Time Is On My Side: A Teenager at a Stones Secret Show

Rolling Stones secret shows are a thing that always happen to other people—fans of some elusive higher stature with magical gift for anticipating the band’s movements, plus a great deal of superhuman luck. I thought those people at secret Stones shows are all longtime fans who’ve loved the band for twice as long as I’ve been alive. But somehow, here I am at my first Stones show ever, a mere ten feet from Mick Jagger. Close enough to discern the color of the band’s guitar picks, close enough to hear what the microphones miss. I am in the kind of venue the band hasn’t regularly played since 1964, but it is a half-century later—April 27th, 2013, Echo Park, California, and I am seventeen years old.

Raised in a staunchly pro-Beatle household (at least for the most part), it took me some time to find the Stones. The soundtrack of my formative years more closely resembled “All You Need Is Love” than “It’s Only Rock and Roll,” but after that Saturday night at the Echoplex, those characters of myth, theoretically close enough to gob at, are real to me in a way that the Fab Four will never be. Real as they are to very few others, let alone others of my generation. The scene was dreamlike as the band moved around the inexplicably foggy club stage, but evident also was flesh and blood.

ImageEspecially to us young vintage music fans, the Stones are included in the pantheon of unreachables. These men have, in some cases, deeply changed us, but they will never know us. We are just another part of that many-handed, many-throated beast that is the audience, the same wild creature that the Stones conquered at the Marquee Club, Hyde Park, and Madison Square Garden, and painfully lost at the Altamont Speedway in 1969. But as some older fans relish pointing out, we weren’t there. We didn’t know the Stones before the plane and the bodyguards—all we have to judge by is, no wordplay intended, the aftermath. But perhaps that is what made the exclusive phoneless and cameraless Echoplex set all the more special to us.

We were all standing, tickets were an even $20 no matter how much lips and tongue-logo gear you owned or how many Stones records you’ve been alive to rush out and buy upon release. More casual listeners and megafans talked at ease as we all waited in line for the show, swapping facts and anecdotes, quietly calculating how many people stood ahead and behind us. The best kind of rock and roll show is a great equalizer, not a class war, and while there is no question that in recent years, the Stones have become something of a rich man’s band, this gig was anything but a rich man’s show.

Throughout a set that included a wide swath of Stones material from the 60’s to the 80’s plus several blues and R&B covers, we were fortunate enough to see Mick, Keith, Ronnie, and Charlie with Mick Taylor, the extraordinary guitarist who worked in the band from 1969 to 1974, and longtime sax player Bobby Keys, plus Darryl Jones on bass, Chuck Leavell on keys, and Bernard Fowler and Lisa Fischer on background vocals. Musically in top form, the group moved freely around the tiny stage and seemed to be in good spirits, laughing and hugging between songs. “Love in Vain” and “Midnight Rambler” were bluesy highlights, and “Street Fighting Man” blew the crowd off their feet. A funky treatment of “Miss You” breathed new life into a song I have heard many times, but never responded to in its studio form.

When I spoke to the owner of the Echoplex after the set finished around 10:30, he told us that the venue had actually lost money by hosting the Stones on what Jagger called “the first show of the tour, probably the best one.”

True, even in shows like this, the rock industry is a numbers game, so here is how that evening added up: my full expenditure for the Echoplex show was one twenty-dollar bill, one utterly ruined page of notes in a brand-new notebook, one lost pen (fortunately, my spare), and, including both the set and time spent in line for both tickets and the show, approximately eight and one half hours of my life. But what I gained was worth a million lost pens:

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I was closer to the band than this photographer was. Really.

I danced, sang, and listened to an hour and twenty minutes of great music from international, and now technically intermillennial icons. I was baptized by Mick Jagger’s waterbottle when he splashed it out into the crowd. After I intently stared down Ronnie Wood when he wandered in front of me, we made eye contact twice. As Jagger announced the end of the set, before the encore of “Brown Sugar” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” I heard him yell “that alright, Charlie?” back towards the drum kit. Finally, I managed to find my crumpled ticket stub on the ground outside my house the next bleary morning, after feeling utterly crushed when I thought I’d lost it.

And what’s more, I feel I saw something very special—not just as a fan who missed the Rolling Stones the first time around (and second, and third, and fourth, etcetera), but even just as a teenager who values great music and a great time. When the group kicked into “Midnight Rambler,” I don’t know firsthand how much it looked and sounded like 1972, and I don’t particularly care. But what I do know is that more than a half-century after they started out, in 2013, even in front of an audience of so few, The Rolling Stones are still brimming with energy, playing well, and bringing people together.

Perhaps the Stones’ secret shows always happens to other people, but April 27th proved to me that if you try sometimes, despite all odds, you’ll find you get what you need.

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No Expectations: Brian Jones’s Pop Redemption

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Keith Richards, Brian Jones, and Ian Stewart in-studio, 1966

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.

Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Brian Jones, and Bill Wyman

Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Brian Jones, and Bill Wyman

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.

Jones with girlfriend Anita Pallenberg, who would later spend twelve years with Keith Richards

Jones with girlfriend Anita Pallenberg, who would later spend twelve years with Keith Richards

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.

Brian as the 60s wore on

Brian as the 60s wore on

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.

closeupHowever, 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.