Were the earth to suddenly start spitting out creative geniuses in the world of music photography, surely they would materialize at the Morrison Hotel Gallery. The works of some of the most seminal photographers in the annals of music photography have either passed through these doors, or will someday.
Recently I had the opportunity to meet with legendary photographer Mick Rock. With a name tailor-made for what he does, a bit of swagger, and a charm that’s irresistible, he sat down to tell me about his show premiering on Ovation, and his works past and present.
Not one to simply rest on his laurels, he’s still motivated to go out and shoot, and he finds the same sense of artistry in his subjects as he did in the 1970’s. Known as “The man who shot the 70’s”, it would be short-change to associate him with the only a single decade. He still puts himself out there, sharing his vision and his craft with us through his photos, and he is about to embark on his newest project; On The Record With Mick Rock, premiering on Ovation TV Sunday, August 2nd at 8pm ET.
Not only was I able to ask him questions about his inspirations, and share some really funny banter, I was privy to some very behind-the-scenes information that really touched me. Mick was introspective and genuinely moved when speaking of many working and personal relationships he’s had over the years.
Read on as Mr. Rock shows us the softer side of Allen Klein, David Bowie, and Lou Reed, and shares an apparent bromance with Anthony Bourdain.
To what do you attribute your longevity?
Do not do as I did! Your mother will hate you and the world will disown you. If you want to hang around in any game, in whatever you do, in the entertainment or arts business, hanging around is the true art! I could share a lot more, but Anthony Bourdain deserves more. He’s got a lot of freedom. With me they want to know what they’ve got. So who is this interview for?
The Los Angeles Beat
It sounds a bit rock and roll to me.
It’s a different kind of beat. Music, food, events.
Food is so big these days….
You were mentioning Anthony Bourdain earlier?
It was just my wife and daughter saying “you can’t be such a yobo, you’ve got to be more like Anthony Bourdain, more rock and roll” and I say “well, I’ll do me best”.
He was broke at 45, he wrote this book, what was it? “Kitchen Confidential”. I haven’t read it, although my wife and daughter have. They will sit and watch cooking, and for two skinny people, they will watch endless hours of cooking programs. They turned me on to him. Not from the CNN show, but from the other show, what was it called?
They’ve got Anthony Bourdain and Anderson Cooper on buses in NYC representing CNN. They must be making pockets of loot!
I’ve always thought Anthony Bourdain was the Mick Rock of the cooking world.
Yeah, and I’m the Anthony Bourdain of photography. I just do what I do, and I don’t have time to worry about what anybody else is up to. I’m so busy. I’m doing an exhibition in the autumn here for my new Bowie book. David co-signed all the limited editions, about 2000 of them. That’s the second book I’ve done with him, the first was back in 2002.
Tell our readers more about your new show coming up on Ovation.
Well, yes, since that’s what we’re really here to talk about. I only have a certain amount of control over it. They show me the edits, and I get a lot of input. But yeah, they’re taking a chance. It’s their money… I don’t think they’re spending oodles of cash, I mean, I’m just a neophyte in this area, and I’m known to a degree to people who care about Rock and Roll and photography. On the other hand, compared to many friends of mine I’m just a speck in the universe. So why would they do this? They must be desperate for programming.
You’ve got to be kidding.
I’ve jumped into a lot of pools in my life, and I think I could end up looking like an idiot but the pictures end up speaking for themselves. But I’ve been having fun. I would like it a little looser and a bit more jazzed, maybe a little more raw, and I’d like to see me doing a little more of a photo session. It’s a thing that’s in development I realize. Whether they’ll continue it after six episodes is anybody’s guess. I mean, there are plenty of other things for people to watch. They could be watching Anthony Bourdain, and he’s really good!
Maybe they could put both you and him on the same show together. That would be something wouldn’t it?
Could be, but I think Anthony has bigger fish to fry than little old me. I could photograph him for free, maybe that would be a deal to cover.
Personally I think they could do a great many shows on you and your work. You’re a legend. Who wouldn’t tune in to see that?
Donald Trump. I don’t think Donald Trump would tune in.
There must be countless stories behind all of these pictures, thousands of them.
Oh, all the stories and all the pictures. I can’t tell. That’s the real fascinating stuff. They’re all interesting, especially back in the day when we were all so young. I mean Syd, Lou, David, Freddie. I’ve got a great collection of Queen photos. And Rocky Horror. I’ve got all the Rocky Horror pictures.
You mentioned Syd. Syd Barrett?
Yeahhhhhh. There’s only one Syd. Syd Barrett.
I understand you get asked constantly about your relationship with Syd Barrett. Why do you think that is?
I get asked about David, Lou, all the others. But Syd, who’s output was quite small, when you think of Syd’s music, the first Pink Floyd album, plus a couple of solo albums…(starts sniffing).
Sorry, it’s not because I’ve’ been doing anything wicked, it’s just my nostrils are itchy because I’ve been talking for ages. With Syd, his cult is big, especially among young musicians. I’m always shocked when a 19-year-old would want to talk to me about Syd Barrett. Now, he was very unique. He was a progenitor of all kinds of music. I mean, God bless him, Roger Waters picked up on certain aspects which was all this space stuff, but you listen to Pink Floyd’s first album and Syd’s solo albums, you hear so many different strains running through it, it’s not just the space stuff. But I really liked Syd, he and I really got on. I have a lot of pictures where he looks like the poet manqué of my French symbolist’s poet obsession from when I was studying at Cambridge University believe it or not. Shelly, Keats, Byron…Syd went to Cambridge. He was a very naughty boy.
Your work isn’t just all in the past; you’re still shooting musicians, yes.
I still shoot because my nervous system needs it. I’ve just shot Nile Rodgers for Reserved magazine. I’ll shoot my friend Juliette Lewis, who is a great musician, cause they’re artists as well. I’ll shoot anybody if…if…. well, do I have to love them going in? Not necessarily, just as long as there’s a little sparkle that intrigues my imagination.
How much of that passion you just described went in to some of these iconic photos you’ve shot?
When I’m there, my brain is emptied out of everything else because I do this process. I always did yoga and other than the Syd pictures, even in the cocaine years, all of my pictures were taken after a yoga workout, so it’s intrinsic to my working process, as it is in my life. If you throw in a massage I can pluck an image from the stars.
I’m not going to throw one in, but maybe the crew here can hook you up with a massage. Now, when you were shooting some of these famous album covers, were you privy to any of the music beforehand? Did you listen? Did it give you a concept of how it should look?
I met Queen when they weren’t particularly well-known, there was a little bit of interest from their first album. But they played it for me. And Of course I was aware of Lou and Iggy from the Velvet Underground. Iggy And The Stooges albums, which no one would buy. And of course David, I didn’t know very much about. He had as it turns what most people would have termed a “gimmick record” that came and went with Space Oddity in 1969, but that kind of passed me by. But life on Mars, he played me that one, and Hunky Dory, and I wanted to write a piece on that and take some pictures, and I did. He kind of hypnotized me, even from the early gigs. It wasn’t as sophisticated as it later became with Ziggy Stardust, but he’s still a regular guy, I mean Blimey, what the fuck is going on? But he had this charisma, which most people weren’t initially responding to, but they very soon did. It was something about Bowie that I intuitively understood. I don’t claim to have understood everything, but certainly some important things that related to his talent. We communicated, we did interviews, and then I would write. I would do a bit of “propaganda” for him, that’s how I used to make extra money. So I got to know him, and I shot him a lot, so I got to observe him.
I’d shot Rory Gallagher live, I’d done the album cover, I think maybe before I’d met David, maybe it was during, I can’t remember. And with that, I got really good at shooting performance pictures. But I worked in all kinds of circumstances, so I developed flexibility. Today I’d rather choreograph it a bit. There was some kind of thing going on directly between me and the subject. And I think over the years I’ve matured, which doesn’t necessarily make me a better photographer, or it doesn’t make me whatever it is, but you have a better understanding of what “gets you off”. Plus with my energy, although none of these characters needed my energy to be great stage performers. In the 70’s I got great Bob Marley pictures too. I still get a hard-on when I get into the ring with the subject under whatever circumstances, so I think as long as I’m still getting that cyclic hard on, it’s still ok. I suppose I could live off my past, I think “residuals” is the right word, but I NEED, psychologically to still shoot. In many ways I’d rather shoot young people because they…taste better.
When I came in, I heard you mention that you hadn’t shot Bruno Mars but would like to?
Yes, it’s interesting that I’ve shot my Ronson, because they’ve had that incredible record, and it turns out he’s seems to have been slightly influenced by…somebody? I don’t know how you aren’t influenced, like My Sweet Lord, you can go back to, right? But I know more about that situation, and Allen Klein, who’s dead.
Allen Klein is a story unto himself.
I could talk to you about Allen Klein. Allen Klein saved my motherfucking life.
How much time do we have left??????
About five minutes.
I’ll have to come back for more Mick. I would love to hear more about Allen Klein.
He really did save my life. He paid all of my hospital bills when I needed help. I’d done work for him. I met him through a guy named Andrew Loog Oldham. I didn’t know him in the Stones days, I met him in the late 70’s, and he became a very good friend of mine. First we were buddies, then we did all this work together, and he remains a big brother or big sister to me all these days later, he’s a very wise man. He wrote all the notes on the early Stones albums, and of course he produced them and was their publicist. But Allen had this slightly “darker” reputation, I mean, there was a dark side to Allen, or at least that’s what I had heard about him, but he never showed his dark side to me.
That’s an amazing story, it presents a side of Allen Klein that I’m sure not many people are familiar with.
Let me ask you a Rock Hall related question. Do you think there should be a category for album cover art or photography? Without people like you, they would pretty much be selling records in plain brown wrappers.
That’s not my call. I don’t have any attitude for or against it. I know David didn’t even show up when he was inducted. He had Madonna show up holding a photo of mine to accept his award. I don’t know, it’s whatever, it’s not something I’ve ever thought about and it’s got nothing to do with me. Other people have to decide that. Am I a decent photographer? I do what I do and love it but other people have to decide that, I’m just a channeler.
Who better to name that award after than Mick Rock?
Oh, they’re never going to do that!
The Mick Rock Hall award…
Yeah, it ain’t gonna happen, so I don’t worry about it. I’m happy to be around still doing what I do. I’ve had a couple of award here and there, but what does it mean? For the Rock Hall, mostly it’s a few people who vote and make those decisions, so it is what it is. Good luck to everybody who’s in the hall of fame is what I say.
What’s the most touching accolade you’ve received?
“Touching” is an interesting word. Lou [Reed] just before he died. He said some very nice things about me, how much he trusted me and how much he loved the pictures. I think that did really touch me, that he would say such sweet things about me. Behind that cantankerous exterior which he would lay on you, while he shook you down to find out how much you knew, how serious you were, he was your pal. I loved him. We did great things together, and my admiration for him is boundless.
I wanted to clarify something else you were saying when I was walking in. Keith Richards 1969 or 1979? What’s your favorite period, image-wise?
Oh, 1969! Altamont, the scarves, the thing, like the gypsy rock and roller. He invented that. Of course Steven Tyler loved it, a lot of people did. Early on, he wasn’t so hot. But the more drugs he took, the hotter he got. And even today with the gnarly face and the bald bit, Keith is still Keith….
Keith IS cool! Thanks for your time Mick.