By Sarah Bennett
By Adam Lovinus
By Jena Ardell
By Nate Jackson
By Gustavo Arellano
By Nick Keppler
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By Alex Distefano
In the early 1980s, Newcombe sang for a local punk group, Chronic Disorder. Sjobeck's younger brother, Michael, who became friends with Newcombe in elementary school, noticed the unusual sway Newcombe had over the band. "He was fairly intense," Michael Sjobeck says. "He was a dictator in the band. He could be a dick, but he also had a childlike sense of wonder."
After Chronic Disorder broke up, Newcombe's grandparents bought him a keyboard. "His mom didn't have any money," Michael Sjobeck reasons. "He lived in a bad neighborhood with gangs all around. And his mom was mean to him, calling the cops on him and kicking him out. I guess she had good reasons to do that, when he'd play music and have people over, but she called the police on him a few times to have him removed. Friends would have to sneak back and collect his stuff."
When his mom wouldn't allow him to stay at home, Newcombe would practice his music at the Sjobecks' house. "He would sit in my garage for hours," Nick Sjobeck says. "That's how we started Electric Cool Aide. Tony was singing and playing keyboards. We got Nate Shaw playing guitar and this guy Paulie Medina playing drums and then Jamie Reidling took over in the end of 1985. We played at parties all over the Back Bay."
By then, Newcombe had dropped out of high school. He didn't work, except for a summer job he and Nick Sjobeck held doing maintenance at the Newport Channel Inn for several weeks in 1985. All his energy went into practicing his music and promoting the band. Newcombe designed an image for the band that depicted a woman's gaping mouth. Inside, an acid pill could be seen dissolving on her tongue. Other posters featured photographs of leering mental patients beneath the band's name and the words "Paid for by the happy people who make your dreams come true."
"Tony was interesting to us as a visual artist," says Shaw. "He was gifted with visual imagery. He was always at Kinko's making fliers all day for shows that didn't exist. He sort of reminded me of that young Hitler in the movie Max. He had all these large-scale conceptual ideas that nobody paid attention to. Mind you, most of the time we wanted to strangle him to death, because he was a lot to take in."
A favorite memory is how Newcombe used to stand on the sidewalk, his hands marked with cigarette burns that he deliberately put there to look punk rock, a lacquered pigeon foot hanging from his pierced ear, staring at a girl on a bench. He'd insist that he could make the girl scratch her nose just by concentrating on the image of it happening. They insist he wasn't joking, that he truly believed he possessed the power of mind control. The strangest part is that, inevitably—sometimes within 30 seconds, never more than a few minutes—the girl would scratch her nose.
Instances like this tended to confirm Newcombe's claim that he could mesmerize people without them realizing it—and explains why so many people believed and continue to believe that he is a genius.
"He was hyper-intelligent with an attention deficit bordering on mental illness," summarizes Shaw, "and we figured, 'Let's get this guy in a fronting position in a band and let him go with it.'"
As frequently as possible—basically, whenever his mother was away—Electric Cool Aide would hang out in Newcombe's garage. "We would be locked in there and not come out for a day or two at a time playing stupid songs and working on posters," says Shaw. "It would turn into a party: setting up equipment, stealing a keg or a nitrous tank."
After a few months, Electric Cool Aide began playing shows at clubs like the Cuckoo's Nest, Safari Sam's and Spaz in Huntington Beach. But Newcombe would often alienate the audience before they even had a chance to perform. "It was always the same diatribe that if you didn't believe it, there was some kind of punitive outcome," says Shaw. "'We have more ideas in our pinkie finger than in the entire Capitol Records building! You don't even fucking know! We're going to fucking start a revolution and light the world on fire and you're going to go down in history as being one of the people that didn't get it!'"
It didn't take long for Newcombe's personality to alienate the rest of the band. "I suspect it's always been the same scenario that's played out over and over in his life," says Shaw. "He becomes so manic in his ideas that it gets to a point where he starts to sound like a fragmented vegetable. And it starts to turn a bit violent when he gets frustrated."
Increasingly, Newcombe would complain that the rest of the band, all of whom were still in school or who had jobs, weren't dedicated. "He was in one of his manic states at a band practice one night and said some really mean things and we were sick of dealing with it on a daily basis," Shaw says. That night, Shaw was on the receiving end. When Newcombe violently shoved Shaw, Nick Sjobeck punched him in the face, temporarily knocking him unconscious. "It wasn't a big deal," Shaw says. "We remained friends. But that was the end of him working for us."