The Great Lost Rolling Stones Documentary Is Now a Museum Piece

The odd fate of rock's rawest footage

It must say something about something that Cocksucker Blues, the Rolling Stones’ never-released 1972 tour documentary, which has existed mainly as a salacious rumor for 40 years, was screened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art on Thursday night, as part of a Stones film retrospective.

Bootlegged bits of the movie have surfaced over the years, and the whole thing was illicitly posted a few months back on YouTube, where it looks cruddy. So at MoMA, I was expecting vintage junk. But seeing the picture on a big screen was, it must be said, a revelation. Apart from the hot stuff of legend—the desultory smack-shooting, the raw groupie-banging—the movie’s real subject is the exhaustion and monotony of life on the road, and the exhilaration of those few hours onstage every night that make it all, or almost, worthwhile. The film’s technical cruddiness might almost be a formal strategy—the drugged-out rhythms draw us in and slowly work us over.

For those who may think of the Rolling Stones—if they think of them at all—as a superannuated joke at this point, it’s instructive to be reminded what a powerful band they were. And how, as we see here, they transformed not just pop music, but the pop-music business.

After the group’s original lineup solidified in early 1963 with the addition of Charlie Watts to the core unit of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones and Bill Wyman, the band signed with Decca Records—an old-line British label that had passed on the Beatles the year before, and wasn’t about to be caught looking stupid a second time. The Stones started scoring hits right out of the gate, and broke through worldwide in 1965 with “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” The hits kept getting bigger—“Paint It Black,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Honky Tonk Women”—and the Stones, marketed as a sort of anti-Beatles, began forging a new template for the rock-star lifestyle: concert riots, pot busts, even a dab of jail time. It was a big deal back then, but I’ll bore you no more.

The band’s contract with Decca expired in 1970, and the Stones were ready to break free and start their own label. Before they could, though, Decca reminded them that they owed the company one last single. Irritated, no doubt, the group turned in a track called “Cocksucker Blues,” which was of course immediately shelved. (Bootlegs, if it need be said, can still be found.)

One of the earliest scenes in Cocksucker Blues, the movie, shows Jagger bent over a piano in some anonymous hotel room, plonking away at this very song. The scene is being captured by Robert Frank, a Swiss-born photographer and experimental filmmaker with connections to Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and, thus, serious avant-garde cred. The Stones had invited Frank to document their latest tour—the first since their 1969 outing, which had ended in a bonfire of bad vibes at the Altamont Speedway in Northern California. Frank brought along noisy 16mm cameras, some of which he reportedly left lying around for the use of anyone who felt inspired to preserve the tour’s endless, soul-draining downtime.

And here it all comes: the giggling groupies being relieved of their clothes in the front of the band’s private jet; the naked woman sprawled on a bed with her legs splayed and her chest covered with what appears to be semen, chattering directly to the camera. We see a number of people quietly shooting heroin, and, in a classic moment, Keith Richards slowly nodding out on a backstage bench in the lap of a groupie, who soon slumps over, too. In the fan world outside one concert, we meet a hard-bitten woman who tells us her baby was taken away from her because of her heavy use of LSD. She finds this unfair: “He was born on acid,” she says.

It should be noted here that an introductory message at the beginning of the film claims that what we’re seeing is fictitious. That it was all…what, staged? Whatever. Anyone who has whiled away dead hours in the company of nattering drug monkeys, or encountered women who will happily get down, not with the stars, but with the crew, will recognize what’s going on here as real-world behavior.

The Stones’ 1972 tour was more than just the traditional record promotion (in this case for their new album, Exile on Main Street). It was a celebration of the new rock-star high life—a garish weave of low-rent rock and roll and high-society interloping. Champagne flows, bottles of Jack and endless joints pass back and forth, star-struck rock journalists wander through asking unbelievably inane questions. Room-service orders founder in druggy incomprehension. Keith Richards drops a TV off a tenth-floor balcony. The air is thick with fatigue and ennui, and no less so when we start spotting the rich and famous of the day: Is that Truman Capote? Andy Warhol? Terry Southern? What’s Dick Cavett doing here? 

The movie bears deadpan witness to all of this, and as we sink into its long takes and slugged pacing, we marvel at the director’s refusal to goose things along with fancy cutting or time-compressing montages. This is what happened, we’re told, and this is how it happened. The drifting enervation is a substantial part of the story.

Which would be a drag, maybe, if that were all there was to the movie. But we get a lot of performance footage, too, and some of it is electrifying. The coverage is old-school: one or two camera positions for the most part. But as the band churns out “Midnight Rambler” and “Happy” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (no “Sympathy for the Devil”—that song was retired after Altamont), you can see the weary cynicism of some of the backstage scenes drain from the musicians’ faces. They’re reaching the outer limits of their youth (Jagger and Richards were both 28 years old on this tour), but they’re not yet capable of faking their love of music. And the sequence in which opening act Stevie Wonder comes out to join the Stones for an encore of Wonder’s “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” is one of the great transporting moments of rock-on-film. Were these brief nightly peaks worth enduring the vast bottomlands of boredom that surrounded them? Hey, probably. Along with the attendant cash avalanches? Is that a question?

(MoMA’s Rolling Stones restrospective, showcasing such films as Gimme Shelter, Rock and Roll Circus, The T.A.M.I. Show, and Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil, runs through December 2.)

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Ice Nine||

    Stevie Wonder opening for the Stones? Gross.

  • ||

    Why?

  • Ice Nine||

    Wonder's annoying combination of jazz, melisma and bubblegum is completely incongruous with the Stones' raw, down and dirty rock 'n fucking roll.

  • John||

    You are thinking of Wonder in the 1980s. In the 70s he was not that at all. Songs like Superstitious and Higher Ground were great.

  • Ken Shultz||

    The music was great, and the lyrics are great.

    "When you believe in things
    that you don't understand,
    then you suffer."

  • Suellington||

    Who doubts that Stevie was fucking incredible?

    http://m.youtube.com/index?#/watch?v=H7HmzwI67ec

  • ||

    Raw ignorance of music is what you got.

    There's a reason the Stones invited Stevie to play with them and respected the hell out of him.

    The guy's a monster.

    And they fucking knew it.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Wonder was brilliant. Love the Stones, too.

  • Ken Shultz||

    Hell, the Stones were soon doing disco.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tnJlhBGMiis

    What's wrong with some funk or soul opening up for the Stones?

  • John||

    Yeah. The Stones were great lovers of soul and funk. Ike and Tina opened up for them a lot too.

  • Sam Grove||

    A stoner friend went to see the Stones in DC with opening act Stevie Wonder. He came back talking about Wonder's performance.

  • Flemur||

    Only if "gross" means the best rock 'n' roll show I've ever seen.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Were these brief nightly peaks worth enduring the vast bottomlands of boredom that surrounded them? Hey, probably.

    What else is there? Jagger could have been a teacher like his old man, but that profession frowns on banging groupies. We all have vast bottomlands of boredom, at least they got the high of performing.

  • Brutus||

    OT - I'm on a Yahoo discussion thread about Citizens United and it's so filled with fail, I'm nearly despondent. Jesus, is the Left fucking insane or what?

  • Brandybuck||

    They're right you know. California under Governor Meg Whitman is now a wasteland.

  • Rights-Minimalist Autocrat||

    I had a discussion yesterday where I questioned the likelihood that the goal of the Tea Party was to make poor people poorer. The things that they will assume as given are mind-boggling.

  • IceTrey||

    If you want insane go on Salon.com.

  • ||

    "Jesus, is the Left fucking insane or what?"

    You have to ask? Oh, wait, that was a rhetorical question.

  • Spokanite||

    This libertarian-Republican alliance is having a much larger impact on the former than the latter.

  • ||

    Not really. Meanwhile though, attempts at a libertarian-Democrat alliance only convince libertarians that the Democrats are insane.

  • Ken Shultz||

    "They’re not yet capable of faking their love of music."

    And it's hard to believe Let it Bleed was just three years before, but then I guess that's an eternity between the ages of 25 and 28.

    It's interesting that tour documentaries always seem to tell the same story. Another State of Mind and Dig! seem to tell the same story, too--on the road, the band tears itself apart.

    In my day, there used to be a lot of discussion about who was a real punk rock band and who wasn't. Touring seems to turn every band into a real punk rock band. Even the Stones before punk rock existed!

  • John||

    Audience network had Charlie is My Darling on a few nights ago. Afterwards Dave Grohl talked to the Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham about the film. And Grohl said the one thing that surprised him was how the crowd was basically a mosh pit and the Stones sounded like a punk version of themselves. Here he had grown up in the 80s going to punk shows and having everyone in front of the stage crawling all over each other thinking they were doing something new, when in fact it was nothing but what happened in the 1960s.

  • Ken Shultz||

    Yeah, it's an old phenomenon--especially for American audiences.

    If you read descriptions of what theaters used to be like in front of the stage at performance during the early 1800s, it was a really rowdy bunch, too.

    Also, mosh pits go at least as far back as the Shakers, and I can prove it:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/F.....ancing.jpg

  • ||

    "...it was nothing but what happened in the 1960s."

    Or the 1860's...or the 1760s.....or the 1260s.....

    I forget, Aristotle or Plato....said 'The only thing new is what is new to you.'

  • Redmanfms||

    I prefer Ecclesiastes 1:9 "There is nothing new under the sun."

  • John||

    It is an interesting movie. The Rolling Stones had been in the blender of 1960s insanity for nearly ten years at that point. Initially when they made it big the fans were so manic that no show lasted more than ten or twenty minutes before a riot broke out. Kieth Richards says to this day he is still terrified by the memories of being chased by packs of ravenous teenage girls looking to tear them apart.

    The Rolling Stones had been working non stop for ten years at that point. They had produced four consecutive master piece records (Beggar's Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street), all while dealing with being the second most famous band in the world and being the target of every cop in the UK. Yeah, they were tired.

    And the people around them were just losers. There is one scene where they are all in cars driving through Alabama and Kieth and Mick are talking about how hot the day is an how long the drive is and Mick says something to the effect, "anything is better than being on that plane with all of those people". Watch this movie and you can see why Richards retreated into drugs. If you had to deal with that kind of fame and that low of a caliber of hangers on, smack would seem like a good option.

  • Invisible Finger||

    Elvis retreated into drugs for the same reason. But for Elvis even the concert stage was no respite.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    Jesus, is the Left fucking insane or what?

    Yes.

    In Montana, a citizen initiative was passed overwhelmingly which directs the Montana delegation to introduce legislation to repeal the First Amendment. Because the slack-jawed hicks cannot be allowed to see any message paid for by evul kkkorporations.

    Some people (that is to say, I) might actually see this as proof of the complete failure of the Montana public education system; sufficient to justify completely de-funding every public school in the state.

  • John||

    That is not retarded. That is evil.

  • IceTrey||

    Since when are slack jawed hicks on the Left?

  • SIV||

    Union snack-cake bakers

  • ΘJΘʃ de águila||

    Also...

  • The Late P Brooks||

    California under Governor Meg Whitman is now a wasteland.

    Soylent Green is PEOPLE!

  • Robert||

    But is it GOOD people?

  • Ted S.||

    but I’ll bore you no more.

    And yet you went on for seven more paragraphs. :-p

  • amelia||

    Sniff. Want to see.

  • Flemur||

    Download it here (1:34, 700M):
    veehd dot com slash video slash 4714696_cocksucker-blues-rolling-stones-1972-avi

  • amelia||

    Hey, thank you!

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement