I saw The Brian Jonestown Massacre live some 6-8 times from 1998-2005, and each time was a fascinating experience. On any given night you might hear some great psychedelic music, you might get a long night of inter-band fights and rants, or some combination of the two. No matter the outcome, you were always assured of one thing – something you saw or heard at the show would stick in your memory for a long time. The band – a loose and ever-evolving conglomerate of spaced-out loons centered around Anton Newcombe – seemed tailor-made for some kind of biographical accounting. Ondi Timoner’s 2004 documentary Dig! told their story up until that point, but it focused too heavily on the more sensationalistic aspects of the band, minimizing the hard work and artistic foresight that made them worth caring about in the first place. Keep Music Evil carries the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s story through to the modern day, and attempts to right some of Dig!’s historical wrongs by painting a more well-rounded portrait of the band’s activities and musical output.
I’ll give author Jesse Valencia this – he put a lot of time and effort into this book, having spent almost a decade gathering and collating information from 125 people in, and connected to, the band, even using my interview with Anton for a brief quip on the recording of Thank God For Mental Illness. That Anton Newcombe didn’t contribute directly to the book is unfortunate, but hardly a stake in its heart. Dave Simpson was able to write The Fallen, a great book on The Fall – a band whose story has some obvious parallels with the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s – without Mark E. Smith’s input; and besides, Anton’s accounting of his past is usually driven by egotistic hyperbole rather than historical accuracies and insights, so it’s no great loss. The real issue with Keep Music Evil is simple – Valencia is the wrong “writer” for this story. The word “writer” is in parentheses because the book has so many mistakes, formatting issues, poorly structured sentences, and incorrect word choices that it’s hard for me to include Valencia in the same professional umbrella as Kurt Vonnegut. Focusing on the one slice of the book that takes place in New York – where I can fact-check Valencia – and a litany of mistakes are uncovered. Valencia refers to a show with Dead Meadow at The Mercury Lounge – it took place at The Bowery Ballroom. Valencia further twists the knife in the Bowery Ballroom’s back by referring to it as being in Brooklyn (it’s in Manhattan). He also refers to an apartment in Manhattan on 1st Avenue and Avenue A, which is logistically impossible since they run parallel to each other. None of these errors are terribly important, but they make me wonder just what other mistakes are out there masquerading as facts. There’s also times when Valencia’s prose-work is just straight up annoying, like when he refers to Mara Keagle’s vocals on “Anemone” as “like mercury crawling down the tip of a ballistic missile”. I have no idea what that description is meant to convey, and I bet he doesn’t either. Even if I could forgive all the mistakes and bad writing (did anyone actually copy-edit this book?) the story of The Brian Jonestown Massacre is just too vast, with too many people shifting in and out of the band’s orbit for Valencia ‘s meager talents to herd the long list of characters and events into an organized and coherent whole.
In the prologue, Valencia mentions that he first heard The Brian Jonestown Massacre in 2008 after taking four hits of acid. Based on the book he’s written, maybe he should have stopped at three.