The erstwhile Dictators member on rock and religion, on Christian fundamentalists and his fellow Jews, on streaming music and his old band — and that little matter of how his fans out there in the hinterlands REALLY spell his name…
BY STEVEN ROSEN
To paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, forgotten New York rockers of the 1970s and 1980s – and even earlier – keep rising like “saviors from these streets” to reclaim their legacies.
In recent years, we’ve seen the return of Garland Jeffreys, Willie Nile and – as an author, especially – Richard Hell. This year, a name that has been turning up often is Andy Shernoff. He was a founding member, original lead singer, songwriter and bassist for the Dictators, a satirical and smartass post-modern garage/neo-punk New York band.
Its 1975 debut album for Epic Records, The Dictators Go Girl Crazy, keeps growing in esteem for songs like “The Next Big Thing,” “Two Tub Man,’ “Weekend,” “(I Live for) Cars and Girls” and a rocking cover of “California Sun.” The band, amid lineup changes and a move to a more conventional hard-rock sound, has kept going, off and on, but Go Girl Crazy remains their crucial work.
Last year, Australia-based Raven Records released Faster…Louder: The Dictators’ Best 1975-2001 to refresh us with the band’s work. This year, for Black Friday, the discerning Real Gone Music label issued – on opaque red vinyl – the limited-edition The Dictators: The Next Big Thing EP – Andrew W.K. Remixes & Studio Outtakes, which features reimagined versions of three Go Girl Crazy songs, plus one unreleased track (“Backseat Boogie”) and outtakes of two others.
Then, earlier this month, in a project supervised by Sony Music producer Tim Smith, Real Gone Music put out the 40th Anniversary Remastered & Expanded Edition of Go Girl Crazy on CD, with nine bonus tracks (including the two outtakes on the Black Friday EP). Shernoff has provided liner notes.
Meanwhile, a current version of the band that does not include Shernoff but does have original members Handsome Dick Manitoba and Ross (“The Boss”) Friedman – Dictators NYC – has just released a new single, “Supply and Demand”/Kick Out the Jams” – that has received heavy airplay on Sirius’ Underground Garage channel. (Manitoba has been a deejay on that channel.)
Shernoff, himself, isn’t doing shows at the moment – he lives in upstate New York, rather than the city. But he’s been busy, nonetheless. He was a guest performer at this year’s Joey Ramone Birthday Bash in New York, a testament to their friendship (and Shernoff’s influence on the Ramones). He and Lydia Lunch recorded a darkly funny video single this year, “A Good Night to Say Goodbye.” And he has on YouTube a new single, a tribute to the glories of vinyl records called “Streaming.” It’s a take-of of Blondie’s “Dreaming” and features Tricia Scotti on vocals. He also produced a record by a Boston band, the Connection.
But what he’s also been doing in recent years has been, to paraphrase R.E.M., a form of losing his religion. And he has put his feelings about that out there quite courageously, while retaining his humor.
In 2013, he produced and recorded a four-song EP for his Yazoo Squelch Audio Society, On the First Day, Man Created God, that is a scabrous and ribald critique of fundamentalist Christianity. It followed his 2012 single, “Fuck Christmas” and a more secular-oriented EP, Don’t Fade Away.
Man Created God is not gentle. It has one song, “Are You Ready to Rapture,” with lyrics like “The sky’s falling/As a light shines through/Guess who’s back?/It’s the zombie Jew/He’s really pissed/At the unmarried fornicators/the stem-cell crusaders/and the butthole invaders”). And another is the blatantly double-entendre party tune “Get On Your Knees for Jesus (here he comes),”
(The two other songs on Man Created God are “Skeptical” and “Fisher of Men.” All tunes but “Rapture” were recorded in Springfield, Mo. with Lou Whitney and members of the Skeletons. (Whitney passed away in 2014.)
Granted, some of Shernoff’s compositions for Go Girl Crazy, like “Master Race Rock” and “Back to Africa,” pushed impertinence to the point of offensiveness, but there was a certain amount of distancing and posing going on. In “The Next Big Thing,” the band even sang “I knocked them dead in Dallas/they didn’t know we were Jews.”
But Shernoff is serious about his religious skepticism – even if he expresses it with his trademark sass. He has performed at the 2012 Reason Rally in Washington, a gathering for secularists that also featured Bill Maher, author Richard Dawkins and Bad Religion. Shernoff also toured – with a jaundiced eye – the fundamentalist Creation Museum in Kentucky.
“I wasn’t from a religious family,” he said during a phone interview (before the Paris terrorist attacks) from his New York home. “When I was a kid, I remember praying to God and never getting an answer.
“I didn’t care what other people did – if you want to go to church and it makes you happy, I didn’t really care. But 9/11 really turned me around,” he continued. “I saw what faith could do, how dangerous it was and what you could do in the name of God. Then I started looking around America and heard about the rapture. And I started reading about it.”
(The rapture, a belief of Christian fundamentalists, holds that Jesus’ second coming will be accompanied by true believers rising up to heaven along with the resurrected faithful who have died, presumably as all others on earth meet an apocalyptic end. Thus, some rapture believers feel the end of the world is inevitable and problems like global warming should not be resisted.)
“My problem with religion is how it holds political beliefs now,” Shernoff said. “If you have faith, it allows you to have belief without proof. It allows you to believe climate change is a hoax, or the President was born in Kenya.
“I was raised Jewish and I’m proud of my heritage,” Shernoff explained. “In New York, it’s more of an ethnicity. When my parents died and left some money, I contributed to a synagogue. I don’t want Judaism to die out. Judaism to me is like being black or Spanish. It’s an ethnic heritage. But have you read the Old Testament? It has a very vengeful God. There’s some pretty horrible stuff is going on.”
Shernoff said “Get on Your Knees,” whose fundamental joke is like something off a smutty Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts album from the 1960s, has a serious intent behind the mockery. “That is my ultimate wise-guy song,” he acknowledged. “And I use that (sexual innuendo) as part of the joke. But the song itself really is about Original Sin. I think that’s a dangerous concept to tell children – that they’re born evil and broken. I mock that in my inimical fashion.”
When the Dictators released Go Girl Crazy in 1975, it was also pushing the edge, Shernoff said. “The band at that time were wise guys with our sense of humor, our attitude about the world, and how we thought rock ‘n’ roll was not just music but was also about getting drunk, girls, hamburgers, drugs and having a good time. It was an accurate view of our attitude of the world and music 1974.
“When I was writing that first album, I was listening to Nuggets a lot.” (That influential two-disc album, released in 1972, featured 1960s garage-rock songs assembled by Lenny Kaye.) “Rock ‘n’ roll was taking itself very seriously in the early 1970s,” Shernoff says. There were bands with laser-light shows. It had to come back to three-minute songs. The Ramones really changed that world, but we did our little part in bringing rock ‘n’ roll back to a fun, high-energy, rebellious sound.”
The group at the time of the first album also featured – in addition to Shernoff, Manitoba and Friedman – Scott “Top Ten” Kempner on guitar and Stu Boy King as drummer. Shernoff’s first name was spelled on the album as “Adny.” He laughs about that now. “I was a wise guy to make people think there was a typo, and maybe it was a way to get a little attention. It was childish of me and I don’t use it now. But that’s cool.”
In the decades since Go Girl Crazy, before the recent upswing in interest, Shernoff kept busy with various projects. “When the world didn’t care about the Dictators, I was doing moving jobs and whatever offers I could dig up,” he said. “I started producing records and made a living. Then my parents got ill and I took care of them. Then I had some time. I had songs and made my way back to writing and having records.” (He also got involved in the wine business, working for several years with sommelier Jean-Luc Le Du’s Le Du’s Wines shop in New York.)
In 2012, he toured the East Coast with a show called When Giants Walked the Earth, where he prefaced his songs with stories about his career and people he knew, such as Joey Ramone. “Doing that was a way to get me back on stage,” he said. “I had never been a solo performer, so how do I do it? So I came up with that idea and it worked pretty well for me. But now I’ve got a lot more songs and I want people to hear new stuff.
“I love the craft of writing songs and I hope people enjoy them. Music is a blessing. I know that’s a religious term, but it also can refer to something else. I mean that in the secular sense.”
(For more Shernoff, check out AndyShernoff.com. Hint: don’t miss the “Andy’s R&R Museum” section of the website.)