Even if you don’t know the name Mick Rock, you probably know his images, which are among the most iconic in rock history. He shot the album covers for Lou Reed’s Transformer, The Stooges’ Raw Power, and Queen’s II, and he was hired to be David Bowie’s official photographer right before he achieved superstardom with 1972’s Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars. Later, Rock became one of the most important photographers of ’70s punk and ’80s glam-metal, due to his association with The Sex Pistols, Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, and Mötley Crüe.
As you might guess given that lineup of artists, Rock also indulged in what’s euphemistically referred to as “the rock and roll lifestyle” throughout the ’70s and ’80s. Or, as Rock himself puts it with characteristic bluntness in the fascinating new documentary Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra Of Rock, “I was so in love with cocaine.” As Shot! explains, Rock took advantage of his proximity to fabulously decadent rock stars by living a fabulously decadent existence, before finally bottoming out in the mid-’90s when a series of heart attacks necessitated quadruple-bypass surgery.
At the time Rock was broke and virtually unemployable, due to years of drug abuse sullying his professional reputation. But fortunately for Rock, his bottoming-out coincided with renewed interest in classic-rock photography, which enabled Rock to make money from his old prints, and pick up work with a new generation of pop and rock stars.
Now 68, Rock’s story as an unlikely survivor is told in Shot!, an unconventional documentary directed by Barnaby Clay that zeroes in on Rock’s ’70s prime, utilizing excerpts from intimate, tape-recorded conversations with Bowie and Reed at pivotal points in their careers that portray Rock as a Zelig of the ’70s rock scene. Shot! also charts Rock’s decline and eventual resurrection with impressionistic verve. (At one point, Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox makes a brief appearance as Jesus Christ.) The result is a visually stunning slice of rock mythology about a man who played a significant role in originating those myths.
After decades as a rock photographer, did you ever think you would end up on the other end of the lens, as the subject of a documentary?
It would have been a weird thing if I’d done it 20-25 years ago. But, you know the world became more and more visual. And really since I did my Lazarus act, getting up off the death bed, the interest in rock photography came along around that time, as the internet developed. Rock photography is somehow [considered] art, which it certainly wasn’t regarded as at the time that I shot a lot of those pictures. The pictures were totally disposable.
In those days, people used to release albums like six, eight, nine months apart, so after each album had done its thing, they were basically forgotten about, and I’d forgotten about them until the late ’90s. Thank God I had [the photos], because I was broke. I owed the tax man, didn’t own anything, had a lady friend and a little girl, and had to recover from quadruple bypass heart surgery.
Was it strange to see your life — both the good and the bad — turned into a movie?
I didn’t think too much about it. I’ve been around cameras for a long, long time, as you can tell. Even though I started young, I’ve been around so fuckin’ long that I got old. That’s what happens if you don’t die. You get… I prefer the word mature, but my wife prefers the word “old,” just to wind me up a bit. She’ll say, “But Mick, you’re getting old.” I don’t feel old, but that’s not the point.
People have been asking me for years to do a documentary, including the BBC in London, [and] the people that did that documentary, Man On Wire, about that mad Frenchman. Boy, I can’t even talk about it, because I’m agoraphobic. The reason I couldn’t do it with them is because every time I think about them, I think about that. Freaks me out. I can’t even go to Coachella, because there’s too much fucking space.
It went on for four years. Part of the reason it got dragged a bit was because I had a kidney transplant. I think God wanted to make sure my ass had been straightened out, so he thought, “I’ll give him another whacking.” In fact, Lou Reed was having his liver transplant at about the same time, and we were calling ourselves The Transplant Twins. Poor Lou. A liver transplant has a lower success rate than a kidney transplant, and I had this doctor, Sandip Kapur, who’s another Indian. Indians are very important in my life. I studied Kundalini yoga, and have been doing so for the last 18 years. He had done more successful kidney transplants than any doctor in America, so the odds of my recovering, which I have, were pretty good.
So you’re taking care of yourself?
What I have done over the last 20 years since my heart bypass surgery is a little puff here and there, and that’s really about it. I can summon the naughty spirit again for a photo session. I can go back into that headspace, and there’s no comedown at the end. It’s just a veggie burger waiting to level me out.
Your most famous photos — like the covers for Transformer and Raw Power, for example — have played a significant role in creating the mythology of rock and roll. These are the images that people think of when they’re trying to describe what rock is supposed to look and sound like. As a photographer, how conscious were you at the time of building myths with your images back when Lou Reed, David Bowie, and Iggy Pop weren’t yet famous?
I knew what I liked, and they weren’t so well-known, a lot of those people, when I first shot them. I did go to Cambridge, so I came at it with a certain perspective. Somebody gave me five English pounds to take pictures of the local band at Cambridge. It was like, “Wow, you can actually get paid for doing this stuff?” That’s not a lot of money, but it was some money, and somehow, it was like this monster that kept growing, and growing, and growing, and maybe something did have something to do with my name.
When a photo becomes part of rock mythology, how much of that has to do with the subject, and how much of it is the person who shot the photo?
Well, I’ve taken some pretty cool pictures of people you’ve never heard of.
Someone did ask me once what were my sources of inspiration as a photographer, and I said to them, “It wasn’t photography. I was inspired by the unique charisma of a lot of my early subjects.” Which obviously started with Syd Barrett, but went all the way through to New York, and Debbie Harry, and all the way through Rocky Horror, and even Bryan Ferry. Of course, he’s still going, God bless him. And Miss Deborah is, too. She’s still a dear friend to this day, and of course, Iggy. The last one anyone expected to survive the ’70s was Iggy Pop. He defied all rational thinking. I had him on tape in a session I did in more recent years, talking about exactly that. He said, “Well, you know, I come from strong genes.” I thought, “Yeah, I think it’s a bit more than that. You’re a fucking freak.” He’s an extraordinary character, God bless him. He’s down there in Miami, hanging out on the beach with Anthony Bourdain. Him and Anthony are big pals.
Early in the movie, you say, “I’m not after your soul, I’m after your fucking aura.” What do you mean by aura, and when do you know that you’ve captured it?
I mean the thing that emanates, the electromagnetic energy wave that we all have, but it manifests itself very strongly with some performers —to some degree actors, but especially rock performers. I think that has a certain base in the yoga, as well, you know? That’s all about projection, and stimulating your glands, your organs, stimulating the electromagnetic waves. It’s all mixed up in there. If you want me to rationalize that, I can’t.
How do you know when you’ve captured it?
There’s a lot of things that I think about. I tend to do them. I don’t think a lot about photography when I’m not doing it. I immerse myself in the moment. As I mentioned in the documentary, [I’ve read] a couple of books by a guy called Stanislavski, who was the godfather of the Method school of acting. By going into a raw space, and building the circle of concentration — he was talking about actors, but it’s very similar for me. Something else takes over, with energy, and these very interesting things start to happen.
Okay, they’re kicking me off now.
Don’t cut your dick off right there, love.
Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra Of Rockopens April 7 in theaters. It is also available OnDemand, on Amazon Video, and on iTunes.