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The Death of Brian Jones, the First Rock Star

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Shortly before midnight on the night of July 2, 1969 authorities arrived at Cotchford Farm, the home of Rolling Stones founding member Brian Jones. Under the light of a Sussex moon, near a stone replica of the real Christopher Robin, son of previous owner A.A. Milne, they found a body that had been floating face-down in a swimming pool. The body of Brian Jones.

brian_jones_cotchford_christopher_robinJuly 3, 1969: After several failed attempts at resuscitation Brian Jones was pronounced dead. As the sun broke over the sleepy city, Londoners were waking to confused and shocking news reports. That day marked the beginning of one of the most controversial and mysterious rock and roll deaths of all time, a mystery that has never been solved. Over the years witnesses have changed their stories. Rumors have persisted, and grown, that his death, categorized by the coroner as 'death by misadventure', was actually murder.

In the annual "Sex and Music" issue (March) of Playboy magazine, on newsstands now, Rolling Stones biographer Robert Greenfield writes about this talented and tragically doomed rock star whose birthday is February 28. He explains the meteoric rise and fall of Brian Jones with an eloquence that few can muster. He describes Jones' unique magnetism, how his musical genius left an indelible mark on the pages of rock and roll history, and what made his death such a fascination that now, more than 40 years later, the case has been reopened and his body is expected to be exhumed. Perhaps there will be an end to the mystery, once and for all.

brian_jones_dead_crushBrian Jones was my first 'dead crush'. That's the name I've given to dead men whom I've had crushes on over the years. He would be joined later on that list by Marc Bolan, James Dean, Phil Lynott, Bon Scott, and Bob Marley, amongst others. The most recent addition: Heath Ledger. A crush that might have been inappropriate due to the age difference now takes on a hauntingly romantic quality, acceptable only in postmortem.

It never ceases to amaze me when I bring up Brian Jones' name how few people know who he was. Most people know that the Rolling Stones were always considered the 'bad boys' of the British Invasion, that they were the antithesis to The Beatles' squeaky clean, wholesome image. But few know why.

brian_jones_rolling_stones

The Glimmer Twins, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, may have terrified parents and gotten The Rolling Stones banned from radio stations and concert halls with their lyrics. They may have had bad reputations, but they never had the sexual magnetism to threaten the moral framework of an entire generation of female fans. No. That was Brian Jones.

If you talk to kids today about The Rolling Stones they're likely to shrug and stare back at you with a glassy-eyed vacancy normally reserved for history and literature teachers. They're just not interested in hearing about old guys.

keith_richards_pirates_teagueIf you mention Keith Richards, you must preface it with a reference point. You know, the guy who played Jack Sparrow's father in Pirates of the Caribbean. Now that guy they remember. Captain Teague, the keeper of the code; a perfect role for Richards. Whoever decided to drag his frazzled, leathery ass out from under his rock is a casting genius and is owed a drink on my tab. It does my heart good to see that he hasn't lost any of his ability to frighten parents and young children alike.

And Mick Jagger? The one with the lips. Yes, he does still fancy himself a sexy thing. But as recognizable as their names and facial features may have become over the years, neither was the original 'face' of The Rolling Stones. That would be Brian Jones.

brian_jones_rock_starBrian was the beautiful Stone. With golden hair and a devilish smile, he exuded a sang-froid sexuality that threatened to corrupt any woman who crossed his path. He carved a persona and lifestyle out of the words 'rock and roll'. He was, as Greenfield says, the first real rock star. He created a look that would be re-packaged and re-released over decades, a narcissism that would become standard for pop stars, from '80s hair bands to today's most flamboyant rappers—most of whom have no idea that they're following in the footsteps of a pale, white, British boy whose love of the blues opened the doors for the music they're playing.

The Stones came together at a time when the generations were at a cultural dividing point, the elders clinging desperately to a patriarchal paradigm, the youngsters rejecting that rigidity for the anthems of freedom and experimentation. Brian Jones was a perfect reflection of the spirit of his age, experimenting with drugs, rejecting masculinity for androgyny, leading young girls astray with a crooked grin and the attitude of a bored aristocrat.

I first learned of Brian Jones when I was in junior high school. I had a 19-year-old roommate who owned the entire catalog of The Rolling Stones' albums. She loved sharing the background stories of bands with me. We would listen together and she would talk as I looked at the album covers, pointing out who was who as she narrated their stories. From her I inherited my voracious appetite for rock history. She introduced me to The Rolling Stones.

brian_jonesMy dead crush on Brian Jones grew from her stories. Staying up late into the night we covered each album in turn. She told me that I must read the unauthorized biography on them. I searched the school libraries for the book, but that was hardly reading material fit for junior high students. It wasn't easy, but I did finally manage to find a copy of the biography in the public library. It wasn't until I read the words in clear, black type that the reality actually hit me. Brian Jones was dead. For me it was as if his death had just happened, and I suppose in some ways that is so. I felt betrayed, cheated. I would never know the corporeal experience of his musical genius or his rebellious spirit in my lifetime. 

Over the years the story has stuck with me, along with the speculations over what happened on the night of his death. That first biography I had read, Up and Down With the Rolling Stones by Tony Sanchez, has since been discounted as a fair mixture of tripe and truth, with stories of Brian being tortured mentally by the likes of Eric Clapton and other members of the British rock explosion. The conclusion reached about his death was that he had been drowned. Witnesses reported that there was a party, that they had heard two men laughing, taunting Brian from the pool, and then someone realized that Brian was dead and everyone split, leaving him floating there alone.

Later many of the speculations on his death were discredited, only to be brought back to life as witnesses changed their stories and old evidence was re-examined. For every question answered, a plethora of new questions was raised. No matter how neatly they tried to wrap up the package of his death, it still left the world with an unanswered mystery. What happened on the night of Brian Jones' death, who was at the house with him and, if he was murdered, who did it? Was it a homicide brought on by jealousy over money and women, as some have suggested? Or was it a tragic accident, a joke that had gone too far, as others have insisted?

Robert Greenfield's article on Brian Jones covers his first meeting with Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, and the memorial concert they held in Hyde Park. It includes much of the speculation on the cause of his death: the asthma he had suffered since childhood, the controversial and unsupported deathbed confession to his murder by a construction contractor. Brian Jones drowned, by formal accounts, from a lethal mixture of drugs and alcohol. What has now been revealed is that the coroner's report recorded no drugs and only a small amount of alcohol in his system.

brian_jones_pallenberg_love_storyThe Rolling Stones were a highly controversial band at the time of Brian's death, due in large part to his highly publicized antics, from drug busts and arrests to his tumultuous relationship with Italian model and mirror image Anita Pallenberg and her ultimate betrayal—leaving him for bandmate Keith Richards. Just weeks before his death Brian had announced his departure from the band that he had helped create, but Greenfield discloses that he had, in reality, been fired by the Stones, leading to speculations of suicide—another possibility that his reopened case must examine.

The gossip surrounding the Stones during those years blurred their true contribution to rock and roll. The Stones had a raw, in-your-face way of delivering a message. No one could ever accuse them of playing patty-cake with their music. The lyrics alone separated them from the lighter fare of their British counterparts, lyrics like "I'll be in my basement room with a needle and a spoon" (from "Dead Flowers") and "Well, I've seen your face in a trashy magazine. You know where you're goin', but I don't like the places you've been," from "Ride On, Baby", as well as the infamous censorship on The Ed Sullivan Show when the Stones were forced to change 'Let's spend the night together' to 'Let's spend some time together'. All tis made them a band unlike any that the world had encountered.

brian_jones_jimi_hendrixLater their blatant lyrical dialogue about sex and drugs would be emulated by others; Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison would capitalize on ground broken by the Stones—but they were the first to reveal the dark side of rock and roll, and the price they paid was high. Scrutiny by the police and the press made them a constant target and allowed the world at large to ignore the significance of their musical contribution, Brian Jones' in particular. He could master any musical instrument within hours. He was revered and sought after by American musicians like Jimi Hendrix, but in Britain jealousy amongst his peers and harassment by the authorities made him an outcast and a liability.

Most people from that generation fit themselves into two categories. Beatles or Stones. Both bands were, by all accounts, musical pioneers. But the Stones brought something to the table that was missing in those days of lollipop British rock, an intellectual context that challenged their fans, lyrics that sometimes read like history book text. As much as parents and critics may have tried to denigrate "Sympathy For the Devil" as nothing more than a satanic attempt to brainwash susceptible youth, there is no denying that it is an intellectually stimulating historical jaunt. I've always harbored a sneaking suspicion that it was something of a rip-off of the poem 'Negro' by Langston Hughes. I can only say 'well done' if that is so.

The truest testament to the power that Brian Jones held over the popular imagination of his time is the fact that more than forty years after his death his body will likely be exhumed. The world still wants answers. It's a sad fact, but it must be faced: the eighties did to the Rolling Stones what it did to so many other well-respected rock bands. It killed them. Turned them from rock stars into pop stars. There could be no clearer evidence of this than the sight of Mick Jagger nancing around, doing his trademark goose-step, dressed in spandex tights and knee pads. There's just no turning back from something like that. Admittedly the death knell has not yet sounded for The Rolling Stones, not entirely anyway—none of them has gone into politics, knock Wood. 

brian_jones_death_newsThe story of the life and death of Brian Jones is spellbinding; his death, as much as it has recaptured the popular imagination, is far less interesting than his life was. The seven-page article Robert Greenfield has written about this man, who rose to the heights of rock idol-hood only to lose it all by the age of 27, is devastating and humbling. He has a way with verbal imagery that, coupled with great pictures, brings the past to life. His time-line style accounting of Brian's life is both fascinating and tragic.

At the risk of sounding cliched, I'm afraid I must say it: I read Playboy for the articles. Which is not to say that the sight of beautiful, naked, nubile women doesn't affect me, it just affects me differently than it would male readers. I find myself hitting the gym with a vigorous enthusiasm that some might mistake for desperation. The article 'The Rise and Fall of the First Rock Star' by Robert Greenfield is just one example of the great writing that goes on between the photo pages. It highlights the achievements, controversies, and downward spiral in the life of this enigmatic rock and roll hero. It might just make you, as it did me, have to pick up a copy of Greenfield's Exile on Main Street: A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones.

You might also want to dig up a copy of Up and Down With The Rolling Stones by Tony Sanchez. If you can find one. 'Spanish Tony', as Greenfield refers to him in Exile on Main Street, knew the Stones intimately for years but this book is unauthorized. It paints a fairly dark picture of The Rolling Stones prior to Jones' death, but it is extremely well written and fascinating, a hard book to put down. I've been searching and have yet to locate a copy myself. If you do find it, please grab a copy for me. I'll pay you back in promises—I promise.

You can also check out the trailer for the 2005 movie Stoned.
a look at the final months of Brian Jones' life. It follows the unsubstantiated claim of a deathbed confession of murder by construction worker Frank Thorogood.

"Forget the Past, his fate and fame shall be
An echo and a light unto eternity"

Adonais (BBC audio) by Percy Bysshe Shelley
(Read by Mick Jagger at the Memorial Concert for Brian Jones in Hyde Park)

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About A Geek Girl

  • Bill Hauk

    I was in London when Brian Jones died. The day the news broke I happened to be hanging out with with his physician. He expressed no surprise, or even remorse, since he’d prescribed some of the drugs that may have contributed to his death, but said that Brian was fond of experimenting with combinations of pills, and was known to be fond of garrottage, a risky game for an asthmatic. We’ll probably never know how he died, but it was an accident waiting to happen.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/a-geek-girl/ A Geek Girl

    Bill, I would ask what you were doing hanging out with a drug dealing doc in London in 69, but my imaginings are probably more fun ;)

    It’s a shame that drugs play a larger part in his biograghy than his music did. But that’s the choice he made. I’ve read the coroner’s report on his heart and liver, etc. Definitely on his way to the grave.

    But being a drug addict doesn’t mean he wasn’t murdered. I have no idea what they can find from a body that’s been buried more than 40 years. I have a feeling they’ll come to the firm conclusion that there is no conclusion.

    We’ll see…

  • ROADKING64

    AS THE LEADER AND ORIGINAL FOUNDER OF THE ROLLING STONES , BRIAN JONES WAS THE MOST POPULAR AND TALENTED BAR NONE IN THE GROUP , HE COULD PIUCK UP ANY INSTRUMENT AND PLAY IT WITH EASE , HIS REAPETIDLY CLASHES WITH MICK JAGGER AND KIETH RICHARDS WERE AN ON GOING REACURENCE , ITE MY BELIEF THAT JAGGER AND RICHARDS EITHER KILLED BRYAN OR HAD HIM KILLED , AND WHEN THE FUNERAL CAME , NEITHER WERE PRESENT !

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/a-geek-girl/ A Geek Girl

    RoadKing, that is one of the theories I’ve heard often over the years. And one that I hope will be investigated more fully. Their treatment of him was horrible, but they weren’t alone in that. They encouraged his mistreatment by other musicians as well.

    I’m afraid that in the death of Brian Jones many people have blood on their hands, even if they were not directly responsible for the events on that night. Brian’s insecurity and fragility were used for the brutal amusement of many of his peers during his last years.

    That’s what makes it important to get a thorough investigation. I’m sure people would be surprised by the behavior of many of their musical heroes and the role they played in Brian’s downward spiral.

  • nothingprofound

    Not much to say except I enjoyed reading this. Most likely his death was self-induced or accidental, but it’s fun to speculate and propagate these mysteries.

  • http://woodnotwood.blogspot.com A Geek Girl

    NP, It’s a very interesting story in rock and roll history. And a sad one. What a waste. I’d love to see some of the questions surrounding his death answered.

  • Big Sven

    I knew Brian in ’61-’62, he was a regular visitor at our house in Bromley. He formed the group, he named it, nobody else. He didn’t want Jagger in the group, knowing it would be trouble, but Jagger was the ‘white-nigger’ Brian was looking for and he had to take him. It was suggested to Brian he register the groups name to avoid later problems, and get proper, individual and group contracts drawn up. I believe Brian Epstein did this, but suspect he was the only manager to do so ( I was privileged to have known him when he first came down to London, a nicer, more honourable man you would never meet). I knew Harley Street professors, and they examined Brian to exclaim he was the model example of how somebody with asma could be if they looked after themselves. He was an expert swimmer, and an Italian mercenary, ex-Italian Navy attack scuba-diver called Georgio Norbiato, was VERY embarrassed when Brian beat him in swimming 2 laps UNDERWATER at Downham Baths in South London. Brian always had his ‘puffer’ with him, leaving it on the side of the pool and telling the attendent and the kids there what it was for, in case he ever had a severe attack, unable to rapidly swim to the side and get his puffer. But Brian was VERY strong, and this had never happened, he was always able to get to his puffer in time to recover. His lifestyle might have softened him enough for that one time to occur? Will a new autopsy tell us? Yes, for a person with asma will NEVER drown. In such cases they will simply suffocate, as they are UNABLE to breath. If Brian drowned… he was murdered.

  • Gem

    After reading Brian Jones: Straight From the Heart, my own heart went to the man. If he was sick, his bandmates should have helped him out. They owed him that much. By mentally and emotionally abusing him for years, they contributed to his ultimate downfall, whether they physically held his head under water or not. I don’t know how they sleep at night.

  • Gem

    BTW, Geek Girl, I have the Tony Sanchez book and it isn’t all that. Brian Jones: Striaght from the Heart by Gloria Shepherd is a much better book.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/a-geek-girl/ A Geek Girl

    Sven, those are all good points. I need to find out how they’re moving forward with this.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/a-geek-girl/ A Geek Girl

    Gem, I’ll definitely have to check that one out. On your recommendation.

  • RICHARD J DOLAN

    It is my considered opinion that Brian’s death was clearly a homicide carried out by at least two persons. The Sussex Police knew this but there was never a thorough investigation. I sincerely hope the new investigation will be very thorough indeed. I have an idea this will not be to the liking of Mick Jagger.
    RICHARD J DOLAN / UK 2040 BST 08/08/2010 UK

  • http://www.artfacesussex.co.uk Anton

    RIP Brian, RIP!

  • Timothy O’Meara

    ” All I know is I been a fan of the Stones for many yrs.I have read all the mentioned books and a a couple you don’t have like Mandy Aftel’s book,”Death of a Rolling Stone.I think he was thier best instrumentalist..Unfortunetly he suffered from to much fame and too much Booze and Drugs…Unfortunetly,only Brian know’s what really happened.”

  • Candy Kane

    I have been a fan of Brian’s for many years now, i visited his grave on many occasions.
    Recently looking back in to his ‘death’ i have found some new intresting theory’s that he may have been injected with something in the house to at least knock him out before he was carried outside and put in to the pool to make it look like he drowned. I guess it is possble for a coroner to over look a small ‘puncture wound’ in Brian’s body if he was studying a drowning case.

  • tullio norbiato

    7 – Big Sven
    Aug 01, 2010 at 4:33 am

    writes about Giorgio Norbiato… my name is Tullio Norbiato and I am his brother

    My brother Georgio was killed in africa… can you share a bit more of information with me. I did not know my brother was ever in London. I would highly appriciate it and am most grateful. thank you

    Tullio

  • Sam

    I was born in 1946 so the Stones were from the first the soundtrack to my growing up – from my mid teens and all through my twenties. I was very much ‘Stones’ over Beatles and went to quite a few gigs in the 60s and 70s.

    So as someone ‘who was there’, I’m afraid I have to point out that the writer has it pretty wrong here. Young women were always primarily fixated on Mick Jagger as the sexual pull of the Stones, not on Brian nor any other band member, although all of them could pull any woman they wanted in those days. No doubt there were a few girls whose favourite Stone was Brian, but speaking as one who was very much alive and there at the time, I can only tell you that it was always, right from the start, indisputably ‘Mick and the boys’.

    Jagger was always the central figure, to the world at large and esp to young women. Every girl in the country wanted to screw the bony ass off him. He was the public face of the band, and its spokesperson, always. His sexual magnetism was immense, and palpable; Brian was prettier, but he lacked that visceral pull. Mick became the figurehead not just because he was the singer, but due this sexual magnetism. Maybe you had to be there!

    It was different for hardcore musical geeks, most of whom were and are men. For them, the central figures in the band were Brian and Kieth, the musical drivers – and there are also massive fans of the Mick Taylor years. The arguments still rage around the questions of who was the primary musical contributor, and always will. But on all the evidence, it has to be Keith overall.

    Brian’s problem was that although his contributions were essential and profound esp on many individual tracks, and his varied musical talents were immense and essential to the Stones’ early success and unique sound, he was not a songwriter. His lack of skill in this area increasingly marginalised his role in the band he formed. Most of us back then were not even aware he was the founder. Brian didn’t help himself with his own impossible behaviour, so often at odds with the rest of the band, which in turn led to his scapegoating and isolation, for which drugs were part cause and part panacea.

    As for his death, I’ve no doubt he was murdered, by one of his employees who was there on the night (there are two candidates of which FK is by far the more likely). Mick and Keith are and always were hard-nosed bastards – a friend of mine is still waiting for credit and payment for an Indian drum session for one of their tracks made around 1967, and Mick Taylor is waiting for a lot more than that. Granted the Glimmer Twins are egocentric tightwads, and it’s telling they fell out so bitterly; but to accuse them of a hand in the murder of Brian is imo ridiculous.

  • Sam

    PS As for being the first rock star, that would be Bill Hayley, or maybe Elvis.

  • Doug Denslowe

    Geek Girl…..I’ve read this and your great write about Jeff Beck/Eric Clapton rivalry.I tried to comment there,but couldn’t join the club.Anyhow,I want to know this:what “mistreatment” of Brian by Clapton are you referring to?I’ve been reading Rolling Stone since it’s publication and sat next to Jones at the Monterey Pop Festival,so I want to hear the gossip,even if it’s close to 50 years old!Do tell!

  • Doug Denslowe

    Still waiting for an answer…………………….