Don't Let Marilyn Manson Be Our Last Anti-Hero
Are you getting sick of all the same tired, rock and roll, cliched dichotomies? Genius musician/unbalanced criminal? Sensitive love song craftsmen/misogynistic abuser? Industry- shunning mysterio/attention-starved narcissist? Yeah, me neither. Enter "Dr." Anton Newcombe; uber-brilliant singer/songwriter for the Brian Jonestown Massacre and, um, person with issues.
And the band and Anton's issues are becoming considerable more public of late. As the main subject of Ondi Timoner's Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning documentary, "Dig!", Anton is captured at his best and, mostly, his worst. Pitted against the Dandy Warhols, the BJM struggle with the pangs of jealousy, the strain of touring, recording, homelessness, heroin, and labels, over a seven year period from 1996 to 2004. As the Dandys rise to moderate commercial success and critical acceptance, the BJM are arrested, disbanded, and finally, disregarded.
But now, with the BJM's first post- "Dig!" release of new material slotted for this summer, the documentary's DVD release in April (with nearly two hours of bonus material on a second disc), a new record deal with indie label Teepee Records, and a tour that includes a Lollapalooza slot and a Toronto date in July, Anton and his music/antics seem poised to break through to another level of anti-hero worshippers. And, by extension, a quick way to trade off some of that "credibility" that he's been saving up for the last decade or so for some money. Then again, compromise is really not Anton's style.
In 1996, the Brian Jonestown Massacre put out three full-length albums; Their Satanic Majesties Second Request, Thank God for Mental Illness, and Take It From the Man! Easily three of the best albums recorded in the 1990s. The prolific outpour earned the attention of several record execs, representing several labels, who then organized a talent showcase in Los Angeles's Viper Room. The result: a thirty minute, amplified affray between Anton and his band, supposedly caused by the former's purchase of several sitars with the other musician's per diem, followed by a full-on fist fight (in which one sitar was poetically broken.) And no offers from any of the highly entertained, yet irreversibly cautioned, label executives.
Over the next few years, Anton's reputation trumped his professionalism, and perhaps his dedication to music. 1998 saw the BJM make their major label debut on TVT Records, but the result was anti-climatic. Heroin, mostly, was the greatest influence on Strung Out In Heaven, which was, until 2004, the only BJM album available at major retailers. Re-recorded songs from their stellar indie efforts make up a third of the album. Guitarist, Matt Hollywood, writes and sings another third. And the final portion is, well, brilliant.
This incarnation of the Brian Jonestown Massacre disbanded quietly (by their standards) in late 1998. Anton would disappear for the better part of a year. Finally, he would re-emerge with an ever-revolving cache of musicians, still called the BJM, and put out a string of breath-taking, intricate, orchestral releases of Eps and albums. Most recently, 2003's ...And This Is Our Music. Considered by some critics to be the best album that the BJM has ever made. It is an affecting, intimidating, seamless piece of music. In the garage sound revival atmosphere of the post White Stripes musical climate, Anton decided to make a polished, Specter-esque musical pictorial because, "no other band could."
Just as Anton's musical achievements were beginning to eclipse his personal ones, "Dig!" was released to instant critical embrace. Anton was disappointed to see that the film's focus was not on music at all, rather on Anton's intimate struggles with severe personality disorders and drugs, "Several years of hard work was reduced at best to a series of punch-ups and mishaps taken out of context." For the most part, Anton is right. The film does rely heavily on Anton's temper and unpredictability to carry it for 107 minutes. The Dandy Warhol's frontman, Courtney Taylor, flatly lacks Anton's, shall we say, filmable personality. The film's editors buttressed the movie with Anton's outbursts and attacks, at the expense of the music.
The only discernable pattern in the documentary is that Anton favours some mutated, self-destructive conception of integrity that skewers his professional decisions again and again. "Not for sale" is his long-time mantra. And the price gets considerably high.
Recently, Anton clarified his view of "selling out". He offers that selling out is, "to alter my actions to conform to some idea or norm to try to be more successful, like trying to change my sound or style to become more mainstream (whatever that means.)"
When it comes to the Dandy Warhols, the BJM's perennial friends and rivals, Anton is both generous and sardonic, "I don't believe that the Dandy Warhols sold out because they set out to be popular and play the "record business game". I, on the other hand, wanted to make recordings I like." To an extent, Anton has been vindicated by Timoner's film, accomplishing the rare feat of out-creding already critical darlings in the Dandys. European darlings at that.
But will all of this long-awaited justification produce a softened Anton, and one able to lead his band and his music out from the bell-jar of Anton's private demons? If recent performances are our only indictor, then probably not. When the BJM came to Toronto last Hallowe'en, it was an exhibit in tension. A near-maniacal Anton, who apparently gave queues through invisible shock-rays sent from his eyes to his bandmates, ceaselessly threatened a novice drummer. The overall result was mixed; some of the most beautiful music performed live, punctuated with with some of the most intolerably long song breaks ever. As well, the smoking ban didn't lighten the mood either.
But now, finally, with all the major record store chains carrying and, indeed, advertising the release of the Dig! DVD and the Brian Jonestown Massacre's thirteen album catalogue, the music public seems primed for their style of 60s re-awakened, cult, love music. And maybe with the release of the BJM's fourteenth effort, We Are the Radio, slated for this summer, a music public beyond the usual indie sophisticates can be tapped. Or perhaps the album will suffer the same fate as the film's theatrical release; critically adored and very limited. It seems, as always, it will be entirely up to Anton.
The Brian Jonestown Massacre play Lee's Palace on July 27th, 2005. Tickets are a paltry $10.50. As well, the entire BJM catalogue is available for download from their website, www.brianjonestownmassacre.com. See? Not for sale.
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