BY TINA BENITEZ-EVES | One of the last punk rock bars in the East Village has closed. Manitoba’s, first opened by The Dictators frontman Richard “Handsome Dick” Manitoba in 1999, shut its doors for good on Tues., June 25.
For the past 20 years, visitors to 99 Avenue B, between E. Sixth and E. Sevenths Sts., found a rock ’n’ roll dive bar in New York City plastered with iconic photographs of The Ramones, Blondie, The New York Dolls, Iggy Pop and beyond from punk’s stratosphere. The bar’s photo booth captured many a drunken, loving moment. Meanwhile, the place’s cushioned, sunken seats conformed to your bottom and kept you in place, as at any moment you might catch Manitoba himself pop in — most likely barking about his beloved Yankees.
On the two screens, the odd ’60s sexploitation or music films and concerts played beneath the music from the bar’s jukebox, filled with punk classics and even some Motown, doo-wop and Elvis, in between. Anyone could create their own punk rock “mixtape” while downing the beer-and-shot special.
“The bar, in the 20 years, was a rollercoaster,” Manitoba told this paper. “At times, it rode high. At times, it went straight down at 180 degrees. Toward the end, there were nights when there was very little money coming in and no one watching the bar enough.”
Manitoba admitted that the bar had financial difficulties for some time, which ultimately led to its closure last month. He also said the lack of a proper manager didn’t help.
“I took a salary in order to survive,” said Manitoba, who lost his DJ job on E Street Band guitarist Little Steven Van Zandt’s SiriusXM channel, the Underground Garage. “I came by more often than usual and watched the door on the weekend, but I couldn’t always be there,” he said. “Basically, what we needed was a trustworthy and hard-working manager. As the bar got smaller, we couldn’t pay for this.”
It’s another loss of a piece of the New York punk era. Manitoba said losing the bar has been a blow, along with the double whammy of what feels like the end of a longtime friendship with the guitarist.
“With the bar closing, there’s a sadness,” he said. “It was my clubhouse, and the clubhouse isn’t there. And it’s the real end of my relationship with Little Steven after 40 years. He lost so much money, and he was getting madder and madder at me.”
Van Zandt was a majority owner of the bar, according to Manitoba. When the place originally opened, Laura McCarthy was an early partner with Manitoba and covered more of the bar’s behind-the-scenes business. McCarthy is part owner — along with Jesse Malin, Tom Baker and Don DiLego — of Coney Island Baby, a bar and live-music venue that opened last April in the former Hi-Fi space on Avenue A.
“In a nutshell, my bartender called me and said ‘Richard there’s no money in the bag,’’’ Manitoba said of the bar’s final day. “And I just said, ‘I guess the bar is closed.’”
Now 65, the Bronx-born Manitoba is focusing on raising his 16-year-old son, his child with his ex-girlfriend Zoe Hansen, who formerly was Manitoba’s manager and bartender. In February 2018, there was an alleged physical altercation between Hansen and Manitoba. The case was later resolved in court and Manitoba pled guilty to disorderly conduct. The two have since parted ways after an 18-year relationship.
Manitoba is now living with their son in the East Village, and Hansen lives in Los Angeles with her boyfriend. Manitoba says that his relationship with Hansen today is nonexistent, with the exception of his son’s communication and visits with his mother. Manitoba even wrote a song, “8th Avenue Serenade,” for his upcoming album, inspired by a photo his son took of the couple when he was 10 years old.
Manitoba’s bar may be gone, but Handsome Dick is still going strong. He’s a few weeks away from signing his first solo album, the 13-track album “Born in the Bronx.” He also has a book deal, and wants to grow his “You Don’t Know Dick” podcast. And he has a one-man show he wants to take “Off-Off-Off” Broadway.
The spirit of Manitoba’s bar will also be kept alive through its Web site, which he will keep updated with posts about personalities, events and other news and stories behind the iconic photos that lined the bar’s sticky walls. Perhaps the bar may eventually even get a second life down the road, as well.
Manitoba said he’s been floating an idea to McCarthy.
“I have been talking to her about giving me a spot in the worst bar, where I can have a Manitoba corner,” the veteran punk rocker said. “People who don’t have the Manitoba’s Bar anymore could go there. If I can make that work, that’s great.”