Monday, 15 July 2024

The Rhythmic Peril: Unveiling the Unexpected Hazards in the Life of Rock's Iconic Tambourine Maestro

The Rhythmic Peril: Unveiling the Unexpected Hazards in the Life of Rock's Iconic Tambourine Maestro
Saturday, 27 January 2024 20:06

In the Jingle Jangle Jungle: Joel Gion and the Enchanting Perils of Rock's Longest-Serving Tambourine Man

In the rich tapestry of rock history, certain archetypes weave through the decades. The singer-songwriter, shrouded in mystery; the effortlessly cool guitarist; the wildly unhinged drummer. But what about the rock and roll tambourine player? If there's anyone who can define that role, it's Joel Gion. With over 30 years of shaking the cymbals for the American psychedelic guitar band, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, he stands as one of the longest-serving tambourine men in rock history.

From his home in California, Gion reflects on the pivotal moment that set his musical journey in motion. "From the moment I saw the video to 'Just Like Honey' by The Jesus and Mary Chain, that was it," he shares. "I was going to be in a band." The only hiccup? "I didn't have anything musically going," he admits, "except high-grade enthusiasm." Fortunately, as unveiled in his memoir, "In the Jingle Jangle Jungle," enthusiasm can propel you a long way.

Gion's journey commenced in the early '90s when a flyer on the streets of San Francisco beckoned him with the words, "Take acid now and come see The Brian Jonestown Massacre." Following those intriguing instructions, he forged a "guru-and-student relationship" with the band's unpredictable leader, Anton Newcombe. Eventually, Gion evolved into the group's "spiritual animal," stealing the spotlight during live performances with his tambourine while Newcombe sang from the sidelines. With the cult stardom achieved through the 2004 documentary "Dig!," it was Gion's face that adorned posters and DVD covers.

Yet, Gion is not merely a tambourine enthusiast; he's a craftsman honing his art. "In the 1990s, nobody played tambourine," he reminisces. "You had Liam Gallagher, but he didn't really play along with the song. I was actually trying to be a percussionist." Drawing inspiration from 1960s pop stars, Gion cites Mark Volman of The Turtles, Davy Jones of The Monkees, and Gene Clark of The Byrds as his tambourine heroes. He delves into the intricacies of the instrument's handling, emphasizing the casual and cool technique of his predecessors.

To authentically capture the '60s sound, Gion makes a commitment to vintage instruments, swearing off plastic tambourines. However, such dedication comes with its own set of perils. "Those old wooden instruments can only take so much beating," he cautions. "And when the wood starts to split, it comes out jagged." Gion's musical journey, marked by passion and dedication, unveils the unexpected enchantment and perils behind the rhythmic world of rock's most famous tambourine man.

Tambourine Tales: Joel Gion's Unveiling of Onstage Drama and Personal Sacrifices in the Brian Jonestown Massacre

In the gripping opening scenes of Gion's memoir, the aftermath of a tambourine-inflicted beating paints a haunting picture. His body, splattered with dried blood from the waist up, evokes an eerie resemblance to a scene from "The Shining's elevator." Yet, in a candid conversation, Gion unravels the truth behind these injuries, attributing them to moments of intense annoyance, particularly triggered by the notoriously prickly onstage behavior of the band's leader, Anton Newcombe.

I tend to start hitting a little harder than I need to," Gion confesses. "If things start getting aggro onstage or there's drama, I just sort of stigmata myself—with the nails of the tambourine." The drama is woven into the very fabric of The Brian Jonestown Massacre's mythology, punctuated by onstage brawls that have become part of the band's turbulent history. This tumult persists, as highlighted by the catastrophic conclusion to their recent world tour, described by Gion as reminiscent of "Apocalypse Now.

We were on the road for months with hardly any days off," Gion explains, detailing the routine that led to alienating the audience by the fourth song, thanks to Newcombe's penchant for extended onstage monologues. Gion's frustration reached a breaking point in Seattle when, in a symbolic gesture, he exploded his maraca on the ground and walked away. Despite rejoining, the tour concluded dramatically in Melbourne, Australia, with Newcombe chastising bandmates and initiating an onstage punch-up, cutting the gig short after only six songs.

Gion, typically the defuser in such situations, was absent during the band's last major controversy, involving Newcombe's inappropriate comment directed at the audience. Reflecting on that night, Gion recalls, "I'd had a bunch of beers that night. So, I really had to go. I went and I peed. And as I hit the stairs back up to the stage, all I could hear was this universal, room-filling BOOOOOO!

Acknowledging the audience's fascination with such incidents, Gion concedes, "They do, but it's a different climate today. I don't know how well that performs. I don't think people will see that kind of thing again – I hope not." However, the fallout from the Melbourne incident has left severe fractures within the band. "I haven't spoken to Anton since," Gion admits, concluding with a poignant statement, "I need a break from that whole reality right now.

Rhythms of Resilience: Joel Gion's Unflinching Quest for Truth Amidst the Melodic Chaos

In the course of our conversation, Gion underlines a fundamental principle: the imperative of truth-telling, irrespective of its potentially unflattering nature. "You have to tell the truth," he asserts. "And the truth isn't the worst thing even when it's not flattering. So, that's what I'm doing with the book." Despite the breezy humor peppered throughout his memoir, Gion confronts the harsh realities of life within a struggling rock band, sparing no punches in unveiling its less glamorous facets.

In a particular chapter, Gion unravels the harsh truths of his "self-inflicted poverty" during the 1990s, including the stark image of foraging for meals in a Burger King skip. However, now residing peacefully with his wife north of San Francisco, Gion confides that the most challenging moments were also the most rewarding to pen. Reflecting on the tumultuous period in 1997, despite securing a major record deal, the band teetered on the edge of collapse due to drug abuse. "I wasn't doing heroin," Gion clarifies, "but I was watching everybody else go down the drain. It was very traumatic. But when you can write and come to grips with those dark times and tragedies, you're not a victim anymore. And now it's kind of a sense of joy.

While currently engrossed in his second memoir and crafting an "espionage thriller" rooted in his "alternate life in underground drug culture," Gion harbors ambitions of picking up the tambourine once more and reuniting with The Brian Jonestown Massacre. Reflecting on the band's past turbulence, he remarks, "We've been here before," predicting that Anton, the band's leader, will likely retreat and then produce one of his best albums, as he tends to thrive artistically when against the ropes.

Summing up his 30-year history with the band, Gion embraces a weary acceptance, noting, "You can't reach the extreme highs without these extreme lows. It's like yin and yang." Perhaps embedded within this philosophy lies a Zen-like attitude that encapsulates the essence of the archetypal tambourine player: a steadfast beat amidst the surrounding chaos. "Jingle Jangle Jungle" by Joel Gion is set to be published on February 29th by White Rabbit. Meanwhile, "Dig! XX" recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, with plans for a broader release later this year.

In the rhythmic journey chronicled by Joel Gion, the pulsating beats of truth resonate louder than the cacophony of chaos. With a steadfast commitment to honesty, Gion navigates the highs and lows of life in a struggling rock band, revealing the raw and unvarnished tales that shape his memoir. From foraging for meals in a Burger King skip to the traumatic days of a band on the brink, Gion transforms darkness into a source of empowerment through the act of storytelling.

Now residing in a tranquil abode with his wife, Gion finds joy in confronting and narrating the toughest moments. As he embarks on crafting a second memoir and an espionage thriller rooted in an alternate world of underground drug culture, the tambourine player harbors ambitions to reunite with The Brian Jonestown Massacre. Despite the band's history of turbulence, Gion's weary yet accepting perspective foresees a resurgence in creativity from their enigmatic leader, Anton.

Reflecting on his 30-year saga with the band, Gion acknowledges the inextricable link between extreme highs and lows—the yin and yang of artistic expression. In this concluding verse, perhaps there lies a zen-like revelation, encapsulating the essence of the archetypal tambourine player—a reliable beat in the midst of surrounding chaos.

As "Jingle Jangle Jungle" prepares for its February 29th release through White Rabbit, and "Dig! XX" dazzles audiences at the Sundance Film Festival, the rhythmic odyssey of Joel Gion continues, echoing the resilience found within the timeless cadence of truth and music.