The number of classic album cover photos by Mick Rock is astonishing. Lou Reed’s Transformer, Coney Island Baby, and Rock & Roll Heart; Queen’s Queen II and Sheer Heart Attack, Iggy Pop’s Raw Power, Syd Barrett’s The Madcap Laughs; Joan Jett and the Blackhearts’ I Love Rock and Roll; and the Ramones’ End of the Century are just some of the iconic imagery from the British photographer, whose work captured the spirit and soul of his subjects. And beyond album art, Rock has photographed rock and pop stars inside clubs, at parties, in the street, and at home, and while he’s best known for his work in the ’70s art and glam rock scene, he also shot photos and videos for pioneers of punk, metal, hip-hop, and indie rock.
Rock’s subjects trusted him because he was from the same place — not necessarily geographically, but mentally and socially. They were comfortable around him, and he captured their personalities in his images. At the same time, he immersed himself so deeply in the culture that he nearly drowned in it.
Rock’s first adventures in photography were in England taking photos of Syd Barrett with a friend’s camera while tripping on acid. The experience was revelatory for him, and in addition to enamoring himself to Barrett, it gave him a rush that rivaled his best sex and drug experiences. By the mid-’70s he was hooked on speed and cocaine — and as he says in the new documentary Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock, when he was in New York, “There wasn’t an orgy or party that I wasn’t invited to.”
The fast-paced editing of Shot!, directed by Barnaby Clay (who has worked on shorts for Rihanna, Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan, and TV on the Radio), is the perfect way to chronicle Rock’s life, and as he captures one fantastic image after another, he continues to spiral until he reaches rock bottom. Between scenes of Rock displaying his work and telling stories, there are surreal vignettes of the photographer on a table, wearing an oxygen mask. Electrodes are taped to his chest, and his life flashes past him in a series of rapid-fire imagery. As much as Shot! depicts and even celebrates Rock’s debauched lifestyle, it emphasizes the consequences. In his 40s, Rock suffered a cocaine-related heart attack that required quadruple bypass surgery.
As revealing as he is about his own passions, quirks, and indulgences, Rock guards the stories of those with whom he experienced some of his wildest moments. In a conversation with Yahoo Music, he addresses the types of relationships he had with many of his subjects and party-mates — especially Bowie, Reed, and Pop — but he stops short of revealing much about their extracurricular activities.
When talking to Rock, it’s easy enough to read between the lines (so to speak), and Shot! pulls no punches when addressing Rock at his worst. But the movie emphasizes that even when he was severely inebriated or stoned, he could still sling a camera with the natural grace of Eric Clapton playing a guitar.
Yahoo Music: You began shooting ex-Pink Floyd member Syd Barrett and the Pretty Things professionally without any real knowledge of lighting, shutter speed, or depth of field. How did you pull that off?
Mick Rock: Bit by bit, I did learn that stuff, but it didn’t seem that complicated to me. It seemed natural, and I loved it. Of course nowadays, it’s even less complicated. Two or three years ago, there was this big picture in the paper of a monkey. I thought, “Well that’s a very fine portrait.” Apparently, a photographer who was into shooting wildlife was shooting him. Somehow this monkey got the camera from the guy and starting playing around with it and took some shots of himself. But the best part of it all was the lawsuit that happened afterwards. People picked up on the shot and started running it. And the photographer said, “But that was my camera and my film. I should have the copyright to it!”
You were a well-read, college-educated, spiritual individual who discovered photography while tripping on acid. Was there a relationship between your camera lens and the third eye that many seek to open with psychedelic drugs?
In the beginning, acid was integral to the experience for me. Without acid and without rock ’n’ roll, I wouldn’t have been a photographer. I thought I might be some sort of mad poet, like Charles Baudelaire or Arthur Rimbaud. Then I was dinkering around with my friend’s camera until I could afford a few dollars for a secondhand camera, and suddenly this world opened up to me.
In Shot! you play cassettes of old interviews you did with Lou Reed and David Bowie. And Bowie says something interesting and prescient. He says something like, “None of this is real. It’s all illusory, and we are the false prophets.”
Yes, and he said that early on. I was occasionally doing interviews with musicians as well as taking pictures. And that interview took place in May of 1972, about a month before the release of Ziggy Stardust, right after the release of “Starman.”
What’s your favorite early Bowie story?
Well, some of them I’m not gonna tell you. Naughty boy!
Do they involve copious amounts of recreational pharmaceuticals?
That came a little later. It wasn’t that at the beginning, not those first few years. There was a little bit about, but there wasn’t that much in England.
Was there more of it in America?
There was in New York. And for me it really got going once I started going there regularly after 1976, when Lou Reed flew me over to do a couple of album covers for him. I did the images on the Lou Reed “Rock and Roll” tour, and in those days Lou was not a believer in sleep. In fact, he rarely slept for very long. So I was working on those images. We’d been up for four days. True, there was a little stimulation going on, ’cause Lou liked stimulation of a chemical variety in those days. I said, “Lou, I need to crash.” And he looked at me and said, “Oh, Mick. Don’t be a p***y. We’ve only just warmed up.” Now, I did go and crash — and he stayed up for another three days, causing mayhem.
Was Lou Reed a whirlwind of debauchery back then?
He was a very interesting man. He was probably the most complex of all the people I worked with over the years, and of course, I did work with Lou extensively. One time, Lou had bank of 60 TV screens, and we stayed up for long periods of time producing these whacked-out feedback images. Around that time was when I started to explore the underbelly of the beast. And that’s when sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll was getting up to serious dimensions, because it was the harder drugs. It was the cocaine. And the cocaine in New York was f***ing great. I have to say that. But, of course, it sucked me in, and for 20 years I couldn’t wriggle out of it, until I hit the hospital bed — which Barney [director Barnaby Clay], of course, has made a big f***ing fuss out of. That wasn’t my idea, all that hospital stuff.
Lou Reed was extremely intelligent, but he had a reputation for being cranky. He was certainly hostile to many journalists.
If he was your friend, he was a sweetie. He cultivated a reputation for being difficult, but some of that was him messing around. He loved having that image of being cantankerous, but that’s not how I experienced him. He would show up at events even if I hadn’t seen him in eight years. He was a sweet man. David and Lou for me were always the two sides of the same coin.
David was London, Lou was New York. David was bright, Lou was dark. David was Mr. Charm. Lou played that Mr. Difficult game. But for me, they were two sides of the most important and relevant energy centers in modern culture.
In the movie you show numerous shots of Lou and David together. What was it like when the two of them were at the same party?
They were fun. They liked each other. They joked and laughed a lot. Lou had a great sense of humor. David always did. There was a light spirit in the air. It was not some heavy, overloaded, meaningful thing. They liked each other. And, of course, they produced this incredible album Transformer, which to date is Lou’s most successful album.
The cover shot you took for that is fantastic.
That moment, that image. That bonded Lou and me early on. I think I’d only met him a couple times before I shot that. And I did it a day before I shot the Raw Power cover for Iggy Pop — at the same venue. I always thought they were shot a week apart. I told people that for years, but in fact they might very well have been shot in the same 24-hour period. Lou went on around midnight and Iggy went on about 8:30 or 9 p.m. A lot of people don’t realize those are both live shots.
Iggy Pop is another fascinating character. Onstage he’s so explosive and angry, yet in person he’s thoughtful and articulate.
He was another actor. He was like Lou, but he played it a bit rougher. Even before Raw Power, when he did “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” [sings] “1969 OK, all across the USA.” On first listen, it doesn’t sound profound. But of course, “I Wanna Be Your Dog” is an amazing song. It stands up even today. He was always extremely bright, but back in those days, as he told me, “I hated everybody and everything.” He even hated the Raw Power cover. He changed his mind years later, but at that moment in time he was very angry about it and about the world and life.
What’s the most explosive thing you saw him do?
Let me see what I feel OK talking about. I mean, I never actually saw him get a blowjob onstage, but he talked to me about it while the Stooges were in England trying to dry out.
Who was the most difficult person you’ve shot?
Most people came to play. But three or four years ago, I shot deadmau5, and he definitely didn’t want to be there — until he saw a book of mine, and in it was a double-page spread of Tommy Lee. As it turned out, he and Tommy were big goombahs. And after that, he was very easy. But until he saw the picture of Tommy, he actually told me, “I really don’t want to do this. What are we gonna do about it?” And I thought, “Well, let me show him this book” — not that I knew that was going to do it — just so he understood I’ve been around the block a minute or two. But thank goodness for that picture.
Who do you think today has the resonance, the star power, and the glow of a Lou Reed, David Bowie, or Freddie Mercury?
Immediately, Bruno Mars comes to mind. I think he’s amazingly talented. I haven’t shot him yet, but certainly I’m well game for it. He’s multitalented. Most of the British rock ’n’ rollers came from extremely modest backgrounds, and I think Iggy did too, but Bruno came from the back end of nowhere. But I think he has a great attitude and is very bright. And he definitely has that snap, crackle, and pop.
One of your images that stirred controversy was a 1973 shot of Bowie and Lou Reed kissing on the mouth. It’s absurd that something like that would cause public outrage, especially since the culture was all about experimentation and liberation, but back then people were shocked.
They were in that game. It’s hard for people to understand how David, Lou, and Iggy, between the three of them, upset a lot of people. They were seen as very subversive. And by the standards of the time, of course, they were. Nowadays I don’t know how you scandalize anybody. You go on the Internet and you can see anything, including this peculiar set of yogis…
Peculiar set of what?
Yogis. There are yogis that actually eat corpses. I saw a clip on the Internet. The man who does all my scanning, printing, and retouching is Indian and he’s a Sikh. We’re very close. I trust him with any of my images, which is not normal, because I don’t trust anybody. I’ve been ripped off so many times. But he showed me a video of these mother***ers hacking off bits of limbs and chomping away. They were corpses. To my knowledge they hadn’t gone out and actually killed anybody just ’cause they were getting hungry and there weren’t any corpses around. But it was certainly extreme.
Speaking of yogis and their practices, it’s interesting that you’ve done yoga and stood on your head before photo shoots for years, even when you were in the throes of drug addiction. Does one balance out the other?
It was just another way of experimenting. If I’d been up for five days coked to the gills and indulging in deep sexuality, if I stood on my head for a half-hour I could have more sex for another 12 hours. It was beyond tantric. I couldn’t do it now. I’d f***ing die. But I could get up to a lot of experimental tricks back in those days. I still love to shoot, but then I’m a big yoga and massage fiend, so that pumps me up and gives me this constant flow of energy. And no more drugs, just a little coffee.