In Conversation: Mick Rock – Part 2
For those who haven’t heard of Mick Rock, he is a British-born photographer, based in New York, whose images have been synonymous with the evolution of the rock music scene ever since he picked up a camera at a party whilst on an acid-trip in the late 1960s, leading to him discovering his love of image making
Words by Simon Skinner
The camera in questions, borrowed from a friend on the night, famously had no film in it at the time and so Mick had to draw upon his memories of the evening in order to continue with his newly-found passion.
Fast forward a few decades, and Mick’s work can be seen gracing the covers of many a classic album. He has shot numerous pop videos and has called the like of David Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, personal friends for most of his working life. Alongside this work, Mick has had the good fortune to shoot many a campaign for some of the most recognisable fashion brands on the planet.
I first interviewed Mick, some time ago, where we covered a lot of ground on his past work and relationships, but in this latest interview, I caught up with Mick, in New York, whilst on the tail end of the global press campaign for his documentary-style auto-biographical film, Shot.
Simon Skinner: Hi Mick. How the devil are you?
Mick Rock: I’ve really got so much going on; I feel a bit like a juggler these days. It’s been a funny old year, but at least I’m in New York! I’ve been running all year, but all’s good.
SS: You’re working hard?
MR: Well, it’s a habit [laughs] and it’s what I know.
SS: I saw that you were back in Blighty last Summer, what were you up to, then?
MR: I’d recently completed a shoot for a big fashion brand, so had to go out there to meet with the Creative Director to kick it all off. I can’t name them because they signed a letter of confidentiality; basically, they paid me enough money for me to be comfortable with them having control. I also had three exhibitions going into the autumn, which took me to Sweden and a sizeable one in Mexico City, which took place in November . From there I had an exhibition in Detroit in early December, Toronto in February , then I’m hoping to book some others, but those are what’s in the diary right now.
SS: Plenty going on then, Mick. What’s new outside of your exhibition schedule?
MR: Well, as it happens, they’ve [Genesis Publications] just re-publishing my Lou Reed book in November, too. The one that I produced with Lou just before he died. He’d only co-signed around 600 of the signature sheets in the original run before he, unfortunately, passed away. This time around, it includes a couple of thousand [or so] words from me, but more interestingly, the new book contains 65 new pictures. They’re made up from a special portfolio and around 50 of them have never been seen before. They all include Lou’s [stamped] signature and all approved by Laurie Anderson, of course. It’s basically her book now. So that’s happening, along with a couple of shoots here and there, a magazine cover and models shoots. That’s all enough for me to have in my diary, in between my check-ups.
SS: I would say so, Mick. When we last spoke, we talked through all manner of things, covering your historic career and, in between you firing lots of questions to me, I was pleased at how generous you were with your story. I’d like to reflect, for a minute, on your recent biopic production, though. We covered the DVD launch in August last year  and really enjoyed the film, too. Can you tell us how it all came to light?
Lots of people approached me, including the BBC, but I was never going to do anything with them.
MR: How did it come around? Oh, well, in some eccentric way, really. Actually, quite a few people had approached me about doing a documentary about my life and experiences over the years, but I never really liked the sound of it. These included the BBC, but I was never going to do anything with the BBC as they have a very prosaic approach to things and I didn’t want to stuff it with ‘talking heads’. That strikes me as a situation where you have someone sitting around saying that, “I like Mick’s pictures, therefore you’ve got to like them.” What’s that got to do with anything?
SS: So, what changed?
MR: Well, I eventually started talking to some people that I knew I could work with, independent way. Vice films eventually came up with the majority of the money, but there was another company called Straight Up Films, that also came up with some of the money that we needed to make the film; in fact, they got on board first. Then I chose a Director.
SS: How did you approach that?
MR: I’d spoken to a lot of people since 2012, when we originally made a start on pre-production and writing. I was waiting for a kidney transplant, and actually, a lot of the footage was shot around that time, too. I can see it when I watch the film. I’m not sure if anyone else can tell, but I was in ill health and having regular treatment, ‘special shots’ along with dialysis and check-ups. Eventually, I had my transplant.
SS: On that point, you’ve been very honest and open about your medical situation and how you’ve struggled; in part, due to a debauched lifestyle. The operation must have been a big thing for you. Must you be thankful to still be around?
I had taken an inordinate amount of cocaine over a 20 year period. Now, the closest I get to a drug is a drag on my e-cigarette.
MR: I don’t mind talking about the past, but I do like to talk about the present. There was ‘that thing’ 20 years ago that cleaned me up. Let’s be frank; up to ‘that’ point, I had been into cocaine and I had done an inordinate amount of it over a very long period of time. But then I knew a lot of other people who were also doing the same thing; especially in and around the music business. Those were ‘the days’ and I was a part of that fold. Of course, I don’t touch anything now and haven’t for many years; the closest I come to a drug is the odd drag on my e-cigarette.
SS: Life has changed somewhat, for you?
MR: It certainly has. I’m addicted to natural therapies now; I have a lady that sticks pins into me and massages me. You name it, I probably do it; chanting and yoga, to give a couple more examples. It’s what’s kept me alive and it seems, in spite of everything, in relatively good shape!
SS: That’s good to hear. So, the film has been a global release; how have you coped with recovering whilst being on the promotional campaign trail?
MR: Basically, the promotion for the film took place territory by territory. That made it achievable for me and the people dealing with the press were forgiving with my schedule, which made it possible, really. 2017 has been an interesting year, I have to say.
SS: So, are you happy with the final cut of the film?
MR: I hated the first 3 or 4 years, but it got better. With every screening, I became more comfortable with the content, but would still cut back on certain material and continued to hand the producers and the director copious notes and criticisms to deal with. I think Barney [Clay, Director] originally spent too much time dwelling on my heart attack, bless them, but they also brought a lot of nice touches to it, too.
SS: We’re back to the Director. How did you choose to work with Barney Clay?
MR: Part of the reason that I chose him was because he’d never done a documentary before, he was under 40 and had done music videos and I wanted a different kind of perspective. I mean, I don’t mind watching talking heads, but they seem to me to stop the flow of energy in documentaries if you know what I mean?
SS: Sure. How involved were you, then, in the process beyond the interview elements of shooting and your reams of criticisms?
MR: I got my oar in there quite a bit! I mean, I supplied all of the material, including all of the soundtracks with David Bowie, Lou Reed and Syd Barrett, lots of which nobody had heard or seen previously. In the end, Eddie Moretti [Vice Films] said, “Mick, we’ve bent over backwards to make you happy. We’ve got to go with it as it is, now.” Because he wanted to get it out for the Tribeca Film Festival, plus, he was in the middle of developing Viceland TV, which is a big deal now. I had to respect their input and the fact that they had stumped up a considerable amount of money to make the film; I mean, they had to feel that it was a good fit for Vice. A Vice film, if you like.
MR: It did all kind of come together organically; the elements, I mean. In truth, the Vice link was actually largely down to Barney and his connections. God bless Barney, he had to put up with me for all that time, plus, in the middle of it all, around 6-7 months, nothing really happened as I’d been waiting for this surgery and there had been a natural break in proceedings during and after my surgery. It ground to a halt! At the same time, Barney’s father was dying and also, he and his partner [Karen O] were having a baby, so he was really having a tough time of it. As it turned out, I had to keep reminding him that I hadn’t died and that we could get through and finish the film.
During one of my critical rounds of note-making for the Director, my wife asked me who was directing the film. She has a real way of bursting my bubble at times.
SS: So, Barney was integral as Director and Producer?
MR: He was. To give him his credit; all of the special effects stuff that you see in there, that was all Barney. In fact, during one of my critical rounds of note-making for Barney, my wife asked me who was actually directing the film, me, or someone else. She has a real way of bursting my bubble at times.
SS: It sounds like she may be the voice of reason that we all need at times?
MR: Without question. Of course, Barney is the Director but there was no way that he wasn’t going to get a load of feedback from me. I was always hassling to get into the editing room and he’d say, “OK, Mick, let’s do it” but, somehow he cleverly kept me out of there. What was important to me, going in, was to make it clear that I have a body of work beyond the excess in the 70s. Yes, I have to accept the excesses of the 70s, but I’ve produced tons work that I’m proud of since my heart bypass surgery. That’s a 20 year period and I wanted to make sure that it was covered in the film, too. In fact, I originally wanted that work to make up a third of the film, but at least you get a taste of it in the finished piece.
My parents died aged 99 and 95, so genetically speaking, I was a little bit ahead of the game, going in so whatever happened to me, I earned it myself and I can take the blame for it, too. No excuses.
SS: Are you happy with the ‘current’ elements that were included?
MR: I guess so. There’s a clear identification with some current obsessions, such as Father John Misty, Karen O, and some of the live photography with TV on the Radio. Somehow, through the ups and downs, Barney came to shoot me in hospital after my operation; I had to say to him, “This whole thing isn’t a plea for some kind of sympathy, you know?” I said, “what happened, happened and I earned it.” My parents died and 99 and 95, so genetically speaking, I was a little bit ahead of the game, going in so whatever happened to me, I earned it myself and I can take the blame for it, too. No excuses.
SS: The obvious question must come up time and again, but I am going to ask you nonetheless. Do you regret the excesses of that period of your life?
MR: Well, on one level you have to say that, Mick, you arsehole; you had all of that going for you and what did you do – you nearly died! But on the other hand, ‘my generation’ if you like, was highly experimental and definitely more ignorant of cause and effect. I was into all kinds of exploration; no food, no sleep, as examples, but I never got into heroin and bizarrely, I never drank. I also got into yoga early on, which was a great way to come down from whatever I’d been taking; mainly cocaine, but some speed, too, especially if I’d been hanging out with Lou Reed.
I was never looking to 'die', I never felt like that. I never thought I would die and even when I nearly did, I wasn't buying into it.
SS: So, at least you had an understanding of the drugs that you were taking and some idea of how to address the balance, to a degree?
MR: I Guess so. I mean, let’s not kid ourselves, none of it is very good for you but I was kind of purist with my approach to it all. During my Cambridge days, I’d had two friends die from heroin overdoses, so I always saw that as the ‘death drug’. Now I know plenty of people who have played around with it and are still around today, but there are also plenty of people who played around with it who are dead, too. As a result, I see heroin as a bit like playing Russian Roulette. Those people who say, “Mick, you were very self-destructive, you must’ve had a death wish’, well, no, I didn’t. I was never looking to ‘die’, I never felt like that. I never thought I would die and even when I nearly did, I wasn’t buying into it.
SS: When we last spoke, you told me about how you’d ‘fallen’ into your job as an image-maker. Do you consider yourself as a kind of ‘pure’ artist who has found his medium almost by accident?
MR: I was never looking for a career. I was looking for some big adventure, which I ended up getting. Nowadays, they talk about my ‘career’ but I never thought of it as a career. I never saw myself as a photographer and could see myself more as a poet or lyricist, which I’d dabbled with.
SS: One thing that strikes me is the, often overlooked, interviews by Mr Mick Rock. You’ve been prolific over the years with regards to interviewing people as well as photographing them, haven’t you?
MR: Early on, that was important to me. I mean, the first money that I made was through my photography but writing was always important. I made the last interview with Syd Barrett, which was published in Rolling Stone magazine. I interviewed Rory Gallagher, with whom I did three album covers, too. These are some of the things that don’t get mentioned; there’s all kinds of stuff that doesn’t get mentioned because there’s only a certain amount of room and people always want the headlines. The iconic stuff.
SS: And the film leans, largely on those headlines too.
MR: Yes. For all the work I’ve done, there’s a period that’s inescapable; be that good or bad, everyone only ever wants to talk about Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Debbie Harry, The Rocky Horror Picture Show etc. You’ll see on my website that there’s a breadth of work that never makes the cut in interviews.
SS: Do you think that the film portrayed those relationships successfully?
MR: I’m in my late 60s now and the documentary is 90 minutes long. You can only put so much in there and they [obviously] want people to watch it, so the references will be what you’d expect, but after meeting with some designers to talk about the cover art, I was pleased that we managed to display people like Daft Punk alongside the earlier work because I didn’t want it to be bogged down in the past, too much if it was at all possible. On the other hand, that’s what people want!
SS: That’s unavoidable, I guess. Does it disappoint you that Lou and David didn’t get to see the film?
MR: Debbie Harry came to one of the launches and she was delighted with it, so I was happy with that.
SS: Since the passing of Syd, Lou and David, [particularly]. These people have been immortalised in no small part by your work, though. You must be happy about that?
MR: Interestingly enough, I’ve been looking into VR projects more recently. There’s been some exploratory work, using 50 or 60 of my images to create a whole new experience, which will include a commentary from me and will take people to a historic place where they can experience something from the horse’s mouth, whilst standing next to one of these ‘idols’. Something new and exciting.
SS: That definitely sounds like something new and exciting.
MR: Well, I refuse to become a relic of the past. That’s for sure.
SS: On hearing of David’s death, I called you to offer my condolences after our first conversation and realising just how close you had been. Can you tell me where you were when you first found out that he had passed away?
I remember telling David Bowie that our book had nearly sold out. He said, "That's great, Mick, I must still have some popularity out there. That was probably the last time I spoke with him
MR: I do remember. I had crashed out downstairs with the TV on. I then woke up around 3 am, CNN was showing my video of Space Oddity. I thought that it must be some kind of trailer for Darkstar, his last album. I was a bit dopey, having been asleep, and then I saw the banner underneath, saying that David had died. I’d been in communication with David up until that point; talking about the book that we’d done with Taschen, the limited edition co-signed one, just before. I remember telling him that it had nearly sold out. He said, “That’s great, Mick, I must still have some popularity out there.” Of course, that’s a bit of an understatement, but he was like that. David could be self-deprecating. That was probably the last time I spoke with him.
SS: Did you know he was ill?
MR: No. I had no idea that he had cancer. I knew that he’s had a couple of strokes and I thought that was why he was lying low. On top of that, I’d had my own surgery, which had taken my eye off things to some degree.
SS: At which point did you become aware that he’d died?
MR: After David died, the fucking phone didn’t stop ringing. Anyone who had a serious association with David was bombarded with calls. I remember being asked to comment by a host of people; live interviews, radio and TV all wanted comments and vox pops, but I wouldn’t do any of it.
MR: He wasn’t even cold. There was no way that I was going to put myself out there and talk about David and his life when he’d only just died. I did comment in a couple of print articles and, of course, I did provide quite a few photographs, but with Lou, and now David. Well. You’ll see in the documentary, that there are quite a few people who mean a lot to me, but those two! The documentary is dedicated to those two; Barney even got me to hand-write it for the titles.
SS: Why in particular would you say that Lou Reed and David Bowie were closer to you than most?
MR: In terms of my sensibility, I think those two had the greatest influence on the way I’ve developed. I was who I was and I had photographed Syd Barrett two or three years before I’d even met David Bowie. Syd turned out to be a part of the initial connection between David and I. David had found out that I was friends with Syd and wanted to know all about him. When I did the limited edition [Syd] book with Genesis, there was an even more limited edition of the print run that was co-signed by both Syd and I and David said, “Well, where’s my copy of the Syd book, Mick?” He loved Syd Barrett. He was one of his all-time favourite artists.
SS: Great stuff. So, the film is out there now, along with the re-issue from Genesis, and you’ve been on a long promotional trail. Do you have any plans to visit London anytime soon?
MR: I hope so. It’s been a little while and I do like coming back to London when I can. I’ll be sure to give you a shout when I do.
SS: Please do. Thanks, Mick. Until next time.
You can watch the trailer for the film, Shot, by clicking below, but do yourself a favour and seek it on pay per view or DVD: