In which I am blinded by one brief shining moment
Let me tell you about my favorite member of the Rolling Stones (though I can’t seem to shut up about Charlie, so). He’s dead; he’s been dead a long time. Fifty-one years to the day, in fact.
As the received wisdom among fans goes, “no Jones, no Stones.” Indubitably so. Brian Jones founded the group, and it was his vision and drive which constructed the platform they needed to make an impression. By the same token, it was his insecurities and indulgences which nearly toppled them from the great heights they reached.
From whatever angle you look, Brian was a force of nature, the band’s own Jenna Maroney: armed with formidable musical instincts, eloquent presentation, mild sociopathic tendencies, and a perfect blond head. Apparently he got his start on the clarinet, which gives me delightful mind’s-eye images of a little boy astounding his classmates by nailing the glissando intro to “Rhapsody in Blue.” (Don’t fact-check me.)
Initially he had the steepest goals for the group’s lineup (it took a little while to solidify), their repertoire (mostly the blues, his one true love), and their fortune (making phone calls, signing contracts, locking down gigs). He was most interested in, and best at, giving interviews—he had a real audiobook voice—so the host of whatever fishbowl they were trapped inside would gravitate toward him. Thus he was often the known quantity on their travels.
And he played a mean guitar. Six-string, twelve-string. Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix looked up to him. (Quite the compliment given his stature, for which his bandmates frequently mocked him; the things short people put up with…) Besides that, whenever a unique instrument popped up on a recording, like a marimba or sitar or dulcimer or mellotron (or even recorder), he was its master. He was arguably the primary composer of “Ruby Tuesday.” His innovations were briefly unparalleled and universally admired.
But he had other aspirations, other ideas for staying relevant beyond what he did in the studio. He was dropping acid before his peers had access to it, frequenting the most exclusive clubs, and soon enough jet-setting with Anita Pallenberg, the sophisticated and dangerous X factor who would simultaneously tie the band together creatively and fray their bond from the inside out. His drink/drug hobbies turned into habits and he grew paranoid about slipping from his bandleader’s pedestal. To be fair, he was slipping, as one does when one bails on rehearsals, recording sessions, even shows. I dare say Keith became as good as he is by being repeatedly left high and dry, forced to play for two. What events Brian did attend made it plain that he was no longer the center of attention, no longer the celebrated one. He took out his intensifying anxiety on Anita, verbally and physically, until she was driven into Keith’s arms and Keith finally confronted Brian during their legendarily shady Marrakesh excursion. Kind of like in Always Be My Maybe when Randall Park punches Keanu Reeves for Ali Wong, only less funny. (Is it any wonder, having dealt with this madness, that Keith went from looking like a nerd to looking like he could kill you with his bare hands?) As if all that weren’t enough, Brian had to watch his other bandmate Mick accomplish what he was supposed to be accomplishing, which was to ingratiate himself with the elite and assume the role of greatest influence and direction and desirability. The fact that Mick and Anita were also doing a film and had to have sex for real in one scene didn’t help Brian and subsequently prompted Keith to say of its late director, “Best work he ever did, besides shooting himself.”
I wish I were making this up. The art that emerged from this period was groundbreaking, but obviously it broke more than just ground. When people stereotype rock stars, the odds are they’re imagining a version of this story.
So, after a string of events testing the limits of what a mortal soul could bear, Brian formally checked out from reality at Cotchford Farm—a country house previously belonging to A. A. Milne—surrounded by his human and chemical companions of choice. He was fired from the band in June 1969, having done the odd bit of work for the next album. Less than a month later he was found at the bottom of his swimming pool, aged twenty-seven, ruled a “death by misadventure” though accounts vary. 5 July was the Stones’ big free concert in Hyde Park (their better big-free-concert idea that year by a long shot): Mick read out stanzas of Percy Shelley’s “Adonaïs” before releasing a swarm of white butterflies from the stage. I’ve never been a fan of those Romantic poets, but this seemed a poignant sendoff. (Meanwhile, the only Stone to be present at both the firing and the funeral was—you guessed it—Charlie.)
His passing shook the musical community. Pete Townshend and Jim Morrison penned elegies to him. He also wound up being the first of several musicians in a short time frame to die at the same age, a true founder even in death.
A couple years would pass before the group memorialized him in a song, and it didn’t disappoint. I talked about “Shine a Light” last week; it’s an emotional experience for me, evoking the complex and bittersweet memory of a person whose life differed drastically from mine yet with whom I empathize nonetheless. In my more vulnerable, attention-seeking moments, I know his pain; at bottom, borderline megalomania aside, this was a man who wanted to matter.
Part of what draws me to Brian is an odd feeling of kinship. Not in the sense of being a tortured genius—I am neither overly tortured nor a genius—but in that he reminds me of my late-high-school self, the self who first got into the Stones. I was racking up distinctions, leading a pretty charmed artistic life, and growing perhaps a bit complacent. Don’t get me wrong, senior year remains one of my single best years to date, rich in relationships and activities and anticipation: as another artist put it, “when I was seventeen, it was a very good year.” But the transition to upperclassmen status brought with it a fear that I too would become irrelevant, that the posts of respect and sway I had worked so hard to attain might somehow be undermined—resulting in a bout of corrosive jealousy, an occasional diva moment, a spiral of selfish delusion. I can recall writing an angry (private) letter in an effort to expunge the negative energy, which took a long time to achieve the desired effect. I calculated my words, phrased things with the end of establishing dominance out of some twisted sense of entitlement, though I strove outwardly to be humble. And this was school, a far cry from the complications of adult success, no substances involved unless you count coffee. Power, of any kind, corrupts.
I am trying to be a good person. I was trying to be a good person then. I believe Brian Jones tried to be a good person. All that trying doesn’t keep us from sometimes succumbing to our inner darkness and doesn’t absolve us of what happens when we do. Brian’s story moved me from the start possibly because I intuited our similarities, even if my articulation is only in retrospect. As we push to hold more people accountable for their actions, I could never posthumously excuse him for the violence he perpetrated against his partners or the harmful publicity stunts he pulled in a struggle against his own fading glory. That said, I want to acknowledge his contribution—short-lived, momentous, impossible to overstate—and the shame that such a promising figure had to become such a tragic one. These sentiments are not new; they continue to follow him as any interesting person’s stories follow them. And the legacy he left behind is now the World’s Greatest Rock & Roll Band. This must be a life worth remembering.
I hope he has found peace and forgiveness wherever he is. May the good Lord shine a light on him.
Image: the beautiful and damned, January 1967