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A loose cannon known to brawl with bouncers, bandmates and even the occasional audience member, Anton Alfred Newcombe has been 86'd from his share of music venues over the years. He's blown off sound checks to get drunk and stormed off stages after playing only two songs. He's provoked hostile crowds by saying things like "Your city sucks" or "Sorry we made you guys wait for two hours, but we were backstage playing Boggle." Once, he even aimed a .22 rifle at his ex-manager, David Deresinski, who called the contentious troubadour a "stinky Hitler" for urinating on an expensive leather jacket. But despite his often maddening behavior, Newcombe, the highly prolific songwriter and creative force behind the Brian Jonestown Massacre, somehow manages to keep a band together, rotating members like some endless string of battered lab partners.
In fact, over forty different musicians have passed through the Massacre's ranks since its inception in 1990 -- including members of the Warlocks, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and the Dandy Warhols, whose Courtney Taylor is featured alongside Newcombe in Dig!, a documentary that just took the grand-jury prize at Sundance. The current six-man lineup (subject to change without notice) features Newcombe, Ricky Maymi and Frankie Teardrop on guitars, Zy Lyn on violin, Colin Hegna on bass and Ryan Sumner on drums. And though the BJM has been something of a musical cornerstone for the incestuous Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, its own hazy, neo-psychedelic sound has evolved well beyond the antics of one unpredictable frontman, a self-described "psychic worm" who claims to hear "orchestrally," reads voraciously, pushes friendships to the limit and, at the age of 36, seems a likely enough candidate for a savior complex.
Traveling by van with his disciples somewhere outside of Tallahassee, Florida, Newcombe comes across as blunt and tangent-prone through a cell-phone signal that, fittingly enough, fades in and out. The middle child born to a middle-class family in SoCal's Newport Beach (his father was a career Navy man), the erratic rocker chatters as much about pop celebrity and politics as he does about his own music. When the conversation turns to heroes, a recurring theme throughout a body of work that spans nine albums, Newcombe, a reformed heroin addict, has the green light to rant -- and he's racing.
"If people want to talk shit about me fighting, drinking, doing drugs, whatever, I don't give a shit," Newcombe says. "Because look at my nation's heroes! Look at the covers of fuckin' Walt-Disney-owned Rolling Stone. There's Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson. I don't care if I'm not in the paper because I don't know that Chicken of the Sea isn't chicken. They're all Mouseketeers. What the fuck is goin' on in our country? Look at our economy. Nobody lives like that -- except crooks, you know.
"Or Paris Hilton," he continues. "Don't you think that if you were a fucking millionaire-heiress teenager, that if you're gonna make a porno, you could have made a higher-quality one? What a joke! What a loser! She's still on Fox, so you can literally have some big pigs fucking the shit out of you all over the Internet and still be on TV!
"Those aren't my heroes," Newcombe continues. "But people need heroes more than ever now because we're so far removed from a natural-type existence. We've got Doppler radar to warn that the tornado is coming. And you've got insurance to help rebuild your house, and you'll hire Mexicans to do the work for you. You know it's not really an Amish situation, where your house blows down, and if you're not killed, everyone in your community's helping each other. But the bottom line is, people need heroes to live vicariously because they need to insulate and protect themselves from reality. Because most people don't have the necessary courage of their convictions to stand up and get out in the elements and accomplish something."
Who, then, in Newcombe's estimation, deserves any laurels?
"I think Johnny Cash was a hero," he asserts. "He had his ups and downs, but he continued to do what he was doing until the day he died and held on to his spiritual beliefs and was a family man. Chuck D's most definitely a hero. He's maintained his integrity when he had all the resources in the world in popularity and the public pulpit. I don't think he's that interested in the business to prostitute himself endlessly. You can't say that about everybody. Look at Rick Rubin: He talked a dying Johnny Cash into filming a video in a shut-down museum to another crappy Trent Reznor song about a kingdom of filth or whatever. It's like draggin' an old man through the muck."
Not afraid to wallow in his own mire, Newcombe certainly gravitates toward dark subject matter -- best demonstrated, perhaps, by the ominous wordplay in the name of his band. Fusing together the (arguably) first martyr of rock and roll with a charismatic madman who led 914 people to their death in the steamy jungles of Guyana goes beyond mere cleverness. It perfectly encapsulates the hazardous link between transcendence and excess -- whether one's personal devotion leads to salvation through cyanide-laced Kool-Aid or to emulating the mystical catalyst behind some of the world's most beloved "devil music."