Death permeates the world of rock and roll because it’s a risky business. It’s risky to be a star, to be treated like one, to act like one. It used to be fashionable to speculate on all the incredible things Bob Dylan might do if he lived past thirty — even old-timer Alan Lomax said something of the sort, I remember — and of course Bob Dylan will most likely outlive us all, not that I look forward to dying before he does, but can you think of anyone you’d rather grow old with, even at a distance?
Brian Jones didn’t live past thirty — he died at twenty-six, at the bottom of his swimming pool, probably swallowing some water, too stoned to catch his breath and come up for air. Jones has a lot of company: Sam Cooke, shot in the stomach; Holly, Valens, Richardson, dead in a plane crash; Eddie Cochran, auto accident; Brian Epstein, pills and booze; Frankie Lymon, heroin; and of course, Otis Redding, whose death was probably the most tragic of all. The deaths of these men, boys some of them, affected me powerfully — I can remember that — but I woke up to hear that Brian Jones was dead and not more than a ripple of sorrow passed through the room. It was time for it, there was just nothing left for him to do. Become a Rolling Stone and die.
Jones’ death, like Sam Cooke’s, was not spectacular, but sordid; Jones had been in and out of court and jail on drug busts for a couple of years, and I doubt if anyone really believed the official explanation of his departure from the Stones — “He wanted to make his own music.” Sure, but I doubt if it was the kind of music one makes with guitars. How does one come down from the status of a Rolling Stone? The news of Jones’ death seemed as inevitable as a body count. There was no way to deal with it.
It was not dealt with at all. The Stones’ new single, “Honky Tonk Women,” one of their best, certainly the best thing going on any radio, had just been released, and hours after Jones’ picture hit the front page of the paper — “Death of an Idol” — a DJ was rapping: “Well that’s the new single by the Stones gonna be their biggest in a long time looks like ol’ Brian Jones really missed out on this one too bad.”
When the Stones started out in 1962 it was Jones, Jagger and Richards who were the real fanatics, who knew they’d make it and pushed until they did; bassist Bill Wyman and drummer Charlie Watts were a bit skeptical, nursing their secret hopes but not really believing in the band the way the other three did. Jones’ contribution to the Stones wasn’t musical, not really, though he was a fine musician, versatile, kneeling down on dulcimer or zither or whatever it was on “Lady Jane,” Jones the sensual guitarist, sitting back with his harmonica, his organ, his piano, harpischord, bells, whatever was lying around, whatever sounded right at the time.
Jones was perhaps more of a Rolling Stone than any of the others. What the Stones as a group sang about, what Jagger and Richard wrote about, Jones did, and he did it right out in public, and he got caught, and he looked the part. Paternity suits even in the early days, dope busts, pink suits, chartreuse suits, the bell of yellow hair and the impish grin, even the red and yellow stripes he wore that made Mick Jagger look like he was wearing Salvation Army leftovers — that was Brian Jones. A true rake. He wasn’t acting out the Stones’ music, he just happened to be the Stones’ music, and that was one reason why you know the Stones always mean it, why you know they aren’t sitting around thinking up clever ideas that might make a good song — it was always valid and Jones was the reason, part of the reason, why “the red ’round your eyes shows that you ain’t a child” wasn’t an idea, wasn’t “hey, let’s write a song about methedrine,” but was fact, rough fact, rake’s fact.
A few years ago there were a lot of songs written and a lot of questions asked about such things as “Who Killed Davey Moore” and “Who Killed Norma Jean” and so on. The answer, of course, was “everybody,” and it seems rather a pallid, stupid answer right now, because those questions and their common answer enforced the kind of guilt one could assuage by making a contribution to the United Crusade or the City of Hope. Cheap guilt and cheap salvation. A metaphysical cry for spare change — spare some of your soul, we’re taking up a collection for good ol’ Brian Jones.
I hope the Stones don’t respond that way. I really hope they don’t show up at Jones’ funeral in black suits and grey ties. In a way, Jones’ death shows us and maybe Mick Jagger himself that the Stones weren’t kidding when they sang “Sympathy for the Devil.” “I lay traps for troubadors who get killed before they reach Bombay. Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name. But what’s confusing you is just the nature of my game.” As H. P. Lovecraft wrote in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,
I say to you againe, do not call
up Any that you cannot put downe;
by the which I meane, Any that
can in turn call up somewhat against
you, whereby your powerfullest de-
vices may not be of use.
The Rolling Stones call up whatever they can use, and it’s no worry whether or not it can be “put down” later on. “Sympathy for the Devil” turns out to be the epitaph of Brian Jones as surely as if he’d written it himself and left it lying by that pool as a suicide note. Jones didn’t commit suicide because he wasn’t any Ernest Hemingway sitting around thinking up new ways to prove his manhood. You can’t come down from being a Rolling Stone. No way down, and one way out.
It happens. Traps for troubadors, and sometimes one doesn’t stumble into them but goes looking for them. We grow up with death. Brian Jones, R.I.P.
This story is from the August 9th, 1969 issue of Rolling Stone.