This past Saturday night, I gave it another go when Anton Newcombe and The Brian Jonestown Massacre took the stage at The Fonda Theater in the land of Fentanyl Lollipops and sickly sweet sizzurp. Thoughts were rushing through my head while frequent Brian Jonestown contributor Miranda Lee Richards opened the show in support of the iconic, occult-ish and earliest figures in the current psych rock insurgence taking place in the global underground. But much like Jerry Garcia himself, the imagery of BJM’s early work summoned acid flashbacks while the hustle was about “getting well” behind closed doors. Here comes a tangent.
I’m reliably and uncharacteristically tribal when it comes to my loyalty to regional pride in any form. West Coast Rap, West Coast weed, (obviously). Echo Park music (don’t say ‘scene’) over Williamsburg and, of course- The East Coast girls ARE hip and I dig those styles they wear…but the West Coast has the sunshine and half naked well tanned women in the winter- even if I do dig a pale complexion with jet black, bangs cut as high as the depth of character.
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But when it came to what I like to refer to as “Nod Rock” for me, the east coast had the pure China White. I’m not here to glorify the use of opiates because that dark period of my life was far and away the most difficult challenge for me to overcome. Now that it’s been a good 10 years, I don’t like to hype up the lifestyle in a society that told me to “Just Say No” as a kid, while mass media focus tested ads suggested that I should “Just Do It”. And I can relate to much of the character flaws and (hopefully) gifts of a sober junky like Anton Newcombe.
Let’s face it- rock and roll and contemporary art do much to glamorize a lifestyle that is actually characterized by the hustle- the fear of getting dope sick and the never ending quest to disappear into oblivion. So whether it’s the high brow pretentious setting of Lou Reed and Nico in the Factory, droning on in monotone hook and verse while still remaining impossibly interesting and insightful or the vomit and blood soaked singularity of Sid Vicious and strung out gutter punks puking in the street- so many that get ensnared and drawn into a truly atrocious lifestyle through iconic imagery, prose or music that resonates through the rush and the impenetrable bubble that surrounds them.
When it comes to strung out bands and musicians, the gowed out vibes of Morphine were, and still are my obsession. Making that point does nothing but relay that drugs aren’t genre and the truly great bands transcend any common thread associations or gimmicks- but I’m going to keep writing anyway.
So many who’s taste and music snobbery I respect love and swear by The Brian Jonestown Massacre, and while part of me gets the appeal of a cult leader like, cocksure personality and cerebral lyricism of Anton Newcombe, the basic blues rock minimalism and the mongrelized psychedelic train wreck-ishness of The Brian Jonestown Massacre never resonated with me. Not even on the nod.
I had never seen BJM live until Desert Daze 2016 but my soul was burnt to a crisp by the time The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s set rolled around on the night of the last day of the festival. I was barely in my body in that moment.
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Ironically, I was at the Desert Daze Caravan at The Regent on Saturday night when I got the message that the writer who requested BJM wasn’t going to make it due to unforeseen circumstances. So off I went to pass judgement, excited to make up my mind once and for all and excited about the potential for me to indulge in so many tangential thoughts on this subject.
I arrived to Miranda Lee Richards crooning in an ethereal country twang that is so synonymous with the early roots of both rock and country music. I was blessed enough to catch a few songs from Richards and then attend to libations and herbal medicines to clear the pre-conceived notions about what I was about to see from my head.
Being largely unfamiliar with the BJM catalog outside the more well known staples associated with the band allowed me to take in an iconic act but absorb it the way I like to absorb unknown or newly formed bands playing around the clubs of Los Angeles- LIVE. If you can’t do it live then I want no part of you and there are many a band that can shred and inspire during their live show but that fall short for me or fail to capture the essence of the live performance when partaking of their studio works.
Almost from the outset of the Brian Jonestown Massacre set, I was able to close my eyes and escape to that place that not even hard drugs can take me. Because this escape finds oneself lost in inspiration instead of detachment.
With BJM, the intrigue of their band name, the signature markings and themes of the occult along with the ego driven rockstar vibes of Newcombe that were characterized by him telling the audience he loved them for showing up at the beginning of the night and trying to eject a heckling patron just before the last song, have all the elements and themes that typically draw me into art and music- including a tambourine player/co-frontman. As a musician and artist myself, I never understood how people who were strung out on dope could still maintain inspiration enough to produce a steady output of product that resonated with so many people. Inspiration is the first thing to go for me once dependence sets in.
But BJM and Newcombe are in the midst of an artistic proliferation that has produced 2 new albums in just a few months. While doing research for this piece I discovered that many of the songs that I dug on Saturday night were from albums that were made in the post-junk paradigm of Newcombe’s migration to Berlin and expatriation from the American dream. I’m curious to revisit The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s studio efforts once again and see if anything from the B.C. era of sobriety strikes me differently or something off the new album, Don’t Get Lost lingers longer in my consciousness. It’s rare for an artist who created their most beloved output when fueled by a drug induced psychosis to come out with quality shit when they get clean. There are few exceptions but Anton Newcombe appears to be one of them.
It seems hard to imagine that I just “didn’t get it” during the height of The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s career but it’s certainly possible. I wouldn’t have revisited to see if I might have missed something if it weren’t for the resurgence of interest in the band. Part of me wanted to rip down this institution in this review just to watch some people’s heads explode but I don’t rush to snap judgements which I think, while uncharacteristic for my profession, should be a pre-requisite and yet another reason why I stay FAR away from record reviews these days.
Words: Danny Baraz
Photos: Alejandro Ohlmaier