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Handsome Dick Manitoba steps behind a different mike

By Regis Behe
Sunday, July 18, 2004

Handsome Dick Manitoba has a long history of being noticed. When he was a roadie with The Dictators in the early 1970s, he mangled so much equipment that the band members decided he -- and they -- would be better off with Manitoba as an official member. He became the voice behind such trademark Dictators songs as "I Live For Cars and Girls" and "Sleepin' With the T.V. On."

Last November, he made yet another lasting impression, at the ceremony for the naming of Joey Ramone Place in the East Village of Manhattan.

"I was doing my inimitable two minutes, whatever it is that I do," he says.

Manitoba, 50, stood out among the various celebrities with his New Yawk-ish delivery. This time it was executives of Sirius Radio who sought him out. Would he like to host his own radio show on the satellite network?

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It didn't take long for Manitoba to sign on. The Handsome Dick Manitoba show runs from 9 p.m. to midnight Wednesdays on Sirius' Left of Center channel and features songs from artists as diverse as Danzig and Cher, Neil Diamond and Merle Haggard, along with the Ramones, the Dead Boys and, of course, the Dictators. If there's a decided tilt to music of the past -- Manitoba calls Nirvana the last great new rock band -- that's by design.

"I'm rapidly turning into one of those musical veteran my-day-bah-humbug-old (guys)," he says. "The truth is I do believe that (music) was better then. You can't tell me that it's merely a matter of when I grew up, that Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and the Kinks and the Stooges and the MC5, the Temptations and Al Green, were not as good as what you have out there today, or in the last 20 years. But I do try to give a listen here and there and get updates on new bands."

Like peers Steve Van Zandt of the E Street Band, who hosts the nationally syndicated Underground Garage, and Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, who hosts a show Tuesdays through Fridays on Indie 103.1 FM in Los Angeles, Manitoba has had to make a bit of adjustment from being in front of live audiences. One thing that remains the same is that he controls the tempo and content of the shows.

"It's my party, and I'll cry and if I want to," he says, laughing, noting that he now can admit he likes Vicki Sue Robinson's "Turn the Beat Around" without fear of any reprisals. "It's my show and I'm the center of attention and there's a microphone in my hand. I've spent most of my life talking about me anyway, telling stories and entertaining people, whether it's in the bar or onstage or in front of a mike at radio station."

A typical show will include some Dictators history, a story about an artist -- Manitoba recently tracked down Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, who is now a devotee of Hare Krishna -- and a recipe or two. His tastes range from White Castle hamburgers and Yankee Stadium hotdogs to veal scaloppine and lobster.

"Anything I figure out is interesting to me is going to be interesting to people," he says. "I have a tremendous half a century of stories that have happened to my life, in and out of the music business.

"It's a different medium, and you can't treat it as if it's the same," Manitoba says. "I'll learn how to be great at this medium."

Semisonic reverb

Jacob Slichter's "So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star: How I Machine-Gunned a Roomful of Record Executives and Other True Tales from a Drummer's Life" (Broadway, $21.95) is everything a book about rock music should be. It's an honest and often-amusing account of a rock band's bell-curve rise and fall, and the intrigues and backroom deals that make the music industry only somewhat more attractive a career option than selling bathing suits in Antarctica.

Slichter's ticket to fame was the band Semisonic and the hit single "Closing Time," which became an anthem for bar closings and proms in 1996. In reality, the song is about the impending birth of lead singer Dan Wilson's first child, but rock lyrics are nothing if not malleable.

Slichter, who graduated from Harvard with a degree in African-American studies and history, wasn't the typical musician. Mostly abstaining from the hedonistic lifestyle often associated with a touring band, his only addiction was Rolaids. While he initially enjoyed the benefits the band received after signing with MCA, he became obsessed with tracking sales figures when he learned the band has to pay back all promotional costs.

Slichter is convinced one of Semisonic's early promotional shots makes him look like "a human frog about to be sacrificed on the altar of vibe," and practices rock star poses for appearances on "Late Show With David Letterman" and "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno."

And yes, he did pretend to gun down a room of record executives, which is completely understandable behavior in the context of "So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star."

Capsule review

"To the 5 Boroughs" (Capitol), The Beastie Boys. "To the 5 Boroughs" might be the most subversive of any Beastie Boys album. On their first new release in six years, Adam Horvitz, Adam Yauch and an ever-raspier Mike Diamond strip away any pretenses of color and melody in favor of a chiaroscuro soundscape of beats and grooves that initially seem like scratch versions waiting for a coat of paint.

But listen closely, and the genius of "To the 5 Boroughs" reveals itself via the bare-bones (de)construction. Instead of fleshing out songs, the Beasties use bits and pieces of music as subliminal suggestions. "An Open Letter to NYC" contains a swatch of the Dead Boys' "Sonic Reducer," "3 the Hard Way" samples "Radio" by LL Cool J, and "That's It That's All" does the same with Run-DMC's "Rock Box."

Only the lyric references remain the same: the time warp references of Trekkies and Lorne Greene in "Ch-Check It Out," Joe Bazooka and Fred Sanford in "Shazam!," delivered in typically frenetic volleys of call and response among the trio.

The album's best song, "Triple Trouble," is a tour-de-force of hip-hop braggadocio ("Versatile like All-Temp-A-Cheer," indeed) with chiming Latin percussion that is pure street music, the embodiment of two turntables and a microphone. Four stars (out of five)

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Handsome Dick Manitoba

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