KAFM NOTES: Pop Mysteries, part 3 — Brian & Billy Joe
Free Press Music Columnist
Today, we continue our investigation of some of pop music’s biggest mysteries in part two of this series, starting with the question of:
3. WHO (OR WHAT) KILLED BRIAN JONES?
In the days after former Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones was found spread-eagled at the bottom of his swimming pool on the night of June 2, 1969, his death was chalked up to “misadventure,” since he was found with both drugs and alcohol in his system. Known for his hard-partying lifestyle — it was what had gotten him fired from the Rolling Stones less than a month earlier — it wasn’t hard to imagine Jones might accidentally drown while in a chemically-induced stupor. But there exists a lot of circumstantial evidence to suggest the talented blues guitarist was instead murdered.
Francis “Frank” Thorogood was a 43-year-old contractor who had been hired to supervise construction on Jones’ estate (which had previously been owned by “Winnie the Pooh” author A.A. Milne), and who lived in a house on the property at the time. There was reportedly bad blood between Thorogood and Jones, and according to some witnesses, Jones had fired Thorogood earlier that day. Thorogood was reportedly the last one to see Jones alive, and some witnesses believe he drowned the musician in a fury. Over the years, enough information emerged to cause the Sussex police to review the incident 40 years later, but they declined to reopen the case following the review. Was Brian Jones murdered? We’ll probably never know.
4. WHAT WAS THROWN OFF THE TALLAHATCHIE BRIDGE?
Bobby Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe” became a worldwide hit after it was released on Capitol Records in July 1967. Its lyrics recounted the sad story of Billy Joe McAllister, who jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge after being spotted with someone who looked a lot like the song’s narrator, throwing something from the bridge. That “something” became the subject of what we would today call “viral” speculation. Many items were suggested — a wedding ring, a bottle of LSD pills, a baby. Nine years later, when the song was adapted into a motion picture (directed by the man who is more famous for portraying Jethro Bodine on “The Beverly Hillbillies,” Max Baer Jr.), the object was a child’s rag doll, and Billy Joe’s reason for jumping was a secret homosexual encounter.
But in truth, Gentry herself once said she never knew why exactly Billy Joe killed himself, and further, that wasn’t the point. The song was about indifference, how people can inure themselves so easily to the suffering of others. And perhaps, by obsessing over the details of the story, Gentry’s audience in 1967 was no different than the family of the song’s narrator, who go about their dinner casually while discussing how a man’s life has been snuffed out!
We’ll continue following the clues of pop music’s greatest unsolved mysteries next week in this space. Be here when we flash back to the 1990s to explore the mysterious disappearance of the lead singer of a popular British band, and attempt to discover which TV sitcom star “Oughta Know.”
Come Watson, for the game is afoot!
Notes is funded in part by the Gill Foundation’s Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado, a proud supporter of local organizations like One Colorado Education Fund and its “Safe School Initiative.”
Craven Lovelace produces Notes, a daily cultural history of popular music, for KAFM 88.1 Community Radio, kafmradio.org. You can visit cravenlovelace.com for more of his musings on the world of popular culture.
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