(This profile of Brian Jones, with a few alterations, was written by me in 1981 on the 12th anniversary of his untimely death.)
He is not dead, he doth not sleep—
He hath awakened from the dream of life—
–“Adonais,” Percy Shelley
That is an excerpt from an excerpt of Shelley’s poem which was read by Mick Jagger as a tribute to Brian Jones at a free Rolling Stones concert in London’s Hyde Park in July 1969. Following his recital to the hushed, mourning afternoon audience, Jagger unleashed 3,500 butterflies to flutter by and zigzag in helter-skelter grace over the quarter-million Hyde Parkers.
“You can’t come down from being a Rolling Stone,” wrote Greil Marcus. “No way down, and one way out.”
That one way, of course, was–Shelley’s words, notwithstanding–The Big Sleep. Brian Jones, 27, drowned in his swimming pool 12 years ago this month. Booze, drugs, asthma, failing health, a midnight dip, nefarious guests: all elements of a who-or-what-dunnit. Who knows what really happened? The coroner’s verdict was “death by misadventure.” A perversely fitting toe-tag to a life peppered with misadventure.
Deservedly called the soul of The Rolling Stones, founder and original member Jones either officially quit the band or unofficially was booted out–The Stones were uncharacteristically diplomatic in discussing his exit–shortly before his tragic, moonlit check-out.
“The Stones’ music is not to my taste anymore,” Jones said in a press(ing) release. “I want to play my own kind of music. We had a friendly meeting and agreed that an amicable termination was the only answer.”
Reportedly Jones had become an albatross to The Stones. The others were anxious to tour again, after a two-year layoff, but Jones’ stage legs were far too shaky, as it were. Physically, mentally and legally (drug arrests had left him visa-less), he was in no condition to hit the road.
“When I first met Brian,” Keith Richards told Rolling Stone in 1971, “he was like a little Welsh bull. He was tough, but one thing and another, as he went along, he got more and more fragile and delicate. His personality and physically. I think all that touring did a lot to break him.”
Wrote Greil Marcus,“Jones was perhaps more of a Rolling Stone than any of the others. What the Stones as a group sang about, what Jagger and Richards wrote about, Jones did, and he did it right out in public, and he got caught, and he looked the part.
“Paternity suits even in the early days, dope busts, pink suits, chartreuse suits, the bell of yellow hair and the impish grin, even the red and yellow stripes he wore that made Jagger look like he was wearing Salvation Army leftovers—that was Brian Jones. A true rake. He wasn’t acting out The Stones’ music, he just happened to be The Stones’ music.”
Rolling Stone wrote of Jones, “With his fair, pouting face topped by a full bowl of flaxen blond hair, he was invariably placed in front of the others for group photos. (Look at the covers of Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass), Aftermath, Out of Our Heads and December’s Children.) He was the most hairy, the most dapper, and the most versatile with musical instruments.”
The dulcimer on “Lady Jane,” marimba on “Under My Thumb,” recorder on “Ruby Tuesday,” sitar on “Paint It Black” and “Street Fighting Man,” mellotron on Satanic Majesties’, and a guest-shot blowing sax on The Beatles’ “You Know My Name, Look Up the Number” were all courtesy of Brian Jones.
“Brian’s incredible,” said producer Glyn Johns in ’68. “He seems to be able to play anything he picks up…I don’t care what it is, give him five minutes with it and he’ll play it.”
Onstage, the main axe handled by Jones was guitar, but he was an underrated harmonica player as well. Many of the Stones’ early tracks howled with his slide guitar and harp.
“You know, there’s something really escapes people now, and I miss it when I hear Mick Jagger play the harmonica,” commented Pete Townshend in ’70, “and that’s Brian Jones’ harmonica playing. Brian really was a good harmonica player. He was into quite a lot of ethnic stuff.”
If Jones ever chipped in ideas for Stones’ compositions, he was never credited. Outside the band’s Jagger-Richards songwriting monopoly, Jones did compose, arrange and produce the music for Mord und Totschlag (the English title was A Degree of Murder), Germany’s entry into the 1967 Cannes Film Festival. But even if he had no involvement in the Stones’ songwriting per se, it’s clear when you compare post-Jones Stones to the earlier era that his contributions to arrangement were an integral part of what made those records the gems they were and still are. At the very least, he colored the music beautifully and offered it a variety and richness that slowly began to vanish once he did.
In the mid-‘60s, The Rolling Stones were the enfants terrible, the premier punks of rock & rolldom. Under the tutelage of Andrew “Loog” Oldham, they cultivated a scruffy, bad-boy public image (only to become, ironically, in the ‘70s, the jet-set’s pets, clinking cocktail glasses with the likes of Lee Radziwill and Truman Capote). Not surprisingly, the press took them on at every chance.
The difference in character between Keith Richards and Brian Jones is summed up in their reactions, circa ’65, to their detractors. While certainly having no sympathy for the devils who hounded The Stones in print, Richards could at least quip, “I don’t care what they write about us as long as they write about us.”
But his bandmate, Jonesing for respect, spit out, “These ruddy reporters don’t seem to want to take us seriously. Well, that’s OK. We’ll make them eat their lousy words one day.”
A series of calculated dope busts helped “19th Nervous Breakdown” become a reality for Jones as he began to suffer from a severe moxie-deficiency. As Richards put it, “They really went for him like when hound dogs smell blood: ‘There’s one that’ll break if we keep on.’ And they busted him and busted him–like they did to Lenny Bruce, the same tactics, break him down. That cat got so paranoid at the end.”
Jagger, in a ’74 interview added, “As far as Brian was concerned, it wasn’t only that, there must have been other contributing factors, but it finished him off—there’s no doubt about that.”
Which proves you can get blood from a Stone.
“Brian was desperate for attention,” continued Jagger. “He wanted to be admired and loved and all that…which he was by a lot of people, but it wasn’t enough for him.”
After Jones’ death, George Harrison and John Lennon, both friends from the early days, were asked to comment on the man. Harrison recalled, “I got to know Brian very well, I think, and I felt very close to him. You know how it is with some people, you feel for them, feel near to them…I don’t think he had any love or understanding. He was very nice and sincere and sensitive.”
John Lennon said, “Well, Brian was different over the years as he disintegrated. He ended up the kind of guy that you dread he’d come on the phone, you know, because you knew it was trouble. He was really in a lot of pain. But in the early days he was all right, because he was young and confident…He wasn’t sort of brilliant or anything, he was just a nice guy.”
Brian Jones unwittingly wrote his own epitaph. At his funeral, quoting from a telegram Jones had written to his parents following one of his drug arrests, the priest reportedly read his main-line plea: “Please don’t judge me too harshly.”
The harshest judgment by history would be to forget him and the undeniable impact he had on one of rock’s greatest bands. As his stalwart fans insist, “No Jones, no Stones.”
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