Friday, September 29, 2017

Things we like: Half Cleveland, Paul Trynka on Brian Jones

1) Harvey Gold, formerly of '70s prog band-in-New Wave clothing Tin Huey and currently half of Half Cleveland's brain trust, is a principled man of A Certain Age who's been struggling, as many of us have, with how to respond to the shit show that is TrumpAmerica. The tension between that struggle and the peace he's found in the rest of his life informs "The Fence," a new Half Cleveland track that's now Bandcamp-available, with a portion of the receipts going to the Southern Poverty Law Center (an institution to which your humble chronicler o' events is a monthly donor). Give it a listen and if you dig, download and kick some coins to a worthy cause, why doncha?

2) Inspahrd by Big Mike Richardson's social media Rolling Stones binge, I broke down and finally read former Mojo editor Paul Trynka's Brian Jones: The Making of the Rolling Stones, the estimable Bowie/Iggy biographer's 2014 account of the life and death of the odd man out in the Stones saga. The literature surrounding the Stones is voluminous, most of it proceeding from the assumption that Sir Mick and Keef are the auteurs, the brain trust, and the others just sidemen -- a mistake to which Trynka's book serves as a valuable corrective.

Cutting a swath through Cheltenham, a genteel 'burb where a whole lot of scandalous activity went on behind closed doors, Jones was the rebellious and outwardly self-confident spawn of domineering parents, who privately battled self-loathing for a physical defect (asthma). Besides fathering a passel of illegitimate kids by different mothers, he'd latched onto music as a way out of straight life, and had played loads of gigs with jazz bands and his own eponymous blues band (styling himself "Elmo Lewis" after his slide guitar hero Elmore James) by the time he encountered the future Glimmer Twins.

It was Brian's belief that American R&B could be popular music that propelled the Stones to the front of the first pack of Brit blues imitators, and the records from their early R&B phase (the debut LP through Out of Our Heads/December's Children) have his fingerprints all over them. When Jagger and Richards became the songwriting team, he became the group's instrumental melodist, contributing crucial bits like the hypnotically repeated guitar figure on "The Last Time," the sitar part that defines "Paint It, Black," and the incandescent acoustic lead on "Sittin On A Fence," as well as adding exotic instrumentation and hints of what'd later be called "world music" to their records from Aftermath on. His increasing social isolation from his fellow Stones, compounded by heavy self-medication and persecution by corrupt and publicity-hungry police in 1967-68, gradually eroded his self-confidence and musical abilities, and he drowned in a swimming pool in 1969, aged 27.

Trynka does his usual stellar job of research, drawing on extensive interviews as well as published sources, and weaves a fast-moving and highly readable narrative. He's particularly good on the social dynamic within the band, and the web of collusion between the press and the judicial system in which the Stones found themselves caught in '67. He's also very even-handed when it comes to the controversial subject of Jones' death, debunking several popular but unsubstantiated theories of foul play.

Recently, I was re-reading an ecstatic Rolling Stone piece on Blue and Lonesome, the Stones' "return to form" (how many of those have they had?) blues album from last year. Nowhere in the article did it mention that it was from Brian (not Ry Cooder, as I'd mistakenly thought for years) that Keef learned open G, D, and E tunings (listen to the Stones' '64 cover of Muddy's "I Can't Be Satisfied" to hear his facility), and that Mick learned to play "cross harp" the way Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson II did. History might be written by the victors, but a fuller, more nuanced story is available for those who care to hear it.


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