I don’t know about you, but when the BJM’s “Straight Up And Down” plays as the theme song for Boardwalk Empire, my pulse quickens. It seems simultaneously to reaffirm Martin Scorsese’s hipster credentials and the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s greatness. Not that either were ever in doubt.
But then last night, I watched Dig! for the first time in a while, and it was a reminder of just how tenuous Anton Newcomb’s hold on — what? everything: his music, his life, his sanity, his work — was for so many years there. As he spirals down, as the band flounders, you could forget, for maybe a moment, just how extraordinary is the BJM’s contribution to the rock’n'roll canon.
(The most telling two lines in the movie come when a) Courtney Taylor-Taylor, having been brutal to Anton for much of the movie, states that just when he thinks he/the Dandy’s have caught up, he hears something new by the BJM and it takes his breath away, b) Anton, in one of his typical ego riffs states, quite accurately as it were, that when they started out, Pearl Jam was the biggest band in music, but how many PJ imitators are there now, versus how many BJM imitators? Brilliant insight.)
The whole film is a reminder of what was, and we can compare it to the live output of the past two, three years. We don’t much care for the Icelandic recording sessions that have found their way to the public, but having seen BJM three times since the Summer of 2008, it’s clear that Anton has found some measure of stability, and surely the band today is a glorious machine, as Anton hangs on and just plays one great song after another.
And so we gear up to watch another episode of Boardwalk Empire, knowing that “Straight Up And Down” is as oddly well matched to be the intro theme as “Gimme Shelter” was to be the soundtrack to Casino’s denouement. Knowing just how great it is, and how close things came to Anton’s never having survived to hear his music reach this level of popular culture acceptance and veneration, is one of today’s many reasons for gratitude.