Like a Rollin' Stone

Like a Rollin' Stone
Reviewer: Drew A
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Brian Jones:
The Making of the Rolling Stones
432 pages
October 09, 2014
ISBN 10:
ISBN 13:

For the first time, the complete story of the enigmatic founder of the Rolling Stones and the early years of the band.

One of the most enigmatic and tragic figures of the 1960s rock music scene is Brian Jones. A founding member of the Rolling Stones, if not the founder, as well as a brilliant multi-instrumentalist, his short life and career is the stuff of legend, myth, and misinformation. The charter member of the modern-era 27 Club, he's more remembered for his problems with drugs, his steep and sudden musical decline, and his mysterious death. These perceptions of him have been fostered and abetted by numerous people over the decades, perhaps none more so than the two bandmates with whom he first plotted the course of the band and who later froze him out. Indeed, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards formed one of the most successful songwriting teams of the rock era and, along with former manager Andrew Oldham, subsequently marginalized, subdued, and in many ways psychologically destroyed Brian Jones. Most Stones history of the nearly fifty years since Brian's death portray him as a tragic casualty of the rock lifestyle, but in Paul Trynka's new book it's laid out that the truth is far more interesting...and different.

From reading various accounts of Rolling Stones history over the years, including memoirs by Richards and Oldham, one would think that Brian Jones was little more than a drug addled musical dilettante who fathered numerous illegitimate children whom he didn't support. Indeed, that was pretty much how I had always viewed him; the stories of him nodding off in a drug-induced stupor during recording sessions, of smacking around his girlfriend-of-the-moment, of making life so intolerable for the other Stones that they had to ditch him to save their own careers...these were all things I'd read and heard over the years and which formed my opinion of Jones. Are any of them true? Yes, actually most of them are. However, they didn't just happen in a vacuum and as is usual with these sorts of complex people, there is typically a fair amount of good that counterbalances the bad. This is where author Paul Trynka seems intent on taking Brian's story.  Rigorously researched and drawing upon new interviews with many people who were around the Stones and the London rock scene in the 1960s, Trynka sets out with this book to tell the definitive, true story of Brian's life and also to reestablish his status as a pioneer of British blues, R&B, and rock music.

Trynka begins with Brian's birth and upbringing, describing in excruciatingly sad detail the nearly loveless and emotionally bereft household he was brought up in from his birth in 1942. Brian's parents, Lewis and Louisa, were successful in their careers and welcomed their eldest child (and only son) into this very stern and cold house. While they were both musical (Louisa was a piano teacher), according to every account from Brian's childhood friends the atmosphere in the house was very unaffectionate.  A sister born when Brian was very young died of leukemia and was a secret the boy was instructed to never divulge to anyone outside of the house. Another sister, Barbara, was born a few years later although she and Brian were never particularly close. By all accounts, Brian was a shy, sensitive, intelligent student who excelled at school and was a star athlete until his chronic asthma began to flare up enough that it affected his physical abilities. As one of his classmates later recounted, beyond resenting the his asthma, Brian resented himself for suffering from it and never got over it. Brian's interest in music was first indulged when he began playing clarinet and saxophone at school and he heard his first jazz record. Eventually his parents bought him a guitar and once he was bitten by the blues, music was all that he lived for. Combined with a growing disrespect for authority figures and his developing prowess with girls, Brian became a profound disappointment to his austere parents and the estrangement that would last the rest of his life began in earnest. It was also around this time he began fathering a series of illegitimate children and causing heartbreak in the lives of each of the women who he'd eventually abandon. 

Deciding to risk it all by moving to London and plying his trade, Brian soon made a name for himself as one of the most knowledgeable and talented blues and R&B guitarists on the burgeoning London scene. In particular, his ability to play authentically gritty slide guitar caught the attention of many, including a couple of young schoolboys from Dartford named Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.  Brian eventually set out to put a band together and recruited Ian "Stu" Stewart, Mick and Keith, bass player Bill Wyman (who replaced the original bassist); after an unsuccessful first attempt at poaching him, he successfully persuaded Charlie Watts to join on drums and the Rollin' Stones (as Brian originally named them) were born. While the band collectively worked toward their goals, it was Brian who was the undisputed leader during these early days of 1962-1963. He formed the band, named it, decided on what material they would play, and he booked the gigs. However, the beginning of the end came with the arrival of the Stones' first co-manager, Andrew Oldham. A fast-talking teenager who had recently worked with the Beatles and unsuccessful co-managed the Who before they were famous, Oldham fixated on Jagger as the star and also (rightly) realized the band needed to pen original songs in order to sustain their success as he didn't think covers would earn them much money or respect. Encouraging the Jagger/Richards partnership to begin writing songs, Oldham formed a troika with Mick and Keith that began the slow process of isolating and freezing Brian out out the band. According to Trynka, as early as 1965 Brian could sense what was happening and planned an escape route. However, like most things in his life, he had big ideas and talked a good game but never followed through on anything. Eventually he sank deeper into drug addiction and was relentlessly (and honestly, unfairly) hounded by the police, led by the notorious Sgt. Norman Pilcher who became famous for planting drugs and tipping off tabloids in advance of his high profile busts. While Jagger, Richards, John Lennon, George Harrison, and Donovan were all notches in Pilcher's belt, Brian Jones was public enemy #1 because of how blatantly he flouted authority; he would thus become the target for a staggering number of repeated plants and busts. Combined with some downright nasty treatment from the Stones (to be fair, Wyman saw what was going on and didn't participate, while Charlie Watts saw it but remained quiet) and Oldham, led to Brian becoming a shell of himself. By early 1969 he'd been sacked from the band and on July 2nd, 1969 he was found dead in his swimming pool at the age of 27.

Trynka's book does an excellent job of providing a detailed history of the Rolling Stones' career in the 1960s through the prism of Brian's life and the pictures he paints of both aren't pretty. While it's well known that the band were embattled with the press and the establishment, the darker internal band issues are laid bare. It is surprising to realize just how close to the brink of dissolution, both financially and artistically, the Stones were even as late as 1968 before they saved their career with Beggars Banquet. While Brian's character faults (and there were many) are detailed and make understandable the exasperation of those around him, it was also obvious to multiple people involved in and around the band how downright cruel and nasty Mick, Keith, and Oldham were to him. From inviting him to sessions and telling him the wrong time so that he would show up when no one was at the studio, to wiping his parts off of songs or not plugging his amp and microphone in, they did everything they could to make him unwelcome and marginalized within the band.  Combined with external pressures and his mental issues, it reached a point where Brian stopped playing guitar altogether by 1966 or so.  While this actually helped to enhance much of the Stones' best music (for instance, his sitar part on "Paint It Black," his marimba part on "Under My Thumb," and his recorder part on "Ruby Tuesday") eventually it reached the point where he would just come to the studio and nod off or wander around while the rest of the band went about their business.  By the time of the last Stones album he contributed to, 1969's masterpiece Let It Bleed, he was begging to play bongos, harmonica, anything while Mick famously and coldly told him to "just go home, Brian."  Keith ran off with Brian's girlfriend Anita Pallenberg in early 1967 on a trip they all took to Morocco and they, along with Mick, abandoned him there all alone with no money, among other indignities.  In reality, it is a testament to Brian's resolve and forgiving nature that he stuck it out in the band for another two years! Trynka details all of this, much of it via firsthand accounts from friends, producers, fellow musicians, and music journalists who were all around during this period. The resulting portrait depicts a very talented, sensitive, and flawed young man who drove those around him to madness yet took a physical, mental, and emotional battering from those closest to him which eventually wore him down and indirectly led to his death.

Speaking of his death, Trynka tries to set the record straight once and for all with his final chapter. Rather than tackling the event head on, he systematically goes through each of the various theories that have sprung up over the years, one-by-one, and discusses their plausibility (or lack thereof), using facts old and new and good old fashioned common sense in order to include or exclude different scraps of information. His conclusion is that (***SPOILER ALERT***) Brian's death was simply a tragic accident. While there are some inconsistencies in the witnesses' stories, some shoddy police work and a woefully sloppy (in the figurative sense) autopsy, as well as lingering suspicions about Brian's driver Tom Keylock, all of the evidence points to it being an accident. Basically, Brian, who was known to nod off due to his overindulgence in Mandrax (a muscle relaxant) most likely had an unfortunate nodding-off spell while swimming in his pool that night. And while Keylock was indeed a sleazy character who was later found to have stolen many of Brian's possessions and sold them to collectors, he most likely had nothing to do with the death (and his subsequent "revelation" of a deathbed confession by Frank Thorogood, a builder who had been working at Brian's house, has been soundly debunked).  As a final reminder of the lack of warmth and love from his parents, it's mentioned how Lewis and Lousia inscribed Brian's headstone with "In Affectionate Memory;" even in death, his parents seemed incapable of expressing to him the love which he had so long craved. It makes for a depressing ending to a very sad life.

During this concluding chapter and indeed throughout the entire book, Trynka goes to great lengths to almost plead with the reader than they shift the decades-long focus on Brian's death to his life and music instead. He does this by not only documenting several instances where Brian's pioneering musical achievements have been downplayed or forgotten (such as his introducing open tunings to Keith as early as 1962/63, his use and incorporation of unorthodox and ethnic instruments on the Stones' classic recordings between 1965-68, his introducing the blues to a mainstream audience) but how there were aspects of Brian's personality that were actually enjoyed by his friends. Indeed, for as insufferable as he truly could be, Brian did have a lot of friends and admirers...shockingly, all of them were from outside of the Rolling Stones. Pete Townshend, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Jimmy Page, Alexis Korner, Ginger Baker, and others all spoke fondly of Brian and hung out with him regularly, whereas Mick, Keith, Stu, Andrew Oldham, and many others within the Stones camp have spent the years since his death doing whatever they can to all but write him completely out of their history. Trynka does a nice job trying to reclaim Brian's musical legacy and I would say that he succeeds in the main; personally, I had always thought of his as a flawed musician, talented but a dilettante. While he was indeed a dilettante in most aspects of his life (not just music), it didn't make him any less important to the Stones or 1960s rock music and I will admit that this book changed many of the preconceived notions I had about Brian. The author is clearly a fan of Brian's and that comes through loud and clear in his writing. While I won't say he's unbalanced, there are many instances where, in trying to present both sides of a situation he will give one or two sentences in Mick or Keith's defense (for example) and then devote an entire paragraph (or more) to Brian's defense. While it's not unbalanced per se, the bias is definitely in favor of Jones, although given that this is a book about him that's shouldn't be too surprising. Overall, this is an excellent book that not only gives a nice history of the Stones' career in the 1960s, but serves to set the record straight on Brian Jones and reclaim his legacy as the musical pioneer he truly was.

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