Crazy/Beautiful

Brian Jonestown Massacre would rather be insane than average

We would speak today of Edgar Allan Poe's Man of the Crowd, who so hated himself that he couldn't stand to be left alone. We would speak of Mark Twain's Mysterious Stranger, who told his audience the truth about themselves, and was reviled for it.

Further: We would speak of madhouses and of the apprehension of joy. We would speak of unfinished songs and horrible noise. We would speak of the suspension of disbelief. But mostly, we would speak of beautiful music and how it gets that way.

We would speak of these things because today we are speaking with Anton Alfred Newcombe, who for more than a decade has been the figure at the center of the Brian Jonestown Massacre.

Hide the Kool-Aid: Brian Jonestown Massacre is back. Or maybe they never went away.
Hide the Kool-Aid: Brian Jonestown Massacre is back. Or maybe they never went away.

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January 5 at Gypsy Tea Room and January 6 at Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios

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The BJM, a remarkable collective for whom the phrase "eclectic tastes" might have been coined, has undergone a chaotic series of label hassles, roster changes, lineup replacements and temporary guests since its beginning in San Francisco in 1990.

"I end up playing with a lot of different people, depending on what we're doing," says Newcombe. "[Currently] there's three guitar players, the bass player and the drummer, and the rest of the roster changes around. Mostly it has to do with the necessary orchestration and who's available. And also with who can put up with each other the longest."

Over a series of self-financed records, singles and EPs that began coming in a torrent in 1995--ending most recently with the lovely Bravery Repetition and Noise in 2001--the BJM has mapped a unique zone bordered by sheer noise, pop, psychedelia, folk, country-rock, early jazz and diverse other elements.

As you might expect, particularly from the frequent changes in personnel, the band's sound mutates constantly, moving in different directions from album to album. Nonetheless, somewhere in the distant past, someone--we're positing here--took the group's San Francisco roots, its titular Brian Jones reference and the sound of albums like Take it From the Man! and Thank God for Mental Illness (both 1996) and started throwing the word "psychedelic" around, to the point where it's now impossible to read press on the BJM without frequently encountering that adjective, despite the fact that it's woefully unsuited to the music.

"Part of that is my problem," Newcombe concedes (the third 1996 release from BJM was, after all, titled Their Satanic Majesties' Second Request). "But we've been lucky because we haven't been pegged specifically as a 'retro band.' We don't play rhythm and blues at all, so no one's able to say, 'Oh, you're a '60s band because you play neo-black music,' or country-rock or whatever. Really, I think it's a limitation on the part of journalists. It says more about their own inability to describe the music than it does about anything else."

There's neither coyness nor embellishment to Newcombe's comments. As with artists like Captain Beefheart, or bands such as the Birthday Party and the Residents, the elements of various genres as absorbed by the Brian Jonestown Massacre emerge vastly transformed--recognizable, but lovingly mutated. The music glances back while moving forward. Or sideways, or some-ways; at any rate, the BJM members are neither vigorous traditionalists nor total anarchists, at least when it comes to the music.

Like Aldous Huxley, Newcombe pushes for a broader interpretation of that troublesome P-word.

"'Psychedelic,' to me, just means 'mind-expanding.' I just look at it the same way. A lot of bands and people in the '60s were able to take all those influences and transcend genres. The Beatles are a great example; they played country-rock, folk, neo-classical, trippy stuff; all these different genres came into play. But it was one band; that was just their style.

"But it's a good question, you know, 'When will we arrive on our own?' I don't know. I think it might not be until retrospect. To me, it's all folk music, it's centered, it owes a lot to tradition. But it interacts with the tradition. I mean, I'm not just playing 'Kum Ba Ya' or 'Tom Dooley.'"

Case in point: The stellar EP Bringing it All Back Home Again (released in 1999) is the BJM's most country-tinged recording: largely acoustic, sparsely instrumented and comfortably performed. As its title indicates, the sound is comparable in places to Dylan's mid-1960s transition. Along one trajectory, then, we're in familiar historical and musical territory.

The closing track, however ("Arkansas Revisited"), is a reworking of a tune originally penned by Charles Manson. It's a beautiful song--at least as interpreted here--but that beauty's dark association is immediate and unavoidable. Take that as metaphor, perhaps, for the BJM's most consistent "sound," if we have to peg one: a tiny core of unease, an ominous center warmly enveloped by a harmonious racket.

Lady Caroline Lamb famously characterized the Romantic poet George Gordon Byron as "mad, bad and dangerous to know"; such is the image the BJM and Newcombe himself have frequently been known to court. A widely reprinted promo shot of Newcombe (which greets the viewer at BJM's Bomp Records Web site, http://bomp.com/bomp/ BJM.html) depicts him as every inch the madman, gripping a revolver, a guitar and a cigarette; he glares into the camera from what seems to be the ass-end of a four-day bout with sleep deprivation and Benzedrine. The band's infamous September 1996 appearance at the Viper Room (to which it had reportedly invited every industry suit in L.A.) literally ended in a riot, during which the Viper's bouncers forcibly ejected the BJM from its own gig.

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