Monday, June 13, 2005

SUMMER HOLIDAY #1. I grow weary focusing on the ludicrous when the glorious is all around us, bathed in warm sunshine. Over the coming days I will, among the usual road apple analyses, pay tributes to ten (10) great summer pleasures of the cultural variety, time-tested and road-ready.

Artifact the First:

The Dictators, Go Girl Crazy!

Why aren’t they doing VH1 tributes to The Miamis or the Shirts or Just Water? They used to play CBGB back when, just like Talking Heads and the Ramones and Blondie, and they were pretty good. Well, they weren’t quite in the same artistic or social frame as the punk bands that did become famous, epochal, world-historic and all that. They were just a lot of goofy, trashy fun. Listen to their stuff if you can find it, and you might think, damn, maybe someone could have made something of this.

If the Dictators had to rely on Hilly Krystal, maybe they wouldn’t have gotten any further than a CB’s compilation album, either. But they had some of those back-door connections that, alas, have since been bricked off by that dolorous professionalism which has made all radioland a single conduit of soothing sludge. Around the time Sire Records was desperately giving a here-goes-nothin’ to a bunch of Hilly’s faves, the Dictators were on CBS Records. And when the CBs guys were just idolizing the Stooges and Blue Öyster Cult, the Dictators were playing shows with them.

From the current perspective, it is hard to imagine why grown men would have signed the Dictators. They had a young, suburban, pop-culture-soaked perspective, just as we expect all up and coming bands to have now. But youth and suburbia and pop culture were a great deal different then. Drugs and sex didn’t have to be approached obliquely or ironically. Everyone knew what the kids were up to, and it was mainstream culture’s job to ignore it and kid culture’s job to celebrate and enable it. The old and the new lived in the same space: your parents’ living room was cool if your parents weren’t home and you could get laid and wasted in it while the Strawberries and the Joe Franklin Show were playing in the background. You didn’t have to take things too serious. And you didn’t have to watch what you said about anything.

Now, in the rock culture of that time, you could just hint at this and everyone would get the message and things would be cool. What kept anyone else from making Go Girl Crazy! was – I guess – a self-preservation instinct. Most people don’t do everything they can conceivably get away with, especially not right out the gate; they save up their slack for special occasions when their social selves fail them, after which they will shamefacedly admit that they "fucked up." Then they’ll retrench, kiss a little extra ass, and thereafter try to keep the car on the road.

Go Girl Crazy! betrays no shame or even foreboding of shame. Fucking up seems, to them, a positive virtue. As it happened, the Dictators did have something in common with the CBGB bohemians they stood among but not of: they didn’t give a shit, and they thought they were smart enough to get away with it.

For example: It was one thing for the Stones to do "Brown Sugar." It was an outrage if you listened to the lyrics, but who could make out the lyrics? Besides, Mick had sex with black girls and gave Merry Clayton a job and all those hippies were down with Black Power anyway.

In contrast, the Dictators were whiter than White Castle (fucking look at them) and sang – in an intermittent, absurdly incompetent pseudo-Caribbean dialect -- about having sex with black girls as what it would necessarily be for most guys like them: a grotesque fantasy. "Religion will save you/Civilization’s at hand… Her clothes come from Ghana and she prays to the East/She doesn’t take the white man’s flak/I still drink my soda but I’m getting confused/sometimes I wish I was black."

For some reason you can’t find these lyrics online.

Part also of their absurd will to power is little-boy chest-thumping about being the next big thing ("I knocked them dead in Dallas/They didn’t know we were Jews"), and members of the master race ("First we check to see what you eat/Then we bend down and smell your feet"), and the inclusion of Handsome Dick Manitoba (billed on the album as "Secret Weapon"), a pro-wrestler manque who steps in from time to time to keep things from getting too slick. Handsome Dick is a treasure. He sounds like he just stumbled into the studio after three hours of barking at passing cars and delivers a stirring oration on his ring supremacy ("I don’t care who ya bring in here, daddio! They’re all comin’ undah the thundah of Manitoba!") and key spot vocals in songs like the magnificent "Two Tub Man" ("I’m never gonna watch Channel 13!" – ridiculous solo break – "Edumacation ain’t for me!" – ridiculous solo break).

Why is this better than Brown Ploppy or Drunks with Guns? (Well, maybe it’s not so much better than Drunks with Guns, but we’ll leave that for a possible future posting.) Why is any particular outrage, up-to-the-minute or antique, memorable?

The weaker, but perfectly valid, of my arguments is songwriting. These songs are idiotic, but, as any fan of Uncle Dave Macon or Roger Miller or – oh sure, let’s bring them back into it – the Ramones knows, that’s not the same thing as bad. On the BÖC model of arena rock as fantasized by nerdish non-combatants, Go Girl Crazy! is as good as it gets. Adny Shernoff still turns a phrase as well as any working songwriter. If you can’t appreciate "That’s the price you have to pay/For eating burgers every day," well, you’re obviously suffering from a cultural deficiency.

The other argument, consonant with our summer-pleasures theme, has to do with an even less substantial commodity than songwriting: fun. The great thing about show business is its transparency. If you believe it, as the acting teachers say, they’ll believe it, provided you’re competent. If you’re fucking miserable, you can project that misery into your audience. And if you’re having fun, your objet d’art will be an objet d’fun.

Professionalism is a tricky subject in rock and roll. Acquire too much of it, and you’re not fun anymore. For the Dictators this wasn’t an issue. They had Sandy fucking Pearlman producing. All they had to do was be who they were. It isn’t as easy as it sounds, but somehow they managed. They didn’t punk out, even by the easy route of irony. Well, assuming snotty and ironic aren’t the same thing. And they aren’t. When Handsome Dick sings, "The fastest car and a movie star are my only goals in life," or Adny sings, "I wanna live a rich life/And I wanna die poor," yeah, it’s funny, but they aren’t kidding. Come to think of it, are there better goals? Oh, yeah yeah, community, society, family – no, seriously: what are they?

Shernoff thinks that the Ramones were more successful than the Dics because they were more focused, but sometimes you find gems in wandering that you won’t find in a hard-target search, and the ramblings of Go Girl Crazy! are sort of picaresque – adventures unified by a single, smartass point of view. All the songs, including the numbskull covers of "I Got You Babe" (as sung by a bunch of hypermacho geeks to one another) and "California Sun," are part of the adventure: a quest for the ultimate good time on a major label’s dime. Ridiculous solos. Too much reverb, at times. Giggling asides. Cars and girls. A sopor for the weekend. Growing up. Throwing up. Being the one not to let your sons become. You may choose not to believe in it, but don’t tell me for a second that it isn’t believable. Set me free; I might know better when I’m older.

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