Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles about Country Dick Montana, a singular showman and bandleader of the San Diego cowpunk Beat Farmers.
When he played with some of his first bands, Dan McLain finished shows with a reckless, comical drum solo that ended when he, and often his kit, crashed to the floor.
He was the California Kid, the King of the Hobos, the Master of Reality. He was a musicologist and a minister, a cartoonist and a crooner. More than anything, he was an entertainer. McLain eventually became the showman dubbed Country Dick Montana. On Nov. 8, 1995, at the age of 40, he died onstage during a sold-out Beat Farmers show. Twenty years later, he remains larger than life.
“The myth of Country Dick and the reality of Country Dick were very close,” said Mojo Nixon, one of Montana’s most notorious cohorts from his hometown San Diego. “He was living out there in the psychotic edge. He was up on the razor’s edge of insanity.”
To shield himself from beer spray, the 6-foot-3 man wore a long cowboy duster that accompanied his hat and thick-heeled boots, which made him even taller. He’d lay on his back with the a beer bottle pinched between those boots, splashing suds into his face, following his idol Dean Martin’s mantra: “I know someday I’ll meet my match, but until that time comes, down the hatch.”
Brazen and unabashed, Country Dick had no fear of the unknown; he dove into it, as he did with an audience that would schlepp him to get another drink.
“Ain’t that a lazy motherfucker to get people to carry him?” Nixon said. “He was a big, strong, ambulatory man. He could have walked to the bar.”
He sang and spoke in a voice deeper than an engine in a vintage muscle car. A description that stuck was that it sounded like Johnny Cash on acid.
“That low note would sit there and it would just rumble,” songwriter Paul Kamanski said. “It would hit such a fuzzy parameter — it was a weapon of mass destruction. It was like something the military would use to loosen your bowels so you couldn’t fight.”
In one edition of his self-penned “Beat Farmers Almanac,” Country Dick wrote he inherited the deep voice from his father, who was a carney, and his mother, a sideshow attraction known as the “Amazing Frog Woman.” It was a made-up story, of course, but it was consistent with Dick’s philosophy regarding publicity: “When you speak to the press, I strongly suggest that you lie. The truth is too boring and probably too good for them anyway. It’s better just to make up a story. They are going to believe it anyway.”
A comedic genius, Country Dick was impervious to the humorless. His charisma won over everybody, regardless how hard he pushed the level of offensiveness.
“They were madly in love with this giant,” said Joey Harris, who played with Country Dick in the Beat Farmers. “If the place was a nightclub with tables, he would just walk out on the tables and kick the drinks out of the way, and say, ‘Sorry about that.’ He’d continue on to the last table and flop down on that, often picking up shards of glass in his ass. And he would carry on the show from somebody’s table top. It was a three-dimensional experience. People were completely flabbergasted.”
“He could look at that college kid right in the face and call him a maggot,” Kamanski said, “and the kid would hand over his car keys to him and say, ‘I love you.’ And follow him to the end of the earth. That was his persona.”
“Country Dick was a master showman,” Nixon said. “He’s like a guy who sticks his head in the lion’s mouth. He used to balance on these tables and try to avoid the ceiling fan over his head. It was some sort of hillbilly ballet, drunken, mushroom artistry previously unseen on the planet.”
This is the story of Country Dick Montana, who left unforgettable memories with peers and friends in San Diego and all across the globe. He lived more in his 40 years than others might in 104.
“Talking to fans 20 years later, it’s almost like you can’t really know what it was like unless you were there, but it was something that they will carry with them their entire lives,” Harris said. “It’s a joy for life.”
A hellraiser from the start
Dan McLain was in the Kmak family’s living room beating the shit out of a blue Astro drum kit when eighth-grader Joel Kmak came home from school and met him for the first time.
McLain, a sophomore at Grossmont High School in El Cajon, California, was in a band with Kmak’s older brother, Jefrey Stephen Kmak.
“My house was kind of the hangout for all the misfit kids in school because my parents were very liberal,” Joel Kmak said. “He’d hang out a lot until he was almost like a member of the family. My dad called him ‘Big Dan.’ ”
Kmak and McLain would become best of friends, who as teens learned about music, girls, beer and drugs. Kmak’s father was a mentor who would talk politics, literature, spin records from the 1920s and ’30s on a Victrola, and insist that Big Dan play “Alley Cat” on his piano.
McClain preferred to spend time at the Kmaks’ house rather than his own.
“Dan’s parents were very conservative, uptight Christians,” Kmak said. “They were very cute people and very loving. There was nothing wrong with them, they just had different ideas about going to church and being a buttoned-up whatever. His dad was a pharmacist and he played piano.”
Monte McLain also was a Baptist minister.
The McLains’ house was immaculate and its furniture was covered in protective plastic. Dan’s room had a poster of his favorite band, the Kinks, along with one of Detroit Tigers pitcher Denny McLain.
“He was very much into baseball,” Kmak said. “He was a very good fielder, very athletic that way. I was only at his house about five times. It was always, ‘Hush, hush. Don’t bother the parents.’ He’d just go into his room and get whatever he needed and got the fuck out of there.”
McLain was apt to complain about Grossmont High, and finally Kmak’s father had heard enough.
“Would you quit whining and do something about it, you fucking pussy?” he told Big Dan, who accepted the challenge. He ran for student body vice president and won, but his term ended quickly.
“There was an assembly on a Friday where you you usually talk about how you are going to win the fucking football game and blah, blah, blah,” Kmak said. “Then Dan comes up and makes his speech. He starts off saying, ‘I know we’re all happy it’s Friday,’ applause line. ‘But I know some of you people are pissed off, and it’s you people who are pissed off are who I’m interested in because I’m pissed off, too. And I’m going to tell you why I’m pissed off.’ And he spent the next 10 minutes talking about how fucked up Grossmont High School was.
“I come home from school that day and Dan’s sitting in my bedroom listening to a Kinks record, and I go ‘What the fuck are you doing here?’
“ ‘I got kicked out of school and I don’t want to go home and tell my parents I got suspended.’ The school made him quit. Part of not taking the harsh punishment was for him to resign from office. It was a very big scandal at the high school.”
As a precursor to “The Beat Farmers Almanac,” McLain drew sketches of teachers and passed out a funny paper to students called “The Adventures of Mr. Bazik.”
“Mr. Bazik was a typing teacher and I am sure he was close to retirement,” Kmak said. “He was an old guy. And it would crack us up because it took him an hour to get from the administration building across the quad to the typing room. He’d kind of smile and shuffle by. And Dan would fucking time him and shout, ‘You’re going to be late, Mr. Bazik.’
“One of the characters was Dickhead, which was a giant penis saying funny lines. Who wouldn’t remember a perfectly drawn penis spouting out one-liners from behind a typewriter in Mr. Bazik’s class? He was always drawing or writing shit down. He was always that way. He was always quick witted.”
On Friday nights, there were listening parties at the Kmaks, where the friends, who all played in bands, would bring new albums. McLain usually bought at least two records each week, and his collection became huge. After he died, Kmak was given his collection, which includes several rehearsal tapes and demos from McLain’s numerous bands.
McLain, who always had more energy than everyone else, kept up a frenzied pace after high school, one he would continue to amp up for the rest of his life. He was married very young, attended Mesa Community College, ambitiously enrolling in about 18 units. He worked a graveyard shift at a 7-Eleven. And he started his own business, a record store on El Cajon Avenue in San Diego, Monty Rockers. Monte was McLain’s middle name and his father’s first name.
“I tried to talk him out of it,” Kmak said. “ ‘Dude, we’ve been collecting for three years, what are you going to do, just sell all this stuff?’ Which is kind of what he did.
“It became a hangout, but it closed because Dan was a terrible businessman when it came to that kind of thing. He was a brilliant businessman in a lot of ways, but running a record store wasn’t one of them, although I don’t think he had much interest in really turning a profit.”
When the record store came to an end, so did McLain’s short marriage.
It was time now for McLain to become a one-of-a-kind entertainer, who put together the “greatest band in the world.”