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In Dig!, a candid, expertly crafted new documentary that chronicles the divergent paths of Newcombe's band and that of drone-pop dadaists The Dandy Warhols, there's footage of the demanding Newcombe losing it at a concert set up to impress the brass from Elektra Records. When one of the band's three guitarist flubs a note, Newcombe kicks him in the thigh. Later, when the crowd was growing impatient with his antics, he went off on the paying customers, telling them in no uncertain terms that this was his band and his stage and he could treat the musicians around him in whatever way he saw fit. Then Newcombe punched mutton-chopped maraca player Joel Gion for accidentally stepping on a microphone, setting off a full-scale brawl between band members.
That's how a lot of shows went for The Brian Jonestown Massacre. The bickering was just part of the act, though it certainly wasn't scripted for the psychedelic, shoegazing 60's revivalists whose hunger for hallucinogens was so insatiable that The Dandy Warhols' Courtney Taylor remarked, "I've never seen them eat. All they do is drink liquor and snort drugs." Right on cue, the next scene shows members of the band Hoovering lines of coke.
Mutiny was always in the air, but somehow, the ship sailed on with Captain Bligh at the helm for eight long years. That is, until it ran aground on an ill-fated national tour a couple of years ago. Like a fly on the wall with a camcorder, Director Ondi Timoner stayed to the end, capturing all the mayhem, the boundless hubris, and yes, the drug-fueled madness for posterity and, quite possibly, blackmail purposes. Though it is unlikely that Dig! will win any awards for cinematography, it is probably the most engrossing rock music documentary made in the last 20 years.
It all starts in 1995 when Taylor, the Dandy Warhols' front man, met Newcombe for the first time. They struck up a friendship that was initially built on mutual admiration, but would later turn to jealousy. Taylor, who is startlingly forthright in his role as narrator, describes Newcombe as a friend, an enemy, his "greatest inspiration", "the craziest, most talented" musician he's ever met, and "...ultimately, my greatest regret."
The falling out of the two bands is the stuff of rock 'n roll legend and restraining orders. At first, they played the same bills, traveled in the same circles... there was even talk of making a record together. Or at least that might be what Newcombe had in mind when he and the band traveled to Portland to visit the Dandies in their hometown. Or maybe Newcombe had other ideas like, say, moving in with them. The trip was a disaster. Newcombe found Portland "dismal" and recording sessions went nowhere. And the Dandies, who had already signed to a major label and were in the midst of recording Come Down - their Capitol Records debut - were starting to suspect Newcombe had ulterior motives, especially since he'd basically been homeless for five years.
A rift was forming. And it would only get worse.
The Dandy Warhols were Capitol's golden boys-and-girl, or at least they were before the label heard the first record. Taylor, himself no shrinking violet, promised the label a flood of chart-toppers. When Capitol rejected the first record the Dandies sent them, Taylor questioned their judgment, even going so far as to say with a cocky sneer, "I sneeze and hits come out." Capitol is still waiting, with handkerchief in hand, for him to blow his nose.
The Dandy Warhols have met with some success, however modest. The Brian Jonestown Massacre, on the other hand, were so busy drugging and fighting with themselves and everyone else that their shit never came together. Tours were a disaster. Once, after a particularly contentious show in Chicago, guitarists Matt Hollywood and Peter Hayes, now with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, simply walked off into the night drunkenly intent on hoofing it back to L.A. They didn't get far. Another time, after inking a deal with TVT Records - sort of a major label - they embarked on a national tour that made a stop in Cleveland at the city's Communist Party headquarters. They played for 10 people and strangely enough, as Taylor says, "for almost that many hours." Just one in a long series of straws heaped upon the camel's back.
Dig! is worth it just for the wild, unpredictable concert footage alone . The revealing behind-the-scenes look at how Newcombe's friendship with the Dandies dissolved puts the movie in a class by itself. The first sign of trouble presented in the film comes when Taylor plays the song "Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth for Newcombe. It is clear that the subject matter hit home, but Taylor becomes annoyed at Newcombe's motionless non-reaction. Taylor was hoping for a reaction of some kind from Newcombe, perhaps even a little validation from a musician he looked up to. All he got was silence.
It turns out that Newcombe did indeed have plenty to say. He was just waiting for the right opportunity to express himself. It came when a small indie label, Bomp Records, fronted the rent money to put the Brian Jonestown Massacre up in a house in L.A. so that they could record an album - which they did, banging out the full-length "Give It Away" in a week's time. The sessions produced a catty, piss-take track called "Not If You Were The Last Dandy On Earth", a not-so-subtle jab at the Warhols. Predictably, Newcombe played it for Taylor, whose facial expression while listening betrayed the black thoughts swarming under the guise of good sportsmanship.
It didn't end there. Newcombe was growingly increasingly frustrated that major labels were taking a pass on his band. Meanwhile, the Dandies were doing videos with famous fashion photographers (albeit incredibly awful ones) like the overly extravagant production for "Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth," that even the Dandies found distasteful. The Portland quartet was also touring Europe, where their record was adored. Green with envy - and still fuming at how the Dandies made sport of him and his band by invading their home the day after a particularly debaucherous party with a camera crew that filmed the hung-over members of the Massacre in all their dazed glory - Newcombe crossed the line. Riding in a truck in San Francisco, he pulled up alongside Warhols guitarist Peter Holmstrom to give him a package. This is where it gets weird. Inside is a card for Taylor and a piece of soap. On the card is written the words, "Clean up your act." There was more, but... well, I'm not going to ruin the surprise. If you've heard the story, you know what's inside. If you haven't, prepare to be creeped out.
The Dandies were, and they took legal action, obtaining a restraining order against Newcombe, who was fast on his way to becoming the stereotypical movie-of-the-week type stalker. Though he was told to stay away from the Dandies, he later showed up at the band's CMJ showcase concert on rollerskates, wearing a fur hat, with vinyl copies of the single "Not If You Were The Last Dandy On Earth" in a backpack. He even gave one to a Capitol representative.
Newcombe maintained that he was just trying to stir up a rivalry between the two bands to drive up record sales. After all, it worked for Blur and Oasis. But the Dandy Warhols weren't buying it.
Meanwhile, things were coming to a head with the dysfunctional family known as The Brian Jonestown Massacre. Signing to TVT did nothing to keep them together. In fact, it may have hastened the end for most of the band's original members. On their only national tour for TVT, Matt Hollywood quit the band one night, upset that Newcombe had begun singing a song he wrote and usually sang in concert. Hollywood woke up the next morning with a bite mark on his side. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and so is Dig!.
It would be easy to say that the story in Dig! tells itself, but that would be doing Timoner's direction a disservice. His superb editing makes the narrative seamless and captivating. Take the interviews with Newcombe's parents: His dad, an alcoholic with signs of schizophrenia, expresses remorse for abandoning his family and says, "If [Anton's] got abandonment issues, it's probably my fault." Timoner weaves in quotes from Newcombe's mother, who recounts picking up Anton, time and time again, at the police station for violating curfew, and how she called the authorities when she caught him growing pot. Defensive and still exasperated, Newcombe's mother says that he had everything a child could want. Timoner doesn't have to say it. It's obvious there was something missing.
Newcombe's dad later committed suicide, but not before Newcombe gave him a copy of The Brian Jonestown Massacre's Thank God For Mental Illness. His dad laughed about the irony on camera in one of the most poignant moments ever in a rock documentary and somehow, in that moment, Timoner elicits sympathy for someone - namely Newcombe - who at first blush doesn't seem to deserve any.
Timoner was given total access to both bands, which makes Dig! seem like a nightmarish reality show. But Dig! isn't a controlled environment, like a house full of washed-up celebrities or brain-dead college students licking a corporate tycoon's ass. Newcombe is a loose cannon bent on self-destruction; coming up with a psychological profile of him is nearly impossible. Everybody tries, though. Among the amateur psychologists of Dig! is Ann Ritter, the A&R representative from Elektra who arranged that fateful showcase for the label's movers and shakers. Of Newcombe, Ritter says, "He wants to be a rebel, he doesn't want to conform, but he wants to be successful. He just can't admit it to himself."
My take, for what it's worth: Newcombe has bought into his own bullshit and really believes he is music's messiah. The truly amazing thing is, so do a lot of other people, including Taylor and Holmstrom, who maintained (even after the incident with the package) that they'd still buy Newcombe's records. Whether Newcombe himself, who has criticized Dig! for what he calls its Jerry Springer-esque qualities, stays sane and clean long enough to produce anything else of value is anybody's guess. After seeing Dig!, I find myself actually rooting for him to do just that.
WATCH: Stream the entire film, for free. SEE ALSO: www.digthemovie.com
SEE ALSO: www.palmpictures.com
SEE ALSO: www.interloperfilms.com
SEE ALSO: www.brianjonestownmassacre.com
SEE ALSO: www.dandywarhols.com
Peter Lindblad lives in Appleton, Wis., and bleeds green and gold just like all the Packer fan nutjobs in the area. He does draw the line at wearing blocks of chedder on his head, or any other body parts for that matter, though. His professional career has taken weird twists and turns that have led him to his current position as an editor at a coin magazine. He hopes his stay there will be a short one. Before that, he worked as an associate editor at a log home magazine. To anyone that will listen, he'll swear that Shiner was one of the greatest rock bands to ever walk the earth. Yet he also has much love for Superchunk, Spoon, DJ Shadow, Swervedriver, Wilco, Fugazi, Jawbox, ... And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, Queens Of The Stone Age, and Modest Mouse, among others.
See other articles by Peter Lindblad.
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