Directed by: Robert Frank
You are reading Stones on Film, a 13-part dialogue covering notable Rolling Stones documentary and concert films through a critical lens. Today is week seven. Archive here.
AM: Starting with an odd disclaimer stating that the events in the film are fictitious, Cocksucker Blues is a bluish blur of the Rolling Stones’ traveling circus as it stood in 1972. There’s groupie sex, on-camera heroin use, and the grinding boredom of touring life.
I actually wrote about this film for Rockaliser after my first viewing, in 2009 (the comments section features Nathan violently disagreeing with me about Sticky Fingers). I hit the typical beats--the band’s sybaritic lifestyle, the Jagger/Richards divide, the great music, the horrible misogyny. Given that these things dominate discussion of Cocksucker Blues, and that I already covered them (in the wordy, circuitous style I was taken with in 2009), I’ll try and avoid those and concentrate on the stray thoughts and questions that popped up as I watched the film.
But first, a couple paragraphs of context. Cocksucker Blues is the work of Robert Frank, whose eye for Americana led the Stones to use his photos on the cover of Exile. The footage here covers the 1972 tour of America, the first time the band had played in the country since Altamont. Frank basically loaned out cameras to the Stones entourage, and ran around shooting footage himself. Fans of high production values will be in agony at the extremely unstable, off-color cinematography here. To call it cinema verite or direct cinema is an affront to the talent of the people who filmed Don’t Look Back and Gimme Shelter.
When Frank emerged from his hole with a version of the film, Jagger reportedly said that he was worried it would get the group banned from America. Frank thought the public would find the Stones behavior “revolting.” One lawsuit later, Frank was only legally permitted to show the film five times a year, with the stipulation that he himself be present and the it be shown in the context of his work, not the Stones. (The Stones have loosened up about this in the last few years) The scarcity of the film--and the stories that grew up around it--led to Cocksucker Blues legendary status.
And it certainly doesn’t disappoint, in terms of prurient content. With an eye towards presenting the film in the context of the Stones work and world, five thoughts inspired by Cocksucker Blues:
- How absurd is it that the Stevie Wonder would open for the Stones? He was at least as big as the Stones, with two Number One hits in 1972 alone. Don’t get me wrong, seeing a young, sinewy Stevie launch into a Stonesified “Uptight” and seguing into “Satisfaction” is great. But he was in his auteur period at this point, and was huge. What does it say about the record business at the time that Stevie would have to open for a band who couldn’t score a hit in 1972? And why don’t we get any backstage interactions with Stevie? Did he partake in the Stones lifestyle?
It’s also interesting to plot Wonder’s evolution against the Stones’. Stevie was trying radical things, creating searching, spiritual music with synths. The Stones, for all their brilliance, were fucking around refining something they were already great at.
- Cocksucker Blues could not be more different from Stones In Exile. They cover roughly the same period, and Stones In Exile borrows footage from Frank’s film. But the slick professionalism of Stones In Exile is nowhere to be found here. Cocksucker Blues is like something you’d see mounted on a wall at an art gallery. It’s a bunch of context-less shards of their lifestyle. The camera will spin around a room, or cut to entirely different scenes while letting the audio track from that room play out. It probably captures the disorienting feeling of being inside this world better than a retrospective, talking head doc.
- There are tons of Spinal Tap moments here. None more so than the band’s long backstage march to the arena floor. It’s a half step away from this classic scene. What was your favorite?
- The excess is the appeal. Not breaking any ground here, but it needs to be said. Everytime I saw something sick--Keith nodding off, the band playing along to a woman being stripped of her clothes (possibly against her will), Mick rubbing his crotch and doing coke off a knife (separate scenes, those)--this thought struck me. You can watch it and think “lol rockstars”. You can watch it and say “it’s a historical record”. But this film became legendary because of the excess, the drug use and degradation. Why else would people still watch a shittily-shot and confusingly edited documentary about a band that features only a few, poorly-recorded concert snippets? The Stones tried to can a documentary that painted them as even more debauched than their quite debauched public profile. And then the rumors of that documentary further burnished their outlaw credentials, for good or ill.
- Just recording whatever’s in fashion that year. That, basically, is Mick’s response to a question about the recording of Exile. The band just records whatever’s in fashion that year. Doesn’t particularly make sense in the context of Exile, but it goes a long way towards explaining “Miss You,” Emotional Rescue and the shitty production values (and color palettes) that the Stones later embraced. Those weren’t artistic evolutions, that was Jagger willing the band to keep up with the times.
What do you think of the track “Cocksucker Blues,” by the way? I’m a fan of the full band version, myself, which you don’t hear in the film. The one we get here is spare and weirdly beautiful, a song about assfucking in the style of “Gates of Eden”.
For the record, the least Spinal Tap moment in the film features Charlie, sitting by himself in a hotel room and watching a TV commercial for Excedrin. Poor Charlie.
NS: Apart from perhaps Four Flicks, Cocksucker Blues is the Stones’ most difficult-to-watch contribution to celluloid. There is very little context for what is going on throughout, which consequently makes this film hard to review. Scenes and images go by, some of which are memorable, but there is no continuity or greater idea holding scenes together. It has no beginning or ending, nor any internal structure at all, really. It provides glimpses into the Stones’ backstage lifestyle, includes flashes of various drugs, sexual situations, and celebrities, and then ends abruptly.
You said “fans of high production value will be in agony.” I would broaden that category to fans of remotely passable sound quality. Maybe it was the version I saw, but Cocksucker Blues has frustrating sound throughout, juxtaposing live dialogue with TV and radio narrations as well as bits of live and studio Stones recordings, mainly from Exile. These sound collages are often random and make it even more difficult to tell what is going on. By comparison, the occasional mangled-sounding narration in Godard’s film is not even a distraction. Often the dialogue does not fit with the mouths of the actors, and the sound is clearly out of sync with the video throughout many non-Jagger shots in the live scenes.
You referred to what appears to be an amazingly dynamic Stones and Stevie Wonder live performance, where they do the “Everything’s Alright”/”Satisfaction” medley with Jim Price and Bobby Keys on brass. At least it appears to be--the film’s sound only gives hints of the gloriousness that audience goers were able to behold, I am sure. The young, skinny Wonder’s energy is infectious, but everything sounds tinny and blocked. My father owns many a Stones bootleg that sounds better than this.
It does not surprise me that Stevie Wonder would be opening for the Stones at this stage in his career. Remember that Wonder, for all his longevity, was still a “Black” act. He did well, but opening for the Stones put him in front of stadium crowds, which was a level I am not sure he could achieve on his own in 1972. I imagine that is what prompted many of the older bluesmen to open for the Stones as well. It was possibly the largest platform that many of these artists would ever get. Incidentally one of the more memorable parts of the film shows Muddy Waters and the band playing pool, and Muddy laughing at a terrible shot by Charlie.
The depravity in Cocksucker Blues reaches near-snuff film levels at times. We have commented on the thread through many of these documentaries where the Stones have repressed them, North Korea-style, but in this case I can very much see where the Stones were coming from. Even Robert Frank agrees that the Stones look appalling. Surely he must have known this as he was filming, right? Jagger seems specifically inhuman for the way in which he sort of glides through the naked, barely-conscious groupies philosophizing and professing his boredom and gradual dislike of the extended Stones entourage. The other members of the band, like Mick Taylor, are no better (at one point Taylor barges into the room of a naked groupie to smoke her joint--this is among the more casual scenes of groupies).
I can’t help but wonder how various celebrities like Andy Warhol, Dick Cavett, and Tina Turner thought about being included in the film. Possibly another motivation for suppressing the film, as well as its opening disclaimer (“no representation of actual persons or events is intended”). Relatedly, my personal favorite Spinal Tap-type moment is when Dick Cavett attempts to interview the group, and instead admit to his audience he only got Bill Wyman.
I think there is room for a great documentary about the bacchanalian backstage behavior of rock stars and their treatment toward women. This isn’t it; not even close. Some of the situations described in the film are truly shocking. Heroin use, right in front of the camera, abounds (not from Keith, though. Guess he was careful). A woman talks about how her child was taken away from her because of her acid use. She threatens to kill herself and says “my life is already half-wrecked.” This is heartbreaking stuff. The viewer instinctively wants to reach out and help this woman. How come no one filming seems concerned? As far as I can tell Robert Frank chose to shoot these vile situations for no other reason other than exploitative glee, or perhaps for “historical value”--all a matter of perspective, I guess.
How much pleasure were you able to glean from the live scenes? It is difficult to tell, but the 1972 tour marks another sort of musical turn of for the band, where the Stones started taking a more extended jam route. Led Zeppelin was the most popular group in the world and even artists like the Stones were paying attention, not that they would admit it. Check out the breakdown in the version of “Midnight Rambler” and watch at how the band members look at each other; they are trying to stretch the song out in new directions and are unsure where to go (look at Taylor’s face).
Today I view Cocksucker Blues as sort of the filmic equivalent of Robert Frank’s photographs in Exile’s liner notes. The photographs look impressive, but they are meant to be a supplement to the album. The photos do not convey any larger or coherent meaning because they are meant to look good. So is the case of Cocksucker Blues. Except ultimately it does not look very good. Or sound very good. Refresh me: what good reasons are there to preserve this film again? You said “the excess is the appeal,” but are there parts of the film that are actually appealing?
AM: So...zero stars then?
Say what you will about the Stones, but they did have some great opening acts on the American tours. Stevie Wonder, Ike and Tina, even Prince. Then again, they apparently brought along also-rans The Groundhogs and Merlin on their 1971 UK Tour. Perhaps that’s why Mick called that jaunt “sad” in Stones In Exile.
But back to Cocksucker Blues. The best reason to preserve the film is because destroying docs is like destroying books. It just shouldn’t be done. That doesn’t mean this is a good documentary. I go to school with a bunch of folks who study documentary production, and I can assure you that it is Gimme Shelter and not Cocksucker Blues that they study.
If there’s value to Cocksucker Blues, it’s a few scenes of fleeting interest. Seeing Charlie struggle at billiards brought a smile to my face. The Cavett moment you point out is great. There’s also (one assumes) a large cache of unseen footage documenting this time. It’s a primary source--maybe for a better documentary, or the history books, or what have you.
It sounds like my copy of the film was slightly higher quality that yours. I enjoyed all the musical numbers. The fidelity isn’t great, but the songs were the high points.
A quick rundown: “Jumping Jack Flash” is ferocious, Exiled-out with horns and the counterpoint of the hyperactive Jagger against the motionless Taylor. “Midnight Rambler” is excerpted, but we get Jagger crouched and gradually rising as Richards and Taylor trade death blows on their guitars. “All Down The Line” is sweaty, with Taylor going wild. “Happy” is barbed, transformed into a duet between Richards and Jagger. And the “Uptight/Satisfaction” is a joy.
During these performances, we barely glimpse the audience. Who were these people? The wrecked life of an acid-eating mother is about all we get, and it’s sensationalistic. It would have affirmed every fear of the American Right, had this movie been released.
There seems to be very little interest in the little people, generally. That includes Wyman, Taylor and Watts, but the audiences most of all. Maybe that’s a relic of Charlie Is My Darling-era bad memories, or Rock God aloofness. But it’s hard to miss that the Stones and their retinue don’t seem particularly grateful towards the folks subsidizing their lifestyle. I listened to an interview with Ian MacKaye yesterday, where he discussed the needless greed and bloat of the touring industry--and the Stones embody that more than anyone. Such arrogance and entitlement, even then. The scene where Mick kvetches about touring is particularly telling, as if he doesn’t have more power than anyone to set the tone of the tour.
Also--what’s Mick’s deal with American food? He says during that car ride that you can only eat well in the American South. Like that guy wasn’t eating like a king in New York and London.
Stepping back a bit, I couldn’t help but reflect on how easy it would be to make a film like this today. We carry around cameras in our pockets that put Frank’s equipment to shame. So why don’t we have people chronicling the tours of the twenty-first century? Has music really moved that far away from the center of our culture? Are the 2014 equivalents of Andy Warhol and Truman Capote hanging out backstage at the Yeezus tour?
Or maybe tour docs are just a bad idea--like songs about touring that aren’t “Memory Motel”. Maybe we don’t really want to know what going on backstage.
NS: Mick claims that the best food comes from the South, which maybe isn’t true, but I do not doubt that the soul food he ate on the road was ways better than the British food back home. Wyman probably disagrees.
I may have came off as too harsh in the previous response. Certainly I do not mean to imply that historical footage should be destroyed if it captures acts I find disagreeable. Zero stars may be a bit much, but as I said in the previous response, this film is almost impossible to review. It sometimes views as the rough cut of footage that was never edited or shaped into a discernible narrative. I will look into finding a better version of the film’s sound (a search on YouTube yielded the same sound quality level).
I did not get to your question in the first entry about “Cocksucker Blues” the song. One of the more lucid moments of the film is at the beginning, where Marshall Chess, son of legendary Chess Records owner Leonard Chess, talks up a dirty song project that never came to fruition, which is where “Cocksucker Blues” came from. One can only imagine what that compilation might have been like, but one song was apparently Dr. John’s “I Believe I’ll Eat Some Pussy Tonight.” Anyway, I like the song. There is a lot of empty space in this spare version--perhaps not typical of the Stones at this period, but the crudeness of the lyrics adds to the melody in an odd way. It’s a song about loneliness, perhaps not surprisingly.
I thought a lot about the likelihood of a concert doc like this coming out today. Certainly it seems as if any modern artist who had the popularity to put out a concert film is likely concerned with his/her/their public image to the degree that these depictions could never be shown on camera. Justin Bieber’s recent flick is a good example. The rumors are that his public behavior is depraved and unsettling; the film features Bieber basically trying to explain away his actions.
If there is a modern antecedent to this today, it seems less any modern documentary style and more the sex tapes and naked pics of celebrities that get leaked and proliferate around the Internet. American culture is luridly fascinated with the excesses of rock star behavior, which is often coupled with a Puritan tendency to judge and castigate that behavior. I think that both approaches are extreme, and that an artist’s worth ultimately should be judged by the quality of the art. Which is not to say that bad behavior does not matter--it just does not figure into my overall appreciation of the art itself.
Maybe with the proliferation of personal cameras, such behavior would be easier to capture and portray. But today’s major artists have to be more careful now than the Eagles, Stones, and Zeppelin of the past. Rock stars don’t talk up their groupies the way they used to, and those who do (Kings of Leon come to mind) seem crass and old-fashioned, and the backlash is often severe. Filming groupies naked and in their moments of weakness would be considered a sexist and unconscionable act by today’s standards, unless there were a damn good reason for doing so. A documentarian would have to be very careful about portraying this behavior without making it look good.
Honestly, to Frank’s credit, he doesn’t make it look good. The listless, bored look on Mick’s face tells us everything we need to know. Here the Stones were, in perhaps their greatest iteration, on their greatest tour in support of their greatest album. There is a special purity to their live show here. And yet the joy completely leaves the band as soon as they get off stage. The world’s greatest rock n roll band was becoming a brand, and Cocksucker Blues, to its credit, didn’t come close to fitting within it.
Addendum: Hate to be the classic rock pedant again, but “Thank Christ for the Bomb” is a great song by the Groundhogs.