The Dandy Warhols
Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia
The Dandy Warhols used to get a lot of stick for being careerists and poseurs and fakes, largely on the backs of the running feud between Dandys frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor and Anton Newcombe, frontman of the Brian Jonestown Massacre. You see, a long time ago, they used to be friends. The feud perhaps reached its height with the 2004 documentary, Dig!, which was ostensibly about the friendship and rivalry between the two bands. I always thought both dudes came off as prats in this whole affair. When the Dandys dropped their 1997 album, The Dandy Warhols Come Down, I thought it was some serious stoner greatness. My girlfriend at the time thought they were poseurs. Whatever. I liked them.
So when Thirteen Tales dropped on 1 August 2000, I was excited and eagerly anticipating it. Me and that girlfriend, the one who didn’t like the Dandys, were in the long, long process of breaking up, I was kind of lost and, I was stuck in Ottawa. Anyone who knows me knows I have a special loathing for the Canadian nation’s capital. I spent four years of my life there, in two separate stints. That’s four years I’ll never get back. And in the summer of 2000, on the verge of my escape back to Montréal, I felt trapped and claustrophobic. To top it off, I had knee surgery. These were the worst of times, they were the worst of times.
But Thirteen Tales became one of the central components of my last month in Ottawa and my first year in Montréal. I played this album almost daily. It was intoxicating, it was brilliant. It was, as far as I’m concerned, the perfect album. I hadn’t listened to it for about a decade, but recently, my phone played ‘Godless’ on random play in the car. The song still moved me. When I got home, I put on the album and blasted it.
All of the sudden I was back in that sweltering Ottawa heat that summer, in Riverside Park, where I often went just to get closer to the Rideau River, but also to get out of the heat of the city. The first time I heard the album was on my old Sony Discman in that park.
‘Godless’ starts with this wailing wall of feedback, before an acoustic guitar kicks in in an easy, quick strum. And then the song itself starts, the whole band kicks in and someone’s playing a trumpet over top. And then Taylor-Taylor begins:
Hey I said you’re godless and
It seems like you’re a soulless friend
As thoughtless as you were back then
I swear that you are godless
Hey I guess you’re lonely when
I gave you all it took so then
Stranger then it’s ever been
I guess, It’s what you wanted
It seems, lonely I would be
I beg, I plead
But this is all that I have gotten
Hey as for the day my friend
To hope that you could ever bend
I swear you are
I swear you are
That you are godless
Hey I said you’re godless
Hey and you’re a soulless friend
Hey I said you’re thoughtless
I have often wondered who was in Taylor-Taylor’s sights, though I have always liked to think it was Newcombe.
The opening trilogy of songs on Thirteen Tales just blend together in this dreamy-stoner state, like they’re all just floating on a cloud. As ‘Godless’ ends, it collapses into this muddle fuzzy bass and percussion, and out of that, the drums lead us right into ‘Mohammad,’ which begins with those drums, hollowed out, and some synthesizer, and then a bit of acoustic guitar and then Pete Holmström’s guitar comes wailing in. And then Taylor-Taylor sings about his demons.
‘Mohammad’ ends in a blast of trumpet, the same percussion, and slowly ends, and then the crashing drums, fuzzed out bass, and guitar of ‘Nietzsche’ hits us. Back in 2000-2001, I saw this trilogy as a take on the godhead, in large part because of the lyrics of ‘Nietzsche’:
I want a god who stays dead, not plays dead.
I, even I, can play dead.
But all three songs consider our relationship with our soul, our demons, and our god, all of the things St. Augustine of Hippo meditated upon in the deserts of Algeria some 1600 years ago. I’m not sure I see this as any different today.
The spell of the opening trilogy is broken as ‘Nietzsche’ peters out and we move to the countrified, acoustic stomper ‘Country Leaver.’ You see, Taylor-Taylor is going to see her in Amsterdam, he can’t believe he can get there, but he can, man. And he hopes when he sees her, she’s still liking who he is. But even if she doesn’t, he’ll understand. Built over an acoustic slide guitar riff from Holmström, this song is fucking choice.
Every song on this album bleeds into the next one, and that’s perhaps part of what makes it so great, there is no dead space, one song picks up in the detritus of the last. And after ‘Country Leaver,’ we get ‘Solid.’ Here, Taylor-Taylor is trying to get her out of his head. It’s a day he’s walking around the old town of Portland, OR, from whence the Dandys come. He’s amazed that she’s just gone from his head all suddenly.
One of the things about this album is the way Taylor-Taylor uses his voice. It’s all over the place. He’s all hushed and whispered on ‘Godless,’ he moves into an upper register for ‘Mohammad’ and ‘Nietzsche’, and then he gets an Oregon country accent on in ‘Country Leaver.’ And on ‘Solid,’ he returns to his usual voice, lower register.
The Dandys themselves never get the credit they deserved as a rock’n’roll band. Not only did Taylor-Taylor write thirteen brilliant tracks on this album, there is no filler, the band itself is in top notch form. Holmström plays lead guitar, Taylor-Taylor plays the rhythm. Zia McCabe plays bass and synth, and Brent ‘Fathead’ DeBoer, who is Taylor-Taylor’s cousin, pounds the skins. DeBoer and McCabe also do backup vocals. Holmström is the classic silent six-stringer.
Taylor-Taylor also had a sense of humour, part of which we see in ‘Country Leaver’ and ‘Solid.’ But it’s especially on display on the anthemic, rocking ‘Bohemian Like You’:
You got a great car
Yeah, what’s wrong with it today?
I used to have one too,
Maybe I’ll come and have a look.
I really love
your hairdo, yeah
I’m glad you like mine too,
See what looking pretty cool will get ya?
So, what do you do?
Oh yeah, I wait tables too.
No, I haven’t heard your band,
‘Cause you guys are pretty new.
But if you dig on vegan food
Well come over to my work
I’ll have them cook you
Something that you’ll really love.
Whose that guy
Just hanging at your pad
He’s looking kinda bummed
Yeah, you broke up, thats too bad.
I guess it’s fair if he always pays the rent
And he doesn’t get bent
about sleeping on the couch when I’m there.
I mean, this is some seriously funny, mocking shit. And it’s a perfect send up of the urban bohemia of the late 90s/early 2000s. I lived this in Montréal. I couldn’t in Ottawa, because, well, it was Ottawa. Seriously, legendary Canadian journalist Allan Fotheringham called Ottawa ‘the city that fun forgot.’ But it’s a brilliant song, too. It rocks over a basic guitar riff, with Holmström offering his soaring squalls over the driving beat from McCabe and DeBoer.
From ‘Bohemian’, we slide right into ‘Shakin’,’ which over a squall of guitar, Taylor-Taylor praises his new woman for getting him going. In fact, he’s shakin’, even though she treats him pretty poorly.
And then we ride out on ‘Big Indian’ and ‘The Gospel.’
‘Big Indian’ is a classic bit of Americana, blues-based rock, it could be a Rolling Stones b-side from the late 1960s. His acoustic guitar with Holmström laying down his bit over top and a towering bassline from McCabe and DeBoer’s bouncing drums. Taylor-Taylor is reflecting on how he’s got it good, how his friends hold him down:
Well my friends do me so right.
I’m lucky this far, maybe it’s kharma.
I get over them but, only at times.
And I thank my lucky stars,
I wish I may, I wish that I might,
Just keep and open mind, all of the time.
My old man told me one time.
You never get wise, you only get older.
And most things, you never know why,
But that’s fine.
When the future is frightening,
And I seem to be fighting it
Well, soon as it’s brightening then I.
I feel fine, and then I, I feel fine.
And then ‘The Gospel,’ co-written with Holmström is largely his guitar soaring around a basic riff on Taylor-Taylor’s electric guitar and McCabe’s backing vocal. Here, Taylor-Taylor’s lyrics bring us right back around to our start, the godhead, spirituality, and the struggles of life. It’s a beautiful ending to one of the greatest albums of all-time.
When Thirteen Tales was released, it actually got really good reviews, perhaps the only Dandys album to get a lot of love from the critics. It was also the album where they pulled together all that made their first two albums so promising. They were full of these wicked hooks, and the occasional stunning song. And here, for all thirteen tracks, it wasn’t just promise, it was fulfilled.
This was the Dandy Warhols greatest moment. And, frankly, I think anyone would trade a long career of hit songs for one glorious moment like this. On their next album, Welcome to the Monkey House, in 2003, saw Tayl0r-Taylor take his band in new directions, including a very synthed up first single, ‘We Used to be Friends.’ I had to give him credit for never wanting to make the same album twice, but it took me awhile to get into Monkey House. Their next few albums had some wicked moments on them, but the Dandys never recaptured the muse and magic in the studio that led to this stunner of an album.