20th Anniversary Of Annoying Friends: Joel Gion And Dig!

A pure, undiluted rock 'n' roll experience...

Joel Gion is the cult figure’s cult figure. Famed for his nonchalant onstage presence, he’s the calm at the centre of the storm, his tambourine playing adding balance and poise to the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s inspirational psychedelic hurricane.

A band whose reputation for rock ‘n’ roll hi-jinks precedes them, the Brian Jonestown Massacre have built up an incredible catalogue, with their deeply influential drone rock sound spawning a legion of imitators. For many, the entrance point is Dig! – the seminal documentary that captured the group as they pirouetted from success to chaos.

Joel Gion’s new book looks back on the life and times of an outlaw group – in this exclusive piece for Clash, he muses on the impact of Dig! and his role in one of modern rock’s most renowned beefs.

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Twenty years later Dig! is coming back as Dig! XX, as in, ’20’ just to clarify before some of you get too excited for the wrong reasons. With forty-minutes of extra footage and added narration by yours truly, it’s now a much more satisfying filmmatic experience, rife with revelations and expanded context. 

The road to my participation in this newly expanded experience started a couple of years ago, while ‘demoing’ my personal memoir writing on Patreon, a website where artists of all mediums can share their work. Out of the blue I got a message from David Timoner, one half of the documentary siblings, whom I hadn’t really spoken to for all these last twenty-odd years, not since attending the original Dig! premier at the Sundance Film Festival where it had won the ‘Grand-Jury Prize’ by a unanimous decision. He’d reached out to let me know how much he’d really been digging my weekly writing and that him and his sister Ondi were currently kicking around the idea of resurrecting the documentary as a new version in time for a 20th anniversary edition.

As it often happens in showbiz, this turned into that and then the other and soon as sure is enough, a couple of years later I found my self in the voice-over narrator’s seat. Through a series of at-home recording sessions, with Ondi and David joining via Zoom, we went through the desired lines, which often times we further kicked around the ‘script’ in a three-way collaboration, with my knowledge of the often unknown surrounding bigger picture, and them also wanting some straight from my memoir writing’s perspective. For me, this also included toning down some of their written-in cattiness towards certain somebodies who’d came out against the film upon its initial release, despite its undeniable career enhancing effects. I was still apprehensive about recording a few of the somewhat overtly ‘bitchy’ lines I agreed to leave in, but it was also true that some period-correct level shit talking to match Dandy front man Courtney Taylor’s existing takes on the going’s on was what was needed, and in the end, the truth is the truth and I can only worry so much about pissing people off just because it’s their ego’s sworn enemy.

We finished the voice overs just in time for my leaving on a big Brian Jonestown Massacre tour that included six weeks of the US and Canada, a pair of festivals in Mexico and then New Zealand and Australia, all back-to-back and with no breaks in-between. Unfortunately, as all of us involved predicted, it had indeed turned out to be an overtly long and grueling tour, and it was just as the land-ho! end finally came into psychescopic sight that back home, Mira, my little black fuzzy cat friend of seventeen years entered the nine-lives encore phase. Her little time left in this dimension looked to be ending any day, and so I opted to pass my tambourine over to our stage manager to take over BJM shaking through the final last three shows of the forty-nine show-long tour while I flew back home to California. 

Upon seeing me reach the top of the stairs Mira suddenly began to rally hard and temporarily bounced back, but this only lasted for some days before the inevitable happened. Still, the blessing was that I had some time to spend with her before she took the big leap, and it was during this window, whilst melted into my lap that I saw the first video of the band fighting on stage in Melbourne, abruptly ending the tour.

As more various smartphone footage appeared online in expanding lengths and angles the fight went viral, then became international news and suddenly there was a unavoidable new plot twist-ending to Dig!XX, and within days I was apprehensively fulfilling this last minute newly added voice over duty. Even before I’d left the tour in Sydney, I’d decided that I needed a break from what BJM reality had recently morphed into, and this upping of the bad vibe doses sealed the deal. It certainly wasn’t the first time I’d split from the band, and in fact the last time I rejoined after a long absence was due entirely to the first Dig! in the first place, right after I’d given the filmmakers my full participation in promoting the film that succeeded in elevating the careers of all involved. 

Still, some of my fellow Dig! co-stars made for a coterie of blackbelt ego-owners and concerns of pissing off one or more of them became very real, now having given commentary to go along with the Melbourne meltdown footage, plus also having added some fresh 20th anniversary sarcasm to throw the Dandy’s way, its highly likely going to become a here-we-go-again situation for me. 

The original life-scene edit of me pissing people off due to my Dig! participation began in 2006, when music fantasy-reality had first become reality-movie fantasy for real and Ondi had come to San Francisco to do a Dig! DVD audio commentary track with my fellow BJM Diggers Miranda Lee Richards, Matt Hollywood, Dean Taylor our first manager Dave D and myself. 

We all arrive as does a shit ton of beer, which is apparently our payment for this evening, like we’re still a bunch of drop-out hippies or something, but then it turns out that that’s exactly what we are as we sign away on a fresh batch of waivers and Matt and I proceed to pound down smack-talk mood lube. Dean is looking healthy and happy, his hair is shorter than I’ve ever seen it and he essentially dresses the same, minus some of the band guy flair. Dave D keeps a friendly but what will always be a customary distance from the three of us because of what happened at CBGB’s and our allowing him to be fired by Anton without putting up a fight for him. Miranda is a welcome addition of female energy and whose presence here will double as keeping Matt and Dean’s Beavis and Butthead tendencies in check during the commentary.

Despite after winning the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize and all the various film festival appearances since making this my umpteenth viewing of the film, it manages to be fresh mostly due to finally seeing it with fellow war heroes, and we rightfully bond over all the misshapen moves we’d made as they roll out in front of us on the TV monitor. It’s pretty fun, but by the end of it I’m ‘over-intoxicated’, or totally fucking wasted as we say in the traveling drunkard trade, and that’s when a body full of booze wearing record store employee-issue smarty-pants does what will wind up being called the ‘Making of The Audio Commentary’, or more accurately, ‘Joel talks a bunch of shit about Courtney’ track, which is filmed on-camera and unbeknownst to me will become its own bonus feature on the double-disc special edition. Kids, when you sign a waiver, watch your behavior around those you’ve waved all your rights to, because any time later is a long time. 

I make fun of their phone commercial hit song’s lyrics, then call him out on stuff in the movie. I mean, did I really have to put all of that out there? Even if it was true? No, so that was fucked and now I’d said what I really felt, musically speaking, which is usually the best thing to do, but occasionally also the worst, like now when all it can do is cause trouble, but there it is now smeared in full on the ‘forever camera’, the camera I’d so successfully navigated not doing anything I would honestly be embarrassed by during the documentary filming, and now here was this fucked up fuck-up for all to see and hear for as long as DVDs are the way people watch movies, so basically forever. 

This little item will ironically create the most real “war” between any of the band members yet, despite being so after the fact, a war created by what one could wager had been a semi-fictional waged war, and now for the first time there are real threats of physical violence, with Courtney making sure to get word down from Portland to me that he has vowed to kick my butt, and word is had even started taking a martial arts class to do so.

I’ve actually had my own experiences with learning martial arts, but that was way back when I was ten-years old, now twenty-five years ago. Like millions of American kids, the discovery of Bruce Lee had a profound effect on both me and my older brother, Paul. I’d been too young for Bruce lee’s original world-wide popularity explosion, but living within the San Francisco-Bay Area, we grew up with all the Bruce Lee movies from a very young age, as he was born in San Francisco and hence a local hero, and all five of his films were rebroadcast on local TV station KTVU a few times every year. Then later when video rental stores become a thing, we would rent them over and over again.

In lieu of a school that taught Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do style in our area, Paul found us a Tae Kwon Do class and we enthusiastically signed up. The class was made up of about fifteen students representing the California race melting pot, with ages running from about eighteen down to me, ten years old. The school was run by a soft-spoken Asian Indian American, and rather than being a strictly competition fighting or self-defense style class, his teachings were from a more Zen approach. I learned about stretching and meditation, an almost impossible task for a ten-year-old who showed up ready for action, but instead was first being instructed to be as still as possible. Despite this, I always took my meditation attempts seriously and tried my best to tune out while tuned into all the new sensations like strong incense and shrine decor.

Unfortunately, about six months later our teacher moved out of town and this turned out to be the end of my serious martial arts journey. However, I would take the concepts of flowing movement through honest expression that I had learned through martial arts with me for the rest of my life, including the stage. But would my now ancient skills still still work in battle against Courtney Taylor-Taylor of The Dandy Warhols? Despite his lanky frame, it was not without some definition. I’ve also seen more than one band photo with him wearing a Gold’s gym t-shirt. Was there something to that? All I knew for sure was that I’d better have on my Bruce Lee style repro sunglasses.

As for Anton and the movie, in the second half they really caught him at his lowest point, or he caught them and then the zoom lens just went into autological action, but in the end it’s the genius or whatever word you want to use for hyper-driven and prolific songwriter with a consistently high-quality output level, and let’s also not forget the wild behaviour that often comes with it is all exactly what everyone wants from rock and roll, or at least everyone in the times of this flashback reality. 

Back in the other corner, Courtney has now flipped opinions on the doc from dig-able to denouncement after the avalanche of film and music critics alike almost universally dubbed them Dandys the “sell outs” of the two groups, to which, whatever, but then Courtney despite having narrated the whole thing in the first place has now somehow become the victim of an apparent gigantic on-film charade. 

Hey, I feel all that, but I also do have to wonder if a thoughtful artists’ profile of competitive musicians who’d chosen to not try to help each in any way in a totally “see you in hell” separate ways’ musical journeys would have had the same effect on the movie-going masses who couldn’t tear their eyes from what it had turned out to be. In the end I don’t want to ponder too much upon it all, as I like the rest of them am very much involved in this ballroom dance, wanting you to think I’m pretty. 

Due to popular demand, ie: Anton getting sick of having to answer the crowd’s nightly question: “Where’s Joel?!”, I’m asked to rejoin The Brian Jonestown Massacre just in time for a six-week European tour playing the biggest venues of the band’s career so far. Then not long after, time turns 2007 and if 6 was 9, then 2 would have to be upside-down to be a medieval style 7, at-best, and that’s about what it feels like when The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols are booked to play a pair of “reunion” shows together for the first time since those heady ‘head’ head-on days back when we were going to start a music revolution together. The bad news is, Courtney Taylor still hates my fucking guts because of the Dig! DVD commentary thing and when our guitar tech and fellow Portlander Travis got home from our European tour and informed him that I’m permanently back in BJM, he had a major freak. I decide to take the high road and offer to not come along to the shows taking place in Portland and Seattle, because regardless of my gesture, word is that if I plan on coming Courtney will have them canceled anyway.

From what I hear later both bands perform the shows well and it’s all a success, so overall I’m happy, I guess, because bare feet on dojo mat poncy prance-off or no, who needs it. A week later comes soon enough and I rejoin BJM again after leaving the band for what had been the weirdest reason yet ever, to play The Monolith Festival taking place at the famed Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado.

My flight arrives late-morning from San Francisco and a few hours before the rest of the guys who are due to get here together in the band van. The very accommodating staff set me up in grand Coloradan style. Our dressing room is like a small apartment, even bigger than the one I live in and replete with natural rock formations coming through the walls.

A spread has been splayed fat and long with food, booze and flowers, and I assemble some somethings, then flop on the couch with it all to myself until the guys get here and fun time can begin. I cosmically sleuth out The Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett Story documentary on VH1 of all places and begin to slow-pull beers from the giant glass bottle bouquet glistening from a bathtub-sized aluminum bucket. All is very much in-tune within my universe except maybe another fresh one when suddenly the door bursts open and Anton is now in the middle of the room.

“Ok, that TV needs to be turned off right now and check this out.” He looks to have a bigger boombox these days as he proceeds to re-arrange the room to accommodate it as its centre piece, which is already playing the newly recorded track ‘Bring Me the Head of Paul McCartney On Heather Mills’ Wooden Peg’. It will continue to be played on repeat for what will be who knows for how long, as it is in fact a righteous hypnotic incantation which only grows in strength with each time its spell is cast into the world we see around us, like it’s it’s own sound feeding itself. The tune is classic Anton shamanism “… and it’s eating the planets and it’s playing guitar…” goes the chant.

Still, thirteen times in a row can even be enough for an answer to the meaning of everything, for now anyway, and so ultimate rock ’n’ roll cougar magnet and BJM keyboard player Rob and I take a walk around the now filling outdoor theater to see what there is to see on these beautiful grounds.

Originally a hang-zone for dinosaurs, it’s where the Rocky Mountains meet the Great Plains. Gigantic sixty-five million years old sandstone monolith formations surround to capture sound that apparently provide stellar natural acoustics as we rise higher up and up to the top of the stone roman theater style steps. Entering the newly built Red Rocks Visitor Center and Hall of Fame, the walls are lined with live photos from appearances here by The Beatles, Johnny Cash, Jimi Hendrix and an ongoing you-can-guess-who train that will now lead all the way up to tonight and the impending Brian Jonestown Massacre performance to be followed by The Flaming Lips.

We get back to the backstage area and everyone who works here is now mad at all of us for some reason. Although, this doesn’t feel like back on the European tour when we’d have to pretend we were Canadian in every roadside restaurant because of George Bush. He actually won this state in the last election, which is weird that I should just happen to know that very random factoid, I should think, so I guess it doesn’t really matter who’s mad at us. If it’s not these folks, it will just be somebody else five minutes from now. People in general seem to love constantly losing their shit over god knows what for and it’s just something that is always going to happen in this life, seemingly.

An hour later the over nine-thousand capacity seating is looking pretty full as we launch into it, but then early on Anton has a tuning meltdown and starts cursing everyone for not being able to play him a “fucking D” before ordering the now heckling crowd to “Shut the fuck up. I’m doing this for you. Just shut up and we’ll tune and play a song for you”. His new long on the top and shaved on the sides cut adds to the mayhem somehow and then I see the Flaming Lips singer side of stage, shaking his head for an extended amount of time, seemingly disgusted.

“How about you give me a FUCKING D? “Anton demands again from the guys.

This isn’t the way I was picturing things going today, despite kind of knowing it would, but also, fuck that Flaming Lips guy. Even if this is going to be considered a mess by him and most everyone else here today, this is our mess, so go shake your head somewhere else, I say via my own head-shake back over to him which is much more like the head-shaking pros do it.

Afterwards, the sun starts going down during the Flaming Lips set, as timed for magical effectiveness, and as it dims the stage lights are faded up while the gigantic video monitor behind the stage fills with more sporadic flashing images.

A bunch of super-duper Flaming Lips fans up in the front are collected and brought backstage to reemerge as different costumed clans of stage dancers. There are Santa elves, shrunken-down comic book superheroes and space hookers or something, who are all filtering out onto the stage. Soon there is quite a crowd of them up there as confetti cannons begin to blast thousands of celebratory paper bits over the crowd while the giant video projections become even more frantic in the flashing of lights and now streamers are flying everywhere, and smoke machines are pumping as the singer gets his own confetti cannon now and the shit is flying everywhere.

Guitar player and full-tilt beer-boogie blackbelt Frankie and I are watching all of this from side-of-stage when suddenly I’ve lost him. There he is now in the backstage quick change-over fray putting on an alien costume. I go over and laugh in approval but just as soon as he gets on stage one of their crew people somehow still recognizes him even as an alien and shouts to other stage crew guys “Hey, that guy is in The Brian Jonestown Massacre! Wayne said none of those guys are to be allowed anywhere near the stage! Call security! He needs to be ejected!” The other two crew grab him and pull him offstage, and I can’t fucking believe these idiots are trying to throw out a guy who played in front of thousands of people today just because he is in BJM. Well, if I take a moment to reflect back on life’s rich pageant, I guess I can believe it.

“Hey! You can’t throw him out! He just played!” I yell as I pull a very confused and wasted Frankie away from the Lips’s losers. I quickly help him get out of their stupid alien costume and we hightail it out of there before the concert fuzz arrives.

Then I see Rob and our ageist-defying candidate for baby food commercials and bass playing Collin, who joins us and we all go together to get lost in the crowd. This is a story they’re really going to want to hear, but Rob apparently has a perhaps an even better story for me. We find some seats and watch from aisle position and then Rob leans into my ear because the music is fucking loud. “So the promoters plan on getting us a police escort out of here tonight.”

“Why?” I ask, somehow still with a disbelief mechanism after all these years.

“Anton said he didn’t need his backstage laminate because he could ‘go wherever he chose to’ and then just gave it away to some random person. Then a little later when he tried to go backstage the security guy wouldn’t let him without his pass, so he spits right in the guy’s face. Apparently, the whole security staff here tonight is from a very old school teamsters’ union and the venue promoters seem to have heard things that make them think that we will get hurt on our way back to our van.”

Huh.

We watch the band some more, or rather stare through it all, each with our own individual inner introspection speculations as to the future of this evening. Meanwhile, the singer has gotten into a giant hamster ball and the fan faction dressed like comic book superheroes push him out and over the crowd tops so he can hamster ball surf them. As he tries to sort of balance in there, he’s waving and smiling as dozens large green balloons bounce and float all around everywhere and there’s like a hundred people on stage now with the stupid little elves and aliens and Santas and everyone is having such a grand time and I hate this band so much right now.

Indeed, we do have to wait for the police to come so we can be escorted out to ensure we aren’t all whacked by the mafia style security staff. I don’t see Anton but he’s at the van already when we get there. Having pissed off the whole place, the festival promoters make us wait there in the parking lot to be paid until literally the very last piece of Flaming Lips confetti has been hoovered up from every crack and crevasse of the stands before they will pay us, which turns out to be around four in the morning.

The funny thing here is, despite all the intensity, I’m pretty sure Anton had more fun today than I did, in his way, because he was doing whatever he felt like. Still, despite efforts going beyond what just about any other musician on this Earth could muster, this somewhat celebrated behavior of 2007 might cause an argument today, but then what isn’t there a cause for argument these days.

Meanwhile, the Courtney Cold War went on for about another year until the next time BJM played Portland at the Crystal Ballroom, the same venue that I had been reunion-banished from the last time. I was the first one off stage after the jam-out finale, and as I made my way down the stairs to the dressing rooms, who should I see blocking my way at the bottom but Courtney. I continue down at the same post-show dressing room-beer-need speed thinking ok, this is it.

I don’t take my eyes off Courtney as I move further down the stairs and as I get closer, he suddenly just smiles, then holds his arms out to hug me. Apparently time had healed all wounds and we embrace, then proceeded to chat one-on-one for a long time backstage as I was regaled with all of his self-proclaimed foodie culture enthusiasms and great knowledge of wine, as represented within his evidently very large cellar collection, all of which serve to honestly make a little part of me wish that we could just go back to the way it had been before. Was all the fighting really now over?

Apparently so, and peace indeed did remain between the two guitar tribes and all battles between The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols were ceased, now and… forever?

Well, at least until my book comes out on February 29th

Order Joel Gion’s essential new memoir In The Jingle Jangle Jungle through White Rabbit Books.

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