Published Jan 16, 2014At the tail end of perhaps the most extraordinary run of record releases in rock'n'roll history, The Rolling Stones were simultaneously at the height of their powers and approaching the zenith of their decadence. Between 1968 and 1972 the Stones had dropped Beggars Banquet, Let it Bleed, Get Your Ya-Yas Out, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street, perfect records all. Along the way they virtually invented the archetype for the modern "rock star" by drinking, drugging, and fucking their way across Western Europe and North America while singing about violence, sin, sex, dope, and the Devil. They were famous, imitated and adored, even though (and partly because) they left a trail of destruction in their wake. They were simply producing music so world-beatingly good that they could back up their bravado, their excess, their arrogance and foolishness at every turn.
But, behind the bulletproof mythology, behind the epic stage shows, the Stones were a mess. Keith Richards was deep into a heroin habit, Mick was drifting toward megalomania, and Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman were so vacant they wandered around backstage like wind-up toys. The lore associated with the 1972 Exile on Main Street tour is a whirlwind of cocaine, needle drugs, Jack Daniels and naked groupies, a messy and debauched orgy of hedonistic overindulgence.
It seems that the band thought you might. As the tour got underway, the Stones hired filmmaker Robert Frank to make a documentary of the tour. He would be allowed backstage, in hotel rooms, on the private plane…pretty much everywhere. The resulting film — entitled Cocksucker Blues after the deliberately un-releasable song of the same name Mick Jagger penned as a contractual-obligation-fulfilling kiss-off to Decca Records — is a staggering achievement of direct cinema intimacy and curtain-raising. Allowed to film everything from heroin-stupors to ejaculate-covered groupies to wanton destruction of property to what looks alarmingly like a sexual assault, Frank came up with the definitive portrait of rocker chauvinism and scumbaggery.
Which is probably why the Stones, upon seeing Frank's final cut, filed an injunction in court to try and keep Cocksucker Blues from being shown to the public. They won, and as part of the ruling Frank was only allowed to show the film four times a year with the extra proviso that he had to be present. The result is that almost no one has seen this, perhaps the greatest film about rock'n'roll stardom that has ever been made.
It should be noted that those looking for a concert film may be let down — there is no more than 15 minutes of music footage here — although when Stevie Wonder joins the band for a take on "Uptight" that segues into a STAX-ish "Satisfaction," everyone will be dancing in their seats. And the version of the menacing, deeply rape-y Midnight Rambler is perhaps the best you'll ever hear, even if the song (with its "stick my knife right down your throat and baby it hurts" horror show lyrics) puts you off as it does me. But, even with only a taste of the music here and there, one gets the distinct sense that in spite of all the backstage shambling, this was an intensely hot tour.
Although most of the legend surrounding Cocksucker Blues emphasizes the lurid party scenes that punctuate the picture — the naked, spread-legged, cum-sprayed woman chatting nonchalantly direct to camera is pretty unavoidable, post-film-discussion-wise — the tedious hurry-up-and-wait of the rock'n'roll tour is the real subject of the film. Much of the 93-minute runtime is given over to shots of various band members looking bored, drawn, sitting around with nothing to do. We listen in as Keith Richards tries to order fruit to his hotel room, for example. We observe Mick and his wife Bianca killing time by listening to a tinkling music box over and over again. The genius of the film lies as much in its honest depiction of tedium as in its frank exposure of the holy shit naked drug orgies that pop up from time to time.
According to the buzzing critics at the press screening I attended, the last time Cocksucker Blues played Toronto was 1984. It will be screened for the public one night only, on January 17th, at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox. Mark it down. You don't want to miss this.