Written by: Paul Gleason
Back in 1989, when I was 15 years old, The Rolling Stones released their umpteenth comeback album, Steel Wheels. I had been listening to the band for a couple years by then, but it was in 1989 that I decided that I wanted to become a Stones’ scholar.
I remember reading everything I could about the band, including bassist Bill Wyman’s book, Stone Alone, and thinking that Steel Wheels and its ensuing tour somehow made sense out of an insensible universe.
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were back together, after what seemed like years of feuding! And as they sang into the same microphone in the video for “Mixed Emotions,” they were once again The Glimmer Twins, partners for life in their quest to conquer the world together as songwriting giants and performing pioneers. In fact, they looked just like they did in all the videos and music specials, which depicted them in exactly the same singing poses, that posited Beggars Banquet (1968), Let It Bleed (1969), Sticky Fingers (1971), and Exile on Main St. (1972) as The Stones’ undeniably greatest records.
As the years passed, I realized that my feelings for the monumentality of these BIG FOUR records were received wisdom – and that I needed to question their status, just as I needed to rebel against the received wisdom of my Catholic upbringing.
I loved Beggars Banquet the best out of the BIG FOUR, and I asked myself why. Well, I loved the slide guitar on “No Expectations,” which was my favorite Stones’ ballad; the ragged harmonica playing on a few of the tunes; and, most of all, the sitar on “Street Fighting Man.”
Quite simply, Beggars had a more experimental spirit than the other three records – and soon I realized that this spirit was due to the playing of Brian Jones.
Brian became a mystery to me – a question that needed answering. And, as I became more curious about The Stones, I wanted to find out why the man who brought such energy and creativity to songs like “Little Red Rooster,” “The Last Time,” “Lady Jane,” “Under My Thumb,” “Paint It Black,” “Ruby Tuesday,” and “2000 Light Years from Home” and to such albums as The Rolling Stones (1964), Aftermath (1966), Between the Buttons (1967), Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967), and Beggars Banquet (1968) wasn’t given the credit that he deserved.
Moreover, why was it that two of my favorite musician-poets – Patti Smith and Jim Morrison – wrote poems about Brian and not Mick and Keith?
And when I found out that Mick and Keith didn’t start the band when they had their famous teenage reunion at a train stop and bonded over blues records – and that it was Brian who actually got the six original Stones together – I knew that the story that I read over and over about the Jagger-Richards foundational narrative was fishy.
The story needed clarification. And this past month, I finally got it – thanks to Paul Trynka’s magnificent and controversial biography, Brian Jones: The Making of the Rolling Stones.
For starters, Trynka, who interviewed over 130 key Stones’ insiders and did copious research, makes many crucial claims that you won’t find anywhere else, especially in books like Keith’s much lauded Life or Philip Norman’s recent biography of Mick.
Trynka reveals that it was Brian – and not Keith – who experimented with alternate tunings (as early as 1961!) and probably taught them to his bandmate. It was Brian who first thought that American blues music could be popular in England. It was Brian – and not Mick – who was the face of The Stones in their early days. It was Brian – and not Mick and Keith – who contributed the “untraditional” instruments to “Lady Jane,” “Under My Thumb,” “Paint It Black,” and so many others. It was Brian – and not Mick and Keith – whom The Beatles, Ginger Baker, Jimi Hendrix, and Pete Townshend most respected as a musician.
But, most importantly, it was Brian who founded and led The Rolling Stones. That is, until manager and producer Andrew Oldham gained control of the group, put Mick and Keith out in front as songwriters and bandleaders, and effectively marginalized Brian from his own group.
This isn’t to say that Trynka treats Brian as the angel that his golden locks, almost supernatural ability to master any instrument, and sheer intelligence indicate him to be. He, rather, presents Brian as a flawed visionary – one whose physical fragility (he had bad asthma), sensitivity, perfectionism, problems with drugs and alcohol, and womanizing hindered his capacity for making music, especially near the end of his life.
That’s right – even though Brian looked the part, he was no angel but a complex individual. And perhaps it’s the complexity of his story and his participation in The Stones’ first and greatest decade that grates against the clear-cut narrative that’s presented by Mick, Keith, and The Rolling Stones’ conglomerate.
Brian Jones: The Making of the Rolling Stones succeeds brilliantly because Trynka had the courage, skills, and energy to write a monumental book that takes on the Jagger-Richards’ received wisdom and face the potential backlash of Stones’ fans.
Brian Jones: The Making of the Rolling Stones is one of the most essential rock biographies ever written.