Like many people under the age of 50, Chris Forsyth has never known a world without the Rolling Stones. He remembers hearing "Street Fightin' Man," "Jumpin' Jack Flash," and the other Stones standards on the radio when he was growing up in New Jersey. He picked up the guitar himself around age 12 and, not long after, picked up the December 1988 issue of Guitar World magazine, featuring a foofy-haired Keith Richards on the cover.
"It was this big exposé on his playing, and it explained open tunings and specifically open G and open D, which he uses a lot," Forsyth, now 39, says by phone from his home in Philadelphia. "That kind of cracked my head open. I started to explore those tunings then-at this point, I don't play in standard tunings at all anymore. That magazine changed my life, in a way." (He still has it.)
Forsyth has spent much of his life since immersed in the underground/experimental-music scene, most recently devoting himself to solo performances and recordings. But the guitar remains a constant, and the Stones have made a recent reappearance. For a sui generis work titled "Never Meant to Change the World," which he brings to Baltimore Nov. 11, Forsyth has composed a solo-guitar score that replaces most of the soundtrack of filmmaker Robert Frank's notorious Stones documentary, Cocksucker Blues, and, in the process, digs up the Stones' less salutatory effects on the world as well.
Accompanying the British rock giants on their 1972 U.S. tour, Frank captured the Stones onstage, blasting out rangy mid-career classics with rutting energy, but also documented the tour's traveling circus of musicians, roadies, and hangers-on as they despoiled nubile groupies on a private jet, hoovering cocaine off knife blades, and setting up de facto shooting galleries in hotel rooms across the nation. More a collage than a narrative, Cocksucker Blues' mix of film stocks and rough-hewn soundtrack captures the insulated bubble of superstar touring as well as the chaos of the time.
Frank's film is named after a scabrous Stones outtake in which frontman Mick Jagger channels a young urban hustler ("Where do I get my cock sucked?/ Where do I get my ass fucked?" the chorus goes). The song was a poison pill served up to the band's label, designed to be unreleasable, and it wound up an unbidden omen for the documentary. Once the band members saw the film, they came down with a court order obstructing its release. To this day, a complex arrangement of conditions remains in place that has limited it to a scant handful of licit public screenings since its completion. It has never seen an official home-video release.
Forsyth first saw the film via a bootleg VHS tape circa 1990. "I'm sure, at the time, I bought it out of Stones curiosity . . . but the Stones are just kind of characters in it," he says. "It's all Robert Frank's vision and his message that's being communicated." That message, Forsyth adds, is a dark one.
"There's a lot of cruelty, a lot of violence, a lot of inanity, and then there's the Stones being these kind of detached, decadent, out-of-touch royalty characters," he says. "It's a pretty complex thing going on there." In the '60s, Forsyth adds, young people-the Stones included-tried to change the world, but "you look at this film and you're like, I don't know, I don't think so. They just made a lot of people way more fucked up."
During the period that Frank's footage of the Stones was a regular feature of his downtime, Forsyth was amassing a broader spectrum of interests and influences through devoting himself to New York's free-improv scene-most notably as one-third of noisy trio peeesseye (pronounced "P.S.I.")-taking in resurgent free jazz, schooling himself on modern composition, and honing a wide-ranging musical palette that drew from it all. At the same time, he says, "Rock is the lens through which I see the world. That's what I grew up with." About five years ago, that first love started to reassert itself.
"It took me a while to be able to rationalize it," he says, walking through the thought process. "When I bend a note like that, it feels really good. Wait a minute, that's identified as a straight-up 'rock' thing. I'm not doing something like Derek Bailey."
Eventually, he says, "I kind of got over the hang-up of how it read to other people, and I just knew that it felt right to me."
His subsequent solo recordings, culminating in this year's Kenzo Deluxe (Northern Spy Records), draw from the kind of expansive six-string composition that has fueled American solo guitar since John Fahey, but also delve into the roots exploration/subversion of fellow-traveller Bill Orcutt, and the textural atmospheres of occasional collaborator Koen Holtkamp. At the same time, his solo pieces are clearly based on rock song-forms. Kenzo features ruminative, rootsy cuts, like the bittersweet reverie of "Downs and Ups," but "Boston Street Lullaby No. 2" is built on carefully groomed amp blare, and you can feel the absent bass and drums in the insistent "East Kensington Run Down," though you don't miss them.
Forsyth acknowledges the rock influence but points out that improvisation still plays a central role in his current music as he works from "kernels" of ideas and expands them, often on the fly. "On the recordings, a lot of times, that's the first time they've been played all the way through," he says.
"Never Meant to Change the World (Cocksucker Blues)" evolved in a similarly exploratory fashion. Watching Cocksucker Blues for the umpteenth time while noodling on his guitar, Forsyth "just hit upon the idea that if you turn the sound off, the imagery, divorced from the sound, becomes this whole other thing."
Having collaborated with choreographers and other non-musicians in the past, he says he had been looking for "projects that aren't just playing in a club or playing in a gallery." An art show in his new home base of Philadelphia last fall provided an impetus to get serious about the Stones again. "The theme of the art show was failed ideas. And I was like, The Stones-there's a big idea that failed."
Arguably the most successful rock 'n' roll band in the history of popular music failed?
"I mean, on some level the idea was to make lots of money," Forsyth acknowledges, "but artistically . . . I wasn't even conscious when they were a potential force of change or a threat to the order of things, but I think they were at some point or were perceived as such, and that failed."
Kenzo Deluxe opens with a track titled "The First 10 Minutes of Cocksucker Blues," an excerpt from the entire 90-minute-plus composition. It's a steady, meditative snatch with a blue, rueful tinge, and the only documentation of the piece to emerge in the wake of its two public performances to date (the Baltimore performance will be the third; Forsyth posted the piece excerpted on the album as married to the first 10 minutes of the film on YouTube at tinyurl.com/a4w7vcd). "There are bits when I leave some of the sound in, mostly brief scenes of dialogue that kind of fit around the music that I did for it," Forsyth explains, but otherwise he plays during the film's entire duration.
"A lot of people were kind of impressed or surprised by how different it is than just watching the film," he says, citing his attempts to reframe Frank's footage musically. "I think people were surprised that it wasn't just . . . oh, so-and-so's going to play along with the Buster Keaton film. This is a more thoroughly conceived project, and I hope that that intent comes across."
Asked what he hopes those who experience "Never Meant to Change the World" will take away, Forsyth's answer amounts to a cautionary tale. At the time, he notes, the Rolling Stones were perceived as "a dangerous force" in society, but as the revolutionary '60s faded and the bedraggled '70s dawned, the danger was less immediate for society as a whole than for those still pursuing the full-tilt hedonism that the band represented. Cult author Terry Southern, one of a dozen or more hip '70s celebs who pop up briefly in Frank's lens, quips that he doesn't see how it would possible to develop a cocaine habit since the drug is so expensive. A young woman hoping for a ticket in the parking lot outside a show complains that the state took her child away just because she was on acid-then drops the detail that the little girl was born on acid.
"I totally love the Stones, and I have, at least in past, bought the glamor and the danger of it," Forsyth says. Cocksucker Blues balances that glamor and danger in a queasy détente; Forsyth's take on the material comes off, at least in part, like an attempt to heighten and comment on that tension.
As much as the Stones in their strutting prime retain a grimly louche appeal, he notes, "Frank definitely puts it out there that there are casualties as a result. People like to talk about how they thought for a minute that the world was going to change, but it sure didn't."
Chris Forsyth presents "Never Meant to Change the World" at the Red Room at Normal's Books and Records Nov. 11; Nate Bell opens. For more information, visit redroom.org.