Cocksucker Blues: Globe and Mail review

Note: This was written for publication in January 2014, on the occasion of a public screening at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox of Robert Frank’s Cocksucker Blues.

(Robert Frank, USA, 1972): Nothing looms quite like something you can’t see, and in the forty-two years since Robert Frank shot his verité documentary account of the Rolling Stones North American tour of 1972, CS Blues has taken on the aura of a blackly magical and decidedly mysterious forbidden artefact. Blocked from release by the band when they observed the descent into unchecked debauchery Frank — the renowned Swiss Beat-era still photographer who had designed the photo-collage cover of Exile on Main St. — had captured with his deftly unobtrusive 16mm camera, the movie is possibly the most incessantly bootlegged, hungrily sought after and, it now seems, most thoroughly misunderstood film in rock movie history.

Permitted only single screenings once per year in particular cities where the filmmaker has been present — although Frank, now 89, is not expected to appear at the film’s Toronto screening, presented as part of the TIFF Cinematheque’s Free Screen series today at 6:30 p.m. at the Bell Lightbox — the movie takes both its proper title (which in part sounds a lot like ‘cork shucker’) and its tone from a song about dissolute gay hustling Mick Jagger composed to render the band’s contract with Decca Records null. If the song, never officially released, occupies the mournful place where desire has been corrupted, hope abandoned and the soul ruined by the body’s wholesale surrender to fleeting pleasure, CS Blues is that state configured as one of the most beautifully listless, dreamily anesthetized and utterly unsensational rock docs ever made. The rampant drug use, wanton groupie abuse and gratuitously defenestrated hotel TV sets notwithstanding, Frank’s movie is about fame as a supreme drag and protracted state of existential limbo, a condition perhaps best captured by the recurring sight of a junked-out Keith Richards nodding off into habitual oblivion.

Since arriving on the mid-’50s global cultural scene with The Americans, a book of photographs that depicted Eisenhower’s domestic empire as a sprawling kingdom of grim, flyover loneliness, Frank had become famous for his jaundiced but immaculate stranger’s eye view of America, and this was precisely what his lens regarded when the Rolling Stones embarked on their first American tour since the debacle (so famously captured in the Maysles’ bookend verité exercise Gimme Shelter) at Altamont Speedway, at which a fan was killed by Hell’s Angels security goons on camera, in December, 1969. If that movie marked the end of the myth of the Stones as a people’s rock band — or, as has been widely suggested, the end of the sixties dream of peaceful universal co-existence — CS Blues is a cold report from the other side of the castle wall: this is what living inside the fame fortress is really like, where the insulation from fans, immersion in perpetual indulgence, and life lived as a holding pattern between performance — which were, it must be said, still as exciting as any in rock history — seemingly verifies the Devil’s pact sung about in Sympathy for the Devil, where the price of fame, wealthy and beauty is the soul laid to waste.

If the Stones were horrified by what they saw — and that’s how the story goes — what is now clearer than ever is that they were right to be, and not because of the cheaply sensational images of naked groupies, Mick playing trouser billiards, or drugs being consumed at an industrial level, it’s because their lives look so pathetically, fundamentally and irredeemably sad. Whether it’s Richards’ perpetual nodding off, Jagger’s world-class yawn, Bianca’s transfixed stare at a music box playing “Oh How We Danced”, or novice member Mick Taylor’s poetic pronouncement upon entering a room of naked smack-takers (“I’ve never seen a hotel room blessed with such limpid ecstasy”), the story told here is of the kind of living death that fame imposes, and the implicit revelation, much more subversive than smack or groupie sex, that it sucks to be a Stone.

Unfolding largely in such transient zones as hotel rooms, dressing rooms, airports, airplanes and lobbies, and fleetingly visited by such period celebrity pilot fish as Warhol, Capote, Dick Cavett and Lee Radziwell, this account of a Stone’s life circa ’72 is gorgeously rendered, vaporously grainy sustained stupor of a movie, a neglected high point of its documentary style, a radical subversion of rock mythology, and a lingeringly unsettling work of art. At the age of 15, I’d have traded my youngest sibling into white slavery in order to see it, but that was when I’d have confused it for a movie about my favourite band on earth. And it would have disappointed if not crushed me, as the Stones knew when they threw down the block to its release. It was the last movie about themselves they wanted anyone to see, let alone those who might have wished to be one of them. Along with Nixon’s tapes, CS Blues was 1972’s other greatest act of omission.