From the start, a certain level of gonzo warfare was baked into the project. Mr. Kowalski wanted to capture “the clash between two cultures: the English punk culture and whatever we would meet in America,” he said. He approached Tom Forcade, the chaos-seeking founder of High Times magazine, for funding. Mr. Forcade had made headlines for throwing a pie in a pornography commissioner’s face and antagonizing the writer and activist Abbie Hoffman, and he appreciated the disruptive potential of the Sex Pistols.
Mr. Forcade gave the green light only days before the first concert of the tour, and he and Mr. Kowalski rushed to the airport, first via a speeding limousine and then a helicopter. Stepping out of the chopper, an excited Mr. Kowalski narrowly avoided the rotors. Mr. Forcade “grabbed me affectionately and told me not to walk toward the back,” Mr. Kowalski remembered. “I felt he was mainly sending me a message: Things are going to get wild. Be on your toes, because if not, it can get dangerous.”
Problems with the filming started shortly after their plane touched down in Atlanta, where the tour began. After an unsuccessful telephone pitch to Warner Bros., Mr. Forcade and Mr. Kowalski showed up at the band’s motel. “He wanted to do a pirate documentary, a rebel documentary,” said Ted Cohen, who was the director of artist relations for Warner Bros. at the time. “Forcade thought the Sex Pistols were the first sign of the Armageddon and the complete disillusionment with the American government, and this was going to be the beginning of chaos. And it wasn’t a mercenary kind of thing — he really thought he was filming a documentary on the collapse of Western civilization.” The tour manager had his security team throw them out.
“Not only did Warner Bros. not trust Forcade, but the band was also trying to figure out what he wanted,” Maureen McFadden, Mr. Forcade’s former assistant, said in a telephone interview. “It was like espionage. Tom called me and said, ‘I want you to go my apartment, and get a brick of pot.’ And someone else is going to bring it down here. This is how we’re going to get in the door with the band.’”
It didn’t quite work. Thanks in part to a contact Ms. McFadden had at Warner Bros., Mr. Kowalski’s crews were able to locate the band’s hotel rooms at every stop, but this only stoked the group’s — and the record label’s — paranoia.
“Every venue we would go to, they would show up somehow,” Mr. Cohen said, “and we would have them thrown out. And they’d be back 15 minutes later because Forcade would pay a guy from the venue: ‘Here’s $200, look the other way.’”
The singer John Lydon, a.k.a. Johnny Rotten, would later write in his memoir “Anger Is an Energy” about his suspicions that High Times was a front for the C.I.A. (He declined to comment for this article.) Nevertheless, Mr. Kowalski recalled how Mr. Forcade tried to entice Mr. Lydon with boxes of a High Times issue with the singer’s face on the cover, which were sent via chauffeured Duesenberg. This also failed.
As they zigzagged through the country, the entourage kept growing. A cameraman was hired away from a San Antonio television station, in hopes of obtaining press access. The production summoned two Puerto Rican martial artists from New York to act as bodyguards for the crew. Mr. Kowalski said he got a bodyguard for himself, too, just in case. (In hopes of getting closer to the Pistols, Mr. Forcade also began surreptitiously paying the way of John Holmstrom, the editor of Punk magazine, and the photographer Roberta Bayley, whose parallel adventures are recounted in a new documentary made for the DVD release.)
Mr. Kowalski recalled the atmosphere becoming increasingly frantic. Mr. Forcade urged him to rent a helicopter and hover over the Sex Pistols’ bus during a snowstorm in Dallas. They discussed how they might place Sid Vicious into rehab and even considered smuggling him to Jamaica, where Mr. Forcade had contacts. “The idea was not to kidnap Sid in order to hold him for ransom,” Mr. Kowalski said. “The idea was to kidnap Sid for his own health. But it was just an idea.”
Mr. Forcade’s cash flow, meanwhile, had been cut off by High Times in New York. Andy Kowl, then the magazine’s publisher, said he refused to deliver seven blank checks to the airport. In an interview, he recalled telling the publication’s founder, “I have to pay the printer, I have payroll to make.” Mr. Forcade exploded; the mood would remain dark.
The Sex Pistols, for their part, were barely communicating with one another, and tensions between Mr. Lydon and the band’s manager, Malcolm McLaren, rose. After the last performance, in San Francisco, the band was finished.
The subsequent interview that Mr. Kowalski landed with Sid Vicious was nearly incoherent, an intimate but harrowing glimpse into the heroin-doomed lives of the bassist and his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen. Sid Vicious was arrested and charged with killing Spungen in October 1978. Mr. Forcade shot himself in November. Sid Vicious died from a heroin overdose in February 1979.
“On the day Tom died, I rented the editing room and removed all the film elements,” Mr. Kowalski said. “I hid them, essentially, because I didn’t want everything to be confiscated or lost.” After two years of postproduction, “D.O.A.” screened as a traveling exhibit, and it has occasionally found favor as a midnight movie. But nearly 40 years passed before anyone was able to secure all the music rights for a home video release.
Mr. Kowalski sounded wistful after he shared his “D.O.A.” story. “Now, of course,” he lamented, “all this stuff is going to make people want to buy this.”