The Rolling Stones and
the Death of the Sixties
By A.E. Hotchner
Simon and Schuster
349 pages, $21.95
The Story of a Rock 'n' Roll Band
By Bill Wyman
594 pages, $22.95
POOR BRIAN Jones.
First the original Rolling Stone comes to rest spread-eagled on the bottom of his swimming pool in 1969 -- stone dead, lungs full of 80-degree chlorinated water, those unkempt locks that once offended so many now undulating like golden seaweed. And then somebody plunders his tomb for a metaphor.
A.E. Hotchner wasn't the first, he's only the latest culture critic to wrap up and write off the decade in knowing tones, setting up Jones as a tragic symbol. The whole book could be paraphrased like this. (It's easy. Just clear the throat with an authoritative harrumph and follow the bouncing ball:)
One two three what are we fighting for. (Whoops, wrong track. Here it comes around again on the guitar.) See, Brian Jones was creative and outrageous and enormously talented, then he fried his imagination with all sorts of chemicals and not a little bit of the kind of sex we all pine for, and then he lost it, just totally lost it. And so it went for the whole 1960s thing. The decade's end was worse than an implosion, it was an utter cancellation. What's left of the '60s now, moonface? WHAT'S LEFT?!
That's most of Hotchner's game in "Blown Away." He trashes the '60s through a history of the Rolling Stones focusing on what happened to Jones. He'll say something flatulent like, "For the truth is Brian Jones was a victim of the '60s," and the reader just wants to stick a knife in his heart and spill it all over the stage.
Victim of the '60s? Hotchner should listen to Michelle Shocked's song about the guy who hangs himself: "You could blame the social system, but I still say it was his necktie." One of Jones' symptoms was his liver was twice normal size when they sliced him open for the inquest. Say no more.
But Hotchner wants to have it both ways. He claims Jones not only was killed by the '60s, he was also murdered by real people. Hotchner concocts a preposterous whodunit, as in Who Killed Brian Jones? Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and the rest of the boys, not to mention police and doctors, think Brian died by accident, illness or suicide. But Hotchner uncovers dubious witnesses who tell him Brian was drowned by a gang of construction workers who were jealous and disgusted at Brian's dissipated lifestyle.
If the decade doesn't kill the hippies, the blue-collar thugs will.
I don't have a shred of evidence to counter Hotchner's conspiracy theory, except that it just smells too much like the sweat of a historian working hard to sell books. Near the beginning, Hotchner offers the "official" version of Brian's demise, and the writer promises startling new evidence. Then he drops the murder tale for a history of the Stones in the 1960s, picking up the mystery at the end. In other words, Hotchner had enough material for a midsize Vanity Fair story, but decided to inflate it into a book.
Still, he shouldn't be discounted. He has a reputation as a historian and biographer noted for his work on Hemingway. And in spite of all the facile judgments of his Stones opus, it's a valuable oral history. Hotchner interviewed dozens of key figures associated with the band, including Marianne Faithfull, the gritty singer who was Jagger's girlfriend for a time; and Anita Pallenberg, the bewitching model and girlfriend of first Jones, then Richards. The heart of the book is transcripts of these conversations, with Hotchner splicing in his own transitions. The recollections are fascinating; next to them, Hotchner's commentary sounds shrill and self-righteous, as though he just didn't get it.
Bill Wyman, bass player for the Stones, fancies himself something of a historian as well. While Jones, Jagger and Richards were partying or writing songs, the Stones' drug-free married straight man was counting the number of groupies he could sleep with (278 after less than three years with the band) and squirreling away a mountain of minutiae, which he dumps into the 594 pages of his new book, "Stone Alone." And this is only his archives from 1962 to 1969. Wyman hired British fanzine editor Ray Coleman to ghost-write for him, but the book still reads like the meticulous sleep-talking of an inventory clerk. When a Danish woman threatens a paternity suit against him, Wyman writes, "I consulted my diaries," where he discovered the woman was two months off on the date of their liaison, so she had nothing on him. This month Wyman announced his divorce from his wife of less than two years, Mandy Smith, whom he met when she was 13 and he was nearly 50.
Wyman also remembers the kind of color that eludes most professional chroniclers. He knows what everybody was wearing at all times; he quotes the kidding postcards Jones would send home to Pallenberg. And he has an objective streak that is refreshing amid the hype, reporting his own shortcomings.
The sad figure haunting both these books is Brian Jones, with his disheveled blond hair and bags under his eyes. Both Hotchner and Wyman say he was the soul of the Stones. He conceived the band in 1962 as a hard-core blues band; he recruited the others and convinced them it could be a career when they still clung to school and jobs.
He was also paranoid and cruel, a girlfriend beater, and eventually drugs turned him into a waste product who used to pass out during recording sessions. But his paranoia was well-founded. The other band members shunned him, Richards stole his girlfriend, and Jagger and their manager plotted to ease him out of the band, which they did a few months before he died. Hotchner highlights this, while Wyman claims Brian first suggested the break.
The '60s didn't kill Jones. His necktie did. And the history of the decade wasn't embodied in the fortunes of the Stones. They were lucky entertainers with a front man who could dance and a rhythm section that didn't do drugs.
When the Stones and their publicists sold the band as the baddest and most anarchistic creatures ever, an antidote to the goody-goody Beatles, well, that was just an attitude they stole from outlaws and bluesmen, as the Sex Pistols would steal it a decade later. It's the same old dark role that somebody must play in order to help give culture definition. And somebody always has, all the way back to when Lucifer said, "Please allow me to introduce myself" and thumbed his nose at God.
Poor Brian Jones.