BY JAMES MOORE
I just watched the movie DIG! twice. It’s a film aboutrival ’90s bands and their interweaving threads of frayed storylinesup and down the pop superhighway. The names themselves are mint: Dandy Warholsand Brian Jonestown Massacre. To call the viewing mesmerizing is to soft-boila cliché to silly putty. Rubbernecking may be a better verb, but then,what isn’t? Besides, we all know God is a verb.
Meet Anton Newcombe.
Did you ever know someone who was so arrogant it made your nose hairs curl,but the worst thing was, they actually were a genius? Of course, “genius,” like “mesmerize” or “cliché,” isa word that gets bandied about so much these days, it has almost become anaked mannequin—about as meaningful as the word “truth” isin political circles.
For instance, turns out Dick Cheney’s indicted Chief of Staff ScooterLibby says the president authorized him to release classified intelligenceto discredit the man who called Bush’s bluff on the centerpiece of his2003 State of the Union address—that Iraq was seeking uranium in Africa.I guess it’s understandable the president didn’t want the electorateto know he knowingly misled them to war, especially in an election year.
But the president a leaker? The White House countered the ensuing furor witha nifty rebuttal: the president can’t leak because, well, he’sthe president. If he wants to declassify something, it’s his prerogative.But wait a minute, Bobby Brown! Declassifying something means taking it public.Discretely parsing out secret intel to a few administration-friendly reportersweeks before making it public is absolutely a leak, and nothing but a leak,so help me God.
While the president’s attempts to discredit the messenger succeededin muddying the waters and covering his posterior, there’s been no investigationyet into whether he misled the republic knowingly or did so by accident. Buthe was forced to disavow the uranium claim. As far as leaking, Bush says hewas justified declassifying portions of the prewar intelligence assessmenton Iraq because he “wanted people to see the truth.” (truth: n.1. A statement conforming to fact or actuality. 2. A naked mannequin wearinga Depends diaper.)
Truth is, the president leaked disinformation surreptitiously in hopes ofheading the truth off at the pass. In other words, he told someone to liein the name of “truth” to cover a lie. It’s the same kindof logic—did somebody say “pretzel” or was that “serpentine”?—thatleads to invading a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 in retaliationfor 9/11, launch an all-out war of aggression in the name of defense, or takeout Saddam Hussein for something Osama bin Laden did. (And you thought DougHenning was good at misdirection.)
My point is, the truth, like genius, is a jellyfish. Take the punk-apse psycho-deliciridescent Anton Newcombe, for example. Intense and prolific, this lit fuseknows the difference between rock and roll is all about circles and bendinglines. His mother says Anton got picked up by the police like 50 times forcurfew violations in Newport Beach, where he grew up in relative affluence.She finally refused to get him anymore.
DIG! is about making music and mayhem, egos and road shows, bravados andbottles, and sitars and furniture-less flats. It’s a rush watching thesebands create and self-destruct, lurch and parry, as the Dandies eclipse intomajor-label next-big-things while the Massacres languish in wannabe purgatory.
Ondi Timoner’s filming is an unsparing gaze at these two bands overa stretch of seven years. Culled from 1,500 hours of film, it is uncomfortablein spots, especially a drunk Anton on roller blades handing out copies ofhis song “Not if You Were the Last Dandy on Earth” at a Dandyshow that wouldn’t allow his sorry ass in, or getting fruit thrown athim in an acoustic performance and getting arrested after kicking a hecklerin the head from stage.
You see, people came to BJM shows just to see if they’d massacre themselveson stage, or even show up. It got to the point that Anton feigned illness,sending tambourinist Joel Gion to meet with a label exec to sign a deal, sohe wouldn’t blow it. Of course, once they got the deal, he immediatelysuccumbed to heavy drug use, sabotaging the whole thing. His frequent screamingis warp and woof of the whole viewing experience.
Then there’s his sartorial splendor. Courtney Taylor, singer/songwriterof the Dandies, who reveres Newcombe’s ability to embrace demons andwrite songs, recalls being completely intimidated by his look and sense ofstyle the first time they met: the long sideburns, the furry hat, the ponchos,the boots outside the pants, lots of white that was probably the new blackat the time. The perpetual go-daddy is a little bit Mamas & Papas meetsTommy Lee with Skelvis (Skinny Elvis) eyes and sidies, Vegas sunglasses, drivenas the snow, annoying as a Beastie, incendiary as a Molotov cocktail madewith purple Kool-Aid.
His voice isn’t the end of the world but his essence and melodies reachthe outer limits. At one point Taylor says, “Sometimes I almost feellike I’m catching up and then he comes up with something. He’salways like three years ahead of the game.”
Don’t get me wrong, the Dandies are no slouches. They come across moreprofessional, more work ethic, more adaptable inside the confectionary confinesof a major label. When Capitol Records plunks down $400,000 for a video, itseems they are on their way. But, alas, not only is “heroin so passé” (thesingle) but so the band’s hopes for quick It-dom. For the record, 90to 99 percent of signed bands fail. You’re probably better off spendingyour life savings on lottery tickets or trying to get hit by lightning.
Meantime, Newcombe promotes a Beatles/Stones rivalry in the press, much tothe Dandies chagrin. One member grows so tired of Newcombe’s crazinesshe takes out a restraining order. (Anton sends shotgun shells painted withtheir faces on them.) The BJM gets busted on the road driving through Georgiaand Newcombe finishes the rest of the tour solo. The Dandies headline Europe,playing large outdoor festivals. In England, they reach the Top 20. In Greece,their songs are all over the radio.
Riding with these guys is like taking a full-throttle colonic up music business’swazoo. The pettiness, the brilliance, the obsessive-compulsions, the vanitiesand victories and visceralities—it’s all there.
If anything, I wish there was more music. The Massacre has recorded 15 albumsin 15 years. An album, an EP, and a two-CD retrospective are due this year.
Does Newcombe DIG! his movie? He told the Guardian: “I am not a fuckingfilm. I’m alive.”
Like the president says, if you can’t beat ’em, Newcombe.