Written by: Paul Gleason
The Rolling Stones’ founder, guitarist, and multi-instrumentalist finally has the compelling and insightful biography that he deserves – thanks to Paul Trynka.
In Brian Jones: The Making of the Rolling Stones (Viking), Trynka – the author of biographies of David Bowie and Iggy Pop, as well as the collection of oral histories, Portrait of the Blues – shines a light on Jones and his foundational role in bringing American blues music to England, forming and initially leading The Rolling Stones, and driving their sound with his command of the blues and willingness to experiment with instruments such as the sitar, dulcimer, recorder, marimbas, and slide guitar.
Trynka’s book is the first of its kind because it corrects many misconceptions about the first decade of The Stones. It’s a controversial read, and one of the best rock biographies we’ve ever read. Stereo Embers‘ review of the book will appear tomorrow (October 9, 2014).
We were honored to sit down with Trynka and chat with him about his book, Brian Jones, and The Stones in general.
SE: Thanks, Paul, for chatting with us today. When I received my copy of your new book, Brian Jones: The Making of the Rolling Stones, I was very excited to see that – finally! – Brian had received the full-length biography he deserved. What was your inspiration for writing the book?
PT: I’d always been interested in Brian. Then, I guess the spur was reading Keith’s Life. It was so disappointing – so curmudgeonly, so callous. He damned Brian so much that it had the opposite of the intended effect; it made me realize how central Brian was. The book’s also so inaccurate – he doesn’t even remember who played drums on his first gig! So I also wanted a book that would depict The Stones’ first days accurately.
SE: What was the first Stones’ song you remember hearing and why did it draw you to the band?
PT: My sister used to play lots of Beatles, Animals, and Stones when I was a kid. I can remember liking that early blues stuff even then, for some reason, especially that magnificent debut album. Even when I started out finding my own music during the punk era, I still loved that album. It is kind of punk, and one of the most perfect debut albums ever, alongside Patti Smith’s Horses.
SE: Your subtitle intrigued me. Why did you choose “The Making of the Rolling Stones”?
PT: Well, it is about the making of The Rolling Stones.We have an English phrase saying “someone was the making of something,” and he was. We did discuss having the subtitle as “The making of the Rolling Stones and the Unmaking of Brian Jones,” but I was the only person who liked the word “unmaking”… and of course it’s way too clunky for a book jacket. But it’s the making of the band – the unique, thrilling way they came together, which I think has never been properly investigated before.
SE: Would you please talk about Brian’s pioneering role in bringing American blues music to England in the early 1960s?
PT: My thesis is that Brian was the one: the only one who saw American blues as youth music. Other people, Alexis Korner, even Mick and Keith, saw blues as a kind of cool, hobby, coffee table music. Brian saw it as something that kids would take up, youth music. He also thought it would make him famous and give his life meaning. He was absolutely and completely vindicated – but he paid a terrible price.
SE: In the early days – before The Stones released their first single, “Come On” – was Brian interested in American rock ‘n’ roll as much as Mick Jagger and Keith Richards or John Lennon and Paul McCartney?
PT: Brian was eclectic, liked Little Richard and Johnny Cash, played Duane Eddy songs in one of his many bands, The Ramrods, as well as Chuck Berry material. I don’t feel he was as fixated with Buddy Holly as Mick Jagger was, and he was definitely more interested in then-obscure blues, like Robert Johnson, but he seemed to have enjoyed a wider range of music and had definitely played a much wider range than any of the others.
SE: Stones’ records like Aftermath, Between the Buttons, and Their Satanic Majesties Request indicate Brian’s experimental tendencies as a musician. Would you speak to Brian’s equally experimental approach to building his own amplifier to get the sounds he wanted out of his slide guitar?
PT: Brian was fixated on sound, tone color. He’d already spotted the distortion potential of valve amps in 1962 – in typical fashion, he persuaded his mate John Keen to buy an AC15 , so he could play glassy, distorted guitar, just like Elmore James. He also modified a tape recorder, probably using some sort of pre-amp, to get a lo fi sound, either by accident or design.
SE: Another experimental aspect of Brian’s work was his understanding of alternate guitar tunings, which he learned from American blues artists. What were these tunings and did he use them on any Stones’ records?
PT: Brian seemed to have worked out all of the major blues tunings by the end of 1961 or so. He used Open E as his main tuning, but was also playing Open G in 1962 – you can hear him use the tuning on their version of “I Can’t Be Satisfied.” He also uses Open A, which is essentially the same, except one tone up, on “No Expectations,” recorded in 1968. Keith says he learned the tuning from Ry Cooder, in 1969.
SE: You taught me that The Stones’ story is really a collection of historical narratives that don’t necessarily jive with each other, especially when it comes to Brian’s role as the founder and initial leader of the band. How do the Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ narratives differ from yours?
PT: Mick and Keith have fashioned a new version of the band’s founding story, where they formed the band, and Brian was just a guitarist; look at the bio on their website. Of course, Brian named the band, he placed the ads for musicians, he appointed the band members – it was he who asked Dick Taylor to join on bass, not Dick’s mates, Mick or Keith. In Life, Keith describes Brian as a “kind of rotten appendage.” They’re in denial; it’s a combination of jealousy and guilt, I presume. Brian could be a pain, but he was the band’s mojo. Remember, Mick Taylor only played on one great post-Brian album, Exile on Main St.. They needed Brian to push them, because Mick and Keith are much more conservative musicians. They are wonderful musicians, of course – a shame they’re not secure enough to credit the man who taught them so much.
SE: When Andrew Loog Oldham started managing the band, why did Brian become the odd man out?
PT: It was a straightforward power struggle: divide and rule. Andrew liked Mick the best, partly because – according to Tony Calder – he fancied him the most. Mick was his creature, and this helped cement Andrew’s hold over the band. In many ways it was cynical and manipulative – but remember, these guys, Andrew included, were kids, surfing an immense wave, a phenomenon no-one could control or really comprehend.
SE: I watched Charlie Is My Darling the other night – and, in the film, Brian is magnetic. He truly stands out from the other Stones. Do you agree? And, if so, what makes him so appealing and charismatic?
PT: The combination of the blond, angelic look, and a deepness – or else darkness. He’s a deep thinker, who has musical insight. He also loved chaos… some people think he was the personification of the God Pan, from whom the word “panic” came, and you can see why. Andrew Oldham maintains in his book, by the way, that the sequence makes Brian look like a prat.
SE: You argue very compellingly that Brian had a lot to do with the composition of tracks like “Paint It Black” and “Ruby Tuesday.” Are there any other songs to which Brian contributed but didn’t get the credit he deserved?
PT: There are so many Jagger and Richards’ jams that weren’t really songs until he transformed them. “Under My Thumb,” which was hot-wired by him and Jack Nitzsche, another guy who rarely gets credit (he didn’t get paid, either); and “The Last Time,” which is a Staple Singers’ song with a new guitar riff by Brian. There are many more. I’d love to know more about “Play with Fire,” which was originally credited to Nanker-Phelge, the group credit, and I was told he came up with the the harpsichord part… someone has apparently since changed the credit to Jagger-Richards.
SE: Why didn’t Brian write his own material for The Stones?
PT: He needed a songwriting partner. If he’d been less insecure, he should have found himself one. Those who worked on his soundtrack for A Degree of Murder agree he was perfectly capable of writing; he just needed a supportive environment. It’s worth pointing out, though, that he did lack a certain artistic brutality – that ability to say “that’s good enough” and finish a song. He’d never be satisfied. That was his biggest problem.
SE: Would you discuss what other great musicians – folks like The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Ginger Baker, and Pete Townshend – thought of Brian?
PT: The simplest summation is probably Pete Townshend’s statement, this is from memory, that he was “A good guy. Really.” He did also add that Brian was living on a higher plane of decadence than anyone he’d ever met, which is another good summation! It’s striking how outsiders liked him and thought him a very different person from the one you’ll see described by Mick and Keith.
SE: Would you talk about Brian’s interest in what we consider today to be “world music”?
PT: Brian had always been eclectic; he was the first Stone, and quite plausibly the first major British rock musician, to investigate world music in general, and Moroccan music in particular. It was a continuation of the journey he’d started discovering Robert Johnson in late 1961. He had a very coherent plan to incorporate it into The Stones’ music, and he also went out to Joujouka to record the musicians in what is an absolutely pioneering world music album. His love of world music is exactly like his love of blues in that other people initially thought both were strange, esoteric, dinner party musisc that would never be mainstream. Brian was a visionary, who foretold much of today’s cultural landscape. A flawed visionary.
SE: In the book, Brian comes across as a very isolated figure – and he becomes more and more isolated as time goes on. How do you explain this?
PT: The Stones were, people agree, always a pretty nasty band. It’s quite disturbing being around them even now and sensing the dysfunctional atmosphere – there’s Mick’s camp, and Keith’s camp, like two rival factions at a royal court. But in 1966 you had both of them, for much of the time, focusing on Brian as a rival, rather than on each other. I doubt any single person could have withstood it; and his tactics for withstanding it, blotting out the conflicts with drugs, made it worse. Then, as the police chased him, Allen Klein told him and Oldham to avoid the rest of the band. More divide and rule.
SE: What were the causes of Brian’s early death, at the age of 27?
PT: If you’re talking about murder conspiracies, I find them unconvincing; most of them seem flakier than the obviously rushed, peremptory official verdict. But I believe the authorities do bear the heaviest responsibility for his death; they persecuted him, made his life a misery, and further isolated him. Remember, this was all for possession of a tiny piece of hash, something that’s not even a crime in California now. As his friend, Stash, put it, “the establishment killed Brian.” Not by bumping him off ’cause he was shagging Princess Margaret (which people have told me), but by spotting he was the real butterfly they could crush on their wheel.
SE: Finally, if you had to pick three albums and/or tracks that best demonstrate Brian’s contribution to The Stones, what would they be?
PT: I’d go for “I Wanna Be Your Man” – it’s pure punk, a fascinating glimpse of how The Stones sounded before Andrew Oldham, with his Phil Spector obsession, tidied them up. The whole of the first album is wonderful, one of the greatest, most energetic debut albums of all time. I’d choose “Ruby Tuesday” – everything about it, the piano, the recorder, transcends its chaotic era; it’s absolutely permeated with Brian’s sensitive, fragile spirit. Then I’d close with “No Expectations” – of course, it’s a beautiful vocal by Mick, but we can hear, even in the very last days, how Brian dominates and helps define the band’s sound. The police busted him again a day or two after the recording.