Thursday, August 13, 2009

Tackling the Twelve: Cocksucker Blues

What I hadn't really expected about Robert Frank's legendary Cocksucker Blues, is that it would make being in probably the biggest band in the world look like such a soul-destroying, achingly empty hell. But it does, oh how it does.

Filmed on the Rolling Stones long-awaited 1972 North American tour, Frank's film is so legendary for a number of reasons. Firstly, its about the Stones, a band with a certain midas touch when it comes to Film. From the early Charlie Is My Darling(1965) following them through a brief tour in Ireland (and out on DVD for the first time in a few weeks), through Godard's One Plus One (1968) and the Maysles' awesome Gimme Shelter (1970), the band had always made for fascinating cinema.
Secondly, there are the circumstances of the tour: their first since 1969, a tour which had culminated in Altamont, Hells Angels and murder (captured in Gimme Shelter). this time they were supporting arguably their greatest record - Exile on Main Street - and the tour was a mammoth trek through enormo-domes. The tour became famous both for the Stones' onstage performances and the outrageous backstage antics of their massive entourage. The Stones at this point carried around a certain mythology. They were the dark side of the British invasion. They were Brian Jones dead in a swimming pool, drug busts, Marianne Faithfull and mars bars, Altamont and songs about satan. And finally there are the circumstances of the films non-release. When it was screened by Frank for the band, Jagger is reported to have told him that it was great, but if it screened in America they would never be allowed to re-enter the country. They went to court to have its release blocked, Frank fought them, and it remains the victim of a strange little legal ruling. It can only be screened in Frank's presence, and so has never been released on VHS or DVD. Bootlegs exist, of course, and I watched one.

Frank's method was unusual for a Rock documentary. He shot Cocksucker Blues cinema verite style, distributing cameras throughout the band and their entourage, so that they were left lying around for anybody to just pick up and film whatever was going on. This makes for some great, strange footage, and also a lot of tedium. But there is Jagger filming himself in the mirror upon the ceiling over his bed rubbling at his crotch almost comically, and there are snatches of home movies of him and Bianca play-fighting. There is also an instant atmosphere. Frank is adept at allowing the background noise to insinuate itself into every sequence, and so there are montages backed by Jagger or Richards noodling around on piano. There are political speeches on endless hotel room telephones, radios playing Al Green records, the band listening to their own songs (in new-fangled stereo!). But if tone and atmosphere are the film's strongest points, then coherence is sacrificed. Subjectivity is all, and so it becomes a blur of people in rooms, waiting out the times between gigs. Roadies, backing band members, promoters, groupies, journalists...they all blur together, the tour an endless procession of hotels and new faces the same as the old faces.

If there is a theme, it is that life on the road is crushingly boring and lonely, which explains the depth of feeling in one of the band's greatest songs, "Moonlight Mile", an ode to a lover waiting at the end of a tour. The last reel is a long stream of hotel-room scenes: Keith Richards, obviously stoned and ordering "strawberries and blueberries" and "three apples" from room service, poker games, televisions always buzzing away in the background, a naked groupie rubbing cum into her belly as a roadie tells her how great it looks. It almost suggests that it is unsurprising that Rock Stars get involved in drugs. And so we see Jagger snorting coke, and (it is hard to tell) Richards shooting up. Frank's cameraman, Danny Seymour, is seen shooting up more than once, and his decline into the narcotic rhythms of the touring life is one of the film's subtly indicated plotlines. Frank brilliantly juxtaposes one heroin scene - a long monologue in praise of the drug - with Watts watching an advert for "Exedrine", the narcotic effects of which are emphasised in another monologue.

We also see so many rock cliches it is almost as parodic as Spinal Tap - Richards and Danny Keyes throw a tv off a hotel balcony. But first we hear them faffing with the chord, and they carefully check that there is nobody below before they drop it. At one point, we see them seemingly lost backstage. The band crossing airfields to their private jet. Nodding off in limos and on airplanes and propped up in bed. There is relatively little performance footage. The highlight is a medley of "Uptight" with "Satisfaction" performed together with Stevie Wonder, whose vocals make Jagger sound drunk and inept. But Jagger is brilliant in his solo spot on "Midnight Rambler" and less so in the uptempo songs where he is all "Mick Jagger", all strutting cock dance moves and jerky kicks and self-conscious showmanship. Somehow the desolation of his life offstage makes it all so much less convincing.

He and Richards are the twin leads, both fascinating and enigmatic and shockingly middle class whenever they open their mouths. Richards seems perpetually distant, dazed and doped, that vacant expression on his face at all times except in a few scenes. Jagger is more affected; his boredom seems a foppish performance, and we can see the calculation in him - in a brief conversation with Frank about how they have treated some crew member who was violent, in his attention when plans for shooting the crowds for the film are discussed, in his answers to questions in television interviews. And he is a different person with his then-wife, Bianca; quieter and less of a rock star. She hovers in the corners of rooms sullenly, apparently resentful of everyone, and Jagger seems to tiptoe around her beauty. He does seem human, however. In one of the funniest moments in the film, Tina Turner leaves a dressing room full of men after a conversation with him and he drawls "I wouldn't mind..."

Perhaps the best scene, however, is when the band, together with only a few of their party, go off-map somewhere in the South. they just drive off into the countryside, on backroads, looking for somewhere to eat. Jagger comments how great it is to get away from "all those people" and says the South is one of the only places in America where you can get "interesting food", while Bianca keeps telling him to turn left. Mick Taylor sleeps in the back. They end up playing pool in some little bar, and it is perhaps the only moment when they escape the mad circus surrounding them, and all the layers of people at different levels the film observes are gone.

That is the other real subject - the menagerie revolving around these five young men. Their roadies, managers, the fans, support acts, the media, all of them interpreting and ascribing significance to the minutiae of the band's lives and declarations and songs. Frank knits together one aural montage of soundbites, radio commentators on the band, which seems removed from the actual day-to-day existence he has depicted it seems surreal. That day-to-day is empty and dehumanising, a world filled with non-places (hotels, airports, stadiums) and with random encounters with celebrities (Truman Capote, Andy Warhol) and depressing debauchery (a couple of groupies get stripped and roasted by roadies inflight while the amused Stones provide a backing track). Frank's best move, but one which makes the film hard going at times, is to refuse explanation or exposition. True verite: no voiceover, no interview excerpts, nobody ever identified, no linearity. Just a chaotic random rambling mess of scenes long and short, exciting and tedious, beautiful and ugly. Don Delillo named the third part of his novel "Underworld" Cocksucker Blues and in that chapter, a couple of characters attend a screening, allowing DeLillo to riff on the film and the Rolling Stones for a few pages. He focuses on the shadowy, fudged mess of it, the non-interviews and the comments spoken out of the sides of people's mouths, how casual it all is. And he is right, it feels almost as if it made itself, a unconscious projection by all those people surrounding the band. He also writes about its blue glow, a certain crepuscular light which is a big part of the melancholy heart of the film and one of its great glories.

This is what makes it special, unlike any other Rock Documentary I have ever seen (altough its influence is plain in so many lesser films since). Frank had the courage and the artistic ambition to aim for art, to aim for poetry. His commercial instincts were obviously nonexistent. And his film is all the better for it.

Find the original "The Twelve" post here .

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Blogger Will Shyne said...

Where did you get a hold of it?
You've got me jonesing!
not sure about Exile On Main Street being their greatest, though I love it, but it's definitely the Definitive Stones sound.

3:38 pm  
Blogger David N said...

A friend through bittorrent, I think. It's usually on eBay though.
My favourite Stones record is Sticky Fingers but I think Exile is more consistent and a grander statement, as a whole. Their other albums are collections of (great) songs, but Exile is a unified whole. It feels truly an album, you know?

10:40 pm  

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