BRIAN JONES FOUNDED THE ROLLING STONESTHE ROLLING STONES CHANGED THE WORLD
BUT DID BRIAN JONES CHANGE THE WORLD?
book review by Don Stradley
I wish Brian Jones were still alive, if only to see him react to the Rolling Stones nowadays. Would he enjoy seeing Mick Jagger, now dubbed “Sir” and having grown increasingly bird-like with age, fronting the rickety old band through endless farewell tours? And what would Jones think of his other notorious bandmate, Keith Richards, now a leathery “rock legend”, that is, when he’s not gamboling with Johnny Depp or falling out of trees. Would Jones be any more graceful in his dotage, or was he, as we gather from Paul Trynka’s thoughtful new biography, simply destined to fizzle out, one way or another, at 27?
“Brian Jones: The Making of the Rolling Stones” makes us wonder where Jones’ talents could have taken him if he hadn’t been yoked to the band he established. Be warned: Trynka borders on being a bootlicking sycophant, hailing Jones as a kind of ethereal visionary, but in the end the author gives us a well-rounded take on a sad old tale. We’ll never get the full story on Jones, because the people who might be most helpful are either dead, or not talking. Keith and Mick look back on those days and say they can’t remember much, then giggle mischievously.
The standard line on Jones was that he was a geeky kid from the drab suburb of Cheltenham. Trynka lets us know that Cheltenham was actually a hotbed of vice, “the city of secrets and lies,” and that the young Jones’ “alley-cat sexuality” had its roots in a neighborhood where accountants and mathematicians huddled up with their high priced escorts or, at the very least, their dog-eared copies of De Sade. Perhaps taking his cue from the neighborhood elders, Jones had fathered a half-dozen or so kids before the Stones’ first album was released.
Jones discovered jazz and blues and rock & roll, played a variety of instruments, and by his late teens was hitch-hiking to the provinces to play with any band that would use him. Most of the musicians Jones met in those days thought the blues was merely a niche music, but Jones thought the sounds of Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters were ripe with commercial potential. Jones was correct, though it took him a while to get out of the hinterlands and bring his musical notions to London. He was already a seasoned veteran of the road by the time he met Jagger and Richards, while Mick was still singing for old ladies in his mother’s living room, and Keith was a pimply-faced yokel who could barely tune his guitar.
Jones was always the most stylish and outré of the Stones. He favored pinstriped gangster suits, fur coats, and oversized shades, trips to Morocco, and exotic drugs. His puckish nature attracted gorgeous women to his side, sometimes two or three at a time, but he always seemed to yearn for male friends, the tougher the better. Perhaps in his dreams he imagined himself a tiny mafia kingpin surrounded by hefty bodyguards who would tuck him in at night. But no one was protecting Jones, as the endless drug busts and court trials of the 1966-68 period wore him to an emotional nub. Jones gradually found himself usurped by the two urchins he’d hired years earlier, Jagger and Richards. Jones had been a parental figure to the boys, giving them tips on everything from music to women. Once they’d absorbed all he could teach, they outgrew him and kicked him to the curb. On top of everything else, Jones was hampered by a lifelong asthma problem, and was probably suffering from an undiagnosed bi-polar disorder.
Trynka, who wrote a fine biography of David Bowie a few years ago, hits all of the famous Jones moments, the good and the bad. We can almost hear Jones’ trebly slide guitar, and we remember the way he could upstage Jagger with just a quick, impish grin. Jones was a seeker, always reaching for more obscure instruments, not only to enhance the Stones’ sound, but to leave his imprint on a song. We also get the unpleasant side of Jones, from the way he mistreated women, to the way he made sure early on he was paid more than the other Stones. Jones may have been the Stone most likely to be seen with other rock stars, from Dylan and Hendrix to the Beatles, but this was largely because his own band didn’t want him around.
And, of course, there was the time Keith stole Brian’s girlfriend, the witchlike Anita Pallenberg. Many Stones aficionados point to that incident, with Jones left stranded and alone in Marrakesh, as the moment where life tipped over for Brian and never righted itself. Jagger stole the spotlight. Richards stole the girl.
Where could Jones have gone after that? What sort of man would stay in such a band? The Stones’ camp was a brutal environment, a cesspit of psychological torment and, as Trynka calls it, “coital one-upmanship.” Jones stayed in the Stones, more than likely, because that’s where the money and women were. Also, as his drug intake increased, he wasn’t sturdy enough to start another band. He should’ve hit Keith in the mouth with a microphone stand, but as Trynka tells us ad nauseam, Jones was too sensitive for that sort of thing. His heroes, Muddy and Wolf and the rest, would’ve taken Keith behind the shed and taught him a bloody lesson. Not Jones, though. One thing we take away from Trynka’s book is that Brian Jones, guitar hero and womanizer, was a wimp.
Trynka doesn’t rely much on quotes from the Stones, preferring to interview every chauffer, sound engineer and ex-groupie willing to talk. And he digs up some good stuff, particularly from Marianne Faithful, who had a ringside seat at Jones’ decline. Trynka’s also great at recreating the vibe of London’s old rock clubs: “Condensation dripped steadily on to the stage, the place smelt funky and the beers were warm…It was the glorious spring of 1962 and British Rock was being hotwired, jump-started, Frankensteined into life, so who cared about being electrocuted?” But when describing Jones he relies on the same clichés that were tired 30 years ago. Jones is “devilish,” “charming,” and of course, the living embodiment of the god Pan. Do rock journalists never get tired of that old bromide? Jones was also the most sensitive man in history, as Trynka reminds us on every other page. When not reminding readers of Jones’ brittle nature, Trynka continuously tells readers the bit about Jones being the band’s founder. Is Trynka afraid we aren’t paying attention? Or does he fear some of us started the book in the middle?
We get the point. Jones started the thing.
Trynka is at his best when he’s writing about the Stones’ music, such as when he describes the drumming of Charlie Watts: “…for the first time, Charlie unlocked the secrets of the laid back, gloriously greasy Jimmy Reed boogie, leaving tantalizing spaces in the high-hat rhythm, the crisp snare part ringing out clearly between the two and the four….” It’s also nice that Trynka has a mission, that is, to take the focus off of Jones the casualty and put it on Jones the creative force. Still, Trynka is smitten with Jones and can’t hide it. To Trynka, Jones is a hybrid of Syd Barrett and Robert Johnson, a haunted pop genius and trend setter. I’ll agree that Jones has been underrated, but I’m not ready to put him on the pedestal Trynka has built for him. Jones may have had a hell hound on his trail, but he was also a big goof, such as when he played a demo he’d made for some monkeys in a zoo; when the chimps ran away howling, Jones nearly wept with disappointment. How are we to take Jones seriously after such a Spinal Tap episode?
Because Jones’ death was so murky – he either drowned in a swimming pool, or was held under by someone – Trynka is cautious about putting his own spin on it. He suggests that it was “most likely a sad accident,” but creates a thorough checklist of shady characters in Jones’ circle, and leaves us to our own conclusions. Trynka also shoots holes in some of the sillier theories that have been passed down by other authors. Ultimately, Trynka isn’t especially taken with the morbid part of Jones’ legacy, but rather, “…the sounds, the magnificent panic, which he unleashed on the world.”
Throughout the book, which is highly readable despite Trynka’s obvious hero worship, I kept thinking back to when my mother noticed a Stones album in my collection. My mother was no slouch when it came to pop music. She kept a small A.M. radio on the kitchen counter perpetually locked onto a station that played “Golden Oldies” on Saturday night. She took one look at the scruffy bunch on the cover of Aftermath and asked, “What’s wrong with those guys?” I didn’t know what to tell her. After reading Trynka’s book, I’m still not sure.
Just a bunch of pricks, I guess.