Very late one evening in the very late 1980s, my pal Doug and I were dejectedly roaming the Canadian television airwaves when we suddenly chanced upon footage of these two guys playing music out on someone’s porch.
Our collective jaws — to say nothing of the remote — immediately dropped.
It seems we’d stumbled upon a movie called Athens, GA: Inside/Out. The two guys playing the incredible music turned out to be Chris “Crow” Smith and, on guitar and vocals, Dexter Romweber. When a graphic across the screen reading Flat Duo Jets eventually appeared, both Doug and I realized, among several other things, that we had a New Favorite Band.
Shortly afterward I found myself moved to New York City, tracked down a few actual FDJ cassettes of and for my very own, and even ran into Romweber one afternoon at some New Music Seminar showcase he and Crow would later be performing at. Soon the Duo would secure the dreaded major label deal and appear on Late Night with David Letterman, and I certainly wasn’t the only eager fan(atic) betting on these two to any minute forever banish the Smashing Pumpkins and hopefully even Green Day from all of our lives.
So, what in God’s name happened to the Flat Duo Jets? Where did our heroes Crow and Dex go? And why did Celine Dion, and not them, sell over 20 million records worldwide during calendar year 1998??
The answers to these, and a multitude of other earthly injustices, are vividly contained within the 80-minute mélange of rock and roll that is Tony Gayton‘s Dexter Romweber: Two Headed Cow, recently available on DVD courtesy of the fine folk at MVD Visual.
From its very opening sequence of Dex pontificating upon JFK and the Three Stooges, clear through its concluding title-song sequence (which even hearing and seeing isn’t quite believing), this “18 years in the making” as the disc box boasts — yes, director Gayton has been faithfully trailing his subject matters ever since shooting that historic Inside/Out footage — illustrates perhaps better than any film since 200 Motels that, absolutely, touring can make you crazy.
“I can’t say no to managers, and I can’t say no to the band, and I’m sort of locked into this thing so, you know, I say, ‘OK, I’m gonna go do this tour,’ ” Romweber recalls. Two Headed Cow‘s cantankerously claustrophobic, monochrome, literally-in-their-faces footage perfectly captures Crow and Romweber’s nocturnal crawls across post-Ronald Reagan America, carrying guitars through all-night inconvenience stores, tumbling in and out of pizza-encrusted flea-pit motels, and in Romweber’s case spending most every single semi-waking hour burning through a trough of backseat literature that only serves to heighten the general mis-awareness of it all.
Errol Flynn, John Barrymore, Hermann Hesse, Knut Hamsun, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Arthur Rimbaud and eventually Charles Baudelaire — such are the fabulous figures of infamy duly name-checked by Dex as his self-confessed “f***ed-up role models that I’d come to be later. Partiers and wreckage-makers. They became second, third and fourth selves in me.”
Or, as he helpfully explains elsewhere, “Going out and hell-raising, I think, is really, and to a degree, a positive thing. Madness is merely the door open to the supernatural.”
Nevertheless, despite mopping the floor with a d-u-m-b-struck Paul Shaffer on Letterman, being floated by none other than David Geffen for the Scott Litt/Chris Stamey-supervised Lucky Eye and remaining just so damned good a band that despite all attempts, subconscious or otherwise, to derail the star-making machinery, the Flat Duo Jets were poised to become, at the very least, the White Stripes and/or Black Keys they would later only spawn and — now this is putting it mildly — influence. Sure, rarely do the brave, crazed, pioneering innovators of any artistic signpost receive the credit, to say nothing of the cash, those who later water down and recast reap. But the 1999 dissolution of the (in Romweber’s perfect words) “relaxed brotherhood” between he and Crow not only left our New Favorite Band in splinters, but it turns out cast Dex “broken open,” betrayed and falling into a dark night “trek into some sort of semi-psychotic spiritual odyssey.”
Thankfully however, the concluding Two Headed Cow footage shows the man somehow renewed and basking in the retrospective attention and glory he now most rightfully enjoys. In fact, I’m much more than pleased to report that the last time I caught the grand-new Dex Romweber Duo (alongside his utterly brilliant drummer/sister Sara) in full action a couple of years ago, the man remains every single inch the towering, blistering, all-encroaching talent he ever was as a keen young Jet.
If ever a movie, or a musical journey, deserves such a happy ending, it is indeed that of Dexter Romweber.
— Musician/writer Gary Pig Gold is the co-founder of the To M’Lou Music label.