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Photo by Ruari Meehan

The Brian Jonestown Massacre will never bore you 

Psychedelic polemics

I have a theory: Anton Newcombe is a creative superhuman. Since 1990, the driving force behind the Brian Jonestown Massacre has produced nearly 50 albums, singles and compilations. In 1996 alone, he and his ever-rotating band of backing musicians churned out three distinct full-length albums – a squalid psych-rock compendium (Their Satanic Majesties' Second Request), a driving collection of maxed-out R&B (Take It From the Man!), and a jangly cornucopia of acoustic country folk (Thank God for Mental Illness).

The Brian Jonestown Massacre also went viral before going viral was even a thing. In the 2004 documentary Dig!, seven years of footage got condensed into 107 minutes of Newcombe's rants, raves, benders, low blows, insults and attacks. Supposedly created to capture the love-hate relationship between Newcombe's band and the Dandy Warhols (predicated by the 1997 BJM single "Not If You Were the Last Dandy on Earth"), the film devolved into a slurred, cynical record of Newcombe's madness as well as his genius. A touchstone of the pre-social media underground music scene, Dig! peeled back the curtain on rock & roll's image-obsessed schizophrenia, long before artists started documenting their own behind-the-scenes lives.

Of course, Newcombe (and Courtney Taylor-Taylor of the Dandy Warhols, and just about every member of both bands) denounced the film as an overhyped Jerry Springer segment – clickbait before clickbait existed. And therein lies the beauty of Anton Newcombe and his avant-garde sensibilities. Yes, he was getting fucked out of his mind on hallucinogenics and opiates in the '90s, followed by the consumption of a liter of vodka a day in the 2000s. Then he got clean, and everyone assumed his creative output would diminish. Instead, he founded his own record labels, built his own recording studio, took control of his own artistic destiny and became one of modern music's most prodigious polymaths.

Cue the superhuman argument again. Almost 30 years after Anton Newcombe gave birth to the artistic idyll of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, he's still relentless in his pursuit of artistic perfection. He'll never bore you or let you down; if you can track him down for an interview, it will deliver a goldmine of potent quotables. In a 2012 chat with the A.V. Club, he relished his role as "a shamanistic, Ezekiel-type" rock & roll character who sings about love by using "a literary device where I might be singing about God even if I'm talking about drugs." That came minutes after declaring that he deliberately moved to Berlin because he wanted to live "like a ghost" who could finally, firmly avoid consumerist advertising since it was written in a language he didn't understand.

Some people relate well to such nonconformist hereticism; some don't. I usually fall in the latter category, but Newcombe's magic worked on me way back in August 2005, when I saw the Brian Jonestown Massacre perform in San Francisco. The concert came just days after Hurricane Katrina had ravaged the Gulf Coast, and as a native Louisianan recently transplanted to the Bay Area, I was distraught to the point of debilitation, desperate for news from friends and family in New Orleans and adrift in a sea of uncaring Californians. I was expecting Dig!-style Anton Newcombe, and he delivered, sweating profusely, scolding his band members incessantly, and only making it through a few songs.

The rest of the set was spent ranting about the devastation of Katrina, the incompetence of George W. Bush and his administration, the bodies floating in toxic floodwaters and how all of it was but a continuation of America's original sin of racial terror.

Anton Newcombe and the Brian Jonestown Massacre moved me that night – with their music, yes, but more so with their words and their anger. I left that concert as a lifelong BJM fan, even if I knew I would never fully understand the depth of the band's art and the unhinged complexity of the man responsible for it. As Newcombe told The Guardian back in 2005: "My greatest weapon is that I'm underestimated by everybody. It's easy for people to dismiss what I'm saying, what I'm doing, or what I can do. That's the greatest power. The cloak of invisibility."

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