The story of The Rolling Stones is one fraught with fragile egos, genius musicianship and misunderstood hyperbole. If anyone embodied all three of those, it was Brian Jones. The subject of Magnolia Pictures' eye-opening, just released documentary The Stones & Brian Jones, as the co-founder of The World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band (a moniker assigned to them after Jones' 1969 death), it was his unique vision to meld the blues — the musical bedrock of post-Civil War U.S. — and then bend the genre to fit in with the burgeoning club scene in early '60s London. He was the one who, after leaving Alexis Korner's rhythm and blues band, gathered together the members who would become the Rolling Stones. It was he who named the band (after a Muddy Waters song) and it was he who drove the engine in the early days, only to be overshadowed in the end by his fellow bandmates, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
In the documentary, two-time BAFTA winner Nick Broomfield (Kurt & Courtney, Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love) has taken on the delicate task of extracting the myth from the man. And he does so by letting the subjects speak for themselves. From his home in England, Broomfield talks to Q about the student who was the eccentric, the boy who wouldn't conform to public norms and finally, the man who could just as easily be cruel to his fellow Stones as he could squeeze magic notes from a kazoo.
Here's a figure in rock history that certainly has been largely misunderstood for going on 60 years. How did you start framing all of this?
I think one of the great things about the documentary is not to go in with an agenda and not to go in with a thesis that you want to support. I always feel a documentary is a result of all the research you do while you're making the film. So I think a lot of your ideas change with the various people you talk to. Like all of Brian's girlfriends and people like Stanley Booth, who was on the road with them, and met his parents and just listening to all the material that there is.
Alexis Korner, who was very instrumental in promoting the blues, did a series of interviews himself in the '60s with Brian's father and various other people. You get a sense of a person in a fairly complex way by just distilling all this information. It became apparent that Brian, unlike the rest of the Stones, had come from a very middle class family that had very high expectations of him. I think the rest of the band came from a very supportive group of parents who even though they weren't wealthy, would give them a meal, or generally be very supportive of what they were trying to do.
Brian was the sort of odd one out in that respect, and he was also, probably by far, the most talented to begin with. His mother was a classical pianist. Brian knew how to read music. He had studied the blues. He was the only one who could play the slide guitar and knew properly how to play it. So he brought that kind of expertise. But he wasn't really equipped to deal with the long haul of being in a band at that time.
He seems to be an outlier in that regard, in that he seeks acceptance, yet he wants to be a person who is a pioneer in what he does and how he approaches it.
I think a lot of the judgements have been the surface reaction to his frequent bad behavior rather than understanding where it had come from and that he was having a really hard time with all his insecurities and all the rest of it, to sort of keep going. And I think it was his lack of security that undermined his ability to actually write his own songs and stand by them and have the confidence to put anything out there.
I think his brilliance excelled in the studio, when he would pick up some crazy instrument which he had taught himself to play in five minutes, and add some miraculous feel to a tune that otherwise would have been quite dead. He brought that kind of real edge to a lot of the Stones music and at the same time in a way, he was never really properly credited for that.
It's almost like you have to have the patience to understand the complexities of what Brian was able to contribute. But it seems like a lot of it was trying to break through the wall of what eventually became known as 'Mick and Keef' and I suppose with Andrew [Loog Oldham] steering the band away from what Brian originally started also must have been another depressing factor.
Yeah, and I think you have to remember that there weren't really any managers. There was Brian Epstein and Andrew Loog Oldham. When Andrew came in, Brian Jones had no idea that he was going to really take over the running of the band to such an extent. And that he was going to change the direction and basically take all Brian's power away from the band that he had created. I think that was the sort of beginning of Brian's demise, really.
You have to remember he was 21 or 22, without enormous emotional maturity, and I think the way he showed his frustration was often with pretty bad behavior. Which is, you know, very easy to dismiss and it just got obviously worse. The more he lost power, the more he felt inadequate and disliked himself. He sort of took it out on other people.
There wasn't good enough support it seems within the band and I understand that they've admitted that.
And remember, this is a young young man who'd been kicked out of his home at the age of 17, and that to his parents, this was his band. When he was no longer the leader, he wasn't able to celebrate this unbelievable thing that he had created that was unbelievably successful and was in many ways a representation of his dreams. He was unable to focus on the really positive side of what he had done. He was very down on himself. Down on not being able to write music and that he'd sort of lost leadership.
[Model and girlfriend] Zouzou said the funny thing about Brian was he always wanted her to look like him. At the same time, he hated himself! So it's a real contradiction.
But the other interesting part is that, if you stood back and looked at it, Brian and Keith were wonderful together. Bill Wyman noticed the intertwining with Brian being able to fill in with these gorgeous riffs. Why wasn't that important enough? Where did that start to separate?
Actually looking at some of the earlier footage, Mick and Brian would be at the front of the band. Brian would often be playing the harmonica. Mick would be with the maracas or singing. And there was a sort of uncomfortable rivalry between them. Then the person whose program it was would start asking questions and there was a visible tension between the two of them as to who was going to answer the first question. Who was really the leader of the band? Who was going to talk longer? And I think it just became unbearable. Mick Jagger is a pretty impossible person to compete with. Probably the world's greatest frontman ever. Brian was great, but he wasn't the same as Mick. I mean look at Mick! The greatest survivor of the lot. He had a vision of a future, and he absolutely followed it. I think it was Dawn, one of the girlfriends, said, "Brian was living in the moment. He didn't really have a vision of himself in the future."
There was even a comment [from Mick] just recently. He felt like he had to take charge because nobody else wanted to do it. He had this forward-thinking [mindset] like, 'We gotta keep going, and I don't have time to deal with you, Brian.'
He is unbelievably bright and yeah, he's incredibly astute. I just don't think Brian was built that way. Mick had an incredibly supportive family. I think those things make an enormous difference in somebody's self confidence and security. And they were such different creatures. Brian never was able to forgive himself for losing control of the band that he had initially created, even though he really pissed everybody off.
They're all supposed to split the amount they got for a gig, which was a pathetic amount of money anyway. But Brian would always give himself extra, which they didn't know about for the first 18 months. And when they found out, they were so furious. I mean, these were people who really didn't have money to put a shilling in the meter to have some heat in the flat they were in! Brian was kind of swindling them out of a little bit of money, so he was his own worst enemy, too.
Brian had an ability to absorb so much musicality, you get the impression he could have been a fantastic side person and had a great career, if he had had a clearer vision.
If you look at his contributions on "Paint It Black," "Ruby Tuesday" and a whole lot of others, there's a wonderful eccentricity that he brought to all those numbers which made them stand out from what everybody else was doing. He could have carried on like that. He gave the band an edge. He was the one who was dressing in a very androgynous way, wearing women's clothing, putting mascara on. He was very out there and maybe because he'd come from such a sort of Welsh Baptist background, he needed to be more out there. He definitely gave that to the rest of the band. Keith and Mick then sort of followed his dress sense and did it brilliantly.
There was definitely a place there for Brian, but he obviously had to find a way of turning up on time and turning up in a way where was he was capable of playing. When I was talking to Bill, who has a diary of every single day that he was with the Stones, he said that they were sometimes playing more than 365 gigs a year. Often they were playing twice a day, zooming around in this van, existing on three hours of sleep a night for months and months and months. You need to be pretty together to do that. You can't be sort of flailing around and picking fights with people.
The rest of the band were actually remarkably together in their own way headed by Mick, who was an Olympic athlete, a 'Mr. Marathon Man' who could just keep on going forever. Brian just wasn't. He was asthmatic and just not as physically strong as the others. For example, Bill said Brian always insisted on being dropped off first by Ian Stewart from the van. That pissed everybody else off, of course. It all comes down to little things, but which cumulatively made him quite unpopular.
Since his death, there's been a lot of work trying to rehabilitate his persona, so that we don't tend to focus on the seamier side of his death. I appreciate that you went to a lot of sources. And I know Bill just hoards all that history.
It was wonderful to see his passion for the music. To see somebody in their eighties just light up with all that unbelievable enthusiasm he had when he was in twenties, when he was in the band. You can see that this was a thing of love. I mean it was great that they all got wealthy, but it started with the heart. You really feel that with Bill, the way he talks about the music. I'd never seen him so animated before.
I love Bill Wyman. He's actually my favorite Rolling Stone!
I can understand that, having spent time with him. He's very sincere and incredibly kind. He was very supportive of Brian. I think Brian did misbehave. But Bill always kind of forgave him, because he thought he was such a nice guy.
I mean this whole conspiracy thing [over the nature of Jones' death] completely overshadows his contribution to the band. That's what he's sort of become famous for. And that's completely incorrect. I think he contributed massively at the beginning, but was unfortunately unable to sustain his contribution for one reason or another.
He was his own worst enemy. He didn't need somebody to come and finish him off. He was doing a great job by himself.
For somebody like myself, who who needs a refresher course, I came to appreciate what Brian did through your film.
I hope it will do the same for lots of people.