FOREWORD: I met peerless glam-punk photographer, Mick Rock, at a downtown Manhattan studio on a rainy night in 1998. Afterwards, I gave him an herb-induced ride uptown. He was a sweet guy who made a living shooting pix of famous glam-rock and punk idols – not knowing at the time these artists would be the cultural centerpieces they became. Though he nearly died from two decades of cocaine abuse, Rock’s still with us. This article originally appeared in Smug Magazine.
British photographer Mick Rock helped expand ‘70s counterculture through instinct and intuition. After studying revolutionary French literate at college, he worked for enigmatic designers Hipgnosis (whose cover art for Pink Floyd, Genesis, Led Zeppelin, etc. is legendary) before becoming a full-time photographer. As his career progressed, subjects such as David Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and Talking Heads found a place in front of his lens.
Rock emerged from the sexual and chemical indulgences of the ‘70s with a long list of accolades, including four Grammy nominations and numerous gallery exhibits. His erotic works have even been published in Penthouse. To truly understand the breadth of Rock’s work, log on to mickrock.com or peruse greatmodernpictures.com. His book, Mick Rock: A Photographic Record 1969 – 1980 is also recommended.
One of the first people you photographed was Syd Barrett. What was he like?
MICK: Syd was an eclectic individual. I remember the first time I saw Pink Floyd in ’66 at the Cambridge Art College party. There was no particular reference for what I heard that night. It didn’t come from Rhythm & Blues or Country & Western. You couldn’t pin it to European avant-garde. They were definitely unprecedented. I suppose that’s why Syd retains his legendary status as a flawed, fucked up, burnt-out genius. There’s the beauty of the fact he’s still alive. (Editors note: Barrett died in ’07) He might just as well have died in 1970. I interviewed Syd for Rolling Stone in ’71, but he hasn’t done another one since. His phrasing influenced David Bowie. I remember swapping stories of Syd with David so he’d exchange stories of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop.
Your photographs for album covers and magazine articles introduced an entire generation to the glam-rock scene.
MICK: That was in the late hippie period. There was a different mentality. It wasn’t about ambition. There weren’t many magazines or retro documentaries. You couldn’t sell a print at an art gallery. There was no great design. I was looking for the edge, not fame and money. Lou Reed wasn’t well known back then. Bowie and Iggy were obscure and Queen hadn’t had a hit when I shot their LP cover. Syd acquired a reputation because Pink Floyd became the preeminent English psychedelic band along with Soft Machine. When I first met David, it was the start of his Ziggy Stardust period. If I showed the earliest Ziggy pictures, you’d see how unsophisticated they were. He had done the Greta Garbo thing prior, with Hunky Dory.
Any crazy Bowie adventures you’d like to share?
MICK: These kids were like animals in Liverpool and dragged him offstage. He came down with legs in the air and head on the floor and laid there for a couple minutes. That was a trip. He got up, shook his head, and said, ‘That’s the luck of the draw.’ Bowie was the synthesizer who absorbed lots of influences. Igyy, Lou, and Mott The Hoople were going nowhere until David gained attention. By ’73, it was another story. David built his own mystique. There was a buzz about him in England, but it took a couple US tours with his androgynous look. Truckers would call you a poof or sissy. The feminine thing was in the air and mutated out of the hippie period and caught the imagination of the ladies. We’d get frequent sex with girls because of that and it coincided with the ‘coming out’ of the gay community.
What kind of influence did drugs have on Iggy & the Stooges?
MICK: It took them off into a million directions. Drugs, when you’re young and experimental, can have creative values. Of course, there are limitations. I never witnessed Iggy cutting himself onstage or throwing up. I saw him throw himself into the audience to get mauled by sticky young men. He had a dislodged personality. It took three near-death experiences for him to want to live.
Were you affected by the drug culture of the ‘70s?
MICK: In the beginning, it was LSD. The first pictures I took were on an acid trip with a young lady. I was hanging with rockers as a pothead college student. Back then you could get seriously busted for a joint. There was a direct link between sex and drugs – especially for those who mainlined. When I was in college, I let someone shoot me up on two occasions. I could have died. I threw up everywhere. A couple times I inadvertently snorted or smoked it. It’s different today. Media has expanded and AIDS scared everyone.
One of your most stark photographs graces Lou Reed’s The Blue Mask.
MICK: That came out of the Transformer period and was used eight years later. Lou’s a very nice person. He’s a bit paranoid about talking of kinky sex and drugs. That’s another time in his life. He’s very suspicious of journalists. But when I had bypass surgery, the first flowers I got were from Lou.
Why’d you have bypass surgery? Natural causes. (laughter)
MICK: I doubt that! I’m sure the cocaine I did and the cigarettes I smoked affected me. For 21 years, I was a serious cocaine addict. The good thing was I remained creative. The downside was it made me completely balmy when it came down to business.
In the mid-‘70s, you began shooting punk rockers when they became the new underground rage.
MICK: I saw the Sex Pistols first ever show at Chelsea Art College. Johnny Rotten insulted the audience. He was funny. But at the time, I thought, ‘What the fuck is this?’ They couldn’t play their instruments. While the Ramones moved the music forward, the Pistols moved the culture. I always thought Johnny Rotten was Ziggy. He had the same red hair.
What were the Ramones like?
MICK: I remember sitting with Dee Dee Ramone when he was complaining that he wrote “Chinese Rock” instead of Johnny Thunder. They spent time doing heroin together so who knows. Once I saw Patti Smith getting in trouble with bouncers at a Ramones show for shouting and throwing up. She was a wild one…