Gritty, tedious, funny, nauseating, thrilling and merciless: Cocksucker Blues, Robert Frank‘s film about the Rolling Stones‘ 1972 tour of North America, may be the most complete rock & roll documentary ever made. It is also the greatest Stones film most of their fans have never seen – at least never seen right, in a full-size theater with blow-you-back sound (when it counts, in the concert scenes), surrounded by a gasping, nervously chuckling audience.
Commissioned by the Stones, then made legendary and all but invisible after the band sued to prevent its distribution, Cocksucker Blues has circulated for years on bootleg video – how I first saw it – and can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube, with the usual deterioration in production values. For most of the last four decades, according to the settlement of that suit, Cocksucker Blues could be shown publicly only five times a year (usually at cinephile events) with Frank present.
Things are loosening up. Cocksucker Blues was shown on November 15th at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of a two-week festival, The Rolling Stones: 50 Years on Film. (The festival runs through December 2nd.) Frank did not appear at the screening, while the Stones had just left the building, having attended the series’ opening the night before and participating in an onstage interview with playwright Tom Stoppard. The near-collision was the closest thing to an official blessing the Stones have given Frank’s movie since he made it.
More Sex and Drugs Than Rock & Roll
Frank, now 88, is a Swiss-born photographer and filmmaker whose jarring hyper-realist portraiture – a product of unusual cropping, light and focus – made him a Beat-culture hero. Jack Kerouac wrote the introduction to the 1959 American edition of Frank’s book, The Americans; that year, Frank directed Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and other Beat figures in the improvised curio, Pull My Daisy.
Frank’s ragged quilt of freak-parade and band-on-the-run images on the cover of the Stones’ 1972 album, Exile on Main St., encouraged the group to give him carte blanche on the subsequent tour, allowing him to film the Stones and their entourage without instruction or restriction. The Stones similarly let Albert and David Maysles run free in 1969, all the way to Altamont, to lethal consequence in Gimme Shelter. But Frank caught a different kind of ruin: the dull excess and suffocating ennui that sucked up the 22 hours of each day between Stones shows.
Cocksucker Blues is named after a notorious Stones recording – just piano and singer Mick Jagger, in X-rated lonely-boy agony – that the band submitted as a final fuck-you single to their original, despised British label, Decca. (It was rejected.) The song, heard early in Frank’s movie, is blunt and drab. So are the open sex and flagrant drug use that follow. The main shock is how little pleasure or high anyone gets from the action: the groupies, who are basically paying their fare for a place in the Stones’ orbit; the druggies, who speak the kind of slurred disconnected nonsense that only other users think is hip and wise; and most of all, the Stones themselves.
They are hardly innocents. Guitarist Mick Taylor is seen passing through one hotel room, looking for pick-me-up. Guitarist Keith Richards, then well into his storied romance with heroin, appears in a painfully extended after-show scene in a deep-sleep heap on an arena-locker-room bench. He does not look like he’s just taking a nap, waiting for Jagger to finish entertaining Atlantic Records boss Ahmet Ertegun next door.
A Rush of Blood
Mostly the Stones are seen drowning in boredom, dragging their disheveled court behind them with condescending resignation. In one sequence, the band members ditch the tour plane for a car ride through the South to the next gig. A stop at a roadhouse, for drinks and a few rounds of pool with the locals, is a rare good time away from the mayhem. But Jagger is relieved, he says at one point in the car, to just be away from “the 39 people” that follow him everywhere. (How times change: When the Stones arrive next month for their shows in Brooklyn and Newark, that will probably be the size of the catering crew.)
But Frank also shot the Stones onstage – and the handful of songs that he included in Cocksucker Blues are the reason to wade through everything else. The Stones in 1972 were magnificently raw and feral, at the peak of their era with Taylor, and the music comes like a rush of blood to the head, especially after the eternity of shadows: Jagger’s mock-whipping breakdown in “Midnight Rambler;” a tent-show-gospel jam with opening act Stevie Wonder; Jagger and Richards’ ragamuffin-brother harmonizing in “Happy.” It is a telling contrast, in Frank’s narrative: everything offstage is shown in an odd, eerie monotone of black, white and watery blue, as if we’re watching it all happen in a dirty fishtank; Jagger, in “Street Fighting Man,” comes in colors.
After rejecting Frank’s account of the ’72 tour, the Stones quickly replaced it with Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones, shot at shows in Texas and released in 1974. That movie had a lot more music and was a lot more fun. But it lacked Frank’s sordid, honest context and wicked humor. The latter, in particular, puts the truth and evolution of touring in perspective, especially at this calendar distance. In ’72, to the local hotel staffs in the huge then-uncharted space between New York and Los Angeles, the Stones were exotic animals. To the Stones, common sense was everyone else’s second language. Of special delight: a negotiation on the phone with room service over an order for a bowl of fruit.
An Inconvenient Truth
Not so funny: the eventual soul and body count. By the end of 1974, Taylor had quit the Stones, deciding that he needed to leave in order to survive. In the closing credits of Cocksucker Blues, second cameraman Daniel Seymour is listed as “junkie soundman.” It’s supposed to be a joke; he later paid, fatally, for his addiction.
Cocksucker Blues looks like it was made a lifetime ago; that’s just as well. Complain all you want about the military attention to detail and spectacle on major rock tours now – there is, gratefully, a lot less hurt in their wake. But Frank, who was almost twice as old as the Stones in 1972, saw the desperation in his subjects – the daily fight for satisfaction – and recorded it without sympathy or judgment. Cocksucker Blues is a blunt accounting of the price of life in the world’s greatest rock band and the struggle, by everyone else, to stay upright in the slipstream. The Stones were there for the songs and work as well as the tawdry pleasure. (A key scene: Jagger and Richards listening to a test pressing of “Happy,” analyzing the mix on the single.) Others were there for the glory, as much or as little as they could get. They thought it was everything.
They were wrong, a truth best seen as I did at MoMA: large and loud.