Sometimes a stroll with earbuds jammed in your head is just so much background noise and imagery: This time out, it was different.
Tonight I walked the streets of Seattle under a cloud-smeared moon, with a zealot’s voice muttering in my ear. As cars sailed anonymously up and down Denny Way, his unnerving rant about Jesus, sex, isolation, and insanity pulsed in time with percussion that sounded like footfalls generated by dusty boots.
The warped hornets’ nest buzz of a distorted electric guitar whined while he continued chanting and the branches of conifers scattered diffuse illumination from the streetlights. It was a nocturnal odyssey with a restless and insane spirit intoning every strange, frightening, and exhilarating unknown lurking in the darkness–directly into my ears.
The ostensible lunatic serving as accompaniment for my journey was Anton Newcombe, and the song was a raga by The Brian Jonestown Massacre—the band for which Newcombe sings, writes, plays a slew of instruments, and serves as the inarguable focal point. Newcombe, it could be argued, is bat-shit crazy. And God bless him for it.
The BJM began in the early ’90’s, mining 1960’s psychedelia and then-current shoegazer swirl in a manner co-opted in less-feverish fashion by other bands like The Dandy Warhols and The Warlocks. But The Massacre always stood out amongst their musical peers thanks to their leader. Blindingly prolific (he wrote, produced, and unleashed three full-length BJM albums in 1996 alone) and unapologetically volatile (he’s pushed some 40 members through the band’s sometimes violent revolving door), Newcombe quickly established himself as a nimble songwriter able to rework the Beatles/Stones/Velvets triumvirate in his own image. Major label interest swirled around The BJM at the close of the Clinton Years, but Newcombe’s almost-irrational conviction that popular success and artistic purity were mutually exclusive (plus a mile-long self-destructive streak) kept his band eternally at the fringes of a wider audience. The whole saga’s been chronicled in detail in Ondi Timoner’s 2004 documentary, DIG!
Timoner’s film ensured The Brian Jonestown Massacre and its unpredictable leader a sustained cult audience, but the thing that’s kept fans in place is the band’s music, which holds up famously from stem to stern. I defy anyone, anywhere, to present to me a two-minute pop song more pensive and perfect than “It Girl,” and tracks like “Whoever You Are” and “Super-Sonic” prove that Newcombe and company can hurtle fistsful of psychedelic fairy dust at an audience with the fervent conviction of true believers.
Over his long, strange trip of a career, Anton Newcombe’s come off as a nutjob and a frickin’ holy fool at turns, but there’s no denying the fact that he’s always done precisely what the fuck he’s wanted to do, and that he’s created some mighty satisfying music in the bargain. He’s reportedly been sober for awhile now (the lucid guy in this interview pretty effectively contradicts the wildman of the DIG! days), but happily he’s still crafting music that sounds bat-shit crazy. Aufheben, The BJM’s latest, combines Newcombe’s fondness for psychedelia with a continued fixation on ambient grooves that surfaced on 2010’s Who Killed Sgt. Pepper? And with its twisty, hypnotic production, this newest release is as unpredictable and gloriously bumpy a sonic ride as you’ll hear all year.
A few months ago, I likened the lead singer of Seattle band Whalebones to a less-unstable variation on Anton Newcombe, and received an angry comment from (I think) Newcombe himself. I was more than a bit perplexed, because I’d meant the remark as flattery towards Whalebones, not a slag at Newcombe. You see, I like creative instability and restlessness in my rock stars. In fact, I’ll openly admit that, like a lot of people in this world, I live vicariously through it. “We’ll check back in 20 years and see how Justin and co. are holding up,” Maybe-Anton posited. My hope is that Justin Deary and Whalebones will be tapping into a mixture of the bat-shit crazy and eye-of-God brilliant as potent as the one Newcombe’s been proffering for two-plus decades now.
The BJM play at the Neptune on Saturday. Tickets are still available, and with two of his most spirited and welcome collaborators (guitarist Matt Hollywood and percussionist/impish mad hatter Joel Gion) in tow, Anton Newcombe’s latest incarnation of The Brian Jonestown Massacre should be pretty unmissable. All I know is, I’ll be there–straight up and down.