The Brian Jonestown Massacre
Can we create new associations for the music that defines our most difficult times?
In June of this year, one of the great loves of my life died of an overdose. J and I shared an adventurous and tumultuous time as a couple, then later as friends. We loved thrifting, writing, exploring, and music, but we loved heroin more than everything. The soundtrack to our euphoric nods was one of J’s favorite albums, The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s Thank God for Mental Illness.
If I veer into glamorizing chaotic relationships and drug use it’s because, for a time, both helped us feel normal and softened the edges of trauma and depression. But remember this: They almost killed me. My great love is dead. But this is not a cautionary tale. This is a requiem for that album, that era, and that man.
It’s a terrible idea to fall in love with someone with similar musical taste. It magnifies the intensity of heartbreak. If I knew then what I know now as a 35-year-old, I would’ve dated one of those people who listens exclusively to NPR or an ornithologist who spends road-trips listening to exotic birdsong. I fell for the boy and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. I’ve avoided listening to the album for the past six years, because it’s a portal to a painful, confusing time that I’m still trying to make sense of. Shortly before J’s death I wondered, Could I create new associations for the music we shared? I tried.
Recently I listened to Thank God for Mental Illness in my Subaru while I commuted from work to daycare, a cooler full of breast milk stored in the back seat. At home, I listened as my nine-month-old son crawled on me as if I were a human jungle gym, shrieking like a prehistoric winged creature. Bright Colorado sun poured through my living room window, casting rainbow prisms of light on our carpet, which was covered with scattered teethers, blocks, board books, a baby piano that makes animal noises, and a never-ending pyramid of laundry. My responsible new life as a mother is a jarring contrast to my reckless time with J. Sometimes it’s hard to believe both belong to me.
When Thank God for Mental Illness was released in 1996, I was only 10 years old, living in a small city in North Dakota. My family didn’t yet have the internet. My exposure to music was limited to snippets of MTV, customer listening stations at K-Mart, and local radio which only played Top 40, classic rock, country, and Christian.
I wouldn’t learn of the album or the band until the late aughts, when a friend showed me the cult music documentary Dig! Released in 2004, Dig! centers around the intense love-hate relationship between egomaniac front men Anton Newcombe of The Brian Jonestown Massacre and Courtney Taylor-Taylor of The Dandy Warhols. They were constantly partying and fighting. Back then, I was more amused by their wild antics than by the music. I was into indie bands like Modest Mouse and post-punk like Fugazi. Anything vaguely associated with hippies made me cringe, and Brian Jonestown played a jangly psychedelic garage style that had enough 1960s elements and imagery to give it a whiff of hippies.
J reintroduced me to the band and album Thank God For Mental Illness in 2015. As a musician, songwriter, and aspiring audio technician, it amazed J that the band recorded the album in a single day in their San Francisco home for $17.36.
The album cover captivated me. It features a wide-eyed toothy childhood photo of one of the only long-term Brian Jonestown Massacre members, tambourinist Joel Gion. I also thought it was one of the best album titles I’d ever heard. Singer Anton Newcombe told The Guardian that he chose the title “Because people—my mom, whoever—always said, ‘You’re insane.’ So it was a jab at that whole thing. I was like, ‘I’m insane? Okay, well thank God for mental illness.’”
At the time, I related. I was thrilled I’d finally left the tundra of the upper Midwest in my late twenties to start a new life in the enchanting and fabled Portland, Oregon. But I was also lonely, homesick, and ran out of my antidepressants. I had recurring intrusive thoughts about driving my car off a winding road on my daily commute from Portland to St. Helens. It scared me. I checked myself into a psychiatric hospital, where I was prescribed antipsychotic medication, the same meds that Newcombe was rumored to take.
I stopped listening to music from this dark time in my life in favor of more nostalgic, peaceful music by Bob Dylan, David Bowie, and The Beatles. Thank God for Mental Illness appealed to me by harkening to the golden 1960s without being derivative nostalgia. The band melded shoegaze, acoustic guitar-driven, bluesy, and folksy psychedelia, a sound exemplified by songs like “Down” and “Free and Easy.” The band released the album as part of a trio of 1996 albums, which earned them cult status, influencing bands like Foxygen, Tame Impala, and The Black Motorcycle Club.
Like many of my favorite albums, my love for this album doesn’t necessarily make sense on paper. Yes, I was into moody shoegaze like their first album, Methodrone, but if someone asked me how I felt about the harmonica, tambourine, or rhythmic clapping, I would’ve shuddered faster than you can say tie-dye or patchouli. The stomping, roving fan-favorite, “The Ballad of Jim Jones,” embodies this vibe. Where an earlier version of myself would have dismissed it as something for campfires and cults, I came to love it.
Another one of my favorite tracks is “13.” At the outset, it appears to be a creepy ode to grooming and marrying a 13-year-old girl. Is it problematic on purpose? Yes. I interpreted it as a tongue-in-cheek tune calling out hypocrisy and mocking classic rock mavens like Jimmy Page who actually courted teenagers. Wondering Sound echoed these sentiments, describing the album as “a malevolent and incendiary take on psychedelic rock, one that located a sinister undercurrent in the hippy dream and coaxed it to the surface.”
In the song “Those Memories,” Anton Newcome and a tragically uncredited female vocalist (ugh) captured the specific nostalgia of loss and heartbreak, paired with a plucky, bluesy electric guitar riff, and the omniscient tambourine. “Those memories of you still haunt me,” they sing. “Every night, when I lay down.” I later found out that this is a cover of a country tune from the ’70s, popularized by Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt. Brian Jonestown made this song their own, replacing Nashville twang with their West Coast busker style. “I’ll always love you little darlin’ until the day they lay me down.”
Revisiting the album now, I was haunted, too. I tried to forget the thrill of listening to this music as J and I drove over the majestic Golden Gate Bridge, a locked case with a quarter ounce of heroin in the backseat. I tried to forget listening in our living room, which was draped with paintings, tapestries, cellophane baggies, hypodermic needles, guitars, and overspilling ashtrays. Those blinds were always drawn. Yet when we were too dope sick to go outside, we were comforted by the lush Pacific Northwest wonderland we called home, grateful to have finally escaped frigid Fargo. Revising the album, I tried most of all to forget the transcendental, floating euphoria that heroin imparted. I tried to forget him, his creativity, his magnetizing green eyes, his wild spirit, his wit.
But when I relistened to the 33-minute B-side, “The Sound of Confusion,” all I could do was remember him. I wept. At first listen years ago, I impatiently dismissed the track as avant-garde field recordings. Then, when J and I were visiting a magical town in southern Oregon called Ashland, he insisted I listen to the track in its entirety. We’d just dropped acid. That made it feel especially impactful. Everything around us glistened in the ethereal Lithia Park.
The track’s first three minutes feature car traffic sounds, followed by Newcombe’s religious rant about Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha, and Krishna dying for people’s sins. Then, a chorus of kids laughing comes in, which I received as a personal message to heal my childhood trauma.
Around the eight-minute mark, a hypnotizing, repetitive bass riff kicks in, joined by an ambient guitar loaded with heavy reverb. It’s the most shoegaze-style song on the record, a sonic portal to a truly liminal space, to a realm of the transcendent and unknowable. The lyrics are earnest, bordering on juvenile. “There was a fire and I could not hide,” he sings. “There was a fire so I jumped inside. And now I’m lost inside you.” The song embodied J’s and my fiery whirlwind of a relationship. As soon as he cleared obligations, J moved across the country. Though we’d only known each other a few months, we immediately cohabited.
That night, we said the spirits in Lithia Park married us to the tune of “The Sound of Confusion.” Although we talked about it, we never eloped. Part of us knew we were doomed. Our relationship was codependent, the good parts often overshadowed by our drug addictions and poor mental health.
Even when the afterglow faded, even in our chaos, I still loved the strange, divisive song. Someone on a message board once wrote that they loved the first half of the album, “but you’d have to be completely deranged to enjoy the 33-minute track on the B-side.” Others hailed it as genius, comparing it to The Velvet Underground’s sprawling 17-minute track “Sister Ray,” from their self-titled album.
Both J and I used collage in our respective artistic endeavors. I read and wrote creative nonfiction essays. J made sonic and video montages. We spent countless hours watching music documentaries and biopics. One of our favorites was Montage of Heck, culled from Kurt Cobain’s recordings, demos, and home movies. Like Cobain, J constantly recorded, drew, took photos, and made videos documenting our lives. Unlike Cobain, little of J’s work found an audience outside of our hometown.
After we broke up, he made a stunning montage of our time out West. I rewatched it after he died. As Brian Jonestown Massacre played in the background, J narrated, “Life is better than it’s ever been. Keeping up the faith. Gonna stop wallowing in the shit… I’m moving to be with the love of my life.”
In some of our last conversations, J told me he was trying to stop wallowing, quit drugs, and pull it together for the baby he was expecting with his fiancé. Seeing my fulfillment with recovery and parenthood left him inspired and hopeful. As motivation to prepare for his baby and to stop spending money on drugs, he planned to catch Brian Jonestown Massacre perform on their summer tour.
We’d seen them live in Portland and Minneapolis before. Both times we got too high and nodded out. The shows were a gauzy haze, our only recollections were being disappointed they didn’t play any songs from Thank God for Mental Illness.
J never enjoyed a third show. He overdosed at home, three months before his child was born. And when I saw that the band was schedule to play in Denver not long after J’s death, I didn’t go.
I’ve accepted that every time I listen to the album or band, I’ll be listening with J’s ghost. We’ll reminisce about chain-smoking on rainy late-night walks while pondering the big questions of life. Reminisce about driving to Cannon Beach to watch the lunar eclipse. About hopping the fence in our first apartment building’s pool, high on molly. Jumping in Punchbowl Falls. Having marathon writing and art sessions at coffee shops. Busking off the pier in Seattle and tagging a bench in a little park next to Kurt Cobain’s former home. Narrowly dodging arrest on the waterfront. Getting blacklisted from our neighborhood organic grocery store for stealing. Getting robbed. Crashing our car. Walking down 82nd Street sick and sweaty searching for our man and his lady with the pink feather boa. And leaving Portland together once we’d blown through all of our money and hope.
The last track within “Sound of Confusion” is a rendition of the spacey, droning jam “Wasted,” featuring louder organ and quieter backing vocals than the original track on Methodrone. The album ends with 30 seconds of silence. It will all seem like a fever dream, tracked by a goddamned harmonica and unrepentant tambourine. I’ll wonder why some of us survive heroin addiction and some of us don’t. I’ll continue fighting like hell to prevent tragic deaths like J’s by leading overdose prevention trainings and distributing the overdose reversal antidote, Narcan.
When my head gets dark, I’ll do an exercise my therapist taught me. In my mind’s eye, I’ll gather up survivor's guilt and painful memories, stuffing them in an antique steamer trunk. I’ll close the lid, hearing it’s satisfying slam. I’ll click the latches and lock it shut, not forever, just until I’m ready to revisit old ghosts.