This is the story about how Robert Frank’s personal copy of his 1972 unreleased Rolling Stones documentary Cocksucker Blues ended up in a Halifax diner with one of the most important independent rock bands in music history and has absolutely nothing to do with Fredericton.
Last summer I wrote a series of articles under the heading, That Time. Largely based on my love of archival findings and history, the series was a fun way for me to discover and share some unusual and sometimes colourful events from New Brunswick’s past. Like the time a local church group tried to stop Alice Cooper from performing in Fredericton, or the time the Province of New Brunswick banned David Lynch’s Blue Velvet from theatres upon its release despite its many awards and acolades. And of course, who could forget the time Teenage Head were paid not to play in Oromocto? While this story does not relate directly to New Brunswick – I’m stretching my self-imposed boundaries a bit – there is a vague connection if you look hard enough. And I believe this is just too good a story to ignore. Enjoy.
When I decided to write this story, I wasn’t sure how or where to begin. To me, it was more of a mystery that needed solving than a story that needed writing. But maybe it could be both. The root of it all stems from a conversation I had with a friend who told me he once had breakfast with the members of the Washington, DC-based post-hardcore band, Fugazi. Being a fan of the band, I listened intently as he described the events that led to his meeting and eating the most important meal of the day with one of the most important independent rock bands in music history.
It was July 26, 1998, the day after Fugazi played the Olympic Bingo Hall in Halifax on their first and only tour through Eastern Canada. At some point during the meal the conversation shifted to film. In particular, a film made by prominent American photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank whose 1958 photo essay The Americans is among the most iconic photo collections ever published. The conversation ended up being one of those six degrees of separation moments because for years, Frank had been living in the tiny community of Mabou, Cape Breton, just over three hours away from Halifax by car. And as the story unfolded, the degrees of separation quickly reduced from six to one.
The juice of the story as I remember it goes something like this: During their meal someone brought up the topic of Frank’s controversial Rolling Stones documentary Cocksucker Blues, which prompted someone else at the table to hold up a metal film canister and say something along the lines of, “I’ve got the film right here!” At least that is how I remember it. The adrenaline of the moment paired with the passage of time have their own way of crafting a narrative. Edges get smoothed. Details get stretched. That sort of thing. It is an inevitability, really. Yet no good story is without its minor fabrications, intentional or otherwise. Specifics aside, after hearing this story I was sure of two things: my buddy Bruce did have breakfast with Fugazi and for whatever reason, Frank’s film was along for the ride.
I have always been fascinated with history as it relates to my own lived experience. In the same way the details of a good story cloud over time, I love learning about events long lived and forgotten. The type of lost memories few others could care less about. And I especially love learning about local events that have a direct connection to larger historical narrative. For example, I once read that in 1957, Bruno Gerussi, the actor who played Nick Adonidas on the iconic Canadian TV series The Beachcombers, had performed at the old Fredericton High School on Queen Street with a traveling Shakespeare production from the Stratford Festival. I now think of Gerussi whenever I look at that building. I am very much a “this happened here” kind of history buff. Knowing that Fugazi played the New Maryland Rec Centre on the outskirts of Fredericton the day before they performed in Halifax, I was curious to learn whether or not Frank’s film also visited our city, packed neatly among the band’s belongings.
For context, Cocksucker Blues was filmed during The Rolling Stones’ 1972 American tour in support of their album, Exile on Main Street. At the time, Frank had a working relationship with the group. A collage of his photos can be found on the album’s cover. Together with his crew, Frank traveled the United States filming everything from live performances to backstage antics, press interviews, and the band members’ interactions with their fans with the intent of creating a documentary of this historic event. It was the band’s first tour of the U.S. following the highly publicized tragedy at Altamont in December of 1969.
As it turned out, the film’s final cut would have done little to restore the band’s reputation. Though the film did include several scenes cut from the band’s many blistering live performances, Frank also chose to include several scenes of blatant debauchery and hedonism. Some of the most controversial scenes include Mick Jagger snorting cocaine and a groupie shooting heroin in a hotel room. As a result, The Rolling Stones sued to prevent the film from ever being released. During the court proceedings, a dispute arose as to who actually owned the copyright to the film, the band or the filmmaker. In the end, The Rolling Stones were successful in blocking the film’s release while Frank won the right to screen the film a few times a year under the strict condition he be present at each screening. It is believed Frank’s personal copy of the film is one of, if not the only, original physical copy in existence.
Knowing my friend Bruce to be a huge music buff, he was obviously shocked to find out he was sitting mere feet from the only existing copy of one of the most contentious and highly disputed rock documentaries ever created. As for me, I wanted to unravel the mystery as to why it was there in the first place.
Not knowing where else to begin, I reached out to Fugazi’s drummer Brendan Canty, who according to his Instagram account, had recently visited Newfoundland and Labrador. Knowing this, I thought maybe he might bend a little and reply to a random question involving another time he visited Canada’s east coast. I asked if the band was transporting the film back to Frank while on the east coast and to my surprise, he responded quickly and shared what details he could.
“We were not delivering the negatives back to Mr. Frank,” Canty told me. “Jem Cohen had a friendship of sorts with Robert so he may have delivered them to him, but this is the first I’ve heard of it. Jem made a film called We Have An Anchor about your area and it’s fabulous.
“I have seen Cocksucker Blues presented by Robert Frank at the American Film Institute,” said Canty. “I’m sure you know the deal. He only has the legal right to show his single copy of the film when he is there to present it. There’s only one personal copy, I think.”
Canty then put me in touch with filmmaker and photographer Jem Cohen. Cohen is a Guggenheim, Alpert, and Rockefeller Fellow and the filmmaker behind the feature length Fugazi documentary, Instrument. He was with the band in Halifax and Canty believed if anyone had knowledge about Frank’s personal copy of Cocksucker Blues being in the diner that day, Cohen would.
I contacted Cohen and explained the mystery I was trying to solve. I asked him if Frank’s film could have in fact been an inconspicuous breakfast guest and if so, why was the band in possession of it in the first place. His response was short, to the point, and rich in enticement.
“It’s true,” he wrote. “Though the band wasn’t carrying it. I was.”
In the communications that followed, Cohen explained how he had traveled from New York to Halifax to film Fugazi’s performance. He was nearing the end of filming for Instrument and when he heard the band would be playing in a Bingo Hall, we thought the scene sounded too good to pass up.
“I went to Halifax to see and shoot the band,” said Cohen. “I was just about done with our documentary, Instrument, and I was also very curious about Nova Scotia.
“I believe I was in Nova Scotia camping with my family once as a little kid so I had a vague sense of how beautiful it was, but for me as an adult, it was Robert and June Leaf’s work that was largely responsible for pointing the way to Cape Breton.”
Cohen said he had long been an admirer of both Frank and his wife, renowned painter and sculpture June Leaf. When he decided to make the trip in 1998 he contacted them about coming to visit after the band’s performance.
“We’d met in New York City and had some nice exchanges. They said yes to my request. When I inquired if there was anything they wanted from New York, Robert asked me to pick up something to bring to him, which I was happy to do. I went to his gallery as instructed and my jaw dropped when I saw what it was.”
Cohen, his gear, and Frank’s personal copy of Cocksucker Blues traveled to Halifax by plane. Although he has no memory of bringing it to the attention of guests at breakfast, he admitted to feeling an immense pressure and responsibility to keep the film safe until it reached its destination.
“I’d rented a car so I could head North on my own the day after the gig,” said Cohen. “The metal film can was very large and wouldn’t fit in my gear easily and yes, it’s likely I would’ve been scared to take my eyes off it, though I guess I had to for the Fugazi show. Anyhow, I may well have carried it to breakfast as I certainly wasn’t going to be the guy that shows up in Mabou to tell Robert Frank that his very rare film print had disappeared from, or with, my rental car.”
Frank and Leaf moved from New York City to Mabou in 1971, dividing their time between the rural outskirts of Inverness County and their New York studio up until Frank’s death in 2019 at the age of 94.
“Cape Breton was the one place they cared about as much as, if not more than New York, and that became a big part of their work,” said Cohen. “It wasn’t just the landscape. It’s also a regard they held for the people. And the sense of the place as tough, not a soft place for tourists. I remember reading about June telling Robert in 1970 that if they were going to be there and have a house, they were going to do it full on, at least for a while.”
Like Frank and Leaf, Cohen also fell in love with the simplistic beauty of Cape Breton. Over the next two decades he would return “about ten times” to work on a project focused on the specifics of the region.
“This resulted in a project called We Have an Anchor, which was a kind of live documentary, with the soundtrack music and sonics created by a band of seven people, including Guy Picciotto from Fugazi,” said Cohen. “I couldn’t bring all of the musicians there, but I did bring a contingent to soak it in while we worked on the first musical ideas. That was in the winter of 2011, in Wreck Cove. Don Wilkie from Constellation Records in Montreal came along because he was originally from the island and knew about the winter roads.
“I miss it, just thinking about it.”