Perfect Sound Forever

Rolling Stones' Cocksucker Blues

by John Dougan
(February 2005)

Oh where can I get my cock sucked?
Where can I get my ass fucked?
I may have no money
But I know where to put it every time.
Mick Jagger – "Cocksucker Blues"

"Except for the musical numbers, the events depicted in this film are fictitious, no representation of actual persons and events is intended."
Disclaimer from Cocksucker Blues

Scene 1: The Filmmaker

In his memoir of the Stones' 1972 American Tour S.T.P.: A Journey Through American With the Rolling Stones, Robert Greenfield describes a breakfast encounter with an exhausted and emotionally fragile Robert Frank.

"[There are] bags under his eyes. A waitress drops a dish cover and the sound clatters through his brain. He winces like a muscatel-soaked refugee from Skid Row. 'I have never,' he says quietly, 'been on anything like this before. I have been on trips with extraordinary people, but nothing that so totally excludes the outside world. To never get out, to never see anything...I am not used to it.'"

Robert Frank was nearing 50 when he signed on to make what would eventually be titled Cocksucker Blues, a documentary of the Stones' first post-Altamont tour of America. Born in Zurich, Frank came to America in 1947 and until the mid-1950s was best known as a fashion photographer and photojournalist for Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, McCall's and Ladies Home Journal. In 1955, the Guggenhiem Foundation financed a series of road trips, wherein he would document (in a manner not unlike that of his mentor, preeminent American photographer Walker Evans) America and Americans living, in some instances, below the horizon of recognition. The result was simply titled The Americans.

Published in France in 1958 (Grove Press would publish it in America the following year), the book featured 83 photos culled from Frank's archive of 28,000. With written contributions from Jack Kerouac adding another layer of richness to Frank's decidedly idiosyncratic use of lighting, focus, and subject positioning, The Americans displeased critics and moldy fig proponents of a more conventional photographic aesthetic. While critics damned Frank's work as sloppy and ill-conceived, acolytes of Beat culture (thanks in part to Kerouac's imprimatur) embraced it. Slowly, sales of the book increased, and art historians and critics came to regard The Americans as an enormously important artistic achievement, especially after Frank's one man shows at the Art Institute of Chicago and New York's Museum of Modern Art in the early 1960s.

Younger photographers began flattering Robert Frank by imitating his style, and by 1990, when W.T. Lhamon Jr.'s insightful analysis of Frank's work was published (in his own important book Deliberate Speed: The Origins of a Cultural Style in the American 1950s), Frank was the éminence grise of documentary photographers, an important American artist, and logical successor to Walker Evans.

"[The Americans]" writes Lhamon, "...achievement is to be as turbulent as the real world with as much order cohabitating with its disorder. [It] is one of the many important signs of its time that propose – like the new physics still latent then in the 1950s – an interest in the glancing, unpredictable, seemingly spontaneous ordering that occurs simultaneously with the flowing disorder of crowds jumbling individual consciousnesses into complex whole scenes."

The year The Americans was published, Frank was already immersed in filmmaking. His working relationship with Kerouac (and Allen Ginsberg) culminated in Pull My Daisy, a quasi-veritè account of beat culture. Though seemingly unstructured and in keeping with beat poetry's improvisatory post-bop cadences, the film was in fact a carefully constructed and scripted simulacrum of spontaneity – a method that Frank would later employ in Cocksucker Blues. As Lhamon notes, Frank's narrative choices, in photography or film, were fueled by the representation of contradictory impulses "telling and denying a story, always catching and freeing a connection, encouraging and discouraging an interpretation."

Scene II: The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World

The last time the Rolling Stones had worked with documentary filmmakers, the result was 1970's disturbing, brilliant Gimme Shelter. Directed by Albert and David Maysles, the film's now infamous climax – the stabbing death of gun-wielding 18-year-old Meredith Hunter by a Hell's Angel at Altamont Speedway (at the end of the Stones 1969 American tour) – has become the iconic death knell moment in nearly every cultural obituary of the 1960s.

It's remarkably vivid in its depiction of the chaos (although I've always found the editing and re-sequencing of events to be a tad disingenuous) and bad decisions (hiring the Hells Angels as a security crew, and providing them with beer) that led to what Jerry Garcia sarcastically called a "pleasant afternoon in Hell." Watching the film now, I am struck by how impotent the Stones seem; incapable of stopping the undulating waves of rage and terror that literally spill onto the stage. Jagger and Richards seem particularly small and pathetic, as if unaware (or unconcerned) of the botched circumstances that led to these horrific events. "People," Jagger pleads, "Why are we fighting and in what war?" Richards is more direct, threatening to leave the stage unless calm is restored. But at this point, it's far too late for anything meaningful to happen. Instead we are left to witness the spectacle, as Michael Lydon wrote, "[of] the Stones' reaction to watching the savagery they helped create."

It has been suggested that Robert Frank was hired to document the 1972 tour in order to create an anti-Gimme Shelter that would function as a public relations reclamation project. Never mind that the band was touring in support of their murky, noir-ish, "fagged out masterpiece"(as Robert Christgau called it) Exile on Main Street, or that Richards could no longer be without a needle and spoon at the ready – this tour would not descend into the miasma that was Altamont.

To that end, there would be no unpredictably violent, amateur security force, no lackadaisical do-your-own-thing-man irresponsibility, and above all, no carelessness: it would run like a finely tuned luxury car (with a "celebrity" entourage along for the ride). The film would serve as proof of this, and that the Stones were worthy of the mantle "greatest rock and roll band in the world." But if the Stones, and by extension Atlantic Records (and label head Ahmet Ertegun) thought that Robert Frank was going to give them something marketable, they couldn't have been more wrong (the title alone should have been a clue). Paul Justman, one of the film's co-editors (who later went on to direct the excellent Standing in the Shadow of Motown), told The Guardian's John Robinson last fall that the film was never meant as a "commercial" venture. "It wasn't product," he noted emphatically, "Robert doesn't make product."

So why hire Frank in the first place? I've always speculated that it was Jagger's idea. As a savvy bohemian, he must have been aware of the hip-ness Frank's name would bring to the project; after all it was Frank's photograph of a tattoo parlor wall collage that designer John Van Hamersveld used for Exile's famous front cover. Other Frank photos adorn the back cover and inner sleeves, many of them redolent of the LP's range of moods: celebratory, reflective, grim, narcoticized, desperate, and violent. Among Exile's most enduring images (the most memorable being the racially insensitive picture of the African American man with three baseballs in his mouth) is a bored-looking Bill Wyman holding up a Los Angeles Times with a headline screaming "Rescuer Stabbed." Granted, this wasn't Altamont, but it was safe to assume that, given Frank's aesthetic, the end result wouldn't be pretty.

And it wasn't. Frank spent two years cutting the film. Jagger, after viewing a work print, declared it "a fucking good film" but added "if it shows in America we'll never be allowed in the country again." A rancorous legal battle ensued, further contributing to the film's legend, and a settlement was reached, stating that the film could only be shown a limited number of times per year, as part of a retrospective of Frank's work, and only with the filmmaker in attendance.

All Frank had done was film what we all knew (or at least imagined) the Stones did on the road: they took drugs, hung out with (and employed) people who took drugs, and cavorted with celebrities and groupies. In the end, the band – still smarting from Gimme Shelter – decided that the prospect of more negative publicity was not what they needed, and Cocksucker Blues was simply far too much "reality" to let loose for public consumption. And while dope shooting and groupie fucking have contributed mightily to the film's infamy and "must-see" reputation, Frank's film is not only about the wages of sin and excess (although it's about that, and it's heartbreaking), it's about the tedium of touring.

Cocksucker Blues is perhaps more significant for its depiction of how boredom becomes sedimented in the lives of even the most successful and pampered touring rock band. Again, from S.T.P., Robert Greenfield captures the grindingly familiar ritual:

"Hotel corridors and hotel lobbies. Coffee-shop breakfasts and all-night parties and forty minutes in the afternoon to see the sights. The sharpest people don't even bother. Even within the Stones Touring Party the Stones are once again removed from the outside world. After Texas, they become nearly invisible. They stay in hotel rooms until just before the limos leave, then sweep through the lobby and are gone. They dress in special backstage rooms where only the Inner Circle is welcome. The only time they're in plain sight is on the plane. They are total strangers in a strange land, operating on their own time schedule, and after nearly a month on the road, everyone around them is starting to count the days until the four day break that precedes the July Fourth concert in Washington, D.C."

Is it any wonder that, after seeing it, filmmaker Jim Jarmusch asked why anyone would ever want to be a rock star?

Scene III: "Never mind veritè. I want poetry!"

If absence makes the heart grow fonder, then, in rock and roll terms, limited availability secures a cultural artifact's iconic status. These days, scoring a copy of Cocksucker Blues is much easier and affordable than it used to be – bootleg DVDs on eBay go for $10-$20. With each passing year, fans plead for its legitimate release, and each year the Stones and their management remain silently intractable on the issue. Frank, now 70, is no longer up to the rigors of public appearances, further limiting "official" screenings. Last December, the film was screened at London's Tate Modern with co-editor Susan Steinberg filling in for Frank. All eight screenings of the film were sold out as soon as tickets were available.

I'm not optimistic of the film's release in the near future, but it would be a welcome and worthwhile addition to rock's celluloid pantheon. There are few, if any, films I can recall that so thoroughly, revealingly, and problematically deal with rock and roll.

By problematic, I mean the extent to which Frank uses the same, barely detectable staging of events to relieve the torpor. "They really didn't want me to make the film," he told Border Crossings magazine in 1997. "They enjoyed having us around but not to film. I was with my friend Danny Seymour [who in the credits is listed as "junkie soundman"] and he had good connections for dope, much better than they had. And at one point I said nothing ever happens on these plane trips. It would be nice to have something happen."

The "something" Frank is referring to is the infamous (and perhaps not completely consensual) groupie grope that occurs on the Stones private jet. While there is conspicuous, and mostly female nudity, scenes of actual humping happen quickly and Frank's camera mostly fixes on Jagger and Richards who provide percussion accompaniment. Fittingly, their tempo steadily increases until climax. There's more nudity and frolicking (some of which includes whipped cream) done to an audio backdrop of a radio announcer doom-ily intoning the excesses of the Rolling Stones are "[a] reflection of today's children." There are other, less celebrated moments of orchestrated outrageousness: Richards and sax player Bobby Keys, in a dull and enervated scene, enact one of rock's uber-clichès, tossing a TV out of a hotel wind. Jagger fondles his crotch and then films himself in a ceiling mirror in a moment both narcissistic and onanistic. Later, he snorts a couple of lines of coke just before going onstage – or so we are led to believe; the camera cuts away at the last minute. If documenting boredom led to Frank's decision to "re-create" aspects of the sybaritic universe in which the Stones dwelled, he also grimly, and rather poignantly, provides a glimpse of the human devastation left in its wake. Stanley Booth, whose 1984 book Dance With the Devil remains the ultimate insider's account of life amongst the Stones, ruefully noted that "if Keith and I kept dipping into the same bag, there would be no book and we would both be dead."

Danny Seymour, the film's junkie soundman, wasn't so lucky and, years later, died out on the mainline. There's also the anonymous groupie filmed fixing up. "Why'd you film it?" she slurs, slowly succumbing to the nod. "It just happened," is the off-camera reply. Perhaps she escaped the inevitable, but it's hard to imagine. Marshall Chess, son of Leonard and nephew of Phil, who at the time was running the Stones record label, is never shown imbibing, but would soon be sucked into the undertow. He, like Booth, would eventually make it out alive.

Adding to this Brueghel-like sideshow are the fans, who range in demeanor from anxious, celebratory, and ruthless, to downright tragic (e.g. a young woman who admits to taking acid all the time, bemoans losing custody of her daughter and threatens suicide if she doesn't get a ticket to see the Stones), and the celebrities (Warhol, Truman Capote, Terry Southern, Dick Cavett) who wander backstage like so much human detritus, pathetically trying to roll with these "outlaws." To be fair, the Stones were equally opportunists, guilty of using this crew to legitimate their status as "rock royalty." After all, not every band gets to hang out with Princess Lee Radziwill, do they Sir Michael Philip Jagger?

Shot in ultra-grainy 16mm, through what at times appears to be a blue filter (and often with little more than available light), Cocksucker Blues is as fagged-out a masterpiece as Exile. Frank's murky docu-veritè approach allegedly caused Richards to scream "Never mind veritè, I want poetry!"

Poetry here reveals itself in the form of the film's musical segments which, when juxtaposed with the backstage footage, are jarring and explosive. Shot in color by another film crew, the Stones are stunning, playing with a breathtaking ferocity and determination. Despite not being complete versions, "All Down the Line," "Midnight Rambler," and "Brown Sugar" (the latter two complete with sexual and racial politics) offer proof that the band's "greatest" appellation was not simply hubris. Opening act Stevie Wonder's ebullient "Uptight" segues into a driving, and not yet creaky duet with Jagger on "Satisfaction." Viewed in context, the kineticism of the performances seems light-years removed, and a welcome respite from the steel gray claustrophobia that is the world offstage.

Scene IV: Roll Credits

While it's not a complete mystery why the film remains unavailable, the intransigence of the Stones seems, with the passage of time, harder to justify. In an era when getting caught with the meat in your mouth becomes a best-selling video, or a downloadable file gets you a gig hosting Saturday Night Live, Cocksucker Blues, in all of its tawdry glory, seems tame by comparison. Rather than continue to hide or disavow their history, the Stones should embrace it – release a multi-disc set with remixed sound, bonus footage, and commentary track (with Mick, Keith and Robert Frank). Amend the title to CS Blues and you might even sneak it into Wal-Mart.

Robert Frank may not have set out to make product when he agreed to document this tour, but that's what it's become. It is also, however, a great aesthetic triumph in that it is the most intimate and revealing picture that exists of the Rolling Stones at any point in their career and, as representative of Frank's aesthetic, articulates order and disorder within the turbulence of the real world – or his version of it. There is a large audience out there for this who will appreciate seeing a band great as the Stones emerge from the wreckage, no matter how unflattering or hard it is to watch.

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