Monday, February 21, 2011

DIG! with Brian Jonestown Massacre & Dandy Warhols


As I sit here about to write I have on the Brian Jonestown Massacre playing through their copious amount of tracks available on Youtube.  This is not to say that I won't try and buy an album, or two or four or whatever.  Because after a film like DiG they're more than on my radar, they're the kind of group that has the creative energy and rocking 'damn yes' spirit that I'll want to listen to every song of theirs I can, if only once a piece.  And yet I would be remiss to admit that until the film, with just very vague feeling, I had never heard of the group outside of hearing their work without their name (i.e. featured in Broken Flowers in that scene where Lolita walks around naked in front of Bill Murray).

It would be nice to go on about that, or try and pretend it for them or the Dandy Warhols, the other rock and roll band featured in Ondi Timoner's first documentary Dig! (or DiG! if you gotta get into it), that I've been listening to them for years.  I could even try and make it like in Scott Pilgrim vs the World, with the line "They're first album was better than their first album."  But that would be a little too hipster-ish for me, wouldn't it?  And, frankly, there is plenty enough to around with the bands on stage.  And it's not that they are trying to be hipsters... at least at first, and not so much with BJM.  The film is a tale of how they became known, more or less, in the music world, and how they had their highs and lows but did make it... at least to the point of a documentary director putting it altogether and garnering more attention than before.  Like from people such as myself.

See... hip!
But besides preferences with the bands- I probably lean more towards the experimentation and freedom in the vocals and sounds from Anton Newcombe's mindfuck-brainchild before Courtney Taylor and the Warhols - what about the film?  It's a tale of two bands, almost like a tale of two brothers who come from the same kind of music scene in Portland, Oregon, and set out in California to make music and make names for themselves.  What one comes away with is that the two bands had mutual respect and distaste, depending on the time of day and what song of theirs they were playing for the other.  There's a rivalry that is playful but with a tinge of "Fuck you, dude", as the Warhols play for Anton Newcombe their upcoming (would-be) first hit single "Not if you were the last junkie on Earth".  Anton just sits in a kind of dumb-silence, yet hears every word and lyric.  He finds it pompous.  So his revenge?  "Not if you were the last Dandy on Earth."  SNAP!  CRACKLE!  SINGLE!

There is also a sense of an odd camaraderie between the bands, and they sometimes jam together, yet they also keep at a distance.  Some of this is just by their birthplaces and upbringings; it should be easy to make a psychological portrait of Anton Newcombe, but it is essential to who he is, a guy from a broken home, without a father, and a mother who couldn't give a shit.  Newcombe eventually does look like a crazy douchebag hipster in the burgeoning success of his group with their record label, but at the same time he doesn't fake who he is.  The Brian Jonestown Massacre, as fronted by him, are contentious and low-rent, recording their first few albums in squalor in a house provided by the record company and without furniture and only supplied with amps and heroin (this, I should add, is a reason why the BJM finds the Warhol's song amusing, since they really are on heroin... and probably don't get the message of the song).

... No, scratch that in the last paragraph; it's mostly BJM who is contentious and low-rent, and one of those ego-maniacs that you think are mostly rock and roll myth but here is front and center.  The band seems about ready to break up (and sometimes does) every other day, and the confrontations in the audience carry the similar vibe of the Sex Pistols; for all of the merits of their songs and talent (and it's more than possible that Newcombe is a better songwriter and more adventurous than Rotten or Vicious ever were) the audiences would mostly come to see what psycho-shit would happen on stage.  And, of course, Newcombe would never disappoint such wanting fans - though he would, many times, his beleaguered bandmates, most of him come off pretty cool as he usually gets pissed and throws tantrums as a 'genius'.  For all of the good songs they could write and play, and there were a lot, many stage shows would break down and become nightmares.

Compared to them, The Dandy Warhols would seem to be by the looks of the documentary (which, arguably, is more fair to them than to Newcombe and his group, though not by mistake) like a true-blue pop band.  Courtney, who narrates the doc as well, comes out and flat admits that the band comes form well-adjusted backgrounds and childhoods.  This may be why there is a slight Amadeus vibe between the two stars of the two bands, albeit that's where the comparison should end (that would be giving too much credit to Newcombe as a nouveau Mozart).  Newcombe has talent, burning through him, and for all of his dickishness he can pick up any instrument and just play it and come up with songs that for the most part kick ass.  The Warhols appear to have great tunes too, but have to work harder at it, and get swept up due to them being groomed as pop-stars by Capitol Records into the bad machine that is the Record Industry circa late 90's.

It may be dated by now due to how much the industry has changed, but it's never less than interesting to see how Courtney and the Warhols break it down.  This is where the bulk of their drama comes from, dealing with the record company execs who don't do enough with the potential of their record and singles, and not returning any calls after their first single doesn't go huge.  There is a nice moment, however, that Timoner is able to capture where there are two sides shown regarding a music video shoot for their 'Junkie' song: is Courtney a primmadonna for screaming about this or that with regards to the video according to the director of the vid, or is the director just a DIVA douchebag who doesn't know how to do something truly creative with their work?

Frankly, by the time the film ended, I was not sure.  The Warhols had reached success, though internationally with big stadium front-headliner tours and sold out shows.  Newcombe calls them 'Cartoon characters', but then what is he?  Neither band leader, and not even some of the fellow band members, always come off as 'good' or very relatable.  This is one of the director's gifts here, even as it may split some audiences (I've come across comments that go between being truly, honestly interested, and finding it to be tabloid bullshit, or in the middle as a rock and roll train-wreck).  It's hard to gather how much work truly went into what the two bands accomplished over the course of five or six years- or more specifically between 1996 and 1998 as is mostly the time-frame of Dig - but I did leave it knowing these people and how success and status is gaged in the modern music landscape.  It's almost a given that the Dandy Warhols would make it big, if only in some capacity and by a little luck.  For Newcombe's baby BJM, it wasn't so simple.  He's so... "indie" after all.

In short, Dig! shows the kind of world that I enjoy visiting, and made me appreciate the music more than I expected, though it is still an insulated world that is "hip", maybe too hip for its own good (or made that way by the fans who are hipsters themselves).  Are their first albums better than their first albums?  Don't know, when was the last one released?

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