He was the original Rolling Stone, the genius, the madman, the tortured artist, and one of rock’s first great tragedies. The story of Brian Jones is like a puzzle in which the shapes just don’t quite seem to fit and the colors don’t match. He was the Van Gogh of the early rock scene. His life is eerily reminiscent of the story told in “Like a Rolling Stone”, by Bob Dylan which, although about a woman’s fall from the grace of high-society life, ironically contains the name of Jones’ band and themes that coincide with his life. Apart from his complex character and untimely death, the fact that he is so often overlooked makes him one of the music industry’s most unfortunate figures.
“Please allow me to introduce myself
I’m a man of wealth and taste”
– “Sympathy for the Devil”, the Rolling Stones
Even as a child, Jones showed signs that he was destined for something big. He possessed a high intellect — he took challenging classes in school and had an IQ of 135. He did not, however, enjoy his time in school. He did not comply with the conformity that was enforced and was reportedly the school rebel and took no heed of authority. Nevertheless, he was for the most part academically successful despite his lack of interest and minimal effort. It was also during his childhood that he discovered his love for music. After first experiencing jazz, he took up the saxophone and played the clarinet in his school’s orchestra. But it was on his seventeenth birthday that he would receive his first guitar, his main instrument for the remainder of his life.
Despite the promise he showed, it seems that the young Brian Jones’ life would take an unexpected turn, when he got his girlfriend pregnant in his final year of school. Humiliated, Jones dropped out of school and travelled throughout Europe with nothing but his guitar to make a living off of — his academic life was over. The baby was put up for adoption shortly after birth. Jones would father four more children, all with different women, but he would never be a major father figure in any of their lives.
After returning to England, Jones became a part of the growing music scene. After putting out a request for in a local jazz newspaper, he caught the attention of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. The trio lived and played together. When booking a gig over the phone, Jones was asked what the name of their group was and in a moment of panic he glanced at the first song on the track listing of his copy of “The Best of Muddy Waters” : “Rollin’ Stone”. The name stuck. About a year later, bassist Bill Wyman and drummer Charlie Watts joined the band and the rest is history.
There is no doubt that without Brian Jones, there would never have been the Rolling Stones, but he did more than just put the group together and give them a name. I have always deeply admired multi instrumentalists, and Brian Jones was one of those people who who had the ability pick up any instrument and coax something beautiful out of it. His knack for manipulating almost any instrument allowed him to provide the band with sounds that were unconventional for rock music at the time. As stated before, he learned the saxophone, clarinet, and guitar during his childhood. As a Rolling Stone, he also played the harmonica, dulcimer, oboe, keyboards, organ, marimba, slide guitar, and like any psychedelic 60’s band should have, the mellotron and the sitar. What would “Under My Thumb” be like without that iconic marimba lick in the intro? Without Brian’s sitar playing, how would one recognize “Paint It, Black”, the revolutionary anthem for thousands of 1960’s youths?
A few prime examples of Brian on the sitar:
And the marimba:
And the recorder:
If you’re interested, check out some of Brian’s many other multi instrumental musical contributions.
“Lose your dreams and you will lose your mind,
Ain’t life unkind?”
-“Ruby Tuesday”, the Rolling Stones
For a while, it seemed that Brian Jones was at the top of the world — he was young, handsome, an influential member of one of the world’s leading rock bands, the face of the rising counter-culture, and a hero to an entire generation. But in the words of Robert Frost, nothing gold can stay.
In the Stone’s early days, Brian was the leader. He was responsible for booking gigs, he had control of what direction they were going musically, and he was even considered the charismatic frontman (yes, even with Mick there). As the band’s popularity grew however, the band’s new manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, began to shift focus to the Jagger/Richards combo, a songwriting duo that he hoped would compete with Lennon/McCartney. Moreover, it is reported that he suffered from frequent mood swings. He could switch from being perceptive and introspective to arrogant, ill-tempered, and insecure about his importance. It is speculated that he may have suffered from bipolar disorder. Alienated from the band both musically and socially, Jones turned to drugs and alcohol for consolation. It was drug abuse that would eventually render him incapable of contributing to the band musically.
“Love is a bed full of blues”
-“I Got the Blues”, the Rolling Stones
By this point, the once esteemed Brian Jones was quickly plummeting into darkness. Perhaps his descent could have been slowed if not for an act of betrayal by those he once held dear. After Mick and Keith’s infamous drug bust at Redlands, the Stones decided to lay low for a while and decided to take a trip to Morocco. It was hoped that Morocco would have the same spiritual, inspiring effect on the Stones that India had on the Beatles. If only they knew of the disasters their holiday would bring.
Leading up to their departure to Morocco from France, Jones had begun to feel sick. It was decided that it would be best for him to remain in France until he was better, while Richards and Jones’ then-girlfriend Anita Pallenberg would leave for North Africa. Jones was out of sight and out of mind, leaving Pallenberg and Richards alone at last. The situation only worsened after everyone was reunited. Jones spent the entirety of the trip in a dazed stupor as a result of his drug use and when Pallenberg finally had enough and made her relationship with Richards public, the combination of highs and heartbreak left him emotionally crippled and permanently estranged from his bandmates.
“I’ve got no expectations to pass through here again.”
– “No Expectations”, the Rolling Stones
It seemed that Jones could no longer function properly. His being constantly high ensured that he could no longer exercise any significant musical influence over his band. His musical ability was unpredictable during recording sessions, if he even bothered to show up. It’s said that sometimes he would do nothing but sit there, too tranquilized to contribute at all. According to Mick and Keith, his last great contribution to the Rolling Stones came out of nowhere. During the recording sessions for the album Beggar’s Banquet, Brian decided to show up. But he did not do as his bandmates expected. Rather than make a minimal effort to contribute, he listened to the chord sequence for “No Expectations” and began to play his signature slide guitar. Befitting of the moment this represented in Stones history, it is a song of longing and farewells, and Brian played the bluesy slide beautifully, just as he used to do. But this time the blues was not just an influence or a style mimicking his American blues-guitar idols. He was the blues.
Nevertheless, Brian would barely leave a mark on the Stones’ astounding album Let It Bleed. The band was planning on touring after the completion of the album and it was plain to see that Jones was in no condition to be on the road, much less actually perform. So it was decided that the end of the recording of Let it Bleed would also mark the end of the Brian Jones era of the Rolling Stones. The band had come together around him. Now it would leave without him. Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Charlie Watts informed him of the decision that was made and by June of 1969, Jones departed.
“I could not foresee this thing happening to you”
– “Paint It, Black”, the Rolling Stones
He was dead within a month. At his home at Cotchard Farm, Brian Jones was found at the bottom of his pool, still and unmoving. His girlfriend, Anna Wohlin, pulled him out and claimed that he still had a pulse, but by the time the doctors arrived it was too late. Brian was gone.
At the tender age of 27, Brian Jones was dead. Someone so young and with so much talent to offer the world instead suffered a fate of watery doom.
“Faith has been broken tears must be cried
Let’s do some living after we die”
– “Wild Horses”, the Rolling Stones
The life of Brian Jones was a short one, but one that left an immense impact upon the world. His death was a shock to the rock and roll community. In a world of seemingly immortal rockstars, full of inspiration, seemingly “enlightened” as a result of their use of “mind-expanding” drugs, he was the first of many stars to fall and meet his end as a result of it. Rockstars were not gods. They were mortal.
In the days following his death, a number of artists paid homage to Jones. The Who’s very own Pete Townshend would write a poem titled “A Normal Day For Brian”, expressing themes of mortality and a loss of innocence (not that rock was all that innocent to begin with) for rock and roll. George Harrison of the Beatles would write about the loss the world had suffered from Jones’ death and how he, personally, grieved for the loss of Brian as a friend. Jimi Hendrix, who happened to also be a close friend of his since the Monterey Pop Festival, dedicated a live performance to his memory. Jim Morrison of the Doors would compose “Ode to L.A. While Thinking of Brian Jones”. Both Hendrix and Morrison would die two years later, also at the age of 27.
Two days after the death of Brian Jones, the Rolling Stones held a free concert in Hyde Park. Only Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman attended Jones’ official funeral but the band agrees that his actual funeral was the concert in Hyde Park. Like any good memorial, there were fond words to be said about the deceased, reflecting back upon the good old days. Mick read aloud Shelley’s “Adonais” while white butterflies were released into the crowd in Brian’s honor. The concert in Hyde Park was not simply a funeral, however. It also marked a new beginning. It was at Hyde Park that the Rolling Stones were to introduce their newest member to the world, a brilliant guitar player who was only twenty years old at the time, Mick Taylor. So as the Brian Jones era ended, Mick Taylor would take the Stones down a new path that would lead on to more great music (my favorite Stones era). Then, in the year 1972 the Stones would release a revolutionary album, one full of passion and soul and most of all: blues. During the recording of Exile on Mainstreet, the Stones were at their lowest – they had left their home country for France to escape financial issues – they created some of their best music on this dark yet hauntingly beautiful album. Track #17, “Shine A Light” is a soulful, moving song not of despair, but of hope that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. This heavily gospel influenced tune is dedicated to the life and death of Brian Jones.
The story of Brian Jones, as tragic as it may be, is sure proof that yes, everything must come to an end. Even the greatest things must die one day, sometimes prematurely. Everything must run its course and meet its fatal end one day, but that does not mean that we wait around in despair for inevitable doom. We can move on, even after loss, because there will always be something new that arises. The newly arisen can by no means replace what was lost — people are not expendable parts of a machine that can be replaced by hardware store copies. But we can be assured that they will carry on the legacies of their predecessors and perhaps become legends in their own right. The world is cyclical, one thing ends and another begins and ends and begins and ends and begins and…