Brian Jones: Sympathy for the Devil

Founding Rolling Stone Brian Jones died in the early morning hours of July 3rd, 1969, less than a month following his exit from the band. 'Rolling Stone' dedicated its 39th cover story to remembering the guitarist and his legacy.

Brian Jones Rolling Stones
Photo by Jim Marshall
Brian Jones on the cover of Rolling Stone
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Brian Jones, rhythm guitarist with the Rolling Stones from their inception in 1962 until his departure early last month, is dead. He was 25.

Jones died shortly after being pulled, unconscious, out of the floodlight swimming pool at his home in Hartfield.

Circumstances surrounding the latenight tragedy remain vague, despite testimony by three friends who were near the scene, despite a coroner's inquest, and despite blatantly sensational coverage by the London press.

Jones and his girl friend, 21-year-old Anna Wohlin, were hosting Frank Thorogood, a builder who had been doing repairs on Jones' country home, and another friend, Jenny Lawson, a 22-year-old nurse. Shortly after midnight that night (June 2nd) he was found at the bottom of the pool. Artificial respiration attempts, first by Miss Wohlin, who is also a nurse, and later by ambulance attendants, failed, and Brian Jones was dead by the time a doctor arrived.

First reports on the drowning of the musician left the cause of death unsaid. Later, Miss Wohlin was reported to have told a coroner from nearby East Grinstead that an asthma inhaler was found at the edge of the pool. "Brian used it automatically and particularly when he was in the pool and having difficulties in breathing," she said.

But after more talk with Miss Lawson and Thorogood and a pathologist's report, coroner Angus Sommerville ruled that Jones died as a result of "drowning by immersion in fresh water associated with severe liver disfunction' caused by fatty degeneration and ingestion of alcohol and drugs."

There were traces of pep pills, sleeping tablets and alcohol in his bloodstream, according to the pathologist.

At the inquest, a verdict was recorded that death was caused by "misadventure."

Two days after the death, the Rolling Stones paid tribute to their long-time companion at their free concert in Hyde Park. Before a big crowd of some 250,000, a somber Mick Jagger quoted a piece of poetry in memory of Brian. He read, from Adonais by Shelley:

Peace, peace!
He is not dead, he does not sleep—
He has awakened from the dream of
life —
'Tis we who, lost in stormy visions,
Keep with phantoms an unprofitable strife,
And in mad trance strike with our spirit's knife
Invulnerable nothings.

We decay like corpses in a charnel;
Fear and grief convulse us and
consume us day by day
And cold hopes swarm like worms
within our living clay.

And as the crowd sat silently on Hyde's grassy slopes, the group released 3500 butterflies to flutter over the audience — another gesture and greeting to Brian.

The Rolling Stones, 1963-1969: Behind-the-Scenes Snapshots

The poetic words and subtle, flying colors were soon overwhelmed, however, by the daily press, as they jumped on the coroner's findings and blew them up into National Tattler proportions. Sleeping tablets and pep pills became a "DRUGS SHOCK," in the mind of the Daily Sketch, while the Daily Mirror headlined: Drinks and Drugs Killed Brian Jones.

While Jones' three friends were quoted telling of Brian's "somewhat garbled speech" (after he had taken the sleeping pills) and the amount of spirits consumed that evening, other sources close to Brian told Rolling Stone that other events directly leading up to the "misadventure" were being left untold.

Jones, of course, was the Rolling Stone most often connected to drugs, having been convicted twice on cannabis possession charges — in 1967 and 1968. Both times he received fines and warnings.

If Keith Richards and Mick Jagger were the mind and body of the Rolling Stones, Brian Jones, standing most of the time in the shadows, was clearly the soul.

Brian, in with Keith and Mick from the earliest — when the Stones were still largely an R&B discussion group meeting in a Soho pub — was labeled the quietest, the moodiest of the group. But he was in fact the most vocal to the press, angrily and sharply defending the Stones' then-radical style of music, their appearance, their politics, and their whole style of life.

Jagger was out front on stage, and Richards, the lead guitar, was the man with the music. Jones put himself down as "nothing special." But with his fair, pouting face topped by a full bowl of flaxen blond hair, he was invariably placed in front of the others for group photos [Look at the covers for Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass), Aftermath, Out of Our Heads, and December's Children]. He was the most hairy, the most dapper, and the most versatile with musical instruments. He was the first to leave the group – months, actually, before the news announcements. He was a Rolling Stone before he joined in 1962, and he led the life of a true Rolling Stone from 1963 to 1969.

Brian Jones was born February 28, 1944 in Cheltenham in Gloucestershire county, 98 miles to the west of London. He had musical, well-to-do parents in this health-spa-dominated, well-to-do-town. But although his mother taught piano and his father dabbled with keyboard instruments, he picked up guitar and harmonica and taught himself And although his parents sent him "to the finest schools," he was a non-conformist from the first grade on, and he was suspended from Cheltenham Grammar School for starting a rebellion against the prefects.

Jones was a fine scholar, excelling in English and music, but he hated sports – "I couldn't stand all that organization," he recalled – and put homework aside so that he could listen to records and the radio. He liked early jazz numbers like "Muskrat Ramble" and "When the Saints Go Marchin' In."

By 1960, he had made his first investment in music – three pounds ($7.20) for a Spanish guitar, and had discovered rhythm and blues. But England was being washed over by a tide of what was called "trad jazz" –the music of Kenny Ball, Chris Barber, and Acker Bilk. Brian Jones played trad jazz with various bands in small clubs and halls around the west country until the music – and a confining daytime office job — drove him off to distant Scandinavia.

Whatever funds he had didn't last long, and Jones was soon back in England, storing up money again from numbers of odd jobs. As a coal-lorry driver, he listlessly steered a black-coated wagon around Cheltenham; as a clerk in a record shop, he argued with patrons over their preferences for trad jazz, praising, in vain, his discoveries of early American blues artists and R&B. Finally, in 1962, he made the 100-mile trip to London, where he gravitated to the Bricklayers' Arms, a popular pub now turned into a wholesale house for millinery goods. It was there that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had been meeting to plot out their plans for an R&B group; it was there that Mick and Keith, joined by Brian, began the Rolling Stones.

Just as Jones suffered with Jagger and Richard through jobless, moneyless, foodless days and nights in and out of a dingy Chelsea flat, he was in the forefront when it came time to work — trad jazz was beginning to fade – and to fight against the older musicians so determined to maintain their club jobs.

At the Ealing Jazz Club, where the three upstarts sat in with R&B guitarist Alexis Korner's band, the Stones were able to test their music before receptive crowds. But the full group — with a college student Dick Taylor on bass and a succession of fill-in men on drums — really began when Jones found a club in Richmond-Surrey willing to hire them. First press clippings (which Brian saved in his wallet), the addition of Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman; help from Paul McCartney and John Lennon in the recording studios, growing audience enthusiasm — and the band rolled.

Life as a Rolling Stone, of course, was life as a blotter for massive smear jobs by the press and by straight entertainers bewildered by the ragtag, long-locked young rebels. The Stones didn't care. But someone had to answer the scurrilous, widespread attacks. Brian did:

"These ruddy reporters don't seem to want to take us seriously," he said in his soft, determined way. "Well, that's okay. We'll make them eat their lousy words one day. We'll make them take our music seriously."

For their increasingly regal clothes and their increasingly long hair, they were called "a bunch of perishing cissies." Brian, who himself fancied coats with velvet collars, again spoke out. "Intolerant bunch. We're getting it all the time, but we'll never change. It's that lot across there who're the trouble makers. They're the ones who lack politeness and they've got no excuse. They're old enough to know better."

The Stones, he said over and over again, would never change. But while the group tumbled through their natural progressions – through the Satanic LP and the Beggar's Banquet LP-cover hassle, through busts of Jagger and Richards, through abortive film and television projects and talk about their own production company — Jones was, in addition, going through his own bringdowns and breakdowns. He was busted in May, 1967 on charges of possession of cannabis and sentenced, that October, to nine months in jail (he was later given a suspended sentence and placed on a year's probation). Between the arrest and the trial, he slipped into a rest home in London – "to get myself together," he said later. He spoke of work pressures forcing him to go under a doctor's care and to go to the nursing home, but he hardly let his drug case settle before he took off to foreign lands and to foreign musics.

Jones had always been the most enthusiastic traveler among the Stones. After the group's first exhilarating tour, in 1964, he said that he might live in America one day. But now he was in Ceylon, doing a "home movie." Then he was in Marrakesh, in Tangier for a holiday when a Moroccan band playing in a market square caught his sensitive ears. He corralled long-time Stones engineer Glyn Johns to go back to Morocco with him, and they spent a week recording them. Jones' idea was to overdub the largely-percussion-and chant sounds with Western R&B for an album. Allan Klein, Stones business manager, still has the unreleased masters for that record.

And Jones continued to play music. "He was extremely versatile," Johns said. After the guitar and harmonica, he learned clarinet, and eventually mastered all the reed instruments. In addition, Johns said, "he played recorder, soprano sax — he played that one 'Baby, You're a Rich Man' — keyboard, and all string instruments, including the harp." Jones also played sitar in 1967, and for Beggar's Banquet, in fall of 1968, he played a countrified steel guitar and piano.

Banquet was pretty much Jones' final effort with the group. He was busted a second time for possession of grass, received a light fine and began to drift. The pressures had swelled again, and Jones found it necessary to be alone.

His next appearance in the news was on June 8th for an announcement: that he was leaving the Rolling Stones permanently, due to a difference in music policy. He revealed nothing about his own future further than: "I want to play my own kind of music."

This story is from the August 9th, 1969 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 39: August 9, 1969