Funny I should be thinking about (and playing) these guys again. It's been quite a break indeed. I was fortunate enough to've witnessed some of the Dirty Three's very early gigs when practically no one even knew they existed. And I'll tells ya, that's not because I've necessarily got my ear to the ground w/ everything that's hep 'n' happenin', or because I'm down w/ some in-the-know clique. Nope, it happened by sheer, drunken accident. I was at the Evelyn Hotel on Brunswick Street one evening back at the start of '93, hanging out w/ some friends, when I noticed that the band setting up featured none other than Mick Turner and Jim White. I'd seen Venom P. Stinger play countless times - alas, not w/ the troubled and ousted (and now deceased) Dugald MacKenzie at the helm - and so I staggered up to White and slurred out something dumb along the lines of, "Awright, gonna get some fuckin' Venom P. action tonight, huh?!", to which he politely responded (and it was polite, given my likely asshole-ic demeanour), "Not tonight. We've got a new band going called the Dirty Three. Stick around". That I did, and I liked what I saw. And from then on, from '93-'95, I saw them many, many times.
Some time around late '95 I noticed things had changed... not w/ the band, but their audience. These guys were getting big. Not at the stage of attracting any particular element of douchebaggery to the fold, mind you, but their shows (mainly at the Punter's Club, from memory) were becoming insanely packed and not the intimate affairs I used to enjoy. I was as surprised as anyone that word had caught on so strong. I mean, the band, they were hot, both live and on record, but still so unconventional in their music I was kinda shocked the plebs cared for them. I worked for their distributor from '95-'99 and I can tell you: they sold a lot of records, and I dug them all. Fact is, I was happy for them. Both White and Turner had been playing around in assorted acclaimed (but poorly-selling) punk, post-punk, noise and scunge-rock bands since 1980 and probably never really earned a cent from their given crafts. A buck or two was long overdue.
The last time I saw them play in the 1990s was at the Hi-Fi Bar w/ roughly 800 other people. I distinctly remember two clueless suburbanites in front of me arguing over a burnt dinner or something. I figured I probably wouldn't be catching the band in a live setting from there on. And that's not because I'm a snob - no, wait, of course I am, and if you tell me you're not, I won't believe you - but because I'm just not into the idea of battling crowds to get a good view of a band.
When I went overseas in '99 and had The Great Cull of my LPs/CDs, in an attempt to thin out what I thought to be a bloated collection (didn't work), I foolishly sold my Dirty Three CDs in the process. All I have standing is a Forced Exposure vinyl copy of Sad & Dangerous... and let's be honest. It's actually my wife's, not mine. So, that brings me to this, the new-ish Dirty Three feature-length documentary film from last year, something I was completely unaware of until I stumbled over it in the New Releases section of the local DVD rental store last week. This film is apparently still floating around various film festivals, and if you have a thing about seeing flicks on "the big screen" as opposed to your TV w/ a DVD player attached (I prefer the latter), you might wanna jump on this, pronto.
The Dirty Three has a whole lotta good stuff - footage and background coverage - and a whole lotta stuff missing from the story. It takes you on a fairly basic chronological journey from A to Z: Warren Ellis, Mick Turner and Jim White's backgrounds in music, from busking to the Sick Things to People With Chairs Up Their Noses (obscure "little band" people rave about, though I've never heard 'em), and naturally there's some cool footage of Venom P. Stinger and intelligent commentary from the likes of the always-eloquent and verbose Nick Cave (I've been seriously warming to the guy lately), Steve Cross (3RRR/Remote Control man-about-town), who first signed them to Torn & Frayed in the mid '90s, and Dave Graney, who bummed around Europe for a few years when they were in the Moodists together in the early '80s. Then it gives you an album-by-album rundown, complete w/ details by Steve Albini. It's pretty fun and interesting until the film ends at approx. 90 minutes and you realise they didn't cover much else. OK, these famous people love them and they've made some very fine albums... anything else to add? I mean, is the fact that the three members of the band happen to live on three seperate continents not even worth mentioning, or pursuing? Do they make a semi-comfortable living off their music? How long will the band possibly last? How many records have they sold? What do their parents or partners make of it all? What about the Taiwanese shows they played a few years back? I dunno, when the credits rolled, these were the first questions which entered my head, and I felt ripped off that such points were never even brought up. Still, if you just want some basic facts, some great footage and a whole lotta gushing from various famous heads, you'll likely find something of worth. Despite its faults, I can't say I was ever struck w/ boredom. Turner, White and Ellis come across as incredibly humble, down-to-earth guys who are probably as shocked as anyone w/ their enormous success. My brush with fame story? I don't know anyone from the band personally; I can only say that my wife had drinks w/ Jim White's Dad in a country pub a few years back and that Warren Ellis dropped by a record shop I was working at a few times when he was briefly in town around '99/'00 and he was as funny as hell and loved to chat about everything from Eric Dolphy to Stravinsky to Black Flag. My kinda guy!
I am now playing Sad & Dangerous as I write this, after just giving Horse Stories a flogging (okay, I burnt it off a friend the other day... and will probably wind up purchasing the real thing. Don't get me started...), and I sense a very small Revival Of One happening w/ the band known as the Dirty Three in this household. You know, I actually did catch them play in the last 5 years, at the Forum in '04 or so, and they knocked me out. Ellis was his usual histrionic self, though the added combination of Turner's completely deadpan, near-disinterested manner (whilst plucking out incredibly subtle though apt guitar lines) and Jim White's you-gotta-see-him-to-believe-him Sunny Murray/Chick Webb/George Hurley drumming (hardly ever a sweat broken) is still an amazing sight to behold. Fact is, they'd barely changed their basic template in the slightest. When I went home that night, I'm pretty sure I played Sad & Dangerous a bunch of times and called it quits. This time, I promise to re-investigate further.