Mick Rock was born to be a photographer. “When your name is Mick Rock, what else are you going to be—an accountant?” he says, laughing. Commonly referred to as “the man who shot the seventies,” Rock captured indelible shots of David Bowie, Queen, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Blondie and more. If you made a rock record between 1970-1979, he was the one you called. His work shaped how we perceive and process an entire decade of music.
Now, after years of telling the stories of others through pictures, Rock’s has stepped in front of the lens. In Shot! The Psyco-Spiritual Mantra of Rock, documentarian Barnaby Clay is given free rein within the world of Mick, including access to never-seen archival footage, audio recordings and original photography. It’s a stunning portrait of man who has experienced people, places and things most of us only see in movies or hear in songs. At the age of 69, the British artist is just as youthful and candid as he’s ever been.
When he sat down with Playboy.com, he quickly launched into tales from the past, his use of drugs as a source of inspiration and the state of rock ’n’ roll, then and now. But before you dive in, check out this exclusive clip from the documentary, in which we learn why Rock views himself as a sniper while watching him capture a TV on the Radio performance.
I hear you’re a yoga enthusiast. When did you start doing that?
About 56 years ago, in the midst of that 20-year cocaine spree of mine. I was never a drinker and was never into heroin. When I was at Cambridge I had true friends die from heroin overdoses, so to me that was a death drug. I wasn’t heavily into downs; I would actually use the yoga to bring me down. I had three people I knew in the music business in the year after I had my bypass surgery that all dropped dead without warning, and they all did cocaine and drank. So you need a strong heart muscle, you know?
Did the yoga balance out the cocaine?
Sometimes it revved up even more. You stay up three days with your nose filled with Bolivia and then you stand on your head for half an hour—boy, you can have sex for fucking hours. You know, I was young, so that makes a big difference. Whatever lunacy I got up to then would kill me now.
Isn’t it harder to climax when your body is tired and under the influence?
Well, that’s part of it, but you’ve got to remember I was also doing the yoga. That was balancing out. So it didn’t affect me that much back then. But I haven’t been near cocaine for 20 years, or cigarettes. I have a couple puffs on a joint and a cup of coffee when I shoot. And I’ve been out here for the past couple of days doing nonstop interviews and I’ve had coffee—nothing else. I can’t find anything, though I know it’s all over. But by tomorrow night for the launch, I’m sure there will be a nibble sitting around for me somewhere.
What do you think propelled you into photography?
LSD. I was on an acid trip and picked up a friend’s camera and I loved the effect that clicked in looking at people’s faces. I wasn’t a very visual person before that. None of my education was in the visual arts. I was into literature. Mad dogs and poets, that was really what fascinated me. And of course you read about them and they all got whacked out and came up with material that people thought was great art. I kind of transposed that onto the rock and rollers. Certainly Syd [Barrett] and David [Bowie]—all those early characters that I worked with.
While I was thinking about what else I might do with my life, it kept going. The pictures are worth so much nowadays, but they weren’t worth so much when I took them. But I wasn’t thinking about that. I was thinking that I wanted to have an adventure and I was thinking about the ladies and I was thinking about not just getting high, but exploring my own consciousness. That’s not so unusual for people that came out of that quasi-hippie generation. I mean, you read interviews with Steve Jobs and he took LSD and meditated, the whole bit. I was a child of my times, and probably if I had been born in another era I would not have been a photographer. Also, if I had been born in another era my name wouldn’t have gotten me stuck in that rock ‘n’ roll thing. So when your name is Mick Rock, what else are you going to be—an accountant? Wasn’t going to happen. I was psychologically unemployable.
Was there every any concern about using LSD?
No. You gotta remember how young we all were. We didn’t know any better. When people were treating John Lennon like he was one of the wisest people that ever walked the face of the earth, he was in his 20s. Look at Bob Dylan—look how young he was—and David Bowie, Lou Reed in the Velvet Underground. Everybody was young. The culture was young. What has now become modern culture was an outside spirit back then. As the years have proven, what was once a subversive is not so divisive anymore. In fact, if you go onto the internet you can see just about every possibility, including the yogis that eat corpses. Look at the fucking pornography. When I was a kid, you know, a pair of tits was a big deal. Nowadays there’s all kinds of stuff that goes on. But the LSD, one took it because it was there and it was interesting, not because we were prematurely wise. I knew what I liked and I had a certain aesthetic appreciation for certain people, probably before most people did, but what did that make me? All I know is that the bloody thing kept going and going and going. And when I was broke and thinking about getting some other kind of job, I’m thinking, ”That’s impossible. I couldn’t go to the same place everyday. I’m unemployable.“ And by then my reputation for being whacked out had gotten pretty strong in the business, so I wasn’t getting a lot of work. But why is a big question and I don’t think I can ever answer that.
What has now become modern culture was an outside spirit back then.
Is that okay?
There’s no way I’m ever going to make sense of it. Even before Bowie and Lou there was Syd Barrett, when I was 19 or 20. I remember when I first met David, he wanted to know everything about Syd Barrett and then he had recently met Lou and Iggy and I wanted to know about them. But Lou and Iggy were not particularly famous. They were kind of—if you would want to look at it that way and the music business did—they were kind of losers. Because they hadn’t been able to give away any of the Velvet Underground and Stooges albums. They’ve become bigger than life and much bigger, mythologically, than most rock 'n’ rollers. And Rocky Horror. [Laughs.]
You were the main on-set photographer for that. Who would’ve thought it was going to blow up?
Definitely not [Rocky Horror writer and star] Richard O’Brien! I remember doing the filming and he said to me, "This is not even funny, mate. This is not going to do well.” So he was very pessimistic about the movie. And of course for a while it didn’t do well until it started some bright spark over at Fox. Somebody had approached them about putting it on as a midnight movie. So it grew organically. A lot of things grew like that. You could not plan it. You couldn’t plan a career like Iggy Pop’s. How would you fucking plan that career? And yet there he is down on the beach in Miami hanging out with Anthony Bourdain having a laugh.
When you’re in the thick of it with some of these artists, is there a part of you thinks, “Oh, they have it?“
I believed it, and the world didn’t always. It took time. With a lot of them in earlier times, I did interviews with them to bolster my income a bit and I got to know them in a different way than most photographers did. I looked like one of them and also I didn’t come out of the photography business or the news business. I came from LSD and fucking Cambridge University. I had a different perspective and it wasn’t particularly a professional perspective.
Of the artists you shot, who did you have a particularly strong relationship with?
In the case of Syd, Lou and David, I think I had that strong sense of intuitively understanding them. They were kind of shimmerers, I think is the word. They were always not human and I don’t mean they were inhuman, because in the case of Lou and David, they very kind to me when I was having a rough time. But I still saw them as being kind of creaturely in some way. And I think that shows up in the pictures. I wasn’t interested in the gritty reality of these people; what I was interested in was their fucking auras, the electromagnetic waves that surrounded them.
Is rock 'n’ roll dead?
When you say "dead,” I don’t think Bruno Mars is dead. I think he’s very innovative, so it isn’t dead. I mean, yes, he might blend, but he’s still a rock 'n’ roller. I mean, he started out as the youngest-ever Elvis impersonator at the age of four. And so he was impregnated with the spirit at a very young age. Does it have a lot of competition? Yes. My daughter, a couple years ago, started to tell me about all of these electronic characters. She was very excited the day I shot deadmau5. But of course I shot Daft Punk and it was important that in some way that the present was represented so that people didn’t entirely relegate me to the '70s. Because that “man who shot the '70s” bit has its upsides when it comes to books and exhibitions and selling prints. I mean, Skrillix, deadmau5, Steve whatever-his-name-is…they make a fuck of a lot of money, so God bless them.
Last question: Given that you’ve brushed up against death once or twice, are you afraid of dying?
I never felt I was going to die. I suppose everybody has a certain apprehension. And of course I’m aware I’ve got a lot less years left, however long I live, than the years I’ve had. I don’t think too hard about that stuff. My wife always says, “You think you’re 25, Mick.“ You know? I probably do—not in a conscious way, but in some unconscious way—my spirit does think it’s retarded. Which it is…
Read Bomani Jones’ tribute to David Bowie here.