Always Trying to Waste Me: The Rolling Stones' "Cocksucker Blues"
Onan rejoices. Dionysus despairs. Robert Frank, the Rolling Stones, and Cocksucker Blues -- a polarizing document for upwards of 35-years, now -- unreleased, and perhaps unreleasable.
Sometimes, it just seems like the muses have the fix in. Well before you get started, and more still after you’ve pressed on with your endeavor, regardless. On that score, there may be no film in rock and film history more synonymous with foregone failure than Robert Frank’s Cocksucker Blues, a polarizing document for upwards of 35-years, now -- unreleased, and perhaps unreleasable.
Having committed themselves to celluloid several times over -- from their own Rock and Roll Circus to Jean-Luc Godard’s One Plus One to the nightmare vistas of the Maysles brothers’ Gimme Shelter -- the Stones, embarking on their 1972 US tour, chose to document their various backstage dealings, hotel tête-à-têtes, and business wranglings as a happy alternative to the filmed tragedy of Altamont.
In 1972, Exile on Main Street, a brilliant jumble of a record, held dominion over music store shelves, and debauchery -- especially debauchery served up for posterity, Sabbath and Zeppelin-style -- had a certain vogue, maybe then more than ever, for hard rock fans. And while it’s fatuous to suggest that the Stones sensed that their classic run -- from Beggars Banquet to Exile, in effect -- was nearing its end, it’s probably safe to conclude that they full knew they were still in their prime, the world’s conquering bluesmen. So why not get the cameras rolling and add to the historical record? A mythology was being made, but this was a mythology that went beyond the Stones themselves, and beyond the parameters of music.
Most people who’ve ever heard of Cocksucker Blues know that, strictly speaking, you can’t legally see it. That is, unless it’s screened, typically at an art museum, with director Robert Frank on hand. You can get yourself a bootleg copy easily enough on the Internet or the local record fair, or via mail order from any of a number of shops in Greenwich Village, which begs the question, why, exactly, would anyone but the staunchest Stones fan care to own a film that even in its best ever, remastered, freshly transferred, remixed version, is murky, stained with grime, grainy and distant? And then there’s the content itself, oft-described as tedious, depraved, pointless, slop. Depressing, to boot.
Defenders rally with claims of Dionysian splendor and excess, bacchanalia, the ubiquitous proclamations of sexdrugsrockandroll, the Stones doing what the Stones do best. Trust neither camp. In some ways, Cocksucker Blues is “worse” than its detractors insist -- but for reasons that will make your heart come crashing down in your chest, rather than tinted prints and poor sound. As a film, it’s a bleak journey, shocking in ways even its boosters probably weren’t prepared to be shocked. No need to abandon all hope as such as we begin, but if you’re skittish, probably best if you can do with leaving some of that behind. And reservations too. Temporarily, like.
Before it was a film, Cocksucker Blues was a song. Owing Decca one last track to fulfill their contractual obligation, the Stones went the way of all schoolboys taking the piss out of the headmaster: you want yer one track, you’ve got your bleedin’ track. One would think, then, that the song the Stones cut at Olympic Studios in May of 1970, also known to aficionados as “Schoolboy Blues”, was pure throwaway, a bare minimum undertaking of three chords, a couple changes, some hastily scribbled lyrics, and there’s you done.
What is clear, from the content of the lyrics at least, is that the Stones never expected anyone to hear what may in fact be one of their landmark blues tracks -- which is to say, one of the landmark blues tracks. “Play the chords,” Jagger mumbles -- a bit like Lennon’s “sugar plum fairy sugar plum fairy,” preceding “A Day in the Life”, only with some dirt and blues got into her. And for three minutes and 30 seconds, one takes up residence in a Robert Johnson-netherworld. Except here, we’re cavorting about the streets of London.
The song is essentially Jagger’s voice and presumably Keith Richards’ guitar, though the accompaniment is so rudimentary, that even now, long before he’d take up a guitar on stage, Jagger may simply be playing along to himself. The song is a story, where one wouldn’t normally look for a story, an outcry, keenly observed details of a sordid reality somehow flecked with a hint of the romantic -- even as the policeman knocks the front of his knees against the back of the singer’s in an alleyway. “Well, I’m a lonesome schoolboy/ And I just came into town,” we’re summarily greeted.
Well, I heard so much about London
I decided to check it out
Well, I wait in Leicester Square
With a come-hither look in my eye
Yeah, I’m leaning on Nelson’s Column
But all I do is talk to the lions
You can tell something big and brazen is coming, just from the way Jagger builds the lines, something you probably don’t need your kids to hear, so palpable is this growing rage. And then there is it, a howling couplet: absurdity of expression as social protest, sex as class warfare. And look out, as Jagger screams the lines:
Oh, where can I get my cock sucked?
Where can I get my ass fucked?
Rehearsing at Woodstock in 1978 for their tour behind Some Girls, the Stones would revisit the song, and it’s that version, oddly enough, that plays as the introduction to the recent, best ever version of the film, available on bootleg DVD as Big Cocksucker Blues: Special Definitive Edition, courtesy of 4Reel Productions. Here are the Stones touring behind their best album, making the finest music of their career, on the road, as traveling bluesmen, which seems fitting.
But if there was art to be had in the Cocksucker Blues film project, that art would be brought to the medium of celluloid by someone other than the Stones themselves, a man in many regards an unlikely choice to direct the work. But in Robert Frank, the Stones had a director who knew better than most that it was in America, crossing the country’s highways and dirt roads alike, that disaffection -- and all of your grand dreams of prominence -- gutbucket squalor and despair, and rock 'n' roll, came together as they came together nowhere else. And they came together with something of the quality of verse, filmic or otherwise.
This television has seconds to live: cinema and poesy, poesy and cinema, we all fall down
Frank was a director in the sense that the American surrealist/Abstract Expressionist Joseph Cornell was also a director, an artist -- in Frank’s case, a photographer -- eradicating genre lines and tapping other mediums.
Having come to the US from Switzerland in ‘47, Frank secured a Guggenheim grant following eight years of work as a commercial photographer. As if in tribute to Jack Kerouac, who soon became a big Frank fan, the photographer lit off across America, taking the photographs that eventually became part of his justifiably famed The Americans collection, with its oddly cropped, refracting images. These were a visual theme of Cocksucker Blues as well, suggesting a blend of '50s B horror films, the watery-canvases of painter Philip Guston and the Depression-era photographs of Walker Evans. But there was a hint of pop culture and rock 'n' roll in Frank’s photographs as well -- people dancing, record players, 78s strewn about -- a feeling of decadence and despair on the go, which made him perfect for the Stones. And the man had plans, once tipped for the job by the band. Telling Keith Richards -- the zombie jester/court fool-cum-hooligan of the film -- exactly what he was after, “it’s vérité,” Frank posited. The guitarist was having none of it; he demanded poetry instead.
It probably doesn’t matter that that poetry is staged, acted out, if it’s poetry at all, because it works, it seeps into you. Like the “orgy” on the Stones’ plane, the sacrificial groupie -- whom is doubtful as a virgin, but nice symbolism all the same -- who’s stripped and passed from one randy bloke to another, the Stones looking bored and shaking rattles, consummation provided in a blurry zoom sequence that may or may not involve cunnilingus. Tough to work out with the angles.
Then there’s the rock star’s ritualistic destruction of a television set, heaved, by Richards and saxophonist Bobby Keys, from a hotel window. Richards looks bored out of his skull, a man having done something a million times, but probably well satisfied after the third or fourth go.
Enter, then the stars -- further mechanization of the rock star’s life -- that come flitting through the film: Truman Capote, Dick Cavett and Andy Warhol. And Marshall Chess, son of Leonard, who serves as producer, a title that seems remarkably nominal as he giggles his way through the backstory of how the song “Cocksucker Blues” came to be, a wind-up of a titled record company impresario
Groupies, scalpers, hangers-on, pool players, drugs, the press all feature heavily in this world, so you’d think the action would be bouncing off the walls, but stasis dominates. An expressive stagnation, blues conjured from the ordinary, like the activities one dreams up to pass the time, which was really what Exile on Main Street was all about. Realizing that there was a vast, fascinating rift between what was taking shape as a tour film and the music played on the tour itself, Frank did all he could to contrast extremes in his final cut: there’s sex, there’s drugs, there’s music, and in the instances when there isn’t some sense of boredom, the everyday ordinary, you can be sure the doldrums follow in the next scene.
And we sure do get boredom, but it can be entertaining boredom: a very stoned, and not so very immaculately composed, Keith Richards trying to order room service -- strawberries, blueberries and three apples; drunken poker; even a scene in which the roadies pack suitcases and clear out the hotel rooms.
Frank spent years in his Bowery apartment editing his opus; legend maintains that Dylan used to come by to check in, with Jagger phoning to see how it was all coming together. Allen Ginsberg, present at a private screening, claimed he was impressed, but concerned Jagger turned to Frank and offered “It’s a fucking good film, Robert, but if it shows in America we’ll never be allowed into the country again.”
But if you’re wondering just how good a film is Cocksucker Blues is, and how it measures up to the music the Stones were making at this point in their career, have a listen to any of the numerous bootleg recordings of the band’s Philadelphia ‘72 shows. If you’re not familiar with them, it should be stated that even the most passionate Stones fan is bound to come away incredulous that even they could be that good, just classic adrenaline shows, like an early Pistols one-off, or Jerry Lee Lewis’ Live at the Star Club. Flash and dazzle inhabits Cocksucker Blues, and just as deeply, just as truly. But here the dazzle, such as it were, is more inwardly revealed, and subtle, like some disease creeping through you.
Tutankhamen Redux: It’s a Blues Thing
If Cocksucker Blues has a star -- and you could argue that dystopia is its star -- it’s Jagger, the anti-hero as hero, and the film’s central consciousness amidst the drifters, gropers and druggers. We listen as he weighs in, for a press-op, on Exile on Main Street: He likes the country stuff, but some of it doesn’t hold together as he’d have wanted. A full-on quality double album can be tricky.
Interesting—but watch the sequence in which the Stones travel down one of the many nondescript roads in the American Deep South, in a rig not unlike the Vista Cruiser out of That ‘70s Show. A sign on the roadside reads Repent Now and the camera holds the image, a send-up of tacky symbolism. Frank shifts the focus to Jagger, and we’re keyed, at last, for some warmth in a pained, detached film, as the joint is passed around.
“This is one of the few parts in America where you can eat quite reasonably well, you know? Even in the coffee shops in the South they have better food,” he says. The camera then pans to Mick Taylor in the back seat, awake moments before, now asleep. In some ways, Cocksucker Blues is, when you get down to it, a hymn to nodding out, physically, spiritually, any way it comes -- as if one’s just been pressed too hard from too many sides. Wither, then, the gradual breakdown.
You don’t have a lot of fun sitting down to watch Cocksucker Blues. It’s a road fable, in some ways a tableaux of a journey. As a film, one that was consigned to the storage room, it’s remarkable that Cocksucker Blues has had its own life, that so many people have been able to see it, even if that number is but a fraction of those who’d pay for a copy at the Borders, or queue up in line outside the movie house, if for nothing else than to see what all of this mystique has been about.
Which was exactly the case at Tate Modern a couple years ago. Cocksucker Blues may or may not be too abrasive for audiences who like their rock films heavy on libido and cranking with tunes to ever garner an official release, but Frank slashed through enough red tape that he was able to secure the occasional screening, provided it was at an exhibition in which his work, rather than the Stones’, was the central premise, and he was present, or at least someone who worked on the film.
At Tate Modern, editor Susan Steinberg introduced the work. In 1977, she’d received permission from Frank to hunker down with Jagger and soften up some of the film’s core gratuity -- particularly its drug content, one imagines. A sort of Howard Carter hex has dogged the film almost since its inception. Frank claimed the Stones wanted nothing to do with him, like he was a pox, and at one point when the possibility of a release was bandied about, Keith Richards was busted for heroin in Toronto. And so the film went back on the shelf, indefinitely. But what do you know, in December 2004, tickets for the screenings at England’s foremost art museum sold out immediately, the demands to see the Stones’ ‘devil’ work having gone the way of all flesh: to the theater seat.
It can be difficult to get excited about a work of such out and out dissolution, a dissolution which extended to the film crew. Danny Seymour served as the film’s soundman and assistant cameraman. In the film itself, he’s almost like a character stepping out of a photo in The Americans, dishelvement personified, and partook of some of its “recreation”, later succumbing to his own habit. To the credits, he is known as “Junkie Soundman”.
The film’s most affecting scene concerns a woman desperately seeking Stones tickets. We’re outside in a parking lot. She cannot understand why her baby was taken away from her simply because she was on acid. Her life is “already” half-wrecked and now she’s can’t get into the concert, imagine the horror. But hey, her baby was born on acid, so what’s the problem? One glances to the corner of the room, and down at the floor. Rhetoric and reason have come here to die.
So long as there’s ever ready material, or just so long as the Stones keep touring, it’s probably safe to assume -- safe being the watchword here -- that it’s going to be Live From Rio or some such fodder, that you’ll find in the future at the local Wal-Marts as the next Stones DVD, and the one after that, ad nauseam. Cocksucker Blues inhabits its own mythology.
In the song “Cocksucker Blues”, “home is a look in the eye” where the policeman’s truncheon is very plainly more than a mere nightstick, and bad things happen in back-alleys to not necessarily bad people. In Cocksucker Blues the film, home does not exist. You may think you perceive of it in a bedroom, a concert arena or a look, but these alleyways are never ending, roads unto themselves. Any thought of home is lucky to exist as a memory.
Colin Fleming's work has appeared in Spin, The Nation, The American Scholar, and Jazz Times. He's finishing a novel.