Brian Jones: The Making of the Rolling Stones by Paul Trynka (Viking, 2014) 371 pages.
People who only know the Rolling Stones as Sir Mick Jagger’s backup band or pirate wanna-be Keith Richards as a pissy bad-ass will be surprised to learn that the group was started by not a Londoner, but a jazz-sax playing guy from the sticks of Cheltenham named Lewis Brian Hopkins Jones. Brian’s Rolling Stones are the ones I know, the ones I saw at Forest Hills in July of 1966 and just missed meeting up close when they did the 3D montage cover for “Their Satanic Majesties’ Request” in the summer of 1967.
It was 106 that day in July when I saw the Standells, Martha and the Vandellas, and the Rolling Stones, who arrived and left by helicopter, and the stands were more than half empty. Mick wore a white jacket with this green tree growing up the back and branching out, and for years I thought I had imagined it, until I finally saw it in color for about a tenth of a second in the movie Crossfire Hurricane.
The cops were preparing for the Beatles’ Shea Stadium show that August, and when the fans rushed the stage toward the end of “Satisfaction,” they laid down a blanket of tear gas (!) after the helicopter took off. I saw how the tear gas hugged the ground, and that if you could get up into the stands, you would be okay. This saved me a few times during the 60s when I tried to make sure a staircase was near.
If you look at the back of the “Satanic Majesties” album, it says “Thanks to Archie at Pictorial Studios, Mount Vernon, NY.” A friend of mine’s dad worked there, but in the days before cell phones, if you went out and missed a call at home, there was no easy way to contact you. So I wasn’t there when the Stones shuffled in, drunk and dirty and playing dice on the floor, except for Brian. Brian, they told me later, was well-dressed, well-spoken, and nice to everyone there.
Anyway, Brian Jones died in his swimming pool one night in July of 1969, shortly after Mick and Keith had essentially ganged up on him and chased him out of the group he had founded with Ian Stewart (it was Ian’s phone number at work that was listed in Brian’s ad).
I always tell people that you only need to know two things about Brian Jones. First, that he had four kids by four different women while Mick and Keith were still living at home with mum and dad (and they were all about the same age). Second, that Keith was afraid of him. Also, Mick was in awe of Brian’s musical ability.
Why should anyone care to know the history and legacy of abusive, druggy, dissipated Brian Jones? Because from 1964 until Woodstock in August of 1969, there were only two groups that mattered in the rock world: the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The hype said that the Beatles were the good ones and that the Stones were the bad boys of rock-n-roll (the old “Would You Let Your Daughter Marry a Rolling Stone?” headline was real, although contrived by their manager as a publicity stunt). But the truth is that while the Beatles had four decent performers, only the Rolling Stones had Brian Jones, possibly the only guy in England at the time who could play classic blues with slide guitar.
(Oh, and all of the songs and videos I mention here can be found on the Internet with a little digging.)
Brian could play almost anything. That‘s Brian playing marimbas on “Under My thumb” and, as bass player Bill Wyman says, “Well, without the marimba part, it’s not really a song, is it?” (p.187). Brian plays the dulcimer on “Lady Jane” (p. 182) and the sitar on “Paint It Black” (p. 188), showing that he was the kind of musician that could pick up an instrument and coax music from it quickly. Brian at his peak was light years ahead musically of the rest of the group. On the Stones’ breakout hit, “Not Fade Away” (the first Stones song I heard in the USA), from the Mike Douglas show, Brian plays not one blues harp, but two, deftly switching them between lines of Mick’s vocals.
The tune “Ruby Tuesday” features lilting melodic runs on a recorder (of all things) as Mick sings the verses. But it was the sound engineer on the record, Eddie Kramer, who realized that Brian was playing something called a descant, which soars independently above the tune itself. “Mick and Keith,” says Kramer, “not to put them down, would never have thought of something like that” (p.201).
(NOTE on the dulcimer: I had nice emails from the owners of Bisbee Books and Music in Bisbee, who reminded me that the “other” instrument in their store I mentioned last week was a mountain dulcimer.)
Brian, says the book, had an unerring ear for musical tone and composition, something that disappeared from the group after he drowned. Without Brian, the Rolling Stones of the 1970s became a louder version of thumping hard rock acts like Humble Pie or the Faces, even more so once Ronnie Wood joined up. Someone once wrote that Punk Rock came along because no one in England could endure another album of variations on “Brown Sugar” and “Honky Tonk Woman.”
Not only that, but “Ruby Tuesday,” which became one of the Stones’ most covered and enduring songs, was essentially Brian’s initial composition along with Keith, but somehow attributed to Jagger-Richards (mainly because Andrew Oldham wanted it that way). Naturally, this indifference to composition credits cut Brian, and later his heirs, out of a lot of money that should rightfully be theirs (p. 202).
Perceptions of Brian by people close to the Rolling Stones have shifted over the years. That’s understandable: when your history stretches back more than 50 years, the initial rush to fame recedes into a smaller and smaller slice. So I find that the best visual depiction of Brian’s role and importance outside of this book is in the 25th anniversary video, 25×5, released in 1989.
There is no doubt that Brian is the leader of the group until drugs (and Mick and Keith) brought him down. Look at the early album covers: it’s Brian right there up front, not Mick. During an interview in Montreal (not mentioned in the book) Brian, seated front and center, is the one with the answers while Keith looks bored and Mick is squeezed into the back of the sofa. On the Mike Douglas show, Brian says that while the girls like him, it’s the guys who are attracted to Mick, a sly dig to make in public. Brian even tells Mick to “shut up” on the Shindig TV show when they introduce Howlin’ Wolf (p. 147). The text in the book says “it’s about time we shut up…” but if you watch the video it sounds more to me like “you shut up…”
This incident and the Stones’ single “I Wanna Be Your Man” were the peak of Brian’s time with the Rolling Stones. Without Andrew Oldham to push Mick and Keith to the forefront, Brian’s slide guitar rules the track, and his vocals are not mixed so far down that they are buried (Oldham produced the first few albums).
Why was there so much animosity directed toward Brian? Trynka, an experienced music writer who talked to everybody for this book, traces much of it back to the early days of break-neck tours, when Brian claimed an additional 5 pounds a week more than the others, perhaps as “manager,” perhaps because he only thought it right. When the others found out, things got nasty quickly (p.131 and other places).
I have a signed photo of Brian Jones hanging on the wall outside my office. Every day when I go in to work, I look at it to remind myself that if I can be half as good as Brian was at what I do, and avoid annoying the people I work with, everything will be just fine.