Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Rolling Stones and Robert Frank and Rocks Off

If you remember when fuzz-covered needles scratched disks spinning under abusive turntables loaded in consoles the size of mini vans, then you might also remember when The Rolling Stones were The World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band.

Well, so we were told. Most of us didn't doubt it. That meme, it turns out, was artificially bestowed on them during their nightly introductions on their tour of 1969. The iPod generations, on the other hand, are less convinced. Q magazine's 1998 readers poll of the Greatest Albums of All Time (presumably, their readers still listened to albums) put Exile on Main Street, generally considered by everyone
including The Stones themselves — to be their best work, at #42. By 2003 it didn't even make the top 100. (The gray heads at Rolling Stone magazine gave it a #7 on their The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. As news of The Beatles music released on iTunes was being shouted from billboards all over town, the Y, Z, and Millennial generations were boarding The Stones onto the bullet train to oblivion.

Ah well, the vagaries of time: Be that as it may, remembering back to a time when they did matter, Rocks Off was one of the betters of their best.

Exile would prove to be the final issue of The Stones classic period. As a result of flowering heroin addiction, it'd also be the last album to feature Richards as a dominant force. (Even his role on Exile has been under some dispute as guitarist Mick Taylor claimed his own guitar and songwriting contributions were never fully acknowledged.) The period that followed, what I would call their post-classic period — from Goat's Head Soup to Some Girls — would be an era ruled by Sir Mick. Under Jagger's direction, the band moved away from the rootsier blues material. (Though, by the time of Some Girls in 1978 the shock of punk would force them to pull out Chuck Berry riffs once again.)

And as to whatever happened to the band's records after that, who cares?

As to Rocks Off: Groove-wise, it's one of the hardest in The Stones canon; Lyrically, the song is more like a 12 year old's idea of smut used as a thin disguise to obscure its theme of heroin use. In the context of those LSD waning, cocaine ascending days of 1972, radio was already loaded with boundary-pushing vulgarities: The same year as Chuck Berry's comeback hit My Ding-a-Ling (Don't you want to play with my ding-a-ling?), The Isley Brothers's Pop That Thang (If my balloon goes down/Fill it up with wind), and Lou Reed's smorgasbord of eye-brow hoisters, Walk on the Wild Side. In that context, Rocks Off is like one more dirty word in a Tarantino script.

On Robert Frank: He was the Swiss-born photog who in 1958 began a sojourn through United States with the help of a Guggenheim grant. Along the way he took 28,000 photographs, met Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and was arbitrarily thrown in a Southern jail. From these two years on the road comes a book of 83 photos he called Les Américains (with text by Kerouac). The book proved to be something of a sensation and would remain as the seminal photo document of America in the fifties. It's renderings of the South were especially poignant. (It's Frank's photo of a wall from a tattoo parlor that graces the Exile's cover.)

By the time
Les Américains was published, Frank had already moved into filmmaking. As a filmmaker, he'd be most famous as the guy hired by The Rolling Stones to shoot their 1972 tour, a film the band would later refuse to let anyone see. This mostly unseen film would be called Cocksucker Blues and even in its non-release it has only added even more layers to the band's thick mystique. (See some edited bits of it here.) For the band that'd eventually become the very model of musical corporatism, in the seventies their heads were still in a cool place: Not only in choosing Frank, but also French New Waver Jean Luc-Godard four years earlier for Sympathy for the Devil.

A court would order that the film be limited to only one showing a year and then only with Frank in attendance. Now that the maestro is well into his eighties the likelihood of any of us ever seeing the film in a theater are more remote than ever. The clip above is about as much as most of us will ever get to see. I stand corrected; See comment below.

1 comment:

blarochelle said...

The film can be seen. Most, if not all of C--ksucker Blues has been uploaded to YouTube, in pieces. It is a most important film, in my view, that merits more general release. In terms of conveying the various moods of a tour, I haven't seen anything like it: