Few bands or musicians have inspired a body of literature as extensive as the one devoted to the Rolling Stones. The prolific band’s longevity is anomalous, given the short-lived careers of contemporaries like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin. However, while younger generations of fans associate the Rolling Stones with the quartet of aging rockers that has comprised the band in recent decades—Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, and Charlie Watts—the early history of the group is convoluted, rarely discussed by the surviving Stones, and must involve a discussion of the band’s doomed founder: guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones.
Brian Jones was also a founding member of the morbidly titled “27 Club,” a cadre of musicians whose lives were cut short at that age, which counts among its ranks such luminaries as Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Kurt Cobain. Jones’ drug-fueled fall from grace, estrangement from the band, and ultimate death by drowning have produced a subgenre of Rolling Stones literature devoted to the promotion of various conspiracy theories regarding his demise. In Brian Jones: The Making of the Rolling Stones, music writer and David Bowie biographer, Paul Trynka makes a valuable contribution to the crowded historiography of the Rolling Stones with his comprehensive study of Brian Jones’ fascinating life, and not merely his untimely death.
The book traces Jones’ personal and musical growth—from his unhappy formative years in the pedestrian town of Cheltenham, England, to his peripatetic early musical career, and then through his turbulent time as a Rolling Stone. Trynka devotes considerable attention to the roots of Jones’ myriad flaws and insecurities: the death of his infant sister, a cold and stifling relationship with his parents, crippling asthma, betrayal by his bandmates—the list goes on. However, he also makes clear that Jones was by no means an entirely sympathetic character. He was a narcissist and philanderer who had already fathered several illegitimate children when he founded the Rolling Stones, and was prone to moodiness, self-pity, and domestic violence.
In the rare event that the surviving Stones acknowledge Brian Jones’ existence at all, it is to highlight these nastier aspects of his personality. In his 2011 autobiography, Life, Keith Richards minimizes Jones’ role in the band’s early success and insists that Jones’ estrangement from the band was purely a result of paranoia and self-destructive tendencies, calling his former bandmate a “bit of a bastard.” This is a sentiment echoed by Mick and the other surviving Stones. The lone exception is longtime bassist Bill Wyman, who was also marginalized by Mick and Keith, and whom Trynka credits as the only Stone to stand up for the band’s founder.
Trynka’s book is extremely well-researched and thorough, particularly in contrast to the dubious accounts of Brian Jones’ downfall that preceded it. His thesis is essentially as follows: the history of the Stones has been written by the victors, at the expense of the band’s founder, and Jagger and Richards’ dismissal of Jones’ influence should not be taken at face value. In this respect, throughout the book, it seems that Trynka has a chip on his shoulder. He is determined to revise the prevailing history of the band as dictated by Jagger and Richards, both of whom Trynka characterizes—correctly, by most accounts aside from their own—as cruel, self-centered, and manipulative in their dealings with Jones.
The book amounts to a longwinded exoneration of Brian Jones; if not as a person, then at least as a musician. Through extensive interviews with a wide array of characters from the band’s early years, Trynka drives home the point that Jones was by far the most musically talented and innovative of the Stones. Although in the 45 years since Brian Jones’ death Jagger and Richards have methodically downplayed his significance in the Stone’s early achievements, Trynka successfully argues that Jones was a natural leader in the studio throughout the early- and mid-1960s. Trynka even attributes Keith Richard’s signature Open G tuning, which the guitarist extensively extols in his own autobiography, to Brian Jones. In the conclusion of his book, Tynka writes, “It’s understandable why the survivors resent Brian Jones beyond the grave: he formed the band, he named the band, he taught Keith Richards Open G tuning, and he taught Mick Jagger how to bring a girl to orgasm.”
His supposed contributions to Mick Jagger’s sexual prowess aside, Brian Jones made tangible contributions to some of the Stones’ most notable compositions, including the distinctive piano and recorder parts in “Ruby Tuesday.” Trynka argues that Jones had a significant role in composing other hits like “Under My Thumb” and “Paint it Black,” but went unrecognized because of manager Andrew Oldham’s favoritism of Mick Jagger and insistence on a Jagger-Richards composing duo in the mold of the Lennon-McCartney partnership.
Trynka convincingly portrays Jones as the “undisputed architect of the band’s sound,” and vindicates him in his capacity as the musical visionary of the Stones. However, he is excessively laudatory and occasionally bombastic in his descriptions of Jones’ wider contributions. Jones’ first performances in village pubs, before he had recruited Mick and Keith to form the Stones, supposedly “kicked off a new era in musical history.” His commendable efforts to bring the blues to the mainstream would “ultimately redefine the world’s cultural landscape.” It is clear that Trynka was painstaking in his research, and he never appears inaccurate; however, the book borders on hagiography at times, particularly when Trynka credits Jones with singlehandedly shaping modern music.
Trynka’s meticulous research also comes at a price: in the first half of the book there is a disproportionate focus on the whirlwind of peripheral figures in Brian Jones’ fluid social circle, which could confuse or bore readers who aren’t avid fans. For Stones buffs, however, it is thrilling not only to read excerpts of Trynka’s discussions with early Stones insiders like Marianne Faithful, Glyn Johns, and Ginger Baker, but also to discover details of Jones’ friendships with fellow musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend, and John Lennon.
Brian Jones: The Making of the Rolling Stones is a fascinating page-turner for devotees of the Rolling Stones. The continuing efforts of the surviving Stones to downplay the influence and diminish the legacy of the band’s founder should inspire any fan to find out more about Brian Jones’ life. Furthermore, since the circumstances of Jones’ 1969 death remain a source of enormous interest, Trynka devotes a coda to examining the various conspiracy theories that have cropped up over the past half-century. He ultimately concludes that the official explanation offered by the police—“death by misadventure”—remains the most likely scenario, although the investigation into Jones’ drowning was “perfunctory and lazy.”
It remains to be seen whether “history has vindicated the opinions of the unreliable, maddening, pretentious founder of the Rolling Stones… the man who committed the sin of being right,” as Trynka boldly proclaims. But Brian Jones: The Making of the Rolling Stones is an impressive undertaking and a consistently interesting read. It serves as a worthy counterpoint to Keith Richards’ Life, and Stones fans owe it to themselves to gain a new perspective on the tragic antihero who hired Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to join his band in 1962.