We spoke to the iconic photographer and music-video pioneer about his relationship with David Bowie, his legendary subject and friend of over 40 years.
Here at VICE we've been feeling the loss of David Bowie pretty hard. Whether it's wondering where we'd be without the man, extolling how he made the world a little safer for misfits and weirdos, or positing that he's the reason we're all here, it seems so many of us have been shaken in ways we are still grappling with.
I remember something the writer Lynne Tillman once said, that every friendship is unique; perhaps every grief is unique, too. For some of us, this has taken the form of days-long playlists culled from his 40-plus years of music, from Ziggy to the Berlin trilogy, Aladdin Sane to Station to Station. For others, this means viewing the unforgettable images and music videos of him, posed or poised onstage, singing in an immobile plastic tuxedo, applying kabuki-style makeup behind the scenes. We pass around that famous GIF of his various hairstyles through the years and share how his gender-fluidity and wild appearance made us feel less alone, more empowered; we cheer at the clip of his 1983 interview with MTV, in which he calls out the network for not playing enough black artists. We root around the internet to learn everything we can about him. In certain ways, David Bowie is more alive than ever.
And yet there's been something unexpectedly collective about our mourning David Bowie's passing—in so many of the considerations, tributes, obituaries, and remembrances, we talk about how it wasn't supposed to happen, how hard it is to sufficiently describe, let alone encapsulate his massive cultural influence, how astonished we are that he'd crafted his final swan song, Blackstar, dropped it on his 69th birthday, and then two days later, was gone. But if there was anyone who knew how to make an unforgettable impact, it was Bowie.
It's an impact Mick Rock has seen firsthand. The music photographer and director (and occasional VICE collaborator) is responsible for some of the most lasting and iconic shots of 1970s rock 'n' roll, including the covers to Lou Reed's Transformer and Iggy Pop's Raw Power. During David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust years, Rock was David Bowie's personal photographer. Rock also directed Bowie's first music videos when the form was in its infancy. The striking, seminal videos include "John, I'm Only Dancing," "Space Oddity," "The Jean Genie," and "Life on Mars."
Earlier this week I spoke over the phone to Rock about his decades-long friendship with Bowie, the musician's massive cultural impact—"like Steve Jobs"—and how the Brixton native's otherworldly and forward-thinking approach to music, provocation, and social issues so greatly shaped our world today.
VICE: Thanks so much for being willing to talk to me. It's been a difficult time for us all, I think, but I know it must be a difficult time especially for you.
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.
What flips me out about that is he obviously knew he was dying. I mean, when he produced all this great work, I mean what a fucking flourish to finish on. We'd only been communicating over email in recent times, and I asked him a few times how he was doing and he said, "I'm doing fine, Mick." That he could produce what he produced the way he produced it... and then he was up onstage a couple weeks ago for the launch of that Lazarus musical he'd co-written. So it seems he's doing fine, there he is, he's done all this great work, looks fine. But he wasn't. He'd plotted this all out, and just in time for his birthday, knowing that a couple days later he was going to go. That's very—even aside from our personal relationship—that's very hard to grasp.
And then my friend Lou Reed. A couple of years ago, I was in hospital having a kidney transplant while he was in hospital having a liver transplant and I knew a liver was a heavier thing—most kidney transplants are successful—but we all thought he was going to beat it and he made his last public appearance [for Transformer, the limited edition book they made together]. And now they're both gone and it's very hard for me to grasp because I've had these relationships with them for over 40 years. I remember back in the day, when I took famous pictures of the three of them, it was obvious that Iggy [Pop] was the one that was going to go first.
[Laughs] Yeah, I know, right?
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.
"He and Lou will never go away for me—they're stuck in my psyche and my work."
Have you been surprised by the public outpouring of grief for David?
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—
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
I read David was the first person to send you flowers after your bypass [in 1996].
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.
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.
He and Lou will never go away for me—they're stuck in my psyche and my work.
For so many of us, really. I was listening to Ziggy Stardust to kind of get in the mood before talking to you, and it was just so present. It's a bit confusing.
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.
"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."
Sure, of course.
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.
"I saw him as a sort of ringmaster or magician, always pulling rabbits out of his hat."
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?
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.
But he was projecting [with the lyric from "Ziggy Stardust"], "I could make it all worthwhile as a rock 'n' roll star, I could do with the money, I'm so wiped out with things as they are"—nobody talked like that then. It was much cooler to appear to be less ambitious. It was the tail end of the hippie thing. And there he was. And of course there was that second tier of Ziggy, which he would sometimes call, after the album Aladdin Sane, but it was obviously Ziggy Mark II. And when he got more and more sophisticated in the way he looked and got more costume changes, I have him in 73 or 74 different costumes in that 21-month period that I shot him. I mean, 73 or 74 costumes! A lot of them he wore once, a lot of them he wore a lot of times, and he would always change onstage. In the middle of a show, he'd go offstage and come back looking different. I mean, that's where Lady Gaga and Madonna got it, I think the ladies were the ones who picked up on it. I don't think there were any men.
What else should people realize about David Bowie?
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 saw him as a sort of ringmaster or magician, always pulling rabbits out of his hat, always something going on. He was a novelty freak. To a certain degree, that's been true of myself. And David, when the VMA first approached him about doing the museum show, they wanted to do it from 69 to 84. David's response was, "But my career didn't end in 1984." And of course they responded.
He kept everything you know, that's why they were able to do that show. As much as he was about the present and the new, he had a huge archive of his costumes and lyrics. And that show had his drawings, his frustrations, ideas—there's a wealth of material there. Now as soon as something surfaces, it's all over the internet and there's a little merchandising, the latest thing—there's no time to develop. I mean Iggy had done four albums before David broke him and Lou had done the Velvet Underground albums and his first solo album and nothing had happened. And Iggy had done, well even Raw Power was a dud even though now it's considered one of the greatest albums of all time. At the time it came out, Iggy told me, after two months it was in the 50-cent bin.
I actually miss David. I really will. It's a hole in my heart, as if my wife or mother died. He's opened up a hole in my heart just like Lou did. I miss the little emails we exchanged. I'd send him Christmas cards and he'd say, "Oh, that's cute, Mick." He was very human as much as people thought he'd landed from another planet. He was a London lad and a hustler and I say hustler in the best sense of the word. That he always made things happen, for better or for worse, he would take that chance. He was a brave soul. That's the final taste in my mouth, in my brain was, Wow, he knew that was happening.
Finally, what do you hope people will carry on from David's legacy?
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.
Follow James on Twitter.