Photographer Mick Rock Looks Back at Ziggy Stardust's Takeover of the Universe

We talked about the life and legacy of David Bowie with the man who served as his personal photographer during his some of his most creative years.

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Sep 9 2015, 9:25pm

All photos courtesy of Mick Rock and Taschen Gallery

Part of getting old is that you become deeply uncool. Your mind loses a step, your body careens into states of decrepitude you'd heretofore only read about in H. P. Lovecraft novels, and you lose touch with whatever crap the youth find trendy. This is especially true in the world of popular music, where relevance is paramount and the average age of its luminaries hovers around, like, 12.

A glaring exception to that rule is David Bowie, who has not only managed to resonate with new generation after new generation, but whose current work maintains an unflagging quality that renders the enigmatic, 68-year-old Brit seemingly bulletproof.

Though he may seem monolithic now, it wasn't always that way. Despite the critical success of his 1971 album Hunky Dory, Bowie was still a relative cult figure as he plotted his reinvention as the androgynous, alien rockstar Ziggy Stardust. The Ziggy persona was the first of several stylistic overhauls Bowie would undergo as his ever-expanding palette drew from influences as diverse as they were expected.

Watch on The Creators Project: Barney Clay Gives Mick Rock's David Bowie Footage a New Life

The years of 1972 and 1973 would find Bowie nearly taking over the world, doing two tours, cranking out three albums (four if you count Lou Reed's Transformer, which he and his guitarist/arranger Mick Ronson produced), and forming an alliance with fellow rock iconoclasts Reed and Iggy Pop.

One of the first photos Mick Rock shot of Bowie

Looking back, Mick Rock can fully appreciate that transition from "Starman" to bona fide star. The acclaimed rock photographer worked closely with Bowie during this period, accompanying him on his tours and capturing countless images of the star.

"David was such an amazing subject," he said over coffee at the Taschen Gallery in Los Angeles, where his show Mick Rock: Shooting for Stardust. The Rise of David Bowie & Co. debuts tonight. "He was like a gift. Not everybody appreciated it, but once they did you couldn't rid of the bloody photographers."

Now in his 60s, Rock's another one of those guys who has remained cool despite the test of time. In addition to his work with Bowie, Rock shot the covers for Iggy and the Stooges' Raw Power, Lou Reed's Transformer, and Queen's Queen II—in short, he's photographed nearly every big name in music you can think of.

Related: My Dear Friend Lou Reed, by Mick Rock

As we thumbed through The Rise of David Bowie: 1972–1973, his book of Bowie photography tied to the show, Rock took care to point out details—a banana on the makeup table here, Bowie subtly wielding a harmonica under a kimono there—whose importance is only evident to those who lived the images.

"Most of these pictures didn't see the light of day at the time," Rock said of the collection. "No one thought to publish them. What looked pretty throwaway at the time has become iconic."

VICE: When Bowie first debuted the Ziggy Stardust character, did people realize it was going to change rock 'n' roll in a very real way?
Mick Rock: I don't think it was quite as straightforward as that. When I first met him, the Ziggy album hadn't been released. I was an admirer of Hunky Dory, which started to get some positive critical feedback. His rise was more organic. He had a following, but quite a small one. It was a few hundred people. When that guitar fellatio shot happened, there are a thousand people at Oxford Town Hall. It was a day or two after the release of Ziggy Stardust and it was his biggest audience to date. At that moment, the world wasn't clamoring to photograph him.

You see this look on Mick's face in the photo of Bowie going down on his guitar letting you know how unexpected that shot was.
David biting the guitar was deliberate, but it was the way that Mick swung his guitar that forced him to go down. But once he knew it created an effect, it was like Jimi Hendrix burning his guitar or Pete Townshend smashing his guitar. But with overtones, of course.

It's almost submission to the idea of rock 'n' roll.
However you want to interpret it, I'm sure David would love it [laughs]. I don't claim to know what he was going for.

This was only a few years after homosexuality had been declared legal in Britain.
Barely! He was working it. David had a lot of fucking balls to go around dressed the way he was. That wasn't today. The idea of "gay" made people want to kill. Ziggy had a femininity, but it wasn't drag. There was a space element to it. And he was influenced by Japanese Kabuki theater, where all the female roles are played by men. It was really '73 when the full-tilt Japanese thing came in. He knew about mime, and he certainly knew about Kabuki theater.

I think Bowie had a 15-year period that was as fertile as any musician ever.
He revolutionized not only the music—he did that in collaboration with Lou and Iggy—but the culture. The Velvet Underground and the Stooges had zero success. In Lou's case, he'd had one album and his label was thinking of dropping him. He'd sold about 30,000 records—it wasn't looking good. I mean Iggy, those first two Stooges albums, even Raw Power, were total duds. He's said three months after it was released he found it in the 50-cent bin in the record store. But the upheaval, it was a completely different way of approaching music.

What was the creative relationship like between Bowie, Iggy, and Lou Reed?
David produced Transformer, along with Mick Ronson, and that did transform Lou's life. He injected a positive aspect into their careers. With Iggy, it took a few more years. Iggy was in the looney bin and David went to rescue him.

He didn't produce Raw Power—if you look at the original release, no one gets a credit for producing it. It was put together in a fairly anarchic way. Nowadays it does say "produced by Iggy Pop." But the production...

It was raw.
Yes!

You shot the cover for that.
And Transformer. It was like bing-bang.

They're similar shots.
Not only are they onstage, they're in quiet moments. Both Iggy and Lou are looking away and are actually quite static. Who knows? I just shot them, and they became the covers. You've got to remember that David wasn't such a big hit at the moment, and neither was I. But no one cared about Iggy and Lou either. And David had also done a rescue job on Mott the Hoople. He wrote "All the Young Dudes" for them. He was good at rescue acts. As someone whose career was roaring along, he would play mummy a bit. He was very likable.

How often was he having bad ideas? When you look back, it seems like just a string of genius ones.
You could argue that his first album wasn't so good. But that was '67, and it wasn't a bad album. It just wasn't what David would become.

How did Bowie feel about himself?
He was confident and very ambitious. He would verbalize that. There was a shift out of the hippies, but you still had a lot around in 1972. The expression of his ambition was very unusual.

Bowie really expanded the scope of what a pop musician could do.
He did it on his own terms, as did Iggy and Lou. David was definitely different in all senses. His references were much broader, whether it was Kabuki the living theater, [the famous mime] Marcel Marceau, 2001: a Space Odyssey. He was sucking in all kinds of things and blending it all together. Even in the music, you could hear strains of all different things. Whereas with Lou and Iggy, you couldn't really find anything before them that sounded anything like them. David was a magnificent synthesizer. And he was very quick—you showed him something and [if] he liked it, he was on it. He had a certain innate genius from the beginning. Once he smelled it, he was off to the races. In the totality of that 20-month period when I shot him regularly, I think he had 74 different outfits. That was kind of unusual. And then the makeup became more exotic. There was a guy called Pierre Laroche who did certain makeups for him, like the big gold splodge. He did the "Life on Mars" makeup. Pierre did the zig-zag [from the Aladdin Sane album cover], too—I believe under David's direction.

Were there anything Bowie ever did that caught you off guard?
I was quite nimble. I wasn't on anyone's payroll. I was a free radical. But one morning in the middle of the American tour, he shaved his eyebrows off. I was like, "There's something different about you, yeah... He's totally gone Martian! He's shaved the eyebrows." The nice thing about David was that he was a pleasant person to deal with. He wasn't really moody. Lou did moody incredibly well. David was kind of the opposite. I always saw him and Lou as being two sides of the same thing. David was bright and sparkly in London, and Lou was down and dark in New York.

Lou and Iggy gave me the vibe of being self-destructive, but David never did. He was very positive, which I think turned those two on. They'd had these careers that had gone nowhere, and they came to London and there was David being bright and charming. Neither of them had "bright and charming" down.

"I think his PR people in London told me they're basically paid to neither confirm nor deny rumors." —Mick Rock

But Bowie also has a mysterious side.
He's very active still. I like the idea of him as the Greta Garbo of rock n' roll. But Greta stopped, and David's got all kinds of stuff going on. Retro albums being released, new albums... There appears to be one in the pipeline, or at least (Bowie producer) Tony Visconti was talking about one a while ago. I'm sure it'll be fabulous. For someone who had so much attention heaped on him for years, he can disappear. It's not like he's locked away, but he does what he wants to do. People don't see him. That's part of his genius—when he wants you to see him, you see him. When he doesn't want you to, you can't.

I think there's a certain amount of freedom with that power.
It works very well in his favor. I think his PR people in London told me they're basically paid to neither confirm nor deny rumors.

Do you think there's somebody who's close to a modern Bowie?
I think it's hard to be close to any of those characters. Part of the reason is there's so much information out there. There's no such thing as an underground. There was in those years, and people like Lou and Iggy and David released albums and there was time for a mystique to build. It took you a long time to get the amount of information you'd get today. It seems to be what you don't know is more titillating than what you do know. People would imagine all sorts of things. You get down to David, Lou, and Iggy, and there was something to that combo which influenced the culture in a massive way. The summer of '72, that was the moment.

Which of these shots are you most proud of?
I think "proud" is the wrong word. It's David. He was a great character and a great subject. I don't make any grandiose claims for myself. I think, Boy, oh boy, what a beautiful subject.

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