Kool-Aid, Band-Aids and Dig! Craze: How the Brian Jonestown Massacre can Rock! Your! World!
The following conversation was recorded at two in the morning. Sobriety, lucidity can’t be vouched for. Participants refused a urine test.
“Kinda…but it transcends that. You take the obvious Stones reference as a starting point, and…”
“…and develop it beyond the derivative?”
“Yeah; journey through the tradition of great American songwriting…”
“Dylan, check. Byrds, check. Brian Wilson, okay. Gram Parsons, check, Tim Buckley, uh-huh.”
“…but aim for something above that, something darker, fused with melancholy, emotional edginess. Layered guitars…and badly executed moves straight from a 70s kung-fu movie.”
“You asked Anton Newcombe for an interview for this piece, didn’t you?”
“And don’t tell me: he agreed, procrastinated, missed your deadline, and last-resort you instead interviewed me.”
“Who are we talking about again?”
San Francisco, early 90s: Anton Alfred Newcombe – unstable, juvenile delinquent, Messiah complex, and the driving-force behind The Brian Jonestown Massacre – gave us his revolution.
Which is his hyperbole, not mine. I’m sitting in the still dark of a European night a decade or so later, freshly rolled spliff ready to smoke, Their Satanic Majesties’ Second Request (BJM album #3) ripping from the stereo speakers. There’s a whole pile of BJM records cluttering up the place; I’m far too lazy to alphabetize my record collection, but locating any Jonestown disc is never difficult, sitting at (or near) the top of whichever random pile they reside in. The Brian Jonestown Massacre are not the greatest band to ever pick up guitars; their recordings are not alluringly intricate; few of their riffs make the hairs on the nape of your neck stand erect; Anton Newcombe can’t even sing – yet there’s something about listening to a BJM album that demands an immediate return to the turntable. Perhaps it’s the musical diversity, their progressive take upon the retrospective, the emotional articulacy of their lyrics that epitomises the concept of cool; whatever it is, listening to The Brian Jonestown Massacre late at night is a splendid time to identify the precise reasons why they are so fucking special, even if it isn’t necessarily easy to construct some snappy sound byte that’s going to make their records fly off the shelves in your local Wal-Mart.
And later tonight / this morning, after I’ve let their records permeate into every corner of this room, I’ll whack Dig! into the DVD player and sit down for another viewing…
“So you saw Dig!… and now you think you know it all about Anton Newcombe and The Brian Jonestown Massacre? Think again. Anton Newcombe is NOT A MOVIE!” – AA Newcombe, 2005 (brianjonestownmassacre.com)
Ah, the movie. It’s impossible to discuss The Brian Jonestown Massacre without mentioning Dig!. For seven years, director Ondi Timoner followed both the BJM and their west coast relations in aesthetic The Dandy Warhols; seven years of music industry mechanics, gigs, parties, fights, arrests, breakdowns and an oddly symbiotic relationship between the two bands. The material focusing solely upon the Dandys isn’t particularly revelatory; the occasional tantrum aimed towards Capitol Records, plenty of live footage / slick promo copy from an increasingly successful act; if anything, frontman Courtney Taylor comes across as a slightly Machiavellian figure, positioning his own songs as if actively commercialising the sound of an aesthetic that Anton Newcombe actually lives by.
The Dandys are fine eye-candy (if that kinda thing floats your flotilla), but where the film really comes alive is with its intimate portrayal of Newcombe as artist. Anton as bright-eyed innovator, as control-freak, as dope fiend. Anton entrenched in his music and jamming on subway trains and raving like a lunatic. Anton pursuing his musical vision with such single-mindedness that both his career and his life devolve into episodes of glorious self-sabotage, broken relationships and manifold on-stage assaults upon anyone (crowd, management, other band members) whom he judges to be deviating from that singular vision. Newcombe makes for an entertaining and at times hypnotic subject, and the film has become a vehicle that’s cranked up the band’s exposure to previously uncharted heights (especially beyond west coast / hip-crowd music scenes) – yet this reformatted interest has been accompanied by the reinforcement in perception of Anton as caricature. The vast majority of press the film generated (and for an uncommercial, independently produced documentary, it captured a significant amount) focused upon Anton exclusively as character within the narrative – the “look, mom, there’s a volatile megalomaniac junkie dude punching his guitarist again” effect. In reality things are a little different; Anton Newcombe has consistently been responsible for some of the most amazing music of the last decade, in spite of (or maybe even because of) his inner demons.
I adore The Dandy Warhols. Yet given flood, fire or pestilence, it’ll be my BJM records they’ll be removing from my dead-man’s paws. Despite their many similarities, there remain deep-seated contrasts between the two bands. There’s a similar sound, developed from shared ideas and influences, but The Dandy Warhols exemplify a work-hard party-hard ethic that’s developed, alongside the band’s rise in popularity, into something approaching the traditional album-tour-album “the record label are bastards but the sales allow us to do what we want” pattern (as modelled by any band who regularly feature in Billboard). Newcombe’s approach: to believe in the music as total entity, the sole consideration. Whatever he hears in his head (and it has to be said, he no doubt hears some pretty scary shit amongst the beauty), getting this sound onto the tape reel leaves zero room for commercial considerations. He’s far from being the only artist to shun the supp-with-the-devil attractions of signing with a major label – if anything, anti-corporate sentiments are increasingly prevalent amongst musicians, just as the internet has weakened the grip major record labels / radio conglomerates have upon what we, the punters are subjected to – but nobody has gone to such extremes to alienate himself from record label credibility.
The most infamous example is an Industry Showcase in LA, played for the benefit of various Elektra Records honchos, during which the mid-song firing of recently recruited guitarist Robert Desmond triggered an all-out brawl involving pretty much everyone in the band, and Newcombe’s forcible removal from the venue; but there has been repeated interest from industry players for years which Anton has either deliberately or subconsciously scuttled (their deal with major indie TVT lasted but an album). Now, whilst Courtney & co. headline festivals across the globe, Anton funds BJM records / tours himself, actively promoting the fact that his entire back-catalogue is available to download free of charge on his website.
Courtney Taylor is a hip and savvy songwriter, but there’s something a little slick, over-polished and occasionally even forced about the Dandys’ material, particularly on Welcome to the Monkey House with its over-reliance on glam-rock and electro gimmickry. As befitting the DIY ethic they operate under, BJM records are horrifically under-produced at times, but even at their most radio-friendly they retain a lyrical and musical intensity that brings to mind the word feral.
A feral messiah. Yeah, I like that phrase. Conjures images of the band’s early days, more a ramshackle collective featuring whoever was passing through Bay Area stoner rock territory at the time rather than a conventional band (estimates of past BJM “members” range from forty through seventy). Unlike the Dandys’ manipulation of the Andy Warhol moniker, the Brian Jones reference is more than snappy homage, signalling as it does the broad reach of their musical palate (for non-Stones fans, Jagger was the attitude, Jones the true driving force responsible for turning a rhythm and blues act on to psychedelia – it’s a band history that would have been very different if he hadn’t drowned in 1969). With six full-length albums (plus a singles retrospective) released, the four years between ’95 and ’98 were especially prolific – a momentum derived from working within a ‘structure’ of flexible collaboration, multiple influences, sharp musicianship and a general ambiance of creativity. Sonic drone, 60s psychedelia, folk-tinged rock, Indian / African instrumentation – from debut album Methodrone through to 1998’s Strung Out in Heaven, each disc is spiced with, if not exactly an individual, self-contained motif, then at least a discernable shift in direction from its predecessor – a process aided by Anton’s multi-instrumentalism and the significant input of what (for the BJM at least) was something approaching a stable line-up (bassist Matt Hollywood, guitarists Jeff Davies, Dean Taylor, plus later, Peter Hayes – and not forgetting Joel Gion, the type of guy everybody should have playing maracas – if you’ve caught Dig! you’ll understand what I mean).
With a reliance on inexpensive recording equipment and minimal studio time, little of the production complements their overall sound, but boy, are there some amazing tracks in the BJM arsenal – particularly from this fruitful period. Listen to “Stars.” Listen to “You Have Been Disconnected,” to “Spun,” to “If Love is the Drug I Wanna OD,” to the dreamlike wonder that is “She’s Gone.” Listen to tens and tens of others, to their entire back catalogue, and then listen to it again. It’s the sheer quality of the songwriting that raises Newcombe way above gobshite territory, the lucidity and electricity of each individual arrangement.
This is perhaps best exemplified in 1997’s Give it Back!. Not necessarily their most thematically cohesive album, it none-the-less perspires with a bizarre stream of momentum, a stream actually enhanced by Newcombe’s volatility. On one level it works as a brilliant riposte to the critically successful Come Down, The Dandy Warhols’ album of the same year – itself a fantastic disc, but one that re-enforced the perception of Courtney’s band pursuing a more commercial and polished route. Thus, GiB! kicks off with “Super-Sonic,” sampling the same minute-long atonal guitar intro that graces “Be In,” Come Down’s opener. And if that were too subtle, GiB! contains the infamous Matt Hollywood-sung “Not If You Were The Last Dandy on Earth,” a Courtney Taylor pastiche that’s a caustic / tongue-in-cheek two-fingers to the latter’s breakthrough single “Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth” (itself a partial statement upon the Jonestown’s decadent, self-destructive lifestyle).
The entire album can be interpreted as a statement of intent, recorded on a fraction of Come Down’s budget, yet exuding far more panache than its supposed rival. This somewhat laboured comparison is, however, merely one element of Give it Back!. Its musical breadth is, even upon a twenty-first century ear, astonishing. The aforementioned “Super-Sonic” develops into a sitar-led sonic drone reminiscent of Spacemen 3 at their finest, topped off with the drawled stonerisms of Anton’s vocals; Indian motifs appear further in on the instrumental “Salaam.” “Servo,” “This Is Why You Love Me,” and the fantastic “Satellite” are laced with a late-60s west-coast vibe that the strength of the songwriting elevates way beyond the retrospective, whilst “(You Better Love Me) Before I Am Gone”’s female / male counterpointed vocal and country arrangement is crying out for an unironic Dolly Parton / Kenny Rogers cover. The stand-out tracks, however, are (for me at least) simply jaw-dropping. Anton’s lyrics are strongest when at their most personal; thus “Whoever You Are,” “Sue” and the “Devil May Care” exist as poignant reminders of the artist’s sensitivity; sentiments enhanced by musical arrangements that build from a subdued, sympathetic base-camp to stoner rock grooves at their finest. I struggle to think of a song so magisterial as “Sue,” combining, as it does, lyrical simplicity and an emotional honesty, powered by an ingrained rhythm that just keeps building. This song is one hell of a drug high.
That’s always been the flipside of the Jonestown attraction – the terminal velocity that’s etched into every groove in the vinyl, every gig, every knowing statement, works to the detriment of the long-term band dynamic. Musicians party, fight and take ice-picks to each other’s swollen egos. They fall out over musical differences, tour bus sleeping arrangements, groupie fucking protocol, and a whole series of drawn-out, contextual grievances that mere mortals usually have the brio to stay clear of. In the BJM’s case, both their creative instinct and repeated states of implosion derived from this lifestyle. Although no one’s become a casualty in the Tim Buckley / Syd Barrett senses, various smack dependencies aggravated already fractious relationships further, but particularly in Anton’s interaction with virtually everybody else. He was (and remains) dictatorial, volatile, eccentric and unpredictable, and although he’s always maintained a framework with whoever he works with that encourages mass input (indeed, Matt Hollywood’s songwriting contribution shouldn’t be under-estimated), even an Anton not sidetracked by a serious drug habit is a difficult artist to work with. The Newcombe - Gion - Hollywood - Davies - Hayes alliance splintered amidst drug abuse, the collapse of their TVT deal, and general frustration. Oh…and not forgetting the almost obligatory physical violence.
Which is far from the end of their story. A cleaned-up Newcombe has remained the axis of The Brian Jonestown Massacre into the present; less prolific than earlier in his career (albeit a large percentage of BJM tracks have never been recorded in the studio), but still touring, recording and collaborating with BJM members permanent and temporary, past and present. Perhaps more pertinent however, Anton remains lashed to the musical philosophy that’s always fired him. The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s integrity will always remain unsullied by compromise – and in a twisted European evening, with the speakers vibrating as dawn slowly hits, maybe it’s that very essence that makes the BJM so god-damn special.
The musician as revolutionary is a tired fallacy. Anton Newcombe didn’t lead any musical revolution – at least in any sense that he prophesised, back in his initial ’96 interaction with the Dig! audience. It isn’t a theme that’s entirely redundant however, as Anton himself alludes to in the movie’s closing frames.
“There has been a revolution. Do you hear the White Stripes on the fucking radio? There’s a big difference. Because when I started it was Pearl Jam. Obviously the revolution happened – how many people are imitating Pearl Jam right now? Not that many. How many imitators do I have?”
(Cue knowing look to camera).
Newcombe has spent his career battling the forces of commercialism – anything that detracts from and stains music as a wholly creative force. He may be an utter jerk, but as a creative entity, the sheer force of his musical legacy hints heavily that there’s a visionary amidst the detritus, that his very integrity makes the BJM one of the most important bands of recent times. Stand erect on the hills above Los Angeles, squint in the right direction, and you may just feel the shockwaves from the revolution yourself.
It’s dawn; I’m gonna crash. Kill the stereo when you’ve finished listening.
Duncan Harman is best known for being the first man to climb Everest drunk, and for being a terrible liar. He's based in London, England, and wants an invite to your next party. He is a regular contributor to Turntable & Blue Light.