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Is Brian Jonestown Massacre the last great rock 'n' roll band of the 20th Century?

By Micheal Powell

JULY 27, 1998:  For those who know him, it should come as no surprise that the three-digit prefix for Anton A. Newcombe's phone number is 666. Whether by virtue of a geographical fluke or Biblical prophecy, and depending upon whom you ask, the vocalist/guitarist/multi-instrumentalist/major-domo has been cast as a millennium finale antichrist presiding over his own Armageddon rock opera, the Brian Jonestown Massacre. "It's kind of a drag really all this shit," a just-wakened (at 4 p.m.) Newcombe says in regards to his band's colorful reputation. "Sooner or later people are going to be forced to deal with the music on its own terms. Maybe when I'm 50 years old people will finally stop talking about it."

But probably not any time soon.

Since its formation in 1990, when Newcombe, searching for the "random element," created the Brian Jonestown Massacre (the name is a contraction of deceased Rolling Stone Brian Jones and the famous 1978 suicide of the People's Temple cult - both of which have a lot to do with the band's sound), the group has caused a self-perpetuating stir with its '60-meets-'90s interpretation of pop music jangledelia and its members' penchant for wild on- and off-stage antics. In its eight years, the group has featured upwards of 50 musicians but has settled, for the moment, on a core of Newcombe, bassist/guitarist/vocalist Matt Hollywood (who recently left the group again), Joel Gion (tambourine/percussion/vibes) and guitarists Jeff Davies and Dean Taylor. "We have members and then there's people who play with us," Newcombe says, "but I'm always looking for drummers."

Reasons for the group's high attrition rate are said to be Newcombe's unstoppable drive and the perceived tyrannical sway he holds over the group, a charge he refutes - sort of. "I think anybody with a vision is difficult to work with," Newcombe says. "I try to challenge people to do something, not how they want to do it, but rather, how it would be good. A lot of people aren't going to be into that because they're slack and don't want to be forced to do things differently."

Doing things differently is the mode and modus for the Brian Jonestown Massacre. Having cultivated a mythology usually reserved for superstars, the group has become known not only for its music but also for its collective volatility and anti-erudite behavior. On-stage fistfights, run-ins with law enforcement, a revolving lineup, drug addiction, nudity, firearms, Newcombe's sanity - this is what people are talking about when it comes to BJM. And although Newcombe claims not to "buy into all the rock star bullshit," his band, which is just now gaining notoriety on a larger scale, has had the audacity to act like rock stars from the get-go. Normally, this type of success-by-schvantz-stepping is cause for skepticism ("Is it all contrived or not?"), but with BJM its all part of a spectacular, even dangerous, indie-rock sideshow in which the lines between fantasy and reality often blur and the anecdotes abound. Like the time Newcombe roller-skated around a Dandy Warhols concert passing out copies of BJM's send-up single "Not If You Were the Last Dandy on Earth" and the two group's subsequent feud. (Dandy Courtney Taylor once referred to Newcombe as a "brilliant idiot savant who can't stop humping my leg." Newcombe sent each Dandy a personalized bullet.) Then there's the one about how Newcombe charged $5,000 worth of champagne to label TVT after the group was signed. How about the intra-band fisticuffs and subsequent ejection from their own performance at L.A.'s Viper Room? There was also a report alleging that Newcombe threatened to kill Marilyn Manson. The list is endless.

"I'm not really worried about it," Newcombe says with uncharacteristic humility. "I'm just into making records and playing shows. I'm hoping, eventually, that if I work harder and make a better record then people will go, 'Whoa, this is a treasure in its own right. And I dig it.' " If BJM is anything, it is prolific, having released eight albums in three years. Not content with one particular sound, the group has experimented with several. From druggy space rock to Byrdsian country, the group has amassed an impressive catalog including: The Tangible Box ('95), Methodrone ('95), Space Girl and Other Favorites ('95), Their Satanic Majesties' Second Request ('96), the masterpiece Take It From the Man ('96), Thank God for Mental Illness ('97) - a 12-song Syd Barrett tribute with 10 hidden Brit pop-esque numbers on the 13th track - Give It Back! ('97) and this summer's Strung Out in Heaven. Released only last June, Strung Out was embroiled in a controversy before it even hit the shelves. Surprisingly, the hullabaloo was emanating not from Dandyland but from our own backyard.

Last spring, pristine Dallas-based pop act She Only Thinks in Manchester (now Go Metric, USA), made allegations to FW Weekly that Newcombe lifted their song, "Hitler Runs a Rock Band" and made it his own "Going to Hell," Strung Out's lead track. Newcombe did record and produce "Hitler" when the group visited him in Los Angeles last November, but hotly contests that he pilfered the song. In fact he insists that Go Metric borrowed the song from him. "[Last summer] I played the song over the telephone for" Go Metric bassist Lindsay Romig, he says. "I also called up Matt Hollywood, who was staying with her. I played it over the phone for her and him, too," Newcombe insists. "Well, they came out here and I produced the single for them and they decided they were going to get some fucking press by saying I stole the song from them and try to sue me." No legal action has been filed by Go Metric.

"The bottom line is that it was a bunch of bullshit on their part and I hope it was worth it because they lost a friend," Newcombe adds, returning to form. "They're absolutely the worst of what Texas has to offer they're worse than El Paso. And I hope they get a serious case of venereal disease."

Now in the middle of touring in support of Strung Out, Newcombe is already looking to his band's next projects, namely a European tour and two more albums, possibly to be released later this year. "Each project assumes its own little ambient environment that's different from the others," Newcombe explains. "I don't really think about it, I just conceptualize ideas, execute and move on. If I can make two more relative records before the millenium that would be groovy."

With Y2K fast approaching, two more records, even four, should be easy for a band with the history of BJM. But is the Brian Jonestown Massacre the last great rock 'n' roll band of the 20th century? Newcombe thinks so but adds, "The powers that be don't want us to make it. They want Tricky and Prodigy to go down. I'm just going to wait around and see if anyone else comes along."


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