Mick Rock—the legendary lensman responsible for the most iconic photos of David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed—touches down in Toronto to talk about… well, yoga, kidney surgery, and James Taylor, naturally.
When he first picked up a camera over 40 years ago, Mick Rock was one of the few photographers drawn to the dregs of rock ‘n’ roll, those artists who were retreating from the spotlight, written out of the dominant Rolling Stone-defined rock canon, or pushing the limits of its freakiest fringes. But over the years, some of these underselling outsiders (like Syd Barrett, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed) would become crucially influential figureheads for subsequent generations of punks and indie rockers, while others (like David Bowie and Queen) would emerge as some of the biggest names in pop. As such, Rock has amassed one of rock’s most iconic portfolios, the sort of photos that—whether in the form of frozen onstage tableaux or candid backstage snapshots—distill the music’s incendiary, decadent essence into a static frame, and have inspired thousands to form bands just by looking at them.
In the ensuing decades, Rock has lived a life every bit as indulgent and tumultuous as those of the subjects he’s immortalized, with the chemical habits, near-death experiences, and late-career resurrections to show for it. Today, at age 65, he still very much resembles the shamanistic rock ‘n’ roll lifer: the shaggy hair, the permanently affixed sunglasses, the third-person self-referentialism, the flowing scarves (which he’ll randomly pull over his mouth mid-conversation). We meet in the lobby of the Templar Hotel on Adelaide West, where his most famous photographs from the ’70s and ’80s are currently on display in an exhibit called, naturally, Glam—but the show presents but a surface skim of the one-man retrospective industry that Rock has established over the past decade. In addition to displaying his prints at galleries around the world, Rock has repackaged his work into a series of lavish coffee-table books the size of coffee tables; the latest is a mammoth 40th-anniversary tome for Lou Reed’s Transformer, whose striking cover counts as one of Rock’s definitive shots. His images, of course, also feature heavily in the exhaustive David Bowie Is exhibition currently showing at the AGO.
But Rock doesn’t just spend his days scouring his archives for unpublished 40-year-old negatives. He remains an in-demand lensman still drawn to pop’s vanguard, with the likes of Janelle Monae, Lady Gaga, and Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox taking up recent residency on his C.V. However, if Rock is busier than ever, he’s also learned to slow down in other regards, replacing past vices with regular yoga and meditation. Upon sitting down for this interview, Rock is jonesing for a coffee; I jokingly suggest we raid the Templar’s unattended lobby bar instead. He admits he’s never been much of a drinker—except in the eyes of his 93-year-old mum, who assumes Rock’s peak party days were fuelled by alcohol rather than the more adventurous substances he was actually consuming at the time. If she knew the truth, Rock says sheepishly, she “would lecture the hell out of me.”
Your mother’s 93? So you come from good genes, then.
Well, I’ve dabbled in the art of near-death a couple of times. I did have quadruple bypass heart surgery 17 years ago this coming Christmas, and recently I had a kidney transplanted. So I’ve been chastened for my sins.
Mortality is casting a dark shadow of late: Bowie had a heart attack a few years ago, Lou Reed just had a liver transplant…
Yeah, Lou went to London and we did a double-act as a transplant—his liver and my kidney. But a liver is kind of a bigger deal. Not that a kidney transplant is a total walk in the park. One kidney goes, and unless something’s done about it, the other one will go, too. But the thing is you only need one kidney. If you donate, and something happens to your remaining one—because you think, “shit, I gave one away, now what the fuck happens?”—you go to the top of the [donor] list. Because there’s always stuff coming in; they’d like there to be more. And, of course, there are cadaver kidneys. Mine is not a cadaver kidney—[my donor] is very much alive at 33. She’s an amazing woman. But that’s not what you came here to talk about…
What’s your history with Toronto?
I wouldn’t say a lot, but I have been here. For start, I’ve got a sister who lives here, Carol, my older sister. She has Canadian citizenship. But I haven’t spent a lot of time here. When I would tour with Lou and David back in the ’70s, we would come to Toronto. I remember that. The Bowie ’72 tour for Ziggy Stardust came to Toronto.
Does anything stand out?
You know what stands out? That it was 40 years ago, man! It looked much smaller than it does now. That I do remember. It’s still not quite like going to London or New York, where there are fucking animals everywhere. It’s still…
Yeah, exactly. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, Canada seems to be doing quite alright these days.
Is it difficult for you to mediate between being an archivist and staying current?
Well, I’ve had to learn how to figure it out, because I like to shoot, and I’ve got a lot of projects going on: a musical, a documentary, another film idea… so much other stuff. But, in the end, I like to fucking shoot. The documentary, I’d be interested to see what that does. It’s backed by Vice.
Is there a concept to it, or is it a straight life-story narrative?
I’m not getting into my childhood; I don’t want to talk about marriages. It’s got to stay on the work. I’m not telling tales out of school. My mother, very early on, forbade that.
Everything comes back to mom.
What I do, and the world I live in, she would have no concept of. You can’t really expect her to. She comes from that earlier generation. Whereas people of my generation are parents now, and the sins of one’s youth are all there when you’re dealing with your own children. You’re more understanding.
I think it was Keith Richards who said that, for the pre-war generation, life was in black-and-white, and for the post-war rock ‘n’ roll generation, it was Technicolour.
Yeah, well that’s a good quote. I know his son Marlon, and the girls… Theodora is very nice. All things considered, they turned to be really great kids. They’ve been spoiled in a certain sense but, also, Keith is their father! I think he tends to walk a little more on the quiet side these days, because he doesn’t have any options.
Did you read his autobiography?
I read bits. My wife took it to bed with her for a week.
It’s a real page-turner up until the 1990s, then things definitely settle down for him.
Well, it’s about, like, live or die. Do you think Iggy Pop runs around every night shooting smack? Of course not. Who would’ve thought Mick Jagger, that silly sod, would be out there at 70 doing his strut? The world is the way it is, there’s nothing I say that’s going to change it, so I’ll work it out. You’ve got to keep working out a deal with life. And every so often, there’s a new deal you’ve got to work out. I keep living with that [nickname], “The Man Who Shot the ’70s”— but I didn’t shoot Journey, I didn’t shoot The Carpenters, I didn’t shoot Carole King, I didn’t shoot James Taylor. I shot a certain streak which people later started calling “the cutting edge.” It turns out to have had the most cultural resonance. James Taylor has a beautiful voice, but I think he’s had zero effect on the culture, and I don’t think he thinks he does, and he doesn’t aspire to it. He just gets out there and plays… they’re quite soulful for sweet songs. I mean, it’s hard to knock James Taylor because he’s such a nice person and the music is authentically his. It was little bit light for some of us years ago, but… I’m not sure why I’m talking about James Taylor, probably because I smoked a joint and I only slept two hours last night. I had to do Canada AM this morning, and it’s a long bloody drive!
Was there a point when you realized you weren’t just an observer of this fringe rock scene bubbling up, but that you were an important part of it?
It was a different world back then. By the time I left Cambridge in the summer of ’69, all this stuff was underground, and there wasn’t the media—or the strength of the media—that there is today. You could do a lot of things under the radar. In the old days, it was all about the music—there was fuck-all on television, occasionally you’d go see a film, not many magazines. The visual thing was a subsidiary augmenting one’s life. Though some of the pictures of the characters did have a reverberation, especially with the hair. But something else started happening in the ‘70s: We started looking at the new millennium. That’s what Bowie was doing.
And now that we’re in the new millennium, everyone just wants to look back.
Well yeah… It’s like, “Well, what do you do, Mick?” I sell it. You want me to peddle you a little plate full of the ’70s? I can give you a feast if that’s what you want. Meanwhile, I’m getting on with this other stuff. But there was a time when, because of my chemical habit, I couldn’t get any work, because I was better known for that [habit] than for my work. I had been a burnout, but I had produced a lot of work… and then the resurrection came.
What was the turning point?
The turning point was when I hit the hospital and I had the [tubes] in my arm, and then I had quadruple bypass heart surgery. Because after that… I just had to stay away from everything. Especially cigarettes. If you are taking certain things, you will smoke a lot. But [the surgery experience] cleaned me up, and then my head, the creative bit… I could always do that, no matter what state I was in.
And it seemed that, at the start of the 2000s, there was a new energy in rock ‘n’ roll, with bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who you’ve shot a lot.
I just about got it together in time. I started shooting all these new acts and started putting all these retro books out, and getting into kabuki, and my photo art. And shooting a bit of fashion. I mean, there’s all sorts of things going on at the moment. There is a certain passion for the ’70s, but reflecting it in a modern way. It’s the timing. I’ve been showing these prints at galleries for a long time, and I’ve done pretty good, but this year, the print sales have gone through the roof—better than any other year I can remember. Who knows what it is? Because I bet more people are watching Miley Cyrus videos today than David Bowie.
What artists inspire you today?
I love Janelle Monae and Karen O. Remember, my age makes a difference, I have a different perspective. Although I know the young people who like me will happily work with me. Now, I go into a session dragging along a bit of pedigree.
You’ve been around long enough to see the revival of revivals of revivals. Like, in the late-’90s, there was a moment where glam came back with things like Velvet Goldmine…
David hated that film. It was [director Todd Haynes’] fantasy. He got the trimmings right, but David was a hustler. He was not some limp-wristed, passive kind of person, and that’s what the film made him out to be. He’s very talented, that director, but he missed the mark with Velvet Goldmine. It’s alright, that happens. A lot of people think David missed the mark with Tin Machine, and there are those who think he was right on target, but they were not the majority. I don’t know about these things, I wish I did—the secrets of the universe. Of course, no one really carries that knowledge. A lot of people pretend—“I know the secrets of the universe! Roll up and believe everything I tell you!” The minute you put it to me like, my attitude is: “fuck you.” However, I do admire Deepak Chopra, and there are a certain yoga characters out there I’m into, but they tend not to be doctrinaire. It’s about methods and technology. Organ technology. Yoga works more on your organs and glands than anything else. And that’s the key. Because you could be there with no arms and no legs, but if your organs are working fine, you’re going to be living a long time. There is a lot of interest in health these days and all these different methods, and the technology and science of it. Somewhere along the way, rock ‘n’ roll helped fuel that in some ironic way.
Well, rock ‘n’ roll makes us want to be forever young.
And you better stop the one thing and start something else.
Trade one addiction for another.
Yeah, some people just call it people being retarded. But I enjoy all that. I’m compulsive all the time—especially with the yoga and massage.
Do you get the same high from that as being onstage in the middle of a Stooges show?
It’s a little bit different. It’s the fucking Stooges, man! Iggy had such an attitude in those days. It was so raw. And he said, “Oh, I hated everybody back then. I was just angry at everybody and everything then.” He is [nicer] nowadays, but then he hits the stage and he becomes a beast again. Kind of like of how when I pick up a camera, I become Mick Rock again.
Looking at Iggy’s T. Rex shirt in that photo with him, Bowie, and Lou, I realized that Marc Bolan doesn’t figure so prominently in your repertoire.
Yeah, I wasn’t really allowed, because he and David had fallen out for a while. I wasn’t really allowed to dally with Marc, that wasn’t going to wash. Lou and Iggy, yeah, that was totally cool. And by the time it would’ve been cool again, Marc had lost it, though he did start back on the comeback trail just before he died. I mean, to be candid, compared to these three [Bowie, Lou, and Iggy], I thought [Bolan] was just pop. In fact, he was a lot more than that, but less influential. I know Marc was tarting himself in a certain way, but he just had his boas and some kind of garish make-up. But David stylized it all differently.
You knew Syd Barrett back in your Cambridge days…
Ah, it always comes back to Syd. Bowie and Barrett—those two.
Well, I think Syd is the most fascinating person you’ve shot…
Because the least is known about him. There’s just the body of work.
Also, when you shot him, he was drifting away from stardom, whereas Bowie was on the ascent.
The thing about the pictures I got of him is that I was lucky in the sense in that he did look extraordinary, with that haunted look, the poete maudit. He was beautiful. We were doing a show of just Syd prints in New York at Lit, and the Post wrote a whole thing in the centre [spread] and it was “Dark Star: The Tortured Soul!” And it was a great image to have. The funny thing is he’s dressed in a kind of hip fashion—I mean, he did look extraordinary, what can you say?
I think he preesnts a sharp contrast to a lot of your other photos, which show a lot of glamour, whereas his look more squalid.
He looks glamorous! He’s got the eye make-up. I don’t think it’s squalid… just because the car wouldn’t work? Because there’s a naked girl in the background? With those three photos [he points to a print of Mick Jagger talking to Andy Warhol, the shot above of Syd Barrett laying on a car, and the Bowie/Iggy/Lou party pic], you’ve really got all the angles covered: the bright, the dark, and the raging.
When was the last time you saw Syd?
The last thing he did [for me] was co-sign a bunch of these Syd Barrett books, which was what they called the Deluxe Edition. And they’re worth thousands of dollars now. Yeah, they’re nice pictures, and Mick Rock’s not a bad photographer, but it was the Syd signature [that increased their value]… I’ve got eight of them in my attic, and I’ve seen them up for eight and nine thousand dollars. But you won’t get any of mine.
That’s your insurance policy.
I don’t know what the fuck it is, I’ve just got an accumulating impulse that just wants to hoard. I’m a natural born-hoarder.
Glam: A Salute to Mick Rock can be viewed till Nov. 26 in the lobby of the Templar Hotel (348 Adelaide St. W.). Free.