The Mick Rock Interview, Part I
Mick Rock is known as “The Man Who Shot the Seventies,” but the photographer didn’t stop working when David Bowie took off his Ziggy Stardust costume. In fact, Mr. Rock is so busy these days that he can “hardly keep up with his own brain.” In fact, Rock’s Legend Series at CATM (500 West 22nd street, NYC, www.catmchelsea.com) has been extended through April 29th.
In our “Great Rock Photographer” series, the legendary Mick Rock chats about David Bowie, Lou Reed, Syd Barrett, whacked-out poets, LSD, his health scare, yoga, New York, cats and, oh yeah, photography.
Riffraf caught up with Mr. Rock for a two-part interview. Below is Part I. Check back next week for Part II.
Riffraf: Why do you think you’re drawn to musicians?
Mick Rock: I think some cute answer I gave a few years ago to Spin magazine was for my sins in a former life, I’ve been forced to spend an inordinate amount of time with musicians in this life. Of course, I love them.
I don’t think there’s anything logical. I think it was more about timing, inclination, my name, the way I look. I think all these things combined, plus certainly my youth—I studied languages and literature at Cambridge, so I tended to see a lot of the early characters that I worked with as kind of modern equivalents of Baudelaire and Coleridge and all these crazy drug-sodden poets.
And that was really the way I saw them, and I related to them and somehow or another, while I was still a student, some local band gave me 5 quid to take some pictures of them. And I’d only been using a camera for about three or four months, but I think that synchronized in my brain: Well, you mean you can actually get paid for doing something like this? And back then, 5 quid was worth something.
I don’t know if you’ve seen my latest book, Exposed. I say right at the beginning of my introduction that ‘photography happened to me. It idly drifted into my life, set up shop and took over.’ It wasn’t particularly what I had in mind. I think maybe I would have liked to have been a lyric writer or something of that nature, something a bit more of a literary persuasion.
And, in fact, in the early days, I used to do interviews and provide photographs myself because you could get a double whammy that way. You get paid for the text and for the photos. And the other thing, of course, was that I got to know Syd Barrett and that was probably an inspiration; besides his unbelievable talent, he looked like a poet of another era.
Riffraf: Like Rimbaud.
Mick Rock: Exactly, yes. So I think all these things conspired. Of course, I went out my way to do certain things that interested me, but somehow it was like an energy all of its own. And obviously I had an interest in the music. I played rock music all the time from an early age and, of course, I took LSD and that probably helped too. It’s over 40 years since I’ve touched that, but I think that it somehow taught me how to ‘see.’
It did have a profound influence on a number of people I’ve known and read about. Steve Jobs would talk about how it influenced his vision. I think it also ruined the lives of a lot of other people. In my case, it opened up my third eye. It definitely influenced the direction of my life.
Riffraf: You’ve also shot actors and models.
Mick Rock: Not really many actors, but certainly I’ve shot quite a few models in my time, that’s for sure. But I somehow will always be a rock and roll photographer. Even though I do a lot of photo art.
I’ve also just completed the first music video that I’ve done in a long time for a very hot young guitar player called Andrew Watt. And then I’m working on my Lou Reed book with Lou for a company called Genesis for whom I’ve done books for Bowie and Queen and one on Syd Barrett that he cosigned a number of copies of. And there’s an Iggy limited edition book in the works that will cover more than just my Raw Power stuff.
I think it’s all this kundalini yoga and chanting that I do every day. There’s so much going on at the moment, I can hardly keep up with my own brain. Somehow I’m busier than ever.
And then there’s a documentary about me kicking into gear. It’s directed by a guy called Barney Clay who’s a music video director (you can check him out) of some esteem and who’s just married my friend Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
And then I’m going to do an art show in London, and then I’ll probably have to do a couple of glam shows. It looks like I’m doing one in London and New York and maybe in Stockholm and Sydney. And I don’t do drugs. Haven’t done for 15 years . . . How about that? I’m too old. It’s all done on yoga and caffeine these days.
Riffraf: You had a triple bypass?
Mick Rock: It was a quadruple, but it wasn’t only that. I was detoxing from 20 years of cocaine and speed and it wasn’t what I was eating—I’ve been a vegetarian for a long time. It was about the fact that I wasn’t eating very much or not sleeping and the whole irregularity of my life.
I was always fascinated by the likes of Rimbaud and Baudelaire and company and how to whack your senses out in such a way that you can see things differently. ‘Le Dereglement Des Sens’ that Rimbaud wrote about. In fact, the documentary director, Barney, sent me an email over the weekend requesting that I send him over a list of the writings that had influenced me because he knew that I studied languages and literature at Cambridge. I realized from the list how pumped my imagination was by all of these crazy poets and writers.
As much as I was interested in the literature itself, I was also interested in the lives they led and, of course, later on, in the ‘70s when my photography was in full flight I got much more interested in visual artists and, certainly, Paris in the ‘20s and ‘30s. And Man Ray became a big obsession of mine.
I suppose we’re all like tactile machines, we creatives: we absorb all these different stimuli and process them through us and then spit them out in a new form. I think I imagined myself as being like a crazed poet, except in my case I was a deranged photographer, if you like.
Riffraf: Not only are you interested in musicians, but you’re also interested in cats.
Mick Rock: Oh, yes. I’ve even got people talking to me about a cats book. In fact I’ve just acquired a new kitten . . . a delightful female Maine Coon, a breed I’ve been obsessed with for the past 25 years. I’ve had a succession of them. I need her as a pal for Razor, because we had two die this year unfortunately. Her name is Bellini . . .
Riffraf: I wonder what it is about cats that some artists find so appealing. I was at Hemingway’s House in Key West and there are hundreds of cats on his property. He was a cat lover.
Mick Rock: Cats are very meditative kind of animals because they actually sleep quite a lot and they’re very zened down and they’re pretty self-sufficient. As long as you feed them and have a litter box and pet them, they’re pretty happy. I like other people’s dogs, but I never want a dog because they do require a huge amount of work. They can be a little bit demanding, and they want to go out walking. A cat is very soothing.
I can just sit and watch these cats at times and get off just watching them play or even sleep. I’ve always liked cats. As long as I can remember, there have been cats in my life. Baudelaire was a big cat lover. I think there’s even a famous painting or drawing of him with a cat. Yes, I think a lot of artists do.
Riffraf: You’ve been living in New York City since 1977.
Mick Rock: Not really full time until ‘82. I was running between the two cities for about five years.
Riffraf: How do you feel about some of the changes in New York?
Mick Rock: Well, it has been cleaned up a lot. Alphabet City is a concept now; it’s not reality. It’s so fashionable these days. I don’t spend too much time thinking about these things. I’m too obsessed by what I’m doing in the present, and I tend to accept that change is inevitable.
I do a lot of kundalini yoga and one of the chief tenets of any form of yoga, is that the world is in a constant state of flux. That’s why the concept of political ‘conservatism’ doesn’t really work because you can’t hold back change. Change will happen whether you want it to or not.
At this stage of my life I’ve learned to be discriminating, but the idea that you can hold back time and change—and, of course, there are lots of pockets in the world where people think they can hold back—but you can’t even if you want to. Inevitably, change sooner or later will come. That’s just the organic state of the universe.
So I accept those changes. I try to keep a certain continuity nowadays in my own life unlike in the first 40 years of my life. You get to a certain point where you need to achieve a certain stability in your relationships and in your work mode. You need to make clear commitments.
But I know that change is going to keep happening and you’ve got to be flexible and that’s the advantage of being an artist. You learn flexibility. You learn to roll with it. So I’m quite comfortable with all the dramatic changes that have gone on in the modern world, because my life has been changing the whole time anyway. As crazy and as upended as it all is, that’s the way my life has always been. So I feel a certain exhilaration . . .
I do know that 2012, according to the Mayans, is the end of it all, but people have been forecasting the end of time for thousands of years. There seems to be a certain resilience about the earth in spite of everything.
I like to do my work. I like to spend time with people I like and do a lot of yoga, get a lot of massages, do some chanting and meditation and power breathing. These are the things that keep me all balanced. And I’ve learned to stay away from negative, destructive people. But it takes time in life to learn about that, the powers of discrimination.
In my youth I embraced everything and everybody, and got myself into all kinds of mischief, the good, the bad and the ugly. Nowadays I am more circumspect, but I try to keep an open mind. I like working with a lot of young musicians and young people in general, that’s for sure. I keep learning.
Riffraf: Do musicians come in with ideas? Is it a collaboration?
Mick Rock: It’s more about an exchange of energies. I’m always open to what anybody wants to bring to the table. I have something of a reputation, having, if you like, a certain ‘pedigree’, especially based on a lot of characters and images from the 70s that people are still obsessed by. People tend to come in with a certain amount of respect for that, but I let them know that if they’ve got ideas, I’m game and if not, I’m going to take the bull by the horns and keep running and twisting and turning ‘til we squeeze out the magic!
So it’s always collaborative in a sense even if the subject is just sitting there because you are, after all, photographing them. Just their presence is a collaboration. If you review my work, in terms of setups, it’s mostly not that complicated. Occasionally the it’s more elaborate, but not so often. I tend to go for the jugular! I focus down heavily on the people themselves and just play around with lighting and angles and mood. For me those are the most important factors.
Riffraf: Like a musician, a good photographer must have good timing.
Mick Rock: Photography is about timing, very much about timing. There’s definitely a synchronicity between music and photography. There certainly is in my case. Did you get that moment? Click, click, click. The seizing of the moment. The plucking of the frame.
And quite often, I shoot rhythmically. I’ll hit a pattern. If you watch some of the videos of me at work (they’re on the internet) you get a certain sense of it. Maybe it’s slightly vampiric. I taste a little blood and then I’m off to the races, and I hit my rhythm and then these great things start to happen.
People often come in and they kind of give me a vague sense of what they want and let me run with it because it’s out of the rhythm of the way I work that the images pop.
Riffraf: Well, like the “Guitar Fellatio” photograph. You caught it just right.
Mick Rock: Well that was the right time, right place, right relationship, yes. I didn’t know it was going to happen, but there I was for the encore, on the side of the stage and, as David [Bowie] told me many years later, he wasn’t really trying to go down on Mick [Ronson’s] guitar he was just trying to gnaw on it, but Mick kept on swinging the guitar around and in fact if you check the shot out, his feet are just splayed apart, he’s not actually on his knees. But it was so effective publicity-wise that he recreated it many times from then on.