The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

My Life With the Brians: In praise of Brian Wilson and the Brian Jonestown Massacre

Written by: Russell Davidson, CC2K Sports Editor

Image It’s not often music truly blows me away. I mean, I love all kinds of bands, all kinds of music (except classical and jazz – yuck!), but when someone or some group hits you dead center, you take notice. I’ve been through all the usual phases, Beatles, first, then the Stones, the Who, the Kinks, a touch of Yes, a dash of ELO, then on to Neil Young and the Byrds to the Clash and the Jam to the Smiths and REM to the Stone Roses and the Strokes and on and on it goes. But none have affected me as much as The Beach Boys, with Brian Wilson at the helm, and the Brian Jonestown Massacre, with Anton Newcombe front and center. I’d even go as far to say that Wilson and Newcombe are the two best songwriters this country has ever produced, beating out Lou Reed, John Fogerty, the REM boys, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, even old-timers like Ira Gershwin and Cole Porter and anyone else you can think of. I spent two years solid listening to literally nothing else other than the Beach Boys, at least 20 albums worth of music, got so into it I was reading all the books about them I could find and really digging it, the musical layers, the complexity, even in such seemingly simple songs as “Catch a Wave.” Eventually I’d heard it all, and other music crept in. But it was a great run.

Brian Wilson is the best tunesmith this country has ever produced, I cry!

Then I run into the Brian Jonestown Massacre. I’d given them a try when Dig!, the documentary about the BJM (and the Dandy Warhols) came out, but didn’t really like them. Two years go by, I see Dig! again, and this time I understand it. I get it. So it’s been a year, and counting, of nothing but the BJM. When I find something exceptional I like to sink my teeth into it, to mine it’s essence. Like Wilson’s stuff, Newcombe’s music amazes, in fact requires repeated listenings, due to the depth of the songs. Challenging, in a good way. Stellar shit.

Brian Wilson and Anton Newcombe are the greatest American songwriters of all time!

Let’s talk about Brian Wilson first. Most are familiar with his story, abusive father, starts band with two brothers, a cousin and a friend, glorious music follows, as does in-fighting, drugs, madness, years in bed, lawsuits, nothing unusual. But let’s concentrate on the music, ok?

ImageThe essence of beautiful music is, I think, melody and harmony. All these instruments and voices and such brought together for a common purpose, a uniting, a synergy, an ART. No one did it better than BW. His early stuff was simpler, surely, than his later work but you could still see the, dare I say it, genius. There’s just a feeling that goes over you when five guys are singing in perfect togetherness, and not just singing, but singing a great song. “Don’t Worry Baby,” is so good it gives you chills. BW had a knack for arrangement, certainly, but also for pure, wondrous melody. Even his crappy 80’s and 90’s output had it. But in his golden run of the mid-60’s to mid-70’s, he was incomparable. Check out the magic! “I Get Around.” “Surfer Girl.” “Shut Down.” “Farmer’s Daughter.” “Wouldn’t it be Nice.” “Surf’s Up.” “When I Grow Up.” “Good Timin’.” “Trader.” Hell, even the Beatles were in awe of BW, and we all know how “Sgt. Peppers” was just their version of Wilson’s “Pet Sounds.” And when those lads from Liverpool were washed up and done, BW was still kicking out tremendous songs, and believe me, I’ve heard them all.

But then who comes down the pike, Anton Newcombe, and his band, the Brian Jonestown Massacre!

These guys are sure harder to get into than the Beach Boys, but when you eventually feel it, YOW. Once again, what we have here is, dare I say it, a genius at songwriting and arrangement. Anton, like BW, is heavy on the production, layered, layered, layered. You could spend months dissecting the songs of the Brian Jonestown Massacre. Though not as instantly accessible as the Beach Boys stuff, Anton’s music is just as gorgeous, just as inspiring. Listen to songs like “Anenome,” “Lantern,” “Going to Hell,” “Spacegirl,” “Whoever You Are,” “That Girl Suicide,” “Monkey Powder,” and tell me the guy’s not brilliant. Yeah, he’s had all sorts of melodrama with band members leaving and record labels dumping him and fistfights on stage, but through it all, there’s over 10 albums of top-notch rock-n-roll. And like BW, Anton is experimental as well as traditional, straight up as well as far out. These two can write perfect pop songs. They can write weird ditties. They can write classical. They can do it all.

But here’s the strange part. Brian Wilson is about as well-known as you can get. All sorts of musicians past and present have name-checked him as an influence, as a guiding light. I’m NUTS for Brian Wilson, but how ‘bout some love for Anton, whom most have never even heard of? As anyone who saw “Dig!” would know, Anton is a bit abrasive, a bit of a nut, but hey, look at the music! Anton needs to be championed. I’m here to do it.

Both BW and Anton took existing music and blended it, making their own unique sound. Both were influenced by all the right people. Both took music in a new direction. Both are wizards in the studio. Both are National Treasures. Yeah, Brian Wilson and Anton Newcombe are the best songwriters this country has ever seen. And both are still putting out music, the BJM with a new record this year (great stuff, but demands work of the listener), and BW with a new cd coming out this summer. Go see these guys live, if you can. Buy ALL their records. The time to appreciate is now.