Mick Rock: Well, I've known him for over 40 years and I'm still talking about him like he's still alive. It's not something I've really absorbed yet, because I've dealt with him a lot, with this beautiful book we did for Taschen. I thought he was still dealing with an issue that I had, namely heart surgery that I had 20 years ago. He'd only had a couple of minor strokes, though we never talked about it in any detail, I assumed that was why he was keeping a low key. But I didn't know about the cancer.
Even though Lou was pretty crazy, Iggy was that much further out. Of course, Iggy's doing great now, still goes out and performs and he's been clean a long time. It's a bit of a brick in the brain. So because I've been deluged since 3 AM Monday morning, I haven't had time to process it at all. I've just been talking about him, looking at pictures… and I'm kind of beyond being sad. Blown off my perch is the only way I can put it.You can see from the reaction how [much it's meant to people], and I think it's going to keep going on, because he's very transcendent.
Have you been surprised by the public outpouring of grief for David?
"He and Lou will never go away for me—they're stuck in my psyche and my work."
Well, I knew it would be huge, but this has been like Mount Everest, it's been so massive, it's cut through race, it cuts through age groups, it cuts through—Gender.
Yeah, I mean the whole game he played.I suppose Paul McCartney is the only one who could come close, but then he's a Beatle. Even though for me, he's never been as interesting as an artist as David. But he's Paul McCartney, you can't knock that. Who can you compare this outburst with? I can only think of Steve Jobs. You could almost put David and Steve Jobs in the same category. But the difference with Steve was, it was plain as day for quite awhile that something was going on and it didn't look so good. But of course they both revolutionized the culture in a way that nobody else ever did
Later in the day, flowers came from Lou. Those two were big in my life. And Freddie [Mercury] and Syd [Barrett] and Debbie [Harry] and other people too, but those two were super-special.You hadn't been in contact with him in years, right?
No. He had actually tried to do a few things with me and I was not in a good state. I think I was a bit embarrassed at the state I was in because I knew that he'd gotten over his stuff. But he was a kind person, and he didn't need to do this last book. I mean, we were very well-paid [by Taschen], but it was nothing to him. Good for me, but nothing for him.We did communicate over email since 1996 and we had done some other sporadic things together but probably between '76 and '96, I was like a Hoover. If it was white, it knew where to go, and I had some friends like that who are dead, I must say. But, I mean, you look at the body of work, even stuff that he's said he didn't much care for, like the whole Let's Dance period, which he's said was his least favorite period for him. On the other hand, Let's Dance is a pretty cool album.Yeah.
And it was his most successful album, but it was probably almost too mainstream for him. He always liked to take chances.Perhaps you could talk a bit about what your friendship with David Bowie was like in recent years? You said you mostly emailed—
Email, a couple kisses—I never did anything behind his back, even at my lowest point. Not that I would, but photographers are tricky buggers. I always felt he was my friend. I mean, I loved him in the way that males can. It was never sexual. We were mates since back in London. There may have been a period after he became a star, but got over that himself and rather quickly. For somebody who creatively was so far out there, he was amazingly down to earth.The other thing with David was, if he let you into his thing, he trusted you. All the pictures I took of him, if I gave direction, he took it. He never objected to anything. Back in those days, when were all so young, nobody thought pictures would have such a life.
That's the thing about him. It doesn't sound old, everything he does is so relevant to the present. I mean major relevance, and to young people.Amid all the tributes and links and videos that people have been sharing, I was struck by this one MTV appearance in 1982, where he called out the lack of representation of black artists. Have you seen that?
I haven't seen that! But of course, you know not to bypass that subject, David Bowie was always very brave from the beginning in the way he dressed and everything, and in '72 and '73 you have to remember there was some antagonism toward all that; people didn't understand it and he would say very provocative things and of course that was a little bit ahead of it's time too.But you know, we did those early videos and he even gave me ownership back for them sometime around 1999. I mean those videos, nobody has ever thought about—"John, I'm Only Dancing," "Space Oddity," "Jean Genie," and "Life On Mars." People call them seminal—I mean they were, of course. And just a few months previous, you had Bob Dylan doing "Subterranean Homesick Blues," although that's actually culled from the D. A. Pennebaker movie [Don't Look Back]. But it's still a great piece on it's own with the stuff written on the boards that he's throwing away and you've got Ginsburg in the background [Editor's note: Pennebaker also directed the concert film Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.] But people have often called them that, and David really gave me free reign. In a way, he didn't have time so he'd say, "Hey Mick, let's do this tomorrow" and we'd [shoot the videos] for very little money and very quickly, often out of necessity. And it's often been said that necessity is often the mother of, um, significant art.
Sure, of course.
"He would say to you, "I'm not cool, and I'm not trying to be cool." But of course, he was cool! And he didn't have to try."
I mean, we didn't think they were that significant at the time, we just did them. They had no application. David knew I played around with film and he'd just say, "Mick, you know." "John, I'm Only Dancing" was shot in about four hours with no thought of playback, just some funny little repartee. And shot on the stage where he was going to be doing soundcheck in a few hours and that was edited in one night. Of course, the poor editor had an epileptic fit, I suppose that's what it did to them back then. And "Life on Mars" was edited in about two nights. They were all one-day shoots. Except—not 100 percent true—"The Jean Genie" was a live shoot one night and then a studio shoot the other night and I mixed them both together. And "Space Oddity," I shot in about four hours in the RCA recording studio in New York before he got on the ship to sail back to England because he wouldn't fly in those days. So we're talking one- day, two-day shoots. We were rebels living outside the law, in a manner of speaking. Of course, it's all been embraced by the mainstream nowadays. You can't be young forever, that's for sure.I sure can't drink like I used to.
Maybe that's for the better.But yeah, back to the earlier question, they brought him to MTV and he started to interview the guy interviewing him. He tells the VJ, "I've noticed that you don't show many videos by black artists," and the guy tries to give him the runaround and these excuses. I think a lot of people are responding to that, especially with the way things are in America right now. I was wondering if you ever see a desire for social justice in David, championing—
Oh yeah, definitely. I mean, at first he was into the shock value of what he was doing. But I think he—of course he had black girlfriends—but I mean, he had white girlfriends too. He also grew up in Brixton, which was like the Harlem of London. I mean, it wasn't as developed. It was a postwar thing. There were a lot of West Indians coming into London and he was very hip to black culture very early on. Because Britain was mostly white, it wasn't a multicultural country like it is today or like it was in America or New York. There wasn't a strong black cultural presence, there really weren't enough black people to stir it up, whereas in America there was real revolution; in England the revolution was mostly cultural. The audience that Bob Marley had was white middle-class kids. Just like Chuck Berry and Little Richard in America, although that was 20 years earlier.
So I have a question from our photo editor. As his longtime collaborator and photographer, do you have an opinion on his not using his own image on his last album cover?
"I saw him as a sort of ringmaster or magician, always pulling rabbits out of his hat."
Well, his previous cover images were pictures in the mirror. Including that one of lying in the mirror in 1972, which was used as the cover of that compilation. But I don't know why he didn't use his image like he always had before. He didn't ask my opinion of it. [The cover of] Blackstar is just that star, it's not even a name. He knew what most of the world did not know, except for those super-close to him and family. But he was, well, he was going to fizzle out into a black star physically and yet his star would grow even bigger.I'll tell you, this star issue is interesting because—and I think it was the Buddhist influence, he had dabbled around in Buddhism sometime in the late 60s and I think Ziggy Stardust, which, remember, he recorded when he wasn't a star. And yet that's all about projection. And I have him on tape somewhere, in one of those interviews I conducted with him, talking about his ambition. I mean, he wanted to be a star. He and Freddie Mercury were the two. Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, in that sense, were sort of the opposite. He wanted to be a star and he would talk about it, which was kind of uncool in those days, but he would say to you, "I'm not cool, and I'm not trying to be cool." But of course, he was cool! And he didn't have to try.
Another important consideration is that people would talk about "drag rock" back then, but David never wore drag. Even on the cover of the original release of The Man Who Sold the World that was, strictly speaking, and I'm sure he wore it wore it be provocative. He wanted to provoke people, then get them to listen to the music and yet, even as the most stylish man to come out of rock 'n' roll, it was the music that was mainly important to him. It doesn't feel like he's gone, because he's everywhere right now. Like Steve Jobs when he died, you can't avoid him. Even bald old men on television are talking about Ziggy Stardust. It's an amazing time, and he presaged so much of this and he was projecting into the future from the first time I met him, by '72, and I believe it was very specific in that it was a Buddhist thing. "Changes," that's a Buddhist song. I've studied yoga all these years and that's something yogis are always saying, "Life is change," it's like life is always changing and conservatism is a bitter misnomer because you can't hold back time.
I think maybe the broader recognition—although it looks pretty broad to me—how huge his influence was, not just musically, not just as an artist, but the culturally. He moved the culture. Like Steve Jobs. They revolutionized the culture. David's immortal. Some London lad from Brixton who—and it didn't happen right away for David, he was 25 when Ziggy broke him. The word "genius" is bandied about today like it's an ice-cream cone, but I think it's pretty legitimate to call David a genius. He's authentically one of the geniuses of rock 'n' roll. How many other are there? Not so many, really. I mean, you could argue for Dylan, or Lennon, or Jimi Hendrix.You aren't going to forget about him. He's going to be on people's lips for the foreseeable future, that's for sure. Also to know that he was crazy back in the 70s and 80s, but everyone I knew was, to be honest with you. But he's a gentleman, a genuine authentic person. I find myself calling him a sweet soul. And he was fun. He was a playful person. And that was what I got from him right away. He was playful in his conversation, he was playful in his art, and he was infinitely curious. And he left school at 15—yes, he went to art college like a lot of [British musicians] from Syd Barrett through John Lennon, to Keith Richards and Pete Townsend to Jimmy Page and beyond. But he was different, somehow or other. It's hard to trace the source of a lot of it, he'd be influenced, but he would develop his own thing.This is a little tidbit curiosity you might be interested in: Around the time of Young Americans, in that studio, he recorded a version of Bruce Springsteen's "It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City." It started showing up when Ryko disc got the rights to his music in the 80's, and it was an add-on [bonus track]. And it's an incredible version. I remember wondering, Why didn't this get put on the record? I hadn't heard it and frankly, neither had anyone else and I asked him about it. And he said, "Oh, when I done it, I played it for Bruce and he kind of looked at me weird, and he obviously didn't like it." What David did to it was so outside of where Bruce was. Maybe Bruce likes it nowadays. But back in '75 or whatever it was David just kind of blew it off and didn't realize himself what an unbelievable record it is because Bruce didn't like it. The reason he didn't pull it out was because of Bruce. It's so cute, David. Because who cares what Bruce thinks, who cares what another artist thinks about your work, all artists are weird motherfuckers anyway. But that was David.I'm not [saying this] to hang onto his coattails. I suppose I just feel the need to express myself… All of it is totally raging positive. Even if I were to try.