Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Where Did the Revolution Go?

Top 10 Brian Jones Highlights & Interviews with The Rolling Stones

Today, the day after the headlines and buzz about the passing of the great David Bowie, I went to Wikipedia to read a bit more about him. There, down the scrolled page, a small photo of one of his guitars mounted as a work of art on the wall of a nightclub bearing the caption  "Bowie's Vox Mark VI guitar in the Hard Rock Café, Warsaw." No ordinary guitar, this futuristic 'axe' seems to be from the imagination of some luthier from outer space. Not surprising that David Bowie, the visionary artist, pop culture seer, and fashion wizard would make this model part of his stage persona. But while guitar mastery was never part of the Bowie legend, on seeing this picture I was instantly reminded of another pop star who was an exceptional musician and who made this model of guitar popular for a while. I'm talking about Brain Jones, long forgotten now, but often acknowledged as having started a band called The Rolling Stones, which began its career as a blues band and not a rock & roll group.

Brian Jones died back in 1969 a month after the other Rolling Stones (as the story goes) fired him from the band. That's almost half a century ago! Free association fueled by a surfeit of social media content aside, it's worthwhile today, in addition to stopping to think about David's passing, to contemplate the phenomenon of pop culture fame. By the way, the reasons for Brian's ouster from The Stones, his legendary trend setting, womanizing, drug taking, and friendship with other counter-culture luminaries who help define his brief life and times, as well as his mysterious death, all of that, have been the subjects of numerous books over the years. But it's not the details of his life and career that have me by the short hairs today, with Bowie's passing I'm lost in reverie about pop culture and fame, and above all, heroes who have meant much to me, but who are lost forever.

First, I have to acknowledge that Brian Jones deserved the rewards of his success. He was a brilliant musician: a multi-instrumentalist who, caught up in the British Blues craze of early '60s, found his way to the obscure recordings of Black Blues artists like Slim Harpo, Muddy Waters, and Howlin' Wolf. He analyzed them, taught himself to play them on his pistachio green Gretsch Anniversary guitar, and along with Keith Richards, the other guitarist of the Stones, improved them, at least to the ears of young folks like me. This was back in the mid to late '60s when pop music from England was conquering the consciousness of our world. A taste of the musical reality of this can be gotten from the listening to The Rolling Stones' first full album, available on YouTube, of course, titled  The Rolling Stones England s Newest Hit Makers. By the way, stating that this album has held up well over the years, proving its musical worth, is quite an understatement. It comes off as magnificent, even today, although it was released back in 1964, introducing tens of millions of my contemporaries (I was 15 at the time) to a new type of music. And we loved it! 

But what about Brian, who we loved immeasurably, too? Looking at this video it is hard to reconcile our memories of him with the person it shows him to have been. So outrageous a revolutionary was Brian at the time he penetrated our awareness, that our parents flat out hated him. Brian wore his hair, beautiful, 'Breck Girl' straight, gleaming natural blond locks, in a long Prince Valiant hairstyle at a time when a US Marine buzz cut was what our parents would have liked to have seen on our heads. He wore high style, over-the-top clothes that resonated for us as... SO cool. Beau Brummel himself would have been jealous. The music that flowed from his fingers was an amalgam of the best licks of Chuck Berry, T-Bone Walker, Buddy Guy, and other greats.  Suffice it to say that there was just 'something' about him; he seemed to be thumbing his nose at conformity and convention, but doing it by strutting and flaunting his apparent, stylish superiority. And we ate it up, not just because we agreed with him that he had "it", but because that thumb was not only pressed against his own nose but, seemingly shoved up that of our parents' generation, people who represented the embodiment of a social force that was demanding of us conformity to a body of values and behaviors that somehow (remember this was the late '60s) we just knew was toxic to the soul. 

But, now, half a century since he has passed and with the world having changed so much over those years, look at this video. Where's the revolutionary? Where's the revolution? What you see is a passably good looking young man, polite and well mannered to a fault, who takes the limelight he finds himself in so seriously, too seriously, by far. Whatever it is that he had, has been forgotten as thoroughly as he has himself. I still admire Brian Jones, the musician - and recognize his contribution to the evolution of pop culture and to The Rolling Stones, avatars of that phenomenon. Brian was a fascinating character who was important in his day, but is absolutely little more than a bit of interesting history now. Perhaps this is so because (at least musically) his vision and accomplishment has been so thoroughly imitated over the years that his innovation is no longer seen as that. That style of guitar playing is so ubiquitous now that few ponder where it came from. His style- driven notoriety may well have influenced David Bowie, a 5 year younger fellow Brit who must have met him backstage at some point as the two climbed to fame... way back then. But Brian? Gone, long gone! Sigh!

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