The acclaimed guitarist Gary Lucas (Captain Beefheart, Jeff Buckley, Gods and Monsters, Lou Reed, et al.) has long held a special flame for Brian Jones, the co-founder of the Rolling Stones whose deep love of American blues gave the band a gritty edge the Beatles lacked. A provocative new documentary, Rolling Stone: Life and Death of Brian Jones, inspires Lucas to examine Brian’s often overlooked importance to the Stones, as well as Brian’s influence on Lucas himself.
Rolling Stone: Life and Death of Brian Jones, a new documentary by Danny Garcia, offers a fascinating look into the short, tragic, meteoric life of the man who pretty much singlehandedly created the image of Ye Classic English Rockstar —a musical wunderkind, androgynous, decadent, dressed to the nines. Jones went out not in a blaze of glory but in a soggy, drug-besotted haze, done in by the very Dionysian forces he helped summon up and unleash.
The official cause of his demise—according to the British coroner, “Death by Misadventure” (drowning supposedly due to an asthma attack)—is pretty well debunked here in this excellent new documentary, which contains much in the way of trenchant interviews and some new information about the Great God Brian. His body was found in the swimming pool of his Cotchford Farm estate, A.A. Milne’s old joint in the East Sussex countryside, where Brian had semi-retired for the nonce to lick his wounds after being set up for several drug busts and kicked out of the Stones.
Brian (a name meaning “high” or “noble” in Old Celtic), besides fathering The Rolling Stones as we knew and loved them, also begat 5 or 6 illegitimate children at a very tender age while simultaneously putting his genius musical stamp on what for me is the Golden Age of the Stones: their early to late ‘60’s period, with my buddy producer/ manager Andrew Loog Oldham at the helm.
In fact, the very first thing I ever heard by what soon became my all-time favorite group, which came wafting over the ether through the cheap earbud of my transistor radio in early 1965, was Brian’s guitar, playing the siren-like circular tremelo’ed riff of “The Last Time”, which immediately sealed the deal and sucked me into the Stones’ vortex.
Like every guitarist in the known universe attempting to cover this song, I always played this riff in first position way down the neck of my guitar, picking out the notes using conventional E7 to D to A chord shapes. But it was not until the advent of YouTube and the first appearances of black-and-white footage of the Stones playing live did the full-flowering genius of Brian Jones hit me in its mighty totality—as there he is in all his glory, playing his Million Dollar Riff way the heck up the neck of his teardrop-shaped white Vox Phantom guitar on the 5th and 7th frets, executing his meme-like riff to perfection as a series of pull-offs and hammer-ons on the 4th, 3rd and 5th strings. How the fuck did he come up with THAT?? What a wizard!!
Check this clip from the Ed Sullivan Show May 2nd 1965 to see what I mean:
Absolutely Fab Brill.
In fact, it’s well documented that Bri-Fi could get fantastic sounds out of just about any instrument that happened to be lying around the studio—including harp (both the suck and blow and the strummed and plucked kind), mellotron, clarinet, flute, recorder, saxophone, vibes, organ, sitar, dulcimer, you name it. An adventuresome musical polyglot, a pioneer of world music insofar as being the first geezer to venture to Morocco way the fuck high up in the southern Rif Mountains to record the mighty Master Musicians of Jajouka: “The world’s (oldest) rock ’n roll band”.
And speaking of musical sleight of hand, observe Brian juggling two different harps in this clip of the band performing their first hit “Not Fade Away” live on the Mike Douglas Show June 18, 1964:
But here you can also observe the seed of Brian’s downfall within the group, as Mick definitely looks annoyed (nay, pissed) as Brian steals the limelight from him with his dazzling musical showmanship. There they are, matey bandmates early on jockeying for position as Top Dog in the band that Brian put together. But as it’s traditionally, usually, most assuredly always the Singer Not the Song as they say, Brian eventually was sidelined from his own group–his frequent unreliability to turn up and play and supposed inability to write songs contributing to his ultimate miserable outcast status. His misery was exacerbated by having to watch Mick and Keith’s personal fortunes rise well above his group member share, due to the Glimmer Twins incoming songwriting royalties as the band struck Gold some around the time of “Satisfaction”. That, and Brian’s inability to handle his own increasingly staggering drug intake and chronic womanizing, uber-babe actress Anita Pallenberg apparently not being enough for him.
It’s said that Mick and Keith froze Brian out of the songwriting as what he turned in wasn’t up to snuff—but then you have Bill and Charlie claiming that Brian essentially wrote “Ruby Tuesday”. And now you know about “The Last Time”, for which Brian received not a whit of songwriting credit. Anyway, credited or not, Brian’s instrumental flourishes really did MAKE all those early hit songs what they were, they added an undeniable jeu d’esprit and piquancy. His spirit hangs heavily over them.
And now we come to the pay-off mix:
I saw Brian throw down live with the Stones onstage at the Syracuse War Memorial on Oct 30,1965. The group were then riding high with “19th Nervous Breakdown”–like “The Last Time”, the backbone of this song is Brian’s Riff (a gloss on Bo Diddley’s guitar line on Little Walter’s “Roller Coaster”, but wtf. In any case, Brian once again received no writing credit for it). Back then Oldham worked these boys to the bone, it was their second show that day, the Stones having played in Ithaca N.Y. earlier in the afternoon. Brian dominated that stage in Syracuse, for me with his beatific beaming aura. He didn’t move around much. He didn’t need to, he played beautifully, he played authoritatively and he commanded your attention.
Credited or not, Brian’s instrumental flourishes really did MAKE all those early hit songs what they were.
Anyway, you must see this documentary. The interviews with people like the recently deceased Phil May of the Pretty Things and Dick Taylor of the original Stones lineup are priceless. The whole thing is well put together, and basically lays the death of Brian / throws shade on the jealous and greedy builder who was renovating Brian’s house at the time, Frank Thorogood; the guy who hired him, seedy Stones minder Tom Keylock; and the entire British Establishment in the form of Her Majesty’s Constabulary, who persecuted and busted Brian repeatedly because they wanted to see the Stones destroyed as a menace to youth.
Suffice to say that show changed my life, and Brian was inextricably bound up with my memory of it.
But, really, as Pete Townshend wrote in an unpublished poem upon Jones’ death, Brian was his own worst enemy: “The Man Who Died Every Day”.
The extra-musical soundtrack for this cool doc, courtesy Dick Taylor, my friends Alabama Three, and other notables, is really good also.
You have to see this!!
Rolling Stone: Life and Death of Brian Jones, the trailer: