Other People's Faces

Anton Newcombe is not a movie. I know he's not, because I've seen him. His band, Brian Jonestown Massacre, had just played a gig near my New York apartment, and there he was around 1 a.m., sometime in early 2002, standing on the corner of Ludlow and Houston. Doing nothing in particular, certainly nothing memorable. In fact, I'd pretty much forgotten that I'd ever seen Newcombe until I tried to interview him. Yeah, sure, I thought, as I read the bio the Jonestown publicist sent me: "Anton Newcombe is not a movie."

But here I sit, having not spoken a single word to the man who brings his band to Dallas this week, and his silence is forcing me to look at him exactly the way he doesn't want--like a movie.

Some things you just hear about, like the band's reputation for shambolic concerts--specifically, the industry showcase gig in Los Angeles that ended in a riot of fists and kicking. Other things you have to figure--a band as blissed-out sounding as BJM, with songs full of tuneful, vintage, psychotropic rock n' roll, was probably nodding out to something other than lullabies every night.

There's also, of course, the impression of Newcombe I'd taken from the movie DIG! That's the one he doesn't want to be mistaken for: Ondi Timoner's award-winning documentary about his implosive run with the BJM and his love-hate relationship with musical compatriots The Dandy Warhols.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. As recently as a few weeks ago, I hadn't seen DIG!, and I barely remembered that I'd seen Newcombe on the street near where I live, and I thought, well, here's another workaday story. Get the new EP, listen to the old stuff and schedule a chat. I looked up BJM's tour dates online and saw that Newcombe was coming to town; maybe I could talk to him in person, if not on the phone.

"Here is the situation: Anton only does e-mail nowadays," BJM publicist Guylaine informed me. E-mail interviews aren't unusual, but generally they're stopgap maneuvers, a way to get in touch with a band that's, say, making the festival rounds in Japan. "A little tip," Guylaine's message continued. "Anton gets tense when asked too many questions about DIG! You should read his statement before you e-mail him."

It's an interesting exercise, reading someone's riposte to a movie you haven't yet watched. It kind of makes you wonder why anyone would bother with the movie, since, according to Newcombe's statement, it's riddled with errors. And at the same time, being told not to watch had the adverse effect. At the very least, I had to see so that I knew what I wasn't supposed to ask.

It didn't take long to figure out why he wanted to distance himself from the flick. DIG! is a funhouse mirror's reflection of Newcombe. Perhaps somewhere on the cutting room floor is footage of him doing things that are totally normal, like eating a bowl of cereal or petting a dog. But what you get in DIG! are hours of the exact opposite, like Newcombe kicking a concert heckler square in the face, or the Warhols talking about restraining orders after Newcombe dropped off a shoebox filled with bullet casings labeled with their names or Newcombe telling the camera about blood on his shirt that came from "other people's faces." It's entertaining. But it's not the whole story.

"Where's the music?" asks Rob Campanella, a member of The Quarter After and a frequent tourmate of Newcombe's. "All you see in the movie are jump cuts of gigs with the sound off, or maybe with some song off a CD playing in the background. That's always struck me as sort of odd, especially since the movie goes on and on about how he's a genius."

Indeed, DIG! makes Newcombe out to be the lost voice of a generation, one of those self-destructive types too ahead of his time to live in it. Warhols singer Courtney Taylor can't stop talking about what a musical demigod Newcombe is--and that's in footage shot after the bullet brouhaha. Even Campanella can't explain that one, but at least he's certain that plenty of Newcombe didn't make the final cut.

"Anton is a little crazy," Campanella says. "But his big issue with the movie is that, you know, it just stops. If you didn't know anything about Anton except what you saw in DIG!, you'd have to figure he became a druggie and a washout and maybe even that he killed himself. But he didn't."

Of course Newcombe hadn't let Brian Jonestown Massacre go out of business; he's on tour, for crying out loud (even if none of the band's other original members remain). And this latest go-round for the BJM isn't some comeback, because I'd seen him on the street back in 2002, right around the corner from The Mercury Lounge, where the band had played to a sold-out crowd. No, Newcombe did not self-destruct after all. DIG! just lets it seem that way.

I sympathized with Newcombe. For him, watching DIG! must have been like going to his own funeral, and no one listens while he yells and yells about how he's still alive. So my e-mailed questions picked up where the movie leaves off. I wanted the epilogue. I never got an answer.

The longer I waited for Newcombe to write me back, the larger he loomed in my mind--a fragmentary character made up of footage from DIG!, angry rejoinders to that footage, rumors and music. Meanwhile, Guylaine promised to call BJM's tour manager and nag, but in the same email, she mentioned that she wasn't allowed to call Newcombe, either.

His publicist isn't allowed to call?

I went over everything I thought I knew about Newcombe again in my head, and the more I thought, the less sure I was of my so-called "facts" and the more I wanted to talk to him, look him in the eye, see for myself. Anton Newcombe is not a movie.

But he was never writing me back. I knew that. So I lay in bed with a copy of the latest BJM EP, We Are the Radio, trying to drift off. Around and around, every existential thought I could think up entered my head--maybe everyone is Anton Newcombe, crying our own version of "I am not a movie!" into the void--and I almost pulled out old Plato and Descartes textbooks. Instead, I fell asleep.

When I woke the next morning, I realized, no, hell no. We're not all Newcombe. He insists he's not a movie, but just look. Onstage fistfights and Warhols-chasing and drugs and paranoia and all--he is a spectacle to be seen and gasped at, and his silence seems to confirm that he enjoys that reputation.

That's when I called Jesse Ashlock, a friend who once secured an e-mail interview with Newcombe in 2002, to see if I was right.

"I saw him about a month ago," Ashlock says. "I was driving through the Mission in San Francisco, and I noticed him walking down Valencia."

"How did he seem?"

"He seemed like the kind of guy people yell at from their cars. So I rolled down the window and I yelled, 'Hey, Anton!' And he looked up for a second," Ashlock says, "but I couldn't tell if he said anything, because I was already too far away."