Book review | Brian Jones: The Making of the Rolling Stones

Paul Trynka's biography challenges the standard version of events, usually focused on Mick Jagger and Keith Richards

Brian Jones is to the Rolling Stones what Leon Trotsky was to the Russian Revolution: organizer, ideologist and victim of a power struggle. Jones founded the group, gave it its name and recruited the schoolboys Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who then marginalized him, eventually expelling him from the band. Since his death in 1969, a month after he was forced out, Jones has largely been air-brushed from the group’s history.

Paul Trynka’s biography Brian Jones: The Making of the Rolling Stones challenges the standard version of events, focused on Jagger and Richards, in favour of something far more nuanced. Although Trynka sometimes overstates Jones’ long-term cultural impact, his is revisionist history of the best kind—scrupulously researched and cogently argued—and should be unfailingly interesting to any Stones fan.

Specifically, Brian Jones seems designed as a corrective to Life, Keith Richards’ 2010 memoir. Trynka, the author of biographies of David Bowie and Iggy Pop, and a former editor of the British music magazines Mojo and Guitar, has interviewed Richards several times over the years and obviously likes him, but also considers his memory of events highly unreliable.

“History is written by the victors, and in recent years we’ve seen the proprietors of the modern Rolling Stones describe their genesis, their discovery of the blues, without even mentioning their founder," Trynka remarks in the introduction. Without naming Richards, he also expresses his distaste for an assessment that appears in Life, that Brian Jones was “a kind of rotting attachment". The portrait of Jones that Trynka offers here is bifurcated. Although he is impressed with Jones’ “disciplined, honed sense of musical direction" and his dexterity on guitar and many other instruments, he does not hesitate to point out his subject’s more unpleasant personality traits: He was narcissistic, manipulative, misogynistic, conniving and dishonest about money. It’s not accidental that this book is called Sympathy for the Devil in Britain.

Trynka attributes Jones’ downfall to a conjunction of factors, some related to those character flaws but others external to him. Much has been written about the drug busts that swept up Jagger and Richards in the mid-1960s and their court battles, although Jones seems to have been even more of a target, because he was such a dandy and so successful with women.

But as Trynka tells it, Jones did not receive strong legal advice or fight charges as hard or as successfully as the Jagger-Richards team. After his first arrest, he pleaded guilty, which drove a wedge between him and other band members, who feared it would mean they could no longer tour abroad, all of which left him feeling crushed, isolated and vulnerable. That, in turn, increased his consumption of drugs and alcohol and made him less productive.

Nevertheless, Trynka demonstrates convincingly that the original Rolling Stones were Jones’ band and reflected his look, tastes and interests, not just the blues but also renaissance music and what today would be called world music. (He recorded the master musicians of Joujouka in the mountains of Morocco.) In Life, Richards describes his discovery of the blues-tinged open G guitar tuning, familiar from hits such as Honky Tonk Women and Start Me Up, as life changing, and says it came to him via Ry Cooder in the late 1960s. But Trynka notes that Jones often played in that tuning from the band’s earliest days and quotes Dick Taylor, an original member of the Stones, as saying, “Keith watched Brian play that tuning, and certainly knew all about it".

Some of Trynka’s account is not new, having appeared in Stone Alone, the often overlooked 1990 memoir of the Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman, or other books written by band outsiders. What makes Trynka’s book fresh and interesting, and gives it credibility, is the length he has gone to find witnesses to corroborate those stories.

It’s not just that Trynka has sought out those who worked with the band on the creative side, such as the singer Marianne Faithfull, the arranger Jack Nitzsche and the recording engineers Eddie Kramer, Glyn Johns and George Chkiantz. He has also interviewed those with more of a worm’s-eye view: drivers, roadies, office staff, old girlfriends and former roommates such as James Phelge, whose surname the band would appropriate to designate songs that were group compositions rather than Jagger-Richard numbers.

“Brian Jones was the main man in the Stones; Jagger got everything from him," the drummer Ginger Baker, who played in the band at some of its earliest shows and went on to become famous as a member of Cream, says in the book. “Brian was much more of a musician than Jagger will ever be—although Jagger’s a great economist."

Citing those present at the creation, Trynka contends that Jones had a hand in composing some well-known Stones tracks, including Paint It, Black and Under My Thumb. He also claims that Ruby Tuesday, a No. 1 hit early in 1967, is actually a Jones-Richards collaboration—written not by Richards in a burst of inspiration and heartbreak in a Los Angeles hotel room, which is how the story is told in Life and elsewhere, but, according to Faithfull and Kramer, “laboured over" by the pair in London for weeks.

“I used to say to Brain, ‘What on earth are you doing?’" Stan Blackbourne, the accountant for the Rolling Stones at their mid-1960s peak, recalls in the book. “‘You write some of these songs, and you give the name over as if Mick Jagger has done it. Do you understand, you’re giving ‘em thousands of pounds!’ All the time I used to tell him, ‘You’re writing a blank check.’"

Trynka also looks into the circumstances of Jones’ death, on 3 July 1969, in the swimming pool at his home in East Sussex, once owned by A.A. Milne, but after all the Sturm und Drang that has come before, the subject is somewhat anticlimactic. In numerous books and in films such as Stoned, it has been suggested that Jones was murdered, but Trynka painstakingly examines the flaws in each of the theories, and ends up close to the official verdict, “death by misadventure", because of drug and alcohol consumption.

“The official coroner’s verdict on Brian’s death was perfunctory and lazy," Trynka concludes. Nonetheless, “I’ve come to share their belief that Brian’s death was most likely a tragic accident" and to believe that “many of the existing theories that his death was in fact murder rely on unreliable witnesses".

In the end, with the advantage of 45 years’ perspective, Trynka maintains, it is Jones’ music that matters.

“It’s understandable why the survivors resent Brian Jones beyond the grave," given his founder’s role, he argues, and also writes: “Brian Jones got many things wrong in his life, but the most important thing he got right." 2014/THE NEW YORK TIMES

Larry Rohter writes for The New York Times.

Edited excerpts. Comments are welcome at views@livemint.com

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