Some Kind of Megalomaniac
The unfamous also feud, as James Parker finds in Dig!, a feature-length film documenting the decade-long love/hate thing between the leaders of the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre.
Originally published in Arthur No. 12 (Sept. 2004)
(Palm Pictures, released October 1)
Directed by Ondi Timoner
In order to really dig DIG!—an intimate, warmly detailed portrait of the decade-long love/hate thing between Courtney Taylor (of the Dandy Warhols) and Anton Newcombe (of the Brian Jonestown Massacre)—you have to buy into the idea that Newcombe is a genius. It’s important, this, and just about everyone onscreen testifies to it sooner or later: Newcombe is a GENIUS. He pushes the boundaries, burns with a hard, gem-like flame, is monstrous in his talent, must be compared with Manson, God, Hitler and Lou Reed, and so on. It’s the one point on which this otherwise swinging, confident movie insists a little anxiously.
The Dandy Warhols and the BJM were, very briefly, artistic confederates. Fellow retro-ites and stylists, they played together, swapped ideas and—doubtless—pairs of trousers, and their careers advanced in parallel for about two minutes before the Dandys got the major label deal which still eludes the BJM. Thereafter, the two bands were each other’s nemeses. Anton Newcombe became the unrewarded GENIUS raging in obscurity, Courtney Taylor the limelit, slightly guilt-afflicted music-biz hustler. DIG!, narrated by Taylor (because history is written by the winners), covers just about every key point in the relationship, from Newcombe’s innocent rhapsodies about “this really rad band, the Dandy Warhols” to his first anti-Dandy song “Not If You Were the Last Dandy On Earth” (a riposte to the Dandys’ radio hit “Not if You Were the Last Junkie on Earth”) to the moment he sends the band a box of individually wrapped shotgun shells with their names on them.
Success, in our imaginations at least, is just success —static, constant,some sort of white-lit plane, like heaven. Failure on the other hand is many things, a very mulchy and soulful state, and so DIG is inevitably more interested in the disastrous trajectory of the BJM, about whom the first thing you notice is not the blurting and blustering Newcombe—“I play 80 instruments. Yeah! Weird fuckin’ Chinese shit!”— but the amazingly pointless Joel Gion. Gion (hairstyle, cigarettes) is one these extra or ‘trophy’ members that a lot of your more berserk bands seem to have, to signal the sheer anarchic superfluity of their energy—like Bez in Happy Mondays, or almost any of the Butthole Surfers. In Gion’s case he implements the BJM aesthetic by standing at stage-front looking down his nose and half-arsedly wagging a tambourine. A very pure artist, untainted by actual creation, Gion’s main job seems to be keeping his balance after monster ingestion of drugs. On his little Chelsea bootsoles he teeter-totters, sneering. His clothes are black, his hair is classic through-a-hedge-backwards, and on his pear-shaped face is that expression of somnolent haughtiness we associate with Dr Seuss characters; in fact the longer you look at him the more Seussian he gets—remote, effete, insolent, with tassels for hands, and a name like the Fazoon or the Sprong . ‘Do not look long on the infamous Sprong/ The tilt of his chin is wrong wrong wrong’…
Anyway, Gion turns out to be a witty fellow and quite undeluded—the yang of BJM, if such a thing could be said to exist. Newcombe on the other hand has no sense of humor—none. You can’t be a megalomaniac perfectionist and have a sense of humor.
Martin Amis once wrote that for some people every straw is the last straw, and this seems to capture quite well the onstage atmosphere at a BJM show. One wrong note, one false move, and old Anton’s kicking over the mikestand and lunging at you like a pitbull. Fisticuffs, “Get the fuck off my stage!”, etc. It’s all very boyish, and quite a contrast to the smooth, spangled pulse of a Dandy Warhols live show, with the lovely Zia (keyboards, hips) feminizing the energies.
And as the Dandys rise like angels into the light, with big hits and huge tours across Europe, getting happier and richer and more beautiful, Newcombe flails bitterly along at sea-level. He curses the Dandys, he bites his band members. In a way you can see his problem; his shit is just too rugged to be consumed, whereas the Dandys—coy careerists, industry babies—are being swallowed universally. Bastards! He flickers in and out of sanity. The most reliable indicator of his psychic health seems to be the condition of his sideburns—rich and Melvillean, for example, when he signs his triumphant deal with TVT, they go wild, frazzling out in pubic disarray, as he starts doing heroin and fucking up the recording of his first TVT album. (“I just take all the bad stuff and put it into music…” he drivels, eyes closed, shirtless and bum-like on a mattress-edge.)
The best thing about Newcombe, really, is his absolute lack of cool. He has the bellicose, overspunked manner of a teenager—“You broke my fuckin’ sitar, motherfucker!”—and clear defenseless eyes. There is just one moment, at the apparent bowel-end of his career, when he achieves genuine poise. Performing alone, rather ecclesiastical in a white poncho, his band having all quit or been fired, he is sitting on a stool in some LA club stodgily strumming his acoustic and crooning his I-love-you-boo-hoo-hoo lyrics when he comes to the belated realization that, yes, he is being pelted with fruit. It’s happening. Flung perishables are caroming off his guitar and exploding liquidly against his berobed upper body. WHAT!?! Newcombe shakes off his minstrel torpor; he rises, purged, a sleek Jesus of fury, and roars splendidly, “COME UP HERE and let me SEE your cowardice and your little shaking hands! Don’t hide in the darkness and throw FRUIT! Throw a glass or something! You got a GUN? Why don’t you fucking SHOOT at us?!” Sweet Americana! Vintage stuff! This is Emerson’s eloquent man, he who is “no beautiful speaker, but who is inwardly and desperately drunk with a certain belief; it agitates & tears him, & almost deprives him of the power of articulation. Then it rushes from him as in short abrupt screams, in torrents of meaning.” Later in the evening Newcombe kicks an audience member in the head. (“Holy shit!” observes the victim. “He kicked me in the head!”)
So how good is the guy? Is he the big GENIUS they all take him for? I dunno. Certainly he has the trappings of genius around him—the bemused acolytes, the betrayed patrons, the unfurnished rooms, the half-dressed French girlfriend moaning in a doorway—but when he sings “Say goodbye to mum and dad/The two best friends I never had” in a funny English accent it sounds like Spinal Tap doing “Cups and Cakes.” It sounds, actually, like Ween, who could take either of these bands apart with one quick flick of the parody-stick. But DIG! is a fine little film nonetheless, a miniature you might say, edited with sizzling skill and full of tiny low-end showdowns between unfamous musicians. Watch it and thank Christ you have a day job.