Four Times a Year, the Rolling Stones Sing the ‘Cocksucker Blues’
The infamous tour documentary got a rare screening in New York this week.
After seeing Cocksucker Blues, Robert Frank's documentary about the Rolling Stones' 1972 tour of America, Mick Jagger was said to have remarked to the director, "It's a fucking good film, Robert, but if it shows in America we'll never be allowed in the country again."
It had been true that you could only see this particular documentary if its director Robert Frank was present, though this rule has gotten more lenient over the years. It is still true, though, that, legally, it can only be shown four times a year, and for many the film exists in a fog of salacious rock and roll mystery. Cocksucker Blues is interestingly, in its obscurity, still the best known of Frank's films; he had previously been more of a trailblazer in photography.
Frank's revolutionary photography book The Americans was initially what drew the Rolling Stones to Frank. Its themes of loneliness and deterioration so closely matched their latest album, Exile on Main Street, that they invited him to design the album's cover and later film their 1972 tour promoting the album. It's worth noting that the Rolling Stones had not played in America since 1969, their infamous concert at Altamont at which a man was stabbed (documented in the film Gimme Shelter by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin), thus bringing the freewheeling, free-loving culture of the 1960s to a halt. The 1972 tour was a big deal, the band's way of making a splash as they re-entered America. Loving Frank's work on the cover of Exile, the Stones gave Frank no restriction backstage, allowing him into every corner of the lives of the band and the 30-odd other musicians, groupies, roadies, etcetera, they brought with them.
Frank, shooting the tour entirely on handheld Super-8 cameras (bringing extras along so anyone could also have a go at it), took the Stones up on their offer tenfold, much to their dismay upon seeing the final cut: there they and their attendants were on screen, partaking in all manner of sex and drugs while also jamming out onstage in velvets and scarves on what is now considered one of the most legendary rock and roll tours of all time.
Though the Stones never denied the events in the film happened—long afterward Keith Richards told The New York Times it was "a very true documentation of what went down"—the band took him to court, hoping to get the film shut down by way of copyright ownership: Mick Jagger felt the copyright actually belonged to him because he commissioned the work, and Frank of course felt the opposite, that because he was the creator, the copyright would rest with him. A court sided with Jagger, however, and the film was not allowed to be shown until 1979, seven years after it was filmed and initially intended for release. In addition, in an unusual ruling giving Frank some ownership over the film, the director was given the ability to show it four times a year as long as he was present and the screening was agreed upon with the band—this is for the most part still in place today. No copies of Cocksucker Blues exist for purchase, though occasionally bootlegs have popped up and there are even a few on YouTube here and there.
The title of the film itself actually comes from a never-released song the Stones wrote to meet a contractual obligation from Decca Records, who they hated working with, before leaving the label to start their own Rolling Stones Records. The song "Cocksucker Blues" was written to be purposefully unreleasable. (Lyrics like "Where can I get my cock sucked?/Where can I get my ass fucked?" just didn't fly in the 1970s.) That the theme of unreleasability carried over to the film as well goes without saying.
So people who know of the film's existence know why it sells out, drawing both those who have always wanted to see it but never had the opportunity and people who have just heard of it and want to get in on that big rock and roll secret.
Cocksucker Blues made a rare appearance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this weekend, selling out several days prior. The arts space known for its off-the-radar sensibilities made a perfect home for the contraband film. People in head-to-toe black and thick-frame glasses peppered its seats. The way the room arcs, the only spots left were at the edges of the theater, on a tilted view of the screen. But it didn't matter.
Cocksucker Blues begins with a black screen that simply reads "Except for the musical numbers the events depicted in this film are fictitious. No representation of actual persons and events is intended." The room bubbled with sarcastic laughter. This was another result of the lawsuit against Frank, that he had to put in a disclaimer at the beginning to suggest much of the, shall we say, non-musical sequences were staged. Nobody was fooled.
The film opens with shots of the Stones rehearsing backstage, a shaggy haired Jagger in all of his ruffle-sleeved glory singing in his signature screech to an equally shaggy Charlie Watts on drums. What follows is a sometimes deliciously rocky, occasionally out of focus, purposely imperfect chronicle of tour life. The Stones and their entourage are, for the most part, exceedingly bored backstage. They masturbate and smoke pot, they fuck and shoot heroin. The room grew silent as a groupie, then a sound man, jam needles into their veins, first holding fabric tight around their arms to find just the right point of entry. Jagger aimlessly twiddles with a piano in his underwear then later answers questions it looks like he's heard infinite times before from a group of journalists who all think they're asking something new. Audience members shifted uncomfortably in their seats when women, in fits of shrieks and giggles, are undressed by male crew members on the Stones' private plane while the band cheers the men on with tambourines. The Stones try to order a bowl of fresh fruit from room service only to be greeted on the phone by the most uptight of staff: "How about strawberries AND blueberries?" a disembodied voice asks from one of their bedrooms. The theater filled with appreciative laughter. Richards throws a television out a hotel window just because. Laughter again. So much of what goes on seems old hat to them, including greeting Tina Turner, Truman Capote, and Andy Warhol backstage as well as the deafening noise that erupts every time they walk onstage.
Frank simply captured what he saw, telling The New York Times decades later, "I didn't care about the music. I cared about them. It was great to watch them—the excitement. But my job was after the show. What I was photographing was a kind of boredom. It's so difficult being famous. It's a horrendous life. Everyone wants to get something from you.''
The moments of boredom, though, are punctuated with positively electric, goosebump-inducing performances. Jagger makes love to a harmonica that oozes a heart-wrenching twang, eye makeup smeared across his face and a jeweled ring vibrating on his hand with each new breath. Stevie Wonder, who at just 22 opened for the band on the tour after the release of his now-iconic Music of My Mind album that year, cranks out a high-energy rendition of "Uptight," hands throbbing at the piano alongside a live horn section. Jagger dances along then escorts him to the microphone so they can sing a earth-shattering duet of "Satisfaction." The ups in the film are worth the downs.
Cocksucker Blues shows the depth and humanity in the mundane, as much of Frank's work did. Despite the fact that the film can lag at times—I found myself looking at my watch about an hour into its 93 minute runtime—the film is an act of truth. The musical performances, though sprinkled throughout, are intoxicating. The Stones themselves are at their most honest and unedited as people and not just rockstars. And no, watching Cocksucker Blues scratchily on YouTube is just not the same as seeing it larger than life, the way the band themselves always have been and the way the film was intended to be shown. For anyone wanting to see and really understand what The Rolling Stones were at the time, what being both a human and a rockstar at the same time meant and can mean in all of its glory and boredom and heartache, it's essential viewing in a movie theatre if the opportunity arises, even if it's just four times a year.
Elyssa Goodman is on Twitter - @MissManhattanNY