Rant ‘N’ Roll: Brian Jones Changed My Life

It is time to praise Brian Jones [1942-1969] instead of dwelling on how and why he never made it out of the ‘60s. I was one of those stateside kids biographer Paul Trynka writes about in Brian Jones: The Making Of The Rolling Stones (Viking) who watched ABC-TV’s Shindig! religiously and was watching on May 20, 1965, when Jones introduced a huge black man (6’3, 240) with the unlikely name of Howlin’ Wolf.

Where would I, a 14-year-old white kid in Newark, NJ, ever have heard of him otherwise?

There were millions more like me, baby boomers who loved the British bands who loved the American blues. That, right there, meant Jones, at 23, fulfilled his life ambition. All he ever wanted to do was to perform the music of his personal heroes: Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Son House, Robert Johnson and others. The Brian Jones Blues Band became, after a Muddy Waters song, The Rolling Stones.

Keith and Mick first met Brian when, as schoolboys, they were in the audience when Brian (a much more accomplished musician) was playing Jimmy Reed licks in the band of Alexis Korner. Later, Brian recruits them both to be in his own band, teaching Keith his famous Open G tuning (a tuning Keith lies about when he says he learned it from Ry Cooder in ’68). He teaches Mick how to pleasure girls. He gets drummer Mick Avory (the future Kink) and bassist Dick Taylor (the future Pretty Thing) to round out the band, teaches them all the songs, shows Mick how to play harmonica and, as the undisputed Stones leader, was not only the most intense visual presence onstage, but was a sexual, fashion and cultural icon for a generation of kids.

Problem was, manager Andrew Loog Oldham always hated him.

When Oldham prodded Mick and Keith to start writing their own tunes, instead of continuing to bring this Black American blues music to the fore, Brian went along with it and made their songs that much more listenable with his incredible prowess on all kinds of exotic instruments like sitar, saxophone, dulcimer and others. He actually co-wrote such Stones classics as “Ruby Tuesday,” “Paint It Black” and goodness knows how many others but never got the credit.

To put it bluntly, Mick and Keith were total pricks to him. Cold-hearted, uncaring, they’d leave him stranded in exotic locales. They oftentimes wouldn’t even have the tape running when he recorded his solos. When his solos were, indeed, laid down, Keith would give the mix a secret “sponge job,” and replace it with his own solos. Producer Jack Nitzsche talks of “a hardness at the heart of the Stones” that broke Brian down piece by piece to the point where he didn’t know what else to do in the studio. So he did drugs.

To lose control of one’s own band…to lose your pride and confidence after achieving your life’s ambition…and then the cruelest cut of all…to lose your girlfriend Anita to Keith…when Brian fell, he fell hard.

Top it all off with one Detective Sergeant Norman Pilcher, the infamous groupie cop who gorged himself on publicity by planting drugs on a generation of British rock stars (while asking for their autograph). He went after Brian with particular relish, seven times to be exact.

Sure, Brian was always weak, sick, overly sensitive, asthmatic, a total druggie and, actually, not very nice to women and children. He had his demons alright. The saddest part of this book is Mick softly telling Brian, “Go home, mate.” Brian was so broken down, he became useless in the studio, refusing to play guitar, and, truth be told, holding the band back. That’s when they hired people like Al Kooper to assist in the making of Let It Bleed.

Still, after getting kicked out of his own band, he pre-dated the world music craze with the album Brian Jones Presents The Pipes Of Pan At Joujouka.

Paul Trynka—as he did in his biographies of David Bowie and Iggy Pop—does a masterful job in presenting a life that had a profound effect upon kids on both sides of the Atlantic. He spares no expense in reporting how—even as late as their 2012 50th Anniversary Celebration—Mick and Keith have effectively whitewashed Brian Jones out of the band’s history. And for those conspiracy theorists who still claim to this day that Brian was murdered (most likely by driver Tom Keylock), there’s plenty of alternate endings that Trynka tries on for size.

At the time of his drowning death, Brian Jones might have, indeed, been in the planning stages of putting together a band with John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix. I would like to think that that’s true. We’ll never know, of course.

Thank you, Brian Jones, for kick-starting my lifetime blues obsession. And thank you, Paul Trynka, for blowing me away with this book.