Everyone has their own personal connections to certain musicians or pieces of music. But how many threaten your physical health and sanity?
The Brian Jonestown Massacre has a weird vibe—you might call it mojo—around them. That's the standard stereotype about the band: founder, singer/songwriter Anton Newcombe is unbalanced, to put it lightly, and the rest of the band, at least whoever will still play with him, aren't the most normal people, either. The 2004 documentary Dig!, chronicling their rivalry with the Dandy Warhols, is the source of much of the mythos surrounding the band, although they and the Dandies say the film's depiction is exaggerated.
Still, the film captured studio magic, heroin use, pot busts and Newcombe attacking a fan at a show, among other things. Like most stereotypes, there's an element of truth, but the reality is more complicated.
There was always a cult-like aura around the band, as implied by their name, referring to the late Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones and the infamous Jonestown Massacre. Newcombe has often cultivated a sense of himself as not only musical but a spiritual guru, studying Eastern religions. BJM uses its expansive musical canvas—moving from shoegazer to psychedelic melodic rock to, later, electronic dance music—to touch on sometimes-dark themes. In his onstage mannerism, Newcombe seems to see himself as a descendent of rock 'n' roll personae like Jones and Jim Morrison. And his record label is called The Committee to Keep Music Evil.
Just look at some of their album titles. Methodrone (1995), when they were still playing shoegazer, makes a pun on the hypnotic, narcotic effects of the music. Their Satanic Majesties' Second Request (1996) shows their ambition to be the inheritors of that dark middle-period of the Rolling Stones' career when they had "Sympathy for the Devil." Thank God For Mental Illness (1996) delved into more personal genres like country and rhythm and blues to explore madness. Strung Out In Heaven (1998) weighed the comparison of spirituality and addiction. Newcombe is at his best when acting out the role of musical adept, but tends to get distracted by personal conflicts.
My own experiences seeing BJM have their own share of bad mojo. On Sept. 13, 2007, at The Urban Lounge, Newcombe halted the band mid-song to criticize their performance. The rest of their set was so lackluster that my partner and I got bored and left early.
It's common for BJM performances to be uneven. They can be maddeningly rife with band conflict, to the point of being unprofessional, or absolutely mesmerizing. For me, it was a signpost of ennui in an unravelling relationship.
Then on June 14, 2010, the woman living with me at the time, who had a substance abuse problem, was rowdy enough to get us 86'd from the Urban. Then she assaulted me on the way home—actually bit me on the lower back, like a vicious animal. She was jailed, and I got a protective order. Traumatized by the incident, I hid in my house for most of the rest of that year, barely able to go to work. I skipped seeing BJM when they came here in May 2012, for the sake of my own mental health.
Of course, those experiences were likely to happen anyway, in context of where I was in my life at those times. But something about the weird, discordant energy of the Brian Jonestown Massacre seemed to exacerbate those situations. I couldn't listen to their music for a few years.
Eventually, however, it called me back, with its seductive power and the promise that rock music can still be dangerous. It can, at least, take a passing glimpse at madness, and maintain a sinister side that must be acknowledged—and even embraced—in order to "break on through to the other side," as Morrison once sang. And, then, we may find a kind of salvation in it.
See you there.