“We’ve got a full-scale revolution going on”
The mid to late 90s introduced both The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre—two buzzed bands touted to take the world by storm. Their pop culture reference-laden monikers united to form a two-headed rock and roll Renaissance beast of pure post-modern musicianship and set them onto the path towards fame and fortune. Well, that was the plan at least. Firm friends and colleagues with the utmost mutual respect, the passing years would see Courtney Taylor (now with a repeated last name hyphenate, Taylor-Taylor) take his Warhols to unimaginable heights while Anton Newcombe‘s genius only brought dissention, chaos, and destruction to the other. Whispered in the same breath as Lennon, Dylan, and other rock maestros, Newcombe’s inability to live with success will forever languish in the realm of wasted potential as his music awaits a future generation able to appreciate it sans the drug-addled hurricane depicted in Ondi Timoner‘s wonderful documentary Dig!
Narrated by Taylor, the Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning film is meant to show the decade-long relationship of the two bands but ultimately depicts Newcombe’s volatility and his band’s implosion. The Warhols are of course a huge part of the work, but watching them rise above the trials and tribulations of jerked around by the industry buzz band to eventually sell out international festivals pales in comparison to the meteoric fall of a man with unquestioned talent. No matter how many times Anton disses his former co-revolutionaries in the fight for rock supremacy, the Warhols somehow always find a way to shower him with praise. Any dreams of reconciliation disappear early on but the respect Taylor, guitarist Peter Holmström, and keyboardist Zia McCabe have in Newcombe’s genius is unwavering. Unfortunately for him, though, the illicit drug use and short temper show the aptitude for greatness pales in comparison to the complete absence of humility.
Because of Taylor’s participation you do get the sense facts and opinions are skewed to his perceptions, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The amount of raw footage used—whether concerts, backstage exchanges, or candid road scenes—allows Timoner to portray it all with as much context and objectivism as she wants despite his inclusion as resident expert. Taylor saw it all while performing double bills, touring with Jonestown in support, and genuinely basking in the glory of his proximity to Anton’s vision. Sure he regrets and perhaps resents his old friend’s moves later on, but the love of the music never fades. As is mentioned often, no matter how bad the rift got, no one in the Warhols would stop buying Anton’s records—they were too good. Rather than be a bitch-fest of who said what and feel sorry for me because he was mean, Taylor never lefts his subjectivity intrude on the story at hand.
He couldn’t have anyway when his authentic response the blatant jab at his band’s success of “Not If You Were the Last Dandy on Earth” was awe. Taylor played his newest single “Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth” for Anton and received no feedback until hearing the musical response/parody/slap-in-the-face the Jonestown leader would eventually passed out guerilla-style during a Warhols show in protest to their strong-arming him off the bill. We’re privy to the laughter and jokes made by the likes of Matt Hollywood and Joel Gion at the Warhols’ expense and it’s all juxtaposed to their complete befuddlement at how depraved Jonestown had become. It’s two halves of a whole that could have changed the face of rock and roll together but instead devolved into an unwitting rivalry a la Oasis versus Blur. But if Taylor is to be believed, he never wanted there to be a competition or bad blood. Anton’s drive to be God made it impossible for any other outcome.
The fact these two were groomed to rule the world is odd in itself with their non-mainstream construction. The Brian Jonestown Massacre had three guitarists and a permanent tambourine (Gion)—this wasn’t the guitar, bass, drum model the 90s had been churning out. Neither was handed success as we learn the Warhol’s first submission to Capitol Records after signing was rejected for “not having any songs”. Taylor isn’t scared to express his feelings about this pejorative or his abhorrence of ‘diva photographer’ David LaChapelle‘s video for “Last Junkie on Earth”. They’re all diva twenty-somethings trying to earn a living playing music. Whether Anton or Courtney, their main goal is to get the art out and hope it finds ears willing to listen. Maybe the Warhols were lucky and Jonestown was not or maybe the public wasn’t ready for the latter as they lapped up the former. Maybe a lot of success does come from being able to ‘play the game’.
I’m sure the Warhols had their fair share of hard times internally too, but the highlight of Dig! is most assuredly the inevitable blow-outs on behalf of The Brian Jonestown Massacre. From their infamous Viper Room gig for industry representatives to listen, love, and fight a bidding war to possess to the final tour resulting in Peter Hayes‘ departure into Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Hollywood’s inability to take Anton’s abuse anymore, fans went to their shows to see who would be knocked out or walk off stage. Brawls, riots, arrest, screaming fits, and more occurred ad nauseum yet the upside to Newcombe always prevailed to keep the music coming. One moment we watch Hollywood openly bash Anton and the next the band is playing a ten-hour set to ten people. Their eventual label TVT ends up paying for a full studio only to receive a heroin-addicted musician unable to write coherently in return as his ego finally proves too destructive.
Courtney Taylor’s declaration that Indie Rock was spawned from the cautionary tale of these two bands is understood quickly and does prove to be the main crux of this document. The humor of Gion’s seemingly bottomless pit of buffoonery entertains; insane incidents like Anton kicking an unruly fan in the head or constantly berating Hollywood shock; and the apples to oranges rise and fall showing Jonestown arrested in Georgia for marijuana possession and the Warhols discovering astronomical fame in Europe baffle in its portrayal of pop culture’s fickle tastes. But at the end of the day the most important lesson learned is how the music industry operates with a ninety percent failure rate. For every Dandy Warhols—who are as great as Anton believed upon first listen—there are a litany of Brian Jonestown Massacres flittering potential away. Another example showing unappreciated genius in contemporary time, Dig! will entertain, educate, and frighten in its peerlessly candid depiction of rock and roll.