Throughout this summer of triumphant European tours by both the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols, our Twitter feed has been stuffed with the retweets of avid fans overflowing with excitement over having just seen one band or the other.
On a given July morning, you might see this retweeted by Anton Newcombe (band leader and skillful social media tour director of BJM):
Or this tweet posted by The Dandy Warhols:
Given that alternate nights at this year’s Austin Psych Fest were headlined by the two bands — famous for their friendship, rivalry, their frenemy status — and that day by day, as we would see these alternating reports on how great their shows each were the night before — the Dandys in Dusseldorf, the BJM in Oslo (or wherever) — a few days ago, on a long plane flight, we were compelled to re-watch Dig!, Ondi Timoner’s 2004 film that chronicles seven years of the two bands each struggling up the greasy pole of rock music success. Based on what we know about the two bands from just the Summer of 2014 — sold out shows across Europe, Anton/Brian Jonestown Massacre playing no doubt great sets featuring songs from their magnificent new album, Revelation… the Dandys bringing big crowds to their feet by playing mostly songs from their back catalog… how would Dig! hold up? What would viewing it ten years after its release be like?
Well, it’s not surprising that it is still so fine, so amazingly entertaining, still sad (watching the Anton Newcombe of those days, um, not succeed), still compelling. It remains one of the handful of really excellent movies ever made about rock’n’roll. The master narrative, for those who haven’t seen it, is that the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols were, in the 1990s, trying to revolutionize the world of rock music, and not incidentally, become huge. Courtney Taylor and the Dandys both worshipped and were exasperated by the unrelenting, unfocused genius of Anton Newcombe, who no matter what else was going on — fistfights on stage, drug busts by Georgia sherifs, editions of the band imploding mid-tour — was capable of getting BJM to create album after album of important and meaningful music. And while the Dandys got the big record contract, not all was groupies and cocaine in their world; they were subject to the machinations of a suppurating record industry, ultimately making fine records that were poorly promoted, even as they found a big audience, particularly in Europe, for their live shows.
Though it is narrated by Courtney Taylor, the movie is really the story of Anton Newcombe. Dig! is a chronicle of a genius whose career flounders due to his peccadilloes, urges and addictions, his borderline behavior — even as we repeatedly come to understand how, of the two bands, it is the Brian Jonestown Massacre that is jacked into the live wire of real rock’n’roll. Even when Peter Holmstrom of the Dandys is bitching about something that Anton has done to alienate them, the last sentence in each soundbite is some variation of, “And yet their music is just always that much more brilliant than anything anyone else can do.” The movie ends with Antone not quite as a young and beautiful as he was in the early scenes, still flailing away at success, as the rival Dandys have settled into a niche of creative and commercial success. Even though by 2004, BJM had released three score songs that will live forever, even though our record collection is fat with their multiple great albums, there was no sense of whether they would ever make it, and particularly whether Anton would survive from all the different ways he beat his head against the wall.
Flash forward to this summer and both bands have “made it.” No, neither band sells millions of copies of their records. But both bands — BJM and Dandys — are killing it each night on stage, with big crowds and happy tweeters. Anton is broad of face, no longer handsome, but certainly healthy — his Twitter feed filled with shaky pictures of the sushi he’s eating, not lines of various powders — and he is back to putting out great records. The Dandys may no longer be changing their world through their new records, but they are certainly worth seeing, one of the best live bands working today. Both bands have adoring fans, and there is room for each to be the headline act in that alternative world in which alternative music — music that matters — still exists, record companies be damned.
It is a seemingly happy time for both bands. But what really is most delightful is that Anton Newcombe, the troubled genius of Dig!, today is sober, productive, and still every bit the innovator he was in the 1990s. Rock’n’roll does not have a wealth of happy stories. This is one.