18 years since he last saw BJM perform, Chris Adams finds out if Anton and the gang still rock, even in lieu of on-stage fistfights and tantrums.
On the Uber ride from my super-secret hideaway, tucked in the ass-end of a forgotten Boston alleyway, down to the neon marquee of the Paradise last week, I realized that it’s been 18 years since the last time I saw the Brian Jonestown Massacre. Eighteen years? EIGHTEEN? Je-sus fuuuuuck… feels like maybe 10, max. One of the lousiest aspects of growing old is that your perception of time becomes increasingly and impossibly convoluted. Shit that happened 3 weeks ago feels positively cro-magnon, while you can count the sesame seeds off a 1987 breakfast bagel like it’s still warming on a plate in front of you. Yep. Getting old is a king-sized draaaag, man.
That show – at Cambridge MA’s Middle East, touring their 1998 classic “Strung Out in Heaven”- was the only time I’d ever seen the band before; which is pretty weird as they’re probably my favorite currently-existing American band. I’m sure they’ve done a few gigs around here since then, but I can’t remember why I missed them: was I broke? Quite possibly. Did I have other plans that I couldn’t break, or modify? Possibly. Honestly, I can’t remember. And it’s not like they sucked. On the contrary: they set the joint ablaze with a chaotic, ramshackle, runaway train of a set that felt like it was gonna go off the rails at any second. The notoriously quixotic bandleader, Anton Newcombe, despite being clad entirely in white, was far from angelic; he was clearly out of his mind on goofballs or whatnot, while the rest of the band, clearly irked by his constant commands and criticisms, responded by ripping through the songs with a hell-bent, frustrated ferocity. It was fun, engaging drama, but it was also a little scary… while not exactly Altamont, there was a clear sense of danger in the air.
The entire tour later fell apart, with the Boston Globe reporting Anton had “vanished.” My clue as to why came in the middle of an interview I conducted with Anton myself, where members of the opening band confronted him with a few choice words, he responded with a few of his own – one of them being, repeatedly, “motherfuckers” – then bottles started flying and, and that was that. I captured it all on cassette too!
However, as with many of us “rockers of a certain age,” a lot has changed with Anton – the band’s sole permanent member; he’s moved from his hometown of San Francisco, and now splits his time between domiciles in German and Norway. Clean and sober, he’s fathered a son, and he’s in a steady relationship with a long-term girlfriend. All of this has positively affected his creative output, which has been prodigious. Under the BJM banner, he’s released god-knows-how-many albums, EPs, singles, and demos, ranging in flavor from tried & true retro-psych/punk, to Spacemen 3 noisedrone, to Syd-Barrett singalongs, eastern raga, atmospheric film soundtracks, and metronomic Krautrock, all filtered through the dayglo mind of a twisted mystic, soaked in the twin elixirs of the Rolling Stones and the Velvet Underground. And it seems like he’s posting new experiments and explorations on his YouTube channel every week. With such a wide musical palette balanced on roller-coaster band dynamics and one volatile personality, it was anyone’s guess what shape the set would take on this cool, clear May night.
The band opened with the well-loved “Never, Ever” and over the next three-plus-hours, pretty much stuck to more song-oriented material, much of it from their creative onslaught in the mid-90’s when they released something like six records within two years. That’s not to say that the set didn’t have any surprises; about halfway through, they played an extended, vocal-free psychedelic jam, and, a little later on, Anton welcomed the Lemonheads’ Evan Dando and a female friend on to play sparse version of “My Drug Buddy” followed by the Velvet Undergrounds “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” Shortly thereafter, Anton invited his girlfriend on stage for a few acoustic duets.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the sold-out show was – despite the lack of tantrums, fistfigthts, and anger – how genuinely exciting it all was. The band played the material with a sure-footed passion and relentless intensity that, at moments, they achieved mesmerizing, transcendental heights. I left with my head spinning, my guts twisted, and my face flushed – emotionally and viscerally changed by the experience (at least, for the moment). And if that ain’t magick, I don’t know what is.
But was it just me and my weird perceptions playing tricks on me, a hangover from by Uber-lift confusions? Perhaps I just haven’t been out enough lately, or maybe I had one too many?
Or maybe not. Just outside the venue, I ran into a friend who knows his shit and asked for his perspective; “One of the best shows I’ve seen by anyone, ever.”
As for me, I’m certainly not gonna wait for another 18 years to pass before I check out these guys again.
Brian Jonestown Massacre tour continues – see dates here.