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Thursday, March 15, 2012

(11th in a series of) Stepping Stones: "Spotlight on Brain Jones: The Effects of Longstanding Connections"

Song: Ruby Tuesday
Album: Between the Buttons (US version)
Released: February, 1967

Spotlight on: Brian Jones

Of all the lasting insights and interests I’ve garnered over my lifetime, most have been jump started via longstanding connections with family and friends.  I believe this is the case for most of us.  Sure, we can on occasion pick up a tip-that-lasts through other avenues, for example an acquaintance or professional.  But there’s something about personal ties that can set the best of wheels in motion, often resulting in the deepest, most enduring and creative of preoccupations.  Call it insider trading.  Call it an inside job.  Call it your inner circle. Call it whatever.  It works.
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Fred and I benefited greatly from the family move to Park Road during the spring of ’73.  First and foremost, we each got our own bedrooms (the room we were leaving behind on Martin Ave can best be described as a bevy of bunk beds).  That alone would have been good enough, but these rooms came with a few other perks.  There was an easy-access back staircase ***used by me one evening to sneak out of home at midnight for an hour or so while in my mid-teen years, tobacco-packed corncob pipe in hand, to hook up with Jeff (aka Popeye), John and others in the crew, several of whom had even more creative ways of sneaking out of their homes, including the use of windows, trees and deck pillars***.  There was a small bathroom between our rooms (whose porcelain bowl may have been loudly worshipped once or twice).  Most importantly, though, there was space:  Space for posters, stereo systems, and hobbies.  The space also came in handy for noise: The type of noise that a smaller, multi-generational home could not put up with….Rock ‘n Roll noise.

At the onset of our interest in Rock music, Fred and I each cobbled together small but diverse album collections.  Between us there was some Neil Young (including ‘Decade’), some Cars, Joe Jackson and the Kinks (‘Kronikles’), and lots of Beatles.  Later, our collections would expand to include The Who, Elvis Costello, The Clash, Mink Deville, The Jam, and others.  We dabbled into each other’s selections regularly.

Another of Fred’s earliest records was ‘Hot Rocks’, a classic double album he purchased in slightly used (but cheap!) quality at a flea market.  Arguably one of the greatest compilations of all time, ‘Hot Rocks’ opened me up to the world of the Rolling Stones.  There was the cover, with 5 faces, one inserted inside another, that initially had me thinking it was all one person.  There was the back cover, The Stones decked out in medieval regalia, Mick, Brian, Keith and Bill on the 2nd ledge of a decaying castle, Charlie standing in the front (likely scared of heights?).  And of course, there was the music, which covered some of the Stones best material over their first decade.

A brief overview is needed at this point.  Rolling Stones history can be broken up into 3 main time-periods, each of which can be defined by the 2nd guitarist.  The first of these 2nd guitarists was founding member Brian Jones, who was released by the Stones in 1969 due to his fading contributions to the band (driven at least partially by substance abuse), and who died soon after, drowning in his own swimming pool (remaining the only Rolling Stone to have passed on at the time of this writing, excepting if you include Ian Stewart).  The Brian Jones years, however, can really be broken up into an A and B period.  Period A would be about 1962-65, when Jones faithfully stuck with his traditional instrument, the rhythm guitar.  Period B would be about 1966-69.  This was when Jones had virtually lost all interest in the guitar (to Keith Richards despair, who loves dueling with a partner), and ended up instead plucking, blowing into, and fingering just about any other instrument within reach.  These instruments Jones would learn to play with aplomb.

It was a three song stretch on side 2 of ‘Hot Rocks’ that initiated the transition for me from casual listener to aficionado with The Rolling Stones, and all three have Brian Jones as the key cog, playing an exotic instrument like a sage in each.  First there was his mood-setting sitar playing on Paint it Black; second his nimble handling of the marimba on Under My Thumb; and finally there was his beautiful use of the recorder on Ruby Tuesday, this week’s Stepping Stone.  It was all classy sounding.  It gave the Stones an edge over other bands.  It convinced me that this band was for real.

Brian Jones contributions to Stones songs in the last years of his short life would reveal his multi-faceted abilities playing out yet again and again, as he would include in his repertoire of instruments the grand piano, harmonica, slide guitar, accordion, organ, dulcimer, harpsichord, oboe, mellotron, saxophone, autoharp, and more.  This was all very interesting to me, and in hindsight, I now can pretty much say it was Brian Jones, not Mick Jagger (and certainly not the much-harder-to-connect-with Keith Richards) who opened the Stones doors for me. 

Which brings me back to that inside-job concept:  I truly believe that Brian Jones’ brilliant contributions on those 3 songs would have been impossible to have been performed similarly by a hired gun.  This is the fascinating concept behind long-term bonds:  They bring out a passion and creativity that cannot be artificially inseminated.  There was something going on within his band’s ranks, and only through years of being immersed in this atmosphere, as Jones was, could these musical superlatives be drawn out. I’m convinced of it, as this has happened often enough in my circles to recognize it in other ones.  And it’s these long-term bonds that are actually what lead me to The Rolling Stones in the first place, after poking through Fred’s collection all those years ago and pulling out ‘Hot Rocks’ for the first time.  Fred was curious enough in this band to purchase their album, and that was good enough for me.  It may not have played out as definitively for me as it did with the Stones.  But make no mistake about it:  It did play out, in equally extraordinary ways, and for this I am truly grateful.

Listening to Ruby Tuesday (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6DVCgKsqn30) numerous times this week, I was reminded of so many reasons why I enjoy this song.  There are the lyrics, with several poignant lines: “She would never say where she came from” to start it out; “She just can’t be chained to a life where nothings gained and nothings lost” in the second stanza; “Lose your dreams and you will lose your mind” in the third.  There’s the unique bass sound, which was orchestrated by Bill Wyman holding tight on the strings while Keith Richards plucked.  And of course, there’s Brian Jones recorder playing; which hits highlights throughout (with two moments in particular standing out for me at the 2:16 and 2:23 marks of the attached url). 

Brian Jones was a fragile soul… one of the most fragile in the history of Rock (Kurt Cobain also comes to mind).  His iconic image, that of the lone blond in a gang of British hooligans (he was not exempt) remains front and center for many Rolling Stones fans when conjuring up a snapshot of the band, despite 40 years of Stones history since his death.  Though eccentric and tough to deal with, the Stones were still very lucky to have this element in their circle for that relatively brief period of time in their long saga.

One other note:  The Beatles roots are in Rock but the Stones roots are in Blues, which made it harder for a suburban Caucasian kid like myself to connect to them right off.  ‘Hot Rocks’ was needed to initiate the process.  It collected together some of the Stones best early stuff together, the earliest of which were scattered among many blues cover songs on their first 3 or 4 albums.  I needed time and familiarity to break into that Blues sound.  With enough persistence, I eventually did.  But it was the music they first painted on top of the Blues, songs like Paint it Black, Under My Thumb, and Ruby Tuesday that started me down that path.  Keith Richards should have been grateful:  Though he lost a buddy to weave guitar notes with (he would eventually get this back with Ron Wood after several more Stones permutations, but these are stories for other times), he gained a much broader audience, and I’ve never heard of him complaining about the quality of those songs.  On the contrary, I believe he was inspired by them.  That creative spirit, spurred on by long-term bonds, would bite him deeply soon enough:  For as Jones faded, the Richards-prolific years kicked into high gear, carrying through at least the middle part of the following decade.

The Rolling Stones performed Ruby Tuesday very admirably, without Mr. Jones, on their Steel Wheels tour in 1989, although one of those aforementioned hired guns was needed to fill the void.  Those wheels grind on still, but for me it was Brian Jones, and my brother Fred, that set them to rolling in the first place.

-          Pete

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