Review by Katherine Follett
Posted on 26 February 2008
Source bootleg DVD
Before the Internet (thanks, Al Gore!) you couldn’t see Cocksucker Blues. Even though the Rolling Stones themselves had commissioned this intimate documentary of their 1972 tour for Exile on Main Street, the result was so raw and uncomplimentary that they refused permission for its release. Eventually, it was negotiated that the film could be screened once a year, with the stipulation that the director, Robert Frank, be there at each showing (presumably to periodically clear his throat and awkwardly mutter, “That’s not my hand.”). Before Bittorrent, it was the forbidden, it was sin, it was legendary.
As a friend of mine once said, “If people don’t know the whole story, they use some very colorful crayons to fill in the details.” Everything I’d heard before seeing the film led me to expect titillation, shock, voyeurism. Hammer of the Gods notwithstanding, this is supposed to be the ultimate record of true rock debauchery. This was the pinnacle, before anyone really knew that cocaine was addictive, before AIDS, before Kurt Cobain’s feminist anti-rock-star pose made such hedonism temporarily unfashionable.
Not only that, but I frikking love rock stars. Floppy-haired indie-rock boys with skinny pants and vintage guitars inexplicably make my heart go pitter-patter. I couldn’t wait to see what really went on backstage, or what might happen if I let my inner groupie run wild. At the very least, it would afford an insight into the mentality of the people who do let it run wild. Maybe I would finally figure out what’s so endlessly appealing about unshaven guys with lots of audio equipment.
Not that I wasn’t a little cynical. But I was surprised at just how depressing the film ended up being. Part of this might be because the quality is so poor (both because it has undoubtedly deteriorated over generations of bootlegging and because its hand-held wobbliness resembles nothing so much as YouTube concert footage shot on someone’s cell phone) that you can barely tell what happens. You see a strange smudge in a bowl… it could be heroin, could be pot, could be soup, could be an apple core, or just a pattern in the bowlÑhell, the “bowl” could be someone’s upturned hat. My imagination, always on the lookout for smack and snatch, had to fill in the sordid details even while I was watching the real thing. The disjointed cuts and editing only enhance the murkiness of the film. Audio is matched to unrelated images (occasionally to powerful effect, other times not). There are cuts between one banal shot and another, back and forth so quickly that you can’t quite make out what’s going on, if anything. It feels a little like a music video, twenty years ahead of its time. Unfortunately, I’m of the school that believes music video has been generally detrimental to film technique, especially in less-than-adept hands. (Supposedly, the film crew left loaded cameras lying around for anyone to pick up; many hands on this film weren’t even sober, much less adept.) The film’s feel is distinctly homemade, and not in a good way. Whether this was to increase the sense of being truly “behind the scenes,” a hippie/punk intentional amateurishness, or actual incompetence, I’m not sure. Regardless of the intention, the technique made me a little car sick and the movie that much less enjoyable.
But whatever artistic statement Frank wanted to make with his technique, and whether he succeeded or not, the point is less the form and more the content. There is, in fact, everything you’d expect, imagine, fear, or hope from rock stars at the top of their game. Drugs, T & A, celebrity cameos, TVs accelerating earthwards at 32 feet per second per second. But it all ends up being a lot less cool than it sounds.
Obviously, groupie sex isn’t going to please many people’s sensibilities. But I certainly came prepared to understand the impulse. I’d probably be willing to spend an evening with my rock star crush du jour in the unlikely event that he were willing. But even from the perspective of sex-positive feminism, the modern ethical slut, the girls seem kind of empty and unhappy. The infamous (and possibly staged) orgy-at-30,000-feet felt especially dull and cheapened. In the background, Mick and Keith made musical accompaniment on some maracas and a tambourine, and when the festivities were over, Keith glanced at the camera and made an unmistakable “cut” gesture, as though he were the director of an unusually low-fi porno. He seemed about as interested. I knew rock stars were only using groupies. Duh. But I at least figured they used groupies for sex, for a good time. Instead, they were using women as some sort of numbing entertainment. It didn’t feel like the groupies were committing debauchery alongside the guys; they were obviously, and possibly grudgingly, the objects of debauchery, being thrown around like so many hotel TVs or platters of cold cuts. It seemed like a lot less fun for all parties involved.
The drug scenes, too, end up feeling more tired and dull than anything else. Admittedly, watching somebody use drugs is about as exciting as watching somebody listen to music over headphones—drugs are only interesting for the nervous systems involved. But it almost never seemed like anybody was having a particularly good time in. Drug ingestion was often followed by a few zonked, anonymous people exchanging interminable anecdotes or simply staring, staring out the window. God, I thought to myself, am I that lame when I’m high?
One critic pointed out that these rock and roll clichés were not yet clichés in 1972, that the Rolling Stones were the originals. Admittedly, there seems to be a certain astonishment among some of the participants, a small thrill of novelty. And yet already, most of the Rolling Stones themselves seem to be playing the role of the debauched rock stars because that’s what they’re supposed to do. People seem to be snorting coke, balling groupies, or tossing TVs like they saw it all somewhere before. The fact that many of these shenanigans were staged for the camera – and the fact that the players are conscious of being filmed at all times – says a lot. These fakes went on to inspire copycats for generations. God, what a despondent irony.
But what was most depressing about Cocksucker Blues was the fact that I found myself utterly numbed to the attractive power of any member of the Rolling Stones. I usually agree with Truman Capote, who once remarked that Mick Jagger can be “about as sexy as a pissing toad,” and my vision of the Rolling Stones is forever clouded by their craven, shark-jumping later years. But if the strutting, cocksure frontman pouting his best in 1972 can’t do it for me, then something is wrong. Perhaps it’s watching him cram his impossibly skinny ass into a spangled jumpsuit, ascot, and hat that looks suspiciously like a propeller beanie that really brought home the extent of the artifice of performance. Perhaps it’s the vision of Keith Richards nodding out on a backstage locker-room bench. Or it could simply be the lamentable deterioration of the already poor sound quality. But I think when you get right down to it, it’s the fact that every member of the Rolling Stones looks pretty miserable. They’re bored, jaded, and exhausted. And “miserable,” “bored,” “jaded,” and “exhausted” are at least in the top ten, if not the top five, on my list of adjectives I’d rather not apply to potential sex partners. And the poor groupies! It isn’t even a miserable, bored, jaded, exhausted Mick Jagger or Keith Richards throwing them over his shoulder. It’s one of the unnamed horn players, roadies, or innumerable hangers-on that always seem to get the most action in this sordid, sad little world.
In fact, a good portion of the film, maybe more than half, spends time with these hangers-on instead of with the band. Nobody tells us who these people are, why they’re there, what anybody is doing. The only people whose presence you can explain are the Rolling Stones themselves (and to a person born in 1978, Keith Richards looking un-ravaged is almost unrecognizable anyway). But who is the guy with the beret and the mustache who spends all his time shooting up with a hauntingly beautiful girl whose only claim to fame is a barely comprehensible story about exchanging jewelry with Keith Richards? The guy filming the post-coital groupie smoking a J? (Good lord, they loved them some bush in the 70s!) These people don’t contribute anything to the tour, or even seem to end up in the same room as the band, yet there they are. The entourage has gained its own momentum, and eventually, the people at the center become MacGuffins. Viewing Cocksucker Blues from the present day, it doesn’t matter much that the film is about the Rolling Stones. It could have been Zepplin, Guns n’ Roses, Marilyn Manson, Limp Bizkit, or anyone big enough to acquire sluts and drug dealers (which is basically anyone). It makes me think that even if these were musicians whom I loved and respected, I would still be disappointed.
The only time when you know for damn sure that this is the Rolling Stones and no one else is the concert footage. Most reviewers describe these performances as the highlight of the film, which they are, relatively. But some shows still left me unsatisfied. The costumes were a bit silly, the hand-held camera work jittery and hard to parse, the crowd a mostly unfilmed, invisible roar of noise. Many of the shows felt less like raw rock & roll and more like shows, like theater (not that that isn’t entertaining, but it isn’t what I came for). Some felt a little like the Rolling Stones of more recent decades, when you basically get a bunch of old, wealthy men playing the part of Mick, Keith, Bill, Charlie, and Other Mick. It made me want to see Gimmie Shelter, the pre-Altamont, pre-Beatles-breaking-up-and-surrendering-the-rock n’ roll-crown, pre-70s Stones. There were a few transcendent moments when it seemed that the musicians lost themselves in their art. And in those few moments, I remembered that I love live music and musicians and the whole excessive shtick. But a few seconds later and you’re in the underground car park of a stadium in Alabama while dozens of guys with cameras mill around, filming a Winnebago that sweeps in to scoop up the band members and send them off to stare at another round of televisions in double-queen occupancy hotel rooms while the entourage gets high and gets laid.
It all ended up reminding me of the one time in normal life when there was such crushing boredom, such rampant drug use, such desperate horniness: high school. When was the last time you heard of someone throwing appliances just for fun, rumors of the girl who would get high and do anything—anything, or people being so self-absorbed and self-conscious as to film their every rehearsed move? A rock tour, I’m not the first to point out, is an extended adolescence, all hormones and cheap weed. Everybody involved is trapped in a high-school-like bubble of scheduled emptiness, of isolation from the real world, of dependence on others for everything (food, lodging, transport, even the simple opportunity to perform) except their own ability to distract themselves. The Rolling Stones are like nothing so much as the football quarterbacks in an extremely privileged prep school. And like all alphas who are worshipped, over-indulged, and bored, they resort to debauchery and taking advantage of pretty people with poor judgment. And, like all alphas everywhere, I can’t stand the sight of them.
Paul Graham, the essayist and programmer, writes a brilliant analysis of high school and adolescence on his web site. He blames the debauchery of adolescence not on hormones or puberty, as parents often do, but on the structure of the society in which teenagers find themselves:
I’m suspicious of this theory that thirteen-year-old kids are intrinsically messed up. If it’s physiological, it should be universal. Are Mongol nomads all nihilists at thirteen? I’ve read a lot of history, and I have not seen a single reference to this supposedly universal fact before the twentieth century… As far as I can tell, the concept of the hormone-crazed teenager is coeval with suburbia. I don’t think this is a coincidence. I think teenagers are driven crazy by the life they’re made to lead. Teenage apprentices in the Renaissance were working dogs. Teenagers now are neurotic lapdogs. Their craziness is the craziness of the idle everywhere. […] I think the important thing about the real world is not that it’s populated by adults, but that it’s very large, and the things you do have real effects. That’s what school, prison, and ladies-who-lunch all lack. The inhabitants of all those worlds are trapped in little bubbles where nothing they do can have more than a local effect. Naturally these societies degenerate into savagery. They have no function for their form to follow.
This observation resonates profoundly with the touring life of a rock band. Their status isn’t going to be affected much, no matter how bad their behavior; the real world is an untouchable vision behind a curtain of press, hangers-on, rabid fans, drugs, special favors, and relentless traveling; over the basics of their lives (where they are, who they’re with, most of what they do), they have no control. So what do they do to pass the time? Anything. Everything. And when you give bored, trapped people an endless number of minions to do their bidding, the natural human impulse is to test just how low the other person is willing to wallow. If you give people idleness and power without consequences, they become bullies. This isn’t partying. It isn’t fun sex between equals. It’s bukakke. It’s prison sex. It’s depressing.
If I breathlessly whispered to you a description of a secret, unreleased film about the lives of wealthy 17-year-old private-school boys in the suburbs of Chicago, you probably wouldn’t imagine lavish, titillating fun. You’d fully expect juvenilia, hopelessness, and elaborate wankery. Yet when we finally see Cocksucker Blues, we’re surprised. What’s more surprising about Cocksucker Blues, and about rock stars and the rock n’ roll myth in general, is that its reputation remains exciting, despite the fact that most people who’ve been there describe it as a slow hell. I had heard this cynicism. And yet something about music, about rock stars, remained so attractive that I still hoped for Cocksucker Blues to be an adventure. After watching this film, I’m no closer to knowing why I like rock stars; in fact, I’m now a bit baffled. Maybe I don’t want to know. Maybe I prefer to imagine the fantasy version: people who are enormously attractive, carefree, pleasure-loving, maybe even somewhat fulfilled. Because the real alternative – a bunch of bored, miserable, perpetually adolescent bullies – are people I gladly left behind when I left high school. Maybe I should take a small joy in watching Cocksucker Blues. My life contains more pleasure, purpose, and fun than any rock star’s.