Photographer Mick Rock On David Bowie, Their Ziggy Stardust Heyday & How the Icon Saved Him

David Bowie’s mercurial assortment of alter egos  — from Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane to The Thin White Duke and the more recent Lazarus identity that posthumously inhabits Blackstar, his final album and first Billboard No. 1 — will be remembered just as much for their songs as their visages. No one captured Bowie’s unbridled devotion to his craft as poetically as Mick Rock, Bowie’s friend and official photographer between 1972-1973. (Mick Rock. The Rise of David Bowie is set to be published by Taschen next month.) Whether painting his face backstage or stomping around a stage in heels, in front of Rock’s camera, Bowie revealed himself as both an otherworldly man from mars and also completely down to earth. Here, Rock reflects on their historic partnership.

Yahoo Style: I went out dancing last night and heard “Let’s Dance” for the first time on proper club speakers. At such a loud level, I could really absorb the massive bass line and hear the tremendous depth to his voice. Are there any Bowie songs that you’ve been revisiting or hearing in a new light these days?

Mick Rock: I always think of “Life on Mars?” from Honky Dory. That was the song that really turned me on to David. But really, I couldn’t even avoid the music if I wanted to this last week because everyone is playing it everywhere. I knew David so well and have played his songs a lot when I DJ from time to time. And by the way, when I say DJ, I mean I just sort of put on records — it’s not like what my friend Mark Ronson does. I’ve always played the “Young Americans.” Of course, he later wrote a song “Afraid of Americans,” which is sort of funny if you think about it. I’ve been living in New York for probably nearly as long as David. I know all about Americans.

There is a sea of flowers outside of his New York home. What do you make of the global reaction to his death?

That tells you something about David Bowie and the reach of his fan base. I’ve been reading some of the analysis of his career and obviously there was a lot of love out there for him. So if he’s on the other side, I’m sure he wont be gloomy about it. He’ll be cheerful. He was basically a very cheerful man. He was not a dark moody soul. But, yeah, I’ve seen bald men on television waxing very empathetically about David this past week.  The fact that he’s dead puts a kind of poignancy over everything he’s done. I don’t even think he knew how many people he touched throughout his career. I’ve known him since 1972.  I remember him saying at one point during a hiatus — the years when nothing new was released or put out— “Oh, when I’m gone they’re going to forget about me, Mick.” At the time I thought, I wonder if David is looking for a little bit of sympathy today because it’s such an absurd statement.

You’ve taken some of the most definitive photos of Bowie’s career. I’m sure your phone is ringing quite a bit, too.

If it wasn’t for the yoga and massage that I do regularly, my feet wouldn’t have even touched the ground this week. It’s been —I haven’t really had time to absorb the emotion and get perspective on his death. Him and Lou Reed were friends of mine for over 40 years and for me they were always two sides of the same coin, you know: New York/London, dark and moody/bright and very communicative.

When you look back on your work with him, do you see anything differently now?

Of course. One thing I noticed in the pictures was how often David was laughing and also how often he had a cigarette in his hand. He was a chain smoker. Now I don’t know, but I’m sure it contributed to his heart thing because 20 years ago I had quadruple bypass heart surgery myself and my cardiologist went on more about the cigarettes than he did cocaine and speed. Very pernicious cigarettes are.  I’m not sure if his father — I remember him being concerned in 2002 when we were working on the first beautiful limited edition that we did for a company called Genesis publications. I remember him going on about his father — at the time, he was almost the same age as his father when he died. I can’t remember for sure, but I believe he died of cancer. I don’t know, obviously. I have no idea whether the cancer was due to the cigarettes or genetic, you know. In my family, of course they live forever. So I achieved my heart bypass surgery all on my own with no help from my genes. But in David’s case, that may have played into it, too.

The Blackstar record appears to be a meditation on the end. Do you listen to it that way?

I don’t know that he necessarily thought that this last one would be a final statement, although I know what you mean. It’s like it’s all in there — talking about being in heaven and the whole thing with the black star. It’s clear it’s some kind of epitaph to himself. He was not a dark person. That was not David’s nature. But, obviously there was some darkness — notwithstanding his general demeanor— lurking around in this record. Of course the whole Lazarus story — bringing someone back to life. Either way, it was a shock. We had been in a little communication the week before with his birthday coming up and, not that you can tell from an e-mail really, but it was his usual bouncy, friendly little e-mails. I think he was very brave to keep producing and on that level at the end of his life. If it was me, I would probably be in some obscure place trying out some whacked-out treatment. Art might be the last thing on my mind.

It’s a powerful artist statement, almost like a spiritual farewell message in a way.

if you listen to Hunky Dory, “Changes” is a very Buddhist song. I do believe, based on early conversations with him, that Ziggy Stardust was a big time Buddhist projection because he wasn’t a star when he made that album but everywhere he’s projecting it. When I met him back then, he told me that he wanted to be a star. He thought that was his destiny and of course it was. And he was.

You often captured Bowie backstage. Those images show a person in the process of becoming a persona. There is an intimacy to them.

I think you have to deduce from the pictures that he was clearly quite relaxed about the whole thing. I wouldn’t have been there if he wasn’t comfortable. I was always there by invitation. I think from the beginning he knew that I wasn’t on anyone’s masthead, nobody owned me. He was very open. Of course, we had certain things in common in terms of our taste. He was very well-read, very informed, he picked up very fast on things. I mean I went to f—ing Cambridge University and got a degree in modern languages so you’d expect me to be reasonably well informed, But he left school at 15. He was very self-educated; he likes to read. As does in recent years Iggy pop, which might be a little unexpected but it’s true.

I was also struck by the fact that he appears to be doing his own makeup.

Well, he had Pierre La Roche, or “Pierre La Poof” as they used to call him because he was such a f—ing queen. I mean he was a f—ing great makeup artist. He did the makeup on the “Life on Mars?” video. It’s not my photograph, but he did the makeup on the Aladdin Sane cover. which is the image that has been the most scene over the past couple years although my short in the mirror has been banded about a decent amount, too. But, one of the reasons is that they didn’t always have the money to pay for a makeup artist. Pierre always claimed he didn’t get paid anyway because David’s manager was a dubious character, shall we say. But that was rock n’ roll in those days. When he went to Japan in early ’73, he saw Noh theater. You know, to a white boy who didn’t speak Japanese the difference between them was marginal. He was given a set of makeup from them —  you can see the little makeup box on the side in a lot of my photos. And the colors are particularly bright as they are in kabuki and Noh theater.

His showmanship was like kabuki, but with a type of flamboyant grittiness.

Well, Lindsay Kemp taught him all about makeup, too. He’s a mime choreographer that  David worked with for a couple years in the late ′60s. Lindsay was very camp — as camp as a row of tents. Without a doubt, David learned a lot from him about projection about costuming and the importance of makeup and the importance of the presentation. I have enough picture of Lindsey to do a book.

Even though he was known for his outlandish persona in the early days, your photos offer a private view of his methodical manner.

He was very intuitive. He was very organized even through the craziness. That show that’s touring the world [David Bowie is], they couldn’t have done it without David ’s huge archive. He kept everything. The only thing he doesn’t have is the handwritten lyrics to “The Jean Genie” because I’ve got them. People have offered me all kinds of money for them over the years and I’ve said, “I dunno man. If I were to sell this to you, I wouldn’t have it anymore.” And it’s irreplaceable, you know. It’s like one of the original prints I made for Transformer — in those days I used to make my own prints — and I can’t replace it. Even when I’ve been broke I couldn’t let go of them, you know?

I’ve recently come across stories of Bowie acting as a paternal figure of sorts to Iggy Pop, Nina Simone, Nile Rodgers, and Klaus Nomi at various stages in their careers. Is this something that you witnessed as well?

I never asked him why, but between the two books we did together, he must have done over 4,000 book signings. He co-signed every one. But I only know what I know. I hadn’t seen him in five or six years although we had decent amount of communication. I’m still a bit… wow. For me, him and Lou both being now gone. I knew them both for so long. In my bad periods, when I was hiding away form the world, they were kind to me—both of them. I mean, I was dead broke in 1996. I had my bypass surgery and I was broke and I didn’t own anything. My reputation was not so good because people were realizing I wasn’t in such a great state. I walked to the brink; I had three heart attacks. He was very supportive — doing these books, sending me flowers when I was in hospital, sending me money. We judge David by his actions. That’s how you knew David.

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