leave Manowar? 
Ross: I didn't like the direction the band was going in. Y'know, the usual things. But they're still going. They're huge in Europe and South America, and I still get my checks. They've put out two live albums with my songs on them, which I'm very happy about.

And you're recording a new Dictators' album.
Ross: Yes, the album's going to be done pretty soon. This is our last show and then we're going to finish the record. As a matter of fact, I have another project that I'm doing called the Spinatras. That album [@midnight.com] is coming out in August.

Finally, how did you get the nickname Ross the Boss?
Ross: It's from when I was a kid, playing baseball. My friends always said, "Ayyy, it's Ross the Boss." And I kept it because Ross Friedman is really not a rock 'n' roll name. And Funichello isn't even my name. To this day, I can't stand it!

* * *

* The album the Dictators were working on at the time of these interviews would be called D.F.F.D. It was released in 2001.

* Drummer Ritchie Teeter passed away on April 10, 2012 due to complications from esophageal cancer.

* Drummer Stu Boy King passed away on May 1, 2018 following a brief battle with pancreatic cancer.