Friday, August 8, 2008

The Brian Jones Story

Published in 1982, Death of a Rolling Stone: the Brian Jones Story by Mandy Aftel claims to be the first biography of Brian Jones ever written. As avid readers of the rock-biography genre know (hello Jessica Espeleta and Chris Sutton!) the first well-researched, critically acclaimed book tends to get repeated over and over again in subsequent retellings. It is therefore always wise to read them in chronological order.

I have read at least three other Brian Jones biographies over the years as well as countless Rolling Stones books/articles/liner notes and know his story as well as any amateur rock historian does: he was pretty and tragic; ugly and violent; insecure yet immensely talented. As the Rolling Stones got more famous, Brian's precarious role in the band and infamous "inner-demons" collided head on, driving him into a successful execution of out-of-control self-destructive behavoir. He stopped being cute, then he stopped being pretty, then he stopped being alive.

The official myth goes like this: As the founding member of the Rolling Stones, Brian Jones failed to live up to his self-designated role of band-leader. When Mick and Keith emerged as a world-class songwriting team, Brian's ego couldn't take it. He wasn't a part of their duo. He was shut out of his own band, the only thing that gave him a positive sense of self. He went insane, taking huge amounts of all kinds of drugs to excess, getting even more ugly and violent in his personal relationships with women and eventually becoming so paranoid he couldn't function well enough to be a part of the group. When the British authorities decided to make an example out of him and send him to prison for minor marijuana possession, Brian's doctor testified that he would not survive incarceration. As most people he was close to seemed to have foreshadowed, he did not have long to live and was soon found dead floating at the bottom of his swimming pool, drowned after consuming a lethal combination of drugs and alcohol. The house he was living in had previously belonged to AA Milne, author of the children's classic Winnie the Poo and Now We Are Six. He was 27 but only a boy; he never grew up. Bill and Charlie were the only Rolling Stones to attend his funeral.

This book tells that story well. Mandy Aftel manages to get lengthy interviews with several of Brian's girlfriends (he fathered at least three illegitimate children) and several of his close friends, including Keith Richards. It's the first book she ever wrote and you can tell she is more than a little star struck. To her credit, she doesn't try to make Brian Jones into a saint. She doesn't apologize for his violence but she doesn't condemn it either. Her tone is one of acceptance: Brian was Brian and this is his story.

Long before I had ever met anyone as fucked up as Brian Jones or known anyone in a band who had gotten famous and hated it, this story resonated with me. I decided he was my favorite Rolling Stone as a young teen when I first played guitar to early Stones and 80's Kinks records on repeat. Like Brian, England's Newest Hitmakers is my favorite RS record followed by Beggar's Banquet, particularly the songs he plays slide guitar on--Salt of the Earth, No Expectations, Jigsaw Puzzle. The other thing I dug about the mid-late 60's stones was the groovy instrumentation. Legend has it, Brian could learn to play any instrument in an afternoon and is responsible for all that weird stuff on Aftermath and the beginning of 2000 Light Years from Home and Child of the Moon.

According to the end of the official myth, when Brian Jones died, the Rolling Stones played a previously scheduled concert in Hyde Park. In memory of Brian, they had planned to release butterflies at the beginning of one of their songs. The butterflies were supposed to fly away, up into the sky, free and fading. Instead they had suffocated in the stifling container they had been kept in, like those live lady bugs they sell in gardening stores; perhaps a more fitting eulogy.Marianne Faithful couldn't take it any more. She was breaking up with Mick and recovering from her own suicide attempt. When the butterflies failed to escape, she couldn't stop crying. The girls still cry for Brian.

Will we ever stop telling this story? What is it really all about? Why do some of us feel like we understand and identify with him and not with the women he allegedly abused? Internalized sexism? I'd like to think I'm smarter than that at this point in my life, although this is a question worth exploring for sure. Romanticism? My younger-self's fascination with tragedy faded when people I loved started dying young.

Watching early Rolling Stones footage, Brian Jones appears to be the wild one, but at the same time he seemed so sensitive and hurt, like a vulnerable "bad girl" who cares so much she doesn't care. Maybe that's it--the Brian Jones story as rock-n-roll allegory that bad girls can identify with? Surely we aren't given a place of our own in the rock-n-roll pantheon. Unless we seek out writers like Mandy Aftel who interview the former girlfriends of rock stars, we rarely even hear the voices of any women who were participants in the 1960's rock scene. With very few exceptions, our voices weren't documented. Girls have to identify with what little there was (is) and make do by twisting things around in our own heads; reconfiguring all the "she's" to "he's" in pop songs, reversing gender roles in our minds, creating ambiguity & fluidity -- recreating ourselves by actively making new meanings, like little girls making their Ken dolls have sex with each other and cutting off all Barbie's hair. If we are artists, we sometimes do this by mining pop culture for fossils we turn into broken mirrors we use to cast new reflections with.

This could explain Patti Smith's fascination with Brian. Both were androgynous: Brian wearing lady's jewelry and decorative dandy clothing and growing his hair long; Patti staying thin like an adolescent boy without any hips even after she gave her baby up for adoption. Patti read poems to Brian on his birthday after he died and talked about him at length in interviews.

I tried to put on Beggars' Banquet the other day and it was too heavy. I couldn't take it. At some point in the 90's I stopped listening to my favorite Rolling Stones records and started listening to post-Brian Jones records exclusively. They are less sad, more easy-listening. Some Girls is still the record I listen to the most today. Despite my fascination with Brian, I usually want escape, not murky sadness. Still, I sleep with a picture of Brian Jones over my bed, next to a portrait photograph of the real Christopher Robin. Images of eternal youth? Perhaps. Simply Romanticism? I don't think so.

Mandy Aftel chooses this Schopenhauer quote to commemorate Brian with in her preface:

"To have fame and youth at once is too much for a mortal".

Surely any woman who ever had a bad reputation in high school knows what that feels like.

I know I will never forget.

RIP Brian Jones.


decomposition said...

I've always been fascinated by Brian Jones' story as well. For me, it was a lesson in what to avoid. He represented, along with other '60s rock icons who self-destructed under the glare of fame, the capacity for talent to get overshadowed by a public persona that is impossible to match.

Tobi Vail said...

hi sharon, thanks for your comment. yes, the Brian Jones story can surely be read as a cautionary tale in how egoism destroys rock bands, yet clearly sometimes egoism seems to pose no problem. I have a hard time with the idea that Mick Jaggar is less egotistical than Brian Jones and he clearly isn't more talented musically, nor is Keith Richards, and they did fine maintaining their group despite their public personas turning them into cartoon characters. Of course it's arguable whether or not the Rolling Stones are any good anymore (I think they are) but it's clear that they are the example of "success" on many levels, from longevity to monetary to iconic.
I don't think Brian's persona got in the way of his talent--at the end of his life he was learning all about Moroccan music, experimenting with that influence and expanding his versatility by learning how to play more and more instruments. But he did destroy himself and that made him unable to make art. I think maybe his biggest problem was that he was a control freak without any control.
Thanks again for posting, let me know if you'd like to be a contributor, we'd love to have you writing for us!

Dennis said...

This has inspired me to re-read parts of Marianne Faithfull's autobiography. I thought it was called 'Unfaithful' but I guess it's just called 'Faithfull' or something. (I'd better check it out from the library.)

There is a very bizarre part (in the aforementioned autobiography) with her meeting the ghost of Brian Jones in the Astral World, but I couldn't find anything about it on the internet this morning.

decomposition said...

Hi Tobi, yes you bring up some really good points. I guess in my mind I think that Brian was less able to deal with his success than Mick, despite their mutual egos and destructive tendencies. Why Keith is still alive is a mystery to me!

I'd love to contribute when I'm able. How do I post to the blog?


Tobi Vail said...

ugh, somehow when i was editing this i erased half of it. so this is the abbreviated version. sorry guys. human errror.

Tobi Vail said...

Nevermind, I fixed it!