The Ultimate Rock ‘n’ Roll Bootleg

June 2014

It sounds like a fantasy, akin to a supergroup line up: A Robert Frank documentary of the Rolling Stones on the road? It's out there, although you might have heard only of it as myth - without a bootleg, a dodgy internet stream or the now unlikely presence of Frank himself, you are not going to see it.

To Robert Frank I now give this message: You got eyes.

-Jack Kerouac

As a documentary filmmaker, I always get asked what my favorite film in the genre is – a paralysing question, often followed by an awkward pause as I rack my brain for the right and best answer. Film titles swirl and arrive  – Don’t Look Back, San Soleil, The War Game, Titticut Follies – then disappear back into the cranial fog. More recently, one choice that I often find myself returning to that raises a few eyebrows followed by a coy request to repeat myself is Robert Frank’s Cocksucker Blues.

Oh, where can I get my cock sucked

Where can I get my ass fucked?

I may have no money

But I know where to put it every time

-Mick Jagger, lyrics to “Cocksucker Blues”

By 1970, The Stones wanted out. Requiring one more single to get released from Decca Records, Jagger offered a proper rockstar fuck-you to their label with a song officially titled “Schoolboy Blues” also known as “Cocksucker Blues”. It goes without saying that a single about a young man coming down to London’s Leicester Square to get schooled in sodomy never made it to the airwaves. Greater hopes were placed on the film of the same name. By 1972, The Stones had emerged from tax exile in France ready to put the nightmare of Altamont – dubbed rock ‘n’ roll’s worst day in history and the final curtain on the hippie era – behind them. They had their own new label, a new record (Exile on Main Street), and the siren call of stacks of cash from an upcoming American tour. Their affinity for drugs and debauchery, however, was harder to shake.

Enter Swiss-born photographer Robert Frank, the man championed by the Beats who had captured that crazy feeling in America with his 1959 book of photographs, The Americans. With a Guggenheim grant, a used Ford, and a Leica, Frank hit the road.  Across 48 states, he lensed a dark, kaleidoscopic vision of the country’s underbelly. I remember when I first encountered the book as a photography student, and it blew me away with its raw and personal depiction of the private melancholy and angst of everyday people that would explode in blood and protest as the decade turned over. Hated by the art world and described as “sick”, The Americans went on to inspire a generation of photographers all gone to look for America in all its sublime madness. Frank first worked with the Stones on the cover art for Exile on Main Street, inspired by a tattoo parlor wall. From there, Jagger hired Frank to go on the road and document the band reconquering North America. The result has been buried for over 35 years. Not by the censors, but the band themselves.

As any musician knows, life on tour can be hell. In Cocksucker, Frank provides no narration, exposition or context for the monotonous and vacant journey through the labyrinth of airports, anonymous hotels, and American stadiums. Shot mostly in black and white on Super 8mm, the bad trip is expressed through his use of jagged, collagist montage and long takes, alienating your sense of time and space. He also left cameras lying around for anyone to pick and film, enhancing the disjointed texture of the enterprise (in one scene, there is a close-up of a hand fumbling around in a crotch. Cut to Mick Jagger holding a camera filming himself in a ceiling mirror.) Along the way, Frank captures fragments that would go on to become the visual template for the outlaw rock bandon the road narrative.  Mick snorts cocaine from a knife backstage to get hyped up for a performance. Keith tosses a television set out a hotel window, and conducts a hilariously muddled negotiation with room service for a bowl of fruit. Mick Taylor wanders through a hotel room looking to score. A distant, sullen Bianca Jagger winds a music box over and over. Celebrities like Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, and Lee Radziwill gladhand backstage.

At several points, the film cuts into live concert footage of the Stones. These vivid performances beg us to forgive all the egotism, monotony, and decadence. Full of velvet, primal colors and sonic fury, Jagger comes alive and prances around like a demonic tap dancer, while Keith thrashes on the guitar with electric glee. For the band as much as the viewer, the bursts of relief unfortunately are only sporadic and temporary.

Ultimately, the heart of the movie is not the members of the Stones, but the catalogue of degenerates, drug dealers, and hanger-ons that follow in the band’s wake. When Frank moves away from the musicians to the margins of the drugged-out scenery, he discovers both black humor and profound sadness. He interviews a Stones fan on the street who bemoans losing custody of her baby due to drug use and argues incredulously, “…she was born on acid.” Snorting cocaine in a hotel room, one man tells another,  “I don’t think it’s possible to develop a habit.” At one point, Frank pans over to his soundman for a slate only to find him drugged out and swaying, high on heroin.

Shortly before Cocksucker Blues was to be released to the public in November 1972, fearing they would never be allowed back in the US again, Jagger and The Stones sued to have the film suppressed. A judge ruled in the Stone’s favor, but allowed the film to be screened four times a year but only if Robert Frank was in attendance. Since then, VHS bootlegs have circulated and, more recently, illegal streams have become available on the web. With Frank turning 89 this year, and the Stones aggressively producing and carefully curating their own legacy through more tasteful collaborations with the likes of Martin Scorsese (Shine A Light), Cocksucker Blues paradoxically becomes more valuable as a cultural artifact the more precipitately it seems to fall off the cultural map. A rare 16mm print of the film was recently obtained by a book collector, Peter Harrington, who sold it for £25,000. While Cocksucker Blues may not be the best documentary ever made, the film is that rare antidote to today’s endless parade of sanitized, stage-managed portraits of musicians and celebrities. Frank’s film demystifies the glamour of music and drugs and shows the Stones at their most lewd and vital, before they became a parody of themselves. In other words, Cocksucker Blues may be rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest bootleg.