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Rock 'n' Roll Can Never Die

It’s a nasty biz that won’t let go, apparently, given Dylan’s memoirs, Wilson’s resurrected Smile, and a couple of great rockumentaries suddenly upon us.

Dorothy Woodend 15 Oct

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

She has worked in many different cultural disciplines, including producing contemporary dance and new music concerts, running a small press, programming film festivals, and writing for newspapers and magazines across Canada and the U.S. She holds degrees in English from Simon Fraser University and film animation from Emily Carr University.

In 2020, she was awarded the Max Wyman Award for Critical Writing. She won the Silver Medal for Best Column at the Digital Publishing Awards in 2019 and 2020; and her work was nominated for a National Magazine Award for Best Column in 2020 and 2021.

Woodend is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Vancouver Film Critics Circle. She was raised on the East Shore of Kootenay Lake and lives in Vancouver. Find her on Twitter @DorothyWoodend.

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Sometimes everything happens at once. The past, the future and the present all collide in a three car pileup out on Highway 69.

Beach boy Brian Wilson is currently touring with a 38 year old album, a rare screening of the Stones documentary Cocksucker Blues will take place at the Tate Modern in London, Bob Dylan's autobiography Chronicles: Volume One hit bookstores on October 5, and Festival Express steamed into theatres this summer even though most the principles players in it are dead. But the more things change, the more they stay the same or something like that. Or so DIG!, a new rock documentary from director Ondi Timoner, would have you believe. It's still sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and Vive la Revolution!

DIG! charts the path of Anton Newcombe of The Brian Jonestown Massacre and Courtney Taylor of The Dandy Warhols over the course of seven years in the mid-90s. The two bands and their singer/songwriters are friends, enemies and everything in between. Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones (whose life is headed for the big screen in a new biopic The Wild and Wycked World of Brian Jones) and Andy Warhol with his 15 minutes of fame basically sum up their namesake band's attitudes towards music and fame. One celebrates selling out and the other ends up dead in a swimming pool with his integrity intact.

‘I give it away’

It is the rivalry between the Dandies and the BJM that fuels the story; it's artist versus artist, sort of like Spy Versus Spy. The film is fitfully narrated by Dandy frontman Courtney Taylor, which is an odd choice perhaps, since ostensibly the story is more about Anton Newcombe than anyone else. Also Taylor comes across as one of the world's largest wankers, which makes you further distrust his take on events. Newcombe may be an a-hole supreme but he seems to be the more honest of the two.

One of the things that the film also explores, quite consciously, is how the music industry is actually designed to work against artists. Newcombe is a telling example. At the beginning of the film he's still fresh faced and sassy, making pronouncements about taking over the world. But by the time the film is over he's ragged, an odd greenish colour and looks like death is only a few more bad decisions away. And Newcombe makes bad decisions like he breathes. However, strangely enough, this is one of his most stubbornly redeeming features. When Newcombe says he's not for sale, he really seems to mean it. In his own words: "I am fucking Love, do you understand what I'm saying? Like, the Beatles were for sale. I give it away." At this moment I couldn't help but recall the ad that ran before the screening which was the Rolling Stones and the heavenly choir of "You Can't Always Get What You Want" playing over top of a Coke ad.

Great artists are sometimes monsters, and of course, artists and the things they create are two very different things. To paraphrase the oft used Atwood quote, wanting to meet a writer because you like their work, is like wanting to meet a goose because you like foie gras. The terrible thing is that terrible people sometimes make great art, whereas nice people only make nice art. And sometimes it's hard to say if they're good or bad or something else entirely. Bob Dylan's autobiography Chronicles: Volume One has been criticized by some as lacking in personal voice. There is no road into the mind of the master, no intimate anecdotes, no big reveal!

Dylan’s moss gathering years

Howard Hampton reviewing the book for the Village Voice writes: "Maybe you were expecting something different: coffee-tabled nostalgia, glossy pics, the rise to folk stardom, going electric at Newport, the Age of Masterpieces, the Blood comeback, his born-again conversion, the Victoria's Secret deal. Dylan sidesteps all this and more in Chronicles... Why is he telling us about the dreary aftermath instead of the juicy stuff, the Big Bang of 1965–66? I'm guessing it's because these watershed moments reveal something just as crucial that's easy to forget: the price you pay for sailing as far beyond the known world as he did."

Unlike many of the people that he counts among his influences, Dylan didn't play the ultimate price, he's still alive.

Watching DIG!, I found myself wondering why more musicians don't actually die. Rocking out looks like an extraordinarily hard life with little sleep, a constant war of attrition between band members, audiences who either throw bits of fruit or stand in stunned stupor. My friend Erin who has done his time in the rock trenches says "I miss it but in the same way I miss hanging out in front of 7-11 in the summer time drinking slurpees out of Star Wars cups. It was a wistful time rife with stupidity that I could never duplicate. The worst thing about being in a band is dealing with the clashing egos, and when you are young and throwing all your eggs into one rockin' basket, things get ugly. Everything is taken SO seriously when instead we should just be having a gas. But I do miss rocking out and having people shake their fists to our music. Also, there is nothing quite like having flash pots go off right next to your ass."

Smile, you’re alive

And yet, if he survives, an old rocker can still have one last laugh at the past.

Almost 40 years ago, Brian Wilson wanted to make an album that he described as "a teenage symphony to God." This symphony, called Smile, was never released. Until now that is. Brian Wilson presents Smile, has garnered slap happy reviews from critics across the continent, and it's proved loony old Brian Wilson correct. He did, after all, know what he was doing. Like other artists who lose their way in a haze of drugs and mental illness, sometimes, if they live long enough, they'll be celebrated for the very thing that got them ostracized in the first place. The surprising thing is how very little has changed in rock world. Wilson's Smile was supposedly shelved because it simply was too far ahead of it time. The Beach Boys went kablooie, Brian Wilson took to his bed, and madness and music skipped along together. As they do with Anton Newcombe and the BJM, whose most famous album may be Thank God for Mental Illness.

Rock docs usually present the hard drinking, hard partying life. It is an instantly corruptive way to live, even something as benignly bubble gum as the Go-Go's were filmed sodomizing drunk boys with bottles: a bit of choice footage that the Go-Go's sought to have suppressed for many years. But these things have a way of leaking to the surface on badly bootlegged video and DVD, much like the Rolling Stones' almost mythic Cocksucker Blues. Director Jim Jarmusch in Film Comment called this film "definitely one of the best movies about rock and roll I've ever seen. It makes you think being a rock and roll star is one of the last things you'd ever want to do."

‘Blues’ in all its decadence

The story of the film is probably better than the film itself but it's hard to know since so few people have seen it. John Robinson reports in The Guardian "In the 32 years since it was made, Cocksucker Blues has come to occupy a unique cultural place. In Don DeLillo's Underworld, a character speaks of loving ‘the washed blue light of the film ... corruptive and ruinous, a beautiful tunnel blue’. In rock legend, it occupies a place as a record of the kind of bacchanalian excess -- nodding out backstage, oral sex on private jets -- that one has come to imagine the rock star demands as his right. In troublesome fact, it has continued to be an object of contention between Robert Frank and its subjects, the Rolling Stones. Even today, with a huge show of Frank's photography and a programme of his film work about to open at Tate Modern, the film is subject to stringent (and private) exhibition restrictions."

The cast is all-star of course. How could it be anything else? Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, Mick Taylor, Tina Turner, Truman Capote, and Andy Warhol all make the scene. The film was supposed to record for posterity and otherwise the glorious return of the Stones to North America, after the horror that was Altamont in 1969 (itself captured on film by the Maysles Brothers.) But somehow it didn't work out that way. If you'd like to see it, in all its decadence, you can fly to London and catch a screening at the Tate Modern in London, on December 3, 4 and 5th, 2004.

Dorothy Woodend reviews films Fridays on The Tyee.

Tyee critic Steve Burgess calls DIG! the best rock documentary he’s ever seen, here.  [Tyee]

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