Pranks, Lies and Videotape

The Dandy Warhols and Dig!, a decade later.

The original Dandy Warhols lineup from the Dig! intro credits. Drummer Eric Hedford was kicked out during filming.

Of all the damning moments for the Dandy Warhols in the 2004 documentary Dig!, the worst occurs the morning after a wild party at the shared house of their friends, fellow psych-rockers the Brian Jonestown Massacre. It was quite a rager—even actor Harry Dean Stanton showed up—and even by its usual standards, the place was left a wreck. The Dandys weren’t there: They were at a swanky hotel elsewhere in L.A., celebrating their first big-budget video shoot. But frontman Courtney Taylor thought it’d be funny to show up unannounced the next day with an Associated Press photographer and take promo shots among the damage. He runs giddily from room to room, as keyboardist Zia McCabe shakes her head at the squalor. It fits the film’s narrative almost too perfectly: While the BJM live a lifestyle detrimental to their health and careers, the Dandys siphon off it to benefit their own image, while simultaneously tsk-tsking their counterparts’ inability to get their shit together.

Ten years later, Taylor claims that scene, as with practically everything else in the movie, is a fabrication—a lie orchestrated by director Ondi Timoner. It was her idea to stage the photo shoot there, he says, not his. She denies it, and considering that particular scene happened closer to 20 years ago, verifying the truth is almost impossible.

But it's understandable why the band, which will be inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame this weekend, would want to discredit the film as a falsified misrepresentation: None of its subjects comes away looking good. Shot over seven years, the film traces the trajectories of the Portland-born Dandys and BJM as their relationship erodes from mutual admiration to bitter resentment. There are fistfights, drugs, arrests, broken sitars and dialogue that would've been cut from This Is Spinal Tap for being too ridiculous. An indie sensation upon release, Dig! won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and is frequently cited as one of the greatest rock docs of all time. Taylor wouldn't disagree. He'd only quibble with the "doc" part.

"It's not a documentary," says Taylor, whose words seem to slide from his mouth prepackaged in ironic quotation marks. "It doesn't 'document' anything except the time the cops got on our bus in France. That's the only thing that was not set up in that entire movie."

Other participants have made similar claims, though they seem more dubious coming from Taylor, considering he narrates the film. But again, it's easy to understand his grievances. This year is the Dandy Warhols' 20th anniversary. The core lineup is still together, is still touring and, in certain parts of the world, still commands feverish devotion. But no matter their accomplishments, they remain overshadowed by something which, creatively, the group had nothing to do with. 

Taylor isn't blind, though. As a student of rock-'n'-roll insanity, he recognizes the movie as a master class. If it's a lie, it's a lie that's impossible to turn away from. And even he won't deny that.

"It's reality TV," Taylor says. "But it is awesome. It's a fucking ride."

No one who's seen Dig! should be surprised by the antipathy it continues to engender a decade after its release. After all, this is a movie whose most famous scene involves one band member bloodying another onstage.

That incident happened before Ondi Timoner had even heard of the Dandy Warhols. At that point, she was still working with her original concept, to follow 10 bands on the verge of "making it" in the music business, such as it existed in the late '90s. She'd only known the Brian Jonestown Massacre, a group of hyper-prolific '60s fetishists revolving around ringleader Anton Newcombe, for two weeks before their notorious industry showcase at the Viper Room in West Hollywood, which ended with Newcombe tackling his own guitarist and getting dragged out of the venue, setting up the immortal lament, "He fucking broke my sitar, motherfucker!"

"The next day," Timoner recalls, "Anton says, 'I'm taking over your documentary. Forget about all those other bands. I'm having a revolution with the Dandy Warhols. You've got to go meet them.' When he said that, I thought, 'I'm not going to argue with this guy who just beat up his guitar player, but yeah right he's taking over my documentary.'"

Once Timoner made it up to Portland, though, Newcombe's prophecy began to come true. At the time, the Dandys had just signed a deal with Capitol, which, after the act of self-sabotage Timoner witnessed in L.A., made them seem less like revolutionary compatriots to the BJM than their natural foils—professionals willing to "play ball" with the industry. It also helped that Taylor already seemed to go through life as if a camera were trained on him at all times. "He was just Courtney from the get-go," Timoner says, "so confident and posturing and regal, in his little small-town way." She identified him as the pouting, preening yin to Newcombe's unhinged yang, and just as quotable: "I sneeze and hits come out" is just one of his more memorable lines.

As Newcombe predicted, Timoner forgot about the other bands. Over the next seven years, she accumulated 1,500 hours of footage, a fraction of which made it into the film's final cut. But in two hours, Dig! contains enough dysfunction and delusion to power a dozen Metallica therapy sessions. As the Dandys grow an international fan base and leave their eternally unstable friends behind, a rivalry develops between the bands, which plays out as a passive-aggressive prank war: The BJM crash the Dandys' David LaChapelle-helmed video shoot and steal from catering; after the Dandys' post-party photo-session stunt, Newcombe responds with a dis track, which he distributes outside a CMJ showcase in New York—while on roller skates. Newcombe is portrayed as a junkie nutcase, while Taylor comes off as at once envious of and condescending toward Newcombe's lunatic genius.

Unsurprisingly, both principals have spent the last 10 years trying to distance themselves from the movie. Newcombe has decried the film as "a series of punch-ups and mishaps taken out of context." (He declined to be interviewed for this story.) Taylor insists there was never any "rivalry" between the bands, and that he and Newcombe, who lives in Berlin and still tours and records with the BJM, communicate weekly. Asked why he'd lend credence to the project by agreeing to do the voice-over, Taylor blames his trusting nature. "You certainly believe the best in people first," he says. "Even in my experiences with awful people, I am still somehow naive or stupid or hopeful enough to go along with things."

Timoner stands by the documentary's authenticity, and dismisses Taylor's assertion that she coerced him into doing anything as “ridiculous.”  She does, however, understand his resentment. 

"He wants to be Mick Jagger, and he's not Mick Jagger. He's Courtney," Timoner says. "The film exposes a lot of who he is. As David LaChappelle says in the film, 'This is how you look.'"

Of course, the truth about Dig! is that it's been a double-edged sword for everyone involved. Taylor admits the Dandys are playing mostly for a die-hard cult these days, much of which came to the band through the film. It's easy to imagine Newcombe would still be cranking out albums with or without the movie, but the audience for them would be significantly less. Even Timoner exists in the shadow of her own creation. Her follow-up feature, 2009's We Live in Public, won her a second Sundance prize, yet the most iconic moment of her career remains Newcombe moaning about his broken sitar.

Going into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame probably isn't going to change much for the Dandy Warhols. Outside Portland, Dig! defines the band more than any song or album. If Taylor isn't exactly at peace with that, he acknowledges that the film has ensured him some kind of legacy, even if it's not the one he wants.

"It has left a far more indelible mark on the world than we had with 'Bohemian Like You,' 'Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth' and 'We Used to Be Friends' combined,” he says. “So there is that.” 

SEE IT: The Oregon Music Hall of Fame induction and concert, featuring Nu Shooz, is at Aladdin Theater, 3017 SE Milwaukie Ave., on Saturday, Oct. 4. 7 pm. $25 advance, $30 day of show. Under 21 permitted with legal guardian.

WWeek 2015

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