“It’s sad, isn’t it?” Anton Newcombe asks, or rather tells (Anton doesn’t ask) an onlooker as this song echoes out of the studio speakers. This moment is captured in ‘Dig’ – one of the greatest music documentaries ever. The film is many things, but it’s mostly an unflinching portrait of the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s troubled frontman Anton Newcombe, who often conflated being an arsehole with protecting his artistic purity. His laser focus and lack of governance results in a sprawling discography, but also sees the band’s lineup constantly in flux, Anton’s personal relationships crumble, and record deals sabotaged before they are signed. For those unaware of the band and their legacy, the film is amazing, but you can just avoid it and start with the first album, and continue chronologically. The BJM catalogue is like a bizarro history of popular music since the ’60s, but with all the shit parts taken out.
This particular song is – as Anton pointed out – one of the most moving in the catalogue, lurching into view slowly before settling into a solemn death march, anchored by an acoustic guitar, and an ominous vocal drone. BJM are known for hammering out complete albums in the time it takes most bands to get a decent snare sound, however nothing about this song seems hurried; two verses stretching lazily over six minutes.
The title may be ‘The Devil May Care (Mom and Dad Don’t)’ however the fault for the relationship breakdown seems to be squarely Anton’s, as he tells it. Spending his youth with two sisters and a middle-class Mom on Newport Beach, Anton was hardly raised on the mean streets, however he still managed to be somewhat of a juvenile delinquent. His mother eventually got tired of picking him up from jail, and one day refused – thinking it would straighten him out. As she notes in the film, it didn’t. “Say goodbye to mom and dad, the two best friends I never had”, the song opens, but there is no blame, only affection. “Give them all my love so much, I promise that I’ll stay in touch”, he says, but there are caveats. “If I know where I am going, so will you.” He needs to disappear for a while in order to find his path. He is also aware there will be times where he isn’t searching, but merely existing, his current location unimportant. But, ya know, he’ll call if he can.
Verse two seems to be less about his uneasy relationship with his parents, and more about the general restlessness that comes with being a wanderer. Overthinking complicates his dreams, “It’s keeping me from knowing what to do.”
If the final lines are indeed about his parents, it suggests that his hang ups from the past stop him from both recognising similar traits in himself, and knowing his parents in a fuller context, where they are no longer parents, but mere humans. “Got to go, I’m losing touch”, he sings. “I think about you way too much, it’s keeping me from knowing me or you.”
A tragic footnote. Anton Newcombe’s dad wasn’t the parental ideal – he was an alcoholic absentee who was later diagnosed with schizophrenia. Less than a year after this song about their fractured relationship was released, Newcombe’s father jumped off a cliff and killed himself – on Anton’s 31st birthday.