Frequently referred to as “the man who shot the ’70s”, Brit photographer MICK ROCK chronicled the rise of Ziggy Stardust and is still snapping music’s biggest names. helen dalley goes in for a close-up
IT’S NOW MORE than 40 years since Mick Rock first picked up a camera as a Cambridge modern language and literature undergrad and began profiling his pal, Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett, but his photos are still creating a stir. Just ask Peter Hildebrand, general manager at W Hong Kong, which is hosting the exhibition Rocked until the end of September at Woo Bar. “There’s a picture of Kate Moss where she’s virtually bare-chested and I was concerned about that because we didn’t want mothers having to cover their daughter’s eyes as they walked through the lobby, so that image is located right inside the bar,” Hildebrand says. “We had to be mindful about Hong Kong being a bit more conservative than New York, where the Rocked exhibition recently made its debut.”
Other titillating takes that made the cut include a shot of Lady Gaga posing in her underwear in a trashed bathtub, a man’s bare torso with paint-spattered walls as the backdrop, and ’80s-hair metallers Mötley Crüe writhing in a foam-filled tub, the bubbles the only thing hiding their modesty.
But there’s far more to Rock than sex and sensationalism. Get up close to his body of work in the Woo Bar – where his subjects gaze boldly down at guests lingering over afternoon tea or sipping cocktails – and you’re struck by the intimacy of his portraits, such as a black and white of Lou Reed, Mick Jagger and David Bowie, heads together, smiling and looking atypically affectionate, with Jagger’s polished nails showing a more feminine side to the king of the macho strut.
Another shot captures David Bowie and guitarist Mick Ronson dolled up in full glam regalia, sharing a smile over lunch on a train, their peacocking cleverly contrasting with the normality of the situation. There are album covers, too: the beautifully lit shot from Queen II, the iconic black-and-white image from Lou Reed’s Transformer and Joan Jett’s cool-yetsexy portrait for I Love Rock ’n’ Roll. Displayed in a large format usually found at a museum exhibition, the 32 rock ’n’ roll portraits have even greater impact.
With his trademark tinted specs and brown shaggy hair à la Bob Dylan circa Blonde on Blonde, Rock strides into the hotel room with all the presence and authority of one of his subjects. He’s wearing tight blue jeans and a denim shirt, a scarf draped coolly around his neck despite the searing temperature outside. A picture of edgy bohemian chic, Rock has aged remarkably well considering his decades of excess on the road touring with bands, more youthful and hip than your typical gent in his mid-sixties.
He apologises for being a little tardy. “I just needed a few minutes to let my brain go,” he says. After spending more than four decades behind the viewfinder, Rock likes to have a direct view of his interviewers, according to manager Liz Vap, a thoroughly genuine and charming American who has represented the photographer for more than 10 years.
While Rock blazed a rock ’n’ roll trail in the early years – he dropped acid with Syd and survived drug-fuelled nights with Bowie, Iggy and Lou – these days his only indulgences are caffeine and the odd spliff. After a quadruple bypass in 1996 at the age of 48, even the cigs have gone and Rock is a keen practitioner of Kundalini yoga – Reese Witherspoon and Gwyneth Paltrow are fans of it – which he says not only got him through that difficult time, but also helps him focus before a shoot. “I’ve always done yoga and meditation, but now I do some chanting and power breathing to help me get in the zone. I’ve always been curious about ways to enhance consciousness. I was a hippy student really, desperate not to get a proper job,” he says with a laugh.
While Rock confesses he used uppers to keep him going, he was never into heroin despite working extensively with Lou Reed in the ’70s. These days, photography is his drug of choice. “It’s therapeutic for me, so a much better ‘drug’ than the actual drugs ever were,” he says. “I became hooked on it. But of course I did nearly die nearly 16 years ago…that calmed me down. Since the bypass, I’ve not touched anything stronger than marijuana. After knocking on heaven’s door, it was time to get my act together.”
Yet somehow, he reflects, he could always produce creatively, even if the rest of his life was chaotic. “I’ve seen that with a lot of creative people, they can still operate on that level even if the rest of their life isn’t going so well. But now I know how to do it without leading a crazy life. I can still tap into the madness by tapping into the memories.”
I am here to witness “the madness” – and rock ’n’ roll history – as Rock prepares to shoot his first Chinese rock band, Queen Sea Big Shark, who provided the soundtrack to the opening of the Rocked exhibition. As guests laze on sun loungers and do laps in W’s rooftop pool, Rock orders the band to “squeeze together tight” as he snaps away, telling them, “I wanna see you, I wanna see you, I can’t see you,” until, satisfied at last, he says, “Wow, look at that,” and shows them the results on the viewfinder of his Nikon D5 before lying down almost supine in his quest to get the perfect shot. From this position, he is barking out orders, shooting, laughing and looking like he’s having the best time as the hotel guests look on in bemusement.
Then it’s time for him to be photographed by our own photographer, who is understandably nervous about shooting another snapper, especially a legend such as Rock. But there’s no need – after so many years behind the camera, he knows what poses will make the best shots and coolly stares down the lens from his position on the hotel suite’s sofa. He refuses, as any true rock ’n’ roller should, to take off his shades.
Our snapper tries – and fails – to persuade him to get into position on a beanbag. Rock jokingly berates her. “You’re gonna get what I serve you up and behave yourself,” before grumbling amiably, “Photographers are greedy buggers, we always want one more shot.”
After a 40-odd year career, Rock is still looking for that next shot, the next big thing. He enthuses over modern-day rock acts, saying Queen Sea Big Shark remind him of Blondie in the early days. Other contemporary subjects include acts like Gossip and Black Keys, as well as Lady Gaga. “My grandmother used to call me a blue-arsed fly – I don’t like to sit still,” he says, wryly. “But what else am I meant to do besides take pics of bands – my name’s Mick Rock?” he laughs.
As for what’s next, he is in the process of doing photo books with the two people he claimed he was always closest to – David Bowie and Lou Reed. “I don’t really see David any more. I call him the Howard Hughes of rock ’n’ roll as he’s quite reclusive,” he says, with a glimmer of regret behind the glasses. Mick also fesses up to a decidedly un-rock ’n’ roll secret: he loves taking pictures of his Maine Coon cats, which are renowned for their shaggy fur, when he gets in after a late night job.
“I still get that same energy when I take photographs, so after a shoot, when my wife and daughter are in bed, I come home and play with my cats. I could sit, smoke a joint and watch them for hours. I’m thinking of doing some kind of cat book at some point – but I’m not going to call it ‘pussy’ as some people have suggested,” he roars.
While it’s difficult to imagine Rock actually going through with a photo book on cats despite the serious note in his voice, the man who once shot cocaine centrefolds (“it’s really difficult to light as it’s so white and reflective”) has been asked to compile a book about sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. With the Bowie and Reed books imminent, however, he feels that a further tome – especially of that nature – would prove too much of a distraction.
“I have enough material, but I don’t think my mother would ever speak to me again,” he says. It’s wonderfully charming that the chronicler of rock ’n’ roll’s most debauched decade, now in his sixties, still worries about what his mum might say.
Find out more about Mick Rock and his books.