MICK ROCK: Hello?
TODD DICIURCIO: Is this the honorable Mick Rock?
MICK ROCK: Todd darling. How are you doing?
TODD DICIURCIO: Fantastic, and you?
MICK ROCK: Okay
TODD DICIURCIO: Excited about our interview. Let’s start at the beginning. Where were you born?
MICK ROCK: Hammersmith Hospital in London.
TODD DICIURCIO: Who are the parents of Mick Rock?
MICK ROCK: Joan and David Rock.
TODD DICIURCIO: And are they from London as well?
MICK ROCK: David was from London. Mom was actually born a country girl. That is, the English country side, much more gentile than the American country.
TODD DICIURCIO: When did you first pick up a camera?
MICK ROCK: The first time I wielded a camera was on an acid trip while I was at Cambridge (University). I was in a friend’s room and I picked up his camera and started banging away, as it were, at this young lady that I was flying with. But I found out about three days later that there had actually been no film in the camera and that kind of sparked my interest.
Well, the next time I took an acid trip with the same young lady, I made sure there was film in the camera. And I think the intensification that that provided gave me a license to look at people’s faces. The clicking and focusing and whatever it was from those first trips had intrigued me. I certainly had a thing for faces and I still do.
TODD DICIURCIO: What kind of camera did you first own?
MICK ROCK: The first camera I purchased was a friend’s battered Pentax. Just to take a few pictures of friends, really. The early stuff.
TODD DICIURCIO: Your filter had become clear.
MICK ROCK: Yeah! I don’t think that I could see before. I was very formally educated in the classic British system and I got the scholarship to study modern languages and literature. So it meant that my mind was full up with all of these poets and lunatic writers. They were my early heroes, poets like Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Coleridge, Byron and Shelley. Just the idea of whom excited me, these crazy characters who were out of their minds and then produced stuff that people praised as being high art. That appealed to my young imagination. I was full of that when I started taking pictures. To me, a lot of my early portraits looked like these poets.
TODD DICIURCIO: What band did you shoot first?
MICK ROCK: bI shot a band early on for 5 pounds but cannot remember their name. I can see them in my mind, they were just some local band. It wasn’t anything that significant, but it was the beginning. I had met Syd (Barrett) around this time as well.
TODD DICIURCIO: The acid revolution was happening and it helped to create a portal for you, if you will.
MICK ROCK: It was Syd, David, or Iggy or Lou, especially Freddie. That vibe was buzzing through my imagination & I somehow got a little bit glued onto them. These characters were artists first and foremost. I had found my living heroes.
TODD DICIURCIO: When did you graduate & where did you head after that?
MICK ROCK: I left Cambridge 69-70 and then I was back in London.
TODD DICIURCIO: What was post-university life like for you?
MICK ROCK: I was writing little bits and pieces, cobbling together a few dollars here and there. I think my parents thought I was trying not to get a real job. That’s the way they saw it. Which of course is true. I mean, the idea of getting up before noon was absolutely alien to me. I was living this kind of friendly bohemian lifestyle.
TODD DICIURCIO: Were you shooting musicians then?
MICK ROCK: I did – I shot some album covers for Rory Gallagher then. This was the first gig I had shot. I remember doing 3 album covers for jazz great Michael Garrick and some odd, obscure things. I mean, I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. Somehow, I was producing images from the beginning without quite knowing what I was up to and had just gotten to know Syd Barrett around then. There came a time after, towards the end of 1969 when he asked me to take some photographs for an album cover. Those pictures- those color ones with the nude girl in the background with him near a record player. They were shot inside using daylight film and a bulb with a reflector. They are technically completely wrong. That’s all I could afford in those days and had to push process the film about three stops, so they are very grainy and yellow. But as it turns out, it gave them more of a painterly effect and people responded to them immediately. So in my ignorance, I did something that had an aesthetic value.
TODD DICIURCIO: Were you doing any photojournalistic work then?
MICK ROCK: I did a couple of interviews for Rolling Stone magazine. Just, you know, small half pages. I did a little piece and provided photos, I did one of Rory, I remember, one on a guy called John Mayall (not sure where that one came from). One with Syd (Barrett) as well.
TODD DICIURCIO: When did you pivot & really begin to feel things starting to gel?
MICK ROCK: Someone gave me a press copy of Hunky Dory by David Bowie. He had gotten a little bit of press at the time, but it wasn’t like he was climbing the charts. This would have been in February or March of ‘72. It was an incredible album, and certainly Life on Mars stunned me. So I sought him out, found out how to get through to him, and suggested I write a couple of pieces on him. One for Rolling Stone and one for a men’s magazine called Club International. David was intrigued by the fact that Syd was my friend. Club Int’l was all skin and very mild porn in those days. They had just decided they wanted to get a rock culture section up front. I remember doing a few pieces for them.
TODD DICIURCIO: What were the performances like?
MICK ROCK: Well, I went to see Bowie in Birmingham. I remember meeting his radio plugger, Anya. They were certainly trying to hustle. He had just gotten into this: haircut thing and started to wear the Ziggy outfit, so he was in Ziggy mode but he hadn’t released the album yet. Although he was playing some of the songs from it in March of ’72, the album was not released until June. The first gig I went to there were 400 people. He had a bit of a cult following, but I didn’t know anything about him until I got to know him. And then I saw this extraordinary character and was certainly entranced by the performance. The talent…and of course when you talked to him, he was so fabulously articulate and informed. Bowie was not your average rock & roller by any standards. And I don’t know how well he knew them, but he certainly had in some ways befriended Lou Reed and Iggy Pop in New York by then, neither of whom were that well known in the broad public sense.
TODD DICIURCIO: Your shots of Lou and Iggy from this time are dirty, raw performance shots for the most part. What was that vibe like?
MICK ROCK: They were underground characters, and couldn’t sell any records. David & his manager brought Lou over to London in the summer of ‘72, and David co-produced, with his guitar player Mick Ronson, Transformer. This truly was the last roll of the dice for Lou. It seems ironic looking back that people would have thought of it that way, but certainly the record label saw it that way. They hadn’t been able to sell any records as the Velvet Underground,(although of course they subsequently sold copiously.) At the time those four Velvet albums, a dog wouldn’t piss on them, and the same applies for the first two Stooges albums. Lou had released one solo album with RCA records and that had done nothing as well. No interest at all.
TODD DICIURCIO: Bowie’s influence was instrumental to Transformer’s success, but how did it go down?
MICK ROCK: Somehow, David had managed to hustle the label. Because he and Lou were signed to the same label, the A & R people let Lou have one last go. So they produced Transformer and of course this was THE album. “Walk on the Wild Side” and “Perfect Day” put them on the map, and bingo. In the summer of ‘72, Bowie started flying. What acquired quite a bit of notoriety at the time was the shot of him gnawing on Mick Ronson’s guitar on what looked like bended knees. There were actually 1,000 people at that gig. He had released Starman in May as a single from Ziggy Stardust, and that was a top 10 single in England. He was gathering steam. And you know, it all happened in front of my eyes and it kept going.
TODD DICIURCIO: What was your experience at the time transitioning to America on this tour?
MICK ROCK: Bowie’s people flew me over. I was the tour photographer, not that they paid me any money, but they paid all of my expenses. Initially, he managed to fill Carnegie Hall, his following growing east coast and west coast. But as you trundled through the Midwest in cities like Kansas City and St. Louis, we had about 200 or 300 people show up at gigs. It was an erratic tour. And if I could sell a few pictures here and there to the press I could make a bit of money. As long as I had a couple of dollars in my pocket, I didn’t think much about it. You didn’t need a lot in those days to live. The world was different than it is today. I think the same was true for New York City. In those cities (London & New York), you could get by as a creative person. Nowadays, I don’t know how the young people do it. I suppose they all have to live in Brooklyn, although that is not so cheap anymore, either.
TODD DICIURCIO: The roaming SoHo could define the New York artist’s pilgrimage to studio life here.
MICK ROCK: The gestation period is tougher for artists nowadays. In a way, they have to make some impact quickly, in order to make a living. So that they might live somewhere that is reasonably accessible. It is not easy at all.
TODD DICIURCIO: Artists will give away that first impact for free, usually. The first couple of impacts, just to survive as an artist, let alone human survival.
MICK ROCK: Yes, like being a hooker in a way…you have to turn a few tricks for free.
TODD DICIURCIO: When did the video element become of interest to you?
MICK ROCK: Even before we went to the states, I had done a video for “John, I’m Only Dancing”. What we called a promo film” for David to go with that single. We produced it for about $750, which would be a little bit more nowadays. Still wasn’t very much in any day and age.
TODD DICIURCIO: Was that the first video for you?
MICK ROCK: I actually did one for David for “Moonage Daydream”, which was a collage of bits of live footage that I had shot in April and May of ‘72, but that was never really released. There wasn’t a market or many outlets for these promo films back then. Later on, I did “Jean Genie”, “Space Oddity” and in ‘73, “Life on Mars”. The fun part now is that all of these videos are in the permanent collections of museums like the MOMA in New York or the V & A Museum in London. They were just these scrappy little things produced for a song and a dance. And mostly because David and I wanted to make them and there weren’t many outlets at this point. David would be like, “ Do you feel like doing it?” I would say, “yes” and we would get a couple of dollars for expenses and I would just do them.
TODD DICIURCIO: Did David edit them with you?
MICK ROCK: No, I did all the editing. He simply didn’t have the time and I don’t recall him ever asking me to change anything. He was moving too fast, he really was. I would show him what I was up to, but he gave it his blessing all down the line.
TODD DICIURCIO: How were they edited back then?
MICK ROCK: The first couple that I did, we used a splicer. But “Space Oddity” was on a Steenbeck machine and you would look at 2 or 3 takes at a time. Stone age stuff, nowadays.
TODD DICIURCIO: Fast forward 5 years. Where is Mick Rock?
MICK ROCK: Coming over to London in the Autumn of 1976 to work on a concept with Lou Reed for his new tour. He had wanted to do this whole thing involving television sets and crazy effects. So he and I worked together and came up with this whole ridiculous thing for The Rock & Roll Heart tour. Concurrently, I did the album cover for The Rock & Roll Heart album and one for a compilation that had just been put together. What I know about that tour was that we started out with 60 TV sets and at every stop something would break down. We would have to run out to see if we could find a couple more TV sets. It was crazy stuff, I think by the time we got to NY, the TV sets were down to about 32, but it was very innovative. There was nothing digital about it. We used something with wires that plugged into a board that you could play around with a little bit. I suppose it was a bit like a soundboard, but it was a visual board. It was applied to that and you could change the images around, very primitive by today’s standards. I make no claims that it was my idea, though certainly I came up with some of the images. But you know, Lou in his lunacy had corralled me into working with him on it. I did cover that whole glam scene in London at the time as well. I met a guy called Lindsey Kemp, and all that little nexus that was flooding around Bowie, Roxy Music and Cockney Rebel. Then there was the great ‘glam’ store ‘Biba’s” -I was the house photographer- which was at the time the most fashionable store, but it was more than that. It was a lifestyle in London. I don’t know if they ever made any money, but they made quite an impact.
By 1977, I’m running to New York City mainly because it had got me by the nuggets, both literally and figuratively. I couldn’t get away.
TODD DICIURCIO: Now you are mixing a lot of mediums & traversing the pond a bit. Was the zeitgeist changing?
MICK ROCK: All kinds of things were coming to me. Through my associations, I had acquired a certain reputation in the game. I believe that is why Queen sought me out. I did the famous Queen2 album cover (copied for the video of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and also Sheer Heart Attack. They all wanted a bit of this glammy stuff, that seemingly I was an expert in. So then that had washed over into NY and also the London punk scene. The punk scene was a reaction against glam, but also an outgrowth of glam. Some of the same people melded from glam into punk. Even Lou and Iggy, who were viewed as the “Godfathers of punk”, were also involved in the glam scene. Iggy’s silver hair, Lou in his kabuki makeup & nail polish for Transformer, they were the American contingent. And their association now helped to give David a bit of an edge too.
TODD DICIURCIO: What did this mean to you as an artist?
MICK ROCK: Photography was something like this big monster that took over. It kind of moved in, and started to control my life. And I became Mick Rock, rock photographer. What was I going to do? I would think about doing other things, but meanwhile I was making a living doing that, and it was what people kept wanting me to do. But I did not design it.. It just kind of kept rolling on. It was not my chosen ambition in life. I think if I was to choose an ambition, I would have been a lyricist or something like that.
TODD DICIURCIO: Were you experiencing a heightened awareness and focus in your observations as a result back then?
MICK ROCK: There is no doubt it bought me a lot of time for experimentation, particularly psychosexual chemical enrichment. I was also playing around with yoga and meditation techniques, learning about massage and mixing it up with chemicals and sexual activity. Also fasting and sleep deprivation -staying up for days. I would think back about all of the crazy poets in the 19th century doing all of these things, and probably felt in some way that I was emulating them. But also, it was the atmosphere in the community that I had found myself in that was sex, drugs and rock & roll. And if you didn’t, you weren’t part of it. I was young, stupid, and up to all kind of tricks. But I was also indulged. If I had been in the previous generation, this Mick Rock thing probably wouldn’t have worked. But in the wake of the rock & rollers of the 60s, somehow it did. I don’t think dogs would have pissed on me twenty years before, but because of what happened in the culture, the media, it had tossed me up in some way as being attractive. Lets be honest, people like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are not really very good looking people, but of course they acquired the energy generated by the music. I think that affected the way people looked at them, and I think it changed what was attractive and desirable in the culture. So I pay homage to these characters, for they certainly fueled my life. They also got me into a lot of trouble and caught in a few back alleys. All that said, I’ve been 16 years clean now. And I stepped up the old routine…loads of kundalini yoga, meditation and massages. I go to the same creative places now, but without chemicals. Well, I do like a cup of coffee when I am shooting or working on my art!!
TODD DICIURCIO: Anything that you felt was pivotal in those dealings?
MICK ROCK: Well certainly, ‘72 was a very pivotal year, after that I never really looked back for many, many years. But I did get myself in a bit of a state in the 80s, and certainly wild living had gotten ahead of my reputation. I was actually doing a bit more art direction then. Thank god I had a couple of people that looked out for me. Not that I was doing that much photography… By the mid 80s, I was kind of very jaded of it all. It took me nearly dying in ’96 to find my innocence and photographic eye again. I had quadruple bypass heart surgery and the first thing it did was clean me up. I was working on stuff that was more illustrative than personality driven.
TODD DICIURCIO: Were you trying anything new to keep the experimentation alive in your work?
MICK ROCK: I started to play around with collage. I was building a whole other body of work, a little bit outside, but enough to involve taking my old photographs and fucking them up. I still do it to this day and I’ve started to do exhibitions with this work.
TODD DICIURCIO: And now?
MICK ROCK: I have been shooting a lot, especially since the new millennium kicked in. Besides working with old friends like David, Lou, Iggy and Debbie (Harry) there’s the Kate Moss collection. I have acquired a whole new character log of modern acts like The Killers, Janelle Monae, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs & Cee Lo Green. And of course one of my favorite bands, The Black Keys. From this period, I now have a stake in the present again, which is something that was very important to me and not just be some kind of fucking relic to the past. This “legendary” stuff is all very well, but sometimes it’s people’s way of relegating it (the work) to the past and not seeing it as being part of the modern fabric. Frankly, being part of the here and now is more important to me. Especially in today’s age, what I call the golden age of photography.
TODD DICIURCIO: Photography is omnipresent, and the ways to reproduce are endless.
MICK ROCK: Yes, you could argue that there is so much stuff produced so easily by so many. It could be done by a four year old and some people argue that these things diminish photography. But I happen to think quite the opposite: All of this new technology opens the possibilities of photography. I love it.
TODD DICIURCIO: What are you shooting with today?
MICK ROCK: I love the Canon 5d camera. And I use it all of the time. I still occasionally shoot some film, but obviously shoot a lot of digital. But I am happy all of that early stuff of mine that has become so valuable, is on film. I actually have masters of my iconic photographs, transparencies and negatives whereas when you shoot digital there is no master, everything is the same. But still digital is an incredible thing.
TODD DICIURCIO: I identify you today as an artist, because the composition and creation of your work has allowed change to happen within it.
MICK ROCK: I don’t know that. I am kind of operating on several fronts at once. I created & directed a music video of my young friend Andrew Watt. Something I hadn’t done for quite a long time. I still like to take pictures of musicians. I have fun doing it. It’s not like its something that I am ever going to abandon.
TODD DICIURCIO: The lesson here is that if you’re not having fun, don’t do it.
MICK ROCK: That’s right. I wouldn’t have been a photographer if it hadn’t been for rock n roll. It wasn’t the photography that got me off, it was the rock & roll. The photography was tangential and it turned out to be my means of accessing the rock & roll imagery. As the 70’s rolled on, I started to learn a bit more about photography, with the Hollywood glamour photographers like George Hurrell and the Surrealist master Man Ray, even Helmut Newton. I certainly didn’t spend a lot of time looking at photography, and didn’t spend much time studying it. I just followed my instincts. When I look back, it came very easily to me. And because it came so easily I did not regard it that highly until I nearly died in ’96, and then I finally got some perspective. And by then, the world had gotten a bit of perspective on me, too. That was when I was starting to get all of this interesting feedback. The internet brought people to know my work before they knew anything about me.
TODD DICIURCIO: How different is the process of creating art to shooting images for you?
MICK ROCK: It’s a totally different process. I feel like when I am doing the art, although it’s all photographic in origin, it’s more like being a song writer. I saw Mick Jagger in the Crossfire Hurricane documentary on HBO about the Rolling Stones recently, and he was talking about song writing being sort of like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. I think he’s right. Taking a photograph is really like tapping into the flow of energy in the moment that’s going on between the individuals that are in it. It is a more Zen thing, no better or worse, it is just different. I enjoy both processes. To me, it is fucking around with the images, it all still has to do with the eye, and still to do with energy.
TODD DICIURCIO: I believe that working in the immediate is necessary, and drawing from life is key.
MICK ROCK: Well, you know that. You’re into art out of the live moment. I am sure you create things in the quiet moment as well. You also draw in front of the performers and produce art as they are performing and you do it with a certain amount of speed, which is a bit like being a photographer. That made an impression on me. It was there on the spot, it was finished on the spot.
TODD DICIURCIO: I think that is where we connect. Our heroes are the rock & rollers, they are your poets. And as it turned out, no one was doing the same thing at the same time. You were able to say the most with the least..