Although the Stones’ original keyboardist, Ian Stewart has been virtually forgotten by all but hardcore fans, Keith Richards goes so far as to say in his 2010 autobiography, Life, that the Stones were, and still are, Ian’s band. It is indeed true that the group never could’ve reached the astronomical heights that they did without “Stu’s” contributions, both before and after he was disallowed from performing onstage with the Stones by their manager Andrew Loog Oldham in 1963. According to Oldham, six members was too many for a pop group, and older, coarser Stu did not look the part. After his dismissal, Stu contributed keyboard lines to some of the Stones’ best-known material, appeared on every album between 1964 and 1986 with the exception of Beggars’ Banquet, and additionally played on the legendary London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions in 1966 and Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti album in 1975. However, this Richards quip does more than just give the often-overlooked sixth Stone his due. Upon closer examination, Keith is not just honoring one former bandmate—he is backhanding another.
No matter how important Stu was, and yes, he was vastly important, he was not the Rolling Stones’ true founder. The man who really did start the group as we know it is one more difficult to comment on outright, one whose true character has been clouded not just by the almost half-century that has gone by since he died, but by the myriad of things that he appeared to be. But something about him is more memorable in the public eye than Stu’s much longer and more consistent stint in the band ever was.
In the oft-analyzed character of Brian Jones, one can trace three distinct sections.
The first is probably the most lauded of them. In a band where image is still everything even fifty years down the road, it is natural that the public is most aware of Brian Jones the Rolling Stone. In much of the world, people who may never have even been exposed to the group’s music outright could very well be aware of the tough, streetwise front that the group has cultivated since the very beginning.
The Stones and their camp had no chance of winning out over the grins and moptops of the Fab Four, so instead of competing with them, they decided to oppose them. Stones fans in the early days could of course love the group’s violently-charged, liberatingly sloppy R&B, but they could just as easily be kids who balked at the Beatles, and sought an alternative. The Stones, unlike most other pop groups in England, made a show of their nastiness and wildness, hard partying and rough playing. Where others tried to steady the wobbling colt of rock and roll, The Rolling Stones made clear their alliance with American delta blues and boogie-woogie. But Brian Jones would go on to make the same mistake that Sid Vicious would a decade later: he did more than just live the image. Instead, he became it, and as he did, we see the second, more damaged section emerge.
Brian Jones could be abusive, manipulative, and had a mean streak that went back much farther than just the beginning of the Rolling Stones. The abuse that he is thought to have suffered in his youth at the hands of his own family left deep psychological scars, and as he reached adulthood, his self-destructive and misogynistic tendencies became clearer and clearer. While Brian left behind a number of alleged offspring in his short life, they are far outnumbered by jilted women. He was notoriously fickle in his relationships, and on more than one occasion he left a former flame, usually very young, pregnant and alone in a world where she would have little opportunity for recompense or any kind of formal recognition.
Brian Jones’ misogyny is most appalling in that no one and nothing was stopping it. During the early and mid-60s, when support for unmarried young mothers was still close to nonexistent, the young women left with Brian’s children were essentially swept under the rug, denied legal and financial support and even just the confirmation that Jones was actually the father. The machine of the smoothly-functioning 60s rock band—not only the Rolling Stones—ran in a manner such that minor scandals such as theirs were inconvenient, but easily quieted. In the name of the business, and in the name of the band, many were willing to practice blissful ignorance.
But even outside of his misogyny, another piece of Brian’s second side was his reliance on drugs. Part of the first wave of publicized English acid casualties along with Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett and Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green, it is disturbing how many late 60s groups lost founders and principle members to a blend of mental instability, drugs, and immense stress. By the time Brian was dismissed from the Stones in June 1969, he had lost the ability to play almost entirely, and aside from his increasingly erratic habits in his personal life was becoming unreliable both live and in the studio. Even in the months before his departure, the Stones had been noticeably slipping away from his control. As Jagger and Richards reaffirmed their stature as icons time and time again, Jones covered little new ground. His experimentation with new instruments, most notably the sitar, had mostly petered out as the Stones outgrew their flirtation with psychedelia, and as he continued to deteriorate both physically and mentally, Brian became more of a burden in the eyes of his band than he was an asset. By the time of his mysterious death at twenty-seven, around a month after he was unceremoniously let go by Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, the group had already moved away from his influence.
But if this darker side were all that the public could see of Brian Jones, then the question of what brings him over the line from rock death to rock martyrdom remains unanswered.
Perhaps the third, final side of Brian, the one that makes us miss and perhaps even forgive him, is the thing that lay behind the guise of the Rolling Stone—the elusive foundation that forever lay beneath the tough, cool persona. Brian Jones was a natural musician, intelligent and ambitious. If not for that final set of qualities, it is unlikely that there would have ever been a London blues outfit called the Rolling Stones. And if there had been, they may have never left the little clubs where they first made their bones. Brian was a multi-instrumentalist, gifted in that he could play virtually anything given to him. Although he generated no original material for the band, early on, he was more musically versatile than the band’s chief songwriters, Jagger and Richards. While the blues remained close to Brian’s heart, his interest in The Master Musicians of Joujouka and other world music was brought the band from the R&B of its recent past into its psychedelic present.
However, it is possible that Brian Jones’s pop redemption came about not even as a result of the music itself, but instead as a part of something much greater. His death was more than the death of one man or the lineup shift of one popular band. That isn’t to say, precisely, that it represented the end of an era—the notion that an isolated incident can perfectly encapsulate a cultural movement is impractical and overused outside of art and literature—but what Brian’s death did represent was a sprung leak in rock and roll hubris, a reminder of human vulnerability at a time and in a place where luck and stamina were freely confused for invincibility. Today, drug addiction and death are spattered across our homepages, morning papers and supermarket checkout lines constantly, especially where celebrity is concerned, but in 1969, rock was still young and unaware of its limits. There was no twenty-seven club when Brian Jones died, and rock and roll had not yet recognized its uncanny partnership with early death. “Hope I die before I get old” was a challenging sign of defiance, not a statement of reality. The death of Brian Jones was only the first brick to fall from a crumbling tower.
We don’t miss Brian because he was a good person; we miss him because he was a Rolling Stone in the most unadulterated sense. We are willing to forgive him for his startling decline and his blatant mistreatment of others because we understand in full the legend that came of it all. As of 2013, we have been inspired by the Rolling Stones’ eternal rebellion for over fifty years, and whatever notes he played and drugs he took, Brian Jones was as important a part of that rush as anyone can claim to be. Whether or not he qualifies as flawed antihero is anybody’s guess, but chances are, that designation couldn’t change the mind of a single fan or a single critic. Perhaps it isn’t ours to judge. It’s only rock and roll, and we like it no matter what.