The Brian Jonestown Massacre
On a night when everyone else was invited to be something they weren’t, the Brian Jonestown Massacre raised questions on the importance of identity in rock and roll’s image-obsessed culture.
The band, half of the focus of Ondi Timonder’s recent documentary Dig!, floated in a haze of half-familiar melodies employing faintly recognizable motifs. One song sounded like Lou Reed singing with the Byrds, the next like The Cure jamming with Spacemen 3. It might have been a legitimate gripe to say that the band is completely disinterested in a sound they could justifiably call their own. That is, if they hadn’t sounded so good.
There was a sense of excitement inside the packed club, one that probably had something to do with the band’s sudden notoriety as documentary subject. Dig! portrays the BJM as a ramshackle bunch of ne’er do wells led by its undisputed leader, guitarist and singer, Anton Newcombe. The film paints Newcombe, who has publicly expressed dissatisfaction with the film, as a drug-dependent egomaniac, unwillingly dedicated to sabotaging his chances at popular success. Though the portrait is far from flattering, the film presents him and his band as an example of “authentic” rock and rollers. Who knows how many broken dreams have come as the result of the myth of rock and roll authenticity? Probably not as many as the number of records that have been sold on the back of the same doomed romanticism.
Undoubtedly, many in the crowd were hoping for some kind of spectacular flameout or meltdown. These were the kind of people who liked Fat Elvis more than Sun Elvis—a video store not too far from the club rents compilation videos of rock stars freaking out in public. We all slow down to look at car wrecks.
Unfortunately, for those looking to get off on schadenfreude, “good” Anton showed up. He spoke humbly and good-naturedly to the crowd, honouring requests to tell stories and to perform fan favorites.
Now and then, subtle hints of instability would creep out: Newcombe seemed incapable of tuning his own guitar; he abruptly stopped on two or three occasions to tutor band members on their parts; he disappeared from the stage for a minute here and there. But on the whole, Newcombe hardly lived up as the model of instability described on this very website just over a year ago.
Compared to the personality of their leader, the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s music is easy to read. The rhythm guitarist, in a cheesecloth shirt, strummed rudimentary chords with just the right look of disaffection. The keyboardists played universe to the bands’ stars, covering space with drones. The bass player must have listened a lot more closely to Bill Wyman than the rest of us ever did. The lead guitarist excelled at fulfilling the requirements of his charge: frenetic movement and excessive sweating. The drummer spent the whole night looking as if he was deathly afraid of messing up. Newcombe stood stage left, strumming and singing, rarely moving as he played, positioned with one eye on the crowd and one eye on the band. Together they made a sound that came pretty close to bliss.
Even if he’s a musical mimic, adapting the work of those more visionary and talented than himself, Newcombe and his shambolic cohorts perform a valuable service. For 12 bucks you get two hours of musical make-believe. Close your eyes and it’s San Francisco circa 1967. Blink and you’re in a dank basement in post-punk London. Blink again and it’s happening right here, right now: guitars cascading and shimmering around each other, an organ droning in the background, rhythm section thumping and vrooming. Add a skinny white boy singing over the top and you have something that will sound just as great in the future as it does in the present and did in the past. The band’s most recent studio album is titled Tomorrow’s Heroes Today, but on this night they more closely resembled the heroes of yesterday.
Maybe the Anton Newcombe I saw was an aberration, a bad man caught on a good night. Maybe he really is the screw-up from Dig! But on Halloween, when Little Richard danced across the room from Jacques Cousteau, and the corpse of Kennedy drank with the Devil, no one got any strikes against them for putting on a costume. The Brian Jonestown Massacre wore a lot of musical costumes, but each one was a good fit. It’s when the music stops that Anton Newcombe seems unsure of who he his, or at least who he’s supposed to be.