Brian Jones, Founder of the Rolling Stones

Last year the music community and fans marked the 25th
anniversary of John Lennon’s death. Predictably, quite a few new
Beatles books have hit the stores just in time for the holidays.
Few bands have managed to carve out such a coveted place in rock n’
roll history, which leads to the age old question: The Beatles or
The Rolling Stones. It’s a debate that has raged on since the early
60s, with devoted fans of each voicing their steadfast opinions.
Others stand firmly in the middle, believing it’s simply a matter
of taste. Both artists contributed much to the history of recorded
music. More than 40 years after their formation, The Rolling Stones
still tour the world, though some argue they are a pale shadow of
the once vibrant band they were in the early 60s. Ultimately, they
are still selling out shows and fans are still enjoying them.

Most Stones fans cite the prolific material of the 1970s as the
group’s best work and few can downplay the importance of EXILE ON
MAIN STREET and LET IT BLEED. But, the term ‘best’ is open to
interpretation. Surely, it had a strong impact on bands to follow
but the same can be said of the Stones early material, represented
by such classic albums like 1966’s AFTERMATH and 1968’s BEGGARS
BANQUET . The early live shows and recordings set new boundaries by
tying classic blues and R&B together with raw rock n’ roll. The
blues foundation, which carried over into the Stones 70s material,
was rooted in the band’s original guitarist and founder, Brian
Jones. The “forgotten Stone” is known to few newer Stones fans.
Still, Brian’s enigmatic persona and unique style mirrors Lennon’s
in the Beatles. Accounts claim Lennon was, in fact, closer to Brian
than any of the other Stones. The two were inseparable during the
infamous Rock N’ Roll Circus debacle of 1968 and there were even
rumors they discussed the possibility of a musical collaboration
prior to Brian’s untimely death in 1969. Our imaginations could
only envision how it would have turned out. Sadly, too few remember
Brian and the often understated impact he had on one of the most
quintessential rock n’ roll bands of all time.

I’ve read nearly every book on the life of Brian Jones and visited
his grave in the English countryside a few years back. Most books
say the same thing: they talk about Brian’s early life and
childhood; his meeting with Mick and Keith, which led to the
formation of the Stones; his subsequent downfall due to lack of
self-esteem and drug use, and his untimely death ruled a suicide
but still believed by many to be murder. Lost in all of these books
is the true insight into Brian as a person. There is mention of
both his many character flaws, which contributed to his ultimate
downfall, and his many attributes, including a tenacity that drove
the Stones to the forefront of a musical rebellion. The two
conflicting sides of Brian’s personality somehow melded together to
form a musician with unique talent, whose musical “flavorings”
helped the Stones stand out from their contemporaries; from the
sitar on “Paint It Black to the dulcimer on “Lady Jane”.

The Rolling Stones were formed in the early 60s when Brian came
together with childhood friends Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. In
the early years, the three held each other in admiration and even
lived together in squalor in a small London apartment without heat
during one of the roughest winters on record in the UK. Brian had a
hard time holding onto steady work and he and Keith would spend
hours practicing guitar riffs in their freezing apartment. The trio
would often share a bed to keep warm at night, a story that
eventually led to rumors that Mick and Brian had a sexual
relationship. Mick, Keith and Brian were the glue that held the
Stones together until they crossed paths with Andrew Oldham, who
became their manager and marketer. His business savvy impressed
the group and they trusted his input, which eventually included
elevating Mick and Keith to the post of songwriting team (an
unofficial ‘poster boys’). Though not able to break into the
“Glitter Twins” writing monopoly, Brian was able contribute
enduring musical masterpieces, with instruments ignored in
contemporary music up until that time. Truly gifted, Brian was able
to pick up just about any instrument and learn how to play it in
just a few hours time. His brilliant sitar performance on “Paint It
Black” is heralded as one of his best. The song owes its “classic”
status to Brian’s inspired performance. Regardless, Brian was
gradually removed as self-proclaimed ‘leader’ of the Stones. Only
those present can be certain of the dynamics at play, but the
accepted version is that Mick and Keith grew closer while writing,
as Brian became more and more alienated. His severe self-esteem
problem, something he was never able to conquer, apparently kept
him from offering input and further isolated him from the band. It
has been said that Brian actually wrote songs and had he been more
mentally stable, he might have been confident enough to present
them to the band. They are now rumored to be held by one of his
many ex-girlfriends. Some members of the Stones inner circle claim
that Brian, and not Keith Richards, actually crafted the famous
riff that launches the Stones classic “Satisfaction”. The story
goes that Brian was playing the riff one day, and Keith heard it.
Later, Keith awoke in the middle of the night and began playing the
riff into a tape recorder, expanding on it to create the tune that
became legendary. The rumor of Brian’s input has never been
corroborated. Ultimately, Brian’s paranoid insistence that the
remainder of the Stones were “out to get him” kept him from
achieving his most coveted musical: to be recognized as a
songwriter.

By the mid-60s, Brian Jones had developed a serious dependence on
illegal drugs. Sadly, these mixed badly with his poor mental
health, leading to further isolation and paranoia. If Brian were
alive today, he would most likely be diagnosed as manic depressive
and placed on medication to control his extreme ups and downs. In
Brian’s day, however, far less was known about such medical
conditions and Brian was left to cope with his growing stardom and
increasingly shrinking role in the Stones and unable to dig himself
out of the cycle of alternating megalomania and self-loathing.
Interestingly, Mick and Keith’s much-publicized “drug orgy” at
Keith’s home, Redlands, eclipsed Brian’s own arrest and trial for
retaining a controlled substance. Even in drug use, Brian had
failed to measure up and he continued to feel defeated. As Brian
sunk deeper and deeper into a drug-induced stupor, it has been said
that his personality became unbearable. Many claim the drug use
made him nasty and violent and he was accused of beating more than
one of his ex-girlfriends, which eventually lead to the infamous
“Anita Pallenberg incident”. Anita, a German model Brian met in
1966, has been called Brian’s only ‘true love’. In 1967, she
joined Brian and Keith, among others, on a trip to Morocco. Legend
has it Brian became irate with Anita and beat her to the point
where she fled to Keith, hysterical and begging for help. Keith
came to her rescue and the entire group left Morocco, leaving Brian
behind. Keith and Anita would eventually become lovers (legend has
it she also had onscreen intercourse with Mick while filming the
cult film “Performance”) widening the gap between Brian and the
other Stones even further. By the time Brian returned to the UK on
his own, his relationship with the Stones was beyond repair.

It’s clear, through stories from bandmates, ex-girlfriends and
friends, that Brian Jones could be an outright louse but he could
also be a trusted friend and confident musician. Sadly, by the time
the Stones recorded the infamous THEIR SATANIC MAJESTIES REQUEST in
1967, Brian was worlds apart from his former ‘best buddies’. He
hated the album and repeatedly begged the other Stones not to
release it, claiming it blatantly ripped off the Beatles SGT.
PEPPERS album. Strangely enough, this is the first Stones album
that featured a track written by a Stone other than Mick or Keith,
Bill Wyman’s “In Another Land”. Upon release, Brian’s opinion was
proven correct, as critics and fans dismissed the album as a pale
shadow of its Beatles counterpart. Over time, the album has been
given much more credit for its place in rock history. By the time
the Stones hit the studio to record the follow-up, 1968s BEGGARS
BANQUET, Brian was all but useless. Luckily, he was able to
contribute some fantastic slide guitar to “Salt of the Earth” and
lend some backup vocals to “Sympathy for the Devil”. Sadly, Keith
was forced to pick up most of the slack on this album, and Brian’s
dismissal from the Stones was all but imminent. Brian managed to
contribute mildly to LET IT BLEED, released in 1969, but his part
is barely worth a mention.

The Stones asked Brian to leave the group in June of 1969. The
split was reported in the press as mutual, and Brian retired to his
home, Cotchford Farm, formerly owned by A.A. Milne, writer of the
classic “Winnie the Pooh” books. Brian spent much time working on
music and ‘detoxing’ during this time. He reportedly discussed
collaborations with other musicians, including the members of
Credence Clearwater Revival and John Lennon. Sadly, on July 2,
1969, Brian Jones was found dead in his swimming pool, his passing
ruled “death by misadventure” a/k/a drowning. Interestingly,
neither Mick Jagger nor Keith Richards attended Brian’s funeral,
though the Stones held a ‘memorial concert’ in Hyde Park days after
his death. Both Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman attended the service
in Brian’s native Cheltenham, while rumors that Brian’s death was
actually murder surfaced shortly thereafter. First, his girlfriend
at the time, Anna Wohlin, was whisked away never to be seen again.
Second, though Brian was an expert swimmer and there was a nurse at
his home the evening of his death, no one was able to save him.
Third, though Brian did have narcotics in his system at the time of
his death, they were not strong enough to have rendered him
helpless in his own pool. New theories have abounded in books by
Wohlin and Terry Rawlings, among others. The general consensus is
that Brian was killed by a live-in contractor, Frank Thorogood.
Published reports claim the two had a falling out, prompting
Thorogood to hold Brian’s head under the water until he drowned.
Rawling’s book claims, according to former Stones tour manager Tom
Keylock, Thorogood eventually confessed to the crime on his
deathbed. British producer Stephen Wooley is currently working on a
film centered mainly on Wohlin’s book. STONED (scheduled for
release in early 2006) claims to finally ‘solve’ the mystery of
Brian’s death. According to Wooley, Janet Lawson (the nurse at
Brian’s home on the night he died) offered valuable information
that led to the ending of the film. The indie film may be hard to
find at local theaters but a DVD release is also planned. Whether
or not the film is a success, the music of the Stones will stand as
a testament to Brian’s legacy. If you aren’t familiar with the
early material, now is your chance to pick it up. It surely shaped
all Stones material to come, including their current work. If you
are interested in more on Brian’s life, there are many books to
check out, each with subtle nuances and interesting stories. Either way, it’s a pleasant musical education. Happy New Year!

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SUGGESTED EARLY STONES ALBUMS:

ENGLAND’S NEWEST HITMAKERS / 1964 [includes a fantastic cover
version of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away”]

THE ROLLING STONES, NOW! / 1965 [great slide work by Brian on
“Little Red Rooster”]

OUT OF OUR HEADS / 1965 [featuring the classic “Satisfaction”]

AFTERMATH / 1966 [standouts include “Paint It Black” and “Lady Jane”]

BEGGARS BANQUET / 1968 [Brian’s ‘swan song’ slide work on “Salt of
the Earth”]

“Jumpin’ Jack Flash” / 1968 single [some nice ‘color’ from Brian]

SUGGESTED READING:

“Who Killed Christopher Robin?” / Terry Rawlings [June 2005]

“The Murder Of Brian Jones” / Anna Wohlin [October 2000]

“Golden Stone” / Laura Jackson [October 1993] (this one is out of
print but worth finding)

“Death Of A Rolling Stone” / Mandy Aftel [September 1982] (major
collector’s item, fetching more than $200 used and very rare)

“The Last Decadent” / Jeremy Reed [July 1999]

“Brian Jones: The Inside Story of A Rolling Stone” / Nicholas
Fitzgerald [October 1985] (another rare find, not much new
information, but worth it for a collector)

“Paint It Black: The Murder of Brian Jones” / Geoffrey Guliano
[April 1994] (I’ve heard mixed reviews on this one; it’s quite
similar to Terry Rawlings’ book.)