Mick Rock describes himself as an assassin. If he’s been tasked with capturing your essence, he will find his chance – nail it – and disappear.
“I enjoy that process so much that I can get something good even from the most boring person,” he says.
“The relationship between the subject and the camera is so stimulating to me that it doesn’t really matter who they are.”
It does, however, matter to other people. Mick has built his career shooting the biggest names in music. From Bowie to Gaga, Daft Punk to Snoop, you can’t be considered a true superstar until Mick Rock has taken your portrait.
The one constant, he says, is being in the right place at the right time. Studying modern language and literature at Cambridge University in the late sixties, the Londoner first picked up a camera while tripping in a friend’s bedroom. There was no film inside, it turned out, but Mick felt he was onto something.
Before long, he was blagging commissions and making lasting connections – including Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett and a pre-Ziggy David Bowie, who invited Mick over to his house in 1972.
Over 100 album covers later, the rest is history. Now a documentary has finally been made about Mick’s life. There are no talking heads, no soppy whitewashing of the past. Instead the film is structured around his near-death collapse from cocaine and exhaustion, which required quadruple bypass surgery in 1996.
Along the way, Mick shares the stories behind his most iconic shots – like Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart being raided by police in their hotel room, or Lou Reed and David Bowie kissing each other on the lips – with candid panache.
It’s the same when you get the 69-year-old on the phone. Speaking in a deep, gravelly voice, Mick loves a good ramble – ready to delve into any part of his career with self-deprecating humour.
You recognised something special in the superstars you worked with early on. What qualities did these people have in common and what did you learn from them?
Well, they weren’t superstars when we started working together! But I did see them in that light. Besides being very talented lyrically, they also seemed to take a lot of chemicals. They acted and looked like the same people I had been studying at Cambridge: the English Romantics, the French surrealists and the American Beats. They all seemed to have one thread in common, as different as their work was. They were fuckin’ degenerates!
What do you think is your most underrated shot?
I’ve done a lot of work and I wouldn’t have been able to make a living if I could only shoot the people I’m best known for. I used to hate all that ‘The man who shot the ‘70s stuff’ until I realised it could make me money. Then I thought, ‘Fuck it! Why get grumpy about it?’
Some of the most famous images didn’t make me much money when I shot them. It’s a fortunate turn of events that certain characters – Debbie Harry, the Rocky Horror Picture Show, the Ramones, Motley Cru, Joan Jett – developed iconic status. They pay a lot more than the bills now. But who knew?
In the early seventies, it felt like we were living the last days of rock’n’roll. And I think you can hear that in the music; there’s a certain vibe that was almost apocalyptic. From David [Bowie] to grunge, rock’n’roll has died a million deaths and still kept going.
But to answer your question, my collection of cat photographs are very underrated! [laughs] There’s also a section on my website called Chimeras.They haven’t had much exposure. Plus my Kabuki photographs… though they’re not underrated in Japan.
There’s a famous picture you took of the terrible trio – Lou, David and Iggy. People marvel at that picture now because no one would have predicted that Iggy would outlive the other two.
Nobody thought Iggy would outlive anyone! [laughs] And he’s doing great. His personality has mellowed with age, of course. Back in those days, he had the seed of a new music. He was very conscious of what he was doing, even though it grew out of a form of madness.
He was a bit ahead of his time. When ‘I Wanna be your Dog’ came out, I think the world went, ‘Oh, fuck him! Who wants to listen to that?’ Even when they hadn’t actually heard it! I read recently that Raw Power was in the 50-cent bin three months after it was released. So what do any of us know?
You were never a drinker, never did heroin and weren’t self-destructive. So where is the line between what you would and wouldn’t do when it came to excess?
It depends on how many girls were in the room! [laughs] People say, ‘Mick, when you nearly died, you were being very self-destructive’ – but I wasn’t. I never thought I was going to die, even when I was close to death. I never believed it.
It was more like, ‘Ooh, what would this drug feel like?’ It was more about experimentation and the fact that if there was anything mildly interesting going on in town, I had to fucking show up. You had to scrape me off the ceiling. With dope fiends, you had to scrape them off the floor.
There’s a lot of talk of psychic energy in the film. What do you think happens after we die?
I do believe in reincarnation in some form, no doubt about it. Lou and David both had buddhist funerals. Without getting too deep, I believe the spirit does live on – and that depends on how you’ve conducted your life. But of course I can’t be definitive on that because I haven’t crossed over and nobody comes back to actually tell you! If you get there before me, you’ve got to let me know.
You have a great knack for timing. Were there any moments you didn’t capture that felt like a missed opportunity?
I would love to have photographed Prince. Socially and culturally, he was less important than, say, David. But musically, he was a motherfucker. One of the greatest talents to come out of rock’n’roll. Look at the credits on his records: he seems to have done just about everything. But I was not in such a good shape when he first appeared; I didn’t have much money and I had a sore nostril because of that.
I imagine there’s a lot of shit talking during shoots. But Phil Lynott told you that he killed someone. What on earth would possess him to say that?
I don’t know! I got to know Phil quite well, as both of us moved to America. I didn’t see him as much in his later years, when he got into smack and was shooting up with his feet. Poor Phil. I thought he was going to be like a David or a Lou.
Nobody looked better on stage than Phil Lynott, with those long legs and that Jimi Hendrix look about him. We did quite a few shoots together. But he told me he had to leave Dublin because he killed somebody! When you really went through it, it didn’t make any sense. But that was the image he had of himself.
I think he was just romanticising. I mean if he became high-profile enough, you’d think someone would have put it together if he had killed somebody. Thin Lizzy should have been bigger. The music had more weight to it, which greatly appealed to Americans. I remember hanging out with them in L.A., around ’86 when I was working with Motley Cru, and they were about to do a huge tour but Phil got sick.
It seemed like every time they were on the brink of breaking out in America, something happened to them. Bad timing. They were self-destructive but I don’t think he killed anyone, especially with a knife. I think he was just promoting an image.
In any exchange I’ve heard or read between you and Lou Reed, there seemed to be a softer side to him. What’s the biggest misconception about Lou?
I mean the fact that he fucked around with journalists – not all of them, mind – created misconceptions. He could get irritated if he thought it was just going to be a fluff piece. I’m sure you could get on fine with him because you’re informed, for starters, and not just asking the obvious questions. Plus, you’re fucking Irish!
But Lou was a gentle soul; a sweet guy who was genuinely kind. We did the Transformer book together just before he died. His last public appearances were the two of us promoting it and I did see that other side of him. I remember this one journalist came in. We were at Trident Studios, where Transformer was recorded… I remember what was said but I won’t say. But Lou fucking went for him… and as the journalist walked out the door, Lou turned around to me and winked. He had deliberately anted up and I think that was just his way of having a bit of fun sometimes.
Lou was an animal lover too. I remember I hadn’t seen him in a while and he came to my loft in Soho; I had this exquisite Maine Coone cat. I don’t know if you see them as much in England; they’re big but…
Oh, I have one!
A Maine Coon? You have a Maine Coon?
Well, I think he is a mix of tabby too…
Doesn’t matter. I’ve had a mixed one too. I’m addicted to them. In ’86, someone gave me a kitten and Lou absolutely loved him. Every phone call I’d get from him, the first thing he’d do was ask how the cat was doing. I’m being serious. We even talked about doing a cat book; he said he’d write something for it. Although he was really, most of all, into dogs. I’ve got pictures of him in the ’70s with his two little dachshunds as well.
Even if we wouldn’t see each other for a while, he would show up at my exhibitions unexpectedly. When he was your mate, he really was a loyal friend.
If you could give the younger you one piece of advice, what would it be?
Fucking grow up! [laughs] As I say in the documentary, I feel like my life was somehow written. I do believe in destiny; there’s some kind of map. I think it can be adjusted but, essentially, it exists. It’s there.
I mean even the name Rock wouldn’t have the same connotation in any other period; the way I look wouldn’t have worked either. A dog from an earlier era probably wouldn’t have deigned to piss on me. But because of people like Bob Dylan, Jagger and Lennon, I ended up looking the part. That really did help me. It’s all about timing. Where would I have been without fucking rock’n’roll?
SHOT! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock is in UK cinemas from 21 July via Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment. It’s also available digitally via iTunes and Amazon.