Thursday, September 3, 2009

Why Cocksucker Blues Matters!

You might notice from the title of my blog, and this post, I'm a big Rolling Stones fan! The former are my interpretation to the lyrics of the infamous 1969 song Midnight Rambler from Let it Bleed. (A bit like Tarantino taking the title to his Reservoir Dogs from the garbled mispronunciation of Louis Malle's Au Revoir Les Enfants. In my case, the actual lyrics are "the knife sharpened tippy toe", but 'Night Stalkin' just sounded better.) Of course, it's a great, dark tune loosely based on the Boston Strangler, Anthony DeSalvo, and sounds great in the studio version and of course on The Stones great live album Get yer Ya Ya's out. But if you really wanna hear the song in all it's intense, ferocity then I refer you to the concert film Ladies & Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones, which is plucked from two shows in Texas on the infamous 1972 tour of North America aka The Stones Touring Party or STP. The Stones were never better, at the peak of their powers and in their prime. Unfortunately, due to them extricating themselves from Allen Klein's ABKCO label they were unable to release any live material officially from 1970 to 1977 where we get the flaccid Love You Live!(This got solved a few years back as they started releasing great concerts via Eagle Vision as part of their "From the Vault": everything from the aforementioned Ladies & Gents to LA Forum 1975, '81 Hampton Roads, VA, to the Marquee Club 1971.)

This brings us to the title of this particular blog and the other legendary film, Cocksucker Blues, documenting the '72 tour by famous photographer Robert Frank (The Americans- classic photo essay). Mr. Frank also shot the haunting cover for the Stones classic Exile on Main Street. Now this isn't a great document of rock and roll or outsiders touring America a la Tocqueville or Henri Bernard Levy because you see the Stones groupies behaving badly on their private jet, nor because we see Keith rolling up a dollar bill to snort some lines w/ Mick before a MSG show, nor because Keith and sax player Bobby Keys throw a TV out the window, nor because we see the film sound man Daniel Seymour and trumpet player Jimmy Price boot up some dope w/ a junked out groupie. Nor because we hear the classic stoned out ramblings of a heroin dealer extolling the virtues of smack and proposing a tomb to the "Unknown Junkie." Or, another scene in which Keith slumps into the lap of a groupie as he descends into an heroin induced slumber... (This prior scene is inter cut w/ celebrity icons such as Andy Warhol, Lee Radizwill, and Truman Capote who famously said Mick Jagger was about as sexy as a pissing toad, all surrounding Ahmet Erhtegen as he held court backstage.) But, rather it's the quiet moments where we get to see the odd vagaries of these Englishmen roaming the US countryside.
There's one moment where the boys decide to dispense w/ the jet and large entourage and travel by a few station wagons through the south and stop at a few pool halls and enter into a impromptu jam session w/ some old black blues players. On this little jaunt Mick extols the virtues of the little greasy spoon diners in the South saying you can get a much better meal at any local dive than you can in most eateries in the UK. There's another particularly hilarious moment where Keith is trying to order some fresh fruit via room service in a southern hotel which is a bit of a comedy of errors. The operating insisting the strawberries "come by the order". Keith suggests, "just use your discretion and bring something up," he finally good- naturedly grumbles, "my this is too complicated!" There's another priceless moment early in the film which documents that particularly American brand of capitalism in the form of ticket scalping! All along in the background are the pangs of US involvement in Vietnam, George Wallace's assasination attempt, and the '72 campaign between Nixon and McGovern. This is all put together in a sloppily, beautiful style by Frank, using some of his thematic devices from his other underground classic about the beat poets, Pull My Daisy! The film is certainly not refined technically nor particularly accomplished. In one endearing moment when Frank and crew are shooting a print interview w/ Mick and Keith, Franks camera pans over to Seymour to get a few taps on the microphone to make sure they keep sync. Somehow, it all just works! There are some wonderful stylistic flourishes early on in the editing rhythms of the film. And as a filmmaker myself who's made two reasonably successful documentaries, Back Home Years Ago: The Real Casino, and Warriors of the Discotheque: the Starck Club Documentary (plenty more on both of these later!) Anyhow, as a filmmaker my appreciation grows for Frank's wonderful hybrid of a film, not really a documentary per see, more cinema verite' inspired, but almost a free flowing mosaic of a film that just kind of washes over you. Jim Jarmusch famously said Cocksucker Blues was the best film ever about rock and roll and he borrowed liberally from it for his own doc on Neil Young and Crazy horse.

If you're just looking for a straight up doc on the Stones, then this won't be you cup of tea, but if you're a little more adventurous, then this is worth it. Lastly, the Stones weren't so thrilled w/ what Frank came up w/ and wanted to scrap the film altogether. Instead, they cut a deal w/ Frank so that once a year he can screen the film publicly. Special screenings of the film have shown up in Paris, New York City, and even Minneapolis at the Walker art center.

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