Keep Music Evil

Keep Music Evil: The Brian Jonestown Massacre Story
By Jesse Valencia
[Jawbone Press]

There was a weird little lull in the, ahem, progress of indie rock, or whatever had become of it, in the late ’90s. You remember the deal: In the post-hardcore ’80s (I’m referring to the period after first wave hardcore, not the genre begat by Quicksand, Texas Is The Reason and the like), SST Records ushered in a cadre of bands that shared a variation of a similar sonic formulae: Punk + jazz + psych +  spazz + scuzz = X. The smart, slovenly bands of the SST sable, aided and abetted by likeminded groups on labels like Twin Tone, Homestead, Matador, Sub Pop and Amphetamine Reptile, spurred the American underground from sleepy, “college rock” complacency (see R.E.M., Smithereens) into the edgier “indie” terrain. The luckier, more commercially ambitious bands of this cohort (Sonic Youth, Replacements, Husker Du et al) graduated to major labels by around 1990 or so. And somehow or another this indie-to-major crossover surge accidentally/miraculously realigned the planets in a way that enabled a seismic paradigm shift into the prefab “grunge” thing that, for a golden moment, yielded big bucks for the labels.

Anyway, by the late ’90s Saint Cobain was long since dead and buried, grunge had become a bad joke, and even the subsequent, meat-headed (not so) “nu metal” thing (see Limp Bizkit, Orgy, KORN) the majors had jammed down our throats for a couple of years was on the wane. It was one of those periods where even the shrewdest schlockmeisters in the music biz couldn’t figure out a new way to pander to the lowest common denominator.

This was the weird little lull, just before the neo-garage boom of the early oughts (see The Strokes, The White Stripes, The Hives, The Vines and every other “The” band in the galaxy), when TVT Records, what was essentially a major label disguised as an indie, signed San Francisco’s Brian Jonestown Massacre, a scrappy little retro/neo-psych combo that had already toiled in indie semi-obscurity for nary on a decade. I mean, who wouldda thunk that BJM, the brainchild of auteur, “genius,” wannabe cult leader and all around whack job, Anton Newcombe, would actually hit it big? Well, apparently Steve Gottlieb, the TVT Records honcho who signed BJM for a multi album deal, thought just that. (Gottlieb subsequently tried the same gambit with Guided By Voices – with more or less the same result.) Weird things happen during weird little lulls in “the business.”

BJM was (and is) a pretty good band – but not a great one. Their music was jangly, crunchy, trippy stuff with a bit of sass thrown in for good measure – every bit as good all the other faux ’60s bands on Greg Shaw’s Voxx and Bomp! labels, but no better. Fair enough. What set the BJM apart from the pack was the cult of personality surrounding Anton Newcombe. BJM was more interesting for Newcombe’s crazy shenanigans than for its music.

Sure, BJM had plenty of fans before their semi/sorta major label signing that would stick it out with the band after it was dropped – which went down in short order after the band’s 1998 album, Strung Out In Heaven, didn’t exactly shoot to the top of the charts. The band would never reach the state of hit-making nirvana. Still, there were other twists to come. The BJM would go on to experience a second life, as it were, as movie stars. Had it not been for the movie, Dig!, BJM would probably be sequestered to the scrapheap, right alongside other clever name mashup bands like Kathleen Turner Overdrive and REO Speed Dealer. (Remember them?)

Upon its release in 2004, Ondi Timoner’s rockumentary, Dig!, became the vehicle that would finally, kinda/sorta catapult the BJM into semi-fame. Documenting the love/hate, rivalry/codependence and respective rise/ruin of Portland’s Dandy Warhols and the BJM, Dig! was a beguilingly ugly glimpse into The Madness of King Anton. This guy, Newcombe, really was nuts. He was one of those, um, intense guys whose eyes could burn holes into your soul from the safe remove of the screen’s panopticon. Newcombe was his own worst enemy, a self-loathing pied piper, a demigod, a wannabe L. Ron Hubbard of song who came off more like Darby Crash. Yeah, he has a certain charisma for sure. It’s great fun to watch this miserable bastard crash and burn on the screen, but I’d never (and I mean never) want to meet him in person.

So here we are in 2019, 20 years after BJM was dropped from TVT Records and 15 years after the movie, 10 years after Newcombe moved to Europe, and we get another chance to “meet” him from a comfortably sheltered standpoint of remove –this time in the form of Jesse Valencia’s Keep Music Evil: The Brian Jonestown Massacre Story. Valencia’s tome is kind of a matryoshka doll of a rock bio, a story within a story within a story. Keep Music Evil is Newcombe’s story, the BJM’s story and the story of Dig! Unfortunately, the book is also a paean to Valencia’s parasocial relationship with Newcombe and, at least to a degree, Valencia’s story, a kuntslerroman within a book about a rock star who is in a movie. Is that, like, totally “meta” postmodernity in practice, or what?

Yeah, we all know Jesse Valencia, right? Valencia is the wannabe Anton Newcombe of the band Gorky. Yes, the famous Gorky – a band I’d never heard of before reading Keep Music Evil. Apparently Valencia sees himself as more a peer of Newcombe than a fan. I mean, well, Newcombe is in a band and Valencia is in a band – so they’re peers. I think not. Nor am I interested in reading, again and again, how BJM influenced Gorky’s music. Of his soon-to-be-released album, Gorky’s brilliantly titled Mathemagician, Valencia writes, “I think it’s the best music I’ve ever made, and it’s purely in the spirit of rock ’n’ roll!” My, what a special boy you must be, Jesse! Bitch, please. Who fucking cares?

Then again, Valencia must be a cool guy. After all, guys in bands are always cool. “Music journalists” are totally cool. (Haw!) Valencia looks cooler than cool on the dust cover. (Nice dye job there, chubs. And what are you hiding under that rock ’n’ roll scarf?) And his bio says that he was in a movie with Tom fucking Sizemore, fer Chrissakes. If that’s not cool, well, what is?

But maybe I shouldn’t be so harsh. Keep Music Evil has got all the stuff we want in a “rock book.” Insanity, drug addiction, showbiz sleaze, sycophancy and an emotionally stunted, tormented artiste with Peter Pan syndrome – these are the things that rock ’n’ roll dreams are made of. And I must begrudgingly admit that despite the copious errors throughout the book (You really should have done another editing pass on this one, Jesse.), Valencia does know how to turn a phrase.

Keep Music Evil is, well, it’s a fast, fun read – an afternoon well spent. I didn’t acquire any profound lessons about the artistic process, the dialectic relationship of subculture with the culture writ large, or about life itself from my reading. But I wasn’t expecting any. As rock books go, Keep Music Evil is actually surprisingly correspondent, quality-wise, with the music of the Brian Jonestown Massacre. It’s an amusing and demonstrably, uh, pretty good cultural product cranked out in haste by an ambitious hack. So, in this way, Newcombe and Valencia actually are peers. They’re both miserable bastards who have entertained me on occasion. I know, it’s only rock ’n’ roll but I (kind of) like it, yes I do.