Every aspiring rock star, before he embarks upon his career, should be handed a list of things never to say to an audience. On this list would be many phrases: “Your city sucks,” for instance, or “Sorry we made you guys wait for two hours, but we were backstage playing Boggle.” At the top of this list, in bold type with stars around it, would be this phrase: “I don’t give a fuck; I’ll sit here all night. I’ll take your money.”
Brian Jonestown Massacre frontman Anton Newcombe has definitely never seen this list. The contentious vocalist is known for approaching his shows like a lithium-deprived bipolar, seemingly giving immediate voice to whatever comes into his head, damn the consequences. BJM’s show on August 19th at Schuba’s was a prime example of this devil-may-care attitude in action, as Newcombe, oblivious to any standards of decorum and propriety, spent the night provoking the crowd with bizarre statements (like the above) and sloppy renditions of his band’s retro-psychedelic songs, ultimately rendering the evening less a concert than an Tony-Clifton-sized exercise in audience alienation.
The show started auspiciously enough, with BJM’s three-guitar frontline combining with Dave Koenig’s bass and Dan Allaire’s tenacious drumming to create a jangly, Byrds-like sound that seemed directly drawn from ‘60s AM radio. Newcombe had his back to the audience for some reason, so his lyrics were kind of hard to hear, and his meandering, trippy guitar solo seemed oddly out of place in the presence of such a tight backing band. Still, the song was bouncy and fun, and the band seemed to be having a good time, each musician swaying to his own separate rhythm. The song ended and Newcombe started bitching out the bass player in low tones for some reason, God only knows why.
The show went on in this pattern for a while—mumble, meander, bounce, complain, repeat—until the fourth or fifth song, when Newcombe, visibly irritated, took off his shirt, which seemed logical enough. Taking off your shirt in public is a time-honored Midwestern cure-all, as anyone who has ever been to the Illinois State Fair can attest. Partial nudity notwithstanding, the song was similar to all the others—simultaneously bright (the music) and murky (the singing)—until the point when, about thirty seconds into it, he stopped singing and pointed an accusatory finger at the sound guy, angrily telling him to “please set up the PA one way and leave it that way . . . and you haven’t been playing with the reverb, either.”
The sound guy muttered something back. Newcombe kept on pointing. “Show up for soundcheck!” called someone from the back of the room. Newcombe was not taken aback. “Sorry we missed soundcheck,” he said, “but I don’t understand what the problem is.” The rest of the band was looking kind of bemused at this point, as if this sort of thing happened often. The crowd was growing restless. “Play more rock,” someone yelled. “Big fuckin’ star!” Hands on hips, he turned his wrath on the audience with his “I’ll take your money” statement.
At this point, I seriously doubted that we were going to hear any more music at all. The audience and the frontman were at loggerheads, the soundman was alienated, and the band looked like it wanted to disappear. I would imagine that it’s really hard for the band to concentrate on the music with Newcombe acting like Little Lord Fauntleroy—which is perhaps why BJM has featured something like 40 different members in eight years.
With the audience rapidly decreasing, Newcombe seemed to realize that he had fucked up, and he tried to make it up to the crowd with a half-hearted “Thanks for hanging on…you guys are good people.” “Fuck you, you suck,” yelled a small voice from the back of the room. Newcombe sneered and turned his back to the crowd once more. This was apparently the band’s cue to start playing, because the music started up again.
I don’t know if it was a function of the behavioral histrionics or what, but the band never seemed to hit their stride. Flashes of brilliance came through intermittently: during the “Hyperventilation Song”, for instance, as Frankie Teardrop and Matthew J. Tow’s guitars explored the boundaries of feedback and distortion, and during “Telegram”, where the thin, hollow-body guitar sound that dominated the evening was used to distinct advantage. But these moments were frustratingly few and far between.
BJM could have an amazing live show if they wanted to. They’re musically competent—Teardrop’s work with the 12-string electric was impressive and discreetly intricate, and drummer Dan Allaire (or, as I like to call him, Smiley McGee) was the very definition of rock-steady. Yet, as it stands, they don’t take advantage of their possibilities. The bands that BJM seem desperate to emulate, like Moby Grape, were great because they harnessed and focused their members’ talents into complex songs that were more than merely repetitive riffs. BJM, on the other hand, doesn’t boast that level of sophistication. The three-guitar setup is wasted, as Teardrop and Tow spend their time strumming elementary three-chord patterns while Newcombe dicks around on his pointless, unfocused solos. Maybe it’s different on their records, but this simplicity translates into a frustrating live show, where you’re continually waiting for them to break out, to do something (musically) exciting.
I guess they had to compensate for their sonic predictability with their antics, which were entertaining in the same way that TV shows like America’s Deadliest Train Wrecks are exciting. Their behavior would be excusable, even enjoyable, if the band was, well, good. But their live mediocrity just rendered it tiresome. Oh, look, Anton’s talking about how many drugs he does! Oh, now they’re stopping the show for five minutes to go and get drinks! Oh, now he’s talking about drugs again! Oh, look, now he’s complaining about the amount of alcohol in the drinks. Sigh. Just shut up and play more rock.
Around 1:00, with about 15 people still there (midway through the show, Frankie Teardrop offered up a meek “I guess a lot of people had to work tomorrow, because a lot of people left.” Yeeaahhh . . . ), Newcombe ended the show with a curt “That’s gonna have to do it,” and the family members, masochists, and media types left in the audience breathed a sigh of relief. All in all, they ended up playing for about two hours, so I guess those who stayed to the bitter end got their money’s worth after all. Audience Members 1, Anton Newcombe 0.