The Brian Jonestown Massacre: My Bloody Underground
It's been a wild ride, but the vast talents of Anton Newcombe have finally cracked and dried up in full-length form.
The history of the infamous San Francisco neo-psychedelic rock collective known as the Brian Jonestown Massacre is a cluster-fuck of drug abuse, tumultuous drama, modest success, spectacularly failed opportunity, insane ego, and egotistical insanity. At the center of it all always has been and always will be one Anton Alfred Newcombe. Over two dozen musicians have passed through the BJM ranks with Anton being the only constant, and most of them have taken enough of a piece from him to start their own highly successful projects. Founding members of the Raveonettes, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, the Warlocks, the Out Crowd, the Dilettantes, the Lovetones, solo artists Miranda Lee Richards and Brian Glaze, and long time producer Rob Campanella (who has twiddled knobs for the likes of Dead Meadow, Mia Doi Todd, and Beachwood Sparks) have all helped bring Newcombe's vision to life at one time or another, then fled to higher ground under a hail of gunfire and profanities. And yet, many have continued to seek Newcombe's inspiration.
Campanella is quoted as saying he has "quit/been fired a couple times. But it seems kind of like the mob, just when you think you're out…" Tambourine wielding flower child Joel Gion has left and rejoined the band more times than Jimmy Fallon has broken down laughing at an inappropriate time during an SNL sketch. Nobody can stand to spend more than a couple years at a time around Newcombe without having a breakdown. He derided a 2005 Sundance award-winning documentary, Dig, for propagating that very unavoidable opinion, saying, "Several years of our hard work was reduced at best to a series of punch-ups and mishaps taken out of context, and at worst bold faced lies and misrepresentations of fact." However, Newcombe's track record clearly speaks for itself.
There have been more changes in BJM's personnel than the Bush administration, and many of those relationships did not end on good terms or for good reason. Their rivals in the Dandy Warhols started off in the same place with arguably (practically admittedly) less talent and quickly rose to commercial success, while Jonestown have seen their entire, massive catalogue of records peter out into the independent market with no possibility for change anywhere on the horizon. That's not the fault of the record buying public or an industry-wide conspiracy. Newcombe is merely unable to let a major label contract happen. It's pretty hard to take kicking and starting a brawl with your bandmates during a gig at which he knew reps from Elektra were in attendance out of context. His standoffish, self-centered attitude and spectacular heroin abuse also saw him booted from TVT after one great album, and that's the closest they've been to tasting glory. The only reason the Brian Jonestown Massacre aren't a platinum-selling, universally hailed second coming of the Beatles is Newcombe's own infantile lunacy. His megalomania has taken its toll on the band and everyone around him over these many years. Giving the Dandy Warhols shotgun shells with their names on them certainly put a strain on their relationship. He alone has burned about every label and distribution bridge available in a decade-long wash of pointless belligerence.
Not helping matters, Newcombe's well of creativity completely dried up when he quit heroin some years ago. The first decade of BJM leading up to the Dig premiere yielded nine original albums, two EPs, a Peel Session, and a whole gaggle of bootlegs and rarities. Almost all of that was written and often played by Newcombe. Since their last full-length in 2003 (despite frequent touring and constant interviews bitching about his rockumentary), they've released one lonely EP of new material while limping towards the long-awaited next album.
Commendably, Newcombe leaked his first record in four years on his own website late in 2007 for free, though it wouldn't be officially available until some time in '08. Like most of their albums, the title is a pastiche appropriation of famous music references, in this case combining My Bloody Valentine, the Velvet Underground, and the Jesus & Mary Chain track "My Little Underground" into the obvious. Of their first nine full-lengths, all of them ranged in quality from solid to legendary. Sadly, although the wait was certainly long enough, My Bloody Underground is by far the most vapid, drawn-out, and uninspired addition to their discography.
The record starts off with "Dropping Bombs on the Whitehouse." It's got a plodding drumbeat, simple bassline, strumming acoustic and whiny electric guitar overlay, and none of it alters in the slightest throughout its entire six minutes. The lyrics ramble on incoherently and nothing like a chorus, solo, or change ever happens. It just sits there doing nothing till it stops, and yet, it's one of the most interesting songs on the album. At least the groove it rests on is on par with their earlier works, despite its unwillingness to vary. Most everything else here just drones all discombobulated like.
"We Are the Niggers of the World" certainly stands out of the pre-release tracklisting, and not just because of its grotesquely self-pitying title that bastardizes a John Lennon masterpiece. It's a wonderfully composed piano piece that actually allows itself to experience some kind of pacing. There are several glaring mistakes in the recording, but if those get fixed, this will be one of the most remarkable songs ever released under the BJM name. Whatever gains it makes, however, aren't enough to make up for "Who Cares Why", which takes drone to a new low. It just hums with random echo vocals, sporadic strumming, and sloppy drumming for a staggering eight minutes of going nowhere slowly.
The Brian Jonestown Massacre - We Are the Niggers of the World
Additionally, "Yeah-Yeah" stands out as basically the only track with a discernible chorus to break up its verses, and a solo to boot. Sadly, the track also reveals the stagnancy of Newcombe's muse and the ravages time has inflicted on his voice. For the rest of the album, his vocals are cast deep in the mix with a ton of effects, and he's often just kinda speaking. When he actually puts some force behind it and strips back the reverb, his vocal chords disintegrate before your very ears. Funny enough, you can even hear Newcombe being a prick in the studio on the fade out as he instructs a laughing girl to "fuck off".
Newcombe's genius is palpable throughout the BJM catalogue '93-'03. Several of his early works rank among the finest experiences of rock and roll available on vinyl. Hell, the Warhols' Courtney Taylor said he was going to keep buying his records even after receiving his monogrammed bullet. However, if this preview is even remotely like the finished product -- and, since he's already uploaded videos for most of the tracklisting on YouTube, it's prolly pretty set -- that genius is clearly on its deathbed. One listen of the ten-minute long warbling sound "Black Hole Symphony" is proof of that. Ambient drone is the last refuge of the untalented musician outside of Paris Hilton-style studio pop, and that track is by far the most simplistic and boring sound ever claimed to be BJM.
I had the displeasure of seeing the Brian Jonestown Massacre live around the time this album was posted online and it really made me wonder why they bother doing anything at all. Newcombe told us "here's another song you don't deserve" before every song for the entirety of his six-track set, until someone lobbed a beer bottle on stage. He then proceeded to call the crowd "niggers" and "faggots" while ironically berating them for being immature. One can only hope he'll keep his promise never to play Vancouver again. Well before that, while playing his iTunes off to the side, he had shoved everyone who asked him for an autograph and fingered everyone who tried to take his picture. What's the point in going on if you hate all your fans and half the people that show up to your gigs only do so to see you spaz and run off crying? Why upload this wank for free if you don't care who hears it? Kurt Cobain may have had the right idea with his timely exit if this was where he was headed. That's why Cobain is still revered and it's going to take decades until Newcombe's early works get the recognition they deserve. I suggest you get a head start on that, Newcombe. Your music will be remembered, but you will not be missed.