Thursday, August 20, 2009

English Blood Runs Hot

I sometimes feel sorry when artist's work leaks to the internet. While Jack White and Radiohead-level freakout/hissyfits are uncool, and smell strongly of the big egos involved, you have to feel for a guy like Bradford Cox. He got angry when somebody leaked the new disc from his pals in Animal Collective, and couldn't understand why people didn't funnel their energy into recording their own versions of highly anticipated albums instead, like he did for Pavement's Brighten The Corners. When Microcastle leaked 6 months before the album was to be released, Cox reconvened Deerhunter to record a completely new album, Weird Era Cont., which was packaged with Microcastle. That is how you respond to a leak, people. (Weird Era also leaked prior to the double-album's October release).

This is all a preface, however, to my main point: sometimes, unavailable/illegal things are so awesome they deserve to be leaked (I'm looking at you, unreleased and now unclear-able Paul's Boutique-era Beastie Boys tracks). Such is the case with Cocksucker Blues, the unreleased documentary that follows the Rolling Stones on their legendarily debauched 1972 North American tour. The film, which legally can only be shown in the presence of director Robert Frank, made its way to the internet recently.

Cocksucker Blues plays like a film of deleted scenes, a succession of unnarrated, uncontextualized images that flash before our eyes. It's verite to the point that you can hear the cameras rolling. Much of the documentary is presented in a spooky, bluish B&W, which lends a certain menace to the film's prosaic scenes, and an outright villainy to its notorious ones--public sex aboard a private jet, groupies and hangers-on shooting up, Mick Jagger doing lines of blow.

Of course, outright menace underscores the entire film, as the '72 tour was the Stones' first since their disastrous concert at Altamont, then and now as potent a symbol as any of the death of 60's idealism. The ghost of deceased Stone Brian Jones, a flower child felled by excess, also haunts the proceedings. Indeed, the Stones of Cocksucker Blues are hedonistic and apolitical, in pointed contrast to the radical Stones Goddard offered four years prior.

The version I streamed seems to be missing the very end of the film, but it's still fascinating stuff. The concert scenes, filmed in color, sizzle--in particular a duet between Jagger and Stevie Wonder that begins as "Uptight (Everything's Alright)" and transitions into "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," a brilliant bit of "Midnight Rambler," and footage of Jagger and Richards listening to "Happy" that segues into the Stones performing the song, with Jagger handling some of the lead vocals.

The film--for shame!--has little interest in Watts, Wyman, or Taylor, much less the touring musicians, but Jagger's magnetism compels. His on-stage persona is sex incarnate, and his sartorial decisions are as glam as glam gets. Off-stage, and in snippets of interviews we hear, he seems tired and conflicted, wanting both celebrity and peace of mind, to be and not to be Mick Jagger. Most telling are Jagger's visible relief at riding the tour bus (rather than taking the Stones jet and mingling with the on-board entourage) and inattentive response to a parade of half-sincere birthday wishes.

It's one of the film's few clues as to what made the Stones so brilliant, so fascinating. The menace is a part of it--the Luciferian affectations, profane grooves, and lyrical raunch--but it hardly explains how the group, from 1964-1981, produced one of the most consistently brilliant bodies of work in the history of rock music. And in 1972, the band was on an equaled but never bested hot streak, having, in the space of five years, released three-and-a-half of the greatest albums ever made.*

It seems the Stones milieu, disgusting and warped by excess as it may have been, was key to their music. The hedonism--as well as the prodigious talent of all involved--provided the irresistible boogie and salacious licks, while a certain antipathy towards this world accounts for the more reflective, honest moments (usually the country songs and slower blues numbers). The Stones had it both ways with Mr. D, it seems, or at least regretted their sympathy for the satanic. The second verse of "Dead Flowers" shares something of the two impulses, and captures the contradiction well:

Well when you're sitting back in your rose pink Cadillac
Making bets on Kentucky Derby Day
I'll be in my basement room with a needle and a spoon
And another girl to take my pain away

The narrator speaks to a sybarite but is himself a lowlife. Yet the sybarite was once a part of the underworld, and the narrator, with his easy access to drugs and sex, an alpha male of the underground. Neither has both feet in either world, an their coexistence and contradictions blur the boundaries between high and low society. The song's tone and lyrical content, a pensiveness via hedonism, clearly emanates from the ne'er-do-well, and there's little evidence of soul-bearing by his former accomplice (just as "Brown Sugar" is hardly introspective). The two poles of high society and demimonde are characterized by the popular perceptions of Jagger and Richards, respectively.

The value of Cocksucker Blues for Stones scholars is that while it exposes the band and its coterie's sybaritic side, the performances suggest that the self-proclaimed "world's greatest rock and roll band" may have been exactly that. A few fleeting images and sounds help us grapple with the questions why and how.

*Sticky Fingers has never been a favorite


  1. Apart from having to violently disagree with you about "Sticky Fingers" (an album that I believe improves greatly on its predecessors), this is as good a time as any to dissect the cult of Mick n Keef at the expense of the other band members--There's a line in Stanley Booth's book "The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones" when someone says something to the effect of "No one pays attention to Bill and Charlie--it's Mick, Keith and Brian, they're the big bad Rolling Stones." That's completely erroneous, because as readers of the book know, Bill was the biggest lech of them all (although Watts was and always will be a saint). Every single documentary about the Stones seems to follow this pattern, particularly after Brian Jones dies, in which Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts and Mick Taylor are basically ignored (to say nothing of Ian Stewart).

    This always bothered me a great deal, especially figuring how much Mick Taylor really added to their band during that period (by far the best player to be involved with the band). While it seems that Mick and Keith have always severely discouraged songwriting contributions from others (save for Ron Wood a bit later--wtf?), this may have been their way of feeding the whole cult of the Rolling Stones as songwriting duo + backing musicians. I never appreciated this aspect of the Stones, and it's interesting that you note that Jagger begins to doubt the sort of lifestyle his aggressively public life has led to--and yet why didn't anything change in the long run? And why did they make what was clearly the best music of their careers when surrounded by mostly studio help?

    Anyway, I thought this was a great, classic analysis of the odd and sometimes contradictory class politics at play in this band. Just think about Keith's surly comments after Mick got knighted, as if starring with Johnny Depp in a Pirates of the Caribbean isn't just as if not more toolish.

  2. Good point.

    The band dynamics within the Stones are incredibly lopsided. Wyman clearly wanted to write, but his only two contributions are from the band's brief psychedelic period. Jagger/Richards were probably too high to say no at that point, and in any case Their Satanic Majesties Request is unfairly derided both by many Stones fans and the band itself (40 Licks, for instance, contains two Voodoo Lounge tracks, but only one Satanic Majesties cut). Wyman claims to have written parts of "Jumpin Jack Flash," and if my memory serves me the "In Another Land" single art credits the song to Wyman, not the Stones.

    It's true that Jagger was overcome by his persona, and I'm going to wildly speculate that some premonition/knowledge of this was among the reasons that Wood was allowed a small amount of songwriting input and credit. He had respectable credentials, and had even collaborated on "It's Only Rock N Roll" prior to joining the band. The Stones seemed to realize there was only so much gas left in the tank by the mid/late 70's--the defensive posture of the great Some Girls itself proves this, but the fact that Tattoo You raided (three!) previous studio sessions for 60% of its material puts it beyond doubt. If you doubted your songwriting abilities that much, doesn't it make sense to let a well-credentialed new guy lend the occasional hand?

  3. I had forgotten until you mentioned it that Bill Wyman claimed to have written the central riff for "Jumpin' Jack Flash," which in a just world he would be duly credited for. I just listened to "Their Satanic Majesties Request" again and am reminded of how really very good of an album it is, and how much of a shame it was that it got such a poor reception, considering that this would probably be the last time the Stones would try anything new (which, fairly, worked pretty well for them up to 1978). I don't know if you feel this way, but I've always liked "In Another Land" a lot, despite the phased vocal production of Wyman's vocals. And "2000 Light Years From Home" is a great song by any standard, it might be in my top 10 Stones songs ever.

    I'll take your wild speculation even further. Ron Wood was hired because he got on easy with the rest of the band and because he trafficked in that same sort of British blues sound that the Stones hand a hand in inventing. In addition, you find particularly around the time of "Tattoo You" that part of the problem was that Jagger and Richards really, really started to hate each other, and like Lennon and McCartney really started writing songs on their own. I don't believe it was Wood's credentials as much as the fact that he provided a serviceable (if by no means equivalent) foil to both Jagger and Richards, and sort of became the middleman. Of course, neither you nor I can think of a good Ron Wood song, I'm sure, which is probably why their work started to suffer so severely.

    It makes one want to speculate: what would have happened if Mick Taylor had stayed? In my opinion, "Some Girls" would be even better than it already is, and post-"Goats Head Soup" stuff would be less derivative in less respects, but the band may have actually broken up. Not that that would have been a bad thing.

  4. Yeah I love Satanic Majesites too, and "In Another Land" is a highlight, underwater vocals and all.

    I think that you're unfairly harsh on Ron Wood. The Mick Taylor years were obviously better, and I've never heard anyone argue that Wood is a better guitarist than Taylor. But he had a hand in writing a couple of Stones songs I like (incl. the underrated "Dance Pt. 1"), as well as a number of good Faces and Rod Stewart songs. Wood didn't write any of these songs by himself, but I think that they count for something.

    Though the prospect of Mick Taylor on Some Girls sounds pretty sweet.

  5. Maybe you're right and I am being harsh towards Ron Wood. You're not going to find any support from me in defending "Dance Pt. 1" though. Maybe it's the association with Rod Stewart, and the fact that he eerily looks like Rod Stewart at the same time.

    Another thing I forgot to mention: If nothing else, "Satanic Majesties" gets my stamp of approval because it is apparently the Stones album that notorious whore-clown Jann Wenner despises. Which makes perfect sense if you think about it.