Monday, December 23, 2013

It's Just That Demon Life Has Got Me in its Sway

Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields,
Sold in a market down in New Orleans.
Scarred old slaver know he's doin’ alright.
Hear him whip the women just around midnight.

They are, quite possibly, the greatest set of unheard lyrics in pop history, hiding in plain sight amidst the dueling guitars of Keith Richards and Mick Taylor, the steady bass of Bill Wyman and the primal drumbeat of Charlie Watts in what is one of the hallmark opening salvos in the classic rock canon.  David Simon used the covert power of these lyrics to great effect in a first season episode of THE WIRE, when perennial fuckup detective Roland Pryzbelewski used his knowledge of them as the Rosetta Stone for decoding the gangland vernacular of the Bodymore, Murdaland high rises (and as the first inkling that he was more than just a coddled twit.)  And yet, how many of the wealthy boomers rocking out in the third row of the last twenty years of Rolling Stones revival tent shows sing along to this raunchy epic of S+M slave depravity?  And how many other modern canonical songs have avoided the sabre of political correctness like this one has? Brown Sugar, how come you taste so good?  Does a spoonful of sugar help the poison go down?

This opening stanza also serves as the last bit of spoken dialogue in Robert Frank’s infamous Stones documentary/debauched road trip/proto-reality show COCKSUCKER BLUES.  The words, spoken in a laconic drawl by Keith, overlay silent footage of the band mugging it up as they walk toward the stage for another night of their roisterous 1972 U.S. tour.  It’s a moment that, with several decades of hindsight, seems somewhat clichéd.  But it’s also suffused with mystery: why (aside from serving as a lead-in to the live performance of the song) these lyrics at this point in the film?  Are they a commentary on the heroin haze that permeates the previous 90 minutes of the running time?  Or just a bridge between the plaintive piano ballad that precedes it (and which is played by Mick Jagger several times throughout the film) and the final burst of music that overlaps the closing credits?

But this moment of mystery (buried at the end of a film seemingly dedicated to debunking any mystery surrounding the band….more on the results of that later) also summons the multiple layers of mystique surrounding the film itself.  Which brings up the central question: how do you write about COCKSUCKER BLUES in this day and age, after years in which the Stones have been deconstructed, lionized, de-mythologized, re-mythologized, buried and resurrected on so many occasions?  Does the film still hold its legendary power as one of the great unseen artifacts of its kind, or is it the middling rock travelogue that its critics claim?

A few weeks back, Columbus’s Wexner Center for the Arts hosted a rare screening of the film (or, rather, a Digibeta screening if it….which is about as close to film as you’ll get at this point in the movie’s life.)  For years, Frank’s long standing legal conflict with the band has forced him to limit screenings of it to events where he’s present, so the recent loosening of this restriction for certain institutions has been a boon for cinephiles.  But, as my friends and I joked before the screening, does it really matter in an Internet age in which bootlegs of the film have been available in various online locales?

The sold out audience I joined for the screening would say that the theatrical setting does still matter.  And Frank’s access to the original film materials greatly benefits this digital version.  Most of the COCKSUCKER boots heavily emphasize the ragged nature of the 16mm camerawork, but much like the late ‘90s remastering of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, Frank’s official copy brings out the film’s actually strong visual palate, which is sometime lush in its mixture of color and black and white.  But aside from that, what more is there left to say about COCKSUCKER BLUES?


The most obvious reference point for COCKSUCKER is its companion documentary, the Maysles brothers’ GIMME SHELTER.  That film, long available in lovingly remastered form, remains a shorthand for the death of the ‘60s dream, the alluring march toward the damnation of Altamont.  But it also serves as a fascinating counterpoint and mirror image of Frank’s document of the band.

Even though the Maysles brothers espoused a fly on the wall, direct approach to their documentary work, GIMME SHELTER actually (inadvertently?) possesses a fairly traditional heroic narrative as its backbone.  The viewer is introduced to Mick as the conquering satyr of rock, Jumpin’ Jack Flash himself lighting up the crowd at Madison Square Garden on the Stones’ triumphal return to America.  Conflict is foreshadowed with the post-Altamont radio interviews, but the mighty Mick continues on, launching into “Satisfaction” and then tramping through hotels and recording studios, living the classic rock star life.  There are beautiful, contemplative moments in the studio and the concert halls (the humid, slo-mo performance of “Love in Vain” chief among them) to show that rock’s primo peacock also has a soul. 

But then the cracks begin to show.  The band’s desire to address accusations of ticket price inflation (insert post-modernist joke here) by holding a free concert turns into a protracted legal harangue (although hey, more Melvin Belli is never a bad thing, right?)  Midway through the film, the performance of “Honky Tonk Women” is interrupted by several fans rushing the stage, calling back to the band’s early days of ten minute performances overrun by rabid teeny boppers while also foreshadowing the black mass confrontation of the Hells Angels and the Altamont audience.  And then the hero is overcome by hubris, descending into the underworld of that tragic night at Dick Carter’s Speedway, crooning of demonic power (“Sympathy for the Devil”) and misogynistic revenge (“Under My Thumb”), fiddling while the youth of the ‘60s burn at his feet.  He escapes the conflagration, but the scars are still there: the famous final freeze frame of Mick serves as one of the most revealing portraits ever of an artist who would soon begin his long retreat into a permanently manufactured image.


COCKSUCKER BLUES, on the other hand, fully embraces the direct cinema approach in which GIMME SHELTER intermittently deals.  In many ways it’s a series of impressionistic images, wholly representative of the hallucinatory distortion that the long haul of the touring life proffers.  Whereas SHELTER opens with that electric performance of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” before pulling back to show the band watching the work print footage with the Maysleses, COCKSUCKER cuts out any of that seductive allure by opening with the band ensconced in a Spartan warehouse space, noodling away at their instruments during rehearsal.  SHELTER shows the band’s hotel time as a diversion from touring and recording, but COCKSUCKER presents that downtime as the definition of the touring lifestyle.  Indeed, one of the central ironies of Frank’s film is that the groupies, junk dealers and hangers on are far more immediately interesting than Mick, Keith and the boys.  Hotel time brings out an inevitable sense of boredom in the band, but it’s the gateway to fame for the unnamed girl who shoots up in graphic real time. 

As time loses any sense of meaning for the band and the viewer, the rot starts to set in.  It’s long been theorized that the film’s infamous airplane sequence, in which nude groupies are the centerpiece of the dream of bacchanalia that the hardcore fans interviewed in the film must have dreamt of, was more a case of playing for the cameras than a wholely accurate representation of that day’s flight.  Later in the film, an entire sequence is devoted to another nude groupie, spread eagle on a hotel bed, her supple body covered in streams of an ambiguous white liquid (which, unless we’re dealing with superhuman lover, has to be either shampoo or lotion….but yeah, you get the picture) as she and her friends get high.  Mick Taylor ambles in for a toke, but he’s merely wandering through another night of faux orgies.  And the film’s first non-performance image of Mick is of him filming himself groping his own crotch in the mirror.


Maybe that’s the easiest way to understand the GIMME SHELTER/COCKSUCKER BLUES relationship.  SHELTER is Mick’s show all the way, while COCKSUCKER’s bluesy, drug-fuelled tone embodies the elegantly wasted cool that Keith was then patenting, the image that he would ride for years to come.  What directly precedes Mick’s autoerotic tomfoolery?  Why, it’s Keith practicing a song on the piano.  In capsule form, these would be the iconic poses that would come to define both men from that point on: Mick as the shallow showman/tart, Keith as the authentic bluesman and heart and soul of the band.  Taken together, the two films are the Glimmer Twins of the rock doc world; no Stones film since then has so accurately captured who the band were and what they would become.

And the seeds of the future of the Rolling Stones are planted deep within COCKSUCKER BLUES, at least for those familiar with the personal lives of rock’s great pirates.  Around the 45-minute mark, there’s a famous shot of a clearly intoxicated Keith nodding off in the lap of his female companion backstage, while Mick chats up Atlantic Records guru Ahmet Ertegun in the adjoining room.  Here are those dueling images of foreshadowing again: the stoned erraticism of Keith’s encroaching heroin addiction contrasted with Mick’s cold business pragmastism. 

But maybe those shots aren’t the most indicative of where the Stones would be headed.  Maybe what comes next is the real key.  Because following that backstage tableau comes a rare moment of relatively tender silence: a brief music box-scored montage of Bianca Jagger, who accompanied Mick on parts of the tour.  The accepted narrative of the Stones legend (which Keith goes out of his way to perpetuate in his recent autobiography) is that once Bianca entered the picture, Mick became wildly enamored of the jet set lifestyle and lost his way as a true musician.  It’s not certain if Frank intended to buy into this incipient story with his portrayal of Missus Mick, but her supporting role serves as stark contrast to the scene in which the Glimmer Twins sit side by side on a hotel bed breaking down a test pressing of the “Happy” single.  Seen in 2013, it plays as one of the last moments of true friendship between Mick and Keith, before the drugs and the money and World War III and “Brenda” and corporate sponsorship of tours irrevocably severed the bond that joined two young blues fans in early ‘60s London.


There’s one sequence in COCKSUCKER that fully captures the thrill of seeing the Stones in the early 70’s, and it has nothing to do with wild sexual exploits or finding mainlines.  As opening act for the tour, the then-ascendant Stevie Wonder often joined the band for the night’s final number, a stirring medley of “Uptight” and “Satisfaction”.  It’s in capturing one of these performances that the film reaches its riotous, ecstatic peak, both bands racing towards a soul-drenched climax of giddy elation.  It’s a perfect ending for a document of the Stones at the peak of their powers.

Except that this one-two punch arrives with nearly a half hour left in the film.  There’s no easy dramatic ending here, only the continuing orgastic grind of the tour.  The actual end of the film comes with “Street Fighting Man” the band’s traditional closer since the ’69 tour.  In this setting, it’s technically proficient, but it smacks of the routine, providing none of the transcendent thrills that Stevie and the boys provided.  It also serves as a callback to its final performance in GIMME SHELTER, itself a degraded version of the Madison Square Garden performance, as Mick’s playful tossing of the basket of rose petals to that audience is replaced by a Hell’s Angel heaving the entire basket into the beaten down crowd.  But then again, maybe all of this is entirely appropriate for a song whose ambiguous commitment to revolution has always served as somewhat of an indictment of the patented Rolling Stones ethos of rebellion.


But all of this eventually loops back around to that initial question: what role does COCKSUCKER BLUES play in this modern media-saturated culture?  In one way, it’s entirely reflective of our times, as nearly everyone in the film is recording each other.  The natural questions of authenticity persist throughout; how much of what the Stones show to Frank and his cameramen is played up for the lens?  It’s appropriate that the ’72 tour marked the debut of a new lighting rig for the band, one which heavily relied on a large panel of mirrors positioned above the stage to reflect and amplify their illumination (Frank includes several shots of the band’s reverse images in them.)  And once you go down this rabbit hole, you get into matters of performance wrapped within performance wrapped within performance…..

Even the restricted nature of the film’s public performances has been neutered.  Because you’ve probably seen more of COCKSUCKER BLUES than you think.  A few days ago, I happened upon a repeat screening of Bret Morgen’s HBO Stones doc. CROSSFIRE HURRICANE, which chronicles the band from their inception to roughly around the beginning of the Ronnie Wood years.  I’d seen it when it debuted, but watching it again I was struck by the fact that right there, hidden in plain sight at the film’s outset, is the first ten minutes or so of COCKSUCKER BLUES.  The Stones conducted interviews with Morgen, but refused to be filmed, so CROSSFIRE draws heavily on COCKSUCKER, GIMME SHELTER and other pre-existing footage.  But it’s still striking to realize that one of the most famous bootlegs in rock history is living way more of a public life than its reputation would herald. 

But still, the allure continues.  Even in music-mad Columbus, 300 people don’t just show up for a film that they could watch online.  They realized what many other still do: that in a culture where seemingly all of history is now available at the click of a mouse, there’s still a rush in the shared experience of collectively viewing what might have been the last gasp of rock’s greatest avatars of cool.  Sometimes myths are just that damn powerful.


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