Legendary glam/punk photographer Mick Rock is a primary player in music/ rock history, having provided some of the most iconic rock imagery to grace the careers and album covers of artists like Bowie, Blondie, Lou Reed, Queen and Iggy Pop.
Rock captured key moments from classic concerts including that iconic shot of Bowie performing fellatio on Mick Ronson’s guitar during the Ziggy Stardust era. He also designed the album covers of Bowie’s Space Oddity, Lou Reed’s Transformer, Iggy and The Stooges’ Raw Power and directed many of Bowie’s music videos.
Rock’s unruly work MO was also a lifestyle choice. Integrating hard partying and meditation into his photography/practice by saturating himself in the event he was covering instead of adopting the role of a passive observer, yet Rock provided some outstanding imagery as a result.
Some of his antics involving controversially combining cocaine with yoga and dropping acid with Syd Barrett during the early days of his career. Rock’s style signaled him out as more than just a paparazzi hack for hire but as respected and equal an artist as those he was photographing/ working with.
In the sensational new documentary Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock, Mick Rock’s incredible life and career stories are told on screen. HeyUGuys recently caught up with the man himself to talk about his work and the dazzling new documentary about him.
Hello Daniel, yes all good. I like talking to young journalists. They help give me a new perspective on things. It’s a great perspective. I’m not saying anything positive but I’m not saying anything negative either. It just gives me a new spin.
How did it feel being on the other side of the lens for once?
Well, in the recent years I’ve been on the other side quite a lot. I tell you what it is though, the culture has so many outlets that it’ll film fucking anything, if you start shooting photographers, interviewing them. And it doesn’t even stop there, photographers are nothing, look at cooks. Many of the big stars today are fucking cooks! It’s like “Oh you can cook fish and chips? Well, I’ll make you a star”. But these are the times we live in. I don’t mind. I’ve been shot loads of times. There have been hours shot of me over the years. Doing interviews, working on my art work, shooting Kabuki, you name it, I’m very use to it. It’s an interesting experience and I hated it for ages but it got better. Now I don’t think much about it.
Shot! really caught the mood of the 70s, it wasn’t just a typical documentary it really felt embedded in the time. How did you go about achieving that?
I hope so. Barney [Clay, director] and I always communicated heavily about it and how it had to be different. Otherwise what’s the point. I know we put a lot of stuff about my cocaine antics in there but I didn’t want it to be just about titillation. Let the pictures speak for themselves, you don’t need the rest of it. In that Robert Mapplethorpe documentary, it went on so much about his fucking sex life. I thought it was more in the titillation business. I knew Robert well but that film [Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures] trivialised his work by over-emphasising the sex and drugs. They didn’t let the images speak for themselves. Unfortunately Robert died of AIDS. He lived it up too much. I mean, I lived it too but not in a way that exposed me. I saw what was going on. I went to gay clubs but I didn’t get a big… “whatever” up my bottom. I went to check things out. I was a checker outer.
I liked Barney though. I chose him to direct it. The upside, and the downside, was that he had never done a documentary before. I say that because I didn’t want something with a load of talking heads. We wanted to do a much more interesting thing and Barney was of that thinking. At the time he was under forty which was good because I didn’t want someone with an old perspective. Barney had a good sense of style. He did get a little bit overly caught up in my heart bypass surgery though. Fucking film-makers get excited by near death experiences. One thing I said to him was “Look Barney, I’m not a fucking junkie. No matter how crazy I might have been at one part, that twenty year period of my life”. But I haven’t stopped being relevant. I had to remind people of that. Anyway, it is what it is. We had a screening and I wrote reams of criticisms about it but it got better and now I’m happy to promote it. Do I love it? I don’t know. Am I ambiguous about it? Yeah, of course. It’s about me.
You practiced a lot of transcendental meditation and yoga too and incorporated that into your work and processes which was interesting. You also used a device referred to in the doc as a brain machine? What was that?
The brain machine is very important. I carry that everywhere with me and I have done for twenty plus years. Before I even got sick-I don’t know how much you know about meditation or how much you’ve experienced. As well as working on your glands and organs, yoga and meditation, the brain machine works on your perception. How you see things. These things open you up to experiences in a different way. For many years now, I’ve been practicing Kundalini yoga with Sikhs and its very important and… you know what, I don’t want to bore anyone about this. Best we stick to the titillation.
Ha ha, OK fair enough.
Yes, the yoga is an important factor but there was a twenty year period when I did snort half of fucking Bolivia, throughout which I was still doing yoga. I wasn’t using heroin and I wasn’t drinking. Which I think was very important as they zap creativity. Saying that it didn’t do any harm to Keith Richards but I think most of the time those drugs have bad effects. Especially heroin which just makes people sit around a lot. But then you’ve got Lou Reed who had his lot but then in later years did he Thai Chi and was very clean for a very long time.
Do you think the modern music scene has lost its edge now? Has it become too safe and sterilised?
Well, it’s not lost it’s total edge, we’re just at a later phase when most people don’t regard rock as being particularly rebellious. Back then it was like living on the edge like bandits, outside the law. Now we live in more innocent times, culturally. Today everyone’s seen everything so maybe there isn’t a place for risk takers. You can go on the internet and see what the fuck is going on there, everything! All is revealed whether good, bad or indifferent. It is what it is.
There seems to be less rock music in the traditional sense. What about cinema, do you think there has ever been a rebellious cinematic equivalent of glam/punk?
What, like the French New Wave which pre-dated both? Maybe. You had people like Pasolini but this was back in the sixties. I think the Italians had a better grip on culture and art back then. I can’t think of a particular English director who had that edgy sensibility. I can think of European films, definitely and even some American films but not the English. Back then it was all fucking boring kitchen sink dramas. I thought they were fucking awful. Did people really want to watch that? I mean, there were really good performances and you had the likes of Pinter’s The Caretaker but I would rather watch Lawrence Of Arabia and a couple of other Peter O’Toole films. He had a real edge more than a particular style or fashion.
Recently, I did a Laurence Olivier double bill. I watched Marathon Man in which he plays this… fucking Nazi, the equivalent of that white angel. What’s his name? That famous Nazi they hunted for years in South America who died by drowning. Anyway, after that I did The Boys From Brazil in which he played Ezra Lieberman. I thought that was very punk rock of him. Two completely biometrically opposed characters back to back in movies. He was something else. Laurence Olivier and Brando. It’s hard to find actors like that now. I mean yes, Al Pacino in Scarface. He did some decent work and De Niro used to do some really good stuff. I’m not so sure about his modern work but the gangster movies were fabulous. I’m trying to think of an equivalent English director that has great skill. A lot of them are into the overblown, over produced, high tech. I mean that stuff is alright, I don’t object to it but it’s not what turns me on.
Many rely too much on technology and set pieces over characters and story.
Yeah, Technology has its place. There’s no doubt about it. It may be my age but I like watching old 1940s black and white movies.
Did you take well to digital technology?
Yeah! People talk to me about that. What’s fucking wrong with digital photography? All I need is access to imagery. I never really cared about the technology of things. I have an Indian friend who works with me on all my post production. The scanning and enhancing of images. My new Bowie book, the one I did with David before he died. I was able to go in and re-master all the photographs, bring out all the background detail, even in the black and white. He can do anything with digital and art work. Maybe I can do a fundamental thing beforehand but then I go in with him, and he’s a Sikh, of course. I say “of course” because I’ve been studying Kundalini at a yoga retreat for the last seventeen years but that’s another story. I mean it’s touched on in the documentary. But that has helped my work and perception too. The years have not diminished it
I know I’m not on the cutting edge but nobody is. There is no cutting edge today. Everything seems to be exploding into something else. It’s a different time but I don’t mind. It is what it is. I’m not a nostalgic person. I deal with the past a lot and I’m happy to talk about it but it’s not that I’m nostalgic for it. It’s more that most other people are nostalgic for it. I’m not complaining though because it’s made me a lot of money to be honest with you which wasn’t something I really cared about in those days because I was young.
The people you worked with seemed the type to want to remain ripe and not cling to the past in an artistic sense.
Certainly David Bowie was, right up to the end. Blackstar was unlike anything I had ever heard before. He always refused to repeat himself. Same with Lou to a degree and even Iggy. If you listen to his latest album with the guy from Queens of the Stone Age.
Yes! Post-Pop Depression.
Brilliant album. He’s still going strong. There are some great artists out there today but they don’t represent culture in the same way. There are also a lot of corpses out there too, from my younger years. David, Lou, Freddie Mercury, Syd Barrett. Unfortunately it was the drugs that got to Syd. He could have had it all. Not everybody is able to grasp their destiny which I think is something that we touch on in the documentary. Everybody has a destiny but not everybody comes to grips with it and some people can’t deal with it. Me, I was just ploughing on. But it took a near death experience and for the past to catch up before I could get back to the present. First you’ve got to survive.
And you’ve got another new book coming out too?
Yes the Transformer book which Lou and I did with Genesis publications who I did the first Bowie book with. Lou and I did one just before he died but we held back publication out of respect. And then there’s the new Bowie one which has swamped out everything else because the response has been so huge. Partly because it’s David obviously and then him dying but that is definitely happening. I think it’s November. I’m going to meet with the publisher again on Friday to flesh out how we’re going to launch and where etc. There could be a couple of other books too but I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. Can’t get away from it man.
Thanks very much for your time and talking to us Mick.
Thanks very much man.
Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock is released in UK cinemas on 21st July. You can read our 5* review of the film here.