A friend up the coast sent me an article today from the San Francisco Chronicle in which the writer discusses how hateful her life was growing up with the last name Dick. (The Name Game – by Kelly Valen December 4th). Obviously this caused me to ponder on my own Dickness and what it means to me.
My first memory of Dick being a problem for me or my family was as a child when my father would always try and explain to my mother why the Air Force was sending him on some horrendous posting to a far-off country which would keep him away from us for months on end. “Well,” he would explain, ” they start at the beginning of the alphabet and they look for a name that’s short and easy to remember and when they get to Dick there’s no need to go any further!” I was young enough to actually believe that this was how the miltary worked and my mother, whose name was Doris Dick, and probably had her own problems with the name, never said another word.
My second memory was the playground taunt, “Nigel Dick is a prick.” Which, while it defintely rhymes quite nicely, didn’t reveal the author to be someone who was going to move forward in life and keep future Poet Laureates up at night. By now we were into the sixties and despite them being apparently very swinging no-one to my knowledge used Dick as a slang term for men’s parts or as a description for someone who was a fool. All I knew was that it was obviously an odd and unusual name and was apparently Scottish and derived from Duncan. I even heard about a famous Scottish scrum-half whose name was Willie Dick which in today’s parlance would be akin to being called Penis Penis.
In 1964 I was sent away to boarding school. In Britain the theory is that boarding schools provide superior education, excellent sporting opportunities and turn boys into men. In reality they can be brutal prisons in which smaller, weaker children are tormented and bullied relentlessly for months at a time by larger nastier boys trying to show how macho they are. I was both smaller and weaker than my peers and certainly bullied a lot but strangley the Dick part was never an issue. My theory was that, with a name like Dick and in an environment where no-one ever used Christian names, why waste energy on giving someone a nickname when his name was already Dick?
In 1969 my father was posted to Germany for the third time and, on visits home from school, I would listen to German people laugh when we were introduced for, in German, we were essentially called the Thick Family.
By the seventies American culture was rampantly invading us all and gradually I understood that Dick meant both Penis and Idiot. But I was used to it all by now and thought nothing more of it until I got a gig at Stiff Records in 1977. Punk was in full swing and people were rechristening themselves with names like Johnny Rotten and Poly Styrene and the people I worked with had names like Rat Scabies, Wreckless Eric and Kosmo Vinyl. Dick was almost starting to be a cool moniker and for the first time, when being introduced to some hipster, I was asked what my real name was. Of course I blew it and told them it was my real name.
December ’78 saw me standing in line at JFK on my first trip to America waiting to go through customs and immigration. There were 40 of us all working on a rock n’roll tour with pierced ears, Lewis Leather jackets and tattered jeans. By the time the INS guy got to me and saw my last name in the passport he’d had enough. ” Dick? Dick! I don’t f***ing believe this he muttered,” stamped my passport, handed it back to me and closed down his lane. Those ten days in NYC and Akron blew my mind and with my ever increasing confidence I came home and soon afterwards signed my first business letter as being “FROM THE DICK AT NIGEL’S DESK.” It caused hilarity and mirth – but not as much consternation as when, having been promoted to do PR for the company, I made my first phone call to The Times reviews section. “Who’s calling?” the young female asked at the other end of the line. “Nigel Dick from Stiff Records,” I replied. “Piss Off!” she hissed and slammed the phone down.
The winds of culture had shifted and my name was actually starting to cause offense. This was fun. Wreckless Eric released a single called A Popsong. In one longer mix of the track he rapped about the members of staff in the runout: “Rachel Sweet goes tweet, tweet, tweet; Nigel Dick makes you sick.” I was very disappointed that this version was never officially released.
Some years earlier Johnny Cash’s “Boy Named Sue” had been a big hit and it suggested the theory that, by calling his son a girl’s name, the errant father of the tale had provided his offspring with years of character-building toughness without being in the picture – an early version of whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. With the 8 long years of bullying still a recent memory and with Punk at it’s zenith I embraced my Dickness. In 1979 I sent out the first of my Christmas Cards with Dick themes. I made a double exposure of two of me in stupid poses with guitars and sunglasses trying to look like rock stars. The caption read: Happy Christmas from a couple of Real Dicks. Spot the Dick followed in 1980 and the year after, having seen a Richard Nixon campaign button in a history book, stole his slogan You Can’t Lick A Good Dick. Sadly my girlfriend at the time took this as a personal and very public comment on her grasp (or perhaps lack of it) of an unspoken sexual technique and we broke up before the Christmas decorations came down in January.
I carried on unperturbed and soon realised that I had found a brand for myself which seemed vaguely cool. Hell, Branson had gone mainstream with his Virgin so why couldn’t I have some fun with my Dick? People started sending me pictures of places they visited in foreign countries (Dick’s Bar, Dick’s Auto Repair etc) and then the T-shirts started arriving. I met people who’d seen my business card or Christmas Card pinned up on an office wall for years and had never met me. I’d unleashed a lovable and rather stupid monster. I came up with the one-liner that if I ever had a son I’d call him Donald. Very few people laughed but I thought it was hysterical. On one memorable night in Nice while shooting a Toto gig Jeff Porcaro stopped the show and exchanged his drumsticks for a T-shirt being worn by a sweaty punter in the front row. He proudly gave it to me as a gift. On the front it read DICK MUCUMBA.
And so 26 years after the first Dick Christmas card I’m looking at proofs for the latest edition. Truth be told it’s become a burden now. Around March I start stressing about what visual Dick-joke or pun I can pull together before October comes around and I need to start making the damn thing. But whatever I say now the die is certainly cast and on the gravestone they’ll only need to carve four letters preferably with an exclamation mark at the end. Or perhaps I should be a touch more cryptic and just have the caption: Rhymes With Prick.