Failed presidential candidate Ted Cruz would be an unlikely audience member at Velocityfest, the two-day punk, rock and metal festival that slams into Fitzgerald’s this weekend. As the self-appointed detractor of “New York values,” Cruz would be further discouraged from donning his leather and studs for the event, since its headliners are living embodiments of all things NYC.
Two dozen acts are expected to play the second annual event, which began last year as an anniversary celebration for Houston’s own face-melters, the Velostacks. Seattle glam-punks Prophets of Addiction are traveling from the furthest stretches west to play the event and the Dead Boys’ Cheetah Chrome will be on hand to give the proceedings a good dose of Cleveland rocks.
But the headliners are music-industry survivors, acts that have been around since the dawn of American punk rock. Friday night, Reagan Youth closes Day 1; Dictators NYC shut the whole shebang down Saturday. In anticipation of turning Houston into “Howston” (East Coast pronunciation, y’all), we reached out to Dictators NYC front man Richard “Handsome Dick” Manitoba and Paul Cripple, guitarist and founder of Reagan Youth. They shared tales of horses gone wild and weighed in on fellow New Yorker Donald Trump, all while recalling the highs and lows of more than half a century combined in music.
Reagan Youth was in Houston just last fall and played Fitzgerald’s, “the place we always play,” according to Cripple. How New York is he? When our phone conversation began, he apologized for the background noise, which was the Mister Softee jingle that was playing as he ordered a strawberry shake.
“Some of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen in my life are in Texas,” Cripple says. “We’ve never had a bad show in Houston. We’ve played great venues and had great crowds.”
Manitoba says the years and shows all sort of meld together. He couldn’t recall the band’s exact last trip here, but also noted Houston is the site of one of his greatest all-time stories. That’s a bit of an honor from someone who has toured the globe, rubs elbows with the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Little Steven Van Zandt and runs his own bar back home in the East Village.
“I was staying at my friend Manny Caiati's house," Manitoba reflects. "He was now a practicing attorney in Houston and was a longtime friend of mine and bass player for the Del Lords. Manny went to work and when I woke up after my coffee I went into the barn to talk to the horses and give them some hay. Being a kid from the Bronx, horses weren't really in my life much so I wanted to hang out with them for a while. Unbeknownst to me, I left the barn door open and one of the horses named Johnny Boy started walking out and I started freaking out.”
According to Manitoba, the house was on Westheimer and the horse made a beeline for the street, bringing cars to a screeching halt.
“I was walking after him with hay in my hands thinking I can get him to come back into the barn," he remembers. "He just turned around, looked at me and was like ‘Look at this mook from the Bronx trying to control me!’"
Thanks to some helpful passersby, the story had a happy ending, with Johnny Boy corralled back into the barn and Manitoba later celebrating the averted crisis with a steak at Pappas.
We all have horse tales in Texas, though. We wanted to know about the glory days of punk, from down on the Bowery where it all began. Dictators played more CBGB shows than any other band. Manitoba says, although “there were so many great shows – Dead Boys, Ramones, Runaways when they were kids.”
He had a tougher time picking one Dictators show from the hallowed venue that was their single best, but did narrow it down to the first; the last Friday and Saturday nights of the club’s existence; and, “when a woman who had just won a contest called the Ms. All Bare America pageant that we had played at the Beacon Theater a week before as the house band came onstage and took her clothes off and started dancing with us," Manitoba says. "That was pretty cool.”
It wasn’t always fun, both men promise. Manitoba says the craziest thing he ever saw at CBGB “must’ve happened 100 times,” people crammed into restroom stalls to get high on heroin, the drug of choice in 1970s New York City. Cripple offers that various versions of Reagan Youth have strived to capture the spirit of the first incarnation; that one featured his friend and band co-founder Dave Insurgent, who died in 1993. He feels the current version comes close to delivering the immediate fervor of the band at its most hardcore, anarcho-punk origins.
The political moment calls for that intensity. Cripple feels it’s obvious Trump and Hillary Clinton are in bed together and reminds folks, “Don’t talk to us about Republicans and Democrats. We’re anarchists.”
Both bands are not content to rest on past victories. Cripple says he continues to write new music for a long-rumored Reagan Youth record that would indeed chronicle the life and times of Dave Insurgent. Dictators NYC just released the single “Supply and Demand,” which no less an authority than acclaimed music writer Dave Marsh has deemed “a masterpiece.”
Manitoba says it’s difficult to keep track of everything new – after all, he runs a bar, is in a band and does five national radio programs for Little Steven’s Underground Garage on Sirius/XM Radio. Additionally, he’s a husband and a father to a 13 year-old son who keeps him gleefully busy.
“There's a band I really like from Norway that we play on a radio station called Death by Unga Bunga I'm a huge fan of Palmyra Delran, a woman who knows how to write a song, how to sing a song, how to arrange a song," Manitoba says. "She was in the all-girl Friggs out of Philadelphia years ago.”
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Cripple champions GASH, the band featuring Reagan Youth bassist Tibbie X on vocals, and says he also enjoys bandmate Spike Polite’s revived band, Sewage. Both hope the musicians they come across enjoy careers in music as long as theirs, though Manitoba says a lot of success is just about having the right breaks.
“It's like I had a machete and I'm stuck in the woods and I just kept swinging the machete and a path was cleared and that was my path,” Manitoba reasons. “I never knew I wanted to do this. I never wanted to do this, it was sort of handed to me because of the way people responded when they put a microphone in my hand. So I took what I was given and I ran with it, and I ran I ran and I ran until the point came where I got myself together and started seeing myself as an actual, legitimate musician with something to offer people and not just a lucky guy. Now I got a lot of good shit to offer as a performer, as a songwriter. Now I got things to say as an entertainer.
“I guess I'll give the classic advice - if you feel you have something to say, if you got music in your heart and it's got to come out of you, do it. Find a way to do it and believe in yourself and keep doing it,” Manitoba continued. “What I learned about myself was that I had a lot more to offer than I ever thought back in the old days. I hated to work when I was younger and now, in my 60s, I love it. I love having the bar, I love going on the road and playing rock 'n' roll, I love having my own radio show, I love being a dad so I guess that's it - I learned that by finding something you love doing and busting your ass, you are putting your stamp, your name on something. This is your fingerprint on the fucking planet.”
Fitzgerald’s hosts Velocityfest 2: The Return of Speed, featuring Dictators NYC and Reagan Youth, Friday and Saturday, May 27 and 28. See fitzlive.com for more details.