The Rolling Stones and the Death of the Sixties

By A.E. Hotchner

Simon and Schuster. 349 pp. $21.95

Leaving no Stone unturned -- not even a dead one -- A.E. Hotchner's "Blown Away" portrays the Rolling Stones and the '60s locked in a deadly embrace that overrode the decade's early romantic idealism and swallowed both in an orgy of drugs, madness and violence. To underline his thesis, Hotchner bookends "Blown Away" with two events from 1969, separated by only a few months: the "accidental/suspicious" drowning on July 2 of the recently fired Stones founder and guitarist Brian Jones -- new "smoking gun" details give the book its publicity angle -- and the murder, recorded on film by the Maysles brothers, of Meredith Hunter at Altamont Speedway on Dec. 9.

The focus, however, is clearly on Jones, portrayed as the band's and the decade's "pied piper ... leading the way with his outlandish look, his hairstyle, his sexual exploits, his addictions, his eager willingness to experiment with any and every new drug, his profligacy, {and far down the line, apparently} his devotion to music. His life and death are a metaphor for the life and death of the '60s," Hotchner insists, as he will many times over the course of this 349-page tome.

Jones was, additionally, part of a group whose music "underscored the mood of the times" and "fueled the changes," in the process becoming "the symbol of the nonconformity, vulgarity, creativity, waywardness, antiestablishment bravado, rampant sexuality and drug experimentation of that contumacious generation." That generation, in turn, was rebelling against the establishment and its staid views on sex, politics, race, language, dress, drugs and authority/codes/systems in general.

If this sounds like a general indictment, it's mild compared with the new charges Hotchner makes regarding Jones's drowning in the pool of his rural Cotchford Farm estate (where A.A. Milne had lived when he wrote his Winnie-the-Pooh stories). Conspiracy theories have abounded over the past 20 years, but Hotchner, author of "Papa Hemingway" and biographies of Doris Day and Sophia Loren, has three witnesses to what was apparently hard teasing turned grudge drowning at the hands and feet of unnamed laborers remodeling the ancient estate.

The one identified witness is Nicholas Fitzgerald, a Jones pal who "may" have seen the above scenario unfolding, only to be warned away by "a burly man wearing sunglasses" and speaking with "a Cockney accent." Fitzgerald's deposition is taken from his 1985 book, "Brian Jones: The Inside Story of the Original Rolling Stone." Another, semi-identified witness (he's described as having been a member of the Walker Brothers pop group) skedaddles after seeing "one man holding Brian down in the pool" and another "clearly discernible standing on Brian's head." He and a friend quickly leave to "avoid involvement." How did this tidbit come up? While the witness was reminiscing in a bar with another Hotchner source.

This, of course, is the kind of journalism that sells books in an increasingly tough marketplace. The medical verdict was "drowning associated with alcohol, drugs and severe liver degeneration," or in that characteristic British understatement, "death by misadventure."

Jones comes across as neurotic, paranoid, insecure, vain, arrogant, violent toward women and an abuser of drugs and alcohol. Generally unpleasant, he did apparently have some redeeming qualities musically and, occasionally, socially. But he seemed less able than most of his fellow British rock stars to handle the sudden and stunning elevation to wealth, power and privilege that marked '60s pop. This is particularly evident in a devastating psychological profile offered at one of Jones's drug trials.

Hotchner tries to conjure a similar profile of the '60s, but fails, at least partly because the book is mostly oral history, with some key players recounting their experiences without offering particularly insightful cultural overviews. As a result, the Stones history here is simply old news freshly packaged, including the professional and personal tensions between the lyrically impotent Jones and the Jagger-Richards songwriting gold mine (Jones was jealous of both their rapport and royalties), Mick's money/control fixations, the satanic sideshows of the late '60s and assorted tribulations and trials (both literal and figurative). Members of the Stones were not interviewed by Hotchner but their voices, Mick Jagger's and Keith Richards's in particular, are frequently heard via BBC interviews.

The three dozen voices here add little to what's been long known. The one exception is Marianne Faithfull, who emerges as "Blown Away's" tragic heroine, and a remarkably honest, lucid and insightful one at that. Her own rise, fall and slow redemption make a far more interesting story than Jones's and she tells it very well indeed.

"Blown Away" is at times fascinating, particularly as a companion to similar '60s projects, but it's apparent that while the 70-year-old Hotchner has a touch for oral history, he has no real interest in and sense of the music of the Rolling Stones, much less the crucial changes occurring at the juncture when, for the first time in history, more than half the world was under the age of 30.

In truth, the '60s was hardly a decade, more a kinetic half-decade experienced by a generation (Hotchner calls it the Jagger Generation) whose initial Kennedy-rooted energy and idealism were tempered by political assassinations and military arrogance, long before drugs took their toll on some of its members. Hotchner decries it as a suicidal generation, driven by the music of the Stones, devouring itself in an orgy of violence and drugs, dying of exhaustion and loss of momentum, but he never makes the case for suicide or murder.

The reviewer is pop music critic for the Style section.