Brian Jones and the Fiftieth Anniversary of “The Last Time”

“night blossoms shooting color through the darkness”: Brian Jones and the Fiftieth Anniversary of “The Last Time”

In the spring of 1965, the Rolling Stones released a single featuring a pair of songs that would appear on their next U.S. album: “The Last Time” and “Play with Fire.” If their follow-up single, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” reverberated like the coming of a sonic messiah, then “The Last Time” was its Baptist. Indeed, “The Last Time” still remains a song that marks a collision point of old pop music poetics giving way to a new dimension of consciousness. While the lyrics focus on the all too familiar trope of a love tryst gone sour, the song’s pristine, mesmerizing riff is something else altogether: it is a clarion call of subversive affirmation, embodying the desire for each day to be first time. Each repetition of the riff cascades like a waterfall of renewal. It is water sweetened in some primeval aquifer, as if it had finally spurted from the depths in which it has waited since the first human being played a musical instrument.

The history of the Rolling Stones remains a subject fraught with partisanship and loyalties formed at a young age. Not just fans’ loyalties, but the members of the band themselves established their loyalties early on, and they have continued to play out in the past half century, especially in a pair of autobiographies, Bill Wyman’s Stone Alone and Keith Richards’s Life. Richards claims that he remembers everything, and his account possesses an insidious charm. There’s a tall tale quality to his carnivalesque grotesquerie, and quite a few people, including the judges for the Norman Mailer Prize, succumbed to its puckish blend of show business cynicism and addled turpitude. One finds oneself almost willing to excuse profoundly outrageous behavior, even by the standard of bohemian self-indulgence.

In remembering everything, it’s not surprising that one might still recall things that feel like scores to be settled, and there’s nothing like a sock puppet, of course, to give yourself license to vent; since Richards is the casting director, he trots out his favorite one: Brian Jones, the founding musician of the Rolling Stones. He would have been smarter to be more generous to a man that many have forgotten was even in the band; a more balanced assessment of Jones’s contributions to the earliest years of the Rolling Stones, including the music he wrote for their songs, might well have satisfied those who value giving credit where it’s due. Richards chose otherwise, however, and a recent biography of Brian Jones by Paul Trynka seems to have been motivated in part as a rebuttal of Richards’s virulent portrayal of Jones.

I suspect Trynka was just as irritated as I was about many of Richards’s claims. Of course, one might claim that no one is supposed to take seriously Richards’s mendacity when he claims that he remembers “everything.” On one hand, it could be said that we are expected as sophisticated readers (or even as relatively naïve ones) to regard such a claim as comically dubious, but artists in the raffish hero mold are often experts in converting ironic sincerity into autobiographical verisimilitude. In turn, these accounts transmogrify into facts that distort the lives and contributions of others to an important artistic legacy. Legends smudge themselves, and not just with self-legitimatings herbs.

Let us revisit Richards’s Life and see how he splices his memory. On page 173, about a third of the way through the book, Richards begins a three-sentence paragraph with a contextual comment about the band’s early glory days  “ ‘The Last Time’ was recorded during a magical period at the RCA Studios in Hollywood.” Ah, and pray tell, Keith, why was it “magical”? Rather than elaborate on the collaborative nature of their musical magic, Richards opts to undercut that assessment by sticking his petulant middle finger in the sock puppet’s face: “It was the period where everything – songwriting, recording, performing – stepped into a new league, and the time when Brian started going off the rails.” The implication of this statement is that “Mick and I stepped up our game and Brian began to be a drag.”

This is the only reference to Brian Jones in the paragraphs devoted to “The Last Time,” a song that has just celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. Let’s think about that increment of time and its impact on popular music: How many songs hold up after half a century? Paul Williams, whose lucid commentary in Rock n Roll: The 100 Best Singles remains required reading for anyone interested in the potential of this form of music to prove enduring, selected “The Last Time” as one of those 100 best songs. His praise for “a masterpiece” that “turned his life around in spring ’65”  includes that rarely acknowledged worker in the music industry, the sound engineer. In terms of the myths that accrue around artistic production, one cannot help but notice the subservient role that Jones’s musicianship is accorded in the parenthetical position of giving the engineer his due: “(Dave Hassinger) did his job in getting “Keith’s guitar (and Brian’s, too) to sound like that.”

The problem is that the wrong name went into the parenthesis, for the sound that Paul Williams found so alluring is misattributed; it was not Keith Richards who was the “riff master” that he claims to be in his memoir, but rather Brian Jones who came up with the riff that makes “The Last Time” one of the best singles released in the past half-century. Unfortunately, songwriting credits seem to have a great deal of influence on how credit is awarded, and I’m no different than millions of other people. I, too, always assumed that Richards came up with that mesmerizing riff for “The Last Time.” His name is listed as the co-writer of the song, and make no mistake about it: that riff is the meaning of the song. Without it, you have a fairly banal, country ditty that isn’t much more inspired than their previous single, “It’s All Over Now,” which anyone with halfway sensitive ears has to wonder how it charted at all. That Jagger-Richards cadged their main phrase for “The Last Time” from a Pointer Sisters’ recording of a traditional song to push together a haughty rejection song is well known. That Richards still refuses to give Jones credit for the only (but what an only!) piece of imagination musicianship in the song is nothing short of pathetic, disguised self-pity for his own inability in that instance to produce imaginative music.

Let’s mull over what the late Paul Williams has to say: “So let us consider the riff. It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it. Keith plays the same figure over and over throughout every verse of the song ….  like a drone, a mantra, one of those Eastern devices that doesn’ t make a lot of sense to a western set of values….. the riff transforms the simple-minded drive of the song into something transcendent, point counterpoint, night blossoms shooting color through the darkness. A jumping-off point for many music’s to come, from heavy metal to punk to psychedelia. An unstoppable opener.” (Williams,  77-78). This poetic praise for Jones’s creative musicianship would seem to be the primary basis for Williams’s ranking of “The Last Time” as number 30 in this list of the Top 100; “Satisfaction,” which usually is regarded as their non plus ultra ranks as number 34. As a total performance of a song, “Satisfaction” is in fact far superior. Its lyrics are a thousand times better, but that was Jagger’s job, one he didn’t always do so well in the early period (1964-1967). If “The Last Time” surpasses that accomplishment, the distinction is owed to a musician that Led Zepplein’s Jimmy Page called “really gifted and innovative.”[i] Williams’s description of Jones’s riff as “night blossom shooting color through the darkness” accurately catches Jones the musician as perhaps the first gestural guitarist of rock and roll.

Richards surely must know that people give him credit for the music that makes “The Last Time” an enduring work of art. It will always be flawed by Jagger’s sophomoric lyrics, but Jones’s riff makes the verbal aspect almost an afterthought. (It must conceded, of course, that Jagger’s vocal is superbly on target, which helps compensate.) The sad consequence of being rich and famous is that you become inured to questions of integrity. If you know that other people admire you for being creative, but you didn’t do the work that you are admired for, a question of ethics would ordinarily come into play, but when you are one of a handful of legendary figures in popular music, you siphon off anything that does not fit your self-image. Perhaps you have been able to convince the less creative members of the band to go along with your songwriting scheme and they didn’t object when your childhood friend and you claim credit for work you didn’t do, but don’t compound the error in your memoir and expect that everyone will still continue to admire you.

The question of how a song is composed and how a record of that song is made is only of the more blurred categories in artistic production. Richards has said that Jones’s talent was closer to that of “an interpreter” of songs than a songwriter. Indeed, he can point to several dozen instances of such a contribution by Jones in the catalogue of songs written by Jagger and Richards. The role that Jones played would fall in these cases under the title of “arranger,” and from the start of their recording career, the Stones refused to let others arrange their songs. “Arranged by the Rolling Stones,” ran the credit on the back of the album sleeve. It was just part of the change in the music business. Not only did bands now expect themselves to write their own songs, but they eliminated that well paid role of “arranger” from the recording studio.

ln reinforcing the argument of a song, an arranger indeed interprets. But you must first have a song before you can interpret it. You can’t interpret something unless it’s finished. Joe Cocker did an interpretation of “With a Little Help from my Friends.” Elton John did a mediocre interpretation of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” When Brian Jones was in the studio with Jagger and Richards, the essential rhetorical gestures of “Under My Thumb” were nowhere to be heard until Jones had his moment of inspiration.

Let’s get this straight: a great song is rhetorical in its melodic intensity. It persuades you as effectively as anything written by Cicero or Samuel Johnson because it contains the “point, counterpoint” of some deep pulse of human apprehension. To limit Jones’s contribution to “Under My Thumb” to being an “arranger” is to pretend somehow that the main argument of the song is not vocalized by the marimba, which Jones wields like a master sushi chef, who has not only gone out on the ocean of his own inner demons and caught an elusive trophy of a fish, he has deftly carved it.  His bandmate, Bill Wyman, puts it bluntly, “Without it, you don’t really have a song, do you?”

The case for Jones deserving songwriting credit extends to songs that did not become hits, too. “Gomper,” which contains an extended musical composition that veers far away from the song’s initial melody, is one of the ten best things that the Stones did, at least in terms of harmonic complexity. It is my own personal favorite in terms of music. Jagger’s lyrics are dismally banal, unfortunately. The extended section ofmusic shows what Jones might have moved in the direction of had he not succumbed to drug addiction.

One of the songs in the RS canon that almost from its first airplay seemed to raise the question of songwriting credit was “Ruby Tuesday,” which Jagger has acknowledged as a song to which he made no contribution. Richards, of course, claims that he wrote it as a solo effort, and perhaps he did. Yet one wonders: is it not more than a little likely that Jones was in the studio and played a fragment of melody, which Richards then took and expanded upon? Such a scenario is very believable, especially when we have the testimony of Bill Wyman that the main driving riff of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” is his creation. It must be said that Wyman’s riff has its roots in Richards’ classic riff in “Satisfaction.” The opening two notes are virtually the same, but what Wyman did in the next several notes to provide the core of the song deserves acknowledgement in the songwriting credit. Wyman left much later than Taylor, and for different reasons, or so it was made out to be. That two survivors of the band both make claims about the lack of songwriting credit and point to specific songs as instances of creative work for which they deserve credit has to serve as a red flag that something is also probably amiss in regards to Jones’s songwriting credits.

Part of the problem with doubting the claims of Jagger-Richards that songwriting credit should not have been shared, in a half-dozen or so cases, with Jones is that there is a pattern of poaching on other’s people imaginative work. Perhaps the most telling evidence of the selfishness of the Jagger-Richards outfit is that Jones’s successor in the band had much the same experience, except that he lived to tell of it. Mick Taylor has specifically spoken of his expectations that he would get songwriting credit and his belief that he deserved the credit. In particular, he has cited such songs as “Sway” and “Moonlight Mile” as examples of his collaborative efforts. His choice of songs to claim credit for is also revealing for its modesty. Without his long, extraordinary guitar solo that glides with glossy, mouth-puckering swirls of precise delicacy, “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’?” would be one of the more forgettable songs in the Stones repertoire. It would get very few nominations as one of the top 100 songs. Backed by the plangent saxophone of Bobby Keys, Taylor takes the wheel in that song and shows Richards why he was the right choice to replace Jones, who indeed had fallen prey to drug and alcohol addiction at a very young age.

Taylor’s complaints about the unwillingness of Jagger and Richards to give him songwriting credit are nowhere mentioned in Trynka’s biography, which could have benefitted from footnotes. Perhaps the publisher would have felt that footnotes would have undermined the book’s sales potential. I can’t think, however, of anything that would substantiate the suspicion that Jagger and Richards behaved in an unethical manner in claiming sole songwriting credit for so many of their compositions. One  example of such annotation would be the experience of Marianne Faithful, who co-wrote a song called “Sister Morphine,” the first version was recorded with the Rolling Stones and contained her name as one of the authors of the song. How is it possible that the songwriting credit could be appropriated by Jagger and Richards when they recorded the song later and released it on “Sticky Fingers”?2

Finally, we need to consider the motive and it’s the one that impels all too many selfish agendas. In Life, it’s worth noting the passage about how Richards enjoys the physical presence of the money his songwriting has earned. I have no doubt it was a thrill — and who could quarrel with a young working-class man’s right to feel delighted and amazed that he could make his way through the world with tangible prosperity. But surely one can also read between the lines and see how temptation could prove overwhelming? Songwriting, and not touring, is the key to fortune and Richards and Jagger set to work accumulating as much of it as possible.

That Jagger and Richards have had enormously successful musical careers – and would have had these careers regardless of whether they had met Jones – is not the issue under debate. Paul Trynka’s book, however, reopens the question of artistic and ethical integrity. Until the surviving members of this indefatigable band acknowledge their errors in diminishing Jones’s contributions, this distant but lingering stain will always subtract from their accomplishments.


1[i]  Harvey Kubernik. “Brian Jones Revisited,” Record Collector (Burbank, CA: February-March, 2015, issue 45. 22. Kubernik’s interviews, conversations and e-mail exchanges with Bill Wyman, Jimmy Page, Andy Babiuk, Kim Fowley, and Danniel Weizmann supplement Trynka’s biography. Trynka himself, at the beginning of Kubernk’s article, is quoted as saying to Kubernik that “(Brian Jones) was a genius, and a car-crash, a beguiling, endlessly fascinating character…. He’s not a victim – he’s a visionary.” (11). My thanks to Dizzy, the owner of Dizzy Vinyl on 7th Street in Long Beach for providing me with a copy of this magazine, which I had missed at the time of its publication. The contrast between Trynka’s summary of Jones’s brief life and enduring musical legacy and the afterglow of Richards’s biography is exemplified in Michiko Kakutani’s review in the New York Times (October 25, 2010). The only reference to Jones in that adulatory article is Richards’s characterization of him as a “sort of freak, devouring celebs and fame and attention.” If Richards’s account had been more balanced, Kakutani might well have composed a comment with somewhat more equipoise, e.g, “success turned his once brilliant band mate, Brian Jones, into a sort of freak etc.” Richards set out to destroy the memory of Jones as anything other than a distasteful disaster, and Kakutani’s review would seem to confirm that Richards accomplished that with considerable aplomb.

2 The Rolling Stones (or the band with that name with three of the original five musicians) are currently on a 15 city tour of the United States to promote the re-release of Sticky Fingers, the album on which “Sister Morphine” appears. One Rolling Stones album that is virtually guaranteed never to receive re-release with a backing tour is Aftermath, on which Jomes’s contributions are so manifest that it will only once again raise the uncomfortable questions of creative credit for the music.

— Bill Mohr: billmohrpoet.com

Associate Professor, Department of English, California State University, Long Beach 90840-2403

William.Mohr@csulb.edu