The Picture Show
Sex, Drugs And Rock Photography
Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 8:53 am
Mick Rock is really his name — though he's Michael to his mother — and he is exactly what you might imagine a rock photographer to be: tall and hip with shaggy hair. Shaded Ray-Bans, jean jacket, scarf. Oh, and an English accent to boot — so he can drop words like "bloody" and "shag" with allure (though he doesn't shy from the American equivalents, either).
"In any other era, dogs wouldn't have pissed on me," he says. "Thank God for Mick and Keith," who helped make lanky, messy Englishmen cool. He's referring to the Rolling Stones, of course.
Now in his 60s, Rock remembers the '70s well. Or, parts of them. And it goes without saying that the times have changed.
"The world is swamped with media today," he says. "I go to an event and I get photographed. Shoot the bloody photographer? What the hell is that about?"
On a recent night in Washington, D.C., for example, the cameras click incessantly (guilty) as Rock gives a few words at the opening of his aptly titled traveling photo show, Rocked. It originated in New York City, and it's hosted and produced by the W Hotel chain where, these days, Rock can be found shooting live concerts.
After his remarks, some high-heeled women and suited men (remember this is D.C.) trickle into a ballroom where they sip on cocktails and politely wait for a band to start playing. Meanwhile, Rock's prints of Iggy Pop, David Bowie and the likes adorn the surrounding walls, watching down, it seems, on what has become of rock. (Bowie would have worn the heels AND the suit, for heaven's sake.)
"Back then," Rock says wistfully in an interview the next day, "well, it was the age of sex, drugs and rock and roll, of course."
And gender-bending, men in mascara, fashion and, most of all, experimentation. Rock never planned on being a photographer. He was studying language and literature at Cambridge University, and found himself in the right place at the right time. He got high, picked up a friend's camera, "and began to play," he says.
That might explain why he doesn't cite Ansel Adams as an influence, but more readily identifies with poets like Coleridge and Rimbaud and Byron.
And why he refers to Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd as a "poet maudit," an artist on the fringes of society. "He just had that romantic aura about him," Rock recalls. This was in the early '70s, when Barrett had embarked on a solo career. One of the photos Rock took in an improvised shoot ended up on a Barrett album cover.
Listen to the story behind that shoot:
A few years back, Rock says, "some clever bugger journalist" dubbed him as "The Man Who Shot The '70s" in a headline, though Rock is the first to qualify that claim. What he really shot was the glam rock scene — making images you might recognize: the album cover of Queen II, the album cover of Lou Reed's Transformer, Iggy Pop in an unlikely back bend, David Bowie with a sax.
He was by no means the only scenester with a camera. But unlike today, back then not everyone had a camera. Having one and knowing how to use it — or knowing how to fake it until you make it — got you access.
It all started, more or less, when Rock met "Davie Jones," as he calls him, or David Bowie, back when the latter was still playing shows for a few hundred people. Rock met these soon-to-be legends early in the game. "So I rode that wagon and I just was there," he says. In other words, he wasn't just documenting the scene, he was part of it.
"I was not an outsider," Rock explains. "This was my life, too. I didn't play an instrument, but I lived the life: stay up all night, sleep all day."
So as Bowie's Ziggy Stardust persona began to take shape and glitter, Rock was there to goad him on, to document and give feedback.
"[Rock] was developing his medium as they were developing theirs," says Chris Murray, owner of the former Govinda Gallery in Washington, D.C. Murray gave Rock a solo show in the 1990s and today they're still friends.
"He's really somebody who's fun to be with," Murray says. "He was just a kindred spirit. He was one of them really."
"There was not a scintilla of cynicism in me about anything," Rock recalls. "I was not owned by a corporation, I was not owned by a publication. My loyalties were always to the acts. I was following my enthusiasm. I was not [thinking] 'I am an image master.' We're talking about some kid in his 20s."
And his 30s and 40s. By the 1990s, though, the sex, drugs and rock and roll caught up with Rock and many of his friends. Some of them had passed away, and Rock was photographing to survive. He had a reputation for being, as he puts it, "out of order." It took three heart attacks and quadruple bypass surgery to get him to clean up.
"I always think I knocked on heaven's door and they told me to bugger off," he says. "I had to clean up my karma, to scrub my reputation."
These days, if Rock wants a buzz while photographing he'll take a shot of coffee. He still has that rock and roll vibe, though it's perhaps less rock than roll these days. He gets up early for yoga in the morning; he chants and meditates.
"And now I might even do a cat book," he says.
Cats are cute, but there's no cooler cat than Bowie.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Mick Rock is known as the man who shot the '70s - shot, as in photographed. You've probably seen the pictures - David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, a shirtless Iggy Pop in a gravity-defying back bend, the cover of Lou Reed's "Transformer" album, Roxy music, Queen and on and on and on. Some of those images and many more are now in a traveling exhibition that's in Washington, D.C. It is being presented not by a museum or gallery, but by the W Hotel chain, where Mick Rock sometimes shoots performance videos. NPR's Claire O'Neill has the story of a man and his times.
CLAIRE O'NEILL, BYLINE: Picture this: A big room in one of those swanky boutique hotels. Everyone's all dressed up. The women are in heels, the men are in suits - remember this is D.C. - all people with special access. They're holding cocktails and mingling, waiting for a little concert to start. And surrounding them are these huge back-lit photos of rock icons like David Bowie and Iggy Pop, though no one really seems to pay them much attention to them.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Thank you all for coming out. Without any further ado, here's one of your favorite bands...
O'NEILL: Then the music starts and it's some, whatever, L.A. band, and the crowd is politely appreciative.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
O'NEILL: You can't help but wonder, what would Iggy say about this scene? There's one person in the room who might know - the guy who took the photos. Mick Rock - yes, that's really his name, born Michael Rock - who shot some of the '70s.
MICK ROCK: Some clever bugger journalist, when I put out my first book in England in '95, there was the headline - the man who shot the '70s. And somehow people just picked up on it. I thought, well, I never shot Journey or REO Speedwagon or the Carpenters.
O'NEILL: But he did shoot Debbie and Lou and David. He refers to them like they're neighbors down the street but, of course, he's talking about Debbie Harry, as in Blondie; Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground; David Bowie. His pals.
ROCK: I was not an outsider. This was my life too. I mean, I didn't play an instrument but I lived the life. You know, I stay up all night and sleep all day.
CHRIS MURRAY: Mick was cheeky and humorous and clever. And I'm not surprised he was able to develop relationships with all of these important artists, because he was just a great guy to have around.
O'NEILL: Curator Chris Murray used to own Govinda Gallery in D.C., where he gave Mick Rock a solo show in the 1990s. Today they're friends.
MURRAY: There was a much more dynamic relationship between musical artists and visual artists at the time. You know, the people photographing them before that were these gumshoe, kind of real working-class, you know, OK, let's get our shot and let's get out of here. You know, that's why the photos you see in newspapers would be just like they were. But when people like Mike Rock came along, things changed.
O'NEILL: Now, Mick Rock is in his 60s, but he remembers the '70s well - or parts of them. He never planned on being a photographer. He was studying languages and literature at Cambridge University when a series of right-place-right-time events led to a fellow named Davie Jones. That is David Bowie, who at the time was still playing shows for a few hundred people.
ROCK: So, I rode that wagon. I just was there, and I came very cheap. It's not like today. Back then it was, well, it was the age of sex, drugs and rock and roll, of course.
O'NEILL: And gender-bending, and fashion, and experimentation. Of course, he wasn't the only guy with a camera. But unlike today, back then, not everyone had a camera. Having one, and knowing how to use it, or knowing how to pretend at least, that got you access.
ROCK: Really the key session was the session I did with a gentleman I'd gotten to know in Cambridge who was from Cambridge. His name was Syd Barrett.
O'NEILL: As in Pink Floyd.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EMILY PLAY")
SYD BARRETT: (Singing) Emily tries but misunderstands...
ROCK: He looked like a poet maudit. He just had that romantic aura about him. And I just scored a wide-angle lens for my very battered Pentax and, you know, had a funny little reflector with a light bulb in it to light the thing. So, when I had daylight film and I was shooting inside and it was low light. So, everything was wrong about the session - grainy film. Whatever the results, you know, my ignorance only added, the fact that I didn't know too much. But I could focus. They're all in focus. I will say that. And I had this magical session and these photographs, which have never gone away - certainly I gained more knowledge but I don't think I ever took any better pictures.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TERRAPIN")
BARRETT: (Singing) I really love you and I mean you. The star above you crystal blue. Well, oh, baby, my hair's on end about you...
O'NEILL: Mick Rock would fall in love with his subjects and with the images.
ROCK: There was not a scintilla of cynicism in me about anything. And I was not owned by a corporation. I was not owned by a publication. My loyalties were always to the acts. I was following my enthusiasm. I was not, you know, I am an image master. You're talking about some kid in his early 20s.
O'NEILL: And his 30s and his 40s. By the '90s, though, the sex, drugs and rock and roll had caught up with him. He was photographing to survive and had a reputation for being - as he puts it - out of order. A lot of his friends had died and, for him, it took three heart attacks and quadruple bypass surgery to clean up.
ROCK: Well, that changed everything. I mean, when I do the session I get the same excitement, and it's I go back into a certain head. But it's all coffee. I always think that I knocked on heaven's door in '96 and I was told to bugger off. They didn't take in people like me. So, I had to hang around a bit to clean up my karma, to scrub my reputation.
O'NEILL: Mick Rock still has that rock and roll vibe - messy hair, shaded Ray-Bans, jean jacket. Maybe it's less rock than roll these days though. Early nights - he has to get up for yoga in the morning. He chants and meditates.
ROCK: And now I might even do a cat book.
O'NEILL: Cats are cute, but, come on, they're not as cool as David Bowie. Claire O'Neill, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "QUEEN BITCH")
DAVID BOWIE: (Singing) Still don't know what I was waiting for, and my time was running wild, a million dead-end streets. And every time I thought I'd...
SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW CREDITS)
SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon, Mr. Bowie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.