Once described as ‘half Waylon and half Johnny Rotten,’ Dan McLain was a mortal drummer from San Diego who transformed himself into Country Dick Montana, driving force for the Beat Farmers and Pleasure Barons. It was while performing with the Beat Farmers that the living legend met his Maker on stage in British Columbia on Nov. 8, 1995. Burt Kearns and Jeff Abraham, authors of The Show Won’t Go On, place that moment within the context of a life fully lived for rock ‘n’ roll entertainment.
By Burt Kearns and Jeff Abraham
“Country Dick was like fuckin’ Paul Bunyan, man! Country Dick was a mythical figure, larger than life! Country Dick was one of the greatest showmen ever! You know when you go to the circus, the guy makes a big deal about stickin’ his head in the lion’s mouth? And there’s all this buildup and music and everything? That’s what Country Dick would do. Country Dick would do something hard, and make it look impossible. He would be standing on the table with a beer in each hand, and try to sing into the microphone and avoid the fan’s gonna hit him in the head. It was truly a circus act. It was unbe– You know what it was? It was fuckin entertainment. It was entertaining! You didn’t walk away going, ‘Those songs are kind of boring.’ You walked away going, ‘Shit man, I got my money’s worth!'”
Mojo Nixon, the San Diego psychobilly cowpunk musician who achieved musical immortality in the 1980s and early 1990s with songs like “Elvis Is Everywhere,” “Debbie Gibson is Pregnant with My Two-Headed Love Child” and “Don Henley Must Die,” remembers the man he calls his “dementor… my demented mentor.”
Country Dick Montana was one of those epic, legendary figures who haunt the American highways of rock ‘n’ roll, deified in a local scene, maybe recalled in places where he’d touched down, long gone but never forgotten because of the music, the exploits, and in his case, the way he died, literally in action, with his boots on.
“I’ve got a fun little ghost story about Country Dick dying,” offers Joey Harris, who played guitar with the man. “I don’t know if you can use it or not.”
“Well, if you tell it, we’ll use it.”
“All right. Well, the band used to record at a studio here in San Diego called Hit Single Recordings. We spent more than a couple of months there at the end of ’94. It might have even been the beginning of ’95. So, the story goes that we’re on stage in Whistler (British Columbia), a ski resort, which is kind of odd in the first place. And Country Dick died on stage around 10:15. He literally fell off his drum set and apparently died right there, so that was probably merciful. But the guy who owned Hit Single studio says he was home in bed, when the studio detector motion alarm went off at 10:15. He went down there and he checked it out, and there was nothing going on. Nothing was out of place, no doors were open, no nothin’ like that.
“He had that powerful a spiritual force, right?”
“Yeah. I have a joke about that, too. That at 10:15 on November 8th, 1995, ten thousand bartenders around the globe suddenly burst into tears.”
That great book by Nick Tosches about Dean Martin had just come out. That was something of a touchstone to the whole thing. And we just wanted to raise some hell.”
Country Dick Montana, standing somewhere between six-foot-two and Paul Bunyan, depending on who’s remembering, was a hell-raising, hard-living character under a gambler’s cowboy hat, behind a VanDyke beard and cloaked in a leather Wild West duster, described by someone, not so inaccurately, as “half Waylon, half Johnny Rotten.” But he was a character, who started out, and we’ll find, remained, a mortal named Dan McLain, a soft-spoken guy who once ran a record store and was president of a fan club for the Kinks.
Joey Harris was a guitarist and singer-songwriter with a pop-punk band called The Fingers when he witnessed Dan McLain’s transformation from mortal drummer in the early 1980s. “He was a known entity in San Diego,” he says. “He played with quite a few bands. He played with the Crawdaddys, and with a really popular band called the Penetrators, who were on the verge of breaking out and going national when I think they felt they’d done everything they could do, and they split up.
“He started doing shows. He put together a show called The Big MR and His All-Bitchin’ All-Stud Revue. With way too many musicians on stage. Two bass players, two drummers, six sax players — and none of ’em could play very well! They were all punk rockers. And then he came out on stage. He had bodyguards dressed like a couple of Mafia guys standing on each side of him. He was wearing a perfect Elvis gold lamé jacket with Ray-Ban sunglasses that he kept on the whole time, and started singing ‘Delilah.‘”
For a moment, San Diego’s rock ‘n’ roll scene did a double-take. “No one had ever heard this bass voice before. And so the whole audience was just knocked back on their heels. He did three or four shows like that, and it was kind of a suggestion about what was going to be coming. He was definitely pursuing his path as an entertainer, with a capital E.”
COUNTRY DICK & THE SNUGGLE BUNNIES
About a month later, Harris got a call from McLain. “He said, ‘Hey, get your buddy on guitar and come on over to my house. We’re gonna put together a country western band,’ and that became Country Dick and the Snuggle Bunnies. And he went down to Tijuana and got a couple of big leather long coats — dusters — made, and all of a sudden he was this six-foot two-inch character with cowboy hats and boots. And suddenly he had invented this character, Country Dick!”
“Country Dick and the Snuggle Bunnies,” Mojo Nixon recalls. “They were doin’ what I wanted to do, which was play kind of punked-up country music. ‘Let’s take The Clash and The Sex Pistols and put it on the Louvin Brothers, and ‘The Wreck of The Old 97.’ In fact, they used to do ‘The Wreck of The Old 97’! They had a regular gig at this biker bar called Spring Valley Inn, where you could buy drugs and get killed at the same time.”
“We would show up on Sunday and we would play from three in the afternoon until closing,” Harris confirms. “And we drank a lot, and we did a lot of drugs, fornicated a lot, and it turned into a real happening. Every Sunday, it was the place to be.”
Bikers, rockers, cowboys and drunks crammed the joint. The mix of punk, country, blues and straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll was so powerful that the moniker they saddled it with didn’t quite do justice to its power and resonance. “Cowpunk” would have to do.
THE BEAT FARMERS
Around 1983, Country Dick took the best spare parts from the Snuggle Bunnies and retooled them into a quartet he called The Beat Farmers.
“I was so pissed that I didn’t get in the Beat Farmers,” Mojo Nixon says. “I said, ‘I’ll learn bass, how hard can it be?’ Country Dick goes, ‘There’s only room for one monkey in the show and that monkey is me, motherfucker.’ But me and him were friends and I wrote some songs for him and I worshipped him, and followed him around like a sick dog. And you know, it turned out better I wasn’t in the Beat Farmers. I was able to go do my own thing.”
Alex DeFelice was making music on the San Diego scene when the Beat Farmers began gigging, building a following, and in 1985, releasing their first LP, Tales of The New West. In 1991, he’d become the Beat Farmers’ manager. “There was a Billboard review that said they were the best band to come down the pike since Creedence Clearwater. And they really had that sound. It was a real roots rock, Americana sound, heavy-duty guitars.”
“It was a great rock ‘n’ roll band, but it was kind of a setup for the Country Dick show
The Beat Farmers really could have been the new Creedence, but a comparison with the Beatles makes their distinction more clear. Imagine a Beatles concert in which Lennon and McCartney trade off the first few songs, and with the crowd in a frenzy, throw to Ringo for a number. Now, instead of shaking his moptop through an off-key rendition of “Boys,” Ringo — who in this case is a head taller than the others — gets up from his drum stool, hands off the sticks, walks to the edge of the stage, pops open a beer, lights a joint, and belts out “It’s Not Unusual” in a miles-deep, wa-a-a-y down bass voice that’s some kind of mix of Johnny Cash, J.D. Sumner and Thurl Ravenscroft (you know Thurl; he sings the Grinch song). From then on, the show is a party. That was Country Dick Montana.
“This big fuckin’ greasy, beer-covered, beer-soaked cheerleader would come out and lead the audience through five or six songs from the edge of the stage,” Harris says. “He could dance around on stage, almost like a ballet dancer with beer bottles balanced on his cowboy hat. And juggling beer bottles.”
“He was amazing,” DeFelice says. “He was an entertainer. One of the other guys would get back on the drums and play while he was singing and he’d go through all the stuff, like Kenny Rogers’ ‘Lucille,’ and ‘Baby’s Liquored Up,’ ‘Happy Boy,’ ‘Lakeside Trailer Park,’ all those great tunes. And the crowds are just going nuts, and he could be smoking joints with them, and telling stories, and sipping beer bottles on stage, and dancing around.”
“Of course, the beer flew everywhere, but he did a sort of flip, roll over on his back and come up on his feet and do a ta-da!” says Harris. “Then he would go out into the crowd, into the middle of the dance floor, and get everyone to settle down around him, and he would sing ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain.'”
“And then,” DeFelice adds, “they’d rip into ‘Anarchy in the UK.'”
The act and the persona hit it big in the heyday of college radio in the mid-1980s (and Country Dick’s contributions got them into Dr. Demento’s rotation). The Beat Farmers went major label when MCA’s Curb Records signed them. Joey Harris joined the band in time for their third album.
“It was like a two-headed monster, with the two lead singers, Joey and Jerry (Raney),” says DeFelice. “They called them ‘the two-headed monster’ because they both sang, they both traded leads, and they both wrote the songs. And then Country Dick did his songs. He made them a three-headed monster.”
It was a wild, boozy, four-piece rock ‘n’ roll band with three heads — not the easiest fit for a record label that wanted to market them as another radio-friendly unit-shifter. “Well, it confused the record company, and because of that, they couldn’t sell it to the radio stations,” Harris says. “But even so, we still got pretty respectable radio. It was a great rock ‘n’ roll band, that’s the way I would describe it. It was just a really great rock ‘n’ roll band that pounded you over the head.”
But great as the Beat Farmers were, Harris realizes their powerful Americana rock ‘n’ roll took a backseat to the force of nature who started off each set in a backseat behind the drums. “It was a great rock ‘n’ roll band, but it was kind of a setup for the Country Dick show, really.”
“I remember another story about Country Dick,” Mojo Nixon says. “Country Dick would perform these bootleg weddings. He performed mine. And he was somewhere, I think it was maybe Arizona. These big fans of his. So he goes, he performs the wedding. They have a big party. Everybody’s drinkin’ and druggin’ and havin’ a great time. The groom passes out. Bride is horny on the wedding night. Who steps up? Reverend Country Dick Montana! You know, he took one for the team!
“There’s fifty stories like that about Country Dick. Some involve a monkey and some of which are true,” he says. “When I go out, like when I’m down in Austin, it’s South by Southwest or if I’m on the Outlaw Country Cruise, every third person: ‘Man, me and you and Country Dick, we fucked a monkey and then we went to a submarine, and then we got in a hot air balloon…” You know, just one crazy fuckin’ thing after another.”
“I remember we were standing in line to fly somewhere, and we needed our passports, and he had filled out his statement of things he was bringing into the country,” Joey Harris remembers. “And I noticed that where it said ‘occupation,’ mine said ‘musician.’ I wrote that. But his actually said ‘Entertainer.'”
Mojo Nixon: “You know that’s what Elvis had in his passport.”
Joey Harris: “And I remember thinking at that moment, that’s really what his whole life was about. That’s all he ever wanted to be. And that’s why he put together The Pleasure Barons.”
THE PLEASURE BARONS
“The Pleasure Barons had ten people.” Mojo Nixon is calculating now. “And Country Dick promised ten people, twenty percent of the profit. See, you do the math, it’s not gonna work. That’s 200 percent! And Country Dick also fuckin’ sold the rights to the record to three different people! And that’s beyond show biz. That’s show jizz! You know, that’s the highest form.”
The Pleasure Barons were, as Mojo Nixon put it, “a super duper group.” Fronted by Country Dick, Nixon and Americana heavyweight Dave Alvin from The Blasters, it was a supersized Country Dick Rat Pack Vegas-style roadshow. “The original idea was, it was going to be the first post-cowpunk supergroup homage to Tom Jones, on acid, from hell,” Nixon says. “So we’re gonna do like a Vegas revue, but it was gonna be all these cowpunks. It was gonna be wild and sleazy. We wanted it to be maybe like the Treniers, who did that song, ‘Poon-Tang.’ And we wanted it to be kind of deep. That great book by Nick Tosches about Dean Martin had just come out. That was something of a touchstone to the whole thing. And we just wanted to raise some hell.”
Raise hell they did. There were guitars, horns and background singers. Joey Harris was the cowpunk Paul Shaffer, directing it all. “We had a big backdrop that had a Las Vegas skyline and there was also a pretty good-size bar on stage. And so whenever Dave Alvin was singing a song, Mojo and Dan would be back at the bar, mixing drinks for the band.”
“And the great thing,” Nixon adds, “– me, Country Dick, Dave Alvin, are used to carryin’ the whole show. I only had to sing like every now and then! I literally had a bar on stage. I had like a rolling bar on stage. And sometimes I would shake drinks to the beat of the song. Bo Diddley song, ‘Who do you love…’ You could shake some good drinks to that motherfucker!”
A Pleasure Barons tour led to an album, Live in Las Vegas, that captures the raw power, hilarity and majesty. A second tour to promote the record included roots rocks stars like Rosie Flores, John Doe and Katy Moffatt. “That made it even easier,” Mojo Nixon says with a laugh.
A MAN NAMED DAN
While the Pleasure Barons sidetrip presented the best of cowpunk, there was a time between the two tours that reminded everyone in San Diego of one important detail about Country Dick Montana. He was actually Dan McLain. And Dan McLain was mortal.
“He was the sweetest guy you could meet. He was just the nicest guy. He always made time for everybody,” Alex DeFelice says. Dan McLain also suffered some of the most troublesome ailments to afflict an ordinary man. “He had some kidney problems (cysts), and he did have the thyroid cancer, which was a real scare. He wound up with a scar that went from ear to ear — like a human Pez dispenser.”
“He had a bunch of health problems,” Mojo Nixon admits. “In fact, when I made the album Otis, I had him and John Doe and Bill Davis and Eric ‘Roscoe’ Ambel play on it. And the producer, Jim Dickinson, said, ‘Man, you know he just had that surgery.’ Dickinson had a spare drummer holed up in a hotel room in case he couldn’t do it! Once I told Country Dick that, he was like, ‘Motherfucker!’ That was the greatest motivation ever. He’s like, ‘Oh yeah? I’m gonna fuckin’ do it!'”
“He actually had a couple of surgeries,” Harris recalls. “And it scared him.”
“He was real worried he wouldn’t be able to sing again,” DeFelice says. “And when you’ve got a voice that deep, and that intense, you’ve got to worry that it’s going to be taken away from you. That’s pretty scary.”
“After the second (surgery), he took myself and Paul Kamanski into Hit Single Recorders,” says Harris “and laid down some tracks of songs, potential ideas for songs and some cover songs, with us just playing acoustic guitars and him singing, in case his next operation was going to damage his voice to the point where he couldn’t sing anymore.
“And that project became his solo record, which a lot of people really don’t know about. It was called The Devil Lied to Me. It was on Bar/None Records. Unfortunately, it came out a couple months after he died.”
SLOGGING IT OUT
Despite the illnesses, despite the lack of support from record companies, the Beat Farmers soldiered on into the 1990s.
“They kept slogging it out, because hey, that’s what you gotta do,” says DeFelice. “There were parts of the country where they didn’t do too well, and there were other parts of the country where they did incredibly. And so they just kept doing it and doing it, and going for it, because that’s what they know, that’s what they did.
“They’d already been through the Curb/MCA ringer, and that was pretty terrible. Curb wanted them to be a sort of a country band, and they weren’t a country band, and they did not know how to market them. They would always get buried. It’s the typical record label story that’s happened with so many of those kind of bands from that time. I mean, it happened to The Blasters, it happened to X, but they just had to do it and knock it out with touring. And they got the David Letterman show in the ’90s. They had good things happening like that along the way, so they were able to sustain themselves.”
“It was tough,” Harris says. “The initial success was sort of tied to how college radio helped the band develop a really large following. But I don’t think those people were there years later when commercial records (from newer bands) started coming out. I also think that the record label failed to understand what they had and who they were promoting in the first place. But the band continued to tour and the last year that we toured, we were playing more dates than ever before, and making a lot more money than ever before. As far as the fans were concerned, the Beat Farmers really never diminished at all.
“So I was confused and disappointed that the record company was so confused and disappointed so often. But I figured that was their problem, you know? I’m not the record company. It’s not my job to sell records. It’s my job to be out there on the road. And if we go out on the road, if you pull into Dayton, Ohio, and none of your new records are in the local Tower Records, that’s not the band’s fault. We were extremely doing our part. We were risking our lives out there for months at a time.”
Literally, it turns out.
THE DEATH OF COUNTRY DICK MONTANA
In November 1995, after years of incessant touring, the band ventured north for a series of dates in Canada.
“I think it was the third date of the tour,” manager DeFelice recalls, “because they were doing Western Canada, they were going up the West Coast and doing Vancouver and Whistler, and then Victoria, British Columbia, and then heading to Calgary and Edmonton and those places.”
On Wednesday, November 8, they pulled into the Longhorn Saloon and Grill at the base of the 2,198-foot Whistler Mountain in Whistler, British Columbia. “In Whistler, Country Dick had told a couple guys he wasn’t feeling too good beforehand,” DeFelice says. “He was a little dizzy, not feeling too great, and he didn’t think much of it. We thought, ‘Oh, it’s just the altitude, and he’s been drinking beer,’ you know?”
A rowdy crowd cheered as The Beat Farmers took the stage that night.
“Well, it was pretty straightforward,” Joey Harris says. “They’d had us a few times at Whistler, and everybody was there at the bar. It was completely packed. We went onstage and played, I think, three songs.”
Then the band went into ‘Girl I Almost Married,’ a song written by Joey Harris.
“On the fourth song, Jerry Raney started the guitar intro and Dan didn’t come in,” Harris remembers. “But he was sort of tapping on his hi-hat. I had no idea what might be wrong with him. So I walked over to him, and I asked him, ‘Are you okay?’ And he looked up at me and just said, ‘No.’ And I said, ‘Okay,’ and then I started waving to the roadies to come up onstage. And while my back was turned, he slipped off the back of his drum throne. And they worked on him. I went and hid somewhere, I think. I guess the ambulance guys worked on him for a while, and then they took him to the hospital.”
“I went to the hospital with Dick,” road manager Tom Ames said. “They worked on him at least a half-hour, forty-five minutes, and I was still stunned when they came out after trying to revive him after all that time. They came out and told me he was gone. I was in shock.”
“I was in New Haven,” manager DeFelice says. “I wasn’t on the tour with them. I was in bed, because it was like three, four in the morning when I got the call. It was before cell phones, or before I had one. And the phone went off, and it’s like, ‘Oh, they’re either drunk and calling me, and complaining that there’s no records in a record store, or something’s wrong.’ Typical band stuff — or something’s really wrong. So a couple hours later, I called and the hotel said, ‘They’re not taking any calls,’ and I told them I was their manager, and they put me through. And then Jerry told me what had happened. It was just the biggest shock. And I called the record label and their publicist and we had to deal with all that. And then MTV called, and they said, ‘Is there a film of it?’ I said, ‘Of course there’s no film of it!’ They wouldn’t put (the Beat Farmers) videos on. But they wanted that.”
BLOWTORCH IN THE MIDDLE
Country Dick Montana was forty years old. It turns out that wasn’t the cancer and it wasn’t the trademark hard-living, hard-drinking, hard-drugging lifestyle that did him in. Country Dick was dead from an aortic aneurysm. A bulge in the body’s largest blood vessel weakened and ruptured, and his big old heart pumped itself to a stop.
“What’s interesting is that after his last operation, and after we finished recording what would become the last Beat Farmers record and his solo record, is that he’d gotten pretty sober,” Joey Harris says. “And so I was sure it wasn’t drugs. But I thought maybe somebody had slipped him something. Well, we didn’t know at that point, but he’d had an aneurysm. It had stopped his heart cold, I guess.”
A report in the Lake Tahoe Review suggested that Country Dick had suffered a heart attack resulting from a blood clot in his leg, which may have been the result of the long, tall musician travelling “thousands of miles sitting bent-kneed in a van.”
“That’s one story, but I’ll tell you this: When they did the autopsy, his liver was exemplary, in perfect condition,” DeFelice counters. “All that drinking and all that living didn’t do any damage to that, so I don’t know about him folding up his body. You hear about that with people on airplanes and stuff. And we thought because he dropped so quick, it had to have been some heart thing. And it turned out it was an aortic aneurysm.”
“Yeah,” Harris says. “I heard a story, too, that his doctor had told him, ‘You have a blood clot in the back of your knee, and we need to take care of that before you go on the road.’ And the story I got was that his roommate took him to the doctor and he saw him slip out of the back door of the doctor’s office and go into the thrift store next door. And he spent the hour in the thrift store looking for clothes. So, he was in some sort of denial. However, every time I tried to talk to my own doctors about it, they said, ‘Well, that’s not what an aneurysm is.'”
There were several appropriate boozy cowpunk memorials for Country Dick Montana, although the official funeral was really for Daniel Monte McLain. “The funeral was a family thing,” says DeFelice, who’d made his way west that week.”The family put it together, and Dick’s parents are very, very Christian. Very, very straight, almost conservative Christian. Nice people, but a lot of things were said that you could tell that the minister didn’t really know him. I was so shaken up at that point, I can barely remember it, but he was giving the standard sort of Christian conservative remembrance, and anyone who knew Dick knew it had to be almost a rock ‘n’ roll New Orleans party in order for it to be a funeral. But we did that ourselves, afterwards.”
After the death of Country Dick Montana, the Beat Farmers called it a day. Joey Harris had seen the end coming all along. “I’m pretty sure that that Canadian tour was probably going to be the last Beat Farmer tour, because I was sure that Country Dick would be promoting his solo record.” No hard feelings, though. “The whole experience was so much fun. It was the best years of my life. I really had the best time ever.”
Country Dick’s spirit and influence continue to inspire the rock ‘n’ roll bands that travel those American highways to ever diminishing returns. Mojo Nixon, holding court on SiriusXM for the past decade and a half, makes sure of it.
“I wasn’t there when he died,” he says. “We were on tour. We were in Arkansas or something, man. But many times on stage, I thought the motherfucker was dead! One time, I had my band, we were in Austin, and we were going to Fitzgerald’s in Houston to do the tenth anniversary show. So it was gonna be Country Dick Montana with Mojo and the Toadliquors. It’s gonna be great. So Country Dick brings some drugs and my bass player thinks that its cocaine. So he’s choppin’ at the lines like they’re cocaine. It’s fuckin’ speed! Nobody went to sleep for a year! Damn near killed us all!
“I think Bob Dylan once said during the Sixties, he wasn’t burnin’ the candle at both ends, he had a blowtorch in the middle. And that was Country Dick. Country Dick had a blowtorch in the middle, and he didn’t give a shit. Country Dick belongs in that group of unbelievably talented, wild, crazy motherfuckers!
“It’s rare that you see a crazy American entertainer at the level of Country Dick. And it’s rare that you see it live. Or that you see it more than a few times. ‘Cause lots of times people like Country Dick will burn out. The heroin or whatever will take over and eat ’em up. Country Dick was something. It was unfuckinbelievable. It was an honor to be in his motherfuckin’ presence!”
Country Dick was our king
The truth he did sing
He died mid-song on stage
Killed by record company cheaters
Bean-counting wife beaters
He would not be a slave
But friend, don’t be sad
‘Cause Country Dick is dead
His voice raves on forever
And this big ol’ planet Earth
Has just given birth
To a brand new hell-raisin’ trouble maker!
Let’s hoist a glass to our friend
Let the drinkin’ begin
Eat some ‘shrooms right now
Play poker ’til dawn
Dean Martin records on
And all rear back and begin to howl!
(from “The Ballad of Country Dick” by Mojo Nixon)
Images via @CountryDickMontana Facebook page
Special thanks to Alex DeFelice.
Burt Kearns & Jeff Abraham wrote the new book, The Show Won’t Go On: The Most Shocking, Bizarre and Historic Deaths of Performers Onstage (Chicago Review Press). Country Dick Montana is among them.