Not Fade Away

The Rise and Fall and Rise (Again) of OCs Anton Newcombe

Michael Sjobeck says that Newcombe would have eventually dropped out of the band, even if he hadn't been kicked out. "Electric Cool Aide wanted to go in a more rock direction and Anton was more into Depeche Mode and bands like that," he says. "He wanted to go in a different direction. That's also when he started getting interested in 1960s music."


Photo by Jack Gould
Photo by Jack Gould
Newcombe (right with pigeon foot earring) and Nick Sjobeck in OC, early 1980s. Photo courtesy of Michael Sjobeck
Newcombe (right with pigeon foot earring) and Nick Sjobeck in OC, early 1980s. Photo courtesy of Michael Sjobeck

Newcombe soon formed another short-lived band, Homeland, and at age 17 he moved to San Francisco as his interest in psychedelic rock intensified. Nate Shaw did his best to keep in touch, but it wasn't easy. "He had no phone number, so there was no way to call him," says Shaw. "I'd just drive down Haight Street and sure enough, Tony would ride up on a bicycle with no tires and once again, he'd be telling you, 'Dude, you don't even know, you guys are so fucking lame, we're starting a revolution here. It's going to make Andy Warhol look like a picnic.' And you'd go to whatever house he was staying at and there were all these weird instruments and he had 116 songs that all sounded the same."

In 1991, Newcombe persuaded Michael Sjobeck, who was never in the band, to join him in San Francisco. "He was always bouncing around, never paying rent and never having a job, but somehow he managed to get by," Sjobeck says. "He invited me to stay with him at his girlfriend's, and I was sleeping in their bed with four or five other people. There would always be incense burning around the clock and sitars lying nearby."

When he wasn't working on music, Newcombe was scouring the city for musicians for the band that would become Brian Jonestown Massacre. In Newcombe's telling, he originally planned to call the band Blur, but found out there was already a British group by that name. Michael Sjobeck says he witnessed the creation of the name Newcombe ultimately chose—it came from a street flutist Newcombe met in Haight-Ashbury. The flutist was named Brian, Sjobeck says, and once, as a joke, Newcombe called him Brian Jones.

"The first time he did that, Brian answered, 'Town Massacre,'" Sjobeck recalls. "A light bulb went off. The next day there were probably Brian Jonestown Massacre fliers all over the place. He never wanted to make money. He just wanted to express himself and create art."

Sjobeck spent a few months in San Francisco before he grew weary of Newcombe's communal lifestyle, but it was long enough to teach Newcombe how to play guitar. "I taught him his first guitar chords and by the time I left, he was a better guitarist than me and I had played six years," marvels Sjobeck, who returned to San Francisco a year later to find Newcombe playing gigs around the city. "Even though his guitar was constantly out of tune, he was playing viciously. He had come a long way. I saw half a dozen shows in the next few years. Every other one was brilliant and the ones that weren't were chaos."

By 1997, Newcombe's father had committed suicide and Newcombe was quickly becoming addicted to heroin. Brian Jonestown Massacre was on the verge of breaking up. At the height of his addiction, Newcombe asked Michael Sjobeck to help him quit the drug. "He was shooting up every 20 minutes, or at least every hour on the hour," he says. "It was sick. He looked emaciated and sickly pale, but he was still creating music and writing love songs because his heart was hurt from a girl. He got totally clean within three months but three years later he was fucked up again."

Shaw says he wasn't surprised when he started hearing of Newcombe's relapse into drug use. "I was disappointed to hear that he fell back into his old patterns and ended up ultimately fucking it all up, which is the story of Tony Newcombe to me. He has these huge ambitions and artistic visions and gets so many people fired up about his ideas. And when people finally catch up to his ideas, whether he's bored or afraid of success or failure, he fucks it all up. But I'll tell you this: I don't think the world will ever see the day when Tony Newcombe runs out of ideas."

Shaw also saw Brian Jonestown Massacre play two or three times in the Bay Area. "There were fights onstage and a lot of banter with the audience. I was pretty let down by the musical experience," he says. "It was like an interpretation of what rock & roll music is supposed to be, filtered through his manic, crazy, convoluted logic."

Nick Sjobeck says he's never been a fan of Brian Jonestown Massacre. "When I hear the songs, I hear him singing out of key and hiding that he can't sing well with a lot of effects," Sjobeck says. "I was surprised that he has convinced people he's really talented when really he had to do three times more work than the average person to get there. I admire him for that, because he's nonstop. He's not a genius whatsoever—just in the aspect that he can make people believe that he's an insane musician or completely insane. It blows my mind that famous people whose opinions I value think he's a genius."

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