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Revisiting a Legend's Final Days

A look back at the Rolling Stones right after the much-debated death of Brian Jones.

Forty years ago, the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones drowned in his swimming pool.

At the time, 1969, authorities called it “death by misadventure.” But the Sussex police have just announced that they may reopen the case as a homicide. The decision is based in part on a recent eyewitness report that the guitarist was in fact drowned by his live-in carpenter, Frank Thorogood.

Before dying of cancer in 1994, Thorogood himself was said to have confessed the murder to Stones’ chauffeur, Tom Keylock. In her 2001 memoir, Jones’s girlfriend, Anna Wohlin, another eyewitness to the tragedy, also fingered Thorogood. She alleged that band managers put her on the next plane back to Sweden, threatening her life should she talk to authorities.

The Jones case harks back to that of his friend, Jimi Hendrix, who died in London a year after being “drowned in red wine,” according to the coroner. In 1993, the case was reopened by Scotland Yard as a possible homicide only to be reclosed months later due to insufficient evidence.

Similar mysteries surround other deceased stars, notably Kurt Cobain and, now, Michael Jackson.

Strangely, many had predicted early ends for themselves. Like Jones, both Hendrix and Cobain (as well as Morrison and Janis) died at age 27. Once Jones, while tripping on acid, was told by his bandmate, Keith Richards: “You’ll never make thirty, man.” Brian replied: “I know.” Not long before, when the guitarist saw a goat being led to slaughter in Morocco, he had cried, “That’s ME!” The Stones laughed and agreed.

In her autobiography, Jagger’s ex-lover, Marianne Faithfull, related how he and and Keith had "a real vendetta,” against Brian, and "unmercifully taunted" him. Guitarist Ry Cooder observed the same thing during the Let It Bleed sessions, two months before the drowning. “Jagger was always very contemptuous of Brian and told him he was washed up,” he recalled.

While the singer later conceded that he had been hard on his hypersensitive, drugged-out bandmate, he declared, “We carried Brian for quite a long time. We put up with his tirades and his not turning up for over a year.”

At last the Stones traveled to Brian’s Cotchford Farm, the former residence of Winnie-the-Pooh’s A.A. Milne, and fired him. “I felt sorry for him,” drummer Charlie Watts later wrote. “We took his one thing away, which was being in a band. I’m sure it nearly killed him when we sacked him.”

Charlie and bassist Bill Wyman were the only Stones to attend his funeral weeks later.

Brian Jones’s death by drowning was hauntingly uncanny. Days after the sacking, Mick and Marianne threw the I-Ching to see what the future might hold for him. “Death by water,” came up. The prophecy was repeated on a second throw.

Perhaps this reminded Jagger of an incident the year before at Richards’s country estate. Freaked over the possibility of jail time for his most recent drug bust, Brian plunged into Keith’s moat, screaming that he was going to kill himself. Keith laughed while Mick dove into the water after him.

“You want to drown, you bastard?” he cried, dragging him ashore. “Well, I’m going to bloody well drown you, then. Look at these velvet trousers – cost me fifty quid. You’ve ruined them!”

Even Thorogood, the resident carpenter at Cotchford, bullied him and berated him as a “pampered rock star.” At last, Brian threatened to fire the contractor for shoddy work and for extortionate charges.

That night, Thorogood drowned his employer in the estate swimming pool. Anna Wohlin, indoors at the time, insisted that Brian was a good swimmer and not intoxicated.

Two days later, the Rolling Stones — with new guitarist, Mick Taylor — threw a memorial concert for Jones in Hyde Park. 

Soon the Doors’ Jim Morrison — who, two years later, would die on the same day as Brian — wrote "Ode To L.A. While Thinking Of Brian Jones, Deceased.” Then the Who’s Pete Townshend followed with his poem, "A Normal Day For Brian, A Man Who Died Every Day."

Faithfull had a different perspective on her ex-lover whom she called her “twin.” “One of the things that keeps you alive when you’re on the skids is that people care what happens to you,” she wrote. “It’s your life line, and with Brian nobody really cared anymore.”

Except her. After Brian’s death the As Tears Go By star took a massive overdose of Tuinol and fell into a six-day coma. “Everyone was taking his death so in stride, for God’s sake!” she said.

“Well, I thought, I’ll show you! You want pain and suffering? I’ll show you pain and suffering!” In her coma she was met by the resplendent ghost of Brian decked in medieval costume, his hair green, and “Buddhist lightning bolts tattooed on his palms.”

Beckoning her to a cliffside, he called: “Death is the next great adventure… Coming?”

When Marianne finally opened her eyes, she found an incredulous Mick Jagger at her bedside. She tried to tell him her dream, but he refused to hear it. Then he left her for good.

“Either you’re dead, or you move along,” Sir Mick, the ultimate rock survivor, had always said.