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Brian Jones at 80: A deeply flawed musical icon

Today would have been Brian Jones, founding member of The Rolling Stones’ 80th birthday. A talented multi-instrumentalist but deeply flawed individual, since his tragic death in 1969, Jones has long been hailed as one of the most iconic yet infamous characters in the whole of rock. Since a boy, Jones always had a problem with authority, and his unrelenting free-spirited ways, which had always been unchecked, would eventually contribute to his downfall. 

Two things are clear about Jones. He was a lover of music and a brilliant songwriter, but he was also a multi-faceted person, prone to acts of both loving-kindness and abuse, and could switch at the drop of a hat. Dick Hattrell, a childhood friend of Jones’, labelled him “a rebel without a cause”, and it is so true. However, he was also more complex than the age-old James Dean stereotype.

Listening to classical music, blues and jazz as a child, Jones learnt the saxophone before he received an acoustic guitar as a 17th-birthday present. He cut his teeth at local blues and jazz clubs while busking and working odd jobs. Showing his unchained nature, he was said to have stolen money from a job to pay for cigarettes, for which he was promptly fired. 

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Jones would find himself in a lot of bother as a teenager, setting a precedent for the rest of his life. In summer 1959, Jones’ girlfriend, Valerie Corbett, became pregnant. Although he attempted to get her to have an abortion, she had the child, David, and then put him up for adoption. Jones was forced to quit school in disgrace and left home. 

He travelled through northern Europe, living a bohemian lifestyle, busking for money with his guitar whilst leaning on the charity of others. When he ran out of money, he returned to England. In 1961, he applied for Cheltenham Art College, but after being accepted, the offer was rescinded after an anonymous acquaintance wrote to the college, labelling him an impetuous drifter. 

You can’t help but wonder that Jones’s life may have followed a different trajectory if this letter was not sent. 

In October 1961, Pat Andrews, Brian’s girlfriend, gave birth to Julian Mark Andrews. Initially, he was proud of the child, but after The Rolling Stones acquired a manager, he was told not to be seen with Pat or the child. Brian assented, telling Pat she’d need to “put up with it for a few months” until the band had secured success. This wasn’t to be the case, though. 

Looking back, Pat recalled Brian drifting away, with his head turned by the famous people he was now rubbing shoulders with. She claims that she never saw “a penny from Brian at all” and that she felt sorry for him as “he just uses people”.

Jones’s life had set its course at this point due to his flaws and other forces coming into direct conflict with him doing the right thing. However, as The Rolling Stones’ career progressed and they became more successful, his flaws would start to come to the fore more often. Notoriously, Jones struck up a relationship with model Anita Pallenberg, but he was abusive to her, and she would eventually move o to another Rolling Stone. At one point, he broke his hand on her face, reflecting just how dynamic he could become.

When he wasn’t flying into fits of rage, Jones’ had a pivotal role in The Rolling Stones’ early days and acted as a sort of manager, taking home £5 more than the rest of the band for bookings. The late drummer, Charlie Watts, described Jones’ role back then: “Brian was very instrumental in pushing the band at the beginning. Keith and I would look at him and say he was barmy. It was a crusade to him to get us on the stage in a club and be paid half-a-crown and to be billed as an R&B band”.

Jones became known as one of the most prominent multi-instrumentalists in rock at the time. On Aftermath, Between the Buttons and Their Satanic Majesties Request, he played a wide range of instruments, giving the band an edge that stood them apart from their peers. Famously, he also popularised Vox’s Mark III, the teardrop-shaped guitar that Ian Curtis would use in the late ’70s. 

The gradual decline of Jones in the band was signalled by the arrival of the eccentric Andrew Loog Oldham as their manager in 1963. This was the definitive turning point in the band’s career, as under Oldham’s direction, the band would go stratospheric. Oldham was acutely aware of the financial advantages of band members writing their own songs, using Lennon-McCartney as the main example, and contended that being a covers band would not sustain them. 

Added to this, Oldham wanted to capitalise on frontman Mick Jagger’s charisma and make them a focus of performances. This saw Jones’ influence being negated as their sets began to include fewer blues covers than he wanted, as Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards started to form a formidable songwriting partnership. 

Oldham maintained in his memoir, Stoned that Jones was an outsider in the band from the beginning. When on tour in 1963, Jones travelled separately from the group, demanded extra pay and stayed in different hotels. Although Oldham’s accounts are always to be taken with a pinch of salt, he claimed that Jones was overly emotional and felt alienated because he was not the group’s main songwriter and that he had been absolved of his management role. 

Oldham recalled that Jones “resisted the symbiosis demanded by the group lifestyle, and so life was becoming more desperate for him day by day. None of us were looking forward to Brian totally cracking up”

Regardless of the quality of Oldham as a source, by this point, Jones’ flaws were taking over. Some commentators claim that the lengthy tours, money and fame resulted in Jones’ heavy use of alcohol and drugs, but it seems a rather presumptuous account. What is clear, though, is that this behaviour negatively affected Jones mentally and physically. 

Duly, hostility was growing between Jones and Jagger and Richards, which only pushed him further away from the group. At different points over the years, bassist Bill Wyman, Richards and Watts noted that Jones’ stark mood changes.

Wyman heeded in Stone Alone: “There were at least two sides to Brian’s personality. One Brian was introverted, shy, sensitive, deep-thinking. The other was a preening peacock, gregarious, artistic, desperately needing assurance from his peers.” Wyman appended: “He pushed every friendship to the limit and way beyond”.

Towards the end of the ’60s, as The Stones were now superstars, Jones would find himself in bother with the law on multiple occasions. He was arrested for possession of cannabis in May 1968, and the jury found him guilty. Luckily, as if a gift from above, instead of jailing him, the judge took pity on Jones, and fined him. The judge told him: “For goodness sake, don’t get into trouble again, or it really will be serious”.

By this point, the legal troubles, substance abuse, mood swings and overall estrangement had got in the way of Jones actually participating in the band. They wanted to tour the US in 1969 for the first time since 1966, but Jones was in no fit condition for it, and his troubles with the law made it hard for him to secure a US work visa. 

Concurrently, his attendance at recording sessions and rehearsals were becoming less frequent and, when he did appear, he contributed nothing of worth, with Richards forced to play the majority of the guitar parts. It is said that he couldn’t even play the harmonica without his mouth bleeding profusely. 

Although his behaviour was an obstacle during the making of Their Satanic Majesties and Beggar’s Banquet, things really came to a head when recording Let It Bleed. In March 1969, Jones borrowed the band’s Jaguar and went shopping on Pimlico Road, London. The parked car was towed away by police, and Jones was forced to hire a chauffeur to drive him home, but this was not the worst of it. In May, he crashed his motorbike into a shop window and was taken to hospital under an alias. The writing was on the wall.

Keith Richards & Brian Jones (Credit: Bent Rej)

On June 8th 1969, Jones was visited by Jagger, Richards and Watts and was informed that he was no longer part of the band. 

During the latter stages of his involvement in The Rolling Stones, Jones was living at Cotchford Farm in Sussex, the house formerly owned by Winnie-the-Pooh author, A. A. Milne. Alexis Korner visited Jones in June 1969, and remembered him seeming “happier than he had ever been”. Supporting this, it is well known that Jones had contacted Korner, Ian Stewart, John Lennon, Mitch Mitchell, Alan Price and Jimmy Miller about his intentions to form a new band. He even demoed some of his own songs only weeks prior to his death. 

Tragically around midnight on the night of July 2nd, Jones was discovered dead at the bottom of his swimming pool. His girlfriend at the time, Anna Wohlin, claimed he was alive when taken out of the pool, urging that he had a pulse. However, when the doctors arrived, he had passed. He was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital, aged just 27. His heart and liver were heavily enlarged by drug and alcohol abuse, and the coroner ruled it as “death by misadventure”.

One of the most tragic stories in music history, it’s only made worse by Korner’s account that Jones was in high spirits when he saw him last. Undoubtedly an accident, it is certain that if he’d have lived, Jones would have maintained some form of a musical career, as that’s all he knew. 

Ultimately though, Jones’ premature death was only hastened by his personality, his flaws, and bad luck. On his 80th birthday, we should remember him for the good times, but also remember that even those we hail as heroes are not without their shortcomings. 

Listen to The Rolling Stones ‘Paint It, Black’ below.