January 22, 2021

FTV: Brian Jones


     Try to remember the first time you saw The Rolling Stones on TV or an album cover.  While reading Paul Trynka’s book Brian Jones:  The Making of the Rolling Stones (Viking Press, 2014) I went back and found a YouTube video of their debut appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show from October of 1964.  Using this visual aide helped me recover my earliest thoughts about them  because my current mental images of The Stones usually get hung up in the era of MTV.  Some of the truly bad videos they posted in that period are hard to forget.  I am always struck by drummer Charlie Watts’ inability to not sneer or raise his eyebrows at some of Mick Jagger’s dance moves.  Find a copy of the video used to promote Miss You and watch Charlie in the background.  This is the RS image seared into my brain.  It was kind of a relief to revisit 1964 and recall what the eleven year old me thought as I watched them on TV the first time.

     Mind you, this was still a year and a half before I actually owned a drum set.  My folks knew what direction I was headed so every time there was a new pop band on Sullivan’s show, they were sure that I didn’t miss it.  Watching the Stones do Time is on My Side now, my left to right recollections of the band are as follows:  Why does the bass player (Bill Wyman) hold the neck of his guitar almost straight up and down?  Where did Brian Jones get a tear drop shaped guitar?  Mick Jagger did not make that big of an impression on me because he wasn’t playing an instrument.  Keith Richards also did not move my interest meter all that much because Charlie Watts drumming was my main focus.  In response to the horrified letters he received (some parents did not like the band appearing on a family themed show), Sullivan famously said, “The grubby Rolling Stones will never appear on my stage again.”  The thousands of letters that came in from excited teens far outweighed the negatives and Ed was enough of a showman to know that they would be back again and again.

     Until his exit from the band, my only persistent thoughts about Brian Jones were not in the positive vein.  By the time I began following the band, he was already being pushed to the side with one foot all but out the door.  It struck me that he was somewhat pouty and ‘just a guitar player’ in what appeared to be Mick and Keith’s band.  In my mind, he really had no reason to be so smug.  Even after his tragic death and the press it generated, Brian’s role in the band was never spelled out with the same amount of detail as it is in Trynka’s book.  Little did I know that The Rolling Stones began as Brian Jones’ band nor that Jones was responsible for bringing rhythm and blues into the rock and roll mix that was just beginning to emerge in the early 1960s.  There are many aspects of Brian Jones’ personality that I do not cotten too, but credit must be given where due:  he was older and a more accomplished musician than either Mick or Keith.  It was his dogged determination to play R&B music even though everyone else told him that it was a niche branch of the music business and not something that would allow one to forge a sustainable career.  It appears that the experts were wrong and in spite of my past appraisal of Brian Jones, there are other sides to his story.  The word ‘genius’ can be applied to Brian Jones replete with the baggage, good and bad, that the label carries.

     When Trynka’s book was released in Great Britain, the original title was Sympathy for the Devil;  The Birth of the Rolling Stones and the Death of Brian Jones.  Why it was dumbed down to Brian Jones; The Making of the Rolling Stones in America escapes me because the more I read, the more the ‘devilish’ parts of the Jones saga emerged.  Lewis Brian Hopkins Jones was born on February 28, 1942 and raised by typically staid, conservative post World War II parents in the typically  English town of Cheltenham.  He was a bright boy but his introverted, quiet nature opened him up for varying degrees of bullying as he grew up.  Many of Brian’s defining characteristics we remember from his Rolling Stones day can be directly connected to his search for acceptance and love.  His parents were, to say the least, emotional cold fish who became even more so when Brian entered his rebellious teens.  Quiet, yes, but there was also a side of Brian Jones that made him unafraid to take chances.  He is remembered for being both a daredevil and a ladies man.  He never really settled down with one companion and his wanderlust is well documented in the number of children he fathered with various girlfriends.  Jones was also a rather sickly child and he grew to resent the asthma that prevented him from fitting in with the other rough and tumble kids.

     Brian became entranced by music and was soon learning guitar.  He picked up the instrument fast and was soon sitting in with bands at various dances and venues.   His first working band, The Barn Owls, gave him an outlet for his creative side and recognition outside his ever more estranged family situation.  Hearing American rhythm and blues music was the epiphany that pushed him to begin learning slide guitar and other R&B stylings like playing with open chord tuning.  Popular music in Great Britain was dominated by big band and jazz music when rock and roll first began to make waves.  While skiffle music inspired many new guitar players, most moved beyond that genre into early rock and roll (as evidenced by Lennon and McCartney’s shift from The Quarrymen into The Beatles).  Jones was caught in this same wave, but slowly found himself sidetracked by the R&B that was being played in a few isolated clubs.  The more he heard, the more determined Jones became to incorporate this new music even though other Brit pioneers like Cyril Davies and Alexis Korner tried to steer him away from what they felt was going to be a branch of the musical tree that would eventually die like skiffle.  Korner told Brian, ”Don’t go to London!  It’s no good, you’ll never make it there, it’s all too commercial – this blues style is never going to be popular.”  Strong-willed and confident in himself, Jones ignored the advice and struck out for the big city to follow his muse.

     The first time Keith and Mick saw Brian perform, they were struck by the older musician’s skills and musical knowledge.  The early ‘Rollin’ Stones’ were organized and driven by Brian Jones.  The early recording sessions were equally arranged and conducted by Brian Jones.  When Brian Jones began frequenting the new shops in Soho, he pioneered the fashions that would become commonplace on both sides of the Atlantic as the 60s decade marched toward the 70s.  Brian Jones wasn’t the only musician to incorporate R&B into the rock world, but he was one of the first.  He was also passionate about what he was doing.  Beneath all of his emerging rock and roll bravado, however, lurked the soul of a sensitive genius seeking approval.  Brian Jones would not be the first rock star to sit on another soon to be too common cultural cliche:  the three legged stool of sex, drugs, and rock and roll.  Brian would find the middle item dominating his life to the point of ruining his R ‘n’ R career.  Blues infused rock and roll was his passion but by the end of his life, he could barely play guitar.  The drugs contributed to his declining mental and physical health as textbook examples of what not to do.  Bouncing from one relationship to another did nothing to dull the pangs of isolation that followed him from his cold upbringing.  The mounting pressures to create and be accepted also contributed to Jones losing control of the band he founded, now better known  as The Rolling Stones.  The Stones did not start out a ‘Mick and Keith’s band,’ but the drama began in earnest when they hooked up with Immediate Records founder Andrew Loog Oldham.

     Andrew Oldham became their co-manager and record producer.  He had little regard for Brian Jones and thought his own path to fame and fortune would come via Mick and Keith.  Oldham not only favored the future Glimmer Twins but joined in the acts that unwound Brian’s hold on his band.  Mick, Keith, and their cronies exploited Brian’s fragile nature by making him the object of what can only be classified as ‘acts of terrorism’.  When he was feeling stronger, Jones could give as well as he got.  When Brian was low, the nastiness would leave him feeling isolated and literally abandoned.  On more than one occasion, the band left him behind when he didn’t show up precisely on time for departure.  Having suffered asthma as a youngster, Brian had several episodes where his ill health made him miss gigs.  Mick and Keith cite Brian’s unreliability as one of the reasons he was ‘let go’ from the band, but in truth, out of the hundreds of gigs they played, Jones missed a dozen.  Some of the nastiness came from five pounds:  early on, Jones was granted five pounds more salary per gig than the others and it further alienated him from the rest.

     Oldham must not have understood how basic Brian Jones’ contributions to the band’s success were.  Not only did he join in some of the nasty antics directed at him, Oldham also began sowing the seeds of the, “The Rolling Stones do not need Brian Jones in the band,” movement.  How out of touch with reality was Andrew Oldham?  When his Immediate Records label was well established on the foundation laid by The Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger approached him about a cut of the action.  Mick pointed out that the label had done very well because of his contributions and he thought it would only be fair to be cut in for one third of the company.  Oldham was incredulous and after a bitter argument, Mick went away empty handed, but not completely.  By now alienating his former favorite Stones, Oldham instigated their defection to another label.

Oldham lost his band and eventually his entire company due to his short sightedness.  Sadly, he had also helped prime the pump for Brian Jones demise as he pulled the band’s strings.  Those who hung around the early Stones viewed it as ‘Brian’s band’ but those directing the band’s later business fortunes either ignored or did not recognize his enormous contributions to their sound and image.  Alan Klein took over control of the band’s management.  Klein’s interest was in the bottom line so whatever petty squabbling that was going on in the band was not his main concern.

     The most high profile relationship Jones had was with German actress Anita Palenberg.  They became the golden couple of the mid-1960s scene, but as glamorous as it seemed on the outside, it was also a toxic relationship.  Jones bears the responsibility for his part in their doomed relationship but he was ultimately driven from The Stones by what he felt was the betrayal of his own band mates.  Palenberg eventually hooked up with Keith and became Mrs. Keith Richards.  When Keith and Mick began writing together, the balance of power shifted from Brian to the Twins.  Brian’s contributions were still responsible for improving many of the Jaggar/Richards songs, but he wasn’t listed in the songwriting credits.  The haunting recorder that immediately identifies the song Ruby Tuesday was created by Brian.  The Middle Eastern feel of Paint it Black was vintage Brian Jones.  Brian may not have written many songs himself, but he could be a formattable collaborator if the rest of the band would have wanted it.  Gene Clark from The Byrds says that he and Brian wrote their hit 8 Miles High yet Jones refused to be credited for his work.  As Jones’s influence in the band waned, they began erasing and re-cutting some of his guitar tracks.  At times, his voice was buried in the mix or his mic turned off during live performances.  Eventually, the Glimmer Twins ousted Jones from the band in favor of former John Mayal guitarist Mick Taylor.  

     Soon after The Stones presented a made for TV event entitled The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, Jones was gone.  Looking at the dark lines under his eyes during the R&R Circus, one senses that he was worn down.  Brian had become an obsessive object for scorn for a police detective named Norman Pilcher.  Nicknamed ‘Groupie Pilcher’ for his penchant of asking his high profile busts for their autograph, the Detective Sergeant made Brian Jones his special project.  When Mick and Keith were busted at Richard’s Redlands home, the target was actually Jones.  Pilcher had already tipped off the press and though disappointed he missed an opportunity to bust Jones on drug charges, he settled for nabbing the Twins.  With the legal support of Alan Klein and their record label, Jagger and Richards weathered the storm.  The whole drama was pretty much responsible for their newfound image as counter culture rock and roll outlaws.

     Pilcher put more pressure on Brian, eventually busting him twice.  With Jones being eased out of the band, he received little or no support from the band’s circle.  His increased isolation compounded his drug problems which caused a downward spiral in his overall mental and physical health.  When he was finally ejected from the Stones, there was some talk of Brian forming a new band.  He had pioneered what we would today call ‘World Music’ by traveling extensively in Morocco.  By the time he had pulled together enough ethnic music from Africa to build a new sound around, he was mentally and physically too far gone to pull it all together.  Alexis Korner tried to lure him out of his last home, Cotchford Farm, by promising him a spot on tour with Korner’s new band, New Church.  It became apparent that Brian no longer had the will or ability to play music so the offer was quietly withdrawn.

     Jones last night was a typical one albeit an evening that still leaves more questions than answers.  After an evening of drinking wine and swimming with his latest girlfriend, a semi-live in carpenter (who was remodeling the home), and the carpenter’s girlfriend, Brian would be found floating face down in the pool.  Efforts to revive him were unsuccessful and the coroner pronounced it a cause of ‘Death By Misadventure’, adding, “He would not listen.  So he drowned under the influence of alcohol and drugs.”  Brian’s death sparked many conspiracy rumors and spawned dozens of books, but perhaps Pete Townshend makes the clearest statement of the whole sad affair:  “I’ve become angry about a business in which people, especially the press, sneer if someone tries to save their skin by going into rehab after raising hell.  Brian should have been sectioned into a mental hospital, not allowed to flounder around in a heated swimming pool taking downers.  If I’m honest, I suppose, I was one of the friends who should have called the ambulance.”

     Brian Jones was a complicated puzzle and no one could have seen the pieces arranged in the way they ended up.  Those who contributed to his death have told their own stories and more or less absolved themselves while still trying to profit from his short life.  Townshend was not a band mate, but I admire him for acknowledging that the system let Brian Jones down.  His music will be his legacy,  the thing that will outlive the demons that haunted him.  

     Jones and George Harrison became friends and bonded as they both played second fiddle to Jagger/Richards and Lennon/McCartney.  George later said, “I often seemed to meet him in his times of trouble.  There was nothing the matter with him that a little extra love wouldn’t have cured.  I don’t think he had enough love or understanding.  He was very nice and sincere and sensitive, and we must remember that’s what he was.”  This is how I will remember Brian Jones going forward.



Top Piece Video:  The Stones make their first appearance on Ed Sullivan’s show.