Brian Jones - The Life and Death of a Rolling Stone
Shortly before midnight on the night of July 2, 1969 authorities arrived at Cotchford Farm, the home of Rolling Stones founding member Brian Jones. Under the light of a Sussex moon, near a stone replica of the real Christopher Robin, son of previous owner A.A. Milne, they found a body that had been floating face-down in a swimming pool. The body of Brian Jones.
July 3, 1969: After failed attempts at resuscitation Brian Jones was pronounced dead. As the sun broke over the sleepy city, Londoners were waking to confused and shocking news reports. That day marked the beginning of one of the most controversial and mysterious rock and roll deaths of all time. A mystery that has never been solved. Over the years witnesses have changed their stories. Rumors have persisted, and grown, that his death, categorized by the coroner as 'death by misadventure', was actually murder.
Playboy Presents: The Rise and Fall of the First Rock Star by Robert Greenfield
In the annual 'Sex and Music' issue (March) of Playboy magazine, on newsstands now, Rolling Stones biographer, Robert Greenfield writes about this talented and tragically doomed rock star whose birthday is February 28th. He explains the meteoric rise and fall of Brian Jones with an eloquence that few can muster. He describes Jones' unique magnetism, how his musical genius left an indelible mark on the pages of rock and roll history. And what made his death such a fascination that now, more than forty years later, the case has been reopened and his body is expected to be exhumed. An end to the mystery, once and for all.
Brian Jones was my first 'dead crush', that's the name I've given to dead men that I've had crushes on over the years. He would be joined later on that list by Marc Bolan, James Dean, Phil Lynott, Bon Scott, and Bob Marley, amongst others. The most recent addition: Heath Ledger. A crush that might have been inappropriate due to the age difference now takes on a hauntingly romantic quality, acceptable only in postmortem.
It never ceases to amaze me when I bring up Brian Jones' name how few people know who he was. Most people know that the Rolling Stones were always considered the 'bad boys' of the British Invasion, that they were the antithesis to The Beatles squeaky clean, wholesome image. But few know why.
The Glimmer Twins, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, may have terrified parents and gotten The Rolling Stones banned from radio stations and concert halls with their lyrics. They may have had bad reputations, but they never had the sexual magnetism to threaten the moral framework of an entire generation of female fans. No. That was Brian Jones.
If you talk to kids today about The Rolling Stones they're likely to shrug and stare back at you with a glassy-eyed vacancy normally reserved for history and literature teachers. They're just not interested in hearing about old guys.
If you mention Keith Richards, you must preface it with a reference point. You know, the guy who played Jack Sparrow's father in Pirates of the Caribbean. Now that guy they remember. Captain Teague, the keeper of the code; a perfect role for Richards. Whoever decided to drag his frazzled, leathery ass out from under his rock is a casting genius and owed a drink on my tab. It does my heart good to see that he hasn't lost any of his ability to frighten parents and young children alike.
And Mick Jagger? The one with the lips. Yes, he does still fancy himself a sexy thing. But as recognizable as their names and facial features may have become over the years, neither was the original 'face' of The Rolling Stones. That would be Brian Jones.
Brian was the beautiful Stone. With golden hair and a devilish smile, he exuded a sang-froid sexuality that threatened to corrupt any woman who crossed his path. He carved a persona and lifestyle out of the words 'rock and roll'. He was, as Greenfield says, the first real rock star. He created a look that would be re-packaged and re-released over decades. A narcissism that would become standard for pop stars, from 80's hair bands to today's most flamboyant rappers -- most of whom have no idea that they're following in the footsteps of a pale, white, British boy whose love of the blues opened the doors for the music they're playing.
The Stones were created at a time when the generations were at a cultural dividing point, the elders clinging desperately to a patriarchal paradigm, the youngsters rejecting that rigidity for the anthems of freedom and experimentation. Brian Jones was a perfect reflection of the spirit of his age. Experimenting with drugs, rejecting masculinity for androgyny, leading young girls astray with a crooked grin and the attitude of a bored aristocrat.
I first learned of Brian Jones when I was in junior high school. I had a nineteen-year-old roommate who had the entire catalog of Rolling Stones albums. She loved sharing the background stories of bands with me. We would listen together and she would talk as I looked at the album covers, pointing out who was who as she narrated their stories. From her I inherited my voracious appetite for rock history. She introduced me to The Rolling Stones.
I developed my dead crush on Brian Jones through her stories. Staying up late into the night we covered each album in turn. She told me that I must read the unauthorized biography on them. I searched the school libraries for the book, but that was hardly reading material fit for Junior High students. It wasn't easy, but I did finally manage to find a copy of the biography in the public library. It wasn't until I read the words in clear, black type that the reality actually hit me. Brian Jones was dead. For me it was as if his death had just happened, and I suppose in some ways that is so. I felt betrayed. Cheated. I would never know the corporeal experience of his musical genius or his rebellious spirit in my lifetime.
Over the years the story has stuck with me, along with the speculation over what happened on the night of his death. That first biography I had read Up and Down With the Rolling Stones by Tony Sanchez has since been discounted as more tripe than truth. Stories of Brian being tortured mentally by the likes of Eric Clapton and other members of the British rock explosion. The conclusion reached about his death was that he had been drowned. Witnesses reported that there was a party, that they had heard two men laughing, taunting Brian from the pool and then someone realized that Brian was dead and everyone split, leaving him floating there alone.
Later many of the speculations on his death were discredited, only to be brought back to life as witnesses changed their stories and old evidence was re-examined. For every question answered, a plethora of new questions was raised. No matter how neatly they tried to wrap up the package of his death, it still left the world with an unanswered mystery. What happened on the night of Brian Jones' death, who was at the house with him and, if he was murdered, who did it? Was it an intentional homicide brought on by jealousy over money and women, as some have suggested? Or was it a tragic accident, a joke that had gone too far, as others have insisted?
Robert Greenfield's article on Brian Jones covers his first meeting with Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, it covers the memorial concert they held in Hyde Park. It includes much of the speculation on the cause of his death: The asthma he had suffered since childhood, the controversial and unsupported deathbed confession by a construction contractor in his murder. Brian Jones drowned, by formal accounts, from a lethal mixture of drugs and alcohol. What has now been revealed is that the coroner's report recorded no drugs and only a small amount of alcohol in his system.
The Rolling Stones were a highly controversial band at the time of Brian's death, due in large part to his highly publicized antics, from drug busts and arrests to his tumultuous relationship with Italian model, and mirror image, Anita Pallenberg and her ultimate betrayal--leaving him for bandmate Keith Richards. Brian had announced his departure from the band that he had helped create just weeks before his death, leading to speculations of suicide. Another possibility that his re-opened case will examine.
The gossip surrounding the Stones over the years has blurred their true contribution to rock and roll. The Stones had a raw, in-your-face, way of delivering a message. No one could ever accuse them of playing patty-cake with their music. The lyrics alone separated them from the lighter fare of their British counterparts. Lyrics like "I'll be in my basement room with a needle and a spoon" (From Dead Flowers) and "I've seen your face in a trashy magazine. You know where you're goin', but I don't like the places you've been." (From Ride On, Baby), as well as the infamous censorship on The Ed Sullivan Show when the Stones were forced to change 'Let's spend the night together' to 'Let's spend some time together' turned them into a band unlike any other that the world had encountered.
Later their blatant lyrical dialogue about sex and drugs would be emulated by others; Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison would capitalize on ground broken by the Stones -- but they were the first to reveal the dark side of rock and roll, and the price they paid was high. Scrutiny by the police and the press made them a constant target and allowed the world at large to ignore the significance of their musical contribution, Brian Jones' in particular. He could master any musical instrument within hours. He was revered and sought after by American musicians like Jimi Hendrix, but in Britain jealousy amongst his peers and harassment by the authorities made him an outcast and a liability.
Most people from that generation fit themselves into two categories. Beatles or Stones. Both bands were, by all accounts, musical pioneers. But the Stones brought something to the table that was missing in those days of lollipop British rock. An intellectual context that challenged their fans, lyrics that sometimes read like history book text. As much as parents and critics may have tried to denigrate "Sympathy For the Devil" as nothing more than a satanic attempt to brainwash a susceptible youth, there is no denying that it is an intellectually stimulating historical jaunt. I've always harbored a sneaky suspicion that it was something of a rip-off of the poem 'Negro' by Langston Hughes. I can only say 'well done' if that is so.
The truest testament to the power that Brian Jones held over the popular imagination of his time is the fact that more than forty years after his death his body will likely be exhumed. The world still wants answers. It's a sad fact, but it must be faced: the eighties did to the Rolling Stones what it did to so many other well-respected rock bands. It killed them. Turned them from rock stars into pop stars. There could be no clearer evidence of this than the sight of Mick Jagger nancing around, doing his trademark goose-step, dressed in spandex tights and knee pads. There's just no turning back from something like that. Admittedly the death knell has not yet sounded for The Rolling Stones, not entirely anyway -- None of them have gone into politics, knock Wood.
The story of the life and death of Brian Jones is spellbinding, his death, as much as it has recaptured the popular imagination, is far less interesting than his life. The seven-page article that Robert Greenfield has written about this man, who rose to the heights of rock idolation only to lose it all by the age of 27, is devastating and humbling. He has a way with verbal imagery that, coupled with great pictures, brings the past to life. His time-line style accounting of Brian's life is both fascinating and tragic.
At the risk of sounding cliched, I must say it: I read Playboy for the articles. Which is not to say that the sight of beautiful, naked, nubile women doesn't effect me, it just effects me differently than it would male readers. I find myself hitting the gym with a vigorous enthusiasm that some might mistake for desperation. This article by Robert Greenfield is just one example of the great writing that goes on between the photo pages. It highlights the achievements, controversies and downward spiral in the life of this enigmatic rock and roll hero. It might just make you, as it did me, have to pick up a copy of Greenfield's Exile on Main Street: A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones.
You might also want to dig up a copy of Up and Down With The Rolling Stones by Tony Sanchez. If you can find one. 'Spanish Tony', as Greenfield refers to him in Exile on Main Street, knew the Stones intimately for years but this book is unauthorized. It paints a fairly dark picture of The Rolling Stones prior to Jones' death, but it is extremely well written and fascinating, a hard book to put down. I've been searching and have yet to locate a copy myself. If you do find it, please grab a copy for me. I'll pay you back in promises—I promise.
Watch the trailer for the 2005 movie Stoned.
A look at the final months of Brian Jones' life. It follows the unsubstantiated claim of a deathbed confession of murder by construction worker Frank Thorogood.
"Forget the Past, his fate and fame shall be
An echo and a light unto eternity"
Adonais (BBC audio) by Percy Bysshe Shelley
(The poem read by Mick Jagger at the Memorial Concert for Brian Jones in Hyde Park)
The Death of Brian Jones, the First Rock Star
was originally published by me on blogcritics.org on February 27, 2010
It became a blogcritics culture feature on Brian Jones' birthday --
Happy Birthday Brian