Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series of articles about Country Dick Montana, who died onstage during a Beat Farmers performance 20 years ago at the Longhorn Saloon in Whistler, Canada.
Before his first cancer scare when he was 19 years old, Dan McLain, aka Country Dick Montana, had been known for his relentless energy and stout constitution. He was destined to lead a fast, furious life, no matter its length.
The Beat Farmers became his most successful band by far, but Country Dick was always busy with many other projects, including the Pleasure Barons, a Las Vegas revue-styled group. The band, which toured in 1989 and 1993 and released one live album, was fronted by three musical and comedic geniuses, Mojo Nixon, Dave Alvin and Country Dick Montana.
“It was the Rat Pack from hell,” Nixon said. “It was a Rat Pack on acid and speed.”
To create his persona, Country Dick studied great entertainers and he idolized Dean Martin, who had a boozey shtick with fellow Rat Pack members Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra.
Country Dick met Dave Alvin during the Beat Farmers’ first tour in 1984, when the San Diego band opened for the Blasters, one of the first new wave/rockabilly hybrids to be described as cowpunk. In the late 1970s, the Alvin brothers, Phil and Dave, formed the Blasters. Phil Alvin has a jump blues singing style, which has been called the best voice in rock. Dave Alvin was praised by Bob Dylan as being the nation’s greatest songwriter.
Mojo Nixon is brilliant, too. He and former Snuggle Bunny Skid Roper (Richard Banke) cut a number of great, humorous records as what Nixon called “a psychotic rock and roll duo.”
As the frontmen for the Pleasure Barons, Alvin, Country Dick and Mojo Nixon crooned classic pop tunes. A highlight was Country Dick’s “The Definitive Tom Jones Medley.”
“The Pleasure Barons was completely insane,” Nixon said. “I only sang four or five songs. That gave me lots of time for shenanigans and cockamamie schemes. Dick, he was tired of playing the drums. Drumming is manual labor. Hell, even Don Henley got tired of playing the drums. We all had a great time.”
The Pleasure Barons also included the Coronado guys, Joey Harris and Paul “Stinky” Kamanski, and Douglas and David Farage. Caren Campbell was the lone Baroness (female) on the first Pleasure Barons tour. There were two Baronesses on the second tour in 1993, Rosie Flores and Katie Moffat.
“We went to 17 cities in 21 days, playing five and one-half hours of music a night,” Kamanski said. “It was brutal. It cost me my marriage and my health to a certain extent.”
Caren Campbell, who had known Dan McLain even before his days with Country Dick and the Snuggle Bunnies, later married Kamanski.
“I always called him Dan, but most people called him Country Dick,” Campbell-Kamanski said. “He’s kind of in the same mode as Mojo Nixon, where the real guy and the show guy are kind of melded into one. It was really rare to see him come out and just be Dan McLain, the guy. I did get the opportunity to see that quite a bit. For being such a big guy with that deep voice, he was just a super sensitive and generous guy.
“He wanted me to be the Baroness. It was 14 guys and just me. I told him, ‘You are going to have to meet my dad first.’ When he did, he said, ‘I am Country Dick Montana, Mr. Campbell, and I want you to know she’s going to be in very good hands.’ Dad gave his blessing and the next day Dan took me shopping.”
After lunch, the shopping spree included a wig and a long dress and, and Country Dick’s insistence, garter stockings and belts.
“He said, ‘You’ve got to be just as sexy underneath as you are on the outside,’ ” Campbell-Kamanski said. “It was the cutest thing I’ve ever heard. This huge lug of a man knows exactly how a woman feels about her undergarments. And I learned later, at one of the venues, the joke about that — because the stage was way up high and the audience was way down low, and I thought, ‘You asshole.’ ”
The Pleasure Barons’ shows opened with a group called the Shovelheads, which had dressed-down members Harris, Kamanski, the Farage brothers and Campbell. When they re-emerged as the Pleasure Barons, the musicians donned tuxedos. But audiences treated them as if it were the Beat Farmers — the crowd sprayed beer at them.
“Caren had this platinum blonde wig and, the damn thing, after about two weeks on the road stunk so bad we had to wrap it in three different Glad bags and put it in the back of the bus,” Paul Kamanski said. “She’d put the wig on and by the end of the night the thing would be drenched in beer and alcohol. The wig stunk so bad. It was the foulest smelling thing you’ve ever seen on the road. It was gruesome.”
The tour was especially tough for Alvin, who became deathly ill during a nonstop drive from Canada to the San Francisco Bay Area.
“I didn’t even get paid for the first tour,” Alvin said. “When he asked me to go on the second tour, I said I want $3,000 plus a $3,000 down payment on the next. Of course, I did the second tour. He was the world’s biggest cheerleader.”
“Country Dick had promised 10 people 20 percent of the profits,” Nixon said. “The tour ended in Vegas, and this is all a giant blur. It’s like a memory of a dream of an echo. Country Dick spent all his money on a Tom Jones outfit or some fucking thing.”
Jones was the major inspiration for the Pleasure Barons. When the tour ended, half of the band stayed in Vegas an extra night to see Jones perform.
“Dan was just crazy about Tom Jones,” Campbell-Kamanski said. “Sitting next to him in that theater in Vegas and to watch him watch Tom Jones live was such a neat thing. There was a huge medley of Tom Jones songs on the album. He arranged way before the tour to have us backstage to meet him.”
Jones’ tour manager reportedly was a big fan of the Beat Farmers and he made preparations for Country Dick to meet Jones after the show.
“He was very gracious,” Pleasure Barons’ road manager Tom Ames said. “He said, ‘It’s nice to have young people do my music and revitalize it for a whole new audience.’ ”
Between the two Pleasure Barons tours, Country Dick had surgery to remove cancerous tumors in his neck. Three weeks later, he was in the studio for Mojo Nixon’s 1990 album, “Otis.”
“It was the first cowpunk supergroup,” Nixon said. Musicians who contributed to the album included John Doe (of the band X, and the second Pleasure Barons tour), Bill Davis (Dash Rip Rock), Eric Roscoe Ambel (the Del Lords). “Otis” was produced by the legendary Jim Dickinson, whose 16-year-old son, Luther, also played on the record.
“He had the cancer surgery when we made “Otis” in his thyroid up in his neck and he was worried he wasn’t going to be able to sing again,” Nixon said. “They were able to do the surgery and save his vocal chords because the cancer was all up in there. When we did ‘Otis,’ we called him Zipperneck because he had this giant Frankenstein scar up around his neck.
“Jim Dickinson, the producer, hired another drummer in case (Montana) couldn’t play. That guy was sitting in a motel room getting $200 a day for doing nothing because Country Dick was bound and determined he was going to play and have fun. This was only three weeks after the surgery. And he had had other cancer scares earlier in his life, and if you ever saw him live, you’d say, “This guy ain’t going to be alive another 15 minutes.”
During the final year of his life, Country Dick may have been thinking the same thing.
“One night we were groovin’ at a club, eatin’ leftover barbecue, tired, beat, worn out, sippin’ whiskey, and just lovin’ one another,” Paul Kamanski said. “People were smokin’ and Dick lit up a cigarette. I said ‘what’re you doin’?’ He had always reprimanded me for my insidious appetite for the cigarette. He looked at me with that wisdom, and said, ‘Fuck it, Stinky, I’m already dead.’ ”