The 2010 reissue of the Rolling Stones’ 1972 album Exile on Main Street came in a variety of packages. I bought the Deluxe Edition with the disc full of bonus tracks, as that struck me as much less of a gouge than the ridiculously expensive “Super Deluxe Edition that also included LPs and a DVD. I almost went for the Super Deluxe Edition because I saw “Cocksucker Blues” among the titles on that release. I thought at first that the Rolling Stones were finally going to release the track the Rolling Stones recorded in 1970 to one-up Decca Records. The Rolling Stones were obligated to provide one last single to Decca, so they recorded a deliberately obscene track [LYRICS] for this purpose. Predictably, Decca passed on it. Looking closer, I noticed that “Cocksucker Blues” was on the DVD, so I thought that it contained Robert Frank’s documentary film of the Stones’ 1972 tour entitled Cocksucker Blues. Unfortunately, the DVD included in the Super Deluxe Edition of Exile on Main Street contains only clips from that film. So “Cocksucker Blues,” the song and the film, have yet to have a genuine release. Of course, the internet being what it is, it only takes a little searching to find the song and the movie is on The Pirate Bay, if you’re so inclined.
Robert Frank provided the cover photo “Tattoo Parlor” for Exile on Main Street. He had gained some notoriety with his 1959 book of candid photographs of life in the United States entitled The Americans. The book was not well received at the time of its publication, but its reputation has grown immensely over the years. In his book 1959: The Year Everything Changed, Fred Kaplan points to the publication of The Americans as being a key event in a year when so many cultural conventions were being challenged. Jack Kerouac wrote the introduction to The Americans, as the book shared a sensibility with the Beat generation, not to mention that Robert Frank had compiled his photographs through a long road trip across the United States. For the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Americans, the book was reprinted in a Deluxe Edition. An exhibit of Robert Frank’s photography called Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans was held at the National Gallery of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in honor of the 50th anniversary of the book.
After The Americans was published, Robert Frank focused primarily on filmmaking. He had made a number of films before turning his camera on the Rolling Stones in 1972. Robert Frank explained his relationship with the Rolling Stones in this way,
I made a record cover for them, and Mick Jagger sort of liked me. They called me up in Nova Scotia. I said to them, “That’s the camera I want.” They bought the camera, and they said, “You do the film. ” There was never any more talk about it. I just got paid, and they let me do whatever I wanted to, but it was the agreement that I would finish and give them the film. They have the say whether it’s going to come out or not.
Although Mick Jagger reportedly liked Cocksucker Blues, the Rolling Stones blocked the release of the film. Perhaps it was because the Rolling Stones were shown engaging in a range of illegal activity in the movie, or perhaps it was because the film captured the alienation and isolation of the band so effectively. Whatever the reason, the dispute between the Rolling Stones and Robert Frank was resolved with a rather odd court ruling: Cocksucker Blues can only be shown when the director is in attendance. Given practical considerations, this ruling served as an effective ban on the film.
The 1977 book Photography Within the Humanities contains an interview with Robert Frank, and he had some interesting things to say about the Rolling Stones.
We went on tour with them in 1972. It’s pretty interesting to get to know somebody as powerful as Jagger, or that group. So much money, so much power. It’s sort of frightening. It’s a frightening film in that way. And if I could have shown what really went on, it would have been horrendous — not to be believed. The film is a pretty down-trip film. They weren’t too happy about it, but Jagger is very straight. He said, “You did the film, that’s the way you see it; although that’s not the way I see it, that’s not the way it really is.” I like him personally, and he’s quite an amazing guy. He has a fantastic head, and he’s really in control. They’re rough people to be with. You’ve got to keep up. If you can’t keep up, it’s too bad.
When asked if he mistrusted Mick Jagger, Robert Frank answered,
There are two images in my mind. On the one hand, I admire him because of his ability as a performer, his capability as an administrator of such a powerful business venture. But then on the other hand, it would be the same for a politician whom I would mistrust. In the end it would turn me off completely. I would have nothing to do with it, because in the end he would destroy me. Because I don’t play his game; I’m not in his class. All the personalities in that group are especially rough. They are hard on each other, they are completely without feeling for anyone around them. Anything goes to get the work going and keep it moving. And that’s a strong experience to go through — to see that, and how it works.
One last note on the influence of Robert Frank and Exile on Main Street. John Van Hamersveld designed the cover for Exile on Main Street. He used the motif of Robert Frank’s cover photo and laid out images of the Rolling Stones in a “tear and paste” manner that has had a lasting influence. Van Hamersveld quoted John Lydon as saying that the style of punk was strongly influenced by Exile on Main Street, “The Stones’ Exile package set the image of punk in 1975 – we used that graphic feel to communicate our message graphically.” In its influence on the Sex Pistols and punk generally, then, Exile on Main Street was a key proto-punk album.