Commentary

Music the way the Dandy Warhols like it

Updated: September 8, 2009, 8:17 AM ET
By Paul Shirley | Special to ESPN.com

Sound check is over for the Dandy Warhols. The band has dispersed to the grassy courtyard next to the bar where they'll be playing tonight and Zia McCabe -- keyboardist, percussionist and organizational brains for the Dandy Warhols -- takes a bag of rough-hewn tobacco out of her purse and rolls a cigarette as her 5-year-old daughter Matilda runs by in pigtails and a black dress. McCabe shakes her head and takes a sip of her beer as she wishes aloud that her daughter will steer clear of the bartenders who work at the venue; she's heard the women in question cursing violently while discussing their reveling ways and wants Matilda nowhere near them.

[+] EnlargeZia McCabe
Kristian Dowling/Getty ImagesZia McCabe says the Dandy Warhols enjoy the ride with a philosophy of "If it's good, it's fun. If it's bad, it's funny."

The little girl is scooped up by a man wearing a sleeveless T-shirt, a beret and the best sideburns since 1872 in Dodge City. Relieved, McCabe calls to the man -- her husband -- and asks him for a light for her now-completed cigarette.

Such is the dichotomy of the Dandy Warhols. Cursing and harlotry: bad things for kids to see. Smoking and drinking: OK things for kids to see.

My observation of the scene surrounding the conversation shared by McCabe and me is not meant to be an indictment of the family's parenting skills. What's important is the delineation, the adherence to certain principles that is similar to the way the members of the Dandy Warhols have managed their careers. They've been big, they've been small, but through it all, they've stayed true to what they believed. And that's part of why I like them so much.

I was first introduced to the Dandy Warhols by an issue of Rolling Stone, which was a magazine subscription that provided one biweekly beacon of hope in my college mail. I read a glowing review of their album "13 Tales From Urban Bohemia" and soon after, like Charlie marshaling his last dollar for a chocolate bar, parted with a little of my own scarce resources to purchase the album. I was immediately mesmerized by the transitions on the album; the band was able to go from stoner rock to pop to alt-country without hesitation. "13 Tales" stayed in heavy rotation in the Discman-to-cassette player setup employed in my 1991 Corsica for long trips from Ames, Iowa, to home. To this day, the album comes up any time I talk about my all-time favorites.

No discussion of the Dandies would be complete without mention of the most popular song from that "13 Tales," an energetic tune called "Bohemian Like You." It is undoubtedly the one song with which any casual music listener will associate the band. Because I bought the album based on a critic's recommendation, the significance of "BoHo," as McCabe calls it any time it comes up in our discussion, was lost on me. Until Greece, that is.

I spent my first post-college year in Greece. I flailed around the country's basketball courts with moderate success, even while my team did everything it could to undercut my happiness. I was nearly evicted from the apartment for which the team was paying. I was never paid on time and have given up hope of seeing $53,000 I am owed. And less significantly in the macro, but infinitely annoying at the time: It took weeks to arrange Internet service in my home.

My first efforts at contact with the outside world included the services of a team manager named Stavros, a man whose favorite word was "Avrio," or "tomorrow," because that's when everything would (wink, wink) get taken care of. When it became apparent that Stavros was just as bad at solving Internet problems as he was at telling the truth about when we'd get paid, I marched down the street to a Vodafone shop and picked up what I was told was all I needed to be online in a day. "This is it?" I asked, incredulously, pointing at the box in front of me. "Yes, of course. It will work."

Like many things Greek, it did not work. Dutifully, I called the help line number provided.

For reasons that were unclear to me, Vodafone had paid the Dandy Warhols for the right to use "BoHo" for its ad campaigns. I doubt they were paid enough: The song was ubiquitous. It was on TV, at movies, and most immediate in my world, was the on-hold music for the Vodafone Internet help line. I might have heard the song 50 times while waiting for someone to not help me.

I told McCabe the same story. She chuckled when I mentioned the Greeks' inability to get anything done on time, but wasn't surprised at how much play the song got in Greece. She said that when the band arrived in that country on tour, their road manager said, "Welcome to Greece! And congratulations, you have the No. 1 song in the country! And the No. 2 song in the country!"

The Dandy Warhols have always been most popular on continents that don't start with North. (And, I suppose we can assume, continents that start with "Ant.") I asked McCabe if it's ever annoying to play in places such as Kansas City ... "Oh, you mean, tertiary markets?" she interjected ... and have people not understand the band's clout in other parts of the world.

She concluded, very politically, that the band had always enjoyed both: They'd taken advantage of the trappings of notoriety in the appropriate locations, but they'd also loved the chance to play an intimate show for a few hundred people. I dutifully nodded, still lost in tertiary and its implications. Those implications being that this woman had a vocabulary much richer than indicated by her tattoos, pierced lip and propensity to, early in the band's career, play shows topless.

The Warhols' popularity in other countries is nice, of course. But it doesn't necessarily pay the bills. As we all know, while the citizenry of the United States has dubious taste in music, it does not suffer from a shortage of buying power. How, then, have the Dandies gotten along, if a good portion of their clout is dispersed somewhere between Skopje and Sydney?

McCabe told me that the answer was combination of fortuitous timing and willpower. Timing because the band was still big enough to take advantage of label support during the industry-changer that was the introduction of the Internet; they were able to capitalize on the connections they'd made all over the world to piece together ways to monetize their output.

But more importantly, she said, the Dandy Warhols have always done things their way.

And this is their secret, their key to success, their life lesson, if they have one. McCabe told me, dismissively, about a band that I won't name, and how it has done everything its label has told it to do. The result: massive popularity, but a dulling of the band's integrity. The Warhols, on the other hand, may not have a private plane, but their souls are intact. Nowhere was that more evident than the preshow scene. Instead of insecure bandmates obsessing over their roles, it was a little girl running races with her security-working father.

Nonetheless, the Warhols' lack of popularity in this country is perplexing. The band is not unpopular -- on the night of the band's stop in Kansas City, the venue in question was at least half-full. But it seems to me the band should be bigger. They've never quite reached critical mass, as it were.

A likely explanation lies in the band's schizophrenic style. Early records were fuzzy, jam-band rock. "13 Tales" was a mishmash of genres. Their most polished album, "Welcome To The Monkey House," brought with it the band's best shot at stardom, but it came along at a time (2003) that was before and after indie-pop was cool. (Keeping my definition of "indie" in mind; the Dandies were on Capitol Records at the time.) Their two most recent recordings of new music -- "Odditorium or Warlords On Mars" and "Earth to the Dandy Warhols" -- are just as zany as the titles would indicate.

The American popular music industry is dominated by specialization. As demonstrated by their experimental track record, the Dandy Warhols are not. Thus, the solution to my problem. The Dandy Warhols are a square-shaped peg trying to fit into the music industry's sphincter-shaped hole.

It seems to me that Zia McCabe, for one, doesn't much care. She said everyone in the band knows how fortunate they've been, even if they haven't reached Jonas Brothers status in this country. She told me they've enjoyed every step of the journey, governed by the band's philosophy that "If it's good, it's fun. If it's bad, it's funny." She spoke of her own -- and the band's -- ability to adapt. She mentioned side project after side project, doing so with a twinkle in her eye that, to me, seemed to say, "Don't worry about us, tall dude. We'll figure it out."

As I watched the Warhols perform that night, I couldn't help but think that they would. I'd seen the band two times before and had left each time vaguely disappointed. They hadn't found the right energy on either occasion. But the third time was different. Maybe lead singer Courtney Taylor-Taylor, the cog around which the band turns, was in a better mood this time. Or maybe my expectations were lowered to the point that I would have been entertained if a sloth had taken the stage with a ukulele in one of its three toes.

Whatever the reason, I thoroughly enjoyed the band's tight, confident set. To me, it said, "Look, man, we can play really well, or we can play really medium. But we're going to do whatever we want." The Dandy Warhols were not playing their set with me in mind, of course. They were playing their set with themselves in mind. Selfish? Maybe. Or maybe it's honest. The Dandy Warhols seem to have decided that they're going to play music the way they want to play it. If people want to listen, great. If not ... well, that seems to be OK too. Because at least they'll enjoy themselves in the process.

So, while I fear for an American public that can allow to go unnoticed the great music the Dandy Warhols have made, I don't fear for Matilda McCabe. She'll do fine. Not because her mom kept her away from the indiscreet bartenders, and not because she'll be cooler than everyone in her kindergarten class (which she will be). She'll do well because the band her mom is in will help teach her that sometimes you have to stand up for what you believe in, even if what you believe in is "only" rock and roll.

Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams: the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. His book "Can I Keep My Jersey?" -- which is available in paperback -- can be found here. He can be found at Twitter (Twitter.com/paulthenshirley) and you can e-mail him here.

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