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Life isn't easy for Anton Newcombe, the 31-year-old cultish maestro behind the Brian Jonestown Massacre, possibly the most controversial band you've never heard of. Newcombe -- also known as Anton A. Newcombe and, inexplicably, Dr. Anton A. Newcombe -- is the only constant of the decade-old group. The Brian Jonestown Massacre finally got some attention last year with its eighth record, a collection of scrappy, '60s-like garage-punk symphonettes called Strung Out in Heaven, the band's first album for the New York indie label TVT. A real legend in his own mind, Newcombe has a penchant for slapping nonsensical slogans on liner notes, press kits and posters: "Q: Anton, did you sell your soul? A: Well, I tried to but the line was so long I said, 'Fuck it!'" Another quip reads: "Anyone who thinks I'm a fascist should be terrified that I've got a shitload of money now." He is well-versed in stirring up ire and supplication, and no one who's encountered him or his music feels ambivalent about either.
"He's got an inner intensity that comes through," says Greg Shaw, the owner of Los Angeles indie Bomp! Records, which released the Brian Jonestown Massacre's first six records in rapid succession. "That's his greatest strength and his greatest downfall, because he's not in control of it."
The group's infamous Viper Room showcase in late '97 is a good example. The band had just moved from San Francisco to L.A. and decided to lure a club full of music-industry people to one of their shows in a stab at getting signed to a major. (This was after years of living in the Bay Area and churning out demo tapes and under-the-radar indie records on the retro-friendly Bomp! in conjunction with Newcombe's Tangible label.) The showcase quickly devolved into an old-fashioned barroom brawl involving band and patrons alike. Finally, club bouncers pounced on members of the Massacre, ejecting them and making it clear that they should never, ever darken Johnny Depp's doorstep again -- and those words were punctuated with the bouncers' fists. So much for that major-label deal.
"I just got pissed," says Newcombe, "but I'm trying to get past that dysfunctionality. . . . My girlfriend says I'm an emotional basket case. I'm really kind of a sensitive person. That's why I'm blessed to have the arts -- so I don't have to go out on a rampage with my firearms."
Newcombe is sitting on the patio of his Laurel Canyon home, two boxlike, brick-colored buildings packed with religious iconography, ranging from Menorahs to bright illustrations of Hindu gods and a '70s-looking wood-and-lacquer photo of Robert Redford. The complex is perched at the end of a secluded dirt road and has no driveway, but that's fine because Newcombe has no car. The house sits directly across the street from the Houdini mansion, and visitors can peer across the pavement to the surreal minicaverns revealed by the mansion's renovators, which gape disturbingly like hundreds of open-ended questions.
What actually happened that night sounds farcical, and Newcombe explains it in such a serious way that he almost seems to be kidding. But he's not, which is typical of him and his band. It all began, he says, when band member Joel Gion's tambourine broke. Gion threw it at the crowd in pissed-off frustration; it hit a woman on the head and promptly knocked her out. Her boyfriend was not pleased. Then all hell broke loose.
"That was one of my goals in moving to L.A., just to be right in everyone's face. That night I had guns on me, too," says Newcombe. (A cheering thought for anyone in the crowd.) "Looking back on the videotape from that show, I was an asshole. I try to learn from my mistakes, and I don't want to be an asshole. I've just about terrified everybody in the music business." But Newcombe also says that phase of the band is over, and that after shaking it up at conferences and showcases across the country, he's sick and tired of being pegged the biggest "here comes trouble" band in recent memory.
"People are so focused on our dysfunctionality, the talk of drugs and emotional problems," Newcombe says. "Everybody wants to make it a big soap opera. They want to show up and find a riot going on. I just want people to be into the music. I want to move on from that type of thing."
One of the most seductive things about the Massacre is that fans never know what to expect from the band -- which is revolutionary in this age of media-savvy punk rockers and vile, prepackaged pop stars. There's a freak element to the band that works, partly because it's not as intentional as it looks. Gion, the tambourine player, takes center stage at shows, lording over the crowd, with his immense sideburns, like an imperialist ruler. Newcombe, the true leader, who can play every instrument (and often does on record), plays and sings on the sidelines.
To some, Newcombe -- who was raised in the privileged atmosphere of Southern California's Newport Beach and moved to San Francisco in 1989 -- is a sinister poseur who concocts press-release-perfect antics, like his band's well-publicized mock battle with the Portland band the Dandy Warhols. To his fans, he's one of the last undiscovered rock geniuses, an artist who merges the garage psychedelia of the '60s with a '90s DIY style and packs each song with enough overt-yet-smart rock references -- Small Faces, Donovan, Stones, Syd Barrett, Lennon/Ono, the Monkees, Bobby Fuller Four -- to make any older critic's head spin and heart swoon. It's also referential enough to make anyone wonder what the hell the band's thinking. One thing is for certain: The Brian Jonestown Massacre's music glosses over the rugged guts of outlaw rock 'n' roll with a sheen close enough to irony that makes it palatable for today's kids. Plus, its leader is unusual, obsessive, and complex enough to make him worth pondering for months and still never figure out. It's part of what makes the group so good.