Jesse Valencia - The Brian Jonestown Massacre Story: Keep Music Evil - Books - Reviews - Soundblab

Jesse Valencia - The Brian Jonestown Massacre Story: Keep Music Evil

by Jeff Penczak Rating: Release Date:
Jesse Valencia - The Brian Jonestown Massacre Story: Keep Music Evil
Jesse Valencia - The Brian Jonestown Massacre Story: Keep Music Evil

The first thing to understand is that BJM is, has been, and always will be Anton Newcombe. In fact, Valencia even borrows a quote from one of Anton’s blog posts that clearly states “I am the band”. [Emphasis in original] Toss in a few friends and assorted hangers-on and you get the Massacre, but this is Anton’s band, and he is the only constant among a revolving door of bandmates over the past 25 years that is so extensive, they get their own Wikipedia entry!

The next, and perhaps most important thing you need to know is that Newcombe is not included in the 125+ people Valencia interviewed for his biography. To his credit (and perhaps to head off the obvious criticism), he acknowledges Newcombe’s absence from the narrative. What I’m not buying is his apologetic that it doesn’t matter, the book is not incomplete without his participation, and that it is not unauthorized. It does, it is, and it most certainly is.

But taken with that immense grain of salt, Valencia’s 10-year odyssey is about as close to the band’s story as one is going to get until Ant writes his memoirs (perhaps another reason for his nonparticipation?) Most of the previous/former members spoke with Valencia and the rest of his immense research extracts info from the BJM vs. Dandy Warhols doc, Dig! Although, again, at times it feels like a biography of the Making Of Dig! based on a phone interview he conducted three years ago with director Ondi Timoner. In fact, the entire second part of the book (100 pages) is basically a textual reiteration of Dig! Even then, while Valencia fills in a few blanks that the film failed to explain, many participants’ recollections completely contradict what is shown, inferred, or directly stated in the film. So draw your own conclusions – either memories are (again) hazy, or Timoner did some fleet-fingered editing. Dandy Warhols front man Courtney Taylor-Taylor suggests the latter, claiming most of the scenes in the “documentary” were staged or set up by Timonen, a comment echoed by guitarist Jeff Davies, who says Timoner edited scenes out of sequence to produce a desired, but misleading effect and that she also “set up little scenes of fights”. Music manager/lawyer Dennis Pelowski also says the film was “so edited away from what was really going on.” Newcombe wrote on the BJM website that it was full of “bold faced lies and misrepresentation of fact”. For her part, Timoner disputes some of the participants’ recollections that don’t mesh with what we see in the film.

So that massive housekeeping caveat dispensed with, let’s get on with the show. Early on, we get the feeling that Anton (Tony to many of his friends) was like a 20th century Father Yod to his revolving door of supporting musicians’ Ya Ho Wa 13. Former guitarist Jeff Davies even refers to his as the “father” of the band. But BJM is no religious cult (despite its carefully-chosen moniker), but a group of drug-drained partiers who occasionally play music together. We do learn of Newcombe’s ability (skill) at getting friends (and lovers) to do his bidding by sheltering and feeding him, and one early member of his entourage tellingly explained his magnetism: “Anton lured people into his mystique with ease…. You always felt you were doing something important when you played with Anton and he always made you feel that way….”

We learn Newcombe’s seemingly recent fascination with cinematic soundtrack music (e.g., 2015’s musique de film imaginé) actually predates BJM. In fact, he was making “one note minimalism with continuous drone notes going through” (as good a description of soundtrack music as any) way back in 1981!

Absentee parents forced him to blaze his own trail early on (his alcoholic father left when he was one), developing a lifelong desire (need, even) to do his own thing and take no shit from no one. He often adorned his album covers and liners with aphorisms that demonstrated this DIY streak.

Most people Valencia spoke with praised Newcombe’s work ethic. A former guitarist in one of Newcombe’s early bands, Homeland (1987) says Anton would often spend hours in the studio after band practice perfecting his sound. “Anton works extremely hard at being talented”.

A voracious reader (an old boss claims “he would read a whole book in one day”), his interest in Nazi mind control, Charles Manson (whose ‘Arkansas’ he adapted into a 13½ minute epic, ‘Arkansas Revisited’ on the “Bringing It All Back Home – Again” EP; he also claims – in Dig! – to have recorded with Manson before he went to jail!), CIA conspiracy theories, and the occult have all found their way into his songs.

The band’s formation, name, icon/logo, and history are meticulously documented, down to the street address and apartment number on Haight Street in San Francisco where the band was born in April 1990. Band member biographies help place everyone in context of their upbringing and how they fit into the BJM aesthetic. Valencia also does a reasonable job sorting out the amoebic lineup’s organic evolution (someone knew a guy who knew a guy who dated a girl who was a roommate with someone…), although readers may need a scorecard to follow the family tree. I suspect Pete Frame would have a coronary trying to tie these guys down! Their nomadic existence, moving from one crash pad to another, often sleeping in the street, in studios during recording sessions, at friends’ homes or on friends’ or girlfriends’ couches, in rented U-Haul trucks, and various rehearsal places (when they slept at all) is also well documented.

Newcombe’s various addictions (opiates, heroin, alcohol) are not shied away from, and Valencia often uses direct quotes from Newcombe press interviews, liner notes, YouTube comments, or blogs. We also get detailed track/recording/personnel session information for all the albums and gearheads will appreciate all the technical recording equipment and musical instrumentation info used on the albums. Also, details of Anton’s recording techniques in the studio will explain how he achieves that “Jonestown Sound”.

You’ll traverse the country with the band through a litany of drug- and alcohol-fueled gigs that often ended in fist fights between various band members on stage, occasionally spilling into the audience. One such scuffle in Los Angeles even landed Anton in jail. There’s even the report of one band member who OD’d on tour. We also get front row seats for the parade of managers, labels, PR reps, and tour managers the band burn through with reckless abandon as they live up to their reputation as “a gang of violent, mentally unstable drug fiends”. There’s even a story about a manager who supposedly used over a million dollars of the band’s label money on home renovations, a wedding, and a honeymoon in Europe.

Other interesting tidbits:

The band’s first paying gig was on what would have been Brian Jones’ 50th birthday!

The gig was at a club next door to the church where Jim Jones housed his People’s Temple!

Anton invented the term “methodrone” in tribute to Spacemen 3/Spectrum leader Peter Kember, aka Sonic Boom. It would later be sued for an early album title. A Swedish designer drug later appropriated the name!

The lyrics to ‘Anemone’ were originally written by Anton and Mara Keagle with a crayon in the back of a Bible, as they were the only materials to hand!

The backing vocals on ‘All Around You (Intro)’ from Their Satanic Majesties Second Request were sung by “a van full of people on drugs” that Anton brought to the studio!

The same album’s ‘Donovan Said’ was written and recorded while the participants were high on LSD.

The story behind how ‘Straight Up and Down’ ended up as the theme song to the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. The song also won an ASCAP Award as one of the themes for “Top Rates Television Shows”.

What all those wacky album covers mean and where they came from

How Anton came up with the idea for his Committee To Keep Music Evil, which provided Valencia with his title

Explanations for all those unusual album titles

The reasons Anton relocated to Berlin in 2008

Why Anton started recording so may songs in foreign languages (Icelandic, Finnish, Russian, German, French, Russian)

How the band pawned some of their instruments and equipment to buy drugs

How Crosby Stills and Nash drummer Dallas Taylor helped Anton kick his heroin habit, which eventually saved his life.

The tragic tale of how Anton’s father committed suicide on Anton’s birthday and his manager and friends kept it from him because the band was performing that night

The story behind the so-called Dandy Warhols/Brian Jonestown Massacre feud is also explored, with readers left to decide if it was for real or all a publicity stunt to keep each other in the music press. Valencia also explores how one of the most (in)famous “answer songs” of the 90s came about – and it wasn’t even written by Newcombe! Valencia also provides the behind the scenes negotiations with record labels, including the time Joel Gion impersonated Anton (right down to a fake ID) so he could meet with label reps to sign a deal at a meeting Anton didn’t even attend!

There’s a tad too much reliance on Dig! For background info, which becomes redundant for the fans this is aimed at and who surely know the film by heart. Another difficulty is that other band members and friends have hazy memories and/or remember events differently (e.g., the story behind Anton’s initial contact with Greg Shaw, the owner of their first label, Bomp!).

Major omissions like the lack of a complete discography and band lineup keep newcomers (and some longtime fans) scratching their heads to locate the albums and who played on what. As a band biography, these should be readily available in an Appendix. One should not have to hunt through Wiki or Discogs entries to get this info. Another bone of contention is Valencia’s annoying habit of referring to everyone by their first name, often after many pages pass following the initial reference. On way too many occasions, I found myself pausing in the middle of the narrative to retrace my steps to see who he was talking about. Equally frustrating is that way too many superfluous characters are introduced and dropped almost immediately, making an already confusing narrative and timeline even more difficult to follow. And the copy editing is atrocious, with readers having to fumble through way too many sentences with missing words, duplicate words, and or incorrect words (or typos).

So while ultimately Keep Music Evil is full of well-researched goodies for fans to pore over, featuring an extensive bibliography/videography and loads of websites and YouTube videos to peruse, the elephant in the room prevents it from being the definitive statement that hardcore followers would come here to expect. Therefore, the always entertaining and informative narrative read more like a eulogy than a biography, and its subject doesn’t get to defend himself or answer the sometimes outrageous accusations flung at him. But it’s still one hell of a rock and roll ride!

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