Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2015
Images from the Internet
Cape Fear Filmworks
78 minutes, 2006 / 2011
Images from the Internet
Dexter Romweber: Two-Headed CowDirected by Tony Gayton
Cape Fear Filmworks
78 minutes, 2006 / 2011
Before the film Boyhood (2014) made a name by following its subjects for a dozen years, and during the period of British director Michael Apted’s Up series following some school chums every seven years, indie director Tony Gayton pointed his camera at The Flat Duo Jets’ lead singer and guitarist, Dexter Romweber, over a period of two decades.
Usually I don’t quote the jacket cover, but here is a shortened version of the description, which I thought did a fine job of an overview: “…[this] started as a black and white film that followed Dexter Romweber and drummer Crow [Chris Smith] on a rock and roll tour along the same route as General Sherman. The film was not finished… but thanks to the digital age the filmmakers were able to resume the film seventeen years later.” Of course, what goes on in the film is actually way beyond the scope of that statement.
I only had the opportunity to see The Flat Duo Jets (TFDJ) once, videotaping their performance at CBGBs on a co-bill with Buffalo cult band The Mystic Eyes in the early 1990s. They were a lot of fun, and I wish I had the opportunity to see them again, but it just never came to be after that. In one more egocentric statement, there is a clip of the band on The David Letterman Show, and ironically, I am watching it on the night of Letterman’s last program. Cue The Twilight Zone music, please!
There are many ways to categorize the music of Romweber and all of them would be accurate, and yet none of them would be, as well. There is a baseline of blues, as his solo off-the-cuff rendition of the Slim Harpo classic “King Bee,” on acoustic guitar in a motel room. There is also an Elvis-esque rockabilly flair when he is in a manic stage. And yet, the evidence of a garage revival from his early ‘80s influences is present. Put that all into an envelope of Other music – a cover term for the unexplainable-yet-charismatic likes of the Shaggs, the Legendary Stardust Cowboy and especially the first-generation of the Cramps – and you still haven’t nailed down what it is about Dexter that is a general descriptor as he cannot be pigeonholed. He just refers to it as “‘50s music.” That’s also why he has so many fans, including many who are musicians who refer to him as a major influence.
Thankfully, Gayton doesn’t do the film chronologically, but rather gives us resonating vignettes of the music and the man, as he theorizes life (usually with ciggy-butt firing away) in a cryptic and possibility just a bit of psychotic way. Yet, he still remains a charmer, which I say without the slightest hint of sarcasm, but rather admiration.
At the early stages of the documentary, there is a flash flood of name performers who boost up what Romweber has meant to them, including Jack White (who shares a similar passion for both ‘50s ‘billy and off-kilter performance; he has also had much more success, though Romweber is by far more interesting), the now Tea Party advocate Excene Cervenka of X fame, and Neko Case, with whom Romweber has toured in the past. They all give their testimonials on influence, and happily, unlike most music documentaries, after stating their case in bytes, they mostly don’t come back until briefly near the very end. This is in a brave and thankful deference to most films that drown in back-slapping. No, this film is about Romweber, and he keeps our attention throughout.
His mom, who we meet both in the late 1980s and then again in the mid 2000s, called Dexter an “old soul,” and that may be true, as is his history of alcohol and some drug abuse (we don’t get the impression any of it was of the opiate nature), which led to breakdowns, career hiccups, lost friendships (e.g., Crow, who struggled with his own demons), and an affection for Jean Baudrillard, one of Dexter’s also-troubled philosophical idols. Through mental health issues (in my opinion) and previous use of mind-altering substances such as booze and pot, Romweber goes into some detail about how he has survived over the years between the first filming and the second, but acknowledges that there have been constants, such as his Silvertone guitar, of which he gives us a tour.
The third act is filled with both destruction and redemption, intermingled. After the breakup of the TFDJ, there was a two-year tailspin of no music, regret of the failed TFDJ and the promise of a higher-level career that was not meant to be by the end of the film, but it’s shown that all of it is what makes Romweber remain true to his music. I wonder how much he would have been corrupted by the industry back in the 1980s and ‘90s if success had befallen on him. Yes, he’s still struggling on one level, but as we learn from Neko and others, his influence is felt every day in their own musical output.
There is a lot of music played by Romweber throughout the film, but very little of it is official, i.e., recordings. We do see bits and pieces of the tours, both 1988 and 2005, but most of it is off the cuff stuff, in motel rooms, at home with his mom, hanging out (with Crow, for example), some clips on stage, and even what looks like an old age home where he plays piano for a less-than-gaggle-number of old men. No song is shown complete, but this off-the-cuff competently shows both how much music is a part of his life, and unconventional means of affectionate communication (e.g., in my own family, we communicated by asking routes traveled and volume of traffic; here, casual music is the medium of conveyance of connection).
An especially touching moment is a back-and-forth of Romweber at a piano singing “Burning Bridges,” both in the early BandW and then-present, with Gayton eventually joining the shots together.
While one of the meanings of the title of the film is presented during the final credits, in my opinion there are more possibilities, such as the twin comparison of ’88 vs. ’05, and even an opening clip from the early days, where Romweber is talking and Crow is standing behind him, harmlessly and joyfully mocking him, almost looking like his head is growing from Dexter’s shoulder.
The three extras are solo performances by Romweber: a spectacular instrumental guitar showcase on BET’s Jazz Discovery (5 minutes), an on-stage medley at the Silverlake Lounge (3 minutes), and a somewhat amusing interview Mr. Mouse and music on the Chapel Hill cable access show Z-TV (30 minutes).
This film is both unknown by most, and yet legendary among fans, filling up festivals whenever it shows up on occasion. Now that it’s on DVD and I assume VoD, this is definitely a chance to see one of the unique characters on the indie music scene.