by Wayne Pernu

It's a Wednesday night at Zoot Suite in downtown Portland, and the Brian Jonestown Massacre are finishing their next-to-last song, "That Girl Suicide..." followed by the group's traditional closing number, an untitled amorphous cacophony of sonic distortions. What's left in its wake is a slight feeling of dissatisfaction at the ramshackle nature of the performance. That the group is on tour at all, however, attests to its resilient professionalism. And while "professionalism" is not a term normally applied to this pack of self-described "bastard children of the hippies," given their eight-year reign of upheavals, psychodramas, and revolving door changes in line-up, it is one the band has rightly earned.

Formed in 1990 in the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco, the Brian Jonestown Massacre are very much an amalgamation of that city's past and present musical forces. At the heart of the BJM is the ragged determinism of Anton Newcombe--songwriter, guitarist, singer, and the group's primary creative force. (In addition to Newcombe, the band's current line-up includes Jeff Davis and Dean Taylor on guitars, Joel Gion on tambourine, and temporary rhythm section Eric Olson on drums and Charles Mehling on bass.) These days Newcombe seems to be traversing two divergent paths simultaneously. On the one hand, after years of recording a slew of albums, singles and assorted odds and ends for small labels (most notably Bomp!), the group recently signed to TVT Records. The fruits of this relationship are to be found on "Strung Out in Heaven," an album rife with the kind of inventive melodicism which places Anton squarely among the country's most gifted and prolific songwriters. This fact has for so long been overshadowed by details and innuendo extraneous to the music (prodigious drug use, volatile tempers, a succession of drummers which out-Spinal Taps Spinal Tap, not to mention their inflammatory band name) the group members are rightly frustrated at not having received their full musical due.

On the other hand, the soap opera which has literally defined the band for nearly a decade continues on despite sincere efforts at greater stability. Having lost yet another drummer during the band's last tour, the group was dealt a serious blow when founding member Matt Hollywood left the group several months ago. (Hollywood has since relocated to Portland where he's currently forming his own band.) They had barely begun a series of shows with Olson and Mehling when guitarist Dean Taylor was mugged and brutally beaten outside a club in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The injuries sustained by the diminutive musician were severe enough that reconstructive surgery may be required. At the same time, tempers were flaring between remaining band members, a perpetual situation given Newcombe's demanding work ethic. What tears the band apart are the very things which hold it together. And while this inescapable fact wreaks havoc for the individual band members, they will be the first to defend Newcombe's ubiquitous importance.

"Anton's the real cat," says Gion. "He's a real artist and that's very attractive. It makes you want to be a part of it because you're part of a real thing and you're not trying to do something, you're doing it, which is a very nice place to be."

Slouched in the group's van parked in front of Zoot Suite, Newcombe and Davis spend well over an hour discussing the band's long, tortuous career. Despite surface impressions which have proliferated over the years, Anton is studiously no-bullshit when discussing the band. Their failure to find the right drummer ("It's like looking for the Holy Grail," Newcombe says) is not blamed on substance abuse or clash of personalities, but is placed in historical terms underscored by the diminishing influence of jazz on popular music. "We're into the circular sounding stuff," Newcombe says. "so it makes it more difficult 'cause everyone's so linear these days. In less than one generation people completely lost the old world drumming school technique. The Mitch Mitchells, the Keith Moons, they're all gone." He recalls finding the group's name as one aspect of a concerted effort to undermine the hierarchy mentality which has plagued rock 'n' roll for three decades. "At that time, everyone was using one-word names like Ride and Lush. So I wanted to get away from that. [San Francisco] was a very cliquish town. And while it was very creative for us, everybody had this attitude and hierarchy and we kind of stepped outside of that whole thing and promoted our own shows and ignored the media and did our own guerrilla media. And it worked well for us."

Early band posters included the declaration, "Take acid now and come see the Brian Jonestown Massacre on Friday." Both NBC and Current Affair used BJM posters as proof that LSD was making a comeback and the band was at the forefront of a movement to render the drug-induced destruction of the youth of America. Meanwhile, Newcombe, influenced by the rave scene, continued to mount a grassroots campaign to bring the band to the public outside of orthodox channels. "We definitely pissed a lot of people off, 'cause there is a status quo," Anton says. "Every time people say rock 'n' roll motifs are dead, that's when one jumps up and bites them."

He offers no apologies by way of reflecting on the group's past. "I like the rough edges," he says. "I think a band should have a history and it shouldn't try to be hidden or manufactured. Like a seed that grows... it should ultimately grow fruit and decay. If it bears fruit and dries up, those seeds can help something else if they're fertile."

Anton's attitude toward sex and drugs does not consist of the mindless hedonism espoused by their contemporaries, the Dandy Warhols. He says he stopped flippantly advocating drug use because, "I learned there are a lot of people in our society who don't have any sense of direction; some people really get affected by it."

And as for sex, Newcombe has clearly engaged his intellect as much as his physical attributes when attending to the subject.

"I'm open-minded and because I'm open minded, most of my friends are gay. I've really been open-minded my whole life. I've been able to do all my stuff, but I've also been shy, which confuses people. It's like a lot of things when you judge a book by its cover. So I never asked ladies out or anything. I've always met these aggressive sort of gals and I was very lucky. Where I grew up in Newport Beach, California, there's lots of beautiful girls. You develop these friendships, and while I wasn't thinking, 'God, I want to see her naked,' or 'I want to fuck her,' we'd end up doing that because they'd sense that about you. You have a very casual, open relationship and you explore it deeper, that becomes more a part of it. It helped me and of what I think of people in that situation; being respectful and trying to be sensitive to people's feelings and what their desires are. Participating in it and not just inflicting it on someone. I'm not really interested in just fucking around. I really like to continue that life-long thing of relationships and seeing them through to a deeper level; the kundalini or whatever."

While Anton is intent on developing further with the band and reducing the soap opera factor, old habits die hard and he still finds himself getting into trouble. Last year in Butts County, Georgia, Newcombe and a female friend were pulled over at a DEA checkpoint and caught with sheets of acid. Anton attributes the swift resolution of this situation to the fact that, noticing the officer was wearing a freemasonry ring, Newcombe was able to talk the talk and walk the walk since he comes from a long line of Masons.

While the group waits for Taylor to recover and permanent replacements to be found, plans are in the works for a European tour in the fall. And while their jump to a larger label signals factors previously not fitting into the equation determining their collective fate, fill-in bassist Charles Mehling sees Newcome as being the crucial link.

"Anton is real interested in his own trip," Mehling says. "He's not real interested in other people's trips. He's at the helm of the band. He's a very moody but very lovable guy a little too caught up in his own world, and I don't think he sometimes realizes the way his mood affects the rest of the band. He can elate the band and make the shows magical, or he can cause them to be a piece of shit. And I don't think he realizes it all comes down to him. It all comes down to him."

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