Rockism, in case you don’t know the term, is the school of thought that holds the noisy “purity” of rock ‘n’ roll to be morally and aesthetically superior to the “corruption” of pop. There are numerous iconic examples of rockism. It was there in the postpunk ’80s hipsters who found the Replacements and Joy Division to be superior to Michael Jackson or Madonna. It was there in the rock-crit establishment of the mid-2000s mounting its collective attack on Coldplay. And it was there, just last week, in The New York Times when Jeff Tweedy, the leader of Wilco, printed an excerpt from his new book in which he apologized, in a “My name is Jeff, and I’m a rockist” sort of way, for having trashed ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” in his indie youth; what he now realizes, only 47 years after it was released, is that it’s a great song. (At this rate, Tweedy, who’s 56, will be ready to see the light about Lady Gaga around the time he’s in assisted living.)
But judging from Nick Broomfield’s documentary “The Stones and Brian Jones” (opening Nov. 17), the seminal assertion of rockism may have come from deep inside the rock world itself. And that would be how Brian Jones, the founding member of the Rolling Stones, created the group in 1962; how he established it as a British-white-boy blues band (in the early days, the Stones would cover Howlin’ Wolf and Bo Diddley and Willie Dixon); and how, after Mick Jagger and Keith Richards began to compose the songs that made the Stones famous, he turned on them for diluting what he thought was the group’s true mission: to remain a blues band.
According to Zouzou, the ’60s French actress and pop singer who was one of Jones’s revolving-door girlfriends, here’s what Brian said about “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”: “It’s vulgar, it’s awful, it’s out of tune, it’s nothing.” Jones did not approve of the music that Mick and Keith were writing. He hated that Andrew Loog Oldham, who took over as the band’s manager (a post that, until then, had essentially been held by Brian), wanted them to be more pop. Jones was a purist, a rockist, a bluesist, a retro snob.
But here’s what’s nuts about that. “The Stones and Brian Jones” says that Jones, in establishing the Stones as a blues band, forged a musical-spiritual template that carried through the rest of the band’s career — and who would disagree? It’s not as if the Stones ever ditched their blues roots. When I started listening to them, as a teenager in the ’70s, I’d put on my copy of “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!” and be haunted by the despairing beauty of their live rendition of Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain.” The documentary includes early clips of the band on TV, at one point forming a listening circle around Howlin’ Wolf, and the fact that they brought Black culture — the foundational DNA of rock ‘n’ roll — into countless people’s lives is not to be trivialized.
Yet what made the Stones great is that, like the Beatles, they merged their roots reverence with countless other influences, forging their own sound and mystique. Who would take those early Stones albums, which were full of dogged covers (like the early single “Little Red Rooster”), over “Aftermath” or “Beggars Banquet” or “Let It Bleed”?
As the documentary reveals, the real reason that Brian Jones got stuck in his rockist stance is that, as a personality, he turned out to be that unstable and dangerous thing, an insecure megalomaniac, boiling over with jealousy and resentment. After launching the Stones (by placing an ad in music magazines and hiring all the members), he emerged as the band’s leader. He was the most handsome of them, and he got the most girls; he was an alpha rebel who wanted to be king of the hill. But there was a slight impediment to his ambition: the volcanic talent and androgynous movie-star charisma of Mick Jagger. Even back in 1963, when he was still shaking maracas onstage, Jagger already had his slithery insolence, and it set the crowds aflame. The Stones, as the film captures (with astonishing clips), had their own Beatlemania. Their concerts didn’t just provoke screaming — they were nightly riots.
Brian Jones looked like a golden boy, but he couldn’t compete with Jagger. Onstage, under his helmet of hair, Brian stood rather stiffly, like a more invisible George Harrison or one of the Beach Boys. That sort of staid sexiness worked fine for them, but next to Jagger Jones looked like an extra. And so it was only natural that Mick, along with Keith (his songwriting partner), began to lead the band. The power nexus had shifted. There’s a cringe-worthy clip in which a television host keeps asking Jones about his method of songwriting, and Jones, who didn’t write any songs, looks like he wants to sink into the floor.
Yet he coveted what Mick and Keith had, even as he cultivated a superiority to their music. And that’s the psychodrama “The Stones and Brian Jones” is about. Brian Jones has always been a fabled and mysterious figure, and the movie captures why. Though he started the band, he was in many ways a glorified sideman who destroyed his life out of self-loathing.
I should add that Nick Broomfield, in terms of how he positions the film, wouldn’t quite see it that way. Broomfield, who narrates the documentary, talks about how he met Brian on a train in 1963, when Broomfield was a 14-year-old schoolboy, and it’s clear the filmmaker has never lost that besotted hero worship. “The Stones and Brian Jones” digs deep into the Jones mystique, trying to make the case for him as a misunderstood “genius.”
The evidence? He had the vision to form a band of British blues rockers in 1962. He had a rock star’s sense of entitlement. And though he was an efficient rhythm guitarist, no more and no less, in the recording studio he was an instinctive musician who could pick up almost any instrument and create something dynamic with it. There are several fabled examples of what he added to Stones tracks. He played the flute on “Ruby Tuesday,” he played the marimba on “Under My Thumb” (my third favorite Stones song, after “Gimme Shelter” and “Brown Sugar”), and he played the sitar on “Paint It Black.” All three of those additions are incandescent. So Brian had a knack. But the more successful the Stones became, the more miserable it made him, because he knew, deep down, that their success wasn’t contingent on him.
And no small thing: He was a reckless counterculture sociopath.
Unlike the other Stones, Brian came from a bourgeois background, but his parents were straitlaced stuffed shirts whose approval he craved, even though he could never get it. So he acted out. His pattern was to find a woman in her late teens, move in with her family, get her pregnant, and then move on. He did this five times before he was 25. (He ultimately had six children, none of whom he took care of.) And his drug use was legendary. He was an acidhead and a speed freak who would stay up for a week at a time, balancing the amphetamine with Scotch-and-Cokes, which he would drink from morning till night.
His dissolution started early, and he would probably have left the band had it not been for his relationship with Anita Pallenberg, which lasted for two years. They were a glam power couple — socialites in the new rock aristocracy of Swinging London — and it was that cachet that saved Brian, for a time. It made him cool again, rejiggering the power balance within the Stones. He and Pallenberg lived inside their own cult bubble of social cruelty. They would mock the people around them, and we hear a terrifying anecdote from Linda Lawrence, one of Jones’ exes, about how she showed up one day with his young son, and Brian and Anita looked out the upstairs window of their townhouse and refused to let them up.
Jones and Pallenberg worked together on “Degree of Murder,” a 1967 West German film directed by Volker Schlöndorff, which starred Pallenberg and had a soundtrack composed by Brian. Schlöndorff is interviewed in the documentary, and his most telling anecdote is that at the 1967 Cannes Film Festival, Pallenberg showed up with Jones, but she left with Keith Richards. For Brian Jones, that was the beginning of the end.
By the time the ’60s were imploding, Brian had become more than an addled drug abuser. He’d given in to his inner head case. The other Stones, fed up with his erratic and abusive behavior, kicked him out of the band, and he died, infamously, just three months later, drowning in his swimming pool on July 3, 1969. It’s telling that Broomfield, whose “Kurt & Courtney” (1998) was built around a rather compelling conspiracy theory about the death of Kurt Cobain, attempts no such thing with Brian Jones, even though there have been theories over the years that Jones was murdered. When you see “The Stones and Brian Jones,” the arc of his self-dissolution is so clear that the notion that foul play was involved would seem almost preposterous. Yet what struck me, by the end, is how powerfully sad his story was. Brian Jones had a life that almost anyone would envy, yet he didn’t like who he was; in many ways, he remained an unhappy little boy. He was the first of the 27-year-old ’60s substance-abuse casualties (Jimi, Janis, Jim Morrison), but as “The Stones and Brian Jones” demonstrates, the drug that killed him was toxic narcissism.