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