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Sympathy For The Devil

PostPosted: Mon Oct 27, 2014 12:38 pm
by Garth Cartwright
Former Mojo-editor Paul Trynka wrote Open Up And Bleed - as definitive a biography on Iggy Pop as one could hope for - and then one on Bowie (who holds no interest to me so I've not glanced at it). He's now penned this, a biography of doomed Stone Brian Jones. A while back I promised myself that I would never read another book on the Stones - wasted far too much time on them and, really, is there anything more to learn about that band? - but opening this book lead to me reading it all the way through.

Why? Well, Trynka is a thorough researcher and a gifted writer who avoids sensationalising his subject. And he paints a picture of a Britain in the late-1950s/early-1960s when blues was beginning to gain a foothold amongst musically obsessive youths, the Mississippi-Chicago sound somehow acting as a hammer to shatter a very staid, middle class society. And where could be more staid than leafy Cheltenham, home to young Brian? Actually, Trynka suggests Cheltenham had its dark shadows - mainly to do with horse racing and the crowds it attracted (not that Brian ever ran with the high rollers and their whores) - but mostly it was a place for this intelligent, talented, asthmatic youth to rebel against. And rebel he did - I'm not sure how many women he impregnated before he left for London but it seems that were at least 4 babies squired by the teenage Jones before he had even made a name for himself. Which suggests - this being the 1950s - he possessed the charm of the devil. Divorce was a stigma back then but children born out of wedlock was pretty much seen as sin against society. And Jones kept getting young women pregnant. It seems he wanted to leave a trail of bastards as a calling card of sorts in the same way certain Jamaican singers and US rappers like to boast of how many baby mamas they have.

Which leads to one of my few criticisms of the book - I find Jones' reckless libido and unwillingness to take even the slightest care of his kids horribly fascinating: what made him so determined to impregnate again and again and young women to willingly succumb (even while aware that he had no intentions of providing)? Trynka doesn't really ask these questions of the old friends and lovers he tracks down, more detailing Jones' determination to get to London and form a band. Obviously, psychological speculation can ruin a biography but here I wish we had a little more investigation into the lothario and his behaviour patterns.

That said, Trynka makes it clear that Jones was a horribly selfish man, one who only ever cared for himself. That Mick and Keith took on Jones own persona and turned it back on him is an irony that is too unpleasant to savour. The author obviously feels his subject has been sidelined by the Stones and tries to bring him back into the centre of creativity - garnishing with quotes from those who found him quite likeable (not many, it must be noted) - and he succeeds in suggesting that Jones was the musical and visual force behind the Stones up until around the time Satisfaction tipped everything into a Jagger-Richards axis. From then on its pretty much a messy rush to the bottom of a swimming pool. By then it seems that Jones was so far gone on drugs and alcohol and health problems that he could barely play guitar - Alexis Korner stayed with him in an attempt to get the ex-Stone to play with his band but found him in no fit state to make music let alone tour.

Trynka's done a huge amount of research and coolly refutes all the conspiracy theories that several hack writers have served up as to Jones being murdered. He has had no access to many of the main players - no Stones (I would have liked to hear Charlie's thoughts on Jones as a man and musician), no Anita Pallenberg, and surprisingly (for this journalist) no Stanley Booth or Nick Kent, both of whom wrote beautifully on Brian (Booth even getting to know him then visiting his parents not long after his death) - but he has managed to write a biography of a man who possessed a huge musical ability but almost no self awareness or compassion for others. Brian Jones is a near perfect example of someone who wanted stardom no matter what. Only to find that it would cost him everything. A truly unpleasant man - no matter how much Trynka tries to counter Keef and Mick and others cruel dismissal of BJ, this biography still paints him as repellant - who briefly lead the best rock and roll band on earth and helped bring blues to white suburban kids like me. That BJ and Mick and Keith were such unlikeable people yet managed to create such great music is one of the great paradoxes of art - bad people often have huge talents. Or, as the cliche goes, the devil has the best tunes. But I've little sympathy for this little devil. Yet I'm pleased I read this book - Trynka makes those halcyon 60s days clearer, less romantic, more squalid.

I now promise myself never to read another book on the Stones. But an essay detailing the rise of white youths in the UK and US playing blues with real feeing at the same time - Trynka does not reference Canned Heat's Alan Wilson who, while totally unlike BJ in personality possessed a similar musical talent (and self destructive nature) - that I would definitely like to read.

Re: Sympathy For The Devil

PostPosted: Mon Oct 27, 2014 9:10 pm
by AndyM
Interesting to reflect on the extent to which Jones' rancid misogyny (he habitually used girlfriends as punchbags too, I believe) was present and correct before he discovered the blues, or whether he found '''''''inspiration''''''' in the lyrics of certain songs in that tradition for his attitudes.

Re: Sympathy For The Devil

PostPosted: Mon Oct 27, 2014 11:51 pm
by Garth Cartwright
I doubt he needed blues songs to inspire his wicked ways - Phil Spector treated women awfully and, to my knowledge, never listened to blues in his life. Jones was your typical English dandy cad - a Flashman or Russell Brand, but less charming and durable yet nastier than those 2 shagaholics. He certainly was violent towards some of the women he was with - Trynka relates a story of a groupie on tour coming out crying about how he had beaten her and one of the Stones roadies giving him a beating in return. Only Bill Wyman stands up for him. Which really says it all.

That said, he possessed a remarkable musical virtuosity early on and one of the reasons the first Stones album sounds so great is his playing. And he's all over Paint It Black, Under My Thumb, Ruby Tuesday, Little Red Rooster and other great singles they cut. Which is not to excuse his awful behaviour. But worth noting the reason he's remembered is for the music. And the haircut.

Re: Sympathy For The Devil

PostPosted: Tue Oct 28, 2014 7:01 pm
by Adam Blake
Great review, Garth. Makes me want to read the book and it is entirely possible that I have read even more books about the Strolling Bones than you (I started ahead of you). For my money, the best writing on Brian Jones is contained in Nick Kent's essay "Tortured Narcissus". From memory: "he brought to the Stones the full force of authentically damned youth", "his own talent he simply squandered" and, of course, "who loves you, baby?"

No-one who loves the music of the 60s can completely ignore the utter vileness at the heart of its second most important group. But if we only listened to music by nice people etc etc etc....