Handsome Dick Manitoba – ‘Born In The Bronx’

❉ Dick Manitoba has come up with a quality album that both keeps the listener invigorated and wanting more, writes Paul Matts.

“Handsome Dick is the quintessential voice of New York, its beating heart, brash sense of humour, with the ability to be heard over the roar of a great metropolis.” – Lenny Kaye.

‘Handsome Dick’ with Iggy Pop, photographed backstage circa 1973. 

It has taken this long. This. Long. But it’s here.

The ‘secret weapon’ singer of one of pronto punk’s earliest primal beasts has unleashed his debut solo album. Some forty-four years after he first appeared on record on The Dictators Go Girl Crazy.

Handsome Dick Manitoba (HDM) was initially the roadie with New York band The Dictators. He contributed vocals as their ‘secret weapon’ on their first record, but by the time of the follow up (Manifest Destiny) in 1977, this force of nature was very much the frontman of the band. He was there at the beginning as a music scene grew out of The Bowery, centred on CBGBs. The rest, they say, is history.

Bruce Springsteen is a fan – he even appeared on the The Dictators’ Bloodbrothers album in 1978. Dick opened a bar (Manitoba’s) in the East Village and hosted a show on Little Steven’s Underground Garage (Sirius Radio) for fourteen years until 2018. Dick received the accolade of ‘Best Satellite Radio DJ’ in 2005 from New York City’s The Village Voice.

Furthermore, he sang with MC5 when singer Rob Tyner sadly passed away in 2012 and kept the band’s flag flying until they eventually disbanded in 2012, upon the death of bass player Michael Davis.

He runs a podcast You Don’t Know Dick, which is cracking entertainment –  ‘Mr Manitoba offer his OPINIONS, which, for all intents and purposes, ARE FACTS!!!’ The Dictators, in various guises, have roamed and rocked raw during most of this period. The world, not just New York City and the United States, is so much better for this. They are a band for the people, loved by the people, and are of the people. Loved by people on the basketball courts, in the burger joints, from the bars. The public want music to get the blood going. The Dictators always have given this.

Possibly above all else, Dick Manitoba is New York City. Indeed, he was born in the Bronx, and whilst so many bands and artists claim to be the essence of New York City, some with reason, Handsome Dick Manitoba really is from its streets. He breathes, bleeds, speaks, sings, shouts and screams NYC… In the words of Lenny Kaye, “Handsome Dick is the quintessential voice of New York.”

So, it is with some anticipation his debut solo record is being launched onto the world, released on Liberation Hall Records.

It is a collaboration with Jon Tiven, who also produced the album. It was recorded in Jon’s home studio in Nashville, Tennessee. Jon is a composer, musician, producer and collaborator who has worked with The Rolling Stones and Wilson Pickett amongst many others. Jon is based in Nashville, an apt home for such a strong and prolific songwriter. He often writes with his wife Sally – check out She’s Older Now on the recent Roger C. Reale and Rue Morgue release, The Collection. Jon also plays guitar throughout Born in the Bronx.

The cast of musicians assembled by Tiven to work on the album is impressive. Simon Kirke (Free, Bad Company) plays drums, as does Mickey Curry (Elvis Costello, Bryan Adams, Tina Turner, Hall and Oates) and Michael Shrieve of Santana. Strong tub-thumpers, all. The in-demand Buddy Miller from the Emmylou Harris Band, whose guitar playing spectacularly graced Robert Plant’s Band of Joy, is also present. He has also worked with Solomon Burke. Nashville musicians Chuck Mead (solo artist, BR549) and Harry Stinson and Beth Hooker all help out and Jon’s wife, Sally Tiven, plays bass. Sally’s background, as well as writing tunes, includes holding down the bottom end for BB King and Wilson Pickett. The late songwriter PF Sloan, a notorious figure, also appears on his track, Eve of Destruction, on guitar and backing vocals.

Not a bad supporting cast for a kid from the Bronx, eh?

Born in the Bronx is not as tough sounding as The Dictators. There are primal moments for sure, and Dick’s vocals retain a delicious rawness. But the hard-hitting, ‘don’t mess with us’ swagger that laced the band’s material is not so prominent.

However, this allows Dick to make an album that is free of limitation. There is an exciting variety to the styles on offer, and the lyrics are full of Big Apple references, humour, storytelling and observation. All songs bar two are written by Dick and Jon Tiven.

Shelley kicks things off and is a perfect case in point. Driven on by a hot-rod snare, it has a loose, yet lively rhythm coloured by a tastefully driven distorted guitar, jangly piano riffs and later, a saxophone. There is a heart-warming sentiment to the lyrics, about youthful relationships that is easy for anyone to relate to who has been an adolescent. The chorus is strong, and the tune gets straight to its point. A real treat, to be honest, and one of the best openers I’ve heard on an album for some time.

Back to my TV is no-nonsense rock number and is brimming with humour in its lyrics. It has classic Manitoba observations, containing lines acknowledging the ‘safety’ in staying home and watching television. Seventies TV classics such as Kojak and Charlie’s Angels are referenced, the protagonist comparing his favourite past-time with the modern soul-less world of human-beings being virtually unable to exist without turning their attention away from their mobile phone screens. Just what I have been saying to my own kids for years now! And, why embarrass yourself trying to get that ‘super-hot girl’ you’ve been eyeing when you can stay in with…your television! It never lets you down, see.

‘Screw reality, my best friend’s waiting for me.’

Eve of Destruction is a different matter altogether. A hit in the sixties for Barry Maguire, it is written by PF Sloan, who can be heard posthumously on HDM’s version. Producer / Co-writer Jon Tiven says: “I suggested we cut a new version of my pal the late P.F. Sloan’s classic anthem “Eve Of Destruction,” and Handsome Dick was all-in. I even managed to fly in some harmony vocals, harmonica, and acoustic guitar from P.F. himself from some previous sessions I had done with him.” It is an immense song. Powerful and thought provoking when it was released back in 1965 and it is a huge compliment to HDM to say that his version stands up superbly well. An echo-chamber floating guitar riff throughout sets an emotion and tone over which HDM sings with a vulnerability, and with emotion. The world is such that it allows kids with guns to fight on the streets and in token wars whilst they are just sixteen years old; too young even to vote. It paints a depressing and realistic picture; but it has a positive lift in the chorus. A heavy subject matter, but a song well-suited to this album.

Eve of Destruction is sandwiched between two straight rockers, the second of which is Surfside. The appeal of the beach is strong compared to the concrete jungle. Nice and high tempo, with a full sax backing. Kind of like a warped Beach Boys classic, it is possibly the most Dictators-ish track on the album. They did a fine line in warped Beach Boys numbers (Cars and Girls anyone?). It’s co-written by Stephen J. Kalinich, a transcendental poet from the sixties who did indeed write words for the Beach Boys (Little Bird, Be Still). Another coup for Dick to have him work on this album, giving it even more kudos.

The early tracks on the album benefit from alternating between heavy and light-hearted subject matter. This continues with The Cooker and the Hit. A broody, dark number with a strutting iron funk vibe, which moves the listeners feet, whilst telling a tale of drug tragedy. Again, HDM’s lyrics are full of observation and on this occasion, dark humour. The tough side of NYC.

Again, this more serious number is followed by something less demanding. The high tempo goofball rock n roll of Big Army Brass flies by full of pulsating piano keys and genius Manitoba couplets and story-telling:

‘They cut my wings right down to the bone,
So damn short I couldn’t fly home….
I was busted by Big Army Brass
And if I squeal, they’re gonna kick my ass.’

You get the picture. It is worth pointing out that this sequencing policy works well. In no way does it effect the flow of the album. Dick has produced an album which is varied in terms of both subject matter and style. It does not profess to be an album so serious it is conceptual, nor it is a throwaway rock n roll record full of instantly forgettable rock workouts. It mixes things up. Again, like a Springsteen record, minus the kind of epic ballads the Boss would include.

The words of Layers Down tell another tale, ending with loss, but unlike The Cooker and the Hit it is delivered in an up-tempo, rock n roll package. Again, driving piano, and more tastefully distorted guitar abound. And a killer sax solo.

Callie May would be a standout track on any album. A real pounding, rocking tour-de-force. There is a Celtic punk hint in its high-speed rockabilly rhythm, with Dick’s lyrics containing lines that make you laugh out loud –

‘I was mesmerised by her vivid green eyes and dark brown hair,
And a smile that could tame a grizzly bear.’

It is followed up by another album highlight. Thicker than Blood has a nice, light, summery bounce reminiscent of Springsteen’s Hungry Heart. And it is soulful. Another welcome switch in style. The subject matter is clear from the opening line –

‘You can choose your friends,
But you can’t choose your family.’

Often artists sing of the virtue of family bonds and blood. This is predictable. It’s refreshing to have the subject turned on its head. There’s plenty of times we have all wished to be with company of our choosing, with whom we can be free from the pressure of family life. HDM illustrates this effectively on this uplifting number.

Magenta Street has a nice line in guitar phrasing. Its arrangements are strong too, which is another feature of the album. And to be honest, it is a feature of Jon Tiven’s work generally. Well-constructed, crafted songs.

On an album full of good tunes, there are four real standouts. And one of these is 8th Avenue Serenade. A big, booming, almost marching band style guitar riff bursts out of the speakers and sets proceedings off without any ambiguity. This is a big, celebratory anthem. The joy of music, even when restricted to the ears of an individual journeying around Manhattan.

With a song called Soul Punk King of NYC, it is inevitable there will be plenty more Big Apple plugs and allusions in its lyrics. The Soul Punk Kings were Dick’s backing band at one point, of course. The tune date-checks 1975 and moves on from there. It appears biographical. It is open to interpretation whose biography is in point, but Dick Manitoba seems to be revelling in the role of the song’s title character. A brooding, streetwise groove underpins the track.

Born in the Bronx closes with its title track. Born in the Bronx, the song, again has a celebratory feel, and is appears biographical, drawing on the joys of starting out and growing up in the borough. Yankee Stadium, Bronx Zoo, the great Bronx-born writer Richard Price. And of course, footwear –

‘We wore sneakers, eight bucks a pair, hi-tops of white,
Chuck Taylor’s, and Skips were nowhere in sight.’

It is beautifully melodic, led by a simple keyboard line high up in the mix. It is always satisfying to see an album book-ended by two winning tracks. In Shelley and Born in the Bronx, HDM’s solo record certainly accomplishes this.

Dick Manitoba, ably assisted by Jon Tiven, has come up with a quality album that both keeps the listener invigorated and wanting more. The musicianship is, as you’d expect from such a stellar cast, is top drawer and Dick’s voice, lyrics and personality are totally comfortable in such company. With artists of such pedigree it is reasonable to think the end-product should be at least, good. Born in the Bronx far surpasses that. It’s a great record.

The material on this album is its golden ticket. When songs flow out of the speakers with such ease, the world seems a much better place. In the words of Tom Morello:

“Handsome Dick Manitoba is a legend and a stand-up guy and it’s about time he made a solo record! Crank it!”

❉ Handsome Dick Manitoba – ‘Born In The Bronx’: Available Now via MVD Entertainment Group

❉ Paul Matts is a writer from Leicester, England. His debut novel ‘Toy Guitars’ is due to be published in 2019, and a further novella, ‘Donny Jackal’ is currently being edited. He previously promoted live shows as 101 Productions and owned The Attik night club from 2001-2007. He was also a songwriter and guitarist in The Incurables. Paul runs a music blog and has recently started a series entitled 101 Significant Figures. This focuses on under-appreciated individuals in the punk and new wave movement. See www.paulmatts.com for more details.

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    • I was just coming to say that. The ex-Dictator in Manowar was Ross “The Boss” Funcinello.

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