What Anton Newcombe Knows Or Doesn’t Know About Elliott Smith’s Death
The Brian Jonestown Massacre is on tour again and will play a few dates in Los Angeles next month. May be this is why I was thinking about their frontman Anton Newcombe this week, but I was more concerned about what he told me 11 years ago, than about his music. I was re-reading old interviews.
‘What, if push comes to shove is your all time favorite album?’ … ‘Tough question, but you know I love the good fight. I love side two of Simon & Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence. And there’s Rubber Soul, Revolver, Pet Sounds, The Bee Gees’ First….. I’ll quit fucking off and say Scott 3 by Scott Walker. Or Harry Smith’s Folkways stuff……. OK, Either/OR and XO by Elliott Smith. He was among my very best friends, I think of him everyday, with every breath I take.’
That was Anton Newcombe in a 2005 interview published in Mojo magazine. I am not sure about the last part since Anton has always had a tendency to exaggerate things. I nave no doubt he knew Elliott of course, but ‘among my very best friends’? This is left to be seen.
First, you have to know that Anton is a wild and crazy character, well-known for his outbursts of anger on stage and his violent behavior. He has fired tons of musicians, basically everyone who has ever played with him, and he is also well known for slamming other musicians. Here are a few examples of some of his boastings on Clapton and Dylan: ‘People talk about Eric Clapton. What has he ever done except throw his baby off a fuckin’ ledge and write a song about it?’ …’Which musician, other than yourself, have you ever wanted to be?’… ‘Bob Dylan but with talent.’ And this is just a sample, Noel Gallagher is a sweetheart compared to Anton.
If you have seen the documentary Dig!, you know what I am talking about. Anton was mad as hell when the movie was released and he even insulted Ondi Timoner (the director) in an interview: ‘She is a fucking greedy cunt, a liar and I wouldn’t piss on her if she was on fire. In fact, I wouldn’t weep if her and her ilk were hit by an asteroid.’
I don’t know where is the truth in the Anton Newcombe myth, but to have seen the BJM live a few times during Anton’s bad years, I can say there was always some kind of drama at one point, some kind of crazy ranting from Anton’s part on how one of the musicians was a fucking looser, or worst… the show would turn into an emotional meltdown, and Anton would become a sad parody of himself. To summarize, he is truly a charming guy with a perverse charisma.
Anyway, a few years ago, when reading some of his comment on Elliott Smith shortly after his passing, I decided to contact him in the hope of getting an interview. At that time, we were looking to interview musicians who had admitted that Elliott’s music had made an impact in their life. I had an interesting exchange with Anton Newcombe. To my surprise, he answered to my email on May 28th 2005, and I will simply recopy his emails, typos included:
‘i would be more than happy to provide factual insite into my friends great work. here’s the thing if it seems to me that this is a good project i may be able to provide access to some people that were very close to him and know the truth. provided they wish to talk and as i implyed,you are on the up and up.
keep in mind i have been misled by movie makers.
anton alfred newcombe’
It was very promising, but there was obviously a very intriguing part in his answer, this part: ‘I may be able to provide access to some people that were very close to him and know the truth.’ Keep in mind I had not mentioned the mysterious circumstances and the whole controversy surrounding Elliott’s death in my email, I had just presented the project as an attempt to see Elliott’s influence on other musicians. So what was the truth he was talking about? Then I wrote to Anton again to see when he was available and I got this quick note early June 2005:
‘how do we move forward?’
Then nothing happened for months, despite me saying we would be available anytime. I wrote to him again on October 23rd 2005 and he replied this time, with a complete different tone:
‘I live in nyc.ihave to tell you that if you think you will just dance on up to. mysel or friends,you will fial.
I don,t know you and you donT seem to have youR shit together. now excuse me. as I am on my way to hong kong. I really also believe the way you contacted me to be selfish.
I don’t know if Anton was on something that day, but I didn’t change a comma! So what can be said beside the fact that he seemed to have his own way of using the keyboard? Why did he back up suddenly? I knew this guy was a nutcase, but he had his moments.
But if you dig (no pun intended) into Anton’s past, you find a lot of controversy and a few fights, in particular this incident during a 2008 BJM gig in London. Anton got arrested for an alleged stabbing of Frankie Emerson, a member of his own band. The two men began rowing on stage when Emerson swung a microphone and broke it. Anton responded furiously, saying Emerson would have to pay for its replacement, then, some fight happened backstage. Anton was however later released without charge. The band released a statement later on, denying all claims that Newcombe had stabbed Emerson and blaming the injuries on ‘glass splinters and horseplay. ’ How convenient! And a bit strange when you know that Anton had called for an end to London’s recent knife crime during this same show,… it is also very weird when you know that Anton has admitted to have ‘had a serious fight that involved a hammer and a knife’ with other bandmate Matt Hollywood, in an interview with the Guardian. Was it a habit?
Anton is now 48, he has moved to Berlin and has considerably calmed down, the last BJM show I have seen was so normal, I could not believe it.
But a few years ago, Anton may have had ‘fun’ with knives if I believe the media, and it’s always interesting to know he was regarding Jennifer Chiba as a friend. In this interview with WFMU, conducted just a few days after Elliott’s death, Anton talks about his friend’s death although it appears it was mostly close to Chiba. ‘He was living with my best friend ever’, Anton says when talking about the circumstances of Elliott’s death, ‘I don’t know the details’ he also adds before talking about the ravage of drug addiction. Did Anton know at the time of the interview that Elliott was not on drugs when he died? Did his friendship with Chiba was drug related, as we can presume? Anton has a long history with heroin addiction, which was well documented in Timoner’s documentary Dig!
I may never know what he tried to tell me when he wrote ‘i may be able to provide access to some people that were very close to him and know the truth. provided they wish to talk and as i implyed,you are on the up and up.’… It may not have been related to Elliott’s death, but may be he already knew more about the details in 2005, may be people had started to talk, and may be he was hearing unpleasant things about ‘his best friend ever’? Difficult to know for sure but he is again one of these people who will never talk about what he knows.