Review: Brian Jonestown Massacre @ The Forum

29 June 2018

Content warning: sexual assault

A distinct sense of unease lingered over the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s Melbourne gig on Thursday night. Anton Newcombe’s senseless, tactless retort to a screaming fan at a Sydney performance earlier in the week saw him proclaim: “Your mum probably screamed like that when she was being raped and that’s how you were born.” It was a particularly jarring comment, from a performer known for his onstage antics, in the same week an act of sickening violence was committed against young Australian woman, Eurydice Dixon.

I was introduced to the Brian Jonestown Massacre by my best friend when we were 16. The droning, psychedelic sounds of ‘Anemone’ struck me, at a time when I was just refining my musical palate. My friend is known for her impressive collection of BJM t-shirts, and was bursting with excitement in the weeks leading up to their Melbourne gig. ‘Anenome’ has sort of become the soundtrack of our friendship; it has been a permanent fixture on our playlists and one of the few songs we fruitlessly attempted to cover in our brief stint as a drum and guitar duo. As with any band that’s been consistently producing music for over twenty years, BJM has a loyal fan base, which was quick to defend Anton’s rape joke and decry the “PC police” for misunderstanding his twisted genius. In fact, Anton himself took to Twitter on Friday to denounce “trial by internet” and suggest he would never return to Australia again.

BJM’s Melbourne gig opened with a weird faux protest. Several people took to the stage in a slow procession carrying makeshift signs that read slogans like “no more man buns”, in what seemed to be an attempt to mock protestors who had boycotted the show. It set the tone for a concert permeated by the peculiar, off-putting antics of Anton Newcombe. The first half of the gig was sensational; the psychedelic sounds of ‘Sailor’ were a highlight. The performance reached its zenith with fan favourite ‘Anemone’, but this may have been when the band should have stopped. Long, jarring intervals between songs were permeated by incoherent anecdotes from Newcombe, who berated the sound technicians and roadies who he seemed to believe had distorted the sound of his guitar. The tensions onstage seemed to mirror the unease of the crowd, as one prolonged rant had audience members shaking their heads, and band members coolly asking Newcombe to stop it. “I’d love to give up everything for this country but I’m not feeling the magic,” he proclaimed at one point. Tambourinist Joel Gion eventually embraced his rightful place at centre stage, expertly wielding his tambourine in what seemed to be a deliberate distraction from the antics of his bandmate.

Artists are so often deeply problematic people. It’s part of what informs their artistry. Were we to boycott every talented musician who has ever something stupid, we would cull a great many people who have shaped the cultural landscape as we know it today. Something the #metoo reckoning has shown us is that it takes integrity for someone to stand up and admit they were wrong. That they benefit from, and perpetuate, a culture of bro-ey misogynistic bullshit that sidelines women and girls every single day. The late Anthony Bourdain was notable in his fierce advocacy for the #metoo movement, reflecting that he may have contributed to the “meathead culture” of the restaurant industry. In contrast, Newcombe responded to criticism of his actions on Twitter with this: “I never made light of rape culture – so fuck you all and your fascist pc trap and trial by internet.”

As a 19-year old woman standing at the Forum Theatre on Thursday night, I felt ambivalent. My love for the music of this band couldn’t quite transcend the discomfort lingering in the air. I recalled the words of Clementine Ford: “When you joke about rape and sexual assault, you are telling the rapist laughing along that other people secretly think just like they do.”

The BJM concert was a microcosmic version of reality, as young women in a city shaken by violence stood uneasily before a man who’d joked about the problem just nights before. It was a gross, familiar feeling. I’m not ready to give up on the BJM. But I understand if some are. I suspect, for many, the BJM’s Australian tour may have been the final straw.

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