Brian Jones by Paul Trynka

Brian Jones: The Making of the Rolling Stones by Paul Trynka (Viking, 2014) 371 pages.

BJ Trynka

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.

The Music Lesson by Victor L. Wooten

The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music by Victor L. Wooten (Berkley Books, 2006) 273 pages.

TML Wooten

I spent the last day of 2015 in Bisbee, Arizona, an old copper mining town, with my wife, her sister, and her husband. We stayed at the El Dorado Suites on OK Street (it was OK…no, I’m kidding: it was a beautiful suite for a very modest amount). I told the clerk I liked to visit book stores. “Oh,” she said, “You have to visit the new place across the street at the Copper Queen Plaza…they have music and art supplies too.” So we found ourselves at Bisbee Books and Music (www.bisbeebam.com), the only bookstore I have ever seen with mandolins and another odd stringed instrument (whose name I have forgotten) on display along with the books.

We were lucky enough to be there with a couple from Lake Havasu City while the man played some tunes on both while I browsed the books and my wife the art teacher looked at the art supplies. It reminded me of watching the Led Zeppelin video where Jimmy Page plays the mandolin opening to “The Battle of Evermore” at the gates of the big estate house where they recorded their fourth album. I mean, that’s what it sounded like he was playing. The music filled the store, and I was a bit surprised that the place didn’t fill up with spectators. But music, once only experienced live and in person, has become so ubiquitous and bland, that the other people in the mall simply ignored it.

Bisbee is a town, like many in the United States today, that were founded and thrived for a reason—a huge copper mine in this case—that no longer exists. You can take a tour of the old mine, and the Copper Queen Hotel holds ghost tours, but the population, once 20,000 strong, has fallen to about 5,000. The stores along the main street, which once supplied groceries and shoes and clothes (one was a J C Penney), now harbor an enthusiastic if struggling arts community. It’s a subject these essays explored in Population Wars. However, crowded upstate NY is a lot more promising, even under duress, than a small town in the isolated southwest. One of my rules of life is “When Things Change, They Don’t Change Back.”

But this is not about Bisbee, although if you ever find yourself south of Tombstone and north of Mexico, you should stop by the little bookstore. This is about the book I bought there (one of eight) because it seemed appropriate to buy a book about music in that particular store at that particular time.

I knew the Flecktones’ Victor Wooten, the four-time Grammy winner from Nashville and three-time bass Player of the Year, because of a video about “Making Music” he made in about 2000 with a drummer named Carter Beauford. I liked it because it showed the give-and-take among the musicians (Bela Fleck and others join them later) as they put notes and phrases and grooves together to make a song.

I do not have a musical bone in my body. That’s my wife’s domain (her mother and sisters all played saxophone, and my wife went on a musical tour to Europe in her teens). My mother played clarinet in her high school marching band, but the closest I ever got to a band was as a cymbal player in the same band 25 years later. At least I wasn’t ever off-key.

But, growing up, I always wanted to make noise, preferably drums. I had to live through the Beatles years of garage bands on every block in horrid silence (mainly, I suspect, due in equal parts to my father’s salary and my mother’s nerves). I could never play by ear, and to this day I can only peck out one song, the Marine Corps Hymn, not by reading the music, but by numbers, usually in the key of C:

1-3-5-5-5-5-5-8-5, 3-4-5-5-4-2-1…and so on through 8-7-6-4-6-8-5-3-5, 8-7-6-4-6-8-5….

The first thing I did when I met my wife and we moved in together was to buy a set of drums to pound on. I was terrible, and remain so, but it felt so good. And when I finally abandoned the video lessons and bang-kick-bang-kick-1-2-3 patterns that beginners have to endure and just let myself flail away along with any basic rock track, I found that there was music inside me after all (and it didn’t sound half bad, at least to me).

And that’s what Wooten’s book is really about: how to let the music that dwells in all of us, as human beings, out. And you can’t really do it well unless you make music as a group, as a community. It all began, Wooten suggests (p. 236), with the whole community sitting around at night listening to the sounds of nature: bull frogs, birds, insects, and so on. It makes us human: you can’t get a chimp or ape to clap or tap a foot along to the beat, but you can hardly stop a person from doing it, especially with live music on tap.

This book is more of a novel that a memoir or manual, but it does address the relationship of music makers to what they are doing, which is to give a soundtrack to our existence. I don’t care if you’re into rock or country or jazz or something else. As Wooten points out, if not in so many words, there’s really only good music and bad music. Musicians all know this, if not their listeners. When people say, for example, “I hate bluegrass,” they really mean that they lack the perception to appreciate it (page 56). (One intriguing thing I read somewhere is that our musical tastes “freeze” in place shortly after puberty and that if we are only exposed to, say, hip-hop or 1964-style Beatles “Mersey beat” music at that critical time, we get locked in and cannot change our musical appreciation style. I would hate to think this is true, and Wooten seems to think it cannot be so.)

Wooten divides the musical experience up into ten categories. Then, through a series of mythical/fictional characters like Uncle Clyde and Sam and Michael (who might be Victor himself), Wooten explores how each of them contribute to the overall expression of music. Why these ten? Well, as Wooten points out on page 40, these aren’t the only aspects of music that can be examined or explained. As people grow, they can change. But these seem to be a good place to start.

  1. Notes (page 35): The Western octave consists of 7 tones (the white keys on a piano) and 5 more “in-between” ones (the black keys), so even if you are off when you play a note, you probably aren’t that far off. The fear of playing the “wrong” note, Wooten says, is the main reason many people cannot play the music inside them (page 43).
  2. Articulation (page 51): This is the duration of the note, and how it is attacked and played. He compares this to colors in art (page 69).
  3. Technique (page 75): You practice controlling your instrument. But musicians have to know when to reduce their technique (p. 95).
  4. Emotion or Feel (page 97): This is why blues is different than jazz. It gives soul its power. It’s why the president asked James Brown to calm people down after Martin Luther King Jr,’s death in 1968 (p.106).
  5. Dynamics (page 117): This is how hands interact with the instrument. How you can “pedal” (repeat) a note on bass and still make it speak (p.138).
  6. Rhythm and Tempo (page 145): Describes how drummers can play one beat every four measures and still stay right in time…it’s all inside you (p.156).
  7. Tone (page 161): He describes this as a kind of dialect. Know what I’se sayin’? (p. 162 and 180).
  8. Phrasing (page 179): A group of notes make up a phrase. What you say is your truth (p.192).
  9. Space and Rest (page 195): It’s the notes and the silence between that make music (p.221).
  10. Listening (page 235): In the end, making music requires us to listen to other music makers. Even the deaf can dance as they feel the vibrations of the floor and the air (p. 240).

Got it? Good…I’m going to bang on my drums now…

A Beautiful Question by Frank Wilczek

A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design by Frank Wilczek (Penguin Press, 2015) 430 pages.

ABQ Wilczek

I read this book because I read Wilczek’s previous book from 2008 called The Lightness of Being. Unlike 90% of the books I read, this 2008 book stays on the shelf right beside me, mainly because of Plate 6, which shows a color representation of the collision of quark and anti-quark, two constituents of elementary particles such as protons. These appear not as little balls as we often imagine atoms to be, but two smudges of barely visible gray. As they collide, they flow into green and red clouds and knots of condensed energy (Einstein showed that mass is a form of “frozen energy”), finally ending up as a thing known as a “pi meson.” I keep it handy to remind myself that deep down, this often grungy-appearing universe we inhabit is stunningly beautiful when seen the right way.

Everything is light, says Wilczek’s 2008 book (hence the title), and this 2015 book follows up with the fact that not only is everything energy and light, but that it’s beautiful as well. Not only in terms of color, but in a mathematical sense: particles and forces array themselves in neat arrays governed by a few principles. But this is jumped ahead a bit…let’s start with the 2015 book itself.

It is certainly fitting that a book on the beauty of reality is a beauty of a book. And all for a hardcover list price of about 30 dollars, and a discount price less than 20 (there is also paperback edition at about the same price as the hardcover). The dust jacket has a cutout that reveals the front cover itself: a beautiful antique full-color reproduction of the circumpolar constellations, balanced by a pure white rear cover.

Inside, you’ll find not one but two full-color sections of illustrations, from Plate A to Z and then from Plate AA to AAA (ZZ wraps to AAA). There are also 43 text figures, although these are not in color. That’s 96 of them in all, many more times as many than you would find in a typical science-oriented text.

How come? Two reasons: First of all, Wilczek is a Nobel Prize winner with a couple of best-selling science books to his credit (this book is the #1 Bestseller in Quantum Theory at Amazon). Second, Wilczek is a heck of a good writer. If anything, people who read about physics or have read his previous books might grow impatient at how the author patiently travels through 2500 years of science and mathematics to get to the point where readers can easily follow his main point, if not how modern physics has established it all (that would require some heavy-duty math, I’m afraid).
This is not just a book: it’s almost a textbook. The main text ends on page 328, and is followed by Acknowledgements and more than 100 pages in six other sections. These are a Timeline of main discoveries, Terms of Art (a kind of glossary), Notes, Recommended Reading (both classical and modern), Illustration Credits (all those color plates, mainly), and an Index. The Terms of Art are most valuable, in case you forgot what the electromagnetic fluid is (he prefers the term “fluid” to the more common “field”) or what an Axion is (it’s what Wilczek won the Nobel for, of course, and he knows it was a laundry detergent—but the international physics committees didn’t). I always have to look up hadrons and leptons, so it helps to have all this right at your fingertips.
So the book is a bit of a wild ride. Where does it end up? Basically, at Plates TT through XX, explained on pages 260 to 305 (actually, Plates RR and SS set the whole climax up).
It’s important to note that while Wilczek can tell us what the current “Core Theory” consists of—he does not like the more common description if what we think we know as the “standard Model”—no one, even a Nobel Prize winner can tell us why the universe is the way it is.

For example, if you look at Plate RR, you find that the universe consists of six fundamental “entities” and three fundamental forces. He calls them “entities” because we really have no idea what they “really” are. We know they aren’t little billiard balls that spin around (although, confusingly, they have a property called “spin” that carries their angular momentum). Not only that, but these “entities” repeat our normal “reality” at two higher energy levels. Why? No one knows—yet.

So protons are made up of three quarks. At our everyday energy levels, these are the up and down quarks. Add energy, and you can make a “super proton” out of the strange and charm quarks. Still more energy, and you get a “super duper proton” made out of top and bottom quarks. (They wanted to call them “truth” and “beauty,” but that would just be silly, right?)
Each “family” gets a type of electron and neutrino to go with it, but there are only three major families. Why? It might have something to do with quarks carrying electric charges in thirds (like +1/3), but maybe not. In fact, there might even be a fourth family that has eluded us.

So the whole book is really a package to allow the readers to understand Plates VV and WW. These extend the idea of symmetry (as among the three families above) from what we currently know is real to what Wilczek would like to see as the “ideal” ultimate reality. And scientists might be getting very close.

You might think that quantum physics is one of those things you can just ignore and things will take care of themselves, like when driving your car. If the “check engine” light ever comes on, you can take it to the mechanic and let them worry about it. Quantum effects were once thought to be absolutely limited to things so tiny that what scientists call “quantum weirdness” would never intrude on our world or everyday reality. But now it seems that photosynthesis, cellular protein and DNA processes, and even computers of the future all might be tied up with to quantum theory. (See, for example, Life On the Edge in this series.) Once, calculus was a mathematical magical mystery understood by only a handful of people in the world. Soon, a basic appreciation of quantum physics might be a pre-requisite for something as simple as graduating from high school.

But don’t worry about getting lost: just reach for Wilczek’s A Beautiful Question. 🙂

I liked this book because science books often emphasize what we know and pretend what we don’t know isn’t really there. Everything is “just so”: logical and in its place. Like going to see the neighbor’s house for the first time and the living room is neatly done, the kitchen spotless, and all the beds made. Then you hear a bump and a scrape and you go “What’s in the attic?” and the neighbors go, “Oh, no one knows what’s in the attic. We haven’t got a ladder to climb up there yet. But it’s probably not very important or interesting.” But every visit, the noises get louder and louder until they can’t be ignored.

Read this book to see how messy—but still beautiful—the universe we live in really is.

The Arrow of Sherwood by Lauren Johnson

The Arrow of Sherwood by Lauren Johnson (Pen and Sword, 2013) 306 pages.

TAOS Johnson

Here we have an absolutely realistic take on the Robin Hood – or Robin of Locksley, to give his noble name –legend and his deeds. The problem is in the stripping Robin of all the impossibilities inherent in his legend, like the bumbling efforts of the Sheriff of Nottingham to catch Robin or anyone from his gang of outlaws (which is exactly what they were, of course) or even locate their camp (and its fires) in Sherwood Forest. If you strip Robin Hood of his daring exploits, you also strip much of the allure and romance from the legend. And when legend and fact conflict, as they said in the old Man Who Shot Liberty Valance movie, print the legend.

That’s not to say this is a poor book. In fact, it’s very good, both as historical novel and story. It’s just not much of a story about the adventures of Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men during the days when King John ruled while his older brother King Richard the Lionheart was off on the Third Crusade and then in captivity in Germany when imprisoned on his way home.

There are a lot of twists that Johnson adds that work to transform the dashing Robin Hood into the wronged nobleman Robin of Locksley. The book seems scrupulously researched, and Johnson has a degree in history from Oxford. What liberties she took with the topology of Nottinghamshire are outlined in a note on pages 304 and 305: mainly the transformation of Newstead Abbey from a convent under an Abbess into a monastery under an Abbot for Friar Tuch (note the spelling) to inhabit. Oddly, we don’t really know who the Sheriff in Nottinghamshire was in the 1190s, but this allows Johnson to come up with an interesting twist on theme outlaw-authority theme.

For one thing, this Robin Hood is a murderer. A “wastrel,” as the blurb says, he’s killed man in a drunken haze. His trip to the Holy Land on crusade is not a noble undertaking: it’s a penance for his sins. Not only that, but a rumor spreads that Robin is dead in the East, and so Robin’s lands are taken away and given to his mother’s husband, Sir Walter Peverill, who just happens to be the Sheriff of Nottingham. But Johnson’s sheriff is not evil: he’s actually a nice guy who does what he can to mitigate the heavy hand of the royal and church authorities (and give Robin all the slack he needs to perform his acts of justice). The real bad guys are the Norman Viponts, who waste no chance to lord it over the conquered English by imprisoning tax evaders and torturing anyone who opposes them.

In this book, Sir Walter is Maid Marian’s father, and now she and Robin, once betrothed, are step-siblings! Marian is now betrothed to a noble named Sir Guy, who is about as hostile to the returned Robin as possible. (Remember, if Guy marries Marian, daughter of Sir Walter, holder of Locksley Hall, then Robin will likely not inherit, whether he’s legally re-made eligible or not.)

All this adds an element of family tension to the story, already a classic case of class conflict between the Norman lords and English subjects. In case you think this conflict should be somewhat subdued, the Norman Conquest of 1066 was about as far in the past as the US Civil War was from today…and there are still plenty of tensions and conflict around because of that.

The lower classes suffer from harsh taxation and the letter of the King’s law (as interpreted by John). Even the well-off and nobles suffer, and not for nothing did they force the Magna Carta on King John, although this happened many years after this book ends. You can read more about bad old King John (a name never used again for a king of England) and his times in King John and The Greatest Knight.

If Robin wants his land and status back, he can easily go along with the powers in the land, or he can take the risky strategy of looking up his old low-life friends from his “wastrel” days and work with them against the system. Needless to say, this is what Robin does. He uses his old contacts to encourage dissent and outright law-breaking, and slowly builds up a gang of outlaws hiding out in the woods.

So this is more Robin Hood as Batman, the caped crusader (literally) fighting for truth and justice the medieval way (okay, that’s Superman, but still…). There is an elaborate plot to break the captured “merry men” out of the dungeon, helped by the odd circumstance that Will Scarlette is now Robin’s half-brother and his virtually identical twin. But I cannot believe that the evil nobles, once they catch one of the outlaws like Little John, would repeatedly leave the captives in Robin’s care, only to be told they had managed to escape. I can swallow this once, but it seems to happen with alarming regularity. Naturally, it seems that everyone in the region knows who this mysterious friend of the common people actually is, but the people responsible for catching Robin are unrelentingly clueless.

Now, if all this makes the legend of Robin Hood more like a modern thriller or even courtroom drama, that’s exactly what it felt like to me too. I’m not sure this more prosaic Robin Hood works for me. As historical novel, this book is great. You’ll learn a lot about medieval life. But as a retelling of the Robin Hood legend, I’m not so sure.