Cocksucker Blues: The Keys to the Legend of the Rolling Stones

Cocksucker Blues: The Keys to the Legend of the Rolling Stones
Zack Wilson

Robert Frank’s documentary about the Rolling Stones and their 1972 tour of the USA used to be a very tricky film to watch.

This was because ‘Cocksucker Blues’ had a number of stipulations attached to its screenings that made it almost impossible to see.

One of these conditions, imposed by court order, was that the director had to be present at each of its screenings.

Thankfully for modern day audiences, the whole film can now be viewed on YouTube.
Viewers are told at the start that the film is a work of fiction, a statement of questionable veracity, apart from the musical performances. 

Given that the film was shelved for general release because of its near-the-knuckle contents, this statement looks a lot like people covering their asses from a legal point of view.
The Stones were a real force in 1972. Traumatised after the disaster of Altamont, and hurting after extricating themselves from contracts signed with Alan Klein, this was a band that was on the edge, in several different ways.

In ‘Altamont’ by Joel Selvin, there is an account by Greil Marcus, about how he tripped and fell in a pothole as he was escaping from the nightmare of the festival. 

Lying prone in the dirt, Marcus heard the patter of thousands of feet as others followed him away from the horror of Hell’s Angels and psychedelic, murderous violence that the festival had become.
As he lies there, the Stones, still playing onstage throughout all the madness, spark up Gimme Shelter. Marcus cannot ever remember hearing music as powerful, as he lies with his face up close to the dirt.
That combination of the sublime and the filthy, the hellish and the heavenly, sums up the Rolling Stones, and in many ways offers insight into the nightmarish and angelic visions that can be found in ‘Cocksucker Blues’.

A scene where Jagger tells the camera ‘fuck you’ before gargling in the most self-confident way possible is an iconic moment. He is at once in love with the camera being pointed at him, and yet hates it with a thuggish sneer too.

One highly noticeable thing about Jagger throughout the movie is the knowing look in his eyes. There is a cynicism and a self-awareness there that is often shocking in a man who was so young at the time.

The contrast with the other half of the Glimmer Twins, Keith Richards, couldn’t be more acute.
While Richards’ image as a rock ‘n’ roll gypsy was in many ways cemented by this period of the Stones’ history, he often comes across as a vulnerable idiot, especially on heroin, with one scene of him collapsing on the lap of a groupie looking particularly pathetic.

When Jagger is out of it in one scene, he picks up a camera and starts to film. This is a man in control. He would never be seen collapsing on a groupies’ lap, not in public anyway.

One key scene has to be where the Stones and their entourage are sitting in two rooms. One faction centres on Jagger, we see Ahmet Ertegun and other assorted types with suits and serious faces. Jagger is at the centre of things here, the business of music is very much to the fore.

In the other room we see the other Stones faction, centred on Keith. Bobby Keys is a significant presence. People sit around, clearly having just taken a lot of the tour’s primary drug of choice – heroin.

Heroin hangs all over this movie, casting a narcotic cloud over it all. But there is also plenty of cocaine around too, a blizzard of cocaine.

In one scene we see and hear Marshall Chess espouse the virtues of coke. Tellingly, he mentions that it must be almost impossible to develop a coke habit as the drug is so expensive.

Those days are long gone now.

It can be hard to remember these days just how socially unacceptable drug use, especially hard drug use, used to be.

The Stones are outlaws, aliens, they move in a world which is completely different to that of most of their audience. The way the jerky footage clicks, whirs and switches, seemingly at random, from black and white to colour adds to this sense of an alien world, a parallel realm that looks alluring but just might destroy you before you get in.

But the sense of self-parody is also never far away, especially in a scene where Richards and his sidekick Bobby Keys chuck a TV set out of a hotel room window.

It’s also amusing just how many scenes seemed to have been parodied in ‘Spinal Tap’.

And of course, there is some music. The performances here have all the spike and spirit of a great band at their peak.

There is none of the self-conscious parody and self-pastiche that became an integral part of Stones shows once pantomime clown Ronnie Wood replaced earnest bluesman Mick Taylor as one of the band’s guitarists.

Keith comes alive onstage, with an almost perpetual cocaine gurn on his face as he powers through the chords to Brown Sugar.

The companion film to this movie is, of course, ‘Ladies and Gentleman: The Rolling Stones’, the conventional concert film that was released instead of Cocksucker Blues. 

Despite the decadent mess backstage, the Stones could certainly perform when it came to their actual jobs.

Watch the performance of ‘Bitch’ in ‘Ladies and Gentleman’. I doubt you can find a live performance anywhere that sums up the essence of rock ‘n’roll so perfectly.

This is not always an easy film to view, and in the age of ‘Me Too’ some of the scenes involving groupies and roadies are a very tough watch indeed.

But that repulsiveness is central to the Stones legend. This is not a band who wanted to charm the world. They saw themselves a blues band, not a pop group. The blues has a long association with the devil, after all.

What this movie really does remind us of, though, is just how dangerous the Stones were.
For those of us who grew up with the over commercialised Stones of the 80s and 90s, or younger readers to whom they have just become a living museum, this can be eye-opening.

There is a real sense of danger in this movie, of the forces being present that are hinted at in otherworldly, deviant, transcendent songs like Sympathy for the Devil, Stray Cat Blues and Midnight Rambler. 

If you want to understand the Stones, Cocksucker Blues is where you should start.
It is an uncomfortable, almost nightmarish watch at times, which is what being around the Stones during this period was like.

The list of people the Stones chewed up and wasted, including figures like Jimmy Miller, Andy Johns and Sam Cutler, is a long one.

Cocksucker Blues shows just why this happened. You need something elemental and iron strong to stay with the Stones.

The film encapsulates the beguiling mixture of repulsiveness and charisma, of crassness and cool that is at the heart of the Rolling Stones.

And there’s some bloody good songs in it too. Stevie Wonder’s ‘Uptight’, performed by Wonder and the Stones, is powerfully delightful. It segues into a crazy version of Satisfaction, with Wonder and Jagger singing a duet at the microphone, while Keith loses himself in riff heaven amongst assorted members of Wonder’s band.

The whole film is worth watching just so you can arrive at that one scene.


Zack Wilson is a writer from Sheffield, in the North of England. He used to write short fiction and his novel is available from Epic Rites Press.  It's called Stumbles and Half Steps and it can be purchased on Amazon