Brian Jones: Death of a Rolling Stone
"The Nastiest Piece of Work You Ever Met"
In May 1962, 20-year-old Brian Jones placed an ad in England's Jazz News, seeking musicians for a new blues band he was putting together. The blues were Jones' passion, and he envisioned a Chicago-style blues band modeled on American blues master Muddy Waters's classic combo, consisting of rhythm and lead guitars, bass guitar, drums, harmonica, keyboards, and a vocalist. Jones himself was a natural musician who could pick up a new instrument and make music with it in no time. Emulating his hero, Muddy Waters, Jones taught himself how to play bottleneck guitar, dragging a glass or metal slide over open-tuned strings, which produced the essential and unmistakable blues sound. It wasn't long before he had a reputation for being the best slide guitar player in London.
The first person to respond to his ad was a square-jawed Scotsman named Ian Stewart who played boogie-woogie piano. Other musicians responded to the ad, but Jones was picky. Anyone who didn't see eye-to-eye with his vision for the band was soon ejected.
Jones pursued a young singer named Mick Jagger who was getting a lot of attention for his idiosyncratic vocal style and his gyrating stage moves. Jagger also played harmonica, which made him all the more appealing to Jones, who recognized Jagger's sex appeal with teenage girls. Jones instinctively knew that his band, like Elvis Presley before them, would have to tap into the teenage female market if they were going to make it. Jones met Jagger in a pub one night and invited him to come to a rehearsal.
That same night Jones also invited a skinny 18-year-old guitarist who happened to be tipping a pint at the pub. Keith Richards was known for being able to imitate the unique guitar playing of American rock'n'roll legend Chuck Berry. Jones wasn't sure Richards would fit it — he was leery of hardcore rock'n'rollers in a blues band, but he was willing to give Richards a try. To his surprise, Jones found that Richards' rhythm playing complimented his lead, and eventually they developed a style that has become the hallmark of the band — two interweaving guitars that switch parts freely, each one seamlessly going from rhythm to lead and back again.
Jones found a solid rhythm section in drummer Charlie Watts and bass guitarist Bill Wyman. Ian Stewart left the formal lineup but stayed close to the band and recorded with them frequently. When it came to naming the group, Jones looked to his idol and adapted the title of the Muddy Waters song, "Rollin' Stone."
In the early '60s, the Rolling Stones were just one of several dozen English bands, such as Herman's Hermits, Freddie and the Dreamers, the Honeycombs, and Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, who were struggling to make it big. But by the mid '60s one band, the Beatles, had taken the lead position, leaving the others in the dust. The fab four from Liverpool caught on with teenagers in Great Britain and America with their irresistible pop tunes and appealing public image. To the older generation, the Beatles' long hair was the most objectionable thing about them.
The Rolling Stones chose to distinguish themselves by going the other way, embracing a darker, more rebellious public posture. They went out of their way to be seen as the bad boys of rock, the band that parents would despise. The Beatles wore uniforms when they performed; the Stones wore whatever they wanted. Jagger and Jones dressed like dandies in ruffled shirts and flowing bell-bottom trousers while Richards cultivated a disheveled, dirty blue jeans, proto-punk look. The Beatles pumped out a steady stream of catchy tunes that became number one hits. The Stones proudly showed their down-and-dirty blues roots. When it came to drug use, the Beatles — at least until the psychedelic period in the late '60s — kept their personal habits out of the press. The Rolling Stones by contrast became synonymous with drug use in England. But it was one aspect of their bad-boy image that they would have preferred to have kept private because it nearly destroyed them as a band.
While the Beatles were soaring, playing in sold-out stadiums around the world, the Stones' progress was hampered by persistent drug busts that dragged Jones, Jagger and Richards into court to the delight of the Fleet Street tabloids. (Bassist Wyman and drummer Watts, the family men of the band, shied away from drugs.) Bad publicity affected the Stones' record sales, and drug charges prevented Jones from going on tour in America with the band. Jagger and Richards smoked hash and marijuana and experimented with harder drugs, but they were generally able to function and flourish as musicians during this period. Jones, however, was another story.
Bill Wyman in Stephen Davis's Old Gods Almost Dead summed up the two sides of Jones' personality: "He could be the sweetest, softest, and most considerate man in the world and the nastiest piece of work you ever met." By all accounts Jones suffered from low self-esteem, deep insecurity and paranoia. He was always desperate for a woman's company, but he treated his girlfriends horribly, physically abusing some of them. He fathered five children in his short life and refused to formally acknowledge any of them, let alone marry their mothers. Former lovers remembered him most for his wicked temper. He claimed to suffer from asthma and never went anywhere without an inhaler, yet none of his friends could recall ever seeing him have an attack.
But despite all his personal problems, Brian Jones was the most creative member of the band. As a musician, he was the envy of his peers, and his ability to pick up a new instrument and make it his own was truly remarkable. His work with the marimba on "Under My Thumb" and the sitar on "Paint It Black" from the Aftermath album are just two examples of his brilliance. He was also the driving force of the band, at least initially, taking the leadership role in business and creative matters until his drug use forced a changing of the guard.
Friction between band members in any rock 'n' roll group is almost inevitable, but in many cases personal differences don't stand in the way of making good music. The three front men of the Stones existed in a churning swirl of jealousies and shifting alliances. In 1963 Jones had cut a secret deal with their agent at the time, giving him five pounds more a week than the others because he was the leader of the band. That same agent had insisted on getting rid of Jagger, saying that he couldn't sing, and Jones was willing to go along with Jagger's ouster until their manager, Andrew Oldham, stepped in and pleaded the singer's case.
Jagger was the voice of the band, but Jones, with his fair-haired, androgynous looks was Jagger's rival in sex appeal. Richards had found a guitar soulmate in Jones, but that bond began to dissolve when Richards and Jagger started writing songs together. Not only did their original material give them the edge in creative control of the band, song royalties put more money in their pockets. According to singer Marianne Faithfull, who was Jagger's companion at the time, the building animosity between Jones and Jagger came to a head at a kiss-and-make-up dinner party at Richards' country house where "Brian pulled a knife on Mick." As recounted in A.E. Hotchner's book Blown Away, Jagger got the knife away from Jones, but their scuffle continued. Jones jumped into the moat that surrounded the house to escape Jagger's rage and Jagger followed him in. They tussled and thrashed in the water until they were too exhausted to continue.
By the late '60s Jones was unhappy with the Rolling Stones. The band he had founded was drifting away from his original concept: to interpret American blues and R&B for a white teenage audience. More and more the Jagger-Richards songs were setting the tone for the band, and it wasn't always to his liking. When the band had put together the songs for their psychedelic album, Their Satanic Majesties Request, Jones expressed his distaste for the work and predicted that it would bomb because the public would see it for what it was, a pale imitation of the Beatles' landmark album Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Feeling isolated from the band that he had created, Jones turned to drugs for solace.
Jones' drug use soon became a major liability for the Stones. Not only was he bringing them bad press, he was useless in the studio, frequently lying down on the floor and passing out with his guitar still strapped to him. They all agreed that they needed a break to reassess their situation. Jones and Richards decided to take a vacation in Morocco. Jones asked his girlfriend at the time, Anita Pallenberg, to go with them. But what they'd hoped would be a much-needed period of rest and relaxation turned into a holiday in hell.