"Get Out of My Face and I'll Play Your Favorite Song"
Of the many reasons why rock music of the past 20 years has become bankrupt paramount would have to be the extreme codification of the genre, leaving us with what amounts to little more than a 5th or 6th generation by numbers reiteration of what came before. Empty gestures displaced from their original soul and inspiration. A ritual with no release. A faded copy of something that was once a technicolor burst of complete abandon, a splatter of Pollock's paint on the gray faade of the 50's. The original inspiration of rock n' roll, in my humble, is that sudden impulse of madness and abandon arising seemingly from nowhere. To paraphrase a line from Kerouac's fantasy take on the history of Bop "a scream uninhibited that says do anything you want". It's an embracing and celebration of randomness and chaos that you can hear so clearly in those mad wailing sax solos of 50's jump and r&b. It's the rapture of being overcome by the Holy Ghost and risking in the process madness, losing control. It's entering the moment as completely as possible with no thought for consequences, which of course is why the whole field is littered with casualties. Unfortunately we've gotten things ass backwards celebrating and romanticizing the often tragic consequences rather than the beauty of the spirit of the original impulse.
Of course the fact that it all goes hand in hand, that it is irreversably linked, is part of the appeal. Rock n' Roll in its best moments has always been a jumble of contradictions. Why not, there's so many different things that we can be. There should be a feeling of limitless possibilities, that no matter how true something might feel, we may be embracing the opposite or even something beyond the apparently false dichotomy tomorrow or sooner (which just sets up another structure to transcend, every answer yielding yet another question). So really, with all this in mind, its not that surprising that last night I witnessed this increasingly rare impulse in a band that is so steeped in the tradition and history of the rock that in theory they shouldn't be able to raise themselves or their audience above it.
I'm speaking of the Brianjonestown Massacre. A band that some believe to be hopelessly corny, laughable even. At times they are, and in a way they seem to know this and celebrate it as part of a larger truth, and consequently when they really get it together they transcend these facts. In the end it just may be all these contradictions which makes up a large part of their appeal. Last night their leader Anton Alfred Newcombe indulged in some of the most willfully destructive audience provocation that I've ever seen. It was about as far from subtle as one can get but consequently for about and hour and a half I stood almost slack jawed wondering what the hell would happen next, all the while feeling gloriously alive. Oh and I laughed a lot.
Things got off to a rocky start almost immediately. They seemed to take forever to set up, and once they got up there Anton right off started complaining about the sound and making little jabs at the audience like "Do y'all know who Roky Erickson is?". Certainly a case can be made that this guy was simply a self indulgent asshole. But I didn't feel offended, the gesture seemed so general that it was hard, for me at least, to take offense (there was much heckling, though most of it embarassingly unoriginal and masterfully thrown back by Anton). I for one appreciated that he was more than ready to interact with the audience sans any bullshit showbiz pretense. He earned his right to be up there by openly challenging the audience to take the stage from him if they thought they could do it better. A healthy attitude that would have made old Lester Bangs proud (see his essential "Of Pop and Pies and Fun" piece on the Stooges). I found the whole night very cathartic and for the most part the band sounded great. But a large part of the entertainment was taking place in the rants between songs.
Anton's drunken confusion (he let the cat out of the bag early that he was three sheets to the wind) and rampant disgruntlement wasn't just directed at the audience but also his bandmates, who initially seemed bemused by his behavior. After almost every song he would berate someone, band member, audience member, soundman, himself, it did not matter, no one was safe. He was continually retuning between every song and complaining about the sound. The absurdity of a band of three guitarists with just one tuner between them! He yelled at his guitarist to move his amp, put down his Rickenbacker, pick up a different guitar, turn up, turn down, stop smoking pot etc.. Eventually one of the guitarist left the stage and did not return, apparently as disgusted with the proceedings as many of the audience members. Its important to note that most people who rather vocally and witlessly expressed resentment about Anton's behavior still stuck around to see what might happen next. See, even though they might not have gotten what was going on, they knew they were seeing something that didn't happen too often anymore.
And the lanky long haired guitarist abandoning the disintegration on stage (to smoke a joint with an old hippie) was just really the beginning of things getting interesting. Apparently there was some friction between the local openers Velocette and the Brianjonestown Massacre which came to a head when the drummer from Velocette went to the front of the stage to confront Anton about his attitude. Anton, to his credit, gave the guy a mic to say his piece and offered in response everything from the reasonable "Look I can just stand here and argue with you or you can let me tune and play more rock n' roll for the people" to the hilarious "o.k. o.k. just get out of my face and let me tune and I'll play your favorite song". Eventually Anton abandoned his guitar to feedback and went back to the drum set to pound along with his drummer on the bass tom and cymbals. The remaining band members picked up a loose jam that after a few minutes started to sound uncannily like Soul Desert by Can. This turned out to be my favorite song of the evening. My one regret is that I didn't get on stage myself at this point and do my best Malcom Mooney impersonation.
However, I did play more than a small part in the next stage of chaos which ensued. My bandmate and local man about town, Bradley Banks, had introduced me early in the night to a strange and obviously intoxicated black denim and leather clad couple whose names I do not recall. One of the first things out of their mouths after our introduction was whether or not I wanted any Xanax or Valium, which gives you some idea of where their heads were at that night. So as things continued to get more hectic onstage I half jokingly suggested that the couple offer the band some of their downers as they sure seemed like they could use it.
Only a few minutes later the female half of the pair was stumbling up on stage (shades of Altamont). Barely able to stand she pursued Anton round the stage attempting to push a Valium in his mouth, after completing this task, she went after the remaining guitarist, with this final success she collapsed to her knees fumbling with pill bottle and purse, before being escorted from the stage by bouncers (all that was missing was some out of control Hell's Angels for the makings of our own mini Altamont). Meanwhile the members of Vellocete, particularly the drummer were still front and center trying to settle their score with Anton. I'm not clear on exactly what the beef was, but apparently in addition to Anton's general obnoxiousness there was a perceived direct slight. This finally came to a head and it appeared for a minute like the fight we had all been expecting was gonna happen. Anton started at the guy, looking at first like he might clock him with the beer bottle in his hand, the crowd scurried back a few feet, but the clubs bouncers separated the two before anything ugly could take place. Then we hear over the speakers from the soundman, "that's it, shows over, its 2 o-clock, go home".
Everyone was more than a little confused and wound up at this point and it took a while for us to shuffle out the door. I took this opportunity to chat briefly with the cat selling merchandise for the band, whose earlier compliment of my Soft Boys button had endeared him to me. I expressed my appreciation and wonder for the chaotic nature of the show and asked hesitantly "Is it possible to actually sit down and have a conversation with Anton?". He smiled sort of shaking his head and answered "I try man, every night, I try." His parting words seemed to sum things up nicely, "I hope we make it to Houston".
© William Crain 2002