Cocksucker Blues
By Neal Shaffer

From Gadfly March/April 2001


In 1972, high on the critical and popular acclaim of Exile On Main Street, the Rolling Stones undertook a 30-city, 41-show tour of North America. For posterity, and perhaps out of a keen prescience, they had director/photographer Robert Frank in tow to shoot a documentary. Frank, also responsible for the photo montage in the Exile liner notes, may or may not have known what he was getting into, but the result is more than just the voyeuristic thrill show legend suggests. Cocksucker Blues, as it is known, is truly the most important film you've never seen.

In rock 'n' roll lore, Cocksucker Blues (a title derived from an unreleased Jagger/Richards track of the same name) is a two-word synonym for decadence, the most infamous and shocking film about the most infamous and shocking band. So much so that the Stones themselves, not the most modest chaps around, have steadfastly refused for almost 30 years to let it see the official light of day, despite the obvious gold mine it represents. Only devotees and seekers have seen it, and, as such, its reputation remains largely untarnished.

To address Cocksucker Blues properly, however, requires a certain amount of analytical schizophrenia. At heart, it's really two films. As a Rolling Stones tour film, or just a documentary, it has its merits and its failings. But it certainly holds up—despite the lack of exposure. There's plenty to gawk at: copious drug use, sexual exploits of downright Roman proportions, vintage concert footage (though less than one would expect) and some fine examples of cinema verite camera work. And, to a fair extent, it deserves its reputation as a shocker, and the Stones were right to ban it. There's no doubt that for the whole world to actually see, as opposed to merely surmise, the extent to which the Stones and their attendants indulged rock clichés would turn off the faint of heart. But far more interesting than such speculations is the flip side of the Cocksucker Blues coin: its incredible relevance as a popular cultural artifact, the missing final link in a trilogy that began with Jean-Luc Godard's Sympathy for the Devil and the Maysles brothers' Gimme Shelter.

While the Stones are a British band, their importance to the development of American popular culture is one of their resounding legacies. Musically speaking, that importance is obvious. Not only did they craft a believable and compelling synthesis of early rock and classic American country blues, they also spent a great deal of time selling that synthesis back to the country from which they took so much, both on record and on tour. But above and beyond the music, the Stones may very well be more American than most American bands. For looking back, and as the three films show, as the Stones went, so went America in the late '60s.

When Godard filmed them for Sympathy, the Stones were just hitting their stride. Although their reputation as an antidote to the Beatles' squeaky-clean pop perfectionism was well on its way to being secure, the earnestness Godard captured is almost startling. The film displays a palpable sense that they weren't yet fully aware of what was going on, or at least not yet willing to indulge it. It's clear, both from the actual recording process and the larger implications of Godard's political and social vision, that the art, the craft, was still paramount.

Indeed, the song "Sympathy for the Devil" holds its own to this day as one of the most finely crafted rock songs of all time. The version one hears at the start of the film is vastly different from, and inferior to, the final version that is present at the end. Throughout the process, the closest to an indulgence one can see are a few cigarettes here and there. And although the Stones' collective demeanor is decidedly laconic, it's obvious they want the song's potential to be fully realized. The final cut of the film shows that Godard was up to bigger things (the Stones are merely a vehicle), but it's also a badly needed glimpse into a particular moment, 1967-68, when almost everyone believed that great things were happening. (It should be noted that Godard's film wasn't actually released until 1970. The Stones footage, however, is the more relevant portion insofar as this article is concerned. That footage is from the sessions for Beggar's Banquet in late 1967.)

Intercutting scenes of the Stones recording "Sympathy" with staged political happenings reminiscent of the Black Panthers and sexual liberation, Godard suggests a new holy trinity of art, politics and love, all painted with wide, sweeping strokes. It's potent stuff, if a bit dense and idealistic. And no other band, not even the Beatles, could have served that metaphor more perfectly. The Stones' greatest strength was always their ability to come off as threatening but not precisely confrontational, more of an inevitable force than forced inevitability. Everything about the film, and the era, suggests a wide-eyed interest in the sheer possibility of everything—rock 'n' roll, youth power, drugs, the sexual revolution, whatever it may be at the moment. Conventional wisdom holds that this attitude defines the '60s as a time when the forces of good held the bastards in check—and enjoyed every moment of it.

What makes the Stones so particularly fascinating among the many legends of that era is that they never existed in a vacuum, as so many of their contemporaries seemed willing, even eager, to do. And for all the great things that truly were happening, no amount of sympathy or taste could have placated the devil that loomed on the horizon.

For the Stones, it was the death, of causes still debated, of guitarist/founder Brian Jones in July 1969, shortly after he left the band. For the rest of the culture, it was the assassinations of hope avatars Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968.

It's clear now that the net effect of these events wasn't immediately felt. August 1969 saw Woodstock, which everyone would like to believe was the realization of all things glorious and beautiful about the '60s. And the Stones, while certainly stung by the death of Jones, not only persevered but also thrived, entering a period of creative output few bands, if any, can match. New guitarist Mick Taylor stepped in to fill the void, and they undertook a United States tour in 1969. This time, renowned documentarians Albert and David Maysles came along to make what would eventually become one of the most startling examples of serendipitous creativity ever seen, Gimme Shelter.

The changes in the Stones' demeanor and stature are obvious throughout the film. In one particularly telling moment, Jagger can be glimpsed during a recording session (for Sticky Fingers) drinking freely from a bottle of J&B scotch. While it's entirely possible that the behavior is not new, it's also symbolic. The Rolling Stones had finally become The Rolling Stones, the "greatest rock 'n' roll band in the world," and that sort of stature demands some concessions. They had, after all, a reputation to uphold.

So, the 1969 tour was designed to show the world that the Stones were the preeminent rock band of the era. And since the Beatles were (almost) history, who could argue? The whole spectacle was set to culminate in a free outdoor concert at Altamont Speedway in San Francisco, ground zero for the peace and love movement. Mick Jagger himself can be heard early in the film stating that the Altamont show would be "an example to the rest of the world of how nice people can behave in large groups." What happened instead, with the Hell's Angels generally wreaking havoc and eventually committing homicide, is well documented and roundly condemned. It's thus tempting to say, as many critics have, that the '60s began, or at least peaked, with Woodstock and came to a crashing halt at Altamont. The whole thing wraps up nice and tidy, and the culture moves jaded into the '70s. Such a view is not only pitifully reductive, it's wholly inaccurate. It's not that nothing happened after Altamont, it's that what happened after Altamont was nothing.

Hunter S. Thompson, America's literary equivalent of the Stones, summed it up nicely in 1972 in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:

There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning...So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look west, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

And here is why Cocksucker Blues is so much more than just a rockumentary or a Stones tour film or a peek into the seamy underworld of rock sleaze. Where Sympathy for the Devil is a study in the wide-open possibility of the late '60s and Gimme Shelter is conclusive visual proof that the whole thing had already come to a halt before many people were willing to admit it, Cocksucker Blues is a blatant, no-punches-pulled account of the dirty nihilistic impulse which inevitably arises after the death of idealism. From the first moment to the last, Cocksucker Blues is both formally and topically free of pretensions. There are no grandiose pronouncements, no attempts to organize a gathering of the tribes, almost no attention paid to craft and Frank's direction takes the hand-held, sync-sound aesthetic to an extreme, which seems to suggest that artlessness was the new artistic frontier.

By this point, the Stones had already cross-pollinated into the film world on a variety of occasions. Jagger was dabbling in movie stardom (1970 found him cavorting in Donald Cammel's Performance), and the regular presence of a documentarian can hardly be called a coincidence. If the 1969 tour was a major musical event and cultural landmark, the 1972 tour was a roving Playboy mansion. Truman Capote and Andy Warhol have cameos, and hangers-on have nearly as much screen time as the Stones themselves. And yet it's a Rolling Stones tour, and there's no party without a host.

What the Stones were able to do is have the foresight to recognize that the spectacle had superseded the craft and the best art would be conscious of the new dynamic. One need only look a few years down the road to see just how right they were. The prog-rock renaissance, with its bloated melodrama, was just on the horizon, and books like Fear and Loathing would document the fallout that was the '70s with painful eloquence.

Interestingly, Godard foreshadowed this very mood in Sympathy. The intercut scenes in that film are hard to peg as to the tongue-in-cheek factor, but it's likely that, from afar, he could see the degeneration already underway. The film's narrator has the last word: "I've got to get out of here." Cocksucker Blues is what happens when one not only doesn't get out, but goes even deeper. If there's no hope left, why not just go crazy?

Which is precisely why the lockbox policy on Cocksucker Blues is such a shame. There seems to be no willingness on the part of the cultural opinion-makers to reconsider the '60s. This likely has everything to do with the fact that the same people who now control the history of that time are the people who would have the most to lose if the veil were removed. Cocksucker Blues not only removes the veil, it celebrates with a ceremonial burning. It's irrefutable evidence that, if anything, Woodstock and Altamont are footnotes to a larger story. At no time before or since has there been such a rich confluence of film, music and culture with such broad implications. Cocksucker Blues is the part of that history we'd most like to forget and most need to remember.

Afterwards, of course, most of the central figures of the time eventually either died or moved into a quiet sellout, but the Stones remained front and center, not only persevering but capitalizing. But after Exile (and Cocksucker), they never quite reached the plateau again. One need only contemplate the Bridges to Babylon tour to see that, then as now, the Stones are American culture, for better or worse, from the Maysles brothers to Robert Frank to Imax.