Loony Tunes: Dennis Cooper on DIG!

By Cooper, Dennis | Artforum International, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Loony Tunes: Dennis Cooper on DIG!


Cooper, Dennis, Artforum International


ART HISTORY HAS long maintained a church and state-style separation between naive, unsophisticated work by so-called outsider artists and work whose construction and style are unmistakably savvy and sociable. Henry Darger, the Chicago janitor who spent his downtime secretly making obsessive paintings, is a good example of the consequence of these distinctions, remaining an honored guest of the art world rather than a bona fide star.

In rock music, this prejudice is reversed: The outsider is the ultimate insider. Rock's history has been one of constant reinvention by artists too crazy or ignorant to understand the rules, and its canon is top-heavy with the music of weirdos, drug addicts, and idiots savants. Young musicians who aren't inherently out of their minds go to great lengths to cultivate Beverly Hillbilly--like personas and create the impression that their only influences are nonmusical--say, the rustling of trees or the yells of their alcoholic parents. Rock fans and critics are so attentive to signs of wildness that a musician need only share a foul mood or two to have their CDs scrutinized for evidence of genius.

DIG!, a documentary directed by Ondi Timoner that chronicles and compares the career trajectories of two West Coast bands, the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols, is steeped in the notion that, for a rock musician, psychological problems are solid proof of artistic significance. The tormented genius in question is Anton Newcombe, songwriter and leader of the primarily Los Angeles-based BJM who spends the film doing drugs, throwing tantrums, and obsessing about Courtney Taylor, his well-behaved and better-groomed counterpart in Portland, Oregon's DW (Taylor is also the film's narrator). Both bands practice a kind of edgy, left-of-mainstream pop rooted in late-'60s psychedelia and delivered in a ramshackle '90s alternative-rock style. They begin the film on equal footing as buzzed-about underdog acts with requisite hard-core followings and obscure, critically acclaimed recordings. But where the nerdy, grizzled BJM grab hipsters' attention with their riotous, self-destructive live performances, the cuter, more professional DW draw a slightly more middle-of-the-road college crowd who think they smell the next Matchbox Twenty.

Newcombe and Taylor are at first friendly and mutually supportive due to their shared influences and high self-regard, but they're quickly revealed as very different kinds of artists. Newcombe takes an unassailably romantic, purist approach to his music and sees taxing his health and destroying his personal and professional relationships as heroic measures to ensure his work's originality. By DIG!'s conclusion, he has lost a long-suffering girlfriend ("Heroin makes him evil"), BJM's devoted manager of six years ("Anton is a great songwriter, ... but he is so horrible in so many ways"), and most of his band, including key member Matt Hollywood ("I would rather think of [Anton] as dead and miss him"), not to mention innumerable brain cells and several golden opportunities. Taylor, by comparison, is more a Paul McCartney type who sees popularity as the ultimate determinant of what is and what isn't great. …

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