The Mick Rock Interview, Part II
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: In your photographs of Syd Barrett, you can see an accursed poet. He had a reputation of being difficult. Was he?
Mick Rock: No, quite the opposite. Syd and me were very comfortable together. I think that was why I got the pictures I got. I took acid with him once, just one time. And whenever I say it to people they think, Oh, my God, that must have been weird. But it wasn’t.
It was actually quite relaxed and very playful. We had a lot of fun, and we played records and looked at Robert Crumb comics and played like a kind of Chinese checkers game. I still remember certain things about it and it was entirely playful. I did have some pretty bizarre experiences with certain people under the influence of acid but not with Syd.
It was more with Syd about the pressures. I did actually the last interview with him, and that’s where that phrase, ‘a very irregular head,’ comes from and ‘I’m full of dust and guitars.’ That was from the very last public interview he ever did, not long after I finished at Cambridge in 1971.
That’s when I did the very last pictures of him in the garden of his mother’s house and down in the basement where he had a pad.
So I got on with Syd. I often have to remind myself and remind people when I’m talking about those early years, how young we all were. Everyone was in their early 20s. My daughter’s 21 now, and I look back and think of all the craziness I was up to at 21, including taking photos of Syd.
And I think it was a very accelerated kind of time, not just for me, but for the people I hung around with. It was a time when there was still something called the ‘underground’ where all this creativity happened . . . not in the political sense because I had little interest in it and still don’t. I’ve never voted in my life. I despise all politicians.
Maybe Winston Churchill you can take your hat off to, but even he had a checkered early career. It was only his facing down of Hitler that transformed him into this very substantial person. He’s a fascinating man. But in general, politicians are undoubtedly a lower form of human life. They’re in the business of lying and manipulation.
And, if you get someone who comes along who’s not so bad, like Obama, even he’s forced into all kinds of compromises by the circumstances. I’m sure he’s got a fairly pure heart, but he’s stuck with the fact that he’s black and with racism that’s still rife in this country, and the powers that be that really control what happens . . . but that’s a whole other tale.
Riffraf: At the time of the Madcap Laughs, do you think Syd was relieved from the pressures of Pink Floyd?
Mick Rock: I think he was relieved from having to play the same songs every night. In the same way. He was really more like a jazz musician in many ways. He thought like a painter. Like an abstract painter. That’s really what he was for the rest of his life. And what he had been originally since a young age.
A book of his art came out last year. There aren’t many of his actual physical paintings left—but the interesting thing was that he would photograph his paintings and then destroy them.
In recent years I reconnected with a girlfriend of Syd’s, Jenny Spires. And she has some of his original paintings, as well as a collection of Syd’s love letters to her. She’s referred to as ‘Jennifer Gentle’ in the early Floyd track ‘Lucifer Sam’.
Riffraf: I want to ask you one more question about Syd.
Riffraf: What did you guys talk about?
Mick Rock: We talked about Syd, and he had recently met Lou and Iggy. You’ve got to remember Lou and Iggy were not that well known at that moment in time. They both had a certain underground following, but that was before Transformer and Raw Power, and in either case had they been able to sell any records or get radio airplay.
I remember talking about Syd and Iggy and Lou Reed in the first of my conversations with David Bowie. I think that’s why we got on. We had certain tastes in common and you have to remember again, in 1972, those tastes were maybe slightly more esoteric than they are today.
Riffraf: I know Bowie used to go to the Floyd shows, the underground shows at the UFO Club.
Mick Rock: It was to see Syd. It was Syd that really obsessed him, not particularly Pink Floyd. And the other thing about Syd was he sang like an Englishman. David sort of almost invented singing like an Englishman, but the precursor was Syd Barrett. Even in the case of The Beatles you could hear Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers and occasionally Little Richard or something. And the Stones were totally American influenced of course.
‘Arnold Layne was a strange fellow.’ That’s a totally British thing. David also sang with this English intonation which certainly influenced just about all significant succeeding British rock and rollers.
And then along comes Bryan Ferry. He was another of the British school. And a great singer/songwriter called Steve Harley who had a band called Cockney Rebel who, certainly in Europe in the 70s, was very significant.
Riffraf: I suppose that Syd was influenced by Ray Davies and his English-isms.
Mick Rock: Maybe. But I don’t recall Syd being particularly interested in The Kinks. Ray [Davies] didn’t sound that English early on. Think of ‘You Really Got Me.’ But by the time he got to ‘Lola,’ yes.
Besides the obvious like Dylan and the Stones and The Beatles, which we all loved, Syd was interested in jazz. That’s what he often played. Coltrane and Mingus. In a way he thought more like a jazz musician. It was always about improvisation and I think that was the thing with Floyd. He didn’t want to go out and play the same music every night. He wanted to just do whatever he felt like.
He was about the blues as well, but he mixed up all these influences and it became Pink Floyd which didn’t sound like anything you’d ever heard before and it was certainly the result of his LSD experiments. Although, at that time, I don’t think the rest of the band had taken acid, not at the beginning.
Riffraf: You can’t get away from Syd. In Tom Stoppard’s play Rock ‘n’ Roll, the Syd character looms large although he’s not a character in the play itself.
And, of course, the afterword’s by a gentleman called Andrew Loog Oldham who I got to know in New York in the late 70s. He was the original manager and producer and publicist of the Rolling Stones. A genius, no doubt.
For that book I wanted to get a kind of slightly different flavor rather than going to somebody obvious and getting them to write a foreword because I’ve done collaborations with Queen and with Debbie [Harry] and with David and Iggy and even with Rocky Horror.
I have a great Rocky Horror book out in Germany for which Richard O’Brien, who wrote the musical and who plays Riffraf in the film, wrote the foreword for. It’s in both German and English although it is of course primarily a photobook.
And now I finally got around to doing a book with Lou Reed.
Riffraf: I’m glad Lou agreed to do that with you.
Mick Rock: Well, I think it’s about timing. It’s 40 years since Transformer. I’ve been often approached about doing it, but it was never going to happen without Lou’s full participation. I always involve the subjects of my books. And I have a deep and abiding respect for Lou both as a person and an artist, and I want him to be totally happy about the end result. I’m just scanning pictures and sending them over to him and he’s picking out what he likes. We’ll both write a foreword for the book and we’ll co-sign. It’ll be a beautiful signed and numbered and slipcased limited edition tome, to be published by Genesis Publications, with whom I did my collaborations with Bowie and Queen. And Syd, who co-signed 320 copies of our book Psychedelic Renegades, which was his only public gesture over the last 35 years of his life. The co-signed copies are now selling for several thousand dollars, if you can find them . . .
Of course, Lou has an interesting, somewhat combative public reputation in his maturity, but he shows one side to journalists, and that’s only a little bit of Lou Reed. The full man is much more interesting and complex. And has been very kind to a number of people I know.
Mick Rock: I think I was a little in awe of all of them: Syd, David, Lou Reed. Lou, especially back in those days, was such a groundbreaker. We were all a bit in awe of Lou Reed, certainly David was too.
And Freddie, of course, an awesome talent. And Iggy Pop. Absolutely. He was a primal force, the like of which has never been equalled in rock n roll. When punk rock came along in full force a few years later, it was kind of amateur time compared to Iggy. It was like . . . this is punk?