In writing a book, there’s often a point at which an interviewee becomes a confidante – someone you can share ideas with, debate viewpoints. John Keen, who played trumpet in one of Brian’s key early bands, which would either go out as the John Keen trad jazz band or the Brian Jones blues band, was one such.
He was perhaps the most insightful source on Brian’s early years, pointing out how Brian was moving fast, acquiring knowledge more intensively than any of his peers, in the South West, probably in London, and possibly in the world – after all, what other white guitarist had mastered electric slide guitar in late 1961? Brian was certainly well ahead of American rivals like Elvin Bishop and Johnny Winter. Keen painted Brian as, in a musical sense, confident and independent: “he was very skilled musically, he could play a lot of instruments, including guitar, and he was very impressive on it. We couldn’t understand the chordal things he knew, my skills at the time weren’t far advanced, I realise now. Brian’s skills were streets ahead of what we could do.”
John’s secondary insight derives from his later career as a child psychologist, and the fact that his parents were of a Welsh Chapel background, like Brian’s family, and that they knew Lewis and Louisa Jones – Louisa sang in Marian Keen’s choir. John and his brother Graham, later a noted photographer and founder of IT, both pointed out that their own parents would recognise the need for compromise – whereas Lewis Jones was unyielding.
My interviews with John Keen ran to so many pages of transcript that it was impossible to fillet them down to something for this site. Instead, I thought I’d conduct my first post-book interview, asking this key early friend for his reaction to the biography of a man with whom, for a short time, he was so close. There’s a sad undertow to this story, perhaps best expressed by Phillip Larkin’s famous lines “they fuck you up, your mum and dad.” Yet we should also remember, as John Keen points out, that for all Brian Jones’s troubles, he was a key visionary in transforming the musical landscape, and opening up the world to black culture.
Reading about what happened to Brian after you knew him, what did you think?
It was hugely interesting, because it covered a period I didn’t know about. And what you’ve done is relay it historically, as a narrative. What it was up to and how the band reacted And there was an initial period when everything was okay. And then disintegration for several reasons. Money, Allen Klein… and for Brian, drugs. His whole personality started to disintegrate and I think you’ve documented that decline really well. It’s a really disturbing story. But given his non-functioning family, he didn’t have the background that would give him resilience. And he wasn’t resilient
Apart from the lack of resilience, were there elements in his downfall that you recognise, from the period that you knew Brian well?
Brian was so conscious of status, I remember, even then, when he was young. His status initially in the story was very high. That fell away, all those other elements came in and he wasn’t able to deal with that. But when it comes down to it, who could?
You knew him well. Ultimately, I guess, Keith Richards’ view in his book was that it was okay to treat Brian badly, because Brian wasn’t a nice guy. Was he a nice guy?
Strictly speaking perhaps he wasn’t – but on the other hand I felt comfortable with him. I had things in common. You go along with some people you’re in a band with, empathise with others, and I could empathise with Brian. He was serious about music, and he was good. Others thought they could [be good] but weren’t doing the work or the listening. I was very comfortable with Brian.
You were one of the key interviewees in the book, mapping out how single-minded Brian was, how he had this vision of electric blues, for a mass audience. Whatever his foibles, he had a vision.
Yes he did. He was very single minded about what he wanted to do, and some of that you can see in the book, from when he’s playing with Graham Ride, finding records and talking to each other. Brian didn’t really talk to me about those blues people. But you knew. Yes, single-minded is the way to describe him. If there was traditional or modern jazz he’d accept it, but then he had the kind of tunnel vision to form a band like that. He knew something we didn’t. For instance, there was a segment in Chris Barber’s autobiography where he said before 1962 his band could fill a hall, then the audience fell away. Brian had spotted that before, his band was a big part of that move.
I’ve found your insights, as a child psychologist, fascinating. You were telling me the other day about leadership psychology, how an organisational group will have a social leader and a technical leader. Brian was initially the technical leader and the social leader, too, although ultimately it transpired he didn’t have the executive abilities of Mick Jagger.
I think so, though maybe that developed later, initially they left it to Andrew Oldham. Initially Brian was the leader because he could find gigs, and he had a lot more music going for him than the others – he had done a lot more listening. He was the technical leader and the social leader. Then Oldham became a social leader. Then when Mick and Keith started to write songs… and Keith’s becoming the technical leader.
The Stones is quite a brutal story, I thought.
It is pretty ruthless.
Is it natural, that kind of inter-group struggle, is that just a part of our psychology?
Well there was much more pressure when the money started coming in, that’s one thing, also the fame and fortune – people are going to be much more ruthless about exploiting the situation. They were in the premier league, also, and fighting for their spot.
Although they were all nasty to each other, it’s important to remember they were just kids.
Yes they were, and their heads were turned by fame and fortune. And in Brian’s case, he particularly loved the status. Fame and fortune came quite early. When he left Cheltenham he was 20. What do you know when you’re 20?
Writing the book, I came to feel Brian’s main flaw was his need for validation, to be adored. And by showing his need, he showed his weakness.
Whether he showed them or not, his need for status was present, because his parents never gave him that kind of support. Usually if no-one else sees your value your mum and dad do. But they never did.
From an overall perspective, having read the book, given this is someone who has been so vilified by his ex-bandmates, did it give you sympathy for his predicament, his journey?
Oh yes. He was right all along. He knew something even then, but we didn’t know. I have a lot of sympathy for Brian. If only he had been able to turn to somebody who could help him, but he wasn’t in a position to get that and there weren’t people able to give it. In a better relationship with his parents his dad could have helped. So I have great sympathy with Brian. All that difficulty he was in, and there was nobody on his side.
The main photo is of John Keen at the Wheatsheaf in Cheltenham, where Brian was membership secretary of the trad jazz club. Below is a photo of John, with trumpet, just behind Brian’s friend Dick Hattrell, at Filby’s Basement, 38 Priory Street, and John with Jan Filby, today.