Two-Headed Cow is an 80-minute 2008 documentary from Tony Gayton that follows the rise and fall of Flat Duo Jets, a two man guitar-and-drums rockabilly/roots band featuring Dex Romweber (guitar/vocals) and Chris Smith (drums/vocals). The band may never have achieved a national level of fame, but their influence amongst other musicians was widespread, as witnessed by the onscreen adulation offered by the likes of Jack White, Neko Case, Exene Cervenka and Chan "Cat Power" Marshall. Romweber, with his love Gene Vincent and The Coasters, plied his frantic and mournful twang like a man possessed, and when the duo disintegrated (as so many bands seem to do) it created an evolutionary impasse. The remainder of Two-Headed Cow follows Romweber through the years, the lows followed by more lows, slogging it out in tiny venues and dirty motel rooms, all the while churning out very personal and very intense American roots music.
There's a disclaimer at the end of the doc mentioning how Chris Smith (who only appears in Flat Duo Jets home movies) disputes Romweber's recounting of the band's demise. That's not really much of a surprise - by nature it is the very definition of "artistic differences" - but this is essentially Romweber's story. It's about what drives him to make music, the authors that inspired him and the notion to combat the current state of rock music, which according to him has "no purity". Gayton's narrative isn't a high-gloss treatise, and even after decades of performing Romweber is well under the radar of fame, regardless of the performers he has influenced over the years. Two-Headed Cow reminds us that having fame slip through your fingers, something that Romweber bleakly intones during his recollection of the final days of Flat Duo Jets, is often an unescapable reality.
The saga of Romweber's life and musical career is certainly a bittersweet one - a few rungs away from real fame - and Two-Headed Cow is bluntly unrepentant in conveying that. While he is currently recording for the always eclectic Bloodshot Records, with his sister Sara (Let's Active, Mitch Easter) on drums, Romweber has not acquiesced or mutated in some feeble attempt to become more commercial. His music today remains as it was, built on a foundation of simplicity and energy. I think knowing that going into Two-Headed Cow, knowing that 4+ years after the decades documented in this film he is still doing what he has to be doing, still creating, is an essential footnote about rock and roll. To me, it speaks volumes.
The 1.33:1 fullframe transfer is an odd lot, compiled from a number of video sources. What this means is that image quality waffles a bit, with some of the more recent Romweber interview segments looking good (not great, mind you) augmented by an assortment of other source material that include grainy black-and-white footage to the occasional murky, muddy concert performance. Rough around the edges, but thematically appropriate, if you ask me.
Audio is provided in a barebones 2.0 stereo offering. And as the whole doc was cobbled together from mid-1980s home movies, locations like motel rooms or moving vehicles, so the range of quality varies from scene to scene. Fidelity - most notably during the performances - isn't especially that strong, but it fits Romweber's minimalist roots vibe. Interview segments (including the older footage) have clear voice quality with no measurable detritus.
Extras consist of a trio of assorted Romweber appearances, consisting of a jazz-infused Dexter on BET (04m:44s), pieced together clips from a performance of Dexter at Silverlake Lounge (02m:53s) and a full episode of a 1998 cable access show from Chapel Hill, NC called Z-TV, appropriately entitled Dexter on Z-TV (30m:35s).
When it comes to minimalist American roots music there are very few who do it with the same sort of manic intensity and raw emotion as Dex Romweber. Two-Headed Cow chronicles his life, his music (including the Flat Duo Jets) and Dex himself reminds us all - indirectly - that sometimes you don't make music, but instead the music makes you. This is a joyfully bleak doc, not always a feel good, but a film that makes me appreciate any performer/band that grinds it out for decades - with so much genuine honesty - simply because it is what they have to do.