IN MY ROOM
Anton Newcombe's climb to the heights from which he would leap to mainstream-career destruction began in the cluttered garage of the even-more-cluttered, one-story cottage where Newcombe grew up on Costa Mesa's gritty, working-class west side. His grandparents lived in a nice house in an unincorporated area near Newport Beach's Upper Back Bay, but Newcombe lived in his mom's garage—according to his friends, it was the only part of the house that wasn't stacked full of furniture, newspapers and trash. It was also where Electric Cool Aide used to practice.
Newcombe and friends spent countless unsupervised hours playing music, getting drunk, tripping out on acid and occasionally huffing Freon from a refrigerator. It's an era that Newcombe seems to have fondly recalled in his song “Hyperventilation,” a droning, tripped-out track with a chorus that goes: “In my room! In my room! In my room! Sniffing glue! Sniffing glue! More than you!”
Newcombe's former band mates recall him as an inspired visionary with little musical talent and a surfeit of creative energy whose tendency towards bullying tirades earned him the nickname “Hitler.” They say he didn't leave the band so much as he was kicked out after he physically attacked one of the other members. And they say Newcombe is mistelling the story of Mark McGrath, too—that McGrath was never a member of Electric Cool Aide, but rather just a fan who begged for an opportunity to audition and wasn't invited back.
But Newcombe's mind has been something of a playground from the get-go, says Jamie Reidling, Electric Cool Aide's former drummer, who met Newcombe in the second grade.
“He was a Boy Scout and I was a little surfer kid,” says Reidling, who went on to become a founding member of OC's Cadillac Tramps, and is now a member of two Duane Peters bands, die Hunns and U.S. Bombs. “He was weird at a young age. He was the kid that always brought little animals to school in his Boy Scout uniform.”
Like the rest of the band, Reidling refers to Newcombe not as “Anton”—a name Newcombe seems to have invented after he moved to San Francisco—but as “Tony,” his original nickname. Reidling says he and Newcombe became friends because they were the only punk rock kids in their school and were constant targets for bullying by older kids.
“I got my ass kicked and so did Tony,” he says. “It was tough. You had all these little hippie kids who are probably in prison now who would beat you up, and if you were a punk rock kid you didn't have too many places to hang out. We hung out in his garage, getting drunk.”
As for Newcombe's family life?
“I never met his dad,” Reidling says. “His mom never left the house. I saw her twice, I think. You could tell it wasn't the greatest family life. He had no parental supervision whatsoever. He always had this little psychotic switch in him, and that's why we used to call him 'Hitler'—how he always got people to buy into him. He had absolutely no talent, whatsoever. But he's very energetic and has this persona that you want to see what he's doing. He really can't sing or play an instrument but he can get people to come and pay attention to him.”
Electric Cool Aide guitarist Nate Shaw, who's also a member of die Hunns and U.S. Bombs, met Newcombe in grade school in Costa Mesa. “He was in eighth grade and I was in sixth,” he says. “He got me in so much trouble I think I ended up getting suspended from school for disrupting classrooms. Tony always had a gift for fucking with people, and the teachers always kind of played right into his plan. I remember him fucking with a math teacher until the guy broke down and cried.”
The first time Shaw visited Newcombe's home was unforgettable. “He was always into Nazi mind control books, Charles Manson and cults,” Shaw says. “His bedroom consisted of a garage filled with all these yellow-paged books. The first time I went there, Tony and some guys had taken the Freon tank out of an old refrigerator unit and had attached some hoses to it in hookah fashion. We sat there sucking Freon, breathing that shit until we'd see red and start talking about music.”
Newcombe's mother had an old upright parlor piano in her house. “Tony started playing piano pretty young,” Shaw says. “He was a terrible piano player, and he would be in my parents' house playing his terrible piano compositions, and my parents got a kick out of him. At the time it sounded terrible and a waste of energy, but I have to give him credit, he was tenacious as hell.”
Nick Sjobeck, Electric Cool Aide's bassist, also met Newcombe in junior high. They used to cut the feet off dead pigeons, cover them with lacquer and fashion them into earrings. “The cops hated us,” Sjobeck says. “We'd get arrested for truancy almost every weekend. Tony and his mom had a weird relationship. He was distant from her; she was always gone. I only talked to her once or twice.”
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.”
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.”
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 N 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.”
SOME PEOPLE BOUGHT IT
Anton Newcombe talks with me for three hours, and not once does he act insane. He exhibits a soft-spoken, inquisitive personality and asks me as many questions as I ask him. We discuss everything from rumors of an Orange County terrorist cell and the war in Iraq to conspiracy talk show host Art Bell and avant-garde Dutch artists. In one sentence, he leaps from an analysis of the War on Terror to a discussion of a scene in Conan the Barbarian when the high priest of a snake cult inspires his adherents to jump to their deaths by snapping his finger.
“Right now our government is trying to rile up anyone and take them out,” he says. “The people who really aren't down with us are Wahabbis in Pakistan, like in Conan, where the guy claps his hands and they jump off the mountain one by one. We cannot win. They could do this all day.”
Halfway through our conversation, Newcombe claims that most of the antics displayed in the movie DiG! were either genuine personality conflicts within his band or stunts aimed at garnering publicity. He says he was “just joking around” when he claimed that the ghost of Brian Jones visited him in the studio and told him that he was murdered by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. “It was a funny way I could say these people killed this person and ripped off his money and his band and his girlfriend,” he says. “I'm not really saying it, but saying it was said to me, because it is libel.”
Newcombe says he feels betrayed by the way director Ondi Timoner portrayed him in DiG! He watched an early version of the film, and hasn't spoken to her since. “Supposedly they had 14,998 hours of footage, but all they used were scenes of arguments and fights,” he says. “I guess some people bought it. It was like watching a train wreck. But I never ever said, 'That show at the Viper—wow that was really fucked up last night could you delete that?' Not once. It's all bullshit. We played so many more shows than anybody knows. We played a billion fucking shows and did really fucking well.”
Newcombe adds that he's been clean for seven years and has rekindled his friendship with most of the original lineup of Brian Jonestown Massacre. He mentions that guitarist Jeff Davies has rejoined the band and Joel Gion and Matt Hollywood have recently appeared with him onstage for performances. Newcombe also says he's still friends with the Dandy Warhols' Courtney Taylor. “We've been friends for a long time,” he says. He says that when he sent the Warhols shotgun shells that it was a joke he cleared with the band's publicity agent beforehand. “In the movie, they act all shocked about that, 'Anton wants to kill us!'” he says. “That's bullshit. I played on their next album—my name's on it. So that's just complete bullshit.”
When I ask whether all the attention on his band from Timoner's film has led to any new opportunities, Newcombe looks at me like I'm nuts.
“I think people expect I'd be very difficult to work with, and it wouldn't be worth their trouble,” he says. “It's good. I'm not really into all that junk. It's not my thing. . . . When I grew up, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I had to create my own scene, my own environment. A lot of people can't say what they want in life, and I'm the exact opposite of that. I'll make another record if I want to make another record. And if people want to check it out, okay.
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).