Mick Rock doc and my 2014 interview

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Here’s yours truly hanging and gabbing with the very entertaining MICK ROCK (the dude with the hair) last night in London.

We were talking about Barnaby Clay’s SHOT!, the (very entertaining) new doc about Mick… and thus inevitably about Iggy, Lou, Syd, and of course Ziggy Bowie.

The film is a gas gas gas, boasting all those timeless images PLUS audio conversations with Bowie and a bilious-sounding Lou Reed from 1976 (Mick did the covers not only for Transformer but for Coney Island Baby and Rock & Roll Heart.) A major revelation from the film was that Mick’s white knights after his heart attack were none other than Andrew Loog Oldham and – of all people – the notorious Allen Klein.

I first met Mick 20 years ago when I took the ferry to his Staten Island apartment to interview him for my Glam! book (and to discuss using his pix in it). He was skint at the time – and recovering from a triple-bypass heart op, to boot – but was gracious, generous, and admirably self-deprecating. He deserves all the success he’s enjoyed since then as the premier visual chronicler of ’70s glamour and decadence – the man who “shot the ’70s” and the man who links Baudelaire to Biba.

Three years ago, Mick called to say that Bowie himself had suggested I do the Q&A with him (Mick) for Taschen’s Rise of David Bowie book. You can read it below

Rock on, Michael David Rock!

That 2014 interview

You couldn’t make the name up: as the man himself says in the interview that follows, “Mick Rock” sounds like a cartoon character, a distillation of ’70s pop culture in two onomatopoeic syllables. But Mick Rock is the real name of the photographer whose images captured and defined Glam Rock in the first half of that decade: the real name of the Cambridge graduate who, in the spring of 1972, documented the rise and rise of David Bowie in his brilliant incarnation as Ziggy Stardust.

Though he’d made his cartoonish name with a striking album cover for former Pink Floyd frontman Syd Barrett – a personal hero of Bowie’s – Mick couldn’t have been in a better place or time than the eye of the Glam storm that swirled about Bowie in ’72. The thrilling, outlandish images in this book attest to the unparalleled access Mick had to the star who became, and remains, his friend.

Could a photographer have been gifted with a more charismatic and iconic subject? Mick is self-effacing enough to admit the good fortune of the Glam zeitgeist in which he found himself. But it was his images of Bowie – onstage, backstage, in the studio, off-duty at home or in transit – that fixed Ziggy Stardust at the epicentre of ’70s pop.

Here, then, is Mick Rock talking about his heady days with David in the peak years of Glam Rock’s teenage revolution.

 

What brought you and David Bowie together for the first time in early 1972?

I was working in a darkroom at the offices of Oz magazine, and there was a pile of promo records with holes in the corners. Felix Dennis, who managed the magazine, said to me, “Help yourself”. And there was Hunky Dory, so I took it home and played the life out of it – especially “Life On Mars?”

At the time I was writing short pieces for Rolling Stone and illustrating them with photos. I’d been to Cambridge and could cobble together a few words. I had done a piece on Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd. I’d also done one on Rory Gallagher, whose first three album covers I shot.

When David said “I go both ways”, it got people’s attention. So I talked to Andrew Bailey – the London editor of Rolling Stone – and said, “What about Bowie?” He said, “Yeah, okay. He’s been saying a few interesting things lately”. At the same time a friend of mine, the art director of Club International, said he wanted a music section at the front before you got to the boobies and bottoms – something a little provocative, I suppose. So that was commissioned too.

Anya Wilson, David’s very attractive blond publicist, met me at Liverpool Street station and took me up to a gig in Birmingham. She brought me backstage to introduce me to David, and he let me take the first pictures I ever shot of him. And then I took some performance shots during the show. A day or two later I went out to his house in Beckenham and interviewed him.

You once said that glam rock evolved out of the more flamboyant aspects of hippie fashion in the late ’60s. Is it fair to say that even Syd Barrett slightly anticipated the androgyny of glam?

Well, David loved Syd, for a start. And in the most famous pictures of Syd – the ones from the Madcap Laughs album sessions – you can see he’s got eye makeup on.

You have to remember that I was a student at Cambridge wearing bright bellbottoms and long hair. The aspect of hippiedom that appealed to many of us was the prettier side of it. Because that’s where all the good-looking girls were!

You’ve also got to remember David himself on the cover of The Man Who Sold The World in his Mr. Fish medieval dress. That androgynous thing was very big in a certain strain of London hippie. Mickey Finn [later of T.Rex] was running about looking very flamboyant. Lots of velvet and lace.  Not every hippie was grubby or wearing beards and beads.

Bowie has admitted that glam couldn’t have happened without T. Rex’s Marc Bolan. The two of them later fell out. Do you remember why?

I never remember David saying anything negative about Marc. To be honest, I don’t remember him talking much about Marc at all. He was pretty self-consumed, and understandably so. But I think Marc had a rivalry thing about David. I mean, Marc was the king of the road there, certainly for most of 1971. He was the second coming of the Beatles in the UK media. And then Ziggy Stardust came along and Marc’s star dimmed by comparison.

Should we think of Bowie as more of an avant-garde artist than a pop star?

David used to talk of himself as a Xerox machine, picking up impressions all over the place. He brought in a lot of elements: the Warhol thing, the Velvet Underground, Jacques Brel, Kabuki, the Living Theatre, A Clockwork Orange. Lindsay Kemp was a huge influence. And of course the futuristic space thing, which Roxy Music got into as well. David absorbed things so fast. He made the concoction so rich and thick.

We know that Bowie took a great deal from his 1971 visit to New York, but it’s interesting that in his foreword to your book Glam! An Eyewitness Account (2001), he sticks up for London: “We really did have our own drag queens and drugs, thank you very much…”

There were certainly drag queens and drugs, but it was a lighter and brighter mélange. There’s no doubt that New York was darker, more depraved than London. I stayed on in New York after David’s 1972 tour, and Lou Reed took me to places you’d never have found in London. As hip as I thought I was, in New York’s underworld I was like an innocent abroad.

What David brought back from New York was the street-edge danger that was not in London, that was absolutely in New York.  And that was what Marc never had – that edgy, sharp, truly bisexual aura that appealed to us more pretentious little buggers.

London was definitely prettier, and it really was less degenerate. Very naughty, but not really dark and wicked. There wasn’t the sheer volume of amphetamine that there was in New York, and that was a major factor at Warhol’s Factory and a major factor for Lou Reed. I never saw that much speed in London, but I saw tons in New York.

How did you start out as a photographer?

I was just playing around, really. The idea of being a photographer didn’t excite me nearly as much as the idea of being a whacked-out symbolist poet. If I hadn’t shot Syd Barrett and got so excited about those pictures, my path might have been very different. By the fall of 1969 I had a battered Pentax camera that I got from a mate for forty quid. I still had literary aspirations, but I was enjoying the non-intellectual inner process that the camera was opening up for me. When people ask me what inspired me, it was really the charisma of a lot of my early subjects. It certainly wasn’t other photographers.

What did you learn once you started shooting?

I learned early on not to get too hung up on technique: just get the bloody picture! A lot of my early film I processed myself, and a lot of it was grainy because of the low light levels I was working with. I never used a light meter, I just used to guess.

By the time I was doing studio work – like the Bowie saxophone session in 1973 – I’d acquired a Hasselblad and I was using Polaroid. I do remember Horst saying that he didn’t understand modern photographers’ obsession with all the technical stuff. He said, “I mostly work with one light and I just move it around till I see what I like.” And that was kind of a validation of my own non-linear approach.

The key thing is that I wasn’t inhibited at all. When young photographers ask me for advice, I normally just say “Follow your obsessions. Try and build up a collection, where the sum total of all the parts is more valuable than the single session.”

Did Bowie critique your images of him? Did he have strong ideas about how he wanted to be photographed?

He seemed to like the photos I did from early on. He responded really well to the session I did at his home in Beckenham, the one that produced the now-iconic mirror shot. Every frame had a certain magic. He told his manager Tony DeFries on reviewing them that “Mick sees me the way I see myself.” Which I was delighted to hear, because it was important to me that he really liked them.

I don’t recall him ever telling me how to photograph him. The same with the videos we did: “Life On Mars”, “Space Oddity”. “Jean Genie” and “John, I’m Only Dancing”. I learned a lot just watching and listening to him. And at the back of my mind always was the inspirational music that generated the creative energy which whirled around him.

Presumably there has to be a good rapport between the photographer and his subject. Did that happen instantly between you and Bowie?

I think the thing with me in those early days was that a) I wasn’t owned by anybody, b) I had no agenda, I wasn’t like a smartass journalist, and c) I did interviews as well as take photographs. As a result, David and I got to know more about each other’s thoughts and interests.

I remember going with David, Angie [Bowie] and my [then] wife Sheila to see a Joan Littlewood production. I can’t remember what it was, maybe a revival of Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’be. David was already very knowledgeable about actors and directors, whereas I had no familiarity with the theatre scene. I also remember going down the Sombrero club in High Street Kensington with him. It was a very hip, predominantly gay disco with a multi-coloured Perspex dancefloor – rich older queens and their young pickings, very exotic by the standards of the times. And then whenever he had a gig he’d invite me along.

At that first Birmingham gig there were only a few hundred people, but they were all very enthusiastic. And then I did some traveling with him on the first Ziggy tour of the UK, before the release of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. It was the spring of 1972 and the audience kept growing and growing. I shot a bunch of stills and even some movie footage with a little windup 16mm Bolex camera that had no sound. I used it to make a little film to promote the upcoming album, with “Moonage Daydream” as the soundtrack. No one knew who the hell I was, other than the cute name, but I was having so much fun.

What appealed to you about Bowie?

Initially I was inspired by his music, and then I was fascinated by his aura. I felt hypnotized by all the mutating and shifting around. In truth the persona interested me more than the personality, coupled with the naked ambition.  It’s all there in the Ziggy lyrics. He wasn’t thinking about money, he was thinking about stardom. He was projecting powerfully. And of course when he made Ziggy Stardust, which is all about stardom, he was not a star. That was the record that made him a star.

You’ve got to remember how young we all were. I first met David forty-two years ago, when the world was a very different place. Psychologically it was a very impressionable time. What everyone now accepts as modern pop culture was brand-new, and certainly my brain was wide open. Too much LSD and Hatha Yoga, no doubt!

On the back of Ziggy Stardust came Mott the Hoople’s “All The Young Dudes”, Lou Reed’s Transformer and Iggy & the Stooges’ Raw Power, all involving Bowie.

I remember sitting in a cab with David going through Hyde Park as he told me about Mott the Hoople. I think he’d hung out the night before with Overend Watts, Mott’s bass player. The band just been dropped by Island Records because dogs wouldn’t piss on their first three albums. And he told me all about the song he was working on for them. When we got to his manager‘s office he played the first few bars on an acoustic guitar: “All the young dudes carry the news…”

David rescued Mott and he rescued Lou Reed. His touch was magic. Lou was about to be dropped by RCA Records – which was David’s label too – until David swooped in and produced Transformer. And it made Lou an international star.

David didn’t really rescue Iggy Pop as such – although he certainly did a few years later. Iggy was way out in his own zone. But he facilitated Raw Power and did the original album mix. Now it’s regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time, but as Iggy said to me a few years ago, “three months after its release it was in the 50 cent bins.”

1972 seems to have been the key year for glam.

It was the breakout year for so much of this. And of course you’ve got people like Amanda Lear, Lindsay Kemp, Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno, all floating about. There were a lot of characters, even if they didn’t necessarily know each other. David opened the door for Lou and Iggy and Mott, for starters.

The vibe of the American contingent – Lou and Iggy – was different, because you knew they’d consumed a lot of heavy drugs. I have those pictures of David and Lou onstage at the Royal Festival Hall for David’s Save The Whales charity concert in June 1972, and Lou’s all dressed in black and David’s all dressed in white. I always see a certain symbolism in that. Lou was dark and New York, and David was light and was London. That magical synergy between London and New York was what it was all about for me.

The access you had was remarkable – the fact that Bowie allowed you to shoot him getting undressed backstage. We’re rarely allowed to see such informality these days.

I think David trusted me. I regarded myself as a guardian of his image, and that’s true to this day. My respect for him was, and remains, profound. I got all those pictures of him hanging about looking very exotic in very mundane situations. I got pictures of him eating, drinking coffee, having a cigarette before going onstage, making himself up. I even got shots of him asleep. And there’s that famous picture that everyone loves of him and Mick Ronson having lunch on the train to Aberdeen.

That image really sums up Britain in the early glam-rock era: even Ziggy Stardust has to eat a British Rail lunch!

People love that shot. It’s turned out to be a very popular print, possibly my most popular. Other photographers who shot David or Lou or Iggy were one-offs. But I was all over it, not just the musicians but The Rocky Horror Show, Lindsay Kemp, the Biba store, Andrew Logan’s Alternative Miss World, Bill Gibb, Zandra Rhodes, Pierre La Roche.  Slowly I was becoming Mick Rock, whoever he was. The name sounded like a cartoon!

I guess there’s so much more you can do with visually charismatic stars, as opposed to just shooting A.N. Other rock band in denim jeans.

I have a tape of an interview I did with David around the release of “Starman”, just before the release of Ziggy Stardust. He said something about wanting rock and roll to be in “blazing technicolour”. He was fed up with all the boring scruffy denim stuff. He was off to the future and he wasn’t looking back.

When they invited me to the Victoria & Albert Museum for the special preview of the Bowie show in 2013, I wandered around and felt flabbergasted by a) how much David had kept in his archive and b) the sheer variety of what was there. I’d always kept my eye and ear on what David was up to over the years, but to absorb it all in one gulp was an unbelievable experience.

How much outrage did you actually experience with Bowie? Was there a genuine sense of disgust from the very people who were watching the famous British female impersonator Danny LaRue on TV every Saturday night?

But you see, Danny LaRue was still old school, that music-hall tradition of men dressing up in drag. It wasn’t threatening – my grandmother was a Danny LaRue fan. Whereas David was threatening, because it was a different consciousness. Whatever you want to call it – the feminisation of the male or whatever it was –androgyny was a threat.

When you travelled with David, there was a decent amount of “You fuckin’ poof!” But you get into a kind of pocket where you’re all in it together and enjoying the abuse. It was épater la bourgeoisie. It felt revolutionary. The more you disapproved, the more we loved it. I thought David was a very brave soul. I still do.

As Ziggy, Bowie went way beyond androgyny, partly because he was so very ectomorphic.

Well, none of us had much flesh on us. I’m 6 foot one inch and I weighed 140 pounds at the time. David did actually eat reasonably regularly, but he burned it all up with his non-stop activity. There was a core of him that was very strong, even when he wasn’t eating very much.  What gave him his power were his very powerful thighs and a neck that was very long but also very strong.

How did you experience the ch-ch-ch-changes from Ziggy to Aladdin Sane?

David kept changing. Think of the pictures of him in America in the high heels and with Cyrinda Foxe, the famous limp-wrist shot with the earrings and so on. Even by the summer of ’72 in England he was wearing that little plastic James Dean jacket. He was always mutating, right up to the Midnight Special at the Marquee in the fall of ’73.

The early Ziggy stuff in the Freddie Burretti era, although it looked revolutionary, still it wasn’t the exotic thing that he became – especially after David went to Japan and bagged a bunch of costumes from Kansai Yamamoto for the Aladdin Sane period, which was really Ziggy Mark 2.

Where were the famous shots of Bowie with Lou Reed and Mick Jagger taken?

It was at the Café Royal, after the “Death of Ziggy” show at the Hammersmith Odeon. I’ve always called it “The Last Supper”.

I’d love to know what they were saying.

I didn’t even hear what they were saying. I saw the moment and I leapt in and got the cuddle. And there’s that shot of David and Mick almost touching lips. David’s always denied that they actually kissed, but I swear I saw the moment the lips collided. Or maybe that was just wishful thinking on my part! Plus I have him on tape in May of 1972 saying, “I think I shall lie about everything… I shall set up a whole trail of lies. That’ll be fun.” To let the cat out of the bag, Lou always told me they did kiss. But perhaps he was lying too!

When Bowie announced to Michael Watts in Melody Maker that he was gay and always had been, you presumably knew that wasn’t entirely true.

Well, he had his eye on my sister-on-law Bambi much more than he ever did on me – let’s just leave it at that. I never caught David in flagrante delicto. If you don’t witness it, how can you ever know? The rest is chitchat and gossip.

Forty years later, with sports stars finally beginning to stick their heads out of the closet, it seems braver than ever to have simulated gay fellatio onstage in June 1972.

David always said that it was the way Mick swung his guitar that forced him to go down. You can see that he’s not really on his knees. His feet are splayed. He was initially just trying to bite Mick’s guitar. Of course he would duplicate that on many occasions, just like he would duplicate Mick straddling him. But that all came out of the reaction he got at Oxford Town Hall. He knew he’d done something very provocative. He knew he’d made a statement. Suddenly a thousand people were showing up at his gigs. It was certainly the music but it was also the titillating publicity.

How did it wind down for you with Bowie?

I was starting to develop my own identity, and I went off on my own tangent. I didn’t want to just be David’s personal photographer. I loved him and his extraordinary talents, but his shadow was overpowering – you could get lost in it. In spite of all my spaced-out-ness, there was a certain innate ambition in me. I was a Cambridge scholar, after all, and there had always been heavy expectations of me when I was growing up.

I spent a lot of time with Lou Reed in the ’70s, but then to my mind Lou was the new Baudelaire, simple as that. Plus there was my ardent love affair with New York. I always wanted to work more with David – and I did do a terrific session with him in 2002 – but my life went completely off the rails for a number of years and somehow it never worked out. I’m just delighted that through all the lunacy of the ’70s and ’80s I kept my negatives and chromes.

Isn’t it interesting how glam keeps coming and going – and then coming back again?

The glam-punk fusion is with us all the time, and has been for a long time now in fashion. People love that synergy. Some of it edges more towards punk, some more towards glam. You’d be amazed at the number of fashion designers who tell me how much my images influenced them. Somehow they keep getting recycled. I’m certainly not complaining at this late stage of the game. They provide fertile fodder for my maturity: books, exhibitions, museums, endorsements and so forth. Plus I’m still working, still shooting. I recently shot the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Snoop Dogg, Robin Thicke, Janelle Monae – to name just a few.

I owe so much to the ’70s, even though for years I tried to run from it. It’s the foundation of my reputation and I’ve learned to embrace it.