Since helping create a tidal wave of American hardcore music that shook up the country at the dawn of the Reagan era, MDC's Dave Dictor has become a bona fide legend. Whereas Austin comrades like the Big Boys fused punk and funk into a mesh of danceable rebellion and the Dicks brandished a truculent sense of vengeance against all things bourgeois, MDC formed a tribe of its own by fomenting political satire (not just rancor), depth of global geopolitical consciousness, and searing sincerity. Like former tour mates Dead Kennedys, they also knew how to mine the past (for instance, by mutating Jimi Hendrix’s “Spanish Castle Magic” or Perry Como's 1941 country hit “Deep in the Heart of Texas”) for gems that made the social-justice revolution feel like a raucous party.
Dictor himself became an emblem teeming with multiple personalities: left-minded newssheet, soapbox orator, fanzine columnist, wily humorist, gender-bending agitator, unlikely Elvis impersonator, ragged outsider hero, no-bullshit truth teller, speed freak, fierce bandleader and much more. MDC’s members came and went quicker than members of Congress, genres bloomed and faded around them, and the band’s initials meant something different every few years (Millions of Damn Christians, Missile Destroyed Civilization), but Dictor remained at the core of it all. He was the punk-rock glue that binds.
The Houston Press recently tracked down a sleep-deprived Dictor in his van after MDC’s recent dizzying gig in Detroit to discuss Memoir From a Damaged Civilization, a breezy, anecdote-strewn, shoot-from-the-hip look back at Dictor's tumultuous life.
Tomorrow night at 7 p.m., Dictor and I will be appearing at Houston's Vinal Edge Records (239 West 19th) to celebrate the memoir and raise money for cancer-embattled John Stabb, singer of Government Issue. Rare punk items, including gig flyers, will be auctioned; the event is free. MDC plays Eastdown Warehouse later that evening with Deathwish, Khobretti and Revels.
Houston Press: Right now, as laws are being passed in Mississippi and elsewhere to legally discriminate (based on religious grounds) against same-sex couples and transsexuals, do you feel your own story of political dissent and sexual defiance is really important to share?
Dave Dictor: Sure, I am proud of MDC’s contribution to the ongoing struggle for gay, bi, trans and queer struggles and freedoms of all stripes, but we are just one of thousands and thousands of folks that have risked their lives, careers and safety to stand up for these rights. In my new book, I highlight our story of standing up to homophobic bands in the American punk scene. It certainly created a rift between those of us seeking freedom from bullying and discrimination in our scene and those more apolitical and downright bigoted people in our scene.
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I think it is important because it challenges us all to take risks and not stand on the sidelines while this takes place. Kudos to Bruce Springsteen and others for canceling their shows and letting people realize they will pay for their unkind ways. Economic boycotting them is overall a great way to do this. Sadly, this will affect good people in those states, but it has to be done, just like with South Africa and apartheid last century. Boycotts and divestment campaigns began and people like Billy Bragg refused to have their records released in the apartheid state.
Your book is not a tell-all tour diary of MDC (like Rollins's Get In the Van) but a memoir that touches on some very intimate personal moments and history. Why did you choose this approach?
I wanted to give my personal story of how I got into punk and political-oriented actions. It was more than me being just a bored teenager. It had to do with my mixed, fluid sexuality that led me to align myself with the queer movement. Plus, my own family, which had multi-nationalities and religions, made me feel like an outsider from parts of my own culture and even family. I am Catholic, Protestant and Jewish, and they all looked down on each other and, to a certain extent, at me. I also wanted to do something more than just log events...I like stories with a beginning, an end and a punch line.
Reading it, I was struck by the similar eras you experienced as a kid and today's volatile situations: In some ways, is you (as a kid) watching John Wayne decrying hippies on television like watching Donald Trump condemning immigrants and Muslims today?
History certainly repeats, doesn't it? Trump almost is mimicking Mussolini and always looking for the scapegoat. A certain amount of people always need to blame someone — the Jews, the welfare cheats, black people, the Mexicans and on and on. I have family members who do it, and it is so sad to see their ignorance.
Like Crass and the Dicks, MDC never really had a master plan or rigid adherence to ideology — just really sharp and pointed street politics, but with doses of humor. You still brim with humor. Has that always been important to you, even as you wrote the memoir?
When you tackle something so serious, I find, you need to throw in the sweetener, or else artistically, for me, it gets dry or boring. Like with our song “Chicken Squawk”: I relate loving our cartoon animal friends to not wanting to eat them. It's a lighter way to remind people that animals are fellow beings, so don't eat them. I am a child of Mark Twain.
Digging through the past always means digging up dirt. And you saw...a lot! How did you choose what to share? While working with Gary Floyd on his memoir, we kept thinking about karma. Did you?
Karma plays into it, but I wanted to share my way of looking at things...Like compare being a punk singer to being a teacher to the developmentally delayed, and I had the desire to infuse humanity into real situations I experienced across the globe, from San Francisco to Russia, at hundreds of incredible gigs with people of all types, from street punks and Yippies to skinheads and communists.
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You canvassed for President Obama's election efforts in the past. Do you foresee doing the same for either Democrat who will run against the increasingly right-wing and hostile Republicans?
I haven't so far, though I feel the Bern...I know Hillary has her faults, but I hate when she is thrown in with Cruz or Rubio because she is not like them. I imagine I'll get more involved as the Democrats finally come to a conclusion. I will be out there for the Democrats.
In the end, do you feel this book reflects a bit of your mother as well? Her own resilience, East Coast attitudes and sense of...love?
Yes, you could point to that. My mother encouraged me by buying me a guitar at 12 years of age and encouraging me to write songs. Truly, my great-grandfather was an old-school Italian who worked really hard so a generation later my mother could write for the New York Daily News. She encouraged me to write poetry and songs. As I say in the book, after recovering from my illness last year, “I am filled with grateful feelings to be alive. Love must reign over the world. I am still a recovering Catholic, I want change for our planet, but I can't put energy into anger and hatred. I have to save the world with love.”
MDC performs with special guests Deathwish, Khobretti and Revels Thursday, April 21 at Eastdown Warehouse, 850 McKee. Doors open at 8 p.m. See the Facebook event page for more details on Dictor's Vinal Edge appearance.